Two pints, says Mepham as he walks in the door. Billy is already there. And Stu. Make it three, Mepham says as he spots the boys playing pool. How’s it going, lads, he says as he walks over. Billy is lining up a shot. Red ball, centre pocket, he says though he doesn’t need to. Just hit it, says Stu. And hurry up. Stu is always in a bad mood. It doesn’t matter what you do, he always see the bad in things. Billy isn’t so bad. A couple of pints and he likes a laugh. But Stu can be wearing if you are not careful. Mepham stands next to Billy. He puts the pints on the ledge by the mirror. Mepham goes to light a cigarette when his phone goes. The text message arrived. GOD AIN’T GLAD W’V FOES OF D FAITH N D KINGDOM. Mepham looked up from his phone. Stop playing, lads, he says. You both need to choose, he said. What you gonna be? Alguacil? Alcaide? Billy looked up. What about you, he said. You need to choose as well. I already have, said Mepham. Malleus Haereticorum, that’s me. Typical, said Billy. You would be, wouldn’t you. I suppose you need me to choose as well, says Stu. You know you do, replies Mepham. You know you do. We have been through this a thousand times. We knew this was coming, didn’t we. The phone went again. GOD NOS WHO’S RONG N HS SINNED. SN A CALAMITY WL OCCUR 2 DOZE HU AV CONDEMD US 2 DETH. Here we are, says Mepham. It’s kicking off nicely.
This town is one of those places. Hate hangs heavy here. Sighs, cries and farts smear the air. Bad dreams at night. The castle on a hill. Piss-stained and decrepit. A hunched dark gargoyle. Bent with a spastic twist. The bastard gaze of the vomit-eyed moon. Dripping down like the sour splash of ruined milk. Shit stains the footpaths here and is stepped into every carpet. This town is one of those places. Blighted like a poisoned tree.
Stretch and Steve didn’t look so good in the papers, we figured. So we became Tubby and Stretch for the 1962 ‘Hastings Got Happy?’ contest. It was a talent show so the question mark was crucial. For a brief time we were big in a local way. ‘Two boys who might go far’, said the Hastings Observer on July 12th 1962. ‘A pair like you have never seen’, cried the Eastbourne Herald on the same day. ‘You’re onto something’, people told us. ‘A stage or a trail?’, we would reply. ‘You boys’, they’d say. ‘You boys’. Who else was on the stage that night? Thompson the Wonder Dog. Petal Perkins – ‘the Prettiest Flower in All the World’. Or ‘Wolrd’ as the posters all said. Brother Simon and the Temple Five. That was then.
I would that it were, Sir. I would that it were. He puts down his glass. Foolish single hairs tight across his silly skull. Our pair in the Snug of the Empty Nest. The one that sits at the top of the hill. Down to the reservoir. People have been beaten as they walk this way home. Monday night and the Pool team have lost. The video jukebox is silent again. Do you want one more? I think that I might, Sir. I think that I might. He’ll ring the bell in a mo. One more? I think that I might. Well, do you? I think that I might. And a pack of those cheesy crunchy things. That’s one more, then? Back from the bar with two pints. Sandwiches left on a plate. The visiting team didn’t finish theirs. Did you want a sandwich? Not for me, please? Not for me. Now what was we saying? Remember when things were different? Round here, you mean? When things were the same? As they always were? Exactly. What I would give for them to be back as before. I would that they were, Sir. I would that they were. But listen to us. He lights that pipe again. Not that pipe, please. Small comforts, Sir. Small comforts. The Snug is empty now. Just the two of them. Do we only moan? I’m not moaning. Just talking, like. As neighbours will do. Yeah, just like neighbours will do.
Brother Simon? You remember. Brother Simon and the Temple Five. Glory old gospel stuff. Precious Wings and Holy Limbs. How could I forget, Sir? How could I forget? I remember them well. Lord, Lend Me Love. Brother Simon swooping as the Temple Five fell in behind. One-knee bending. All the moves. We were better than them. Far better. And that bloody alsation! What was he called? Thompson the Wonder Dog, Sir. Thompson the Wonder Dog. Managed by bastard bloody Bumstead. That bastard Bumstead turning the handle. Thompson singing along. Singing he called it. Singing. We were better than them. Far better. But no-one sang with us. No sir. No-one sang with us. Bastard Bumstead smiling as the audience joined in. All of them. But we were funny, Sir. We were funny. You boys, they said. You boys. People were laughing. But laughing’s not singing. People weren’t singing. That bastard shit-licking Bumstead. He laughed as well. Laughed as Thompson won. Dog must be long dead. I would that it were, sir. I would that it were. Must be! Can’t be still living. Couldn’t possibly be.
Time at the bar, please. Time at the bar.
Bastard bloody Bumstead. Always the one we hated the most.
Our two walking home. Past the chicken shop. The promise of a dripping box. Past the all-night garage. Queuing to talk through the tiny hole. Drop your money in the sliding drawer. Scrabbling for your change. No buses now. Stopped running a while ago. Only two an hour anyway. Past the old model shop. With the train in the window. Once round the track for 5p. Tall houses and the church on the right. Uphill path through the arch of the trees. Not a soul. Not a soul.