Initially, Nick reckoned that being suspended for a month, might be a great chance to get his head back together. A little time off, would do him no harm at all. However, itwasn’t quite working out as he had hoped. The last few days he had wasted watching daytime television and being subjected to a seemingly endless stream of “D” list celebrities. Many of whom he had never heard of and probably never would again, plugging whatever garbage it was they were purveying or taking part in a whole stream of crappy reality shows, that were anything but real. “How can people watch this shit endlessly,” he wondered? “I’m going to have to find something a little more edifying to do with my time or my brain will turn to mush!” With that, he reached over to his “stash” box, took out some “skins” and rolled himself another Joint.
His last few days had been spent in an oblivion of Cognac and Cannabis and that suited Nick fine. Years ago, during his single days, he would have seen this time as an opportunity to indulge himself and his days would have started in one of two ways. The first option, was with a dab of Speed, a trip to the City Centre and a day spent in pointless conversations with other like minded souls. Alternatively, he would have got out of bed, put some Grateful Dead music on the “jukebox,” which was what he used to call his stereo, smoke a few joints in the morning, get his lunch and then do some Magic Mushrooms in the afternoon. This was hardly a productive way of life but at the time he sincerely didn’t care. He was a fully paid up member of the 'Alternative Society.'
'Come on, man, it’s no good sitting here on your arse, reminiscing about a time, that’s long gone,' his mind said to him. 'You’ve got three and a bit weeks, to do whatever you fucking well want to do and then all the shit will start again and you will have blown your opportunity.' Nick, knew that this was his big chance to relax and have some fun, if only for a short time. Then it would be back to the hostel and life would return, to a more serious and responsible tone. It was no use pretending, that his old way of life had any currency in todays world. The days of Mushrooms in the afternoon and occasional Acid trips, in the evening, were a thing of the past and he had long since, dispensed with any such desires. Indeed, nights of loud music and laughing at the world had somewhat lost their appeal, since Joanne died. A light, had been turned off in his head on that fateful day, and it had never been rekindled. Granted, these days he still liked a good smoke and a few hits of Cognac but the days of the hallucinogens, were a good few years in the past.
Once, he tried to add up the number of times that he had “dropped” something mind altering and had given up at two hundred. 'Shit! How many times do you want to go to Cleveland?' He'd said to himself, then given up his indulgences, forthwith.
That was almost a quarter of a century ago. “Christ, it’s no use hanging around in Retroworld, as pleasant as that can be, it just serves no constructive purpose.” Then it struck him, perhaps Hugo, would be doing nothing in particular right now. He knew for a fact, that Hugo did all his work at night and did not even think of getting out of bed, until the Lunchtime News bulletin had started on the B.B.C. Nick, looked over at the Skeleton Clock, which his Mother had bought for him on the occasion of his Fortieth Birthday and seeing that it was 1.15 p.m. reckoned that Hugo, would be awake enough to be logical. He dialed his friend’s number and was pleased when Hugo, answered almost immediately.
“Hi man, how’s it going?” said Nick. “Nicky, you old fart. Good to hear from you, what can I do you for?”
They had a great 'old mates,' kind of repartee between them. Nick Swann and Hugo Chambers, had been mates for thirty, or more years and their relationship was easy.
“Listen man, how do you fancy meeting up for a bite to eat, at The Dutch Barn, this afternoon?” Hugo, was delighted, he hadn’t seen Nick for several weeks whilst he was tied up with an awkward programming assignment. Now he was only too ready to take Nick up on his offer.
“It’s on me, Man just bring yourself” and added, “How does 2.00 sound?”
“You’re on,” said Hugo “I’ll see you soon and don’t forget that you’re buying. Must go now, some stuff from last night to check.” and he closed with one of his usual “It’s been really average to hear from you, Nickel Arse” and with that he put the phone down.
