When Olivia Met K: Chapter 8 - Clint's by Michael McCarthy at Spillwords.com

When Olivia met K

Chapter VIII


written by: Michael McCarthy



Clint’s was full of ghosts, it was that kind of place and that was one reason why we went there, it meant no regular of Clint’s had ever been forgotten. For example, Clint said one evening,

‘‘Old Frank died ten years ago today. Let’s down one in memory of him.’’

It was addressed to the regulars whether they knew old Frank or not. We gathered at the bar, Clint filled shot glasses with whisky, brandy, ouzo, or whatever old Frank preferred, on the house, and we drank a toast and that was it. But it meant an awful lot.

Clint was an unmistakably Dickensian-looking character, short, tubby, irascible, and sporting luxuriant, grey sideboards on his blotchy red cheeks; he was a man of few words and fewer gestures; with him, a nod or the meeting of eyes spoke volumes. That was why he was known as Clint and, like most of us, Clint kept his past firmly under his hat, which was tweed and was worn only in the winter months and then never taken off while in the bar; it was said he was ex-forces and, rumor had it, special forces.

Clint’s had drawing power, but a lot of people who came there didn’t get that they had to share their time at Clint’s with the ghosts of customers past. Everybody was welcome at Clint’s but very, very few returned after their first visit; initially, there was an atmosphere about the place that didn’t suit everyone, it meant they weren’t sensitive to the ghosts, if you felt at home you came back and if you came back you came for life.

We came here for the laughs and the booze; we came here because we sought the life-affirming mixture of unquestioning and accepting male company; we came here because we felt wanted and safe.

I slotted in here effortlessly. I didn’t realize it but I’d been looking for a base for a long time. I’d known I needed some kind of stability in my life but I thought that meant I should be looking for that special, usually unattainable, woman. But it was like a lot of things in life; you didn’t know what you were looking for until you’d found it.

A good few years ago, I was employed on a building site near Clint’s, and the rest, as they say, ‘is history.’ I fancied a drink after work, but on my own. I wandered around for a bit and then I saw this unappealing-looking place, felt its pull, went in and never looked back.

I walked through the door, there were a few solo drinkers scattered around like forgotten partners, nobody looked at me as I walked up to the bar, but I felt something.

‘‘First one’s on the house,’’ Clint growled as he filled a beer glass and then sent it skidding down the wet bar.

I grabbed it and raised it to him, ‘‘Cheers.’’

‘‘And many more of them,’’ he answered gruffly.

That was it. I ended up in conversation with the others and before I knew it they were treating me like an old friend.

On my next visit, Clint told me briefly about the ghosts. He welcomed me with a pint and said,

‘‘I’ll have the same.’’

Then I pulled up a stool and we leaned into each other.

‘‘You may not realize it but you felt their presence, that’s why you came back.’’

I didn’t know if it was just Clint’s earnest delivery but there was definitely something in the air.

‘‘Well, it felt like a good boozer should feel, a refuge.’’

‘‘This place has always been like home to a lot of people. So when they passed on they left something behind, and that something was what attracted those of a similar bent. It’s that simple. I like to keep things simple.’’

Clint’s was on one side of the old Market Square which hosted a twice-weekly food market, on the opposite side of which was Shangri-La, some used to call Clint’s a dive and they were right, it was a squat, tatty, square building; there was the bar on the ground floor and the living quarters were upstairs; but it was our dive and one of a number of other dives in the same row of various ethnic establishments that supplied a catholic mixture of alcohol, soft drinks, fast foods, and numerous exotic dishes; as well as an indie cinema and a tailor. Clint’s was not a big place, it wasn’t a tidy place or even an overly hygienic place, but Clint never seemed to be bothered by the local authorities.

Clint and his bar enjoyed an edgy reputation, it was a cult; it wasn’t featured in any of the city tourist guides, but small groups of tourists still found their way there. Clint was, of course, happy to serve them, but he wasn’t keen on those who came just to gawp and treat the place like a zoo. Clint’s wasn’t comfortable but sparsely furnished with tables and chairs scattered about seemingly at random on the sawdust-covered floor; a few booths on the wall opposite the bar; decades-old brown wallpaper; a jukebox which usually came to life late in the evening; an old piano which to my knowledge had never been opened let alone played and a murky, thick carpet whose original color was impossible to detect.

