Chapter Thirty Two
The bar was awful, the bar staff surly and the clientele a mix of drunken men and loose women on the pull. She’d been watching him for a week and in that time he’d come to this pub twice. It was logical to assume that he’d be back.
When she walked into the bar, everybody turned to stare at her. She was like a peacock in a crow show and would never blend in. She tossed her hair, straightened her shoulders and walked to the bar. ‘Please may I have a gin and slimline tonic, with ice and lemon?’
‘No slimline tonic, just ordinary. Ice we got, we don’t do lemon.’
‘That’ll be fine, thank you.’
She paid, gave the barmaid a pound tip, took her drink, and turned her back to the bar. It was important that she picked a table that would give her a good view of the door and everything in the barroom. She and sat down, aware that every pair of eyes in the place was on her. The two barmaids whispered together and she didn’t have to struggle to figure that she was the topic of conversation. The first drink went down quickly. She wasn’t nervous, or uncomfortable, far from it, she was enjoying herself. Ten minutes after buying her first drink she went to get another.
The girls behind the bar fell over themselves to get to her first. The other one served her this time and her demeanour was curious and greedy, rather than suspicious. ‘Same again, love?’
‘Yes, thank you.’ She paid and gave another pound away.
‘Not from around here, are you?’ Now that she had her tip, only the curiosity remained. ‘Gabby, over there,’ she gestured with her hand, ‘she recons you’re from Eastern European. ‘But I ses to her, I ses, nah, if you was from Eastern European, you wouldn’t have a tan like that, not fake tan either, I ses, the real kind what you get from the sun.’
‘I’m from Spain,’ she picked up her glass and took a sip and then put it back on the bar, in no hurry to return to her seat. She hadn’t expected ingratiating herself to be as easy as it had been. The girl was looking at her. Waiting to hear who she was and why she was there. ‘I’m over here for a week or two visiting friends. They’re an elderly couple and, well to be honest, you can only take so much Coronation Street, so I thought I’d have a look around and see what the town has to offer in the way of night life.
‘Wow, you’re brave. I say, isn’t she brave, Gabby. I couldn’t walk into a pub on my own. Could you Gabby? Could you just walk into a pub on your own?’
The first barmaid had come across and leaned on the bar. Connie noticed that she’d changed out of her flats and had put on a pair of stiletto heels while they’d been talking. She smoothed down her mini skirt and was brushing at her hair with her hand. ‘Shit no, I could never do that. You know what I’m like, Tina, I lack confidence, me.’
Connie laughed. ‘All you have to do is hold your head up high, stick your breast out and say, “I’m as good as anybody else and if you don’t like it, fuck the lot of you,” It’s easy. She smiled, looking at the girls so that she didn’t come across as up herself. She had to play it just right. Be interesting enough that they wanted to talk to her, but not too over the top that she alienated herself. She moderated her language to their level. ‘I’m Connie, by the way. I like it here. It’s a good pub, has a nice feel to it,’ she lied. There weren’t many customers in the pub, it was still early. A couple in their fifties were the only people sitting at one of the tables, three men and two other women were drinking at the bar. ‘I’ll tell you what? I fancy a shot. Sambuka, I think. Will you join me? In fact, I’d like to buy everybody one.’ It was risky. One it drew a lot of attention to her, but then, she had that cross to bear, anyway. But she didn’t want to appear desperate enough to buy people’s company, or as though she was throwing her money around to impress. In a place like this, flash wouldn’t get you anywhere, except maybe, mugged.
The barmaid called Tina expertly lined up shot glasses and filled them with Sambuka. Gabby took a glass each to the couple sitting at the table who nodded their thanks to Connie. When Gabby returned, everybody at the bar, counted one, two, three, and then knocked back their shots. ‘You know something, you looked like a right snotty cow when you walked in but you’re all right, you are.’ And that was all it took. She was accepted, an outsider, not even an acquaintance yet, but she was allowed into the bar under the heading of passing trade—with money—who was all right. The big test was if they’d still be prepared to talk to her when she ordered a coke for her next drink and forewent the tip. She laughed it off by saying that two G&T’s and a sambuka before nine o’clock was not a pace that she could keep up for long. She wasn’t snubbed and the staff and locals peppered her with questions and wanted to know all about her. She bought another round at half ten and then the bar staff bought her a double. It didn’t look as though he was coming in that night, which was just as well as she needed to have her wits about her when he did. She left the bar, very drunk and very pleased with herself.
On Saturday night of the following week, she returned for the fourth time as she’d promised Gabby and Tina that she would.
‘Hey Connie, what you having?’ Gabby asked, before she’d even reached the bar. ‘How’s the head?’ They had karaoke on that night. Connie remembered a girl called Julie who liked Karaoke bars, but she would only get up and sing with her sisters. The hosts were fun and nice people, like the bar staff they introduced her to regulars as they came in and bullied her to get up and sing in a good-natured manner. And she found herself having a good time, but she never for one second lost sight of the purpose of her being there.