“This is more like it,” thought Nick, and he smiled to himself. The last few days had been squandered, but now, with a touch of expedient behaviour on his part, he felt that good things could begin to move his way again. Nick, reached for the telephone again and dialed for a taxi, to transport him to 'The Barn,' and his afternoon meeting with Hugo. It felt good to be back in the groove and he realised just how much he missed 'the good old days.' Everybody, said that kind of thing but this time, Nick really meant it.
As usual, the switchboard at Pronto Cabs, was slow to answer the phone and Nick, not for the first time, wondered how these people made any money and then answered his own question. “Because they have no fucking competition,” he irritably hissed. “Answer the fucking phone people, for gods sake.”
Then a friendly, almost flirty female voice politely announced itself, “Good day, Pronto Cabs, how can we help you?” then, before he could respond, continued “Where is it that you wish to go and when, Sir?”
Nick, was not expecting such a pleasant voice coming down the line from Pronto Cabs, he was more accustomed to some guy, who was probably called Frank, or Vince, picking up the phone, sniffing and then asking him in a rather gruff voice, “What time mate” continuing with the equally off putting, “To where” and most importantly, “Where d’yer live?” This voice was unexpectedly pleasant and far more amenable.
“To The Dutch Barn, at 1.30, please.” The female voice responded, asking,
“And your pick up location?” Nick, as always, was tempted to reply, “My home” but instead answered,
“Lilac Cottage, Willowbank.” That, seemed to be enough for the soft voice of the mystery lady and with a regulation,
“Thecab will be with you shortly,” then lastly, she added, “I answered as fast as I fucking well could, I’m snowed under here,” and put the phone down. Nick, followed suit, amused by her admonishment.
He frisked himself, just to make sure that he had everything that would be needed, for an afternoon in The Barn. “Cash, Keys and Mints, what more could a poor boy need?”
Standing at the window, waiting for his ride to arrive, Nick lit the Joint. Time was, he would have been quite safe sneaking one in The Barn, but nowadays no one smoked in public places. 'Bummer' he thought as his gaze rested on Graham, from over the road, polishing his car, for the third time this week, in anticipation of his next big break.
According to Graham, his next chance for the big time, was almost within his grasp. He only needed one, or two things to fall into place and he would be in 'Clover.' However, it seemed that the pieces were and forever had been, in quantum flux. Rosemary, his first wife, had left him for a delivery driver who worked for one of the local garden centers and then, four or five years later Anna, his foxy Eastern European partner, had dumped him for a younger man. Graham, was distraught and found a new 'hobby' during his period of distress. This new avocation was, rather disappointingly, cleaning and polishing his car.
Previous to Anna walking out on him, it would have been something adventurous, along the lines of Hang Gliding, or Free Fall parachute jumping but cleaning the car, was to say the least, lame. Nick, reckoned that this stupid pastime was undertaken, in the vain hope, that it would actually make him more attractive to the opposite sex, but even that premise was debatable.
The arrival of the bright yellow Pronto Cab, snapped Nick out of his reverie and at the insistence of the Taxi’s horn summoning him outside, he stubbed out the Joint, popped a mint and left Graham, to his own devices. As he climbed into the Cab, he glanced over at Graham, who was beginning to glisten in the pale sun. It’s rays were only slightly warming the air and Nick, came to the conclusion that his neighbours exertions, couldn’t be all that good for him.
“It was the Dutch Barn that you wanted, wasn’t it?” said the cabbie and Nick, just grunted in the rear seat. The driver took this to be a substitute for his passengers agreement, and, content with that note of guttural acquiescence, they sped off towards The Barn.
Nick arrived before Hugo and, after checking to make sure that he was the first to get there, he ordered himself a double Cognac and downed it in one, assuring a level of inebriation more to his liking. Nick was just sitting at the bar, considering if he could possibly get another Cognac down his neck before Hugo arrived, when a familiar voice behind him broke his pattern of thought.
