‘Nobody’s been married longer than me. Nobody.’
Jack hit the bar of the Miners Arms with his open hand, sending bitter slopping over the top of his glass. He picked up the pint and drank half of it down without swallowing, while the other drinkers standing close by eyed him warily. They’d suffered his ‘marriage’ routine at least twice a week for years and didn’t want to hear it again. But the Landlord, who enjoyed winding Jack up, couldn’t resist.
‘How long have you been married then?,’ he asked.
‘Twenty eight years and every one of the buggers counts as double.’
Only Jack laughed at the joke, while everyone else smiled wearily. No one would be able to stop Jack now he was on his favourite topic.
‘I deserve a medal, I do,’ Jack said bitterly. ‘Nobody’s put up with what I’ve had to put up with. That’s for sure.’
‘And what was that?’
‘Oh please don’t,’ moaned one of the regulars as the Landlord stoked Jack’s fires.
‘Neglect lad, sheer bloody neglect on a grand scale,’ Jack replied, pointing to his substantial beer belly as evidence. ‘I don’t know how I’ve managed to keep body and soul going. I’ve worked damn hard all my life and she’s had it all. I can barely afford the pennies for a pint every now and again. I’ve been mistreated and no mistake.’
‘T’other way round, if you ask me,’ muttered Pam, the landlord’s wife, who was busy stacking soft drinks behind the bar.
Pam’s judgement of the customers was harsher than her husband’s: he liked to keep his regulars happy and spending money.
‘What do you mean?’ Jack asked.
‘From what I’ve seen it’s your Sheila that’s had to do most of the putting up’
‘I don’t get it,’ said Jack.
‘Well,’ said Pam, ‘how many nights have you spent in here? Plenty. And how many times have you ever brought Sheila in? None, that’s how many.’
‘She won’t come to pubs, ‘cos she’s allergic to beer,’ Jack pleaded.
‘Not allowed in you mean. You wouldn’t want her in here to see you carrying on with other women.’
‘I don’t do carry on’s,’ said Jack indignantly. ‘I might like a little drink now and again, but I’ve never carried on with anybody.’
Jack finished his pint and handed his glass expectantly to the landlord, while he looked round his fellow drinkers for moral support. They all avoided his beery gaze: no one dared to side with Jack against the Landlord’s wife.
‘You tell me,’ he continued when a fresh pint was securely in his grasp, ‘you tell me when you’ve seen me carryin’ on in this pub?’
‘Well not recently, I must admit,’ said Pam, ‘but there was a time when you had a different woman in here every month.’
‘They weren’t women,’ said Jack defensively, ‘they were valued work colleagues. We came here for meetings, we weren’t carrying on.’
‘What, on Friday’s, with them dressed up for a night out? Rum meetings if you ask me.’
‘You’ve got it all wrong.’ Jack wagged a finger at Pam. ‘I’m as pure as the driven: the only thing I’ve pulled in years is my back.’
Jack drew on his new pint, and winked conspiratorially at the Landlord with a bloodshot and watery eye. A more sensible and sober man would have quit now, but Jack was stubborn and wouldn’t let things go.
‘But if you’re so sure of yourself,’ Jack continued, ‘how come you’ve never said anything to Sheila?’
‘As if she didn’t know already,’ said Pam ‘Besides, I’m not one to interfere when a man’s making a fool of himself.’
‘What do you mean a fool?’ asked Jack. I was entertaining people from work. They were new people; it was part of their induction.’
‘Rubbish. Most of them were barely out of school. I didn’t notice you bringing any middle-aged men in here for their “induction”. It looked bloody pathetic mostly.’
Jack and Pam glared at each other. The Landlord, realising he’d made a mistake, tried to ease the tension.
‘And if Sheila had found out she’d have stopped you coming in,’ he said. ‘Would have halved my profits.’
Everyone laughed, except Jack who stood there looking foolish.
‘Anyway, there’s nothing I can do about it now,’ remarked Pam ruefully. It’s ages since you dragged anyone in with you: you must be losing your touch lad.’
‘Losing my touch,’ said Jack, beginning to lose his temper, ‘I am not! It’s just that work’s…work’s different now, that’s all. Look, I’ve had enough of this, and if this is how you treat a valued customer I’ll go and drink somewhere where I won’t be insulted.’
