Tongue

“I’ve worked here twenty years, and he was coming for at least that long.” Trevor lifted a pint glass, angled it below the beer tap. I could see the knob of bone at his wrist, covered in slack, pallid skin. “Used to sit on that stool at the end of the bar there. Bulldog’s throne, we called it.”

“Hmm,” I said. I looked at the stool, topped in a faded red material that might have once been velvety, but had since been rubbed away into a stained and scratchy weave. “Why was he called Bulldog?”

“Can’t say I remember,” Trevor shook his head, tipped the glass so that the head evened out. Put it on the bar in front of me. “Four fifty.”

I put a note on the bar, and received Trevor’s handful of change.

“Did he have any friends?” I asked, taking a swallow of the beer. It tasted like someone had taken a piss in a pint of vinegar and left it to sit. I’d never been a great beer drinker, but even I could tell this was a shit pint. Bulldog’s favourite drink supposedly. Had drank it every night for at least twenty years.

“Oh sure, everyone who came in here knew him. Carla probably talked to him the most.” Trevor chuckled. “Mind, Carla talks to just about everyone the most. Verbal fucking diarrhoea that one.”

“Is she here?”

“Not yet.” Trevor glanced at the old fashioned clock that sat behind the bar, long black hands ticking quietly away. “She usually gets here about 7ish.”

I moved to a corner table and watched the people who drifted in. A middle aged man with sunken, tired eyes that detracted from his otherwise solidly handsome face, who ordered a half and took it to the corner where horses raced silently on a large screen TV. A younger couple, giggling and touching each other constantly. A woman with grey hair scraped back into a tight bun, who went to the slot machine and started methodically pushing in coins.

And Carla. She burst through the door in a whirl of flapping coat, swinging handbag, long hair. Tiny, perhaps five foot one, but somehow taking up as much space as a much taller woman. Her makeup was impeccable, despite the fact I could see a slight tremor in her hands.

I swallowed the last of my pint, and reached the bar at the same moment she did. I caught her glance at me, her interest quickening. Already she was talking, the words cascading out of her in a flood.

“Well now, who is this, I don’t think I’ve seen you here before – visiting someone maybe? We don’t get a lot of people stop in here, we’re not on the main road you know, hard to find, though there was this one time we had an entire team of darts players turn up thinking we were the Spotted Pigeon, even though the Pigeon is right on the crosswalk, they must have walked right past it to get into here…”

I let her words wash over me, and indicated to Trevor to get us two drinks. He poured her a gin and tonic without asking. A triple measure too, but I paid without complaint.

I let Carla talk for fifteen minutes without interrupting, but then as she paused to take a swallow of her drink, I gently pushed her in the direction I needed to go.

“I’m Bulldog’s daughter. I never met him. What can you tell me about him?”

Her face went through a brief flicker of emotion. Swift curiosity and happiness at a piece of gossip, quickly passing to settle into the look of sympathy I’d become all too familiar with.

“Oh you poor dear! Why, he was in here just Tuesday, and then of course we heard, the terrible accident. They say he left his gas on, we’ve all done it haven’t we, just forgotten to push the knob on the stove all the way off, and then of course he was a terrible smoker, always smoking he was, frankly if the explosion hadn’t got him the cigarettes would, and he was so young!”

“Was he?”

Carla faltered at the direct question, but quickly recovered. “No more than forty, maybe forty-five I’d have said. Wouldn’t you say, Trev?”

“Sure,” Trevor said.

“He was fifty-two,” I said.

“Ah well, still young, still young, he had a few years left in him yet,” Carla shook her head and patted me clumsily on the arm, whilst indicating for Trevor to pour more drinks. I’d barely started the drink already sat in front of me, but paid anyway.

“What did he do?” I asked.

“Do?” Carla seemed flummoxed by the question. “Well, I don’t rightly know. I think he was in construction or engineering or… Trevor?”

“I don’t remember him ever saying,” Trevor said. “He had that air about him though. He was pretty strong. Helped me pull in the barrels from a delivery once, when Freddie called in sick.”

“You must have spent a lot of time around him,” I said.

“Oh yes, he was in here every day wasn’t he? For twenty years at least. I never knew he had a daughter though, he didn’t seem the family type.” Carla eyed me with naked curiosity. “Who’s your momma?”

“You wouldn’t know her,” I turned the subject. “Did he never mention having a family, then?”

“I don’t recall him ever saying. He was a quiet sort, to be honest.” Carla laughed. She had one of those laughs that sounded croaky and breathless, like she was about to pass out at any moment. “Just sat on his stool and drank his beer and stayed out of trouble. I don’t even think he ever even played on the fruit machine.”

I glanced to the fruit machine, where the lady with the bun steadily fed the machine with coins. Every now and then it hummed and shook and returned a handful.

“What was his name?” I asked, pushing the beer away from me. A pint had been more than enough. The two glasses in front of me smelled faintly acrid.

“His name, he…” Carla faltered, a look of puzzlement stretching over her face. “I only ever knew him as Bulldog.”

Trevor looked uneasy. “He never introduced himself as such.”

“Quiet, huh?” The bitterness came through now. I could taste it on my lips, the beer had made me angry.

“He was a very quiet sort,” Carla agreed.

“Not surprisingly really?” I lifted my eyes to meet hers. They were a hazy blue, faintly glossed with cataracts. “What with him having had his tongue chopped out and all.”

Carla was struck speechless, perhaps for the first time in her life. I stood up, and glanced at the bar stool where my father had sat silently every day for twenty years. Wearing the velvet threadbare. Rage choked me, and I took a breath to calm myself.

“You’ve been very helpful,” I said. Keeping the sarcasm out of my voice. “Thanks.”

Outside, the air was cold. The town here was a dark morass of houses squashed together, tiny strips of gravel outside for cars to park. Few lights were on, but the street was lit by the flickering colours of a dozen television sets, spilling their silent stories out into the street.




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Tongue

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