We were holidaying on the river. The brochure had described it as a cruise. To be honest, it was really just a week-long piss-up, downing tins of beer as we drifted between one riverside pub and the next. Well, what else was there to do? Our vessel required no especial skill to master. At the flick of a switch and a puff of black smoke, the engine would cough into life, like a smoker choking on his first fag of the day. The tiller appeared to be nothing more than a steering wheel transplanted from a car. Besides, it demanded very little attention – the convoy ahead ensured that you rarely travelled above five miles an hour and the channels, for the most part, were dead straight. And there was nothing to look at. The banks had been raised against the threat of flood and since the surrounding countryside was flat it was almost completely hidden from view. The occasional stunted willow or bungalow roof stuck its head above the trench, but that was all. The constant traffic had put flight to all the usual riverside fauna – ducks, water buffalos or whatever – and the oil residues had seen off anything that may have lurked in the water. So that was it, really. There was nothing to do but drink until we reached the dismal seaside resort to which all the waters seemed to flow. And when we arrived? There’d be nothing to do but drink…
We’d picked up the boat at one of those forlorn little towns by the river – dead out of season, comatose at its height. All the shops seemed to be owned by one guy, Rex or Ray or something. It may have been the family name, of course. And there was certainly a strong family resemblance among the locals. They all wore the same sullen look of belligerence on their ruddy faces. The whole town was just one big happy family. Rex hadn’t got his hands on the boats, though. These were the property of Eastern River Cruises. If that sounds exotic, conjuring images of steamboats drifting through the forests of Borneo, then it was misleading. The line’s representative greeted us from her wooden cabin. She looked like a 1970s air hostess in her A-line twin set, cut in royal blue polyester. Perhaps they also organised time travel since our hostess had aged but her uniform hadn’t. No, no, they must have acquired it upon the liquidation of a minor airline. We signed the papers and she showed us to our vessel. It wasn’t exactly a cruise ship, more like a UPVC conservatory welded to the hull of a coal barge.
There was nothing to do but drink… apart from telling tales, that is. My fellow mariners may not have been the most cultured company, but they could spin a yarn, as they say. It was one of the things that we had in common. We’d sailed all morning then spent the afternoon in the public bar of a particularly run-down pub. Now, as we set sail again in search of our night’s mooring, the sun was sinking behind the riverbank.
‘Do you know,’ remarked Dolman, ‘that place reminds me of a pub I’ve been to before. It may even be the same one.’
And with that he launched into his tale while we other two lay back on our benches and grew drunk on his words.
I got up to switch on the strip light. The day was unusually overcast, I recall. We were sitting around the kitchen table at Harkness’s flat, swigging mugs of coffee.
‘I’ve been thinking, you know,’ said our host. ‘The old girl’s got to go. She’s let me down once too often.’
It was the first time that we’d heard him talk this way. We knew that she’d played him up before, that things hadn’t always been plain sailing, but now it seemed that money had stuck its ugly mug into his affairs and he could no longer afford to keep her. He’d resolved to find a replacement. And so it was that we came to be seated at that table, leafing through the classified advertisements in the Eastern Morning Star. I found myself scanning through the personals, looking at the offers of GSOH and TLC. Then I realised – I’d made a classification error. I was supposed to be searching out FSH and T&T. Non-smoker – that could’ve applied to both, though.
Harkness loved his old Mini, but she had just failed her MOT test again. And this time it looked as if it would cost more to get her through the test than the car herself was worth. In any case, it was an absurd choice of car for a man of his height and build. He was six feet four with the bulk of a rugby player, though there was a good deal more blubber than muscle. But he’d formed some kind of sentimental attachment to the things and was determined to have another.
‘Izzy-gnosis!’ he cried. ‘This is the one.’
It was, in fact, the only one in that evening’s edition.
‘Listen to this,’ he said. And then he read us the copy: ‘Mini 1000. Mustard yellow. Mint…’
‘Well, which is it, then?’ asked Stimpson. ‘Mustard or mint?’
‘Probably a bit of both,’ I suggested.
Harkness ignored us and continued: ‘Music. 1 month’s MOT & tax. Two careful lady owners. Drives superb. Genuine reason for sale. First to see will buy. £1000. No offers or timewasters. Contact Mr Kitts.’
‘Sounds a bit pricey,’ said Stimpson.
‘Sounds like a trader to me,’ I said.
Harkness wouldn’t be dissuaded. ‘I’m going to phone,’ he said.
He went through to the sitting room to call Kitts while Stimpson and I finished off his chocolate biscuits. When he returned, he seemed excited.
