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Smart Arse. By Zack Wilson.


I’ve pulled a sicky today. There’s hardly any deliveries going out at the moment and I didn’t fancy working in the yard all day, grafting, shifting pallets and being challenged to bouts of sparring by Dave the Giant. He’s the bare-knuckle fighter whom Colin uses for all the heavy jobs that require a lot of lifting and not too much thought.

I don’t know why he thinks I’d like to spar with him. Maybe he’s just beaten everyone else in the yard? I once saw him pin Martin Brown up against the lockers in the crew room. Browny’s not a small man, but Dave lifted him off his feet and punched the locker next to Browny’s head. The whole row of lockers rattled and the metal door of the one his massive fist connected with buckled like a cardboard box struck by a sledgehammer. Browny was crying. I didn’t need any of that.

So I rang Colin and told him I had the shits. We both knew I was bullshitting, but Colin’s a good gaffer and he’s still following this ‘Second-generation Irish brotherhood’ thing, so I could almost hear him wink as he said, “Okay mate. See you when I see you!”

So here I am at noon in The Green Man, sipping a cool pint of Strongbow and enjoying my view of the sunshine through the window.

Stewart, the landlord, is the only other person in here. It is early. He’s on the crutches again. Well, he’s meant to be, but he’s spent most of the time so far limping around without them, manoeuvring the huge plaster that encases his left foot and ankle like a dusty white boot. He’s always having operations and shit done to his ankle, tells everyone that it was a football injury but I heard from his wife that he hurt it kicking out in frustration at what he thought was an empty wheelie bin. Turned out it was full of bricks and building rubble. Must have a hurt a lot.

As usual, whatever the time of day or night, Stewart’s been on my side of the bar, making small-talk and pretending to tidy up and check things on his ‘To Do’ list, a yellow post-it note covered in random biro scrawl. He keeps pretending to look at it at every lull in our conversation, and then limps off with his plaster boot and bangs some doors or opens a window.

I can see how pissed off he is when a customer walks in. He was just beginning to pour his first pint of the day. That meant that I was quite pissed off too. Stewart never just pours a pint for himself and when he’s in this mood regulars rarely pay.

The newcomer is too bloody friendly. Really enthusiastic greetings of “Afternoon gents!” do not go down well in a strange pub at a time of day most drinkers regard as morning. Stewart says, “Alright mate, what can I get you?” I just nod and wince.

He sounds quite well-educated, the newcomer, almost posh, but he’s trying to hide it by exaggerating some kind of indefinable northern accent, might be Sheffield. It’s not the way he naturally speaks anyway.

He orders a pint of something traditional, brown and rotten, and like all twats who like ‘real’ ale he mulls loudly over the choice, eventually deciding on something that means Stewart has to limp to the other end of the bar. He almost changes his mind just as Stewart starts pumping the hand-pulled special cask shite, but then checks himself with a matey chuckle. Attention seeker.

Stewart puts the pint in front of him and rings it up on the till as the most expensive pint in the pub-Stella at £2.95. At least 30p more then it should be. The newcomer doesn’t notice. He’s busy trying to catch my eye, being lazily cast over the pub’s copy of The Independent.

“Alright mate?” he chirps. I don’t have to look at him to know he’s got a grin I hate on his face. “Nice weather we’re having eh?”

“If you like sunshine,” I reply, not looking at him and trying to read an article about the Premier League plight of Derby County.

“Yeah,” I hear him say, “who doesn’t though eh?” Again he gives an irritating matey chuckle. I look up and give him a deadpan stare.

He’s about my age, early thirties or so, dressed in a cheapish looking black shirt with incongruously large and brown shoes that resemble hiking boots in their design. His red tie with yellow circles bouncing around its shiny fabric has been loosened, giving him a forced air of relaxation that doesn’t sit well with his uptight blue eyes that dart around behind silver framed specs, trying to take in every detail of the pub with malignant nosiness.

I chuck The Independent to one side and reach over the bar for the Daily Mirror. Something tells me this stranger won’t like The Mirror. I look at the pictures of celebrities for a bit.

Stewart’s back behind the bar and there’s an uncomfortable silence, hanging like smoke used to in English pubs. He’s looking at a magazine and I can see from his twitchy movements that he’s desperate for this stranger to clear off so that he can slake something of his early-day thirst. He picks up a biro and starts sucking on it like he wishes it was a fag, looking at the crossword in the magazine.

I’m getting to the end of my pint and thinking about asking Stewart for another when he asks me a question. “Crossword clue for you, quiz champ. ‘Battle where tanks first used’. Five letters. Any ideas?”

