Christobel and The Monkey (Part 2 of 2)
By quarter to one enough customers had dribbled in for Bob to start up Now That’s What I Call Music 2. The customers ordered their usuals and, with a glance at the stranger, took them to the stained tables. None of them ordered a Goatherd’s Nose. Unlike the stranger, none of them ordered Bob’s microwaved Shepherd’s Pie, pale peas and exhausted carrots either.
Bob said, ‘If only he’d have a phone. Albert. If only he’d have a phone, I could tell him she’s coming for him.’
The stranger pushed the plate away. ‘Why won’t he have a phone?’
‘Because then the aliens could trace him.’ Bob looked sad. ‘He was abducted, years ago, never got over it. Post-traumatic stress. He’s convinced they’re coming back, and a phone would help them trace him.’
The stranger considered. ‘I suppose aliens can buy or hack the information just the same as everyone else.
‘He shouldn’t have gone off with Christobel’s monkey, though. For his own sake.’ Bob looked at the half-full plate. ‘You finished with that?’
The stranger patted his stomach. ‘I think the beer filled me up.’
‘You don’t want a pudding then?’
‘No. Thank you. Why did Albert take Christobel’s monkey?’
‘Because he’s a firkin’ idiot. Although it was his monkey, originally. He won it a couple of weeks ago.’
‘He won a monkey?’
Bob chuckled as he put the plate on the shelf under the bar. ‘Albert, you know, he never wins anything. And then he turns up with this monkey. He couldn’t get over it, showing it all round the pub he was, telling everyone his plans. I think that’s where he first got the idea of going to Southend. Seaside. Lots of things you can do with a monkey at the seaside. Then, of course, Christobel showed up.’
‘And she took the monkey?’
Bob sighed. ‘They go back a long way, Christobel and Albert. It used to be him called the shots, but then after Christmas Day 2016 it was Christobel all the way. Poor old Albert. As if the abduction wasn’t enough.’
The stranger looked thoughtful.
‘To be fair to Christobel, he did owe her,’ Bob said. ‘She has helped him out, over the years.’ He gave a deeper sigh. ‘I know Christobel. She’ll have people meeting the buses in Southend and Romford, looking out for him.’
‘He’s taking a monkey on the bus?’
Bob looked surprised. ‘Well how else is he going to get there? Not as if he can just hop in a car. Mind you, I think he did learn to drive, when he was younger. Before the abduction. But he’s never had a car.’
A tall, thin man of indeterminate age, with lank blond hair down to his shoulders, a stud in his nose and a t-shirt declaring ‘My other pet’s a Direwolf’, made his way from the door to the bar. A pungent aroma of pine, dead animal and rose petals hung about his scuffed leather jacket.
‘Twister!’ Relief flooded Bob’s face. ‘Has he actually gone to Romford?’
Twister peered around the pub, focusing with deliberation.
‘It’s all right,’ Bob said. ‘She was here, but she’s gone now.’
Twister scanned the room again. He regarded the stranger anxiously.
‘Don’t worry about him,’ said Bob. ‘He’s all right. Has Albert gone to Romford?’
‘Give us a drink,’ said Twister, with urgency. ‘And some nuts.’
Bob selected a bottle of Slovakian lager from the little fridge under the optics and presented it and a small packet of peanuts to Twister. After a deep swig of the lager Twister tipped the contents of the packet into his mouth and munched. He smiled at Bob in contentment, dug into the pocket of his jeans and handed over the money.
‘Romford or Southend?’ Bob demanded.
Twister took another swig. ‘Neither. He’s at home. Clever, huh?’
Bob looked aghast. ‘You think Christobel’s stupid? When he doesn’t turn up at Southend or Romford, that’s the first place she’ll go.’
Twister swigged again. ‘Door’s locked. She can’t get in.’
‘It’s Christobel. You think a five-lever mortice is going to keep her out? Besides, how long does he intend to stay in there? The rest of his life?’ Bob lowered his voice. ‘What’s he done with the monkey?’
Twister’s expression became less certain. ‘He’s given it to Pearl.’
‘He’s done what?’
‘Just to look after. Just until it’s all sorted with Christobel.’
