Chapter 1: My regulars aren’t regular.
When I first got the call to say I’d been left a pub as inheritance I didn’t believe it. My parents had died while I was young and I grew up in foster care, not knowing any of my relatives.
When I was then told that the pub, previously belonging to my estranged spinster Aunt Darlene, was called The Pickled Gnome I almost laughed the solicitor off the telephone.
A few days after the call legal documents dropped through my letterbox. Despite my initial concerns everything seemed to be legit. I was to deal with a solicitor named Norman, who was the executor of Aunt Darlene’s will.
The Pickled Gnome was situated by a city park, in a residential area with a few tower blocks and some council housing. I’d always been a small town girl, none of the foster parents I’d lived with were from a built up area. It came with a 3 bedroom apartment upstairs, a huge alcohol cellar and a quaint little beer garden.
I didn’t know the first thing about running a pub, the gnome was miles away from my home and I’d never met or heard of Aunt Darlene. But as I held the deeds and sat on the bed of my rented studio flat staring at the flaking, magnolia walls I made a decision to change my life. I packed up all my worldly belongings, totalling only one suit case and prepared my cat, Cheeses for our new life.
The gnome wasn’t what you imagine when you hear of a city pub. It was like a strange relic, an antique of old Britain frozen in time. It was very much a local pub, with no other drinking establishments it’s side of the park and it had a thriving local community around it. Norman assured me that the business was perfectly viable, that I should be able to live quite comfortably in fact.
The whole interior was wooden, there were hops strung across the ceiling and vintage spirit bottles filled with lights decorating the interior. The bar was a deep mahogany, the varnish atop well worn, showing chips and scratches. At the end of the bar sat a small statue of a gnome laid on his back with his feet in the air.
“Looking truly pickled!” Norman winked, laughing a little too much at his own, poor joke.
The walls were covered in colourful, abstract paintings. Norman informed me that my Aunt had been a keen painter and most of the artwork was her own. He showed me up to the apartment and I wished that her artistic flair had stretched to that too; unfortunately it hadn’t.
In fitting with the atmosphere of the pub the home upstairs was like its own time capsule, this time of gaudy 70s decor. It wasn’t to my taste, but I was grateful I no longer had to sleep in my kitchen. Most of The furniture had been left behind, I was relieved I didn’t have to buy it. The apartment was spacious and light and it had potential. Aunt Darlene had even left a slightly battered yet glorious looking cactus by the living room window that I looked forward to rescuing.
I wished Norman a nice day and settled into my new home. Cheeses loved exploring the bar and all the nooks and crannies underneath it. I started to warm to the idea of running the place. Imagining me and Cheeses serving all the locals, not having to worry about money anymore. I felt so blessed.
Getting the gnome ready to open was hard work. It took about a month of deep cleaning and getting a personal licence and suppliers organised. Aunt Darlene had left the business in a healthy place, I was able to get everything done without it costing me anything.
She had also left behind a permanent staff member, Douglas, who I opted to keep on. Douglas was an older man, but not yet nearing retirement age. He had greying hair and a rotund exterior and claimed to have worked for my aunt for 10 years. He couldn’t wait to get the place up and running again and told me how much the regulars had been missing it.
Douglas was a godsend. He showed me all the quirks of the pumps and how to operate and work with the traditional pub systems. Cheeses loved him, she would purr and butt her head against his legs whenever he was in the room. I believe you should always take note of what your pets think of a person, so he was in my good books.
The night I finally opened the doors it was such a relief. I didn’t want to change much, I wanted to keep the same vibe Darlene had. Douglas told me the gnome was like a home away from home, a living room you could get a drink in. I liked that and I had no intention of destroying it. My life had been pretty miserable before this happened, I’d been handed a golden opportunity and I wasn’t about to destroy it.
I patted the statue at the bar as Douglas unlocked the front door. Immediately a small influx of people entered and occupied the various tables and barstools dotted around, Doug had done a great job of spreading the word.
A disheveled looking elderly man wearing a beanie hat sat at the barstool closest to the statue of the gnome and huffed loudly. He was unshaven and had tufts of hair sticking out of his hat but despite his appearance there was a huge grin on his face.
“Oh Grebbles, how I’ve missed you mate!” He boomed, staring lovingly at the gnome he had since picked up off the bar.
Douglas emerged from out the back instantly at the sound of the gentleman’s voice.
“Jimmy! Good to see you back in position.” He exclaimed, shaking the mans hand vigorously from across the bar. “How have you been?”
“Well, not bad Doug, but I’ve been loosing my marbles trapped inside all that time. Still gutted about our Darl as well.” Jimmy paused with a sadness and side eyed me. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to our new landlady?”
Douglas slapped his hand onto my shoulder and pulled me closer.
“Of course, how rude of me! Jimmy, this is Carmilla, Darlenes niece and the new owner of the gnome.” He turned to face me as Jimmy continued to give me the side eye. “Carmilla, this is Jimmy, practically lives here. Don’t worry, he’ll warm up to you, I think he was expecting Darl to leave the place to him as he’s here so often.” He burst into ferocious laughter and I smiled nervously as I realised I’d just inherited an entire community of people who might not be so welcoming.
