If there’s a dingier, grottier pub in all the British Isles, I’ve not found it yet. The Nun’s Purse boasts fly-strewn windowsills, walls the colour of a tobacco addict’s teeth, and table-tops so sticky that old Bill Jones lost a shirt sleeve to one this afternoon. Even the most iron guts can’t stomach “The Food”, not for long anyway, and never twice. The toilets? Don’t ask.
Complaining is futile. The Manager — Tommy ‘Gun’ Benson — has industrial deafness.
Should deafness not be obstacle enough, try bitching about lipstick smeared wine glasses to a retired artilleryman who survived on starvation rations as a Korean prisoner in a war camp and see if your ‘customer experience’ improves.
A thick layer of grey soggy sawdust carpets the pub’s flagstones. Tommy claims lumbago prevents him mopping up slops. Maybe it does. Maybe it doesn’t. I’m sure as hell not going to argue with him. But month-old sawdust has limits, and seepage from a dozen bags of bloody meat will breach them, no problemo. The macabre bags are coveted prizes for the bingo, held annually in aid of a bowel cancer charity.
I don’t play meat bingo, winning five pounds of raw animal flesh is way down my list of priorities, somewhere below ‘Attend Ladies Day at Ascot’ but above ‘Shave a Hungry Rottweiler.’ It took seven years of explaining ‘veg-an-ism’ to Treasure (so called because of her sunken chest) before she stopped waving bingo cards under my nose. The woman wouldn’t take a hint if it was a winning lottery ticket.
Despite my anti-meat stance, I’m as much a fixture of the New Year tableau as the leaking crimson bags. Each year, I leave civilisation and undertake the pilgrimage home. I consider it my own Camino de Santiago de Compostela, but with less sun, fewer scallop shells and no hair shirts. My bar stool is reserved and I always drink a White Russian. The ritual is as enduring as my fight with frizzy hair. Both are legacies from my mother.
The hair is genetic. The White Russian — and the shuddersome meat bags — are legal testaments to my mother’s dark sense of humour. I own the pub on the condition I return on New Year’s Eve and raise a toast with the sickly-sweet cocktail. What’s more, the feat must be witnessed — to the amusement of the peg-toothed natives — by Mr Atkinson, the solicitor.
If I don’t submit to my mother’s will, possession of The Nun’s Purse reverts to the landowner, Lord Bainbridge, who’s made no secret about wanting to flatten it and build luxury accommodation for his ‘gentleman’s shooting retreats’.’ And I’m not talking the clay pigeon variety here, people. As a vegan, I’m stuck. I can’t have the blood of all those game birds on my hands, so I sacrifice my New Year’s Eve on the altar of my clear conscience.
There I was. Leant against the bar, eyeballing the door ready to make free and easy with the scowls when in rushes Lewis Hardcastle. He’s not the solicitor, but my A-class grimace doesn’t go to waste either. Every year, Lewis — my teenage crush — necks a pint of Guinness, ignores me, and leaves. His presence is as regular as any bag of tenderloin, but at least the sight of him doesn’t make me want to vomit.
The icy wind grabs the door and slams it behind him. People jump. Beer flies. More spillages for the overtaxed sawdust. When Lewis has everyone’s attention, he puffs out his chest, staples a thousand-yard stare to his face, and bulldozes his way to the bar searching for trouble.
Yes, Lewis’ gunslinger entry was way over the top. Yes, the jukebox stuttered and a tumbleweed rolled out from behind the bar. But don’t get distracted by the melodrama.
That was my first mistake.
Lewis approaches like a heat-seeking missile with its sights locked on target. I glance down. The novelty Christmas jumper with flashing lights and silver baubles on my breasts doesn’t seem so funny now. Seriously, I look like a landing strip. I only wore the hideous thing because Mr Atkinson always turns up in Armani and I wanted to make it clear I consider the legal formalities to be a farce.
I fiddle with the hem of my jumper, scanning the pub for a friendly face, someone, anyone, to sidle over to and engage in conversation. Only Toby — an overweight Guide Dog whose master has worn a rut in the road between his house and the pub — meets my eye. Even bloody-bingo Treasure stopped shooting me daggers. Typical.