‘It’s still for sale!’ he said.
‘Hmm,’ I replied.
‘Uh-huh,’ said Stimpson.
‘He says we can see it this evening.’
‘And he’s not a trader?’
‘Says he’s selling it for his mother.’
‘Is it local?’
‘Not exactly. He lives in Quagdyke. He said to meet him in the Black Hart pub at eight.’
‘Why not at his house?’
‘He reckons that the pub car park’s better lit and we’ll be able to have a good look. “Any inspection welcome”, he said.’
‘What did he mean by that?’
‘He didn’t say.’
Anyway, we had to go with him. We couldn’t let him go on his own, what with fools and their money, and the ease with which they tend to be prised asunder.
And so we set off on our voyage. Quagdyke is about twelve miles out of town and lies in the middle of a salt marsh. Kitts had supplied Harkness with some rudimentary directions. Take the road to Chapel-le-Marsh. Turn right by the chapel. Keep the dyke on your left and keep going. Quagdyke is the last village.
‘Don’t tell the old girl where she’s taking us,’ he whispered. ‘She might not like it.’
We chugged out of town in the direction that we’d been advised. Fifteen minutes later we arrived in Chapel-le-Marsh. The building that gave the village its name had been turned into a garage. Each former arch of stained glass had become a servicing bay. The graveyard was now a forecourt with a row of dilapidated cars lined up on it. ‘Remoulds and Salvage’ read the sign outside it. We didn’t allow ourselves to be fooled by this piece of subterfuge. We took the right-hand turn, signposted for Quagdyke. It seemed that Kitts’s directions weren’t so bad after all. The road was one of those dead straight ones that used to be built across the marshes. It soon joined up with the dyke. Harkness was happy. Forgetting his previous counsel, he began to wonder aloud about his new acquisition. And sure enough, about four miles short of Quagdyke the old girl proved that she’d been listening after all and that she’d taken umbrage. The lights faded on her dashboard, her engine cut out and she glided to a standstill.
‘Shit!’ remarked Harkness. ‘We’ll never make it by eight now.’
‘What do you think’s wrong with her?’ I asked him.
‘How the hell should I know?’
‘Well, aren’t you going to look under the bonnet or something?’
‘Whatever for? I don’t know what’s in there, do I?’
I tried a different tack. ‘I don’t suppose you’ve got breakdown cover?’
‘Are you sure you want another one of these?’ Stimpson asked.
Harkness didn’t answer. He appeared to be thinking. There was something of the England rugby captain about him, in his day job as¬ an infantry officer (the blubber aside).
‘We’ll just have to continue on foot,’ he said at last. ‘Shackleton’s pony or whatever.’
‘Surely it was a penguin?’
Harkness didn’t dispute it.
So we did just what he suggested. We pushed the old girl to the side of the road and continued on foot. The light was already dying out on the marsh. It’d be pitch black by the time we got to Quagdyke. There was nobody about and not a single car came by. A big white bird – a night flying swan perhaps – kept swooping about, making ghost train noises. Rat-like creatures – they may even have been rats, who knows? – scurried along the edge of the dyke. Every so often we’d pass some remote farmhouse and ferocious-sounding dogs would bark at us. It was all rather wild and intimidating. But we kept going.
After what seemed like an eternity – it was probably about half an hour – we reached a point where the dyke divided in two. The road did likewise, going straight over a hump-backed bridge in one direction, turning sharply to the right in the other. Either way the dyke would still have been to your left. But it was all right because there was a signpost. Once we got close enough we discovered that it was the marsh-dweller’s idea of high comedy to snap the branches off.
‘Bugger,’ said Harkness.
It seemed fair comment.
‘Yes, there are two paths you can go by,’ I said.
‘But there’s still time to change the road you’re on,’ added Stimpson.
‘Well, there isn’t, is there?’ said Harkness. ‘We’re already late and we could do without getting lost. He might’ve sold the car to someone else by now.’
‘Heads or tails?’ asked Stimpson.
‘We can’t afford to leave it to chance,’ said Harkness. ‘By the warped logic of the marshes it’ll be the side road that leads to the village and the straight one that ends up in the middle of a field. But that’s what they’ll want us to think, so we’ll go over the bridge.’
I couldn’t help detecting the beginnings of a persecution complex in Harkness’s reasoning, but we followed his lead nonetheless. Half an hour later we found out that he was wrong. The track finished up in a farmyard.
‘Bollocks,’ said Harkness.
Well, you had to admit he had a point.
