Trevor Biddle threaded his way, bitter and shandy held high, unable to mask a rising glee, his footsteps shadowed by the sway of an early evening’s drunk, for he was proceeding in the direction of a small round table where Gladys Mugg sat waiting, his light, his love, his life. A single plainspoken feat had always eluded him and if he achieved it, he told himself, he would propose to her tonight. The feat was this: not to spill a single drop as he passed through the maelstrom of bodies that was the Stag’s Head Arms on a Friday night. Trevor was a nervous man, shy, stammering, who trembled when asked the simplest question. His wardrobe was splattered in a symphony of stains. Tea, ketchup, grease, beer. No item of clothing stayed clean for long if it was on Trevor Biddle’s body, and tonight he was wearing a brand new red silk shirt, a present from Gladys. He was determined to keep it unmarred.
The large figure moving like an ice-breaker through the chilly, crowded waters of the pub. A Woodbine mist choked the air and Bert ‘Cross-eyes’ Thorpe took up his weekly place in front of the dartboard, challenging the best with his ludicrous throwing. A cone soon cleared ahead of him. The wall was a pockmarked tribute to his succession of failures. “’Ere I is, boys,” Cross-Eyes crowed, “I’ll lick ya solid this night, I promise I will.”
Light applause erupted when the first of Cross-Eyes’ darts found the wall. “Not so bad,” a voice encouraged mockingly, “that’s only a foot off.” Cross-Eyes squared his shoulders and took aim a second time, but stopped before releasing the dart, turned, raised his mug and downed a bitter in a single draft.
“Another,” he said. “Who’ll buy?”
Someone bought, they always did when Cross-Eyes was at the board. His aim worsened with every pint.
Various onlookers, knowing Trevor’s plight, returned their attention to him. Not a drop yet spilled! Great, oafish Trevor, always stepping on his own toes, for not only had he never found a table without spilling a drop, but rare was the time he’d not lost half the pint, what with being knocked this way or jostled that and having to stop and listen to Duncan Wattby tell the tale one more time of how he lost his foot trying to stop the runaway 4:13 to Ellingham. What a lie that was! The truth of it was Wattby was drunk and rolled down the escarpment and got his foot severed not out of any heroics but because he was sprawled unconscious with an ankle over the tracks in the late afternoon with his mouth hanging open like an etherized dog and only later, when stories of the runaway 4:13 emerged, did he claim any connection. All knew it but none bothered to call the lanky blowhard out for it was easier to pretend to listen and nod and walk away and what did they care if Duncan Wattby talked of sailing to the moon and back for it was going to gain them nothing arguing and setting the record straight and what was a lie after all but a crooked angle on the truth, an image in negative so to speak, holding inside it all that really happened by painting all that didn’t, the sum of all this barroom philosophizing being that in a sense perhaps Duncan Wattby told the truth but in inverse and all who spoke without embellishment peddled nothing but lies.
Trevor Biddle had reached the halfway point of his private odyssey and a fella shot an elbow into his mate’s side and indicated the drama of the moment with a nod of his head. Biddle was going to make it! There was something about him, a certain air, as if he knew a secret.
The mate studied the scene and agreed. A man in love, he said, and returned to the door for a better view, but of the stage not of the drama, and stood under the newly hung portrait of Lord Invader, who was at that moment sending bright, crisp notes sailing into the ether. “I sent a special telegram to Princess Grace offering congratulations,” he crooned and threw his feet across the floor in the pattern of raindrops in an early spring shower.
Heavy pint glasses descended with a thud on lacquered wood and someone grumbled loudly how all had gone to hell since the days of Clement bloody Attlee and got himself a smack on the head. Brenda Slatterly, squeezed into the shortest skirt anyone had yet spied on the High Road, sat with her fourth Pimms glaring back from the cyclops table and running a secret hand across Stanley Cramp’s crotch, thinking herself unwatched.
Trevor Biddle reached the three-quarters mark and was on his way, not a drop yet spilled, beaming joy, when as though he had been crouching among feet and legs and sniffing the old boards for terrible inspiration all the while and waiting for this moment, lurched Duncan Wattby and violently grabbed him by the jacket collar.
“I was a gonna tell ye,” Duncan shouted, loud enough to be heard over Invader’s voice, “about me foot!”
Gladys Mugg jumped to her feet and let out a cry. Ralph held his breath. Taking advantage of the commotion, Brenda slipped her fingers into Stanley Cramp’s fly. Cross-Eyes, preparing a fresh throw, left the dart suspended and turned his great head.
“And how I saved all souls aboard the 4:13 to Ellingham. I doubt ye’ve heard the tale!”
Duncan Wattby’s face crashed against Trevor Biddle’s shoulder. “‘Twas a thing of beauty and human sacrifice!”
A dark foreboding had taken hold of Gladys earlier that evening when Trevor intimated that tonight was the night he would propose. It was nothing he said that suggested as much, it was the sudden, unusual forcefulness he carried himself with, pulling her along the pavement, banging open the pub door, situating her with a clear view of the room and the passage from bar to table. It added up, and she knew her Trevor, knew him better than he did himself. She watched patiently as he made the journey three times, each unsuccessfully. This fourth round was to be the last. Once a week, and only once, they drank four rounds on a Friday night, no more, no less. That was the rule, Trevor’s rule, and something of the certainty and the clarity of it made her fall all the more in love with him.
