Chapter Four – Pretty Penny
It was six weeks since the shortest night out in history had concluded with my head, head-butting the head in The Head. I hadn’t been back at work long. There were still visible reminders of the pasting I’d taken. I had a wrist brace on my left hand from the stomping. I had panda eyes from my high speed close inspection of the ceramics. The visible scars were nothing compared to the mental ones.
I’d spent the first couple of weeks afraid to leave my bedroom or turn the lights on. I couldn’t move about easily. I had decided curling up tight while pretending to be a boulder under a duvet was the best course of action until I died from starvation, dehydration or internal bleeding. In my mind I was one of those people turned to a statue in Pompeii by the volcano while they slept. The head splitting pain made any source of light hard to be around and the shakes were relentless whether I was awake or asleep.
The third week was one of a more existential dread. It was the week I ran out of Magic Alex’s prescription painkillers. I’d ventured downstairs a couple of times with sunglasses on. Once I even went to the corner shop for bread, milk and teabags. I got a severe case of vertigo when I tried talking to the old boy who ran the till at the Eastern Market Convenience Store. I just threw my money at him before I ducked out of the shop. I’d shuffled out without collecting the change barely in time to piss my pants with fear in the street. It was broad daylight when I tried to hurry off into the 500 years (yards) back to my flat. The whole way I was praying to be hit by a passing double-decker bus (such a heavenly way to die).
By week four I was actually listening to The Smiths not just channeling their lyrics. I was back on my music. Sitting under the duvet reading old comics and liner notes and nursing my ego back inside my body. I even let Mary and Magic cook me a meal one night. Magic sat and did my finances while Mary pretended to be my mum. Pretty quickly it became apparent I’d have to go back to work soon or I’d lose my digs. The rent was due and the phone had been cut off a fortnight ago. I’d started back at The Majesty Hotel on lunchtimes. Magic was dropping shifts while I was working my way back up to two or three nights a week. The place could have real quiet shifts during the day where I could get by on a minimum of interactions with living breathing people. It was on my first early evening shift of the sixth week (a Tuesday night) when I got a visit from the cutest Wednesday Addams lookalike I think anyone has ever seen. She came into the saloon bar looking specifically for me. I looked around the room for another member of staff to serve her so I could continue wiping things down, avoiding people and filling fridges when it dawns on me I’d actually have to do my job. I was going to have to serve a customer. Before the beating this would have been the reason I got up in the morning. The chance to talk to a pretty dark haired girl and pour her a drink, only for her to pay me for the privilege. Bar-tending Man. What a job. Here we were in a small hotel saloon bar in the early evening, just the two of us but I felt like a rabbit in the headlights. This was not the Steve who had worked here a month and a half back.
I felt her focus pull in on me like I was Roy Scheider watching a shark fin from the beach. Bobbed black hair and black leather jacket over a black T-Shirt with torn black jeans. There were a pair of chunky black boots on the end of those pins. They were gliding over the carpet and straight up to the bar. She hopped onto a seat right in front of me. I looked into her dark kohl circled eyes while counting my inhales and exhales. I was trying not to pass out. I was so uncomfortable. “You’re Steve aren’t you?” She smiled as she said it. I felt like I was at a complete disadvantage. I didn’t recognise her. I knew I’d never met her before. I’d have remembered. I felt ill equipped for talking to pretty rock and roll icons stood here dressed in hotel black and whites with bruises on my face while fighting the urge to piss my pants at every loud noise.
What I wouldn’t give for my street armour right now. My hair down, covering my face, some denim, a plaid shirt, maybe a leather jacket of my own. That might give me the confidence to get through a service. Dressed like a drone with my hair in a ponytail, in the same outfit as every other bar tender, waiter, porter and undertaker in the history of forever could rob a guy in my position of the war paint he needs to make it through. I didn’t move. “I’m Penny” She went on as if I wasn’t going through some huge Tommy like inner turmoil while it looked as if she might perform The Acid Queen all around me at any given moment. “Penny Black. From The Pub.” She didn’t say what pub. She didn’t have to. It was the last pub I’d been to. It was The Pub which dare not speak its name. She meant The Queens Head. I looked deep into her eyes. What was she doing here? Why couldn’t she just not be here? Why do I have to come to work and be face to face with what happened? Will every event in my life from here on out be tainted by this? Will I never be able to chat to pretty girls again? Has it robbed me of that too?