Lewis skids to a halt, boot-clad feet spread wide. He’s got the build of a tighthead prop, all muscled shoulders and broad chest. He played rugby for the county and I’d go along in all weathers and cheer. Because I was a pathetic loser.
‘You gotta come, Selma. I need you.’
I consider ignoring him but — Christmas jumper aside — I’m not that childish.
‘Why?’ My voice squeaks like a hinge needing oil, in contrast to his, which is as rich and earthy as a peat whisky poured over crushed ice.
‘Petra’s whelping and the pups are breech. The vet’s snowed in. I can’t afford to lose this litter.’
‘I need to wait for the solicitor.’
‘That wank stain’s not gunna be here for hours. The Pass is closed. Please, Selma. I need you.’
‘Not brought my kit.’
‘I need your eyes, dammit! Your hands.’ Lewis holds up his own in frustration. I’ve seen smaller shovels. He steps towards me, close enough for the clean, sharp scent of his aftershave to slice through the foetid stink of the pub like Death’s scythe. The crease between his eyes deepens to a furrow. ‘I thought you cared about saving animals.’
‘I do! But gun dogs … You know my views on shooting! Half of Bainbridge’s business comes from people wanting to hunt with “Hardcastle’s Famous Vizslas”.’ I do the air-quote thing and Lewis’ lip curls in disgust.
‘So you’ll let Petra die to score one over Bainbridge?’ A mixture of anger, pain and sadness move across Lewis’ rugged face faster than a cold weather front.
I sigh dramatically. Glance at the clock. 9.34 pm. Look at Tommy slowly smearing glasses with a stained tea towel. Take in the booze-wizened regulars who choose the world’s shittiest drinking hole over their own homes.
I down my drink and slam the glass on the bar.
The barn is a mile from the pub, but a further forty-three light years in comparative cosiness. Warm and dark, it smells of straw and earth. Horses whicker, stamping and shifting in their stalls. I follow the bobbing circle of light from Lewis’ torch and remember standing behind him in the dinner queue (after fighting Tracy Tanner for the prestigious spot) checking out his bum and fantasising about running my fingers through the thick black curls at his nape.
‘She’s through here.’
He flicks the light into a stall, but I already hear the dog growling. Petra’s a beauty. Pale bronze coat, long legs, and ears the size of handkerchiefs.
I kneel before the whelping crate and her growling kicks up a gear. Lewis holds her head as I run my hands over her trembling, velveteen body. Such a placid girl, she doesn’t try to nip me and stoically accepts my examination.
‘She’s exhausted,’ I whisper.
‘Been over eight hours.’
‘I’ll need more light.’
Lewis stands up and leaves. I rock back on my heels and shuck off my coat. The red and green fairy lights reflect in the dog’s solemn brown eyes. I should take the damn jumper off, too, but my vest is embarrassingly tatty.
A fluorescent strip buzzes overhead and flickers to life, bathing the narrow stall in a yellow glow. Petra keeps up her deep rumbling growl. Her glossy fur twitches like she’s being bitten by invisible ants.
‘Anything else?’ Lewis asks from the doorway.
‘Oil. For my hands.’
He returns clutching two bottles. One is baby oil, the other is olive. He offers both and I choose the olive. Normally I would question why a single man needs baby oil, but I’ll make an exception for Lewis. The temperature in the stall rises a few degrees. The heat source? My face.
I roll up my sleeves. I’m halfway through oiling my hands and wrists when he nods at my jumper.
‘Do those lights turn off? They might frighten Petra.’
I peer down at my breasts, which are — yep — gaudier than Blackpool illuminations. ‘Not sure. They’re movement activated.’ I jiggle my shoulders side to side and the flashing increases. ‘See?’
His dark eyes scope-lock on my chest and his Adam’s apple bobs like a buoy on a windy lake. ‘Is there a battery?’ he asks quietly, running a hand through his hair.
‘Not sure. Electronics aren’t my thing.’
‘Can I try?’
