Robert Rankin

The Antipope

The first book in the Brentford series, 1981


A long finger of early spring sunshine poked down between the flatblocks and reached through the dusty panes of the Flying Swan’s saloon bar window, glistening off a pint beer glass and into the eye of Neville, the part-time barman.

Neville held the glass at arms’ length and examined it with his good eye. It was very clean, small rainbows ran about its rim. It was a good shape too, gently rising to fill the hand with an engagingly feminine bulge. Very nice. There was a lot of joy to be had in the contemplation of a pint glass; in terms of plain reality of course, there was a deal more to be had in the draining of one.

The battered Guinness clock above the bar struck a silent 11 o’clock. Once its chimes had cut like a butcher’s knife through the merry converse of the Swan’s patrons. But it had been silent now these three long years, since Jim Pooley had muted it with a well-aimed pint pot. These days its lame thuds went unheeded and Neville was forced to more radical methods for clearing the bar come closing. Even the most drunken of revellers could understand a blow to the skull from the knobkerry he kept below the bar counter.

At the last thud of the Guinness clock Neville replaced the dazzling glass. Lifting the hinged bar top, he sidled towards the saloon-bar door. The Brentford sun glinted upon his Brylcreemed scalp as he stood nobly framed in that famous portal, softly sniffing the air. Buses came and went in the morning haze, bound for exotic destinations west of London. An unfragrant miasma drifted from the Star of Bombay Curry Garden, sparrows along the telephone lines sang the songs their parents had taught them. The day seemed dreamy and calm.

Neville twitched his sensitive nostrils. He had a sudden strange premonition that today was not going to be like any other.

He was dead right.


Jim Pooley, that despoiler of pub clocks, sat in the Memorial Library, pawing over ancient tomes in a never-ending search for the cosmic truths which might lead a man along the narrow winding pathway towards self-fulfilment and ultimate enlightenment. “Looking up form and keeping out of the rain” was what the Head Librarian called it. “Mr Pooley,” she said, in those hushed yet urgent tones affected by those of her station. “Mr Pooley, why don’t you take your paper around to the bookie’s and there study in an atmosphere which must surely be more conducive to your purposes?”

Pooley, eyes fixed upon his paper as if in a trance, mouthed, “You have a wonderful body on you there, Mrs Naylor.”

Mrs Naylor, who lip-read every word as she had done upon a thousand other such occasions, reddened slightly but maintained her dignity. “Why can’t you look at the books once in a while just to keep up appearances?”

“I have books of my own,” said Jim silently, “but I come here to absorb the atmosphere of this noble edifice and to feast my eyes upon your supple limbs.”

“You haven’t even a ticket, Mr Pooley.”

“Give us a French kiss,” said Jim loudly.

Mrs Naylor fled back to her desk and Pooley was left to his own devices. His eyes swept over the endless columns of racehorses. Somewhere he knew, amid this vast assortment, existed six horses which would win today at good odds, and if placed in a “Yankee” accumulator would gross ?250,000 at the very least. Such knowledge, of course, is generalized, and it is the subtle particularities of knowing which horses to choose that make the thing difficult.

Pooley licked the end of his Biro, especially blessed by Father Moity for the purpose. He held it up to the shaft of sunlight which had suddenly and unexpectedly appeared through an upper window. Nearly spent, more than half of its black life-fluid ebbed away, and upon what? Upon ill-considered betting slips, that was upon what. Pooley sighed, his concentration gone. The delicate balance had been upset, and all through Mrs Naylor’s chatter.

Oh well, thought Pooley, the sun is now over the yardarm. He rose from his seat, evoking a screech from the rubber-soled chair legs which cut Mrs Naylor like a rapier’s edge. He strode purposefully towards the door, and on reaching it turned upon his heel. “I shall be around then this evening directly your husband has departed for his night shift,” he announced.

Mrs Naylor fainted.

As Neville stood in the door of the Flying Swan musing upon the day’s peculiarity, a beggar of dreadful aspect and sorry footwear shuffled towards him from the direction of Sprite Street and the Dock. He noted quite without thinking that an air of darkness and foreboding accompanied this lone wanderer.

“Ugh,” said Neville. He felt twin shudders originate within his monogrammed carpet slippers, wriggle up the hairs of his legs and meet in the small of his back, where as one united shudder they continued upwards, finally (although all this took but a second or two) travelling out of the top of his head leaving several strands of Brylcreem defying gravity. Neville felt a sudden need to cross himself, and performed that function with somewhat startled embarrassment.

He returned to the bar to await the arrival of the solitary traveller. Time passed however, and no such shadow darkened the Swan’s doorway. Neville sloped over to the door and gazed cautiously up the street. Of ill-omened tramps the street was empty.

Neville scratched his magnificent nostrils with a nicotined finger and shrugged grandiloquently. “Now there’s a thing,” he said to himself.

“Could I have a glass of water please?” said a voice at his elbow.

Neville controlled his bladder only by the merest of lucky chances. “Lord save me,” he gasped, turning in shock to the quizzical face of the materialized tramp.

“Sorry, did I startle you?” asked the creature with what seemed to be genuine concern. “It’s a bad habit of mine, I really must control it.”

By this time Neville was back behind the bar, the top bolted shut and his shaking hands about glass and whisky optic. “What do you want?”

“A glass of water, if I may.”

“This isn’t a municipal bloody drinking fountain,” said Neville gruffly. “This is an alehouse.”

“My apologies,” said the tramp. “We have I think got off to a rather poor start. Perhaps I might have a pint of something.”

Neville downed his large whisky with a practised flick of the wrist and indicated the row of enamel silver-tipped beer pumps. “State your preference,” he said and here a note of pride entered his voice. “We have a selection of eight ales on pump. A selection which exceeds Jack Lane’s by four and the New Inn by three. I think you will find it a hard business to out-rival the Swan in this respect.”

The tramp seemed fascinated by this intelligence. “Eight, eh?” He walked slowly the length of the bar past the eight gleaming enamel sentinels. His right forefinger ran along the brass rim of the bar top and to

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