“I’m sorry. I don’t want to make this hard for you. I had to come and see you. It was me that night.” Those black and white eyes widened almost like one of those kitsch paintings from the 70’s. I was sweating suddenly and tensing up. I found some words. Well, one word. “What?” I asked it in a voice I didn’t recognise. It was almost a guttural growl. Hardly language at all. “It was me at The Queens Head” She said it again. This time with the killer detail. She spoke the name of the place. Can-dy-Man! “No” I haltered. Find a fucking sentence Steve, a ‘go away’, a ‘my my, you’re pretty’, a shopping list, anything. “No. It wasn’t you. It was a lardy prick in a baseball cap and loafers.” Not the words I was hoping for but something is better than nothing in a situation like this I suppose. She smiled a pearly white smile from behind some perfect lips. I felt my heart beat like a regular human for the first time in what felt like 20 minutes. I might survive this encounter I thought. I might.
With a soft spoken precision she corrected my statement and her own “I mean it was me that found you. On the floor. In the pub toilet. After the fight.” She had a furrow in her brow that looked like real concern when she said the last part. It was a kindly face this visitor from my darkest hour had come wearing. I toyed with the notion of denying knowing what she was talking about. Seeing as my eyes were darker than hers right now and only one of us was a goth girl I figured pretty quickly that wouldn’t fly. A fight? Me? Don’t know what you’re talking about. Old black eyes is clearly lying. I smirked at the notion. First time I’d done that since this long and arduous confrontation had begun all those dozens of seconds ago. “OK” I said aloud. It was in a tone closer to a human voice than the first word I’d uttered. I think she considered this progress because she leaned in closer. “I wanted to come and check you were going to be OK.” Her voice was like honey. I looked at that face and heard those warm soft words. I just wanted to fall into the ground. This was an awful torture. I almost repeated the ‘OK’ again as I had nothing else in the tank. Instead I had to concentrate on holding back huge tears welling in both my eyes. I screwed my face shut and mentally redirected with all my will all the fluid in my body away from my head. “I wanted to see you” she added while I considered the possibly of successfully climbing into the fetal position here behind the bar. “I’m so sorry for what happened to you” I felt a hand reach out to touch my arm. The fear in me froze time. Her hands were soft and warm and tiny. This may have been the first time I’d been aware of touching another person since the fist that knocked me unconscious… And I didn’t die.
Something else happened. The ringing in my ears stopped. The electric buzz of static volts running up and down my legs and arms faded to naught. The tracking on the world was suddenly pulled into focus like a worn VHS tape coming good. Everything returned to full colour. All except her. Penny Black. She was monochrome in a room of deep red carpets and brown wooden panels. I hadn’t expected it then and there but I knew this was going to be my newer problem. I wasn’t trying to recover from an assault anymore. I had to deal with this now. I’d just fallen in love.
I touched her hand with mine. What is happening? I leaned in close to hear what else she was going to say. “I have an invitation for you too. Something to try and say how truly sorry we all are. Why don’t you come back to the pub on Sunday? Sarah and I would like to make this right.” I looked into her kind sweet face. Asking me to do the one thing that terrified me more than anything else on the entire planet. “You want me to go back? In there?” She didn’t flinch “I promise I wont let anything happen to you” seemed a strange assurance from a short girl with big eyes and bobbed hair to a giant of a man with battle damage and arms like a gorilla. I wasn’t sure I could believe her. I wasn’t sure that prohibiting ‘Anything happening to me’ was something she could or couldn’t influence, but I knew I didn’t want to dismiss her out of hand or send her out of the place thinking ‘Oh well, at least I tried’. I had to swim through some brain tangle soup to find a way of saying no but yes. I looked at her. She looked into me. I wanted to find something of wit or style or even just confidence to say. Instead I just kept looking. She held my gaze for the longest time before yielding. “OK so you’re not jumping at the idea, that’s OK. That’s to be expected.”
“How about something else?” I asked, utterly unprepared to follow that up with anything other than the idea that I didn’t want to return to the site of my most recent arse kicking. She broke into a smile and looked around the room. “Like what?”. “How about you and me, do something else?” I was doubling down on the fact I had nothing. I just wanted her to keep talking to be completely honest. I attempted a smile back but my brain decided to remain serious of face when I said it. She sort of nodded. Her eyebrow gave the game away. Oh this ain’t a come on it said. Oh bollocks. She’s about to play that card. I’m reading this all wrong. This isn’t a come on I thought. I mean I knew that, this was a trap. That would lead to certain doom. But it definitely wasn’t a come on. “This…” she began. I interjected “This isn’t a come on.” She looked over her own eyeballs at me. “I just think you and I need to set out our terms. On neutral territory before anyone goes anywhere with anyone else.” She looked a little taken aback, but only a little (to be honest the other eyebrow was now doing most of the heavy lifting). I needed to win some ground. “If we’re negotiating my emotional stability from here on out and I’m to face the scene of that day again, I feel it only right I get to take those negotiations to neutral territory. Maybe Switzerland, or The Hague or at least Fat Joe’s at lunchtime tomorrow.”