“Nice to meet you.” I managed. I kicked myself, landlady’s were supposed to be charismatic but I could barely say hello.
“I didn’t know Darl had a niece.” Jimmy said flatly, the tufty whiskers around his mouth bouncing as he spoke.
“I didn’t know I had an Aunt.” I answered.
“Well it’s nice to meet you Camilla.” Jimmy responded sounding as genuine as a vegan ordering a t bone steak.
“It’s Carmilla. Who’s Grebbles?” I asked nodding at the statue and trying to change the subject. Douglas had an awkward grin on his face and I wanted to lighten the mood. Jimmys expression finally eased as he stroked the drunken looking statue with his grubby fingertips.
“Ahh Grebbles here is my best friend Camilla.” I winced as he got my name wrong again but I didn’t bother to correct him, he was less sour looking and I preferred to count my blessings. “We’ve seen many an adventure together... lock ins... invasions... that time the rabid fox tried to eat Jessica Polchester in the corner over there and our Douglas....”
Douglas cut him off by slamming a shot of whiskey down in front of him and coughing.
“Come on Jimmy, plenty of time to reminisce, but let’s toast to the reopening of the gnome first shall we?”
I wanted to know more, the rabid fox story sounded interesting but Douglas went to a great deal of effort to stop Jimmy talking. He placed a shot glass in front of me and one in front of him and lined up 20 more on the bar.
“Say something Carmilla. Give them a little opening speech!” He grinned at me. I detested public speaking with every fibre of my being and couldn’t imagine a worse request, but just over Doug’s shoulder was a photograph of Aunt Darlene I’d hung behind the bar. I may have never met her but feeling like I belonged to a family for the first time in my life gave me a weird sense of responsibility. I didn’t want to let her down.
I panicked a little before finally grabbing a plastic jug from under the bar and banging it against the chipped mahogany worktop. The rumblings of conversation stopped and the entire room focused on me.
“Welcome!” I shouted. It was a weak start but I had no idea what I was doing. “If you’d have told me this time 3 months ago I’d be running a pub in the city I’d have laughed at you... to be honest I still laugh at the idea of it now. I never knew my Aunt Darlene, but she chose me to take over this place and I want to do her proud.
“I hope to get to know you all over a drink and an interesting story, but for now I want to propose a toast. To the pickled gnome, my Aunt Darlene and a lifetime of great nights drinking!” With that I raised my shot glass and knocked it back, feeling the burn as what I suspected was very strong vodka hit the back of my throat.
The crowd clapped and cheered before knocking back the shots that Douglas had handed out as I spoke. I looked at him for approval as I started to pull pints and he gave me a reassuring nod. I seemed to have gotten off to a good start. Even Jimmy was pleasant as the evening progressed.
It was a busy evening, there wasn’t a barstool free all night and as my first night in hospitality it was an initiation by fire, but I loved it. Customers shared stories of my Aunt with me and times they’d spent in the gnome, they made me feel welcome, like I was a part of the community already.
About 10 o clock a man and his wife walked in. My new friend Jimmy informed me their names were Phil and Sheila Moorcroft and they lived in one of the houses opposite the pub, he said they could be difficult occasionally. Regardless, he called them over to introduce me and they seemed like lovely, warm and kind people. His assessment appeared to be unfounded.
Sheila was at the bar, telling me how much I reminded her of Darl and what good friends they’d been. She looked emotional as she sipped her gin and tonic and looked at the photograph behind me.
When Phil slipped off to the toilet her demeanour changed. She tearfully told me that they had been fighting that night. She suspected that he was cheating with a lady called Jessica. I felt bad that she didn’t have my full attention but her saying that reminded me that I really needed to ask Jimmy about that fox.
She got more and more distressed as she told me about her situation. I found it uncomfortable, having a practical stranger spill their deepest problems to me. All whilst Jimmy sat next to next to her, Grebbles in front of him, listening the entire tale.
I could see her husband making his way through the people littered across the pub back to us. I worried about Sheila’s ability to hold it in. I was right to worry.
Just as Phil reached the bar Jimmy looked me dead in the eye.
“Buckle up.” He said with a sigh, and for the first time the whole night he left his chair and went to join a group of older men playing cards at an already packed booth.
Within minutes Shiela was screaming. People tried to pay no attention but they couldn’t help themselves, there was a live soap opera happening at the bar.
She screamed about Jessica. How she apparently smelled “that slut’s” perfume the other day when she got home from work. That she’d seen messages between the pair. Phil ferociously denied the allegations.
I asked Douglas if I should break it up, or ask them to go outside. He looked at me with a sincere expression on his face and told me “you need to back away and let them run their course. They’re all regulars in here, don’t worry, this happens a lot. The other customers will understand.”
