The Unquiet heart
A pub fight doesn’t start in a pub. It begins that afternoon when you’re laid off at the yards. It starts a month back when you look in the mirror and see your old man gazing back at you, and this revelation of mortality starts eating at your balls. It begins a year ago when you come home from the war flashing your medals – and find the wife has left you for one of those fellas with feet just flat enough to keep him out of khaki but swift enough to be a bookie’s runner. Something sours the day or the year or your life and you bring it into the pub like a rat in your belly. All it takes is a clumsy shoulder, a spilled drink, a guy with a small brain and a big mouth, and the first punch gets thrown.
You would think it was the big blokes you had to be careful of, but big guys usually have nothing to prove. It’s the pipsqueak you need to sidestep, the little man who feels shat on all his life for having to look up at folk all the time. There seems to be an inverse law operating: the smaller the man the bigger the chip.
Normally – unless I’m the cause of it, or it’s to help a mate – I quietly pick up my pint and move to the lounge bar till they get it out their system. If it’s really bad, and there are tables and bottles flying, I find another pub. I should have stuck to my rule this evening.
I’d had time to kill, so I walked down Albany Road, crossed the Old Kent Road and headed into Bermondsey. It had taken a pasting. Incendiaries had gutted whole streets and you could take short cuts through rows of houses following the paths taken by Jerry’s visits. I took back streets and footpaths, twisting and turning until I connected with Jamaica Road. Then into the warren, past gaps like old women’s gums among the warehouses and tenements. I emerged by the Thames and leaned on the wall to watch the darkness settle on the water and the mists swirl and flow like a ghost stream above it. I dropped my second cigarette into the current and headed east, along the spine of Rotherhithe, following the curve of the river.
The Angel sat by itself, poised over the water. It was the latest incarnation of a hostelry that had stood on the site since Captain Kidd sailed upriver in chains on his way to a good hanging. The bombs that fell the night the East End was aflame had taken out a row of houses opposite and half the buildings alongside. A church had been flattened just a hundred yards away. But the Angel was untouched, proving to the wittier locals the power of prayer.
The wind whipped up the Thames like a banshee. I clamped my hat harder to my head and pulled my Mac tighter against the flurries of rain. Flaming June indeed. There was hardly a street light for miles, but the occasional gap in the clouds let the full moon pour on the rippled surface of the water. My shadow stretched out behind me.
The noise from the pub eddied and whirled on the stiff breeze. I crossed the road and stood in front of it, wondering why I’d agreed to this meeting. I looked behind me and then back at the pub. The mouldering wood suggested they were the original panels, and no painter had been allowed near in three hundred years. A tired sign creaked on its chains: a faded angel gazing down at me, blind and uncaring. Behind dirty windows silhouettes of drinkers nodded and laughed like a magic lantern show. I pushed the door open and walked back in time. The original customers were still on a bender: blackguards to a man, with strong piratical tendencies.
The place was sweating and jostling and roaring. It was half nine, twenty minutes before last orders, and men were buying multiple rounds as though the end of the world had been announced. Which of course it would be, in twenty minutes. The thought of cutting off the supply of Dutch courage and alcoholic bonhomie was beyond bearing. Make that a double, and have one yourself!
I looked round for my man: a tall bloke, I’d been told, wearing a flat cap and carrying a newspaper. The one- roomed bar was full of flat caps perched over shouting mouths in flush-faced groups. A few men drank alone, supping at their ales to wipe out the past and get a rosier view of tomorrow. One man caught my eye. He was better shaved than the rest, and his eyes less bleary. A paper was rolled tight under his hand like a sergeant major’s baton. He’d seen me as I walked in. His eyes swivelled left and right like he was crossing the road. He nodded, got up and came towards me. He was my height, white-faced, serious-eyed, a penitent. I hoped he’d got something to confess.
“McRae?” he asked, in a voice pitched to be heard above the roar. In that one word I heard the cadences of Ireland.
I nodded. He waved a part-drunk beer at me. I nodded again. He indicated I should grab his seat while he got a round in. He gave me his paper and went to the bar. I squeezed behind the table and sat down with my back to the wall, eyes stinging with fag smoke and the rank stink of old pubs and sweaty men. It was a smell common to bars from Sutherland to Southend, and hauled me back to the Working Men’s club in Kilpatrick, and the time my father took me in to show me off to his pals. Small men with bright eyes and scrubbed faces, but nothing could erase the black pits of coal dust around their noses.
I unrolled the paper and smoothed out the front. The picture shook me, though I’d seen it a dozen times in the last ten days now. It didn’t do her justice, but it was enough. I rubbed my eyes and looked up, just in time to see the action.
It happened fast. They must have planned it well. I saw my man take a push from a thickset man with curly hair. My man turned and joshed him and turned back to the bar. The big guy wasn’t to be ignored. Another push and the drinks were all over the bar. A push became a punch and my man went down. Two other heavies appeared and began to shove and shout at the bystanders. It didn’t take much to start a fight. This was the wrong end of the Old Kent Road and people had old-fashioned ideas of honour and face. The last of the duellists.
My rules of self-preservation went out the window. Though it was a stranger in trouble he had information I wanted badly. Or so I’d been promised by Pauli Gambatti who’d set up the meeting. With blokes like Gambatti it’s hard to know whether they’re doing you a favour or stitching you up. It shows how desperate I was. I would try anything, go anywhere to find out what happened to Eve Copeland, whose accusing eyes stared out at me from the newspaper.
I sprang to my feet, fists clenched, ready to get stuck in, to get my man off the floor. A kicking is always a bad event. I made two steps before my legs were clipped from under me and I went down like Charlie Chaplin. I made to rise and found a knee on my back and a hand like a shovel on my neck. A voice leaned over, a thick, European brogue in my ear: “Forget her. It is not your fight. None of it is your fight. You hear me?”
I nodded as well as a man might with his face in the sawdust. The stench of the beer-soaked floorboards filled my nostrils. All I could see was clattering feet like a rugby ruck. I prayed my head wouldn’t become the ball. The shouting went on, then it stilled, and the knee came off. The hubbub picked up again, and I turned over as fast as I could. I saw a pair of legs disappearing through the crowd: black boots with heavy tacks on their soles. All the better to kick you with. The man who’d knelt on me turned briefly and I had a good look. Cadaverous cheeks as though he was sucking them in for a bet, and blue eyes that laughed at me under his cap. Then he was gone.
I got to my feet feeling stupid. So much for my SOE training. I brushed off the sawdust and the fag ends and looked for my man. A crowd stood round where he’d gone down. I pushed my way through. He wouldn’t be telling me anything now. He was face down in his own red pool, his head turned to one side. His eye stared at something we couldn’t see, and his breath came in little pants. A broken bottle lay beside his throat. Shards of glass glinted red, lodged in his neck.
He was beyond first aid, or indeed second or third. Bugger. His already pale face was blanched. Lank hair spread round his head, mopping up his own blood.
One hand twitched, trying to plug the holes in his neck. The other reached out and hung itself over the brass foot-rail like a drowning man. Suddenly the tension went out of his body. With a glint and a clunk, a knife dropped from the dead fingers.
As an ex-copper I knew my civic duty was to stay and answer questions and help them all I could with their inquiries, even accompany them to the nick and spend all night making a statement. So I joined the fast and shifty queue that was moving out the back door. The landlord held the door. He wasn’t wishing us good night. He was