Neil Grimmett
We picked this quiet, out-of-the-way pub for a drink and a moment to ourselves, maybe also for a final taste of the area. The place is so dark we have to stop and allow our eyes to adjust. It must be the normal thing, because the old lady behind the bar watches the two of us blinking and swaying without stopping drying the glass in her hand or changing her expression of boredom. There are four men at the bar and a blonde woman. The men are seated and do not bother to notice us, the blonde is stood at one end and I catch her look before she turns away. She carries on a loud conversation with the barmaid, which is obviously meant for the men, and now us, as is the short skirt and high boots.

We take two lagers and move to a corner table which at least has a shadow of natural light falling on it. Larry tries to pour some of the beer onto his wound. He looks pathetic.

"Is it bad?" I ask.

"Still too numb to tell," he answers thickly.

I had to drive him to an emergency appointment or we would not have been here. His teeth have been something for years. Eat more fruit, I used to tell him. It was what my father always told me. Too late now, I guess, like so many things.

I see one of the men at the bar staring over at us. He is slightly built with badly cut, short black hair and a mean expression. I imagine that he has seen the way Larry is performing with the beer - treating it like a mouthwash - and is just curious. The blonde has given up talking and is paying attention to us as well now. The walls have running brown stains and the low ceiling sags and flakes. "Welcome home," I feel like saying. "Welcome fucking back !"

We used to live near to this place. Years ago. Though this would never have been one of our haunts. You would not have caught us dead in a place like this back then. We were the local heroes. If you wanted to find us you had to seek out the "hot spot" - wherever that might have been. Because I seem to recall that it used to change. Mysteriously and without warning and leave behind those unwilling to accept. Larry always said that it had something to do with the nearby beach and its treacherous landscape of ever-shifting mud banks. "The mud dance," he called it, and liked to imagine that we took the lead - always stepping out before the wallowing began.

The man who has kept up his staring slides toward us. I see the blonde does not want to get left behind and tries to cling to his skinny arm in its shiny, Oxfam jacket. She pleads for something and he spills coins onto the bar before shaking her off, then he whispers a few words into her ear that makes her smile and stretch so that we can see that she has a nice body and long neck. He moves to our little table.

"I know you two," he says. "My name is Ric and we were at school together. You must remember."

I don't recognize him, and I'm certain there was never anyone called Ric from back then. Larry gets up before the man has hardly finished speaking and says, "I knew it was you as soon as we walked in." He embraces Ric for too long. "Just been to the dentist," he tells him, opening his mouth and pointing in as though its the most important thing.

Ric sits down at our table and keeps grinning at me. "My wife," he says as the blonde shifts herself in front of a fruit-machine close to us and begins to feed in the coins.

"Congratulations," says Larry without looking up at her – though I know he has and that she is still plenty attractive enough for his purposes.

Now it is true that I am not very good at names. And even worse: that I sometimes get them wrong and then persist in calling the person what I first chose, sometimes for years. Most people think it's deliberate and done for affect - so I get away with it. Truth is, I have no memory of certain things that have happened in my life. No names, maps, or descriptions that could give colour or adornment to anywhere. Instead, I have a series of untitled photographic plates locked behind my eyes of gestures. Usually slippings or stumbled exits, quick vicious snatchings and blows, the soothing touch brushed away. And I have tape recordings of echoes: a whole sound library of pleas and tears, begging and apologies, the crying out for another chance or one more deliberate put-down. What does someone's name or the colour of a sofa cushion matter anyway ?

Larry insists that he can remember everyone and everything. But on what level? I always ask myself; and for what gain? "Ric," he is now saying, "it must be over twenty years."

"Twenty-five," says Ric. "Twenty-five years since we all walked out of that school, and only a short while after that you two left. And still everybody talks about you. Now you just walk in here as if it were only yesterday. I can hardly believe it."

"Look," I go, "were we in the same class or something?" I don't really want to say anything but I can see that Larry is beginning to feel pain, since he is now covering his face with both hands and sagging onto the table. "It is just that I am having trouble exactly placing you."