I nod and hold still while Lewis lifts my jumper and slides his big, warm hands inside. As he fumbles around searching for the battery pack, my fourteen-year-old self spins cartwheels in delight. His eyes crinkle in concentration and the hint of a smile curls the corner of his mouth.
‘No, the battery’s sewed into the seam.’
‘I’ll take it off.’ Mindless of my oily hands, I yank the jumper over my head, ball it up and hide it underneath my coat. Too late, I recall my tatty vest also has a lovely Hello Kitty pattern… Lewis, to his credit, gives the cartoon cat no more than a confused squint before we hunker down to business.
He cradles Petra’s head and I slide an oiled hand into her birth canal. The amniotic sac’s burst, so all I need to do is wait for the lull between contractions to hook my fingers beneath the pup’s rear legs and manoeuvre them into position. Once the first pup is born, Petra’s able to deliver the others unaided. Lewis and I sit side by side, fizzing with our shared victory, and watch as she licks the squirming bundles clean and they nose their way to her teats.
‘No problem. Got to get back to the pub, though. Where’s the best place to wash?’
‘In the house. Come on.’ He grabs my jumper and coat.
The kitchen is clean and tidy. A huge oak table takes up most of the space, flanked by a bench on one side and a row of mismatched chairs on the other. The place is pretty. Pastel colours, floral curtains, and a hint of gingham. No wonder Lewis can only tolerate The Nun’s Purse’s foulness for a single pint.
I scrub the blood from my hands and dry them on a pink towel, toasty from the Aga. Lewis’ presence at my back makes my neck tingle and my clothes feel too tight.
When I turn he’s holding a bottle of whisky in his hands. Single malt. Good stuff.
‘For helping,’ he says, pushing the bottle towards me.
‘I don’t want it.’
‘I have to give you something. To say thanks.’
‘No need,’ I say, putting on my coat and zipping it up.
Halfway to the door, he seizes my shoulder and pulls me back. ‘Wait!’
He brings his face close to mine and points at the ceiling. I glance up. A sprig of mistletoe hangs above our heads. Uchelwydd the old people call it, believing it keeps evil spirits at bay. The old farmhouse creaks around us. A clock ticks in the next room.
Slowly, achingly slowly, Lewis Hardcastle lowers his lips to mine.
His kiss is soft. His hands are gentle as they stroke my neck, rising to sift through my hair, making my scalp tingle. A decade of yearning distilled into a moment’s pleasure. His arms, muscled from years of throwing hay bales around, are granite under my hands. The feel of them tethers me to the ground.
‘I wanted to kiss you since the day you climbed on the roof of the history Portakabin to rescue that lame pigeon,’ he murmurs, his breath hot against my neck.
Take that Tracy Tanner! ‘Why didn’t you?’
‘I couldn’t. I was in a bad place and you were … perfect. I needed to believe in something perfect. It helped me through.’ He thumbs my cheek and presses his forehead to mine. ‘You helped me through, Selma.’
He tenses and pulls away. The furrow between his brow deepens. ‘A dark time.’
I sense there’s more, but I don’t push. ‘What kind of place are you in now?’
He lets out a long breath. ‘A good one,’ he says, rocking his hips against me. ‘The best, perhaps…’ He raises an eyebrow, a question all in itself.
We hold hands as we follow the bobbing torch light through the twisting lanes back to the pub. The world is sparkling for us, from the star-spangled sky to the diamond-glint of frost in the air. Snow crusts my boots and every step is heavier than the last. The shining windows of The Nun’s Purse are fuzzy orange squares against the darkness and I experience a heady rush of affection for the grotty old pub. I’ll spend more time here, help Tommy do the place up. Pay a cleaner from the village.
A Range Rover is parked on the verge. Someone has scrawled ‘wanker’ in the thin snow on the rear window. My heart dips.
We push through the door to find the place silent. Empty, except for Tommy and Mr Atkinson the solicitor, whose beautiful three-piece Armani fails to distract from the fact he’s got a face like a bag of smashed crabs.
