Authors: Gary McMahon
He moved a stack of imported bondage magazines out of the way, and slipped his hand behind a box set of hardcore fetish DVDs imported from Amsterdam. There was a moment of panic when he couldn’t find what he was looking for, but then his questing fingers closed on the acorn. He paused for a moment, unsure. It felt bigger than before, when he’d stashed it here, but that couldn’t be right. Acorns didn’t continue to grow when they’d fallen from the tree. Did they?
He gripped the seed and pulled it out into the open. He was right; it
bigger. Much bigger... almost twice the size it had been when Banjo had left it for him.
Brendan closed the door, shutting away his pornography. He promised himself a treat this weekend, when Jane took the twins to her sister’s for tea. That new DVD set had not even been opened; it was still in the cellophane wrapping.
He stepped down off the wooden box and backed away from the wardrobe doors, towards the bed. When the backs of his knees met the mattress he sat down heavily, acorn held to his chest, eyes closed, mind floating somewhere else. He thought that he heard the wind soughing through treetops, the soft rustle of undergrowth, and the sound of distant singing... and then, from somewhