No one knew James Tattoo’s real surname. He’d never told anyone. We all knew he’d been in prison because he liked to tell us all how he’d got there.

            James had had a young son at the time who was apparently very keen on birdwatching. James had bought him a little spotters’ guide, one of those little hardback books called summat like ‘Birds of Britain’. The kid took it into school for one of those ‘show and tell’ days and a bigger boy took it off him and threw it over a fence into the canal. James’s lad went home crying and James took it badly. He went round to see the bigger boy’s dad.

            He knocked on the dad’s door and the dad answered. He was apparently a large chap who said he couldn’t care less about bullying or bird books. James knocked him down and tied him up with fishing line and gaffer taped his gob. Then he put him in the boot of his car and drove him round the East Midlands for six hours before dumping him in a lay-by near Long Eaton. When the coppers asked James why he’d done it he said it was because he’d wanted the cunt to apologise and mean it. James did six years for that I’m told, but other offences might have been taken into consideration.

            Maybe prison was where he’d got all his tattoos. He certainly had some strange designs. Some religious icons and lines of Chinese characters, all manner of beautifully drawn wildlife, including a hovering kestrel on his left bicep with ‘Lenny’ written under it in copperplate that he said was a tribute to his son. Lenny had died of Leukaemia whilst James was inside.

            We got to see all his tattoos when he turned up to the pub one day in a dress. It was a Sunday and he spent the entire day in the pub wearing it until he passed out on one of the new settees and Stewart, the landlord, tenderly covered him with a blanket. It had been a long and tiring day.

            I didn’t dare ask him why he was wearing the dress. No one else seemed particularly interested, especially not after they’d seen James ask Vince for the money he owed him.

            Vince owed him a couple of hundred quid. I think he’d had a few wraps of chang on tick and hadn’t quite got round to paying. James, still in the dress, a nice pastel blue thing with a tasteful floral pattern that hung down far enough to kiss his kneecaps, took Vince out in the car park and got him in a savage headlock. We all watched through the pub window as he repeatedly tried to put Vince’s head through the back fence, Vince’s slightly obscured face growing redder with each failed attempt. Eventually, when James had had enough and got bored, he let Vince go and trot off to a cashpoint.

            James came back into the pub with the happy air of a hill-walker who’d just conquered a moderate summit. I asked him why he’d banged Vince’s head against the fence so many times, was it because Vince had taken liberties?

            “No mate,” he explained, “it’s just that I’ve ‘eadbutted an ‘ole in that fence easy before now and I can’t work out why Vince’s head didn’t go through in one.” He looked genuinely baffled. James, despite his slim build, was a strong man by anyone’s standards and should have been able to get Vince’s head through the fence easily. I didn’t like to point out that there was a brick wall behind the fence at the height Vince’s head had been at. I kept schtum about that and accepted the pint of Strongbow James offered.

            I knew James was strong because we’d tested it. One Sunday there was an old plastic dustbin outside the pub, the old fashioned type that they used to use before wheelie bins were everywhere.

            Anyway, this one was left over in the pub car park after some event from the night before. It was filled almost to the top with cement and had a vertical tube in the middle of it. It had been used as a base for a pole for a light or summat. Someone had forgotten about it when they were clearing up and it had got left behind.

            So it was sat in the car park and as afternoon darkened in to evening we decided to amuse ourselves with it. Everyone threw a couple of quid into the bucket Stewart uses for raffles and suchlike and the idea was that whoever could lift the bin highest won the money in the bucket.

            Everyone lined up outside to have a go, even the lasses had a go for a laugh. Everyone except me and James had had a turn and no one had been able to lift it, not even the Slovak with the unpronounceable name who’d been in the French Foreign Legion.

            James took his turn and he thought he was the last to go. He strained and his face went all red and screwed up and chimpy as he lifted but after two or three seconds he managed to lift the bin about an inch off the floor. Everyone was cheering and clapping, and Stew had a big laughing smile on his face as he handed the bucket to James.

            “Hang on a second!” I piped up, “I’ve not had a go yet.”