Bob seemed genuinely cross. ‘That’s not fair, Twister. You know what Pearl’s like, she’ll do anything for Albert, with him possibly being her brother. He shouldn’t take advantage.’
Twister shrugged. ‘He’s not going to give up that monkey.’
Bob shook his head and gave the stranger a what-can-you-do glance. ‘I never realised Albert was tired of living.’
Twister chugged down the last of his lager. He looked pityingly at the dregs in the stranger’s glass. ‘Goatherd’s Nose, was it?’
The man nodded. Twister nodded back. ‘Stranger round here, are you?’
‘Just passing through.’
‘Thought so.’ Twister gave a beatific grin. ‘Authentic Taste Of The Thames, that.’
‘’Yes,’ said the stranger. ‘So I believe.’
At two o’clock Twister got a phone call. ‘It’s Pearl. Christobel’s at her place. Pearl’s hiding in the loo.’
Bob clutched his buffing cloth. ‘Christobel’s got the monkey?’
Twister held up his hand, and continued speaking to Pearl. ‘Just tell her, Pearl. Just tell her you haven’t got it.’
Bob held on to the bar for support. ‘Pearl’s lost the monkey?’
Twister flapped the hand for silence. ‘Pearl, you did your best. No, no, don’t tell me who’s got it now. I’m sure you can climb out that window if you try. It’s only one floor up. Remember Alcatraz? There you are then. One floor is nothing. No, don’t come here. And don’t tell me where you’re going. I’ll do my best, Pearl. I’ll do my very best.’ He rang off.
‘Shit,’ said Bob.
‘The monkey’s in a safe place,’ said Twister.
‘Well we’re not,’ said Bob. ‘She’ll be round here like all the furies if Pearl gets away. No you don’t,’ he added, as Twister began to edge away from the bar. ‘I’m not doing this alone. And you’re safer in here than out there on your own.’
‘How did Christobel know that Pearl had the monkey?’ the stranger asked.
Bob and Twister regarded him with incredulity. ‘How do birds know when to fly south?’ said Bob.
Christobel arrived quarter of an hour later.
She was a magnificent sight, dark hair swirling round her beautiful face, furnace eyes glowing like the coals of hell. Her red stilettos were planted just far enough apart to give her commanding calves tension and profile. The stranger sat with his hands around his glass and looked.
‘Afternoon, Christobel,’ said Bob. He chucked his buffing cloth on the shelf under the bar, then retrieved it and began to energetically massage the latest drips into the wood. Twister crossed his legs and wrapped his arms around his body, as if seeking whatever protection he could muster.
Christobel spoke slowly and clearly. ‘He’s not in Southend. Or in Romford. He never was going to Southend, or Romford.’ She looked genuinely perplexed. ‘Why would you lie to me? I ask you, why would it occur to you to lie to me when it must have been obvious, even to you morons, that I would find out.’
Bob and Twister were silent.
Christobel put her hands on her hips. ‘I don’t care that Albert is cowering in that hovel you share, Twister. I don’t even care where that silly mare Pearl has gone, though I would imagine it’s A&E after the squawk she gave when she dropped out that window. I just want my monkey. Where is my monkey?’
‘Honest, Christobel, I don’t know.’ Twister sorted out unwrapping his arms and raised his hands in a gesture of submission. ‘I don’t know.’
‘I don’t know either, Christobel.’ Bob moved behind the pumps, as if they might somehow deflect whatever was coming his way.
Her gaze rested on the stranger.
‘He doesn’t know, Christobel. He’s just a customer.’ Bob’s lower lip tightened, as though remembering his duty to the innocent had strengthened his resolve. ‘This is nothing to do with him.’
‘WHERE IS MY MONKEY?’
Customers froze, drinks half-way to mouths.
The pub door opened, and closed. The silence echoed round the room.
‘Albert,’ Bob whispered.
Albert stood opposite Christobel, his hands in his anorak pockets, his feet also apart, his sharp chin slightly jutting forward. ‘Enough, Christobel. This is between you and me. Leave these people out of it.’
Christobel flexed her shoulders and rocked slightly on her impossible heels. Her voice was all growl. ‘Give me my monkey.’