“Dunno mate, not off top of me head…”

I’m interrupted by the stranger who blurts, “Are you talking to me?” at Stewart.

“No. I’m not,” Stewart replies, “I’m talking to our pub quiz champion ringer here, Ray.”

“Oh,” the stranger says, “it’s just that I’m a quiz champion. My quiz team won…”

Stewart cuts him off. “Any ideas Ray?” he asks.

“Arras? Not sure how you spell that though…”

“It’s the Somme! The Somme!” the stranger interjects, “I know everything about the First World War! The Somme!”

Stewart looks at me. I scratch the stubble on my chin. Stewart chucks his pen down on to the magazine and pours me another Strongbow. I reach into my pocket for money but he waves it away and goes over to the quiz machine in the corner. I hear the click and clunk of coins and then muted version of the theme to ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’

I nod in silent gratitude and take a pull at the drink. I can feel the stranger’s eyes on me. I don’t have to wait long before he asks me, “What are you drinking mate?” It’s delivered intrusively and isn’t an offer. I tempted to blank him but an inbuilt politeness stops me and I reply resignedly, “Cider. Strongbow.”

“Hahahahaha!” he quacks, “That muck’s not cider!”

“Well, it’s fizzy, tastes a bit like apples and it’s quite strong. That’ll do me.”

“Oh, you want to get some scrumpy down your neck…”

“I have done. I don’t like it. It makes me want to fight and I don’t like being violent. You can’t get it here anyway.” I look ahead at the empty spaces behind the bar. Out of the corner of my eye I can see him half-grinning, like he doesn’t believe me. I take another long drink and hear celebratory noises from the quiz machine. Stewart seems to be doing well.

The quiz champion won’t leave it alone. “What you been up to today then mate?” he asks, all perky, patronising and irritating. Before I can answer he tells me that he’s down from Chesterfield and had a job interview this morning. He doesn’t bother to wait for me to ask for what job because he tells me. “Social worker me. Youth Offending’s my area of especial expertise. I’ll be a new co-ordinator for a new area team set up to cover Ashby and the surrounding area.”

I take another drink. This pillock’s making grafting in the yard with Dave the Giant seem positively heavenly.

I can sense his next question coming as Stewart shouts out, “Ray! Which of these smuggled German weapons to Ireland in 1916? Roger Cassidy, Casement, Casey or Cullen?”

“Casement,” I affirm.

“No. It’s not,” the stranger drawls, all patronising smarm and the look of the know-it-all cousin you always hated on his face. He’s smiling down at me from his bar stool, unable to contain his excitement. “More World War One stuff! I told you I know it all! Casement’s not an Irish name, is it now? The answer’s Cassidy.”

“No, it’s Casement,” I repeat, “as in ‘Banna Strand’ the Wolfe Tones song.”

“Oh, it’s in a song. Then it must be true,” the stranger says with what I assume is sarcasm. “Casement’s not an Irish name is it? The answer, as I said, is Cassidy.”

“It’s not an Irish name. Casement was a proddy. They don’t tend to have ‘Irish’ names,” I tell him.

“What’s his religion got to do with his name?” the stranger asks, rhetorically. I give him an answer anyway.

“In Ireland, everything. Protestants in the south of Ireland tend to have English sounding names.”

“But their religion has nothing to do with their names!” He’s laughing again.

“It has!” I exclaim, “the Protestants are descended mainly from English people in the south and Scottish people in the north, not the native Gaels or…”

“I do have a history component to my degree you know.” His smile has been tempered by a knowing seriousness that is deeply irritating. He’s looking at me as though I’m the thick one here.

“I’m Irish,” I tell him, which isn’t normally something I’d say.

“You don’t sound it.”

“My dad was from Cork. That’s in Ireland.”

“Well, you’re NOT Irish then are you.”

“I’ll be the judge of that.”

“Well, you can’t be Irish if…”

The sound of the quiz machine chucking out coins interrupts him. “It was Casement,” Stewart grins as he turns away from the quizzer, pocketing pound coins. “You just won me 24 quid, Ray. Another pint?”

“Yes mate. Cheers.”

The stranger isn’t looking at me. He’s nicked my copy of The Mirror whilst I wasn’t looking and he’s flicking through the pages and shaking his head ruefully with that big bloody grin on his face. He won’t look at me though.

“Ray?” Stewart asks, “Want a vodka to go with that pint?”

“Bit early for me, thanks mate.”

“That’s a shame. You know them Polish brothers that come in on a Friday night, Marek and Andrez?”

