John was glad he hadn’t stopped drinking, because otherwise it would have been a shame to waste the half-can of Pale Ale he poured on his Cornflakes. There had been a time when he’d thought hard about going on the wagon. When his wife, Effie, left him two, or more years ago. But the one thing about drink was you drunk when you were sober and drink when you’re drunk, and there was more than one thing, but he couldn’t remember what it was about his wife’s leaving that worried him. Oh, aye, he thought, every celebration is the funeral of something or somebody – The Skull had told him that.
The Skull was the barman in his local. It was the kind of pub John went into when he’d a black shock of hair and obsidian eyes. Now his eyes were bleary, hair no longer black and the shock was he was still standing. The Skull remained The Skull, hairless, no eyebrows and the Rorschach Blot test of blue tattoos of some mythical animal around his ears. His ex-ex-ex-ex-girlfriend’s name, Wanki, Wendy or Wonky or Malvi, depending how you read the Indian ink runes on his knuckles was also in his bones. The Skull was The Skull because he looked like a skull and was as thick as a skull.
When John finished his Cornflakes, he sparked a fag. The good thing about The Skull was he didn’t mind you smoking in his pub. He was a former Blue Angel, therefore a people’s person and actively encouraged dissidence because it shortened most folk’s miserable lives and because it was getting one up on those arsehole’s that were trying to put him out of business. His smoking rule had the opposite effect. The Skull’s pub, called The Skull became trendy and was no longer full of people that had too many clothes on because they slept on a park bench and pissed on their shoes when trying to pee into the wash-hand basin in the toilet because they thought that was funny. Now it was full of gold watches and fancy iPhones and intelligentsia that wanted to wash their hands in a clean wash hand basin with one of those blowy-hand-job things for drying your hands. It didn’t need much imagination to work out what The Skull thought of that, but when somebody asked he tell them to ‘fuck off’ anyway. Not in a polite way, of course. The Skull believed in telling it how it was, or is, or could be. In fact, he fancied himself a bit of a prophet.
John got a taxi down to the pub, about nine a.m. before opening time and banged on the side door at Stewart Street. The Skull took his time opening the door and was dressed for work with a sneering expression on his face and a wooden cudgel in his hand.
‘Whit’s the cudgel for?’ asked John.
‘In case it was one of those cunts complaining about smoking,’ replied the Skull.
John tripped in behind the Skull, the noise of the fruit machine startled him as it went through its cycle of beeping inviting fools to part with their cash. In the dim barnlike room with wooden chairs and tables it provided much of the light and with no TV the only entertainment. Curtains remained closed, which saved on cleaning windows. The ashtray at the bar was full of douts and had a full cigarette smouldering in it. All the other tables were also full of dirty ashtrays and uncollected glasses from the night before, or the night before that.
The Skull did most of the cleaning in the same way that he did all the repairs, rather than pay charlatans oodles of cash for doing not very much. The toilet therefore needed coaxing and jiggling to flush, but didn’t need coaxing to backup and fill with shit. The toilet wall didn’t need coaxing to run with water where the pipes should have met. And tiles on the floor both in the toilets and in the bar tended to follow the San Andreas Fault line five thousand miles away. The Skull didn’t want his pub to get over-fancy and his clientele getting the wrong idea.
He ran a seventies pub where women should wear frosted lipstick and dance around their handbags and men should wear too much Hai Karate aftershave and the word ‘fuck’ should be a noun and verb and every fucking other word you’d need. And anybody that didn’t understand that should fuck off too.
John appreciated you dealt with a different Skull in the morning than you did at three o’clock in the morning at a lock-in so he sipped his first whisky and water, quietly, giving the dust of the day time to settle.
‘I thought I’d ran out of milk, so I used a half can of Pale Ale for my Cornflakes this morning’ he said. ‘But I hadnae ran out of milk. That’s funny, eh?’
‘Is it fuck.’ The Skull glowered at him. He went over to the bar and poured himself a Bushmills and gargled it like Andrew’s Liver Salts, before downing it and pouring another, which he placed before his customer.
‘The funny thing was, I don’t drink Pale Ale.’ John searched his Crombie coat pockets for matches.