Then Ric's wife hits the jackpot and the machine starts coughing up coins like it is choking to death. Ric leaps out of his chair straight at her and they begin fighting over the prize. He scoops a generous handful out of the opening and she does the same, then as they try for more their hands meet in the darkness. I see her long thin nails claw into him and he crushes her hand - hard and slow - so that hidden within her grasp those gold tokens must indent their congratulations in a fading red calligraphy. She slaps him across the neck and they entangle. The machine rocks to their rhythm and keeps on spilling out its bounty. The men at the bar carry on with their drinking without bothering to take a look. The bar lady carries on shining the same glass. I cannot help noticing that the blonde has weals and bruises all around the tops of her thighs and that she is wearing the brightest yellow knickers.

"What did you go and say that for?" Larry asks me through his fingers. "You can never give anyone their dignity can you? This is our past, this place, these people were all important. Nothing or no one exists without purpose and meaning. You are someone who has never really belonged anywhere."

"I do not know who he is," I tell him. "Or what you are going on about. You said yesterday that the whole place and everyone in it was drained even worse than you remembered." I could go on and say again whose over-ambition created the void we now live in - but I know too well where that trail ends. Larry picks up his glass and tries to drink some beer as if it might be the last he ever gets. Instead, the fighting couple crash into his back. The glass thumps against his tingling lips and spills down his front. He groans. Ric and his wife stop and stare down in shame.

"Sorry mate," says Ric. "I'll get you another. And Kenny," looking at me and getting my name right. He stands there for a second watching his wife who is now crawling around on all fours picking up the spilled coins. And I can read it in his eyes that he would just love to kick her tight skinny little yellow butt right out of sight. He fetches drinks including one for her and sits down.

"I heard that you were still living in America," he says.

"We are," I say.

"Still," says Larry as if it is a sentence.

I ignore him. "We just came over for a funeral," I tell Ric. "One of our oldest friends," and before I get the chance to say his name Ric blurts it out,

"Paul," he says. "Poor old Paul."

Larry raises his glass and both of them take a bitter and slow toast to the memory.

"I didn't see you at the funeral," I say; "I know that it was crowded but I'd definitely have spotted you and your wife."

Paul's funeral had lined and stretched along the gray street. There had been only a handful of close friends and family in the church but outside every morbid eye had been turned. We had looked into their blank hungry faces as we helped carry the coffin. I might have seen every one of them before, or never.

"We were stood right by the church door," Ric says. "I said to Judith," he nods at his wife still hoovering up the floor, "'That is The Larry and Kenny that I went to school with and who I'm always telling you about'."

"That's right," says Larry. "The Three Musketeers: all for one." Judith gets to her feet and joins us at the table shoving and swiveling until she is virtually on top of Larry. She has a tatty black handbag stuffed full of her prize and is clutching it between her breasts and lifting them so that they make Larry tip his head back as if he was still in the dental chair.

"You two are famous," she says after draining her glass and shoving it to Ric for refilling.

Larry never gets tired of this stuff. And it does not matter who comes out with it any longer, if it ever did. Everyone is equally qualified so long as they know the shibboleth and keep repeating it along the way. In return, they will be granted the comfort of never hearing a contradiction or one syllable of fact about anything that may damage their dreams. Anyway, he could no more utter a truth like that than grow another tooth for the one he's just had yanked out.

"Famous," Larry agrees, "but not so rich as you today." He fondles her bag of money with a genuine affection. She is smiling in triumph at her husband; he is smiling in some sort of pride at Larry's attention. I have seen this sort of thing so many times before, dressed up in every mask that it hardly registers. I can tell by his hand and hooded eyes that if his mouth were up to it he would have her out in the car and spend a good hour shagging himself limp, while I made small talk with her husband. And she is fully aware of the fact.

"Are all those stories I've heard about you true?" she teases. "Were you really that bad?"

"Worse," Larry gasps and a blast of anesthetic settles over the table.

"And I have only told you the half of it," says Ric. "Some of the things that these two used to get up to I still wouldn't dare tell."

"With you and Paul," she says. "You said that you and Paul were part of it—lots of times you said."

Ric looks awkward and guilty and they are both silent waiting for Larry to confirm or deny. He has lost interest and is probing around inside his mouth with one of his fingers, which he then withdraws to stare at and sniff before having another go.