“Hello, Mr. Swann, Hugo Chambers, brigand and nae do well at you service.” The sudden interjection made Nick jump,
“Jesus man, I nearly shot out of my skin!” Hugo, simply smiled inanely and, looking at the bar, stated, “I think I’ll have an O.P. Shandy and remember, man, it’s your call.” Well he had promised to pay and after all, a pint of 'Old Peculiar' Shandy was cheap enough. Christ, the bugger could just as easily ordered something far more expensive.
Nicks thoughts went back to the night of friend’s graduation bash, when foolishly Mr. Chambers senior, had said something along the lines of, “How many times does a father get the chance, to buy his eldest son a drink to celebrate his graduation?” Hugo, had immediately seized upon this golden opportunity to exercise his new found power over his parent and requested a full magnum of Bollinger, with four flutes, so that his best friends, could join him to toast his bright future. His Father, having made the offer, at a volume that the whole room couldn’t have failed to hear, could hardly refuse without losing face. So the larger than life bottle duly appeared at the table and the inexperienced waiter, removed the cork, which gave off a loud “Pop,” and hit the ceiling so hard that it left a mark in the chipboard. Nick, recalling this moment looked up, but the old covering had long since been replaced with panels of wood, which he thought must be oak, or something equally warm looking. Anyway, he had absolutely no idea, where exactly they were sitting when, “The Tale of The Magnum Cork” unfurled.
“I read about the murder on the canal, was it anywhere near your place?” Hugo absentmindedly asked. He didn’t really care one way, or the other because he was far more interested in one of the barmaids, than anything Nick had to say. Nick was fully aware that Hugo wasn’t really listening, so he facetiously replied,
“Yes, an alien ship landed on this woman and knocked her into the water, where panic stricken, she stabbed herself to death with some knitting needles, that she found in the coal shed.” He knew that Hugo, hadn’t heard a word of what he’d said when he muttered,
“So, you’re off the hook then, nice one,” without ever taking his eyes off the object of his attentions.
“You didn’t hear a word of what I just said, did you?” Hugo, feigned a look of deep hurt and simply said,
“No.” Nick, looked over at the barmaid, who so fascinated Hugo, but couldn’t see what it was she had going for her. She was just another girl, who had everything in the right place but was nothing to write home about.
Failing to appreciate the logic behind Hugo’s fascination, he just added, “Do you want something to eat, man. I’m going to have a ‘B.B’ with some chips, do you want one?”
He was referring of course to the legendary Barn Burger, which he and many others considered the height of Pub cuisine. You could have an original B.B. which was a little more expensive, or these days, you had the choice of The Veggie B.B. or the B.B. light, which Nick considered tasteless and to be honest, utterly pointless and purely a sop to all those fat fuck’s who gathered around water coolers and talked crap about their latest fad diet, or where they were going on holiday next year.
“Yeah, nice one. Make it a double.” said Hugo, springing back to life as the barmaid brought the drinks over to their table and The Barn’s renowned jukebox, started playing “Heartbreaker,” by Led Zeppelin.
The closer she got, the younger she looked and by the time that she was placing the drinks before them, Nick was starting to wonder if the young woman was old enough to get legally served at the bar. “Is there anything else?” she asked in a high pitched squeak.
When he responded in the negative, she smiled, then spun on her unnaturally high heels and teetered her way back towards the main bar. Lee, the chap, who took the orders for food, then made his way to their table and proffered,
“The B.B’s are highly recommended, they’re freshly made this morning and may I say, they’re just shit hot, gentlemen.” A broad smile then spread across his face, as he added, “Nineteen, and just in case you were wondering, Charlotte.”
Nick, just laughed and Hugo simply looked crestfallen and exclaimed, “really?”
“Yup, ’fraid so,” said the departing waiter and he snorted back a giggle, as he went on his way. Upon reaching the bar hatch, he stopped and waited for a few seconds, counted to five, then, before moving on and placing the order on the spike, waited to see if his two old customers had managed to remember the rest of their usual order?
“Yo, Lee man,” called Nick, as he suddenly remembered something, that he considered to be important, “Sorry man, but could you do us some of your patent onion rings?” Lee, was looking back, with a resigned, knowing look on his face and Nick, was smiling, as “good old Lee”, went through the saloon doors, into the kitchen area, with aresounding, “Ole.”