            There were cynical mutters and good natured sneers, but I’m used to being underestimated. They were all forgetting that I do a lot of heavy lifting at work and before I’d moved down to Ashby I used to play Rugby League. James already had one hand on the bucket as he, along with everyone else, turned to face me. There was an expectant rising moan from the crowd, a kind of ‘woooohhhrrrrr’ that started low and got louder as I grasped the puny handles on the sides of the bin of cement and lifted. It was bloody heavy, and Christ knows what my face looked like as I lifted it but I managed to get it an inch or so off the ground and then with a final massive heave that nearly made me vomit I raised it another three or four inches and felt it bang against my shins before I had to drop it. The crowd gave a big cheer and I shook my arms, trying to loosen the killing pain from my elbow and shoulder joints.

            James didn’t seem to like being beaten. He grabbed the bucket of cash by its handle, clamping it in both of his strong hands. I put a hand on the handle but he wouldn’t let go. I tugged it and he responded by banging his chest into mine and staring straight into my eyes from close range. He was a good three inches shorter than me but the unguarded rage in his eyes was terrifying. I held his gaze for a few seconds and then he threw a half-hearted headbutt, more of a challenge than an assault. I caught it on my forehead and rode the momentum. Then I pushed back. Our foreheads were locked together as the focal point for a bizarre pushing dance for several seconds before James pulled away laughing and let me take the bucket. I gave it back to Stew and feeling like the Milky Bar Kid in one of them adverts announced to the crowd, “The money’s going behind t’bar! Drinks for everyone courtesy of me and James!” There was a big cheer after that and everyone filed back into the pub talking and laughing.

            James had his arm round my shoulders and we had a right good session that night. Since then, he buys me a drink every time I see him and he was good to my sister too. After her accident he paid for her and her boyfriend to have a weekend in an hotel in Devon, gave them five hundred quid spending money too. I didn’t ask where the money came from. It was a touching gesture after all.

            Respect, I suppose, is what it’s all about. Mutual respect. I mean, I’ve never seen anyone do a Sudoku as fast as he can and he nearly cried when I gave him that Bumper Book of Puzzles the reception girl at work gave me. Sometimes lifting heavy weights does teach you things.