Despite Duncan Wattby’s sudden, hectoring appearance, Trevor Biddle kept the glasses balanced, holding them high over his head, using the natural weight of his body at play with gravity to swing the glasses back and forth, correcting imperceptibly the tidal forces at work on the surface of the drinks.
Trevor Biddle lowered the drinks and handed each to a stranger standing at his side while Duncan Wattby continued, unconcerned, explaining how on hearing the news of the runaway 4:13 to Ellingham, he raced to the signal room to find the signalman on duty drunk and rambling. He raised a finger to Duncan Wattby’s lips and stammering, shouted, “Dun… can… Watt… beeee… Sto… o… sto… o… o… STOP!”
A hush descended on the pub, even Lord Invader brought a quick close to his final verse, “Prince Rainier oh, oh, oh, Prince Rainier…” and signaled to the band, while Duncan Wattby stood, open-mouthed and red-faced, for no one had ever said that word to him before in all his days.
Trevor continued, his voice gathering strength with each word, “You’re a liar, D-D-Duncan Wattby, and all here know it. They’ve always known it. You did not s-s-save the 4:13 to Ellingham. You were drunk and you r-r-rolled down the hill and thus you lost your foot and nearly brought d-d-disaster to the passengers of that train. There is a great and general t-t-tolerance of your l-l-lie in this establishment, and I have no quarrel with those who t-t-tolerate it, but I tell you to your face, Duncan Wattby, it is a lie that I never want heard told to me again, nor r-r-repeated within earshot, not if you value your h-h-health. Do you t-t-take my meaning?”
Duncan Wattby stood perfectly still, his eyes comically wide, mouth hanging low and offering a gaping hole, and let out a low, rasping squeal which gathered energy as he stood, rising to sudden high notes of terror and falling again into the lower frequencies, until finally, he simply turned and walked toward the door. The crowd opened a path and so it was that Duncan Wattby, liar and drunk and community irritant, left the premises of the Stag’s Head Arms for the last time, leaving behind him baffled silence.
When the doors wheezed shut, a general uproar exploded. Trevor Biddle was clapped on the back, his hand shook, congratulations offered, we didn’t know you had it in you, etc., and Gladys stood in what she knew should have been beaming awe but was closer to fear—the foreboding?—that instead of something wonderful having happened, something terrible had, for the world had changed, and changed suddenly, and she felt the ground slip away under her feet. Was this her Trevor? Her gallant, lost, bumbling fool of the man she loved who seldom knew the right word or which foot to place in front next? Trevor had no such doubts. He was irritated by the hoopla and wanted to take back the drinks he had given away and walk with steady steps to the woman he loved, the woman he would ask that night to be his wife. Give him his drinks, he said, he had a woman to attend to.
Right then, Dick Mottle’s voice rose above the crowd. “Brenda! BRENDA!” He was her on-again, off-again man and just now caught sight of where her hand was, nestled in the wool of Stanley Cramp’s crotch. “You fucking little tart! I’m gonna kill you!” He raced forward, throwing his arms wildly into the air. Trevor arrived at his table, his hands no longer trembling, filled with confidence. A renewed cheer went up, though already muted, as if it had been dragged down into the mud and ooze that whatever first building had gone up on this spot centuries ago once stood upon, old England claiming its due, and the final cry of Hip hip! Hooray! losing itself in embarrassed coughs and a general clearing of throats behind hands so no one ultimately was sure if anyone had cheered, which pleased everyone equally. And through it roared Dick Mottle chasing Brenda Slatterly and Stanley Cramp. Bert ‘Cross-Eyes’ Thorpe returned his attention to what was important, the dart’s board, raised his arm and offered gallantly, “This one’s for you, Trevor!”
Just as he was releasing the dart, Dick Mottle’s arm flew wide and crashed into Bert’s back. The dart flew sideways, farther to the right than he had ever thrown a dart before and well beyond the cone of safety that formed before the board when he was up. It shot through the air in the general direction of a nervous Gladys Mugg. Trevor Biddle lunged at her to push her free of its path, but quickly lost his balance and both toppled, the bitter and shandy with them. They collapsed onto the floor in a shower of glass and beer, while the dart found the forehead of the young Queen herself, who sat calmly within the borders of a wooden frame.
For a second time that evening, silence descended on the pub. Trevor raised himself, and held a hand out to Gladys. “Oh what a fool you are, Trevor,” she said. “I would’ve ducked my head. I’ve second sight for Thorpe’s missiles.” He looked crestfallen and abashed. “I got the glasses to the table,” he said, but already the light was going out of his voice. She brushed him off, then did the same to herself. “Don’t stand there,” she said, “get a broom.” He nodded, and the crowd parted for him. She looked around the room: her world, the people she had known since she was a child, staring now upon the spectacle of her life. “What are you all gawping at?” she said. “I’ll make do with this mess.” The crooner started again, a soft song set in the islands. That was a relief, she thought, and as she watched Trevor return, she felt such a rush of emotion that she didn’t know where it came from or where to put it all.
He made a motion to sweep, but she grabbed the broom handle from him. “Give it here, you’ll muck it up worse, I know you.” He stood with stooping shoulders, eyes like a lost child, as the pub retreated into life. “I’ll get us another, sh… sh… all I?” he said, and she responded, softening her voice, “You do that.” The shattered glass clinked across the wooden floor, and she thought, he won’t ask, not now, it’ll have to be me who does the bother.