The Dutch Barn, was reasonably busy today and their B.B’s, were served by the squeaky nineteen year old girl, in the ludicrously high heels, who didn’t even register their existence, as she doled out their orders. They thanked her and she moved over to the next table, which was frequented, by a group of, what appeared to be passing Rep’s. They came over, as a bunch, of excited schoolboys who had snuck out of class and had managed to lie successfully enough, to get themselves served at the bar, who were trying to order some food, whilst not blowing their cover and being turfed out, for being underage.
“What you doing after?” enquired Hugo, and he took a large bite of his Barn Burger. “Oh yeah, fucking magic,” he expounded as the taste hit the spot. “Tell you what, Man, if I had to request a last meal, I’d go for an Original B.B, with onion rings every time.”
Silence reigned for a few minutes, as Nick left the question unanswered whilst they devoured their meals and sat at the table grinning. Hugo, was even contemplating the delicious concept of ordering another B.B, when the spell was broken by the ringing guitar of Greg Dharma and the sound of “Don’t fear the reaper,” by The Blue Oyster Cult, filled the bar.
“I love this thing,” said Nick as he rose to replenish their drinks. “Same again?”
“You bet,” responded Hugo, who was by this point, playing a small air guitar and rocking his head back and forth, in time to the music. The rest of the afternoon seemed to pass in a blur, which got more and more indistinct by the amount of drinks they imbibed. By the time that they left The Dutch Barn, they were both well oiled and all seemed well with the world. Hugo, had decided that driving was out of the question, about three drinks ago and now was clumsily trying to find an alternate way back to his home in Nether Barton and it was apparent to Nick, that he was having little success in achieving his goal. Nick, had thought this one out previously and had Pronto Cabs on his speed dial, so he ordered two.
Nick’s taxi arrived first and after a round of back slapping and arrangements for their next meeting, he reluctantly climbed into the waiting cab and with a two fingered peace sign, their normal farewell gesture, the Taxi drew away from The Dutch Barn. As it turned left at the junction and made it’s way towards Willowbank, Nick glanced back at Hugo propped up unsteadily, against the wall of The Barn.
“Well, that was fun,” Nick said to himself, as he looked out of the cab window, at the world outside, drifting slowly past. 'I enjoyed that' he thought. 'But I wouldn’t want to do it too often and certainly not tomorrow. God , I’m getting old!' During the journey home, other options started to appear in his thoughts and after much internal consideration, he decided that getting back into one of his boyhood fascinations, was the best bet. Perhaps re-engaging with the fine art of fishing. He worked by a canal, he lived not too far away from a canal, so this was a no brainer and after all, fishing was not something that you ever grew too old to participate in.
His head started to thump a little, as the Pronto cab made it’s way back along the road towards Lilac Cottage and Nick realised that drinking, was another of his vices, which needed a review. Once, he was able to down them all night, pint after pint and still stand upright, but nowadays he was drinking cognac and his legs seemed to have grown a little wobbly. 'Must be your age, man,' he thought, as a feeble amelioration but he knew that being twenty-five and drinking pints, was a lot easier, than being forty-five and drinking cognacs, his body knew it too. The accompanying thought, that sat in the same box, with this revelation, was also quite disturbing.
“Nineteen, bloody hell, she could have been my fucking daughter and how would you have liked that, eh? Some old letch like Hugo, checking her out.”
Nick, was beating himself up again and he needed to find a visual distraction. It was the vision of the canal, with it’s watery path, starkly picked out by the sunlight, as it headed off towards the city that lay around four miles beyond the horizon, that caught his eye. Nick, cast his gaze through the glass, of the passenger window, Iggy Pop’s 'Passenger' now playing in his mind. His view was out over the modern face of Barton Basin, which presented itself before him, as the Taxi turned onto the road leading to Willowbank. Nick, felt a certain empathy towards the men who had worked on the waterway and he could easily appreciate the trials and tribulations, that they had endured every day, whilst pursuing their livelihoods.
