This is a short story I started ages ago and never got round to finishing until now, based on a real conversation I had with a regular in the pub I worked at in North Manchester whilst at uni. It’s clumsily written, but such is life.
Monday, 12 noon until 4pm was known as the ‘Dead Shift’. At times, I didn’t see another soul, apart from the landlord – and then only briefly, as he opened the door to let me in, before stumbling back up the stairs, heavy with the weight of the weekend. Working behind the bar on the dead shift was a perfect gift for a student, getting paid to read books as you sat at the end of the bar, waiting for no-one to serve.
If it had been the city centre, we would have been busy with passing trade; shoppers, laden with bags, or suited business men, in search of a ‘hair of the dog’. But this was small-town suburbia. A tired pub in a tired town. A grey crossroads. Occasionally, a worker from the warehouse up the road would call in, on his way home from the night shift; or a taxi driver from the rank next door would end his shift with a sombre, silent pint, out of place in the midday stillness.
But usually, I was alone in the quiet. Though there was one ‘regular’ of the dead shift. Bob was a pensioner who lived over the road from the pub. At one o’clock each weekday afternoon he would shuffle across the road, often in his slippers, for half a pint before shuffling back again. Rush hour. He was small and stout, at least eighty, with bushy eyebrows and a pointed nose that gave him a wise, owl-like appearance. He wouldn’t say much, just order his half-pint and sit doing the crossword beneath the ticking clock.
But this one time, something caught his eye.
“What are we on today, then?” he asked, in his throaty old voice, nodding towards the book on my stool at the end of the bar.
“First world war,” I replied, rolling my eyes. “I’ve an exam next week. Build up to and causes of.” Bob’s owl eyebrows raised slightly and he made a sound – a grunt or half-laugh – and shuffled over to his spot beneath the clock. He began to roll a cigarette (this was before the smoking ban and the fug of the weekend smoke could still be sensed, like a ghost in the air).
“I don’t get it,” I said, returning to my studies. “One man is shot and the whole world is thrown into war.” I knew there was more to it than that, though I was unsure how much Bob knew. I didn’t want to sound like a smart-arse. Bob had nestled into his crossword, but looked up.
“Archduke Franz Ferdinand,” he said at last, musing.
“Weren’t you in the second?” I asked, bluntly and (now with the benefit of hindsight, ridiculously). I vaguely remembered seeing Bob in a uniform, on Remembrance Sunday. He’d been on a march to the cenotaph, but that was last year. Maybe even the year before. I don’t think he’d made it this year. Some of the veterans had called in, the old regulars. ‘Fewer every year,” the landlord had said, in trite sympathy.
“Hm?” Bob sipped from his glass, his wise face creasing into a confused look.
“The Second World War?” I asked, half-interested, half delaying my return to the textbook on my lap.
He nodded and, after a pause, said “I spent some time in France.”
The clock ticked. The thin blue smoke curled from Bob’s clumsy cigarette. I returned to my book; the dry passionless fug of facts. Grainy black and white photographs of trenches; complicated maps; lines, arrows and symbols. None of which emitted any emotion, any real impact. It was like a locked door to the past; a crass summary. I closed the book and began to clean the few rickety tables. The pub was due to be refurbished but the brewery kept delaying, leading the landlord to suspect they were planning to pull the plug and close; trade was hardly roaring. Bob looked up from his crossword.
“A mind made up, a solution found,” he croaked.
“Six across. Eight letters. Something ‘e’, something, ‘o’, something, something, something ‘e’, something.”
I was rubbish at crosswords. I thought for a moment then changed the subject.
“So whereabouts in France were you?”
Bob returned his gaze to the black and white squares of the crossword and scribbled something down.
“Here and there, mostly in the North,” he said, deliberately vague. “That was a long time ago.” He’d never talked about it before and I hardly knew him. Why should he talk now?
I carried on wiping the tables down. The blue cigarette smoke had settled to a haze.
“It’s strange,” I mused, “all that fighting. In the first war. All that fighting, all those dead, only to do it all again twenty years after.” I could’ve kicked myself. How did I know that Bob hadn’t lost people, loved ones, only for me to trivialise it? I immediately tried to change the subject.
“What was it, something ‘e’, something ‘o’?”
Only Bob had looked up from his paper. He looked off, through the haze to the window. It had started to rain. The grey street looked greyer as the rain lashed the slate rooftops opposite.
“I was based at a camp in Northern France,” he said. “It was an important town in the first war. During the big push towards Germany, it became involved in the second, too. It had been occupied for some time.”
Bob continued to gaze out of the window as he talked. I sat at the table next to him and listened.
“I remember, we had to do these patrols, at night, through the woods. I was with my brother, we were in the same battalion, you see.”
“God, I’d hate to be lumped with my brother at the Front,” I laughed and immediately wanted to kick myself again. But Bob smiled.
“You not get on, then?” he laughed.
“It’s a long story,” I said. “Anyway, you were saying.” I didn’t want to even think about him, never mind talk about him.
“We had these patrols. Out in the woods. It was pitch black out there. And the rain made it worse. I remember, it was autumn of ’44. We did some patrols on foot and some, luckily, were in a car. A kind of jeep, you see.” Bob seemed to light up as he reminisced, there was a spark to his eyes that I’d never seen before.