The Skull bent over and looked at him as if through a magnifying glass. ‘Whit’s wrang with your face?’ he asked.
‘Nothing.’ John rubbed at his unshaved chin.
‘Will there will be if you don’t stop talking shite,’ said the Skull. ‘Pale Ale, for fuck sake. And I don’t drink Pale Ale. Fuck off.
John sat imperfectly still, his foot tended to do its own thing, jerked back and forth and tap-danced on the grey, unswept floor. He wasn’t overly surprised to see somebody sleeping, curled in underneath the brass footrest at the bar.
The Skull had other things on his mind and it wasn’t the fucking police, fucking tax man or fucking brewery cunts that were always trying to rip you off. ‘Shut up,’ he said. ‘And close yer eyes. I used to be a hypnotist. Once a hypnotist always a hypnotist, in the same fucking way that a cow can’t claim to be a sheep. Although I can make you say bah, I’ll cure you of seeing fucking dodgy cans of Pale Ale in the morning.’
John closed his eyes. He heard the traffic and rank smell of the pub became part of his oneness with the world.
‘Just breathe in and out,’ said the Skull. ‘And fucking imagine that you’re sitting on a beach and the sun is fucking belting down and you’re fucking so tired, you just need to have a wee fucking lie doon. And you can hear the swell of the water, fucking washing up and fucking washing doon. And you become one with it. And I’m counting to fucking nine and your fucking eyes are getting so fucking tired. You’re completely fucking knackered. Fucking eight, you’re fucking walking into the water. And you’re fucking completely calm and the water is so nice, so fucking nice and it’s washing over your head, but you can breathe. Keep fucking breathing and you dive into the deepest fucking part of yerself. And who do you fucking well see, but fucking Jesus swimming over to meet you. Can you see him?’
‘Good, and you’re going down very slowly, sinking into the fucking seven, singing like the waves and slipping into the fucking sea. You and fucking Jesus at six…five…four, three, two…fucking wan. You’re completely relaxed and you’ve got Jesus to protect you. Nothing can fucking hurt you, but when I say the word “minger” you’ll come to your senses and remember everything you’ve seen and heard. OK?’
‘Right. Ask fucking Jesus where the can of Pale Ale came from?’
‘Jesus said I lifted it from here when I was leaving and I never paid for it.’
‘Right, that’s fucking good. Jesus is playing the white man. See. So ask Jesus if he was a fucking travel agent where he’d send a stupid cunt like you in the world.’
‘Right I’ve asked him.’ John was smiling. ‘He said I’m in the right place. I’m where I’m supposed to be.’
‘Well tell him he’s a lying cunt. And mind, nae lies. Something or something shames the fucking devil. Fuck off, can he no send you to Africa or something. Somewhere were there’s suffering and you appearing preaching the word of God would at least give them a laugh.’
‘Nah, he said here. He was quite militant about it.’
The Skull scratched as skull and went away and poured himself a drink and opened a packet of cheesy Wotsits. ‘Well, he cannae be trusted. Shut yer eyes again and I’ll spin the chair around three times. Nah, better still, keep yer eyes fucking shut yer eyes and imagine the devil was a travel agent. Ask him where he’d send you.’
‘Aye, he said here as well.’
The Skull screwed his face up and shook his head. ‘No, in fact, just ask fucking God if he’s the fucking devil?’
‘Aye, he is.’
‘Right, noo we’re getting places. Tell him to send me a sign.’
‘Aye, he will. He said he’ll raise a man from the dead.’
‘Now you’re fucking talking.’ The Skull through back his drink and went to pour another half. ‘The most miserable, neurotic, despicable people we know are either police or the most successful people in the world, we don’t want to make any mistakes by raising any of those fucking cunts from the dead. Just tell him to raise a normal cunt from the dead.’
‘Aye, he said it’s a deal.’
‘When and where? I’ll need to phone STV and get my camera. This could be the big fucking break I need to get away from all these fucking yuppies.’
An unwashed hand reached up and clutched at the bar. Jimmy Duckett pulled himself upright and glared at The Skull, who shrieked and dropped his whisky glass.
‘That’s a terrible waste of booze,’ said Jimmy, nodding, licking his cracked lips and addressing John on the bar stool.