“Yes,” squeaked Nick. “Fishing.” Now, the lingering effects from any lunchtime excesses disappeared as he sat bolt upright in his velour seat. “That’ll get me out in the fresh air, it’s quiet and that will give me time to think, bingo.” After Joanne had died, he had been thankful for his busy, hectic life in the Probation Service, the endless changing conditions and the unpredictability, had prevented him from obsessing about some aspects of those heartbreaking events. However, nowadays, a few doubts, were occasionally creeping in and were causing ripples in his psyche. These negative thoughts, had only just started to invade his mind and they weren’t related to Joanne’s demise all those years ago. No, these were new, They were about his mother, they were about himself and where he was heading , and they were proving uncomfortable, particularly when they sprang up out of nowhere to trouble his thoughts.
The Mining Museum, with its preserved Pithead, was sliding by outside his window but Nick, paid it no heed. Though, he gazed up into it’s steel spires, with their long silent winding gear, perched precariously high up in the bare bones of this once mighty piece of industrial engineering, the mighty skeleton of this metal beast hardly registered in his consciousness. His mind was elsewhere. Nick, was lost in his own thoughts as the Pronto
Cab drew to a halt, outside the front gate at Lilac Cottage. Nick, was rudely interrupted in his vacant reverie, by the latterday ferryman, wanting his pound of flesh. Having paid the driver, Nick opened the front gate, which squeaked a little and casually walked towards the front door, while searching for his keys in several of his pockets.
“Why are they never where you put them,” he grumbled, just as his hand located the offending keys, in his trousers. “Fuck me, why are they always in the last place that I look,” he gruffly muttered, as he tried to open the door, with the wrong key. “Good God,” he cursed as he fumbled around trying to locate the correct one and so gain legal entry into his own property.
“There’ll be a brick, going through the back window, if this carries on,” he threatened, as he struggled to fit the key into the barrel, for the umpteenth time. Then, suddenly the key located the correct spot and it slid easily into place. With one turn, the door opened and the wind chimes, gave their gentle tinkling sound, heralding his return.
Nick, walked in and placed his briefcase, on the old farmhouse style table, put the kettle on to boil and flopped down into one of the strategically placed armchairs. Soon, as he sipped at his mug of hot Coffee, Nick was musing over the days events. As usual, Hugo, had been as good a laugh as ever and that’s why Hugo, was one of those friends who were best seen infrequently, it kept the laughter fresh. Hugo was irrepressible in his twenties and nothing had changed. Time, slipped on by but for Nick, Hugo Chambers, was always to be located in University world. On consideration, Nick came to the conclusion, that it was a combination of his strange job and the weird hours he kept, that made Hugo timeless. Thinking about times spent with 'Mad Hugo, always made Nick smile as he considered preparing something for his evening meal. On reflection, he realised the food that he had eaten earlier in The Dutch Barn, was still sitting there in his stomach feeling like an indigestible brick and if his head, was anything to go by, he really should have been more forceful and refused that last Cognac.
“This calls for another doobie, Nicky,” he irresponsibly said to himself and sat down to follow his own instructions. “Listen man, they suspended you for a month, so what did those fuckers expect?” He was aware, that he was talking to himself but there was nobody around, to observe it, so it didn’t matter, a toss. To spite them, he added an extra pinch of Blueberry and lit the Joint, as if they were all watching and being obviously mortified. The command having been obeyed, the doobie finished, a very stoned Nick Swann got up, wobbled across the carpet and turned on the T.V. then wobbled back and flopped into his warmed chair. Very slowly, Nick’s eye lids grew heavy and started to involuntarily close as it became increasingly difficult to stay awake. When he inevitably lost the battle and drifted away, it was not to images of sunny days spent by a picturesque fishing hole, with his father, in the style of Huckleberry Finn. It was the tortured vision, of his ailing mother that greeted him, from the inside of his eye lids and disturbed his sleeping mind.