She was up singing a song when he walked in after his shift finished at ten o’clock. The unfamiliar voice with the thick Spanish accent was what made him glance at the stage. She sang well, that was a rarity in The Peasant and Duck. By ten, most of the patrons could barely stand, let alone sing. What made James Woods’ mouth drop open was not the way she sang, but the way that she looked. Connie had spent a vast amount of money to look this well designed. She wasn’t just averagely good looking, she was extraordinarily good looking. She hadn’t only bought her body; she’d bought confidence, class and sophistication and wore them exquisitely. When Connie wanted a man to look at her, he did, without her having to make him.
James’ head turned and his mouth dropped open. He looked like a comical fool. It was only a momentary reaction before he resumed his pace and sauntered over to the bar to order his first pint of the ten he would consume before either fighting his way out of the door, or being told to go home because they were closing. By the time Connie had finished her song and had returned to the bar, she knew that he had asked about her, and had been given the goss that she’d been in several times now and was posh, but okay.
She walked to the bar amid applause and high fived with Gabby. ‘Way to go, girl, you rocked that one.’ She drained her gin, ordered another one and glanced up and down the bar. She caught James’ gaze and smiled at him. It was the smile that you would afford a stranger. ‘Gracias, Gabby, I’m going to sit down and rest my feet for ten minutes, see you in a bit.’ She picked up her glass, turned towards James and smiled fleetingly at him a second time. He returned the smile. She sat at an empty table, on a bench seat, beside a couple at the next table that she’d spoken to a couple of times. She turned her attention to two young girls who were murdering True Blue, by Madonna. When they had finished she applauded warmly.
Every male sodden drunk in the place had flirted with Connie and she had fended them off with grace and a friendly, but not interested, manner. She gave off vibes of wanting to be friend to most, lover to none.
She passed a few words with Eddy and Maureen, sitting to her left. In her late fifties, she was a few years younger than him; Eddy was a mouse of a man who wanted two things on a Saturday night, a pint and a quiet life. God knows, he didn’t get them the rest of the week. His wife was nice enough to chat to but Connie soon realised that spite and venom made up a good part of her blood supply. She was a gossip and had an opinion about everybody. Maureen was never self obsessed in conversation. She had no interest in talking about herself, she wanted to talk about you, your life, your details, your bits of salacious scandal that she could later impart to a third person. At first glance, she appeared nothing more than a sweet, late middle aged lady, as the conversation flowed, traits of weasel appeared in her eyes and along her brow line.
Barry Mosley got up to sing. He was a large man in his early fifties, more fat than brawn, but his vanity told him otherwise. As a young man he probably had a good voice but years of karaoke singing and taught him bar singer habits. He could carry a tune but his wail on words could be painful to endure. He came over to Connie’s table and serenaded her with, a strange rendition of a classic karaoke song; his version was called Sweet Connieline. Connie smiled politely until he was finished and then clapped his performance. As he turned to hand the microphone back to, Sharon, the karaoke host, she felt a dig in her ribs.
‘I don’t like him, do you?’ Maureen had screwed up her nose in distaste. ‘Thinks he’s God’s Gift to women, he does.’
‘Oh he’s all right, he’s just having a good time,’ answered Connie.
‘You won’t get rid of him now, you watch.’
‘Don’t worry; I can soon put him back in his box, if he oversteps the mark.’
‘Aye lass, I bet you can at that. But I wouldn’t encourage him too much, that’s all.’ As far as Connie was aware, she hadn’t.
Sure enough, as though fulfilling a prophesy, Barry strutted over. ‘Connie, my darling, you look absolutely ravishing tonight, as always. Will you join me in a little drink?’
Connie motioned to her almost full glass. ‘No thanks Barry, that’s kind of you, but I’m okay for now. Thank you, though.’
‘Oh come on now, just a little drink to make an old man happy.’
‘Maybe later. Thank you,’ she smiled.
‘Go on, one drink.’
‘No, thank you.’
‘I’ll have half a lager, if you’re buying, and he’ll have a pint of bitter,’ Maureen said, gesturing her husband and leaning towards Barry.
He ignored Maureen and didn’t even acknowledge that she’d spoken. His voice altered, ‘I asked you to have a drink with me. I asked politely. Now, in England, where I come from, it’s rude to refuse a polite request.
‘And I said, no thank you, just as politely, and in England, where I also come from, it’s rude to pester somebody who wants to be left in peace.’ She smiled.
‘She said no, Barry come away and leave her alone, you’re making a dick of yourself,’ Donna shouted from behind the bar. It was Tina’s night off on a Saturday and another barmaid, Donna, was working with Gabby.
