I slope off at the first chance. But Frank's always there before me, standing at the bar. Comfortable as a gargoyle on a church roof, leaning dangerously until his slope becomes a kind of miracle.
"You polishing the wood there?" I say to Frank, the pivot of his left elbow starts a slow slide down it. Then I bark, "Frank", I think he's falling (he's not falling). But him braking suddenly and looking up. As if he sees me for the first time. And then he's slipping to his feet and standing to attention, electrified. Slow grinning. Then notices it's only me. He holds on to the grin. And it's like stone cracking, all the muscles of his face seem to ache with the motion, pain him. His grin falls away that slow.
I hear Jake before I see him, coming through the opposite doorway. You could set your watch by Jake, and "Howdydoo", he says, and before the door has swung fully shut behind him, there is Barraclough. Gill's husband. Coming in behind Jake. And Jake must know by my face, because he freezes. Slows up and tips his hat off, bunches it up in his hand and rubs the top of his head with it. The gesture he's hung on to since he were a freckled lad of nine. Or thereabouts. Ever since he had a hat at all. And then even stooped, the doorway is that low he blocks the entrance. Like it were an accident. So that Barraclough must make the decision then and there to barge him or to wait. I guess Jake wants to figure which it's going to be. And how the land lies thataway. Only Barraclough is not a barger. Just stands there stiffly, in his uniform. Frank's eyes gleam like plastic buttons in the light, blinking serenely as a puppet.
Jake pretends that he sees Barraclough at last, and with that elaborate hand gesture, lets him pass. Gestures toward the bar, "How're you doin' Barraclough? You got some leave I see." And then, with some deliberation, Barraclough heaving himself toward my table, throwing the bottom of his jacket up, the last minute, settling his great arse on my seat. Wiggling for a moment or two. Like he's nesting there, getting right comfortable. Then meeting my eye with a thin blue lipped rage. Jake holds me back. His thumb gripping the back of my arm hard, "Quit poking holes in me", I tell Jake, roll my shoulders, shaking him off. "I aint going to ..." And Jake puts his hand up then. Against my chest, flat palmed, and the other hand in the air, like traffic signal. "Alright." I say. "Alright." And me stopped by his long creased palm, and then it raised, pulled back, like that, and curling into wrinkled monkey knuckles. Jake smiling to show me this is just his jestering. "Oh you are as dry ..." I say, "as the dust over the vicar's welcome mat." And Jake doesn't speak. He doesn't do anything. Me eye to eye with him for a long moment, 'til he drops the hand. Respectfully. Jake knowing not to touch me again. When I'm like this. "Give me some air." I say. He moves his whole self out my way. With a slowness that's theatrical. He sighs. "And you can stop that bloody sighing at me too."
"Alright, breathe, Lad." Jake says, and "Alright fellas". And I whisper to him, "Don't tell me how to breathe." I say. "And don't bloody 'Lad' me either. Raising my fisted hand and we both pause. Then Jake snickering at the hand until I lower it. Jake sips his pint, then swivelling his eyes to point me to a chair. Also reproaching me somehow. His woolly old-man eyebrows leaning inward toward the meeting point. The long crease down the middle of them and you cannot see the pupil of his eye. Only the hard, dry blue of Jake. The way I'll get him into trouble once gain, and the playground all those years behind us. All those years. He is that tired of this. He doesn't say it, he will never say it. Never leave me high and dry, not our dry Jake. And "Don't mind if I do," I'm mincing toward the hard chair which is not my chair. And I am trying to make him laugh. "Good man." Jake says. Only Jake's so angry at me that his almost-wink is lizard-like, as if he'd flick his tongue an' all. He holds on to himself. Looks at something on the inside, his mouth a long firm line. It's almost smiling, not quite smiling. And Jake's father used to call that 'Burgo and red ink', that smile that isn't, and, believing it to hold a malice of intent, he'd beat him for it. But Jake's father was wrong. Jake's burgo and red ink has lasted longer than Jake's father and you can't say what Jake feels when he looks like that.