The days were short. Sodium lit nights were long thanks to a surfeit of wiz, but the days were short and sludgy dark as we used Guinness to soothe our way through them.
 I can’t remember what I should have been doing at the time. I was probably in the dead days of a degree I no longer wanted, spending time in Stratford-upon-Avon where my parents lived, trying to escape in a town I hated. I especially hated the fact that the town name was so long you could never fit it all into the address sections of loan application forms. My best mate at the time was Billy. He was a chef. He seemed to have a lot of free time.
 We’d met up at lunchtime. We’d been out the night before and were speed sickened and nervous, dry coughs and drier, tighter guts. Two pubs into a daytime crawl that would be interrupted by a couple of hours of token evening rest at home before it started again. Four pints of Guinness drunk, easing the comedown, re-resourcing us for the night ahead.
 We were drinking in a pub near the old hospital that had recently been rebranded ‘The Firkin’. No one I knew knew what a Firkin was. It had been refurbished with faux-authentic wooden floors and fittings, planks with ersatz creaks. A large place, white walls with brown half-timbering, yellow light lingering in corners, conversations echoing through the spaces with piped Rat Pack Christmas tunes. We were conspicuous in our Britpop, Shelter Shop suits amongst the townie couples, shopping bags with logos and handles placed between their legs and the legs of the heavy wooden tables, who were our company apart from the large, red-faced solitary rustic just down the bar from us. This didn’t particularly bother us as we stood there, beginning to enjoy the alcohol buzz washing over the speedy nerves, conversation becoming easily louder as the day’s death neared. We were feeling almost good again, Christmas was coming after all.
 The rustic was dressed in the dirty, smeared and spattered clothes of a builder and it was his success at this particular trade that he was boasting about to the barmaid. She was one of those semi-familiar types you see working behind bars, you think maybe you were at school with her or saw her in Macdonalds  or maybe you went out with an enemy of her’s, that kind of thing. She had an ugly Warwickshire accent, turning all her ‘e’s into ‘a’s, and a strange thick-lipped, large-eyed face that could have been stunning if it wasn’t for the stupidity that smeared itself over her every feature, dulling her lustre and flattening any appeal. She had deep brown hair with several differing shades of dark highlights, huge lips and high cheekbones. She also had the kind of thighs and backside that would have made even my speed-wizened cock twitch if she’d just known how to walk properly.
 The builder liked her anyway. He’d already developed the over-familiar, proprietorial manner towards her of the sex-starved, alpha male drunk. In fact, he’d begun to give her advice in what sounded like a Gloucester accent, telling her how he’d alter the layout of the pub. He’d have done it early too, and cheap, he was a fucking great builder.
 Billy could hear what he was saying and was miming a slack-jawed impression of him that with his pinned eyes, chalk white amphetamine skin and Noel Gallagher hairdo looked fucking insane. I tittered and sniffed, it was diverting enough. My comedown was becoming manageable and I was starting to feel boozily good again. Perhaps it was this rising festivity that made me order two pints of the special guest draught bitter, ‘Santa’s Christmas Ale’.
Your ability to absorb food and drink is limited when you’re in the midst of a stomach clamping speed comedown. Bread turns to ashes, water is barely tolerable. You even have to work hard at getting a proper drink down your neck, at first. I thought I’d got past this, and was actually looking forward to a change from Guinness. The ugly barmaid poured two pints of the guest bitter with studied unsexiness, lips shining like they’d been stung by a poisoned wasp. I was smiling as I took my first sip and paid for the pints.
That first sip was hellish: swillish, vinegary and flat. The second made me almost spew. I don’t know what I expected from the third. Maybe I was expecting to get used to it. Pints can be like that, vile at first but slowly growing to be lived with and loved.
Billy interrupted me before I could take that third sip. He said, “That’s fucking off. I’m not drinking that.”
“Steady mate,” I replied, “I fucking paid for it.”
 “I’m fucking complaining.”
“Go ahead mate.” I’d just taken that third sip.
Shiny Ugly Barmaid was still engaged in cheery talk with Fat Builder. He’d raised his arms up in an expansive gesture, illustrating some tale of his manly prowess, so that we could see the armpit holes in his scruffy green jumper that was contrasting nicely, in a septic sort of way, with his uncooked sausage meat face.
Billy said, “Excuse me.” He was a well-spoken cunt, Billy, his parents were teachers, so he sounded perfectly polite. Shiny Ugly made a dismissive hand gesture and shook her head once in our direction. Fat Builder’s story was obviously a good one. “Excuse me!” Billy repeated, slightly more assertively. Shiny Ugly turned and informed us, “I’m busy. Just wait.”
“I’m not after another drink,” Billy continued, “it’s just that this one’s off.”
She turned again and repeated herself. “I’m busy. Just wait.”
 “Come on love,” I interjected, “this pint’s piss poor. Tastes like fucking vinegar.”
“Right!” she responded, dark eyes flashing with something unhealthy and wrong in a woman, “there’s no need to swear. I’m busy.”
“Not that busy,” I answered, reasonably, still feeling festive, “and we’ve paid for these pints of old chunder and they’re off. We’re paying customers and we’d like our pints changed, please.” I was even smiling, couldn’t see the problem.
“I can’t just change people’s drinks,” she spat back, as though I’d just asked her for a hand-job out back, “I have to ask the manager.”
“Ask him then,” Billy reasonably suggested.
“He’s not here.”
“Well, just change the drinks and tell him later,” I suggested, “it’s not difficult.”