He ignored Donna too. ‘You fucking whore,’ spittal flew towards her face as Barry spoke. ‘Think you’re better than me, do you? With your fancy clothes and your money. Not good enough to buy you a drink, am I? Who the fuck do you think you are? Coming in here as if you own the joint.’
Before Connie could answer James was behind Barry. ‘That’s enough Barry. You’re getting out of line now, man. Come back to the bar before you upset the lady.’
Barry wheeled around and faced James his face reddening and anger twisting his mouth. ‘And here’s another one from the same stable. Another fucking rich bastard, who thinks their something special just because they’ve got some money and a fancy job. I’ll show you, you twat.’ Barry swung his fist towards James. He was on his final pint of many beginning at eleven that morning. James had just ordered his first. His reactions were fast and he caught Barry’s fist before it came anywhere close to making contact. He used the other’s man’s momentum against him and twisted Barry’s arm high above his back and used it as leverage to walk him out of the pub where he threw him to the pavement and told him not to come back into the pub that night.
James came back in and walked over to Connie. ‘Are you okay? I’m sorry about that; I hope it doesn’t spoil the rest of your night.’ If Connie didn’t know the bastard of old she’d have been impressed by him, thought him to be a gentleman. He hadn’t used excessive force against Barry; he’d only exerted enough dominance to get him safely out of the pub. A far cry from the James she knew, who loved to flex his fist muscles whenever he got the Chance. ‘Do you mind if I sit for a second? I’d like to explain about Barry,’
‘Oh there’s no need, honestly, it was nothing.’
‘Please, I’ll only keep you a moment.’ He smiled and turned up the charm to the max. Connie lowered her eyelids in acquiescence and gestured for him to take the seat that he already had his hand on. ‘The thing is,’ he continued,’ Barry’s an all right bloke really. Worked hard all his life until a couple of years ago. He got made redundant from the ship yard. Then his wife left him for somebody with money. It’s made him bitter, sensitive, you know?’ Connie nodded. ‘He’s got a mile high chip on his shoulder about people that he perceives are judging him for being on benefits. Now he drinks to forget. He’s a proud man. I hope he didn’t upset you too much.’ He certainly had the gift of the gab. He knew how to max out his charm card.
‘He didn’t upset me at all. And thank you so much for coming to my rescue like that. Perhaps I could buy you a drink to thank you properly, all this pub entertainment is thirsty work.’ She gave him the benefit of her immaculate veneers and gazed at him in something that she hoped came across as her being impressed but falling just short of adoration. She had to give his ego something to work towards.
‘I wouldn’t hear of it. In England, where I come from,’ he winked at her. ‘Ladies do not buy drinks for blokes. Same again? Or am I being too presumptuous?’
‘Not at all, that’d be lovely, thanks.’
Chinese whispers at the bar were in full swing when Connie and James spent the next two drinks in each other’s company. They were chatting animatedly and both of them laughed and flirted and played the game the way it was supposed to be played.
‘And now,’ insisted Connie, ‘it really is my round.’
‘Or,’ James looked unsure of himself for the first time since he’d come over. ‘Maybe we could go somewhere else. I know a nice bar,’ he lowered his voice to a whisper,’ somewhere a lot nicer than this, only a few minutes away. It’s a bit like being in a goldfish bowl in here.’ He motioned his head towards Maureen who had spent the last half hour hanging on their every word. ‘If we hurry we can make last orders.’
Connie agreed and he picked up their glasses to take them back to the bar and say goodnight.’ Maureen was in like a shot. ‘Watch him,’ he’s trouble, you think Barry was bad, well he’s a teddy bear compared to him.’
‘Don’t worry,’ Connie whispered back, ‘I’ve got his card marked.’ She tapped the side of her nose and instantly thought of Simon. He loved karaoke and she knew, with absolute certainty that she could never bring him to this bar. He would be laughed at and smaned about. Simon would never fit in here, and while she’d had a good time and had surprised herself by actually having fun, neither did she. Connie waved goodbye as they walked out of the door. She wouldn’t be back.
James took a sip of his pint and laughed. They were sitting in a secluded booth in a wine bar a few streets away from The Pheasant and Duck ‘Now promise me you won’t take this the wrong way. Believe me, cheesy chat up lines are not my style. But you seem familiar and I can’t work out why. I’ve come to the conclusion that you probably remind me of someone on the Television. Ah,’ he blushed, ‘told you it was cheesy.’ No, thought Connie, you haven’t seen me on TV; you’ve just told me that I’m ugly a hundred different times, in a hundred different ways, in another lifetime. She remembered the sting of his insults and wanted to smash his face in. She wanted to put him in a wheelchair. She wanted to see him bleed. She smiled, Do you know, you are a lovely sweet man.’