‘It’s my monkey, Christobel. I won it, fair and square.’
‘With the ticket I gave you. Out of the goodness of my heart. Out of my consideration for all of the past.’
Albert snorted. ‘Out of the fact you didn’t read the ticket properly and didn’t realise what the first prize was. You couldn’t be arsed with a stuffed crust for two and half a bottle of gut-rot at Pizza Kingdom. But that was second on the list, Christobel. I did tell you not wearing your glasses would catch up with you one day.’
The dark and myopic eyes blazed.
‘I’m tired, Christobel. I’m tired of it all. You and me. Christmas Day 2016 wasn’t my fault. All right – ‘ he held up a placatory hand, ‘ – it wasn’t yours either. But I’ve got enough to worry about. I think they might have found me, Christobel. Phone or no phone, I think they’ve found me.’
A shiver ran round the room. One or two customers craned to check out any sky visible above the yellowing half-nets in the smeared windows.
‘So I’ll split it with you, Christobel. Down the middle. Fifty-fifty. Half for you, and half for me.’
The stranger’s jaw sagged slightly.
‘You’re joking,’ said Christobel.
‘Half a monkey is better than none, Christobel.’
She considered. Her fingers flickered on her hips. ‘Seventy-thirty.’
Albert gave a short laugh. ‘Oh come on, Christobel. Who the hell knows what seventy-thirty of five hundred quid is? Two-fifty for you, two-fifty for me.’
The stranger turned to Bob. ‘Five hundred quid?’
‘Five hundred quid,’ said Bob impatiently. ‘You know, a monkey.’ He frowned at the stranger. ‘You’re really not from round here, are you? Shhh. See what she says.’
She said, ‘Have you got it with you?’
‘I can get it in an hour, if you agree.’
Christobel licked her full, sweeping lips. ‘Why should I? I could have it from you, Albert. You know that.’
Albert gave a sad smile. ‘If they’ve found me, Christobel, I haven’t got much longer left round here. With two hundred and fifty quid I could have a last fling in Southend. Like we did back in the day. Remember?’
The fingers flickered again. She looked around the pub. ‘It would be a one-off,’ she announced. ‘A one-off, is that understood?’ The customers nodded in unison.
‘All right,’ said Christobel. ‘Go and get it. No tricks now, Albert. You pull a fast one on this and you better hope that flying saucer finds you before I do.’
‘No tricks, Christobel.’ Albert’s smile grew a little broader. After a moment, Christobel gave a throaty rasp that might, from anyone else, have been a chuckle.
The pub released its collective breath.
Albert disappeared through the door and Christobel turned to the bar.
‘Raspberry gin,’ she said. ‘Tonic. Ice.’ The growl was working its way back to a purr.
‘Yes, Christobel.’ Bob gazed at her with gratitude. ‘On the house, Christobel.’
She nodded briefly in acknowledgement.
‘You still here?’ she said to the stranger. He watched while she hoisted herself onto the bar stool next to his and crossed her calves, now somewhat less tense and profiled, at the ankles. ‘What sort of a job do you do, then, that you can spend all day in the pub on a Thursday?’
The stranger cleared his throat slightly. ‘I’m a writer.’
‘Oh are you?’ Christobel looked unimpressed. ‘Is that it then, being a writer? Sitting in pubs watching people?’
‘That and making up stories about them.’
‘I hope you’re not going to make up any stories about me,’ said Bob jovially, carefully placing the gin and a bottle of tonic in front of Christobel. ‘Will it be another half of the Nose then, sir?’
The writer gazed at the range of beers, spirits and wines on offer, and then at Bob’s cheerful, hopeful face. ‘Why not?’ he said.
Christobel trickled tonic into her gin. ‘You’re having another Authentic Taste Of The Thames? You’re dafter than you look.’ She took a drink and jabbed her forefinger at him. ‘And don’t you go making up any stories about me either. Or Albert. Poor sod. He’s got enough to worry about.’
‘As if I would,’ said the writer. He watched Bob coax a steady drip of Goatherd’s Nose into an extremely well-buffed glass. ‘Honestly, as if I would. Another drink for the lady, please, Bob.’