Lewis tenses, standing tall and still as an English Pointer scenting a game bird. I whirl around. Bainbridge — the sly, fat fucker — is perched on a stool next to the door. His bespoke tweed and handmade shiny brogues are as inappropriate as a shotgun in a primary school.
I shudder. ‘Get out!’
‘A poor greeting for someone who wants to make you rich.’ Bainbridge speaks as if he’s addressing people across three counties and his gestures are so expansive he could marshal an aircraft. For Bainbridge, subtlety is a disease affecting other people.
‘I’ve told you. I’m not interested in selling.’
‘Selma —’ says Tommy, but Bainbridge cuts him off.
‘Think of the jobs it’ll bring! The inward investment!’ He flings an arm.
‘Surely you understand people here need this, Selma?’
‘Not. Interested. In. Selling.’ Some folk can’t understand normal accents, so it pays to repeat oneself s-l-o-w-l-y and LOUDLY.
‘But this place —’ Bainbridge swivels his head in a manner not unlike the little girl possessed by the Devil in The Exorcist. I’m not exaggerating. ‘— is disgusting.’ He’s not exaggerating.
Tommy coughs meaningfully, picks up a handful of empties, and retreats behind the bar.
Yes, The Nun’s Purse is battered and shabby, but so are the customers. So is Tommy. And perhaps — on the inside — so am I. We need this place, something Bainbridge will never understand.
‘Last chance,’ he says, smoothing his tie. ‘Either accept the money —’
‘Selma!’ Lewis hisses, elbowing me. ‘The time!’
11.59 pm. Damn.
‘Quick, lass!’ calls Tommy.
The White Russian is already on the bar. Tommy had it waiting all along. I swear I will never bemoan the man’s dirt-blindness ever again. I dodge around the maze of tables and chairs and grab the stem of the cocktail glass. The drink is halfway to my lips when a firework bangs in the distance, followed by the pop and crackle of more happy pyrotechnics heralding the new year.
‘Ah, Selma,’ says Bainbridge. ‘Midnight.’
Mr Atkinson pipes up. ‘I’m sorry to inform you, Selma, as per the instructions in the last will and testament of Mrs …’ His monotonous recitation fades to a drone.
The room sways. My mother’s complex web of legal intrigue has finally tripped me up. Bainbridge has won. I slump on a stool and rub my eyes.
Tommy rests a gnarled hand on my shoulder. ‘It’s okay, lass,’ he murmurs. ‘Worse things in life.’
A scream cuts through the shroud of my misery like dressmaker’s shears. Bainbridge is holding his face, blood pouring through his fingers and dripping down his tie. Lewis is shaking out his hand.
‘You punched him?’ I ask, distrusting my tear-filled eyes.
‘I’ll thue you!’ Bainbridge hisses, pointing a trembling finger at Lewis. ‘You’re all witnetheth!’
‘Yeah? Try it. I’ll go public. Take Selma’s pub away? I’ll go public. Understand?’ Lewis shouts, the tendons in his neck straining. There’s no deference in the way he sizes up Bainbridge, only raw, naked disgust.
Bainbridge narrows his streaming, piggy eyes and peers at Lewis. ‘I have no idea what you’re referring to.’
‘Yes, you do,’ Lewis replies. The icicles outside could learn a thing or two about frost from his voice.
‘No, I —’
‘Don’t deny it! I filmed you,’ Lewis jabs a finger in the middle of Bainbridge’s chest. ‘Rigged a camera in the hide, and another in the stable block.’
‘No!’ Bainbridge stumbles backwards, knocks over a chair, and leaves a smear of blood on the wall. Not that it’s noticeable against the general grime. You have to look really hard.
Lewis steps forward, again, and again until Bainbridge huddles in the corner. I always thought the fat toff imposing, but he shrinks when Lewis towers over him. ‘Do you want the world to know what a dirty —’
‘I’ll raise the rents! Everyone’s rent! And evict you! I’ll evict your whole family! They’ll all suffer. Is that what you want, Hardcastle? Is it?’
‘Your threats don’t work on me anymore. Give up your claim to the pub or I’ll tell the world what a perverted fucker you really are.’