The bar was open late and they talked about this that and everything. The drink flowed freely and just as she’d remembered of old, James became a maudlin drunk. This was the stage before he became an obnoxious and violet drunk and she’d be long gone before then. He started to tell her about his financial worries. His salary was already generous without allowing for what he creamed off the top. But the more money he had the more money he spent, and the more of it he wasted on beer and women. He’d totted up some debts and he whined that his mother, rich beyond her needs had refused to bail him out. He sank into his self pity and if she had been a woman thinking of taking him as a lover, he couldn’t have been less appealing than at that moment. ‘I just need to find a way of making some fast money,’ he moaned.
Connie furrowed her brow as if in thought. He caught the look and it piqued his interest.’ What?’ he asked.
‘No, no it’s nothing. Ignore me, it’s a stupid idea.’
‘What? What is? Tell me?’
‘It was nothing.’
‘Come on now, you can’t do that. You have something to say, then say it, don’t fucking mess me about.’ It was the first time that he’d let his guard slip and the James she knew of old peeped through his façade of being human.
‘I can’t tell you. It’s one of the ways in which I’ve made my money in the past, but it’s not exactly all above board. Please don’t make me say any more.’ She touched his forearm,’ I really like you, James and I don’t want you to think bad of me.’
She had him right by his unpleasant, nasty scrotum and she knew it. She could see him working through the possibilities, lap dancer, escort, whore.
His charm was back in place as though he’d straightened a tie. ‘Connie,’ he took her hand in his and stroked the back of her palm with his thumb as he spoke to her. ‘There’s nothing you could say that would make me think badly of you. I think you’re an amazing woman. And now, you seem like an amazingly interesting woman. Don’t you think one’s secrets are an enormous turn on when they’re shared with an almost stranger, such as me, for instance?’ He leered at her and she felt sick. ‘Go on tell me your dark secret, I dare you.’
Connie giggled and crossed her legs to tease him as she spoke. ‘I am somewhat of an entrepreneur, back in Spain, and I admit, occasionally here in England, too, I have been responsible for organising,’ she halted and took a sip of her drink, letting him see how nervous she was, saying without words that this was difficult for her, that she didn’t normally discuss this kind of business outside her business circles. ‘Promise me that this is strictly confidential, if word got out—’ He nodded. ‘I organise illegal bare knuckle fights for the top underground organisations in the world. It’s made me a rich woman.’
He exhaled loudly and let out the air with a whoosh. ‘Fuc—good Lord, I didn’t expect that. You are full of surprises, aren’t you?’ he dropped her hand and his came to rest lightly on the top of her thigh. She gave him a moment and watched the gamut of emotions crossing his face. ‘I want in.’ he said.
Connie laughed. ‘Out of the question. That’s impossible. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything. It was wrong of me. It’s a fast way to make a lot of money and my mouth got ahead of me. Believe me, this isn’t the way for you.’ He’d moved her hair away from her shoulder as she talked and he’d leaned in and was kissing her neck. Connie felt as though a slug was crawling up her throat. She had to hold herself steady so that she didn’t visibly recoil.
‘We’re made for each other, you and me. I knew it the second I saw you. You captivated me. You’re the sexiest woman that I’ve ever laid eyes on. Think bad of you, darling, what you’ve just told me has only inflamed me with passion for you. You’re like nobody in this backwater— Get me into a fight.’
She turned to face him and his wet mouth, stinking of beer, made contact with hers. He slobbered all over her. She wanted to knee him in the crotch. She retuned his kisses enthusiastically. ‘I can’t, you don’t understand.’ She was breathless from his kiss, her voice even more husky than normal. Even for an accomplished actress this role would have been worthy of an Oscar. She felt repulsed by him. ‘These men are animals. The fighter’s I’ve got lined up for next Monday are the hardest men in the country. You’d get hurt and I’ve only just found you, I don’t want to lose you now. Kiss me some more.’
He pulled away from her and his gaze hardened. ‘I’m hard.’ He flexed his muscle and presented his biceps for her to feel. He was nothing if not predictable; she was right to attack through his vanity. ‘Ask anybody. I’m the hardest man around here.’ He lowered his voice, ‘I’ve been away for it, you know, in prison. Get me into a fight. I’ll make you so proud of me.’
‘Are you sure, it’s a tough game.’
‘I’m a tough man. Let me take you home and I’ll show you the animal in me. I’ll convince you that I’m all gentleman on the outside and caveman in the bedroom. Take me home Connie. I want you so much.’
She convinced him that she wasn’t that kind of girl. That he’d have to woo her first. She poured iced water on his ardour, raised his ego by telling him that she’d see what she could sort out and arranged to meet him at five thirty on the following Monday. She told him that he needed to train in the three days left before the fights. She said that sex was definitely off the menu until after Monday, and that blue steak was the order of the day. She kissed him passionately before jumping in a taxi and speeding away. She needed to shower.