"So what do you do nowadays Ric?" I ask, trying at least to divert them from watching too closely Larry’s disgusting self-interest.

"He's a magician," says Judith.

"Part-time," Ric adds. "Just setting out really: a new start. You have to learn to adapt these days if you want to survive. Well you know that I was always the one for doing tricks, so I decided to go for it."

"So much talent," says Larry. "That's what I always recognized. Everyone of us had so much to offer. You, Paul, all of us winners."

"Especially Paul," I say, taking this chance to remind him.

"I could never understand Paul not staying with you," says Ric. "He was so lost and lonely after you went—walking up and down the street with his guitar case like he was always going somewhere himself. It was a bit of a joke, really."

Larry doesn't even flinch. "Tell them," I want to say, "how you sacked him. Or rather, as usual, how you got me to do it. Me breaking the news to him that after all he would not be coming with us."

"We never lost touch," says Larry. "We wrote most months. I was always listening out for him."

That much is true. Larry never lets go of anything or anyone. 'You can't win a prize if you don't buy a few tickets,' one of his great philosophies. It was me that Paul decided never to speak to or mention again. The one who refused to dress the truth up in a load of flowery promises and let him know the real reasons behind his failure.

"He did a couple of shows," Ric tells us, "in the old club. Hardly anyone bothered to turn up. It was quite sad. We thought he sounded great, though, and told him."

Larry manages to look heartbroken for a second then begins to gargle again.

"I am going to be his assistant," says Judith, with a nod at Ric. "I've got a little purple dress covered in sequins. I'm going to wear black fishnets and gold boots."

"Stunning," says Larry. " I would sure dream to see you in that." Then looking at Ric: "And your show of course. Rabbits out of thin air, sawing the lovely Jude in half, vanishing-up-your-rope trick and all of that."

"It's mostly card tricks and sleight-of-hand," Ric explains.

"He rips up a lot of paper," Judith adds.

"Actually," says Ric, "I am doing a show tonight. A short spot at the Legion."

"You could come," says Judith. "And see me in my outfit."

I see her shoulder move and know that her bony little hand is getting busy under the table.

"We'd love to," says Larry. "It will be just like the old days."

Ric looks stunned. I can see his mind working faster than his wife's fingers.

"I would really appreciate that," Ric says, it would mean so much to hear what you had to say; how far you think I could go. If there was any chance of you…Well you know."

"Sure," Larry says.

Judith rushes off to the ladies keeping her back and to her husband, her hand hidden. She’s almost skipping with delight.

"She's pleased about something," I say. "Gone to slip her stage gear on perhaps, and give us all a sneak preview."

Ric looks at me as if he has suddenly remembered something nasty about me that he had been hoping to forget. Larry is back in pain. He finishes the last of his beer. Ric immediately offers to fetch him another.

"No," says Larry. "Now we have to get going. We'll have one tonight before the show, that's a promise."

Ric shakes my hand, "See you later," he says and then grasps his arms around Larry. The men at the bar carry on sipping the flat-looking murk in their glasses and the barmaid has turned the empty one into a diamond that fills her eyes with its gleam. As we are halfway across the car park the door to the pub swings open and Judith stands looking out. She has been putting on some make up and tidying her hair. Her disappointment is clear. I see her mouth trying to find something to offer. Ric comes out, and as I watch in the car mirror, he tries to place a hand on her long neck or brush a finger through her glorious massing of hair. She shrugs him off and fills the mirror with herself. I can see that she knows what is going to happen but manages to stay proud and defiant. Larry keeps his head down and dabs away with the huge wad of cotton wool the dentist gave him.

Then he begins flicking away with his tongue into a space that is unfamiliar and his mind still insists is full of tooth. A bit like, I guess, trying to scratch a limb after it has been amputated, or wish the dead could hear and that strangers are going to start performing magic for your entertainment.

Neil Grimmett has been published in England by The London Magazine, Passport, Panurge, Iron, Stand and Ambit. In Canada, by Grain, in France, Paris Transcontinental, in Australia, Quadrant, in South Africa, New Contrast, and in the US I have been in Fiction and The Yale Review. A new story just came out in April in an anthology of writing called 'England Calling". He has also finished a novel.


In Posse: Potentially, might be ...