‘You’re choice,’ said Pam, who’d heard this threat before.
‘Right, I’m going then. I don’t care if you beg me to stay. Mind you, I’d better have one more to steady myself before I go. And I’ll have a small whisky with it.’
It was late the next morning when Jack woke up. His head ached ferociously from the beer the night before, his eyes itched, and he was badly in need of something to drink. As far as he knew it was Saturday, but he couldn’t swear to it: the only thing he really knew was that he was in pain and felt sick.
Jack reached out across the bed, checking to see if Sheila was still there, but she was already up. This meant a few minutes grace where he could prepare himself to face the torments of the day ahead and try to piece together his memories of the night before. He half-remembered trudging aimlessly between pubs looking for anyone who’d sit and listen to him. Then he’d been refused entry to some trendy modern bar in town, but what happened after that was anybody’s guess. Eventually Jack gave up trying to remember and decided that his hangover would be no worse if he got out of bed. He dragged himself upright and shambled into the bathroom where he spent a minute inspecting the image of a jowly, unshaven old man that presented himself in mirror every time he stood in front of it. He considered shaving, but decided that this was a step too far for now, so he made do with splashing some cold water on his face, and running a comb across his thinning hair.
Getting dressed took a while but eventually he managed it and, grasping on to the bannister for support, he made it downstairs. As he entered the kitchen, where he expected to be confronted by Sheila, he held his head very still in what he hoped was a natural looking position. The hangover hurt like hell, but he was damned if he was going to let her see it. Sheila was sat at the kitchen table, drinking tea and reading that morning’s edition of the Daily Mail. She briefly glanced up at him and brushed a strand of greying hair from her careworn face. Jack walked across the room to join her and as he sat down he prepared himself for her usual hard stare, which always managed to look both blank and frosty at the same time. Instead she smiled at him for the first time in months.
‘Sit down love,’ she said with only the slightest trace of animosity in her voice. ‘I’ve got you some breakfast ready.’
Thrown by this sudden and unexpected pleasantness, Jack drew a chair back from the table and did as he was told. He tilted his whole body downwards very slightly, to avoid having to move his head, and took in the state of the tabletop. It was completely transformed from the usual neglected state: the scratched wood was covered by a green and red checked tablecloth and Sheila had laid out cutlery and a serviette for him.
‘Thanks love,’ Jack’s voice betrayed just a hint of suspicion. ‘Is it a special occasion?
‘Not particularly,’ replied Sheila, ‘I just thought you’d appreciate something a bit different, that’s all.’
Jack’s stomach turned slightly at the prospect of food, but he wasn’t going to refuse a breakfast if it was on offer. And by the sight of the table it looked like it was going to be a good one. Not only was there cutlery, Sheila had put out his favourite sauce and there was a large tea mug waiting to be filled.
‘I’ve got most of it done already,’ said Sheila. ‘It’s been keeping warm in the oven so I just need to lay it out for you.’
She got up from the table and walked round behind Jack. He sat perfectly still for fear of making his hangover worse, while Sheila opened and closed the oven door.
‘Now are you sure you’re ready for this?’ She asked.
Jack nodded very slightly so, leaning over his shoulder, Sheila slammed a can of bitter, slightly warmed by the oven, right down in the middle of the immaculate place setting.
‘There you bastard’, she bellowed in his ear. ‘You like this so much I thought you’d want to carry on where you left off last night.’
Sheila came and sat back down at the table, her stare now restored to its usual place. But there was a challenge in her look too. Jack didn’t respond at first, but then wordlessly he picked up the can, jerked back the ring-pull and took a long swig. The tilting motion of his head and the taste of the tepid and tinny beer made him feel sick, but he was determined not to show it. When he’d drained the can Jack placed it carefully back on the table.
‘Thanks love’, he said with feigned relish, ‘my favourite. How did you know?’
Jack’s daredevil gesture gained him a few seconds of moral ascendancy while Sheila stood up and banged angrily round the kitchen. Then she came back and stood next to Jack, which forced him to look up at her, sending shooting pains down the back of his head.
‘Three this morning you came blundering into our room,’ she shouted hoarsely. ‘Do you think you could get home early just once in a while? Before midnight would be nice.’
‘What difference does it make to you?,’ asked Jack.