“The two comedy drunks? Wasn’t one of them in the French Foreign Legion?”

“No mate. That’s that Slovak bloke from the warehouse with the name no one can pronounce.”

“Oh. Anyway, what about the Poles?”

“Well, their cousin runs a Polish deli over in Leicester and he’s started importing this genuine Polish vodka. I bought a couple of bottles off him. 60% proof!”

I’m about to tell him that it’s definitely too early for that when Smart Arse interjects again. “You mean ‘60% Alcohol By Volume’” he states, like he’s talking to a slow-witted dog.“ ‘Proof’ is a term that doesn’t refer to alcoholic volume but to…to…”

Stewart and I are both waiting.

“To…to…” he continues, “to…to something else. Anyway 60% ABV is one-twenty proof.” He’s got that massive grin on his face again. I look at his puny arms and think for a minute about throwing him through the window. Then I look at his bulging soft gut and decide that it would be more trouble than it’s worth.

He looks at Stewart, at me, at Stewart again, as though he’s watching ping-pong. Doubtless he’d tell us it was actually called ‘table tennis’. We ignore him. It’s quiet.

“I’ll pour you that pint Ray,” Stewart says, “sorry, I let myself get distracted.”

“That’s alright mate.”

Smart-Arse shakes his head and titters and gets off his bar stool. He’s finished his brown pint apart from some scummy froth in the bottom of the glass. He mutters something about the toilet and walks out the bar area and down the corridor where the bogs are. Rather then walking through the door marked ‘Gents’ though, he goes into the palatial surroundings of the disabled toilet.

“Has he just gone into the disabled bog?” Stewart asks me, “That’s meant to be kept locked. I must’ve forgotten to lock it. You’re meant to get the key for it from behind the bar.”

“That’s where he went,” I reply.

“The key’s here.” Stewart grins as he picks up the key, attached with string to a big red laminated card with ‘DISABLED BOG’ written on it in permanent marker.

“He seems to have gone for a sit-down anyway,” I grin back.

Stewart limps round from behind the bar, up the corridor and locks the door to the disabled toilet with a satisfying click. “That’ll teach him to check his facts,” Stewart says as he tries to walk purposefully back behind his bar. Quite difficult with his rigid comedy limp.

“Yeah,” I laugh. Stewart nods back at me determinedly as some other drinkers arrive, the first proper customers of the day: James Tattoo, the coke dealer, and his pal Baggy Head. They order drinks and laugh with us. When James Tattoo begins one of his rambling anecdotes then we all have to listen or he’ll get annoyed so both Stewart and I are too busy to remember Smart Arse stuck in the bog. James has a very loud voice too, so it’s almost impossible to hear the banging and thumping on the toilet door. When someone does hear it and asks Stewart he just tells them, “Maintenance.”

We leave him for an hour to stew in his own stink. As the lunchtime rush starts to die off at around two, Stewart limps over to the disabled toilet door and unlocks it. Smart Arse emerges, looking hot and angry, perfectly round circles of scarlet stretching over almost the entirety of both of his cheeks. “What’s going on?” he squeals, his superiority dampened and squashed.

“Sorry mate. Didn’t know you were there. That’s the disabled toilet. The gents is up there, thataway,” Stewart tells him, emphasising the direction with a huge comic pointing gesture, “you should have read the sign.” The comic pointing finger swivels round and indicates a space somewhere above and behind the strangers’ now somewhat ruffled looking curly brown head.

“Haaarrummphh…I will…bloody swill that ale! Not fit for a pig!” The stranger’s voice rises from a snore to another squeal as he speaks. Then he hurries away, banging the double-doors of the pub in to each other with a thumpity-thump as he goes.

Stewart gives us all a big smile. James Tattoo, me and the couple of other regulars who’ve drifted in all laugh out loud. James finishes his pint and gives me a warm handshake and Stewart a manly hug along with two wraps of coke and one of MDMA slipped into the back pocket of his Levis. More laughs, and then James and Baggy Head leave, taking the others with them on what they hope will be a proper beer mission. I stay put and order another pint.

As Stewart opens the Strongbow tap, I say, “Stewart?”


“There isn’t a sign above that door.”

He finishes pouring the pint and smiles as he places it on the bar in front of me. He winks and pauses just before he says, “Noticing things like that is why I’ll never let you have a tab here, sunshine.” He shakes his head as I reach into my pocket for cash and taps the bar, then turns away and limps to the other end of the bar to serve a couple of office workers who’ve just arrived.

I take a long pull at the pint and think about Dave the Giant grafting, shifting all them pallets in the hot sun and I feel quite glad.

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