“The manager’s not here. I told you.” She rolled the words slowly out of her stupid mouth, as though we were the thick ones.
Fat Builder began to take an overt interest, half-rising from his bar stool, a pseudo-hardman, face trembling with adrenaline and ale, unable to look directly at us. “I’ve had two pints of that today and there’s nothing wrong with it,” he asserted.
I got a chemical surge, my own adrenaline triggering the last night’s residue. I looked straight at Fat Builder, darting black amphetamine hatred from my pinned eyes. “Well, there’s summat fucking wrong with you then mate,” I told him, exaggerating the Yorkshire in my voice, “and no one fucking asked you anyway. Pal.” He looked at me, and his face trembled again as he mumbled something mardy and replaced his fat arse on the bar stool. Probably fancied his chances against a couple of skinny shitkickers. Didn’t fancy it against a speed-wrapped Yorkshireman though, the soft fat cunt.
“Look love,” I said to the barmaid, ice sugaring the festive warmth now, “just change the fucking pints and we can all start getting on again.”
“I can’t without permission from the manager.”
“Well. Find him then.”
“He’s not here and I don’t know when he’ll be back.” She accompanied this assertion with some mouth movements, some kind of attempt at sarcasm, a smile perhaps.
“Can you phone him then?” Billy asked.
She huffed and tutted and shook her hands.
“Or just change the fucking pints,” I added once more, more Yorkshire steeling the tone in my voice.
“I’ve said I can’t do that without speaking to…”
“Well fucking ring him then!” Billy instructed. She turned and wrenched the phone from its holder on the shelf behind her. As she did so, she disturbed a stack of CDs and knocked them crashing to the floor. We didn’t laugh. There was no need. She dialled a number, poking the little numbered buttons with an unnecessary pressure, then held the receiver to her ear impatiently. There was no answer from her manager, because she slammed the receiver back into its holder and wordlessly began picking up the CDs. As she bent, there was a nice curve to her thighs that would have been very sexy indeed if she hadn’t been the kind of rural slag who enjoyed spit roasts from bikers. She said nothing.
Billy chirped up first, “Well?”
“He wasn’t there!” she snapped over her shoulder, just before she rose and replaced the CDs on the shelf next to the phone.
“Well,” I said, feeling much less reasonable than I thought I sounded, “can we just have new pints so that we can start enjoying ourselves again. I’m thirsty.”
 “I’ve told you I can’t change the pints without speaking to the manager.”
“Take a risk,” I smiled, “it’s always easier to apologise than to ask permission.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she spat, actually producing a small shower of saliva.
“It means: change the fucking drinks,” Billy explained.
“You’ll have to wait.” She turned on her heel and footslapped her way back over to Fat Builder. She had a big smile on her face as he rebegan his banter and we were left with two pints of undrinkable, vinegary sludge. This was a significant problem.
“What are we gonna do man?” I asked Billy.
“If these don’t get changed in five minutes, they’re going on the fucking floor.”
“Yeah,” I laughed, but I knew he probably meant it, and a fearful reluctance crept into my cells, the chemicals and adrenaline fading. We both lit cigarettes and waited for some minutes. With nothing to drink, this quite quickly got boring.
“Oi! Any news from that manager of yours yet?” I asked. Time was pressing. Shiny Ugly had a vile smile on her face and was twisting a hank of hair behind a large rubbery earlobe. Fat Builder’s face started shaking and he almost got up from his stool again.
I felt really tired now. “Like I said before pal, no one asked you. Fuck off,” I told him He sat back down. I turned to Shiny Ugly. “We’re fucking paying customers and this is shit. Phone that prick of a manager, or, alternatively, just do summat sensible for a fucking change and replace these fucking drinks!” She stamped over to where the phone was and with reluctant aggression detached it from its holder once more and poked the number in. She was slatternly and sloppy in her mannerisms, making a token gesture to some twisted notion of service. She let the phone ring a few times, but soon surrendered to her obvious desperation to replace it on the shelf. She gave us one poisonous glance and headed back over to Fat Builder.
I picked up my pint and held it meaningfully up to the light. Then I asked her, if she’d like, in the interests of consumer fucking satisfaction, to taste this piss. She stared at me wordlessly, painfully, the cogs of her intellect screeching. Billy was also looking at me wordlessly, but he knew why. He nodded.
I was feeling too tired for all this really, scaring off Fat Builder had exhausted me. I raised the pint further above my head, but letting it just smash down seemed too final. I lowered it with a gentle motion and rolled it underarm along the floor. A long swirl of the shitey liquid poured out on the sandy brown planks. Billy threw his pint into the middle of the swirl and it shattered. There was an impressive crash and twinkle. Fat Builder rose from his stool for the final time and we rushed to exit past him. His voice piped up with some high-pitched fucking Gloucester flavoured carrot cruncher shite. I grinned and mimed a head-butt. He flinched and I gave him a flat-vowelled “Fuck off!” to keep him warm. We were out.
We hurried off into the monochrome evening, big pale paving stones and streetlight blazing off half-timbered buildings, cutting the whiteness with a dirty yellow, a trail of abusive shouts with the words ‘You’re barred’ mingled in somewhere following us. A hundred yards ahead we turned and saw Shiny Ugly standing outside the pub with her hands on her hips, the attitude of one who has yelled. We wouldn’t be going back to The Firkin for a while.
“Where to now then, Bill?” I asked.
“The Encore,” he replied.
The Encore, tourist pub down by the river where we’d worked together over the summer. It was a good choice. We knew the beer was okay there. We’d stolen enough of it.

