'Are you listening?' Steve was on his feet, fists on doughy hips. With puce cheeks puffed out, he looked like an angry baby.
'Oh go on Steve. Let the girly have another ‘arf,’ Marlene interrupted, 'There's a good boy.' She pronounced boy like bay. I stifled a giggle.
'Look, if we don't leave Bristol now,’ Steve huffed, “we'll be stuck on the M4 for hours,'.
'Just one more. Please,' I wheedled. I grabbed his hand and pulled him back down on ripped red plastic banquette.
Steve jangled the keys of his precious Frog Eyed Sprite in my face and said, ‘Half an hour Princess. Then we’re leaving.’
I nodded with vigour. Marlene clapped her hands, leant across me and planted a sticky red kiss on Steve’s forehead. It looked like a gun shot wound.
‘Stigmata.’ I pointed, laughing till I thought I’d pee myself.
‘Tomatah more like,’ Marlene squawked. Tutting, Steve pulled a neatly ironed handkerchief from his trouser pocket and rubbed at the perfect outline of her lips. A raspberry smear spread across his furrowed brow.
I laughed. Marlene laughed. Steve wasn’t laughing. Marlene jumped up, a flourish of frills, red curls bouncing, and pushed through the dockers hogging the bar
I’d never been in a pub with real sawdust on the floor. When we arrived, it was the colour of clotted cream. Three hours later, scuffed about by workmen’s boots, it had turned into eddies of dirty brown. The Coronation Tap sold only cider and spirits. There was a brass spittoon in the corner by the bar into which staggering blokes would lean and hoik like they were coughing up a lung. Considering the miasma of cigarette smog obscuring the view of the downs from the Tap’s grimy windows, this was entirely possible. Marlene told me the spittoon was for the ‘oysters,’ a glutinous residue found in the bottom of cider barrels.
‘Looks like a big lump of snot,’ she bellowed over the pub hubbub in her hilarious Bristol accent. Marlene added a ‘l’ to any word ending in a vowel. She had good ‘ideals’, banged drinks down on the ‘formical table’ and enthused about the Cardoma’s ‘bananal milkshakes.’ Steve didn’t believe her when she said they used to drown a rat in the fermenting cider, ‘to give it extra flavour.’
‘Why are we with this woman?’ he hissed while Marlene was at the bar. I wanted to say, despite only having met her yesterday, Marlene was my new best friend. I’d found her last night in the bar of the Coach and Horses where that old woman with hair like sticks was chanting, ‘I dagged him with a dagger knife, I did. I dagged him.’ Her mechanical mantra grew to a crescendo before she grabbed a biro from the bar and, with theatrical fervour, re-enacted the dagging. Drinkers fanned away from her before the landlord took her by the elbow and guided her gently out of the door.
Marlene was next to us at the bar when the dagging incident took place. Not that I knew she was called Marlene then, obviously. She told us the old gal’s brain had been eaten by cider and her dagging story was a normal for Saturday night. After a few drinks, Marlene, with her gypsy ringlets and smudged kohl eyes, seemed like someone I could confide in. Steve seemed a bit pissed off having to buy drinks for the three of us but he could afford it. After a couple more rounds, I confessed to Marlene that Steve wasn’t my boyfriend. But, I said whispering behind my hand into her ear, he wanted to be. I told her he’d driven me for a weekend away in Bristol because he thought he could have it away with me. I said riding in his precious Sprite was like being on a roller skate and just as draughty. I think Steve overheard this bit because he’d been even more grumpy afterwards.
He was especially grumpy when we got back to our twin bed B&B, with its yellow nylon sheets and woodchip avocado wallpaper. That’s when I reminded him I wouldn’t risk his valued friendship by sleeping with him. This didn’t mean I wouldn’t, I’d said. Although, obviously, I wouldn’t. I gave him a kiss and cuddle and when his eyes had gone all gloopy, I said I was everso keen to watch the dockers play football on the downs the next morning with Marlene. And go to this pub called the Coronation Tap. Marlene said that’s where everyone went on Sunday Lunch time, I told him, yawning and slithering in between the bobbly sheets. The Tap was the best cider house in Clifton, Marlene said. Then I must have fallen asleep.
In the Coronation Tap, Steve, with his striped blazer and neatly pressed slacks stood out like a chicken wing in a vegetarian buffet. The dockers, granite men with fists like boxing gloves and purple tattoos painted across balloon biceps, all seemed to know Marlene. She was especially chummy with the landlord, Big Al. Al’s belly was the size of a small island and between pulling pints, he wiped his hands on a luxurious beard. I envied Marlene’s confidence and the easy way she joshed with Al and the dockers jostling at the bar like ferries moored up in a rough sea. She didn’t seem to mind when they felt her bosom or slapped her bum. She just giggled, playfully slapped away their wandering hands and told them not to be ‘naughty bays.’
Tap cider was as thick and cloudy as carrot soup. The first pint was like drinking acid. My tongue shrivelled. The insides of my cheeks felt like they’d been pebble dashed. The second went down a treat. The third one tasted like champagne.
Marlene leaned down, showing a good deal of her billowy embonpoint, and whispered, ‘I’ve slid a little gin in that one girly. Makes it right special, it does.’
Steve pushed his pint away with a pouty, ‘I’m driving you know.’ He sat with his hands clenched round chubby knees. ‘You look like a Toby Jug,’ said Marlene laughing like a jackal and displaying a little pointed tongue coated with squirrel grey fur.
I didn’t see Steve leave. One minute, he was there. Next minute, a burly docker was sitting beside me. He had spittle at the corners of his lips and stank of sweat and stale cigarette smoke. He slid his arm behind me. I felt sausage fingers resting on my shoulder. In his bullock face, brown teeth clacked up and down like a ventriloquist’s dummy. It was like being growled at by a grizzly bear with halitosis. Big Al’s stomach blocked out the light when he brought over another pair of pints. He winked and I heard him say, ‘Watch out Jasper. Best square it with Marlene first.’
My head wobbled as I peered into my pint. It looked like urine. I thought of rotting rats. Of snotty oysters. I didn’t have time to get to the loo but I did make it to the spittoon where I hurled and spat. A round of applause broke from the bar. A hazy Marlene materialised and rubbed my back in comforting circles as I coughed and wretched.
‘Better out than in girly,’ Marlene said in brisk nurse fashion.
‘Where’s Steve?’ I asked in a dolly voice.
‘Said to tell you he couldn’t wait any longer.’
‘He’s gone? Without me?’ I whined. ‘How am I going to get home?’
‘Don’t you worry,’ said Marlene, taking me by the hand and leading me back to the banquette. The grizzly bear put down the fag he was rolling and patted the seat beside him.
‘You come back with us girly,” she said, giving him a nod. “We’ll have a right old partay.’
It was still daylight when I pushed my way out of the Tap and onto the downs. The wind whipped me across the face. I looked down at my pink shoes spattered with puke. Staggering down to the main road, traffic thundered by as I painted on a smile and stuck out my thumb. I should have listened to Steve after all.
(c) Beverley Byrne