‘You stank of beer and then bloody well snored through the rest of the night. I’ve told you before, sleep in the other room.’
‘Buggered to see why I should’, grumbled Jack. ‘It’s my house too and I worked hard enough for it.’
Sheila leaned over Jack and shouted in his face.
‘Well if it’s your house why don’t you see to the drains? They’ve wanted clearing for weeks.’
‘I’ll do ‘em tomorrow’, Jack replied.
‘Earlier would be nice. Like tonight if you get home before midnight.’
‘Look, if tomorrow’s not good enough for you why don’t you get a man in?’
‘Might do’ mused Sheila. It’s the first time we’ll have had one in the house since our Peter left.’
Jack stood up and marched unsteadily to the back door, and took a jacket from the coat rack.
‘Right, that’s it,’ he said. ‘I’m off to work.’
‘On a Saturday. For God sake Jack. When are you going to stop…’
‘Enough.’ Shouted Jack, ‘it’s overtime isn’t it and better than doing nowt.’
‘And what time will you be home?’
‘Sometime. But why the sudden interest? You stopped asking years ago.’
‘You’ve got to take an interest in your loved ones. It says so in paper,’ Sheila said sarcastically as she pointed to the Daily Mail.
‘Don’t bother, the shock’ll kill me.
On his way to work Jack realised that walking out on arguments seemed to have become a habit of his. At this rate, he thought, I’ll have nowhere else to go but bloody work. It was quiet in the office, and Jack sank gratefully into his deeply padded leather chair. He closed his eyes with a sigh and let his hangover wash over him while throbbing pain, nausea and sleep fought over him. Sleep started to get the upper hand, but even then Jack was troubled by blurred and floating images of Sheila and Pam shouting at him about blocked drains and carrying on…
…’Where do you want these, Mr Goodall?’
‘Where do I want what love?’
‘It’s these invoices, Mr Goodall. Mr Jackson said you’d want to check them before they were paid.’
The girl stood in the doorway of his office and looked down at the papers in her hand. She was young and confident.
‘Oh them. Just put them over there on the corner of my desk.’
Jack looked appreciatively at the girl as she walked towards him and was forced to lean over his desk to put the invoices on the spot he’d pointed to.
‘You’re new here aren’t you?’ he asked.
‘Yes, Mr Goodall. I started on Monday.’
‘Look Jack’ll do when we’re on our own: Mr Goodall’s for when we’re in company. And what do they call you?’
The girl smiled and brushed a strand of straw coloured hair from her unblemished face.
‘They call me Sheila, Mr Goodall, Sheila Marsh.’
‘It’s Jack, remember. Well Sheila, has any one told you about the company induction programme?’
Sheila looked puzzled and shook her head.
‘Well,’ explained Jack, ‘it’s usual for a more senior member of staff to help new joiners to get to know their way around better. If you like I could help you.’
Jack ran his hand through his glossy hair and smiled a blue eyed winning smile, but Sheila shook her head again.
‘I don’t want to put you to too much trouble, Mr Goo.., er Jack, you look really busy.’
‘Now then Sheila, not too busy to help new talent settle in. Always help someone on the way up, that’s my motto. Besides, I expect Mr Jackson would expect it and we don’t want to disappoint him in your first week.’
‘Well if you’re really sure,’ Sheila said reluctantly. ‘Do I need to tell Mr Jackson?’
‘No, I’ll do that for you love. Now normally I like to meet new members of staff more informally to help them settle in. How would Friday after work suit?’
‘Oh no,’ said Sheila, looking really alarmed this time. ‘I’m not sure about that. Is it proper?’
‘It’s not only proper, it’s company policy.’
As Jack looked into the girl’s grey eyes, he knew he’d won. By hell, he thought, you’ve got the touch, Jack lad.
In the middle of a prolonged snore Jack woke up in his office. It was cold and getting dark and he’d slept away another short winter’s day. In the light filtering through the grimy windows, he could barely make out the tools hanging from the walls of the shed. His hangover had nearly gone, but he had a stiff neck from sleeping in the battered leather chair, the one he’d bought for the shed on the day after he’d been asked to leave work. Reluctantly he rose and stood in the doorway of the shed looking at his dimly lit house. For a few minutes he stood considering his choices: should he go and confront his future or his past?
‘Miners Arms or drains?’ he asked himself.