DISGUST ~ Zack Wilson

October 8, 2007

Just before I was 30 I went out with a medical student. She was 10 years younger than me but didn’t look it. She worked behind the bar in a pub I used to drink in. She used to flirt with me when I first walked in, get really warm and affectionate after I’d had 4 or 5 pints, then cold shoulder me after I’d had 8 or 9. I couldn’t work out who had the problem.

It turned out she was on tranquillisers for some kind of depressive problem. I was never allowed to spend the whole night with her. Her housemates made me feel like an idiot bumpkin, really coarse and thick-accented. Once, she drove me over the Snake Pass in a car bought for her by her parents. We were going to a young farmers’ ball in Chester , where her parents lived. Halfway over the Snake she told me that she had a death wish. After the ball, I began to see why.

Some weeks before this we’d gone out on a Sunday afternoon and had ended up in a pub on Division Street . They had some kind of promotion going for some kind of Belgian lager. They were serving it in tall glasses with narrow bases and wide tops. The rusty yellow beer poured cold into the glasses looked beautiful on the dark wood bar of the shady mid-summer pub. I fell for it and bought myself a pint and I thought it tasted great. She tasted it and made a face similar to the one she made when we were having sex. I think this was a bad thing. She once told me that her ex-boyfriend whose Royal Navy sweatshirt she occasionally wore had used to tear her when they were having sex. She sneered at me when she said this.

I tried to enjoy my beer, but the atmosphere made it go flat and warm quickly. She drank blue WKD through a straw and fidgeted in her red sleeveless Primark top and jeans with no label that were a size too small. I tried to find pleasant things to say about people we both knew and funny things about people she didn’t. She looked contemptuous and only smiled so that she could sneer properly. Every attempt at conversation died. Even her stance, arms loosely at her sides, shoulders slightly hunched, attractive large breasts presented prominently but for derision not admiration sapped all the enthusiasm out of what was already feeling like the kind of day you find dead pets on.

She went to the loo. I downed the half pint I had left and got a replacement pint. I’d drunk almost all of that and was onto my second cigarette when she returned. She sat down and looked pained once more.

“Do you want a drink?” I asked. I really wanted one.

“No…yeah, n…yeah. Yeah…well, just a…yeah.”

“Another one of those blue things?”

“Yeah.”

I finished the rest of my beer in a couple of swallows and took my empty glass and her empty bottle and straw to the bar. I ordered up and took the drinks back to where we were sitting. I sat down and offered her a cigarette. She shook her head and took one. I lit it for her. During the ensuing silence I got through about a 3rd of my drink. She played with her straw and nearly knocked her bottle over.

“I’ve got something to tell you,” she said.

Oh good, I thought, she’s going to end it.

“But I know you don’t like…talking about…these kind of things,” she elaborated.

“What kind of things? Are y…”

“You know,” she fiddled with her curly hair, she whispered, “Medical.”

“Oh.” I really didn’t know what to say. I felt right thirsty and wanted to kill all the space in my head. “What? Were, well, y…”

“It happened in the loo.”

“Oh. Wha…”

“But you don’t want to know.”

“Well, I’m concerned.” No I fucking wasn’t. I wanted to get savagely pissed and shout.

She lowered her voice, “I’ve been having some bleeding.”

“Ah, well. Is it to do with…with your…your cycle?” Christ, I felt like a fuckwit.

“No, no.” She shook her head vigorously. “Not from that hole, from my other hole, behind.”

My mouth moved but no words came out. She looked at me like a spoilt doll. I took a big swallow of beer and asked, “Maybe you ate something?” She shook her head. We didn’t say anything else until I’d finished my pint and we’d left. She went home to prepare for her Monday shift at the hospital. I went to the pub where I’d met her and got pissed with only the bar staff for company.

We split up about 6 weeks later, after the ball. I think I’d just got back from Skegness. I’d told her it was over with an SMS. It was easier that way. I didn’t have to look at her.