Penny then did a thing that cut me to the core in this attempt at regaining control of a situation. She licked her lips as she smiled. That wasn’t it. That’s just a delicious detail of how utterly smitten I had become during this little chat. No she did that tiny little gesture and then she leaned in and she said “It’s a date.” Part of me thought ‘what are you doing Stephen?’, part of me thought ‘well that was easy’ and a third element in my very soul just screamed ‘you’ve doomed us all you fool’. Then without further ado she slid off the bar stool and glided out the door not touching the ground. I felt dizzy. I was sweaty and hot and cold all at once. I was supposed to be working here tomorrow lunchtime. What a Twat!
The shift went by in a plodding sense to the outside world after Penny had made her exit. I mustered a chat with the odd regular. I held my own in some pedestrian conversations that felt more like dull script readings for a play we were all living in. Everyone taking part knew their lines, your lines, what was coming next and how we got here. It was as if we rehearsed this convivial conversation every evening for the big day when we would have this exchange for real. I knew I was making my way back to life when I could spin the odd common generic response for my own entertainment. What I was really doing was limbering up for meeting with a pen and ink illustration of the perfect woman that had jotted herself into my plans for the following day.
Mick The Fish and Johnny Pockets had entered the saloon bar at their allotted time. Both salesmen of some sort or another, Mick stood at the end of the bar with his massive hands and sovereign ringed fingers drumming as if he’d been kept waiting a lifetime when in fact the door was still swinging shut behind him. “When you’re ready Alice Cooper, when you’re ready.” I smiled back at him “What can I get you Chaps?” He took a deep inhale like he was shocked. Then looked around in mock disbelief. “It speaks.” Johnny Pockets was doing his usual routine of patting himself down for his wallet. He’d start on his trousers then work his way up through the many pockets on his jacket while Mick played ringleader. “I’ve got this one Johnny. That bang on your head wiped your memory did it?” I had to try and play along. “Let me guess, a Tia Maria with coke, ice and a slice and a Babycham?” Mick The Fish puffed his cheeks out “Cheeky Cunt. A pint of Export and a lager top. Service like this it’s no wonder someone decided to give you a belting Lad.” This was all said in jest with the broadest of grins but I couldn’t help feel like I’d taken another hit. A verbal slap is still a slap if it catches you at the right angle. I lost perspective for a second then retorted with a two word “Export’s off.” We were back to pantomime theatrics “Exports Off!” He boomed as if this was his ‘A Handbag?’ He made several large W shapes with his mouth. “What do you mean Export’s off?” I put both my hands either side of the pumps. I leaned in like I was sharing something private “There’s two words there. Which one are you struggling with?” Johnny Pockets roared with laughter. Mick The Fish froze. His eyes darted as he stared down this lanky bruised upstart with his new found voice. Then Mick roared with laughter too. I think he saw himself as Joe Pesci in Goodfellas having a ‘funny how?’ Moment. I just wasn’t in the normal frame of mind for bullshitting about all day long. “Welcome back Mate” he said before he pointed to the Stella pump instead. I went about pouring their drinks feeling a bit more like the old me.
By the time we closed I’d not only found cover for my lunch shift tomorrow, I’d also got an advance on Wednesday’s wages. Enough that I could buy Penny lunch if she showed up. The conversation at the start of the evening had started to feel more like a fever dream than something that had actually happened. I sort of hoped she didn’t show up. I could put it all down to brain damage or hallucination. There was no way this tiny Vampirella was actually meeting me in Fat Joe’s for a ploughman’s.
I got my aching head and legs home in time to find Magic Alex passed out on my sofa cuddling the dregs in a brown three litre bottle of cider. It’s a good job I got in when I did. He probably hadn’t moved since about an hour after I left for work and may well still be there when I got up in the morning. Who wouldn’t want to miss such an event? Mary and he had been arguing for a week or so and he was my temporary Sofa dweller.
I left my drunkest, druggiest, most unreliable and yet most predictable friend to his apple flavoured night sweats. I went to my room and headed over to the turntable. I flipped the album I’d been listening to before I went out over to side two and reached into the back of my speaker cabinet to retrieve a half bottle of Indian rum. A Ramone counted off a 1234 and I took a long slug of booze. Today Your Love, Tomorrow The World.