Dolman stopped talking. He seemed lost in thought. Night had fallen out on the river and we three were only visible to one another in silhouette. And though it wasn’t cold, I shuddered. Dolman cleared his throat and spoke again.
No doubt it was getting late by the time we arrived in Quagdyke. It was an ugly place, full of flat-roofed houses and workshops built out of concrete blocks. In the village centre there were a couple of closed down shops and the corrugated iron hut that served as a church. As we came towards the end of the main street we could see the lights of the pub.
We didn’t go straight in. The outside hadn’t been painted in a very long time and the interior was lit by bare strip lights. Peering through the window, the customers appeared stupid and brutal. They were making a great deal of noise. It looked dangerous, the very last place at which strangers ought to turn up around closing time.
‘Come along, men,’ cried Harkness and headed for the door. And so we ventured to the interior. We stumbled in, blinking in the light. And yes, of course, the entire pub fell silent. Everybody stared, found us uninteresting then went back to their drinking and shouting. The entire clientele seemed to be drunk. Harkness made his way through the mob at the bar. After some minutes, he caught the barman’s eye.
‘Excuse me,’ he said, ‘we’re looking for a Mr Kitts?’
‘Mr Kitts? He’s dead…’
‘Dead to the world. Dead drunk. He’d been waiting since before eight to see some guy about a motor. Ended up as pissed as a fart. A few of the lads wheeled him home about an hour ago.’
‘Wheeled him home?’
‘In the cart.’
The barman seemed to be talking in riddles.
‘Didn’t you see the shopping trolley in the car park as you came in?’
Harkness shook his head.
‘We bought it when the village store closed down. They only had the one or we’d have taken another – for spares, like. We have to fish it out of the pond from time to time, but it’s still a runner.’
Harkness looked bewildered.
‘What do you use it for?’ I asked.
‘It’s on standby so that customers can be carted home when they’re no longer able to make their own way. That’s why it’s called “getting trolleyed”, isn’t it? Well, it’s cheaper than a taxi. The local cabbie often ends up in it himself.’
‘Hmm,’ said Harkness. ‘Anyway, it was me that he was meant to be meeting before he proceeded to the checkout. My car broke down on the way.’
‘Aha. That’s how it was, was it? Well, Mr Kitts wasn’t too pleased with you. Kept referring to you as “the horror”, he did. “The horror said he was coming”, “the horror’s kept me waiting”…’
‘No, he didn’t in point of fact. He called you a “stupid fucker”. I was just being polite.’
So that seemed to be that. Our pilgrimage had been in vain. The barman rang the bell and called time.
‘And I suppose we’re too late for a drink?’ asked Harkness, his voice falling away.
No one else appeared to be drinking up though. And just when all seemed to be lost, the older guy sitting on the barstool next to Harkness intervened.
‘Let them have one, Eugene.’
Evidently, he was the landlord.
‘Right you are, daddio,’ said the barman.
Harkness got the drinks in and it seemed only courteous to remain at the bar and talk to the landlord for a while given his small act of kindness in an otherwise hostile environment.
‘An unusual name for a pub,’ tried Stimpson. ‘I’ve drunk in several White Harts, but never a Black one.’
‘Well, that’s not its real name, you see,’ explained the publican. ‘It used to be called the Dog. When the sign needed repainting we got the local artist to do it. He made such a bad job of it that you couldn’t tell what it was meant to be. It was just a sort of black blob. Said it was abstract – a bloody abortion more like. Hasn’t been in since. Anyway, the general consensus was that it looked a bit stag-like, what with its long snout and those pointy bits sticking out of its head. So now everyone calls it the Black Hart instead.’
‘I see,’ said Harkness.
We weren’t too sure whether this was intended to be funny or not, a shaggy dog story, as it were. Harkness fished around for another topic.
‘So what’s he like then, this Mr Kitts?’
The mention of Kitts had a curious effect on our fellow drinkers. There was much pricking up of ears and cocking of heads.
‘He’s a cockney,’ the landlord offered.
‘Gone native, though,’ threw in Eugene.
‘He owns the manor house in Marsh Lane.’
And then we found ourselves swamped in a pool of red eyes and purple noses, and toothless mouths opening, one after another.
‘Thinks he owns the village, he does.’
‘Always on about his manor and his fields and his outbuildings…’
‘And his horses and his dogs…’
‘Fancies himself as squire in his big four-by-four.’
‘He’s a crook, mind.’
‘Wheels and deals.’
‘Ducks and dives.’
‘Got a record, apparently.’
‘Owns a garage out at…’
‘Chapel-le-Marsh,’ pre-empted Stimpson.