There used to be a woman here with Clint. She and her name were straight out of central casting for the feisty girlfriends of the heroes of his favorite movies, the film noir genre.

She was a small, redhead in her 40s with an hourglass figure. She was known as Rusty. She wasn’t popular with the guys. She looked down on them. They said. Then one day she just wasn’t here anymore and Clint never mentioned her again and neither did anybody else.

Clint was invariably perched on a stool behind his domain, the profitably filled, horseshoe-shaped bar, taking in everything and everybody.

One reason he sat there was that he was in easy reach of his bat. Clint wasn’t a cricket fan but he kept an ancient-looking cricket bat behind the bar. There was a thick crack running down the middle of the flat side of the bat and it was wrapped in copious amounts of brown tape, probably more tape than wood. But it was still a fearful-looking weapon.

As regards bar staff, there were none; all the regulars were expected to take it in turns to serve, wipe the tables and put the empty glasses in the glass washer. It was also our responsibility to check the rota for our shift; non-appearance for our shift resulted in doing the cleaning while the cleaner was still paid. Failure to carry out a punishment resulted in suspension from Clint’s. It was the price we paid for drinking there.

A large number of the regulars were ex-forces including a contingent of Brits and some were still on call, when money talked loud enough; Clint’s served as a beacon for them; some of those blokes, when they got back from the latest hell hole, lived a rootless life, because they couldn’t live any other way; just waiting for the explosion or living in the aftermath. It was a male-dominated refuge but among the few women who came there were a group of ethnically diverse local prostitutes, known as ‘The Sirens,’ whom we adopted. Clint had had his share of female partners down the years but during his barren periods ‘The Sirens’ were said to attend to his needs.

The guys I drank with were cast from the same die; loners, unless they were among their own, hard types on the outside. I’d had many good times with them.

Clint’s was like some of its patrons, proud and moody; offering shelter and the company of like-minded, troubled pilgrims, their journeys through life permanently interrupted.

That would have been the last place I’d have imagined ending up in but that made it all the more special.

Because of the area it was in, its reputation and main clientele, Clint’s was the sort of place that for some: louts and wannabe hard cases, served as a rite of passage. They came here like gunslingers descending on Dodge City, eager to take out an aging gunfighter and earn a notch on their gun handle and the beginnings of a bad reputation; very, very few succeeded. I didn’t know of any. Clint liked the idea, I think it reminded him of times past. Sometimes when you called Clint there was no reaction, instead you saw him gazing into his past, his thousand-yard stare, as though he was frozen at a point in his past, a point from which he could never really completely escape.

At one time there’d been a boisterous group of so-called hard cases hanging around just inside Clint’s back door, making a show, almost pleading for attention. Gaining entry to Clint’s was becoming a trial.

The first couple of nights I was very polite and said, ‘Excuse me.’ But there was no response, in fact it seemed as though they spread out even more to make entry more difficult.

Clint had his eye on them, as long as nothing happened in the bar he wasn’t bothered plus they were spending a lot of money, but their presence added a growing undercurrent of menace and for once I thought Clint’s eagerness to earn more money, whatever the consequences, threatened to get out of hand. If Clint had a problem, it was money. He’d tolerate almost anything if cash was being splashed. But he was not a man to be underestimated and, although I’d never seen him use it, I’d witnessed Clint threaten miscreants with a swipe of his cricket bat.

The next two nights it was the same ritual, so on my next visit I more or less shouldered my way through to a chorus of comments,

‘‘Who the fuck are you pushing?’’ ‘‘Be careful, while you still can.’’ ‘‘If there’s a next time, I’ll take care of you outside.’’ I ignored it.

I claimed a place at the bar, a spot away from the main hubbub, Clint glanced up and with decades of experience and in his time-honored fashion, sent a glass of beer sliding smoothly along the bar into my waiting open hand. Nursing my drink I was relieved to be alone, I wouldn’t have made good company that night but I also didn’t want to be completely alone. I could feel eyes boring into me, as though I was being lined up in somebody’s crosshairs. Finally, it happened, probably because I was emitting the wrong aura, indifference, just the sort bullies can smell a mile off and are challenged by.