I didn’t get it. The Moorcroft’s seemed like a perfectly reasonable married couple, I was sure if I just spoke to them...
I didn’t get the chance to finish wondering why Douglas seemed almost frightened to get involved, or why Jimmy had walked away and the other customers had all managed to inconspicuously create a 2-3m distance between themselves and the couple.
Sheila answered my question as she picked up a large shard of the glass she had just smashed across her husbands face and my pub floor. Before I had a chance to react, or even to blink she was drawing the sharp edge of the shard across her husbands throat as he desperately tried to push her away.
Phil was much bigger than Sheila. He should have been able to fend her off easily but she seemed to have gone into a superhuman rage, she clawed at the wound she created with her fingernails, still sobbing and wailing about a Jessica.
I stood in complete shock and horror at what I had just witnessed. Sheila’s eyes were blackened with smudged mascara as her now dead husband bled out in my pub.
My mind began to race, what on Earth was I going to do. It took me a moment of panicking to realise that no one looked anywhere near as distressed as I was by the scene.
Jimmy was sat at the booth with the other men, looking at the dead body on the floor with a vague disgust on his face as he shuffled the pack of cards again casually. Douglas had made his way out there and put his hands on Sheilas shoulder to stand her up and take her away from the scene.
As he walked her to a seat at the end of the bar she passed me and looked at me with tears still in her eyes.
“I’m sorry about the mess, love. I didn’t want to make such a bad impression on your first night. Please forgive me.”
I didn’t think my jaw could get any lower until I turned to see a customer with Phil’s hand in his, helping him up off the floor. He looked wobbly, and was clutching his neck. But he stood. When he finally took his hand away I saw that the wound itself had disappeared entirely, leaving just the blood behind. No scratches or cuts on his face, not even a piece of embedded glass.
Douglas continued to serve drinks as I stood at the bar, catatonic. Phil joined his wife in the corner and after a quiet and inaudible discussion they made their way out of the pub. I faintly heard Douglas making a last call in the background and continued to just stand, staring at the pool of blood all these people were delicately avoiding.
The last stragglers drank up and left. A few gave me reassuring words as they left. “You did great.” “Darl would be proud.” “You’ll get used to it don’t worry!” They all flew over my head.
Jimmy’s friends had left but he returned to his position next to Grebbles and remained there as Douglas locked the door.
“That muppet didn’t tell you anything, did he?” Jimmy spat, giving Doug a far more nasty look than the one I’d received when we first met.
“Tell me what? Why is that man not dead?” It was the first I’d spoken since the incident. My words were hoarse and strained and I could see the pity in Jimmy’s eyes as he looked at me.
“I didn’t want her to run a mile Jimmy, Darl picked her and she’s our best chance of it not going to auction. I didn’t think something like that would happen on the first night.” Douglas chimed in, a heavy guilt in his words.
“You think she won’t run a mile now?! You daft man...” Jimmy retaliated.
“Please can someone just tell me what’s going on? I’m right here.” I begged, still struggling to pick my bottom jaw up enough to speak but bothered enough by them talking as if I wasn’t in the room. Douglas looked sheepish, Jimmy sighed again, something he did a lot of, and started to speak.
“This place ain’t normal Camilla. Those who drink here tend to have something a little different about them, or they don’t mind those who do.
“The Moorcroft’s are harmless. Just got a bit of a need for the dramatics. Phil’s not cheating, but he is an asshole and Sheila’s a drunk with trust issues, makes for some huge blow outs.
“As fair warning, the Moorcroft’s aren’t the gnome’s only unique regulars. Not all of them will get their throat slit and get up off the floor ten minutes later, but some might try to get in your stores through gaps in the door frames or grow sharp claws on a Thursday night that pierce all your glasses. Best to use disposables on Thursdays, you’ll thank me later.
“Anyway. You’ll see. That is if you decide to stay. Darl was very accepting, she made us all feel welcome, no matter how unique. She must have thought you’d be good for this place.” I tried to take in what Jimmy was saying but I couldn’t. I had wondered about the sealant on the cellar doors frame though, I’d presumed it was pest proofing but now I wasn’t so sure.
“How could she think that when we never even met. She didn’t know me.” I answered, feeling emotionally overwhelmed by the whole situation.
“And you didn’t know her. She chose you for a reason, I promise. But if you wanna leave... we get it.” He scowled at Douglas one more time and finished up his drink looking resigned.
Thoughts whizzed around my mind. Phil’s dead body on the floor. Aunt Darlene’s photo. That fucking peeling magnolia bedsit wall. Jimmy got up and made his way towards the door.
“I’ll stay.” I broke the silence in the room. Jimmy turned and smiled, Douglas looked relieved, his face had gone from pale to ruddy again. “But you have to help me clean that up.” I finished, staring at the pool of blood still very present in the middle of the floor.
Douglas grabbed the mop from out back and some cleaning products from under the bar and I started to sweep away the excess glass, the ends of my broom smearing the blood like paint.
I turned to Jimmy.
“So. That rabid fox?”