‘How did you know? Is he a friend of yours?’
‘Oh, no. Just a hunch.’
Harkness had suddenly become deeply fascinated by the design of a nearby ashtray, which he was examining in great detail.
‘Darts!’ came the roar from the other end of the bar.
The revellers seemed to fall loosely into two camps. At our end, the drinkers were propped against the bar or slouched on the brown vinyl-covered benches, laughing loudly or shouting. At the other end, a huddle of stout fellows appeared to be engaged in serious business of some kind. They were all standing.
‘Arrows!’ another bellowed, and you could well believe that your evening might end with a bolt through the forehead from a sawn-off crossbow. The whole experience was a little unnerving. Our pints had gone down very swiftly and we had a long way to walk home. If we started out now we might be back in town by three. And besides, what if Kitts should sober up and make his return? We began looking at non-existent watches, reaching for coats that we didn’t possess.
‘Right then, my brave lads,’ said Harkness, pulling on an invisible scarf with a rather fetching French knot, ‘time to march.’
‘I’m afraid you’ll find the door locked,’ said Eugene.
Harkness looked at Stimpson. Stimpson turned to me.
‘You can’t leave,’ added the landlord.
Visions of clubbed feet and satanic rituals swarmed before our eyes. Britt Ekland cavorted naked in the room next door… What had that film been called? Whicker’s World, was it?
‘Can’t leave?’ stammered Harkness.
‘No,’ said our host. ‘Not without having a drink with us first. We’re having a lock-in.’
Well, how could we refuse?
‘Arrows!’ The cry went up again. Any number of scenes came to mind – Harold at Hastings, Custer at Little Big Horn, Errol Flynn in Robin Hood – but the image to which I kept returning was that of African tribesmen with their blowpipes and poisoned darts. There was one girl amongst them – statuesque she was with dark eyes and long black hair. And she kept staring across at us. The attention was flattering but somewhat disconcerting too. It was probably one of those routines that would culminate in her boyfriend giving one of us a good dusting. It was all beginning to remind me of a book I’d once read, but I couldn’t think which. I ran the plot past Stimpson.
‘Conrad Black, isn’t it? Bush Telegraph?’ I wasn’t convinced.
The landlord climbed off his barstool and walked around to the other side of the bar. Eugene replaced him on the stool.
‘Father?’ he said.
‘I want tequila.’
It was plainly a well-rehearsed sketch. The landlord gave him a pint.
‘What’s going on over there?’ I asked him, pointing to the other end of the bar.
‘African Queen,’ he said.
‘Is she?’ I asked.
‘With Dirk Bogarde and Audrey Hepburn?’ asked Stimpson.
The landlord raised an eyebrow:
‘Wednesday League darts match – our lads against the boys from Long Stutterton.’
There was a 1950s-style jukebox at our end of the bar. Harkness was flicking through the selections. He beckoned to Stimpson and me. Its contents were biased towards a certain kind of rock record – Ram Jam’s Black Betty, I Love Rock n’ Roll by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts…
‘Oh, look,’ said Harkness. ‘They’ve got that song by the Doors on here – the one they were just quoting at the bar. You know, the one from the ‘Nam film based on that book.’
‘Which one was that?’
‘Which one what?’
‘Oh, yeah, the song. Riders on the Storm.’
Now the tallest of the tribesmen was heading in our direction and appeared intent upon conversation. In his hand he grasped three of the little brass projectiles.
‘Killer?’ he said. It seemed an ominous opening.
‘On the road?’ asked Stimpson.
‘Awoke before dawn?’ tried Harkness.
‘Brain squirming like a toad?’
‘Pulled his boots on?’
‘You what?’ asked the tribesman.
‘Don’t mind them,’ I said, ‘they’re idiots.’
‘Are you in?’
‘Oh, yes,’ said Harkness before we could stop him or find out to what exactly he was committing us. The tribal chief jerked his head toward the other end of the bar. We followed him, Harkness leading the way.
‘Got your own arrows?’
Harkness confessed that he hadn’t. The chief proffered the brass projectiles to him.
‘The darts of Harkness!’ I blurted out.
There was silence. My comrades came to my rescue.
‘What the hell are you talking about, Dolman?’
‘Yeah, Dolman. Shut up, will you?’
It seemed like good advice.
‘Bull?’ asked the chief. He was a man who could convey much with a single word. Unfortunately, Harkness, who was trying too hard to grapple with the subtle nuances any such word might convey, took it as an accusation of allegiance to a rival darts team.