The silence stretches out, thin as gossamer, taut as razor wire. Tommy and Mr Atkinson stare open-mouthed at Lewis and Bainbridge, who are locked in a glaring contest. By the sounds of it, I’m the only one breathing, which is fine. I’m doing it hard and loud enough for the five of us.
‘The other lads’ll come forward. If I ask,’ says Lewis.
‘Fine. I concede,’ Bainbridge replies in an uncharacteristically small voice. He hooks a finger in the knot of his tie and works it loose, before dabbing his nose with his handkerchief.
‘Draft it, then,’ Lewis barks to Mr Atkinson. ‘I want it watertight. Tommy will witness.’
‘I don’t have —’
The legal agreement between Lewis Hardcastle and Lord Aubin Fenston Bainbridge KStJ JP DL OBE RAC HMV GIF NASA is written on the back of a roll of Christmas wrapping paper. Bainbridge relinquishes all rights to The Nun’s Purse and in exchange, Lewis will never make a public statement of any kind about his Lordship. Best of all? The new agreement means the pub’s all mine. No caveats. No strings. No more New Year’s Eve White Russian with witnesses.
‘I want the recordings,’ Bainbridge says as he’s leaving.
Lewis laughs. ‘Why? So you can get off to it again? Nah, I don’t think so.’
The door slams behind Bainbridge and Atkinson and the Range Rover roars away.
‘You did sterling, lad,’ Tommy says, whipping the filthy tea towel off his shoulder and flinging it in the sink. ‘But don’t leave it so late next time? Eh?’
‘Shall we celebrate?’ I ask them, hardly believing the shadow of Bainbridge has finally been exorcised.
‘You two go ahead.’ Tommy’s rheumy eyes flicker between us with a knowing glint. ‘But Himself gifted me an empty pub and I’ll not waste the early night. I’ve a new Barbara Cartland, with pirates.’
He heads upstairs, whistling a jaunty show tune.
I face my teenage crush surrounded by empty glasses and bloody sawdust. ‘Did Bainbridge hurt you?’ I whisper, eager and scared to fill in the blanks of Lewis’ life.
His cheeks flush and he turns away. ‘I don’t wanna talk about it. Not tonight, okay? I need to head back and check on Petra.’
‘Hang on a sec,’ I say and slip behind the bar and select a bottle of single malt, which I push into his hand. ‘For helping.’
‘I don’t want it.’
‘I have to give you something. To say thanks.’
‘No need.’ He grins, then cants his head to the side. ‘But … we should toast your Mam.’
‘She’d be pissed off you dismantled her will, you know.’
He chuckles. ‘If you agree to a date I think she’d forgive me.’
I chuckle. ‘Why’s that?’
‘She went to a lot of effort to arrange one night a year for me to woo you.’
‘Wait … this whole setup … all this time …’
‘Yeah. She knew I was crazy about you, Selma. I just — I hadn’t the courage to talk to you.’ He smiles shyly and takes my hand. ‘But if you give me a chance, I swear I’ll be as loyal as a dog and —’
I stand on tiptoes and press my lips against his mouth, quietening him. He returns my kiss with breathtaking urgency. When we break apart I rest my head against his warm, solid chest and let the heavy rhythm of his heart steady me. This man is a whole pint of special with an angel tears chaser.
‘I wanted to kiss you since the day I got stuck on the roof of the history Portakabin rescuing that lame pigeon and you stole the caretaker’s ladder so I could get down,’ I say.
He laughs and it’s the best sound in the world.
You think this is a happy ending, right?
So did I.
And that was my second mistake.
Wrapped in my joy and Lewis’ arms, I went back to the cosy barn and left Tommy — brave, quiet, unassuming Tommy Benson, with his tarnished medals, swashbuckling romance novels, and fake lumbago — alone in The Nun’s Purse.
His industrial deafness meant he never heard the first molotov cocktail smash through the window and whoomph against the bar. And so Bainbridge — poster boy for rampant Capitalism — finished what Communist torture failed to do so many decades before.
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