There were unwritten rules at Clint’s; when trouble erupted and one of us was involved, there was no external intervention, it was contained and it was understood we’d take it outside or into the toilet.

Eager to claim his trophy in front of his fellow outlaws, one of the pack rudely squeezed in beside me, jolting my glass-holding arm and spilling some beer onto my shoes. I didn’t look up but merely remarked, in anticipation of an apology:

‘‘O.K. No harm done.’’

‘‘Pity. I don’t like being pushed and you’re making a habit of it.’’

I looked at him. ‘‘Oh. It’s you. If you make a habit of blocking the door, you don’t leave me any option.’’

‘‘You’d better get used to it. We’ve decided to make this our local. Have you got a problem with that?’’

‘‘As long as you don’t obstruct the entrance, no.’’

‘‘By the way, you haven’t said you’re sorry.’’

‘‘What for?’’

‘‘Pushing us, every night.’’

‘‘I tried saying, excuse me, but it didn’t work.’’

‘‘Say, you’re sorry, and look at me when you’re saying it and I’ll drop the matter.’’

When I fought, which was rare, I tried to avoid using my fists. I used whatever props were to hand. I found it more effective, and there were always props; walls, doors, people, chairs, tables, bottles, anything.

In my opinion, the most important weapons in your arsenal were timing, anticipation, self-belief, and patience. I looked up and exchanged a knowing look with Clint before confronting my would-be Nemesis. He was taller than me and about 25 years younger. Broad but not solid, with a smirk etched into his pale, unshaven face, and a cocky gleam in his eyes. It all went very quickly; he filled my face with his then, as he tensed, his hands ready to strike or grab my lapels, I put my glass down, nutted him, not too hard, just enough to disarm him, pulled his jacket down his back, to restrict his arms, and then frog-marched him, still stunned, into the toilet. I knew my back would be covered.

Inside, a customer calmly zipped himself up and, staring straight ahead, left us alone whistling a merry tune on his way out. I slammed my would-be attacker face first against the wall at the urinals, at the same time I kicked the insides of his legs outwards, so he lost his balance and fell to his knees, his face hanging just above the blocked bowl of one of the urinals. I had his neck firmly in my grip and the slack of his jacket bunched in my other fist.

I forced his face nearer to the effluent. ‘‘They say you can drown in an inch of liquid. But it doesn’t have to come to that. You know what to say.’’ I whispered. He started swearing at me, calling me everything under the sun, some curses even I hadn’t heard before, but there was nothing that even vaguely sounded like an apology. He’d had his chance. He struggled manically to raise his neck as I plunged his face into the fetid pool and held it there. He was spluttering and gagging and still pushing back, but he wasn’t as strong as he hoped or thought and soon weakened. Another vital component to your arsenal was to decide on your course of action and see it through. ‘Take no prisoners.’

I yanked him up and pushed him to the floor, squatted in front of him, and looked into his eyes, he was in shock, all his bravado had left him like the air from a deflated balloon.

He cowered, flaccid, defeated against the wall, spitting, urine dripping off his face. He didn’t say anything or try to.

‘‘If there’s a next time, I won’t show so much self-restraint,’’ I said.

I waited until he looked away in abjection, washed my hands, then I left him and went back to my beer.

On the bar where I’d been standing was bottle of ice-cold vodka and a tray of glasses. About twelve of the guys, including Clint, were standing at the rest of the gang who were looking very uncomfortable under the scrutiny.

‘‘Drinks all round. Regulars only.’’ Clint roared.

The gang had to pass us to get their fellow member from the toilet, we formed a gauntlet through which they sheepishly trudged.

As we were helping ourselves to a second glass they emerged with their piss-stained and smelling friend. They didn’t even look at us as they left by the front door.

A few of us went out a couple of hours later for a snack, the grocery shops had closed and the streets were being given their ritual nightly hosing down, and mounds of rubbish bags, like huddled bodies, were piled up on the cobblestones waiting for the morning collection.

The gang were still around sitting outside a mobile burger stand shooting furtive glances in our direction.

One thing was clear, my friends and I still held sway here and I couldn’t see that changing for some years; gratuitous violence had never been our thing, but when it came to defending our patch we had our tried and trusted methods.

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This publication is part 8 of 11 in the series When Olivia met K