‘No, Hart. Quite definitely Hart.’
‘Nearest the bull?’ the chief expanded.
Harkness looked down and compared feet.
‘I think you are.’
‘Is he taking the piss?’
We assured him that he wasn’t.
‘Throw, then, big fella.’
Harkness looked like he might. He examined the board. The bull’s-eye was worth fifty, he knew that much. So twenty would be nearest, wouldn’t it? He launched his missile with a superb over-arm volley. It crash-landed in the scoreboard. Once the tribesmen’s laughter had died down and Harkness had been encouraged to remove his weapon from the field of play, the chief retaliated with a missile of his own. It landed in the white ring, just beyond the centre of the board.
‘Double to start?’ he asked.
‘Oh, no. I couldn’t possibly.’ The very thought apparently made Harkness feel queasy.
The chief shrugged his shoulders and fired off one hundred and forty.
‘Your throw, tree feller.’
Harkness was making rapid progress. Two of his darts hit the board and one actually landed inside the wire.
‘Two!’ someone shouted.
After his promising start, Harkness made little further progress and the game was soon over. The defeat apparently incurred reparations and Harkness was obliged to buy a round of drinks. It felt like victors’ justice, but there it was. Stimpson took the floor next and fared little better. Further compensation was required. By the time my turn came around the world had begun to look a little blurred. Well, that was my excuse.
‘I think we ought to be on our way now or we’ll get no sleep,’ said Harkness, no doubt weighing up the financial implications of further defeats.
‘You can have the caravan,’ offered the landlord who’d come to witness the massacre.
‘Caravan?’ asked Harkness.
‘You must have passed it in the yard.’
This information threw no light on the matter.
‘We keep it there for customers who can’t get home.’
‘What about the trolley?’ I countered.
‘Local service only.’
An almighty thud on the front door brought our discussion to a close. Maybe it was the police or angry neighbours. Whoever it was banged again. The landlord went to the door and unbolted it. It flew open. The doorway was filled by a stocky man of about fifty.
‘That’s Mr Kitts,’ said Eugene helpfully.
‘Harkness!’ he rumbled. ‘You stupid fucker!’
‘See,’ said Eugene, ‘I told you that’s what he said.’
It must be something in our genetic make-up, a throwback to our time as hunter-gatherers on the veldt, that brings about instant sobriety in life-threatening situations. That night was no exception. Helicopter gunships whirled above the blazing forest as Morrison intoned his tale of Oedipal revenge… I still wonder to this day how Kitts knew who Harkness was. Perhaps the barman had given the game away. Perhaps it was second sight. Who knows? Anyway, he began lurching in our direction, fists swinging at his sides. But his first words to us also turned out to be his last. He’d taken no more than four or five steps towards us when he collapsed, face down on the lino. My immediate thought was that he’d passed out from the drink. Then the tribal chief spoke.
‘He’s had that coming to him for a long time.’
He was still holding the pool cue with which he’d so recently coshed the back of Kitts’s head.
‘Bought an Escort from him. Cut and shut job.’
A couple of the warriors gathered up Kitts’s fallen body from the floor and took him outside. For the second time that night he went home in the trolley.
It must’ve been midday at least by the time we emerged from the caravan. Voices were coming from the pub and there was the reek of frying food. We had appetite for neither food nor beer. And besides, we had a long walk ahead of us. You could be sure that there’d be no buses and besides, we had no money. It was a depressing prospect. But as we trudged disconsolately across the car park Harkness’s mood suddenly brightened. Parked next to the shopping trolley was a Mini. He quickened his step. As we got nearer it became clear that the car was a basket case. It had been resprayed poorly and even appeared to have been hand-painted in places. Its tyres were bald and one of them was flat. There was a piece of card taped on the inside of the windscreen. ‘Fuck you, Harkness’, it said.
‘This is the end,’ crooned Dolman, bringing his tale to its conclusion, ‘beautiful friends, the end.’ And then he fell silent. My reverie was broken. And my heart sank, thinking of our long walk home. But then I remembered it had just been a story and I stretched out once more on the bench.
‘I haven’t told you about the return journey yet,’ he said. ‘We met some black guy in Long Stutterton. He’d been hitching a lift to Queens Ferry and had got no further. I don’t think they’d ever seen a black man there before. But that’s another story. It’ll have to wait for another day.’
Lights shimmered in the middle distance, the lights of our next port of call. And soon I’d be sinking another pint. Ah, the horror, the horror…
The Brief Literary Career of Lewis Burgess is another short story by Paul Sutton Reeves.