“Me and my brother sat one night in this jeep, slowly driving through this kind of pathway through the woods. The wind was howling. The rain was torrential. Arthur, my brother, he was older than me. I was still a kid, but he knew his history, and he used to tell me about the first war. Our Dad had been at the Front, you see. He survived, but he never talked about it, after.” Bob took a sip from his glass, the froth collecting like a spider’s web.
“Anyway, Arthur would tell me all about the battles in the first war and he said the woods we were in had been fought over a lot by the Germans and us and that thousands had died around there.” He leaned in a little, his owl eyes glittering with memory.
“Arthur said they were haunted, the woods. Said soldiers had seen shapes, rows of men, whole platoons of dead soldiers marching through the wood.” He laughed, a throaty cackle, “Of course I didn’t believe it. I laughed it off, like. But,” and Bob’s face slackened into a serious look, “now and then we’d hear creaks. Under the tyres as we moved along. Arthur said they might be bones. Unfound troops, lost in the mud. I said they were branches, told him not to be so soft. But I must admit, as we went along I dreaded each crack and creak from underneath.”
The rain, coupled with a gale, sent a little river down the roadside outside, carrying leaves with it.
“Did your brother get through the war?” I asked.
Bob drained what was left in his spidery glass and looked out at the pile of dead leaves forming around the grid in the road outside.
“We were separated,” he said, his face sad as the view from the window, “he was sent with another regiment as the big push on Berlin began. I was injured in an explosion, was sent back to a hospital. I missed the rest of the war. Arthur made it to Berlin, but he didn’t come out.” Bob looked down. I looked out of the window. The clock ticked.
The door swung open and Pete, one of the taxi drivers from the rank next door blustered in, shaking the rain from his jacket.
“It’s bloody rough out there!” he huffed, hanging his jacket up.
“How do, Bob!” he called as he made his way to the bar. I looked back to Bob and he’d returned to his crossword, as if he’d never said a word. His eyebrows were knitted in concentration. He looked up and mumbled a hello to Pete.
“Well I’m buggered if I can finish that,” he said, folding the paper and laying down his bookie’s pen. “I’ll leave it with you if you want,” he smiled and heaved himself up and out of the seat. I instinctively helped him up. He pulled me closer to him and whispered to me.
“And make up with that brother of yours,” he said, insistent. “You never know how much longer you’ve got.
“I will, I will,” I acquiesced, guiding him to the door. I hadn’t fallen out with him about anything serious, at least not serious enough to recall her, but we’d not spoken for days. “You can keep your crossword though,” I said and handed his paper back to him, “I’m bloody useless at them.”
“You’ll get them slippers wet!” Pete shouted from the bar, waiting for me to pull him a pint.
“Give over,” Bob laughed, and shuffled out.
I collected his glass from the table he’d been sat at and returned to the bar. I looked out of the rain-filled window as Bob shuffled across the road to the small houses across the way.
“Come on, I’m bloody gasping!” Pete moaned, rubbing his hands against the cold.
I missed my shift the following Monday because of the history exam. I swapped my shift with Sheila, a barmaid, and had to work the Saturday night instead, in the lounge. The room couldn’t have been any different. It was packed with punters; the jukebox boomed and the huge TV screen glared in the corner. Dave, the landlord, was pulling a pint when he said it. The bar was packed with people queuing, shouting orders.
“Shame about old Bob,” I overheard him shout to a woman at the bar. She couldn’t hear him and smiled, nodding. Dave took her money and moved to the next punter.
“What’s that about Bob?” I asked, pulling a pint at the pump next to him.
“He died this morning,” Dave said, matter-of-fact before adding “When you get a chance, change the lager, will you?”
I couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t close to Bob, but that last time I saw him I felt I’d made a real connection with him. The way you do when you’re young, filled with self-importance and assumptions. But he’d definitely opened up, however slightly. He spoke to me more on that rainy Monday than he had the whole time I’d been working at the pub.
Later, as we were clearing away and the last of the revellers had staggered out, Dave was emptying the bin.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you,” he said, tying up a bin-bag full of empty cans, “we had a message for you the other day. Sheila wrote it down. I couldn’t make head nor tale of it, it’s on the notepad next to the till in the vault.” He hauled the bag away down the length of the bar and out of the door to the bins outside, switching the main lights to the room off as he went. I stood alone at the bar, under the solitary light by the till. I made my way around the corner to the vault bar. The room was in darkness, again save for the light above the till.
The notepad was filled with numbers, scribblings and sums (the vault till was old-fashioned and you had to work out the prices, unlike the new one in the lounge which did everything for you).At first I couldn’t see anything that might be for me and then turned the page. Amid the sums and scribbles were two sentences:
“SIX ACROSS. EIGHT LETTERS. A MIND MADE UP, A SOLUTION FOUND. RESOLVED.”
I looked across the empty room to where Bob would sit, by the window. His seat was lit by the streetlight outside. I could almost hear his crackling laugh. I reached for my phone, I had one missed call. I knew who from. This time, though, I phoned him back.