Barraclough seems surprised I took another seat. And starts to strain his huge heft up, leaning forwards, making a deal of struggling from his chair, making as though he's coming at me anyway. Though he's not a natural fighter. Gill's husband. Then, true to his personality, he thinks better of it. And then thinks better still. There are no road maps for a man married to Gill. Him looking that lost, holding his head, he's drunk and when he looks up, his hair's all rumpled like a child, and Jake doesn't find it funny now. If he ever did. He turns on me, "You are a bass-tud." Jake says, "What'd you do that for?" Then thumbing backward, indicating Barraclough and "You know why." I say. I'm holding Jake's next pint out for him. And he doesn't take it. And I hold it out and hold it until I have to put it down and lick it off my fingers. Dry my hand in a long wipe down his coat. "An' I am goin' off you too," I say to him. And grin. Like that. And hold the grin too, 'til he looks away. He has to, sighs. Frank turns from Jake to me and back as if he tries to fathom both of us, and can't. And can't and can't and still can't. And in a bit there's something comes to Frank. He leans toward Gill's husband, like he aims to tell him something that he doesn't know already. Only it would appear he has come late to that particular party. "Eh. Barraclough." Frank says. He holds his gargoyle smile. Though he can barely hold the man in focus. And still wobbling on his legs. I start laughing again, "Hush." Jake kicks me. "The man is trying, Al." And the smile just clings on to Frank's face, in spite of Barraclough ignoring him, the smile fixes to grip there permanently. Painfully. "Oh Aye." I say. "He's very trying." And then Frank reaches out with one long arm, toward the rumpled man in his sightline. Squinting. Scrawny wrist extending from his sleeve like tortoise neck. "I think he's going to shake hands." Jake says. But Frank's too drunk. His gestures come undone. Frank's paw shakes itself in mid-air, Barraclough just eyeing him, suspicious of his goodwill. Frank trembles, waits. Then spills his own pint and the one that's stood at his right elbow, "Aww, Frank." Jake says. Licking the spilled beer off his fingers. Frank looking at Jake mildly, puts his hand down in the spill then rearranging it. His clumsy second paw, beer dripping fingers. "Now I'm sure we can be, we can be ... civilised." Frank says. Frank's hand continues its descent, in slow motion, Frank watching it. Can't control the muscles for it and amazed. By everything it does, amazed and trying to make sense of that puppet arm. He's searching for a pocket with the other one. Wilfully. He's getting there. Playing sober. Failing at it. Coughing. And then having found his pocket, at last, pulling out a modestly full tobacco purse (Frank's soft air of surprise to see it) spilling pieces of tobacco on the floor. And all its tiny threads across the bar. Some down the sleeve of the lifted hand then looking at the hand again. As if the hand is made of gold. Or filled with light. And like he were unstrung, both legs rolling under him. And "Alright there, Charlie Chaplin", Jake says, hauling the fallen man up. Tilts him upward like a lever 'til he's standing, more or less standing. Then Jake's letting go. Frank makes to fall again then doesn't. And holds there, barely, like a tight rope walker. Swaying. Hiccups. And a belch released. Which seems to anger him more, ghastly stiffening of that grin again and turns to me. Furiously. As if I did it. Set the pub floor at a slope on purpose, just to catch him. "You!" He points his finger at me. We ignore him.
"It's alright, Frank." Jake says. After a moment. One hand on the fella's back to soothe him. And then finds Barraclough has stood up too, and holds there, unsure, like a man waiting to be stopped. Jake obliges him. He tries the same chest-hand trick on Gill's husband, the one that worked on me, and "Calm down fella. Alright, alright." But it isn't going to do for him this time. And Jake sees that at once and steps aside. Hands both held up as if in slow surrender. A giving up which isn't giving anything at all, with that long smile of his returning. Like it cannot help itself. Gill's husband brushes off this second cruelty with a stroke, "Alright, Jake." He says. Fatherly, and if you knew Jake like I do, Well. That were his first mistake. I think, expecting Jake to come back swinging, only our Jake doesn't. He turns away from me instead. And no-one looks at me then. No-one but Barraclough.
“Don’t, Man.” Frank says, soberer now and registering something. “He’s like a lion behind bars tonight.” He tells the barman. Flicking his thumb over his shoulder toward us both. So that we can't tell who he means. And then tapping at his back, one educating finger. “A cat on a leash.” Frank says, nonsensically. “That One.” We can't tell who he means. Then Frank sliding drunken to the floor, sits propping up the mirror, which he's setting at a slope, it's angled dangerously over him. Closing his eyes. “It can’t learn the leash, it can’t.” He says. Gill's husband doesn’t turn.
There’s something gurgling in Frank’s throat, he coughs it up and makes to spit it, catches barmaid’s eye a moment, swigs it down instead. With aid of his carefully held glass. White fingered gripping on it. "What'll you have, gentlemen?" She says and we ignore her. “The lion sees and doesn’t see. The bars.” Frank says. “Cannot …” (hiccups) “Cannot frame understanding of them. Bars.”
And having achieved the distraction that he aimed to, Frank's talk tails off. Folk gesture twisting ears behind him, even his hand gesticulations seem to slow, become incompetent and flapping. Shapes in the air. He turns inward then, and crouching at his pint.
There's an apologizing tone about Frank's last words, “He bangs and buts and burns against it, cannot stop himself. Not for them bars.” He says. And Jake's forced laughter from behind him once again, he puts one finger sagely in the air, closes his eyes, “Throat burns against the leash.” He says, holding his throat, as if his words conjure the burning. And then Jake's softly shaking, somehow laughing anyway, pushes at Frank gently with one foot. Until Frank’s leaning to and quietly slopes on to the stone floor. A blink, a pause, as if with disbelief. Then Frank lets out a snore. And seems to pass out then.
African childhood, then Oxford University via a British comprehensive school. Jo worked in publishing for a few years, stopping to have children. Wrote two children's books, Festivals (pub. Longman) and Art For Everyone (pub. Collins). Jo has completed first novel, 'The Bomber's Garden' and second novel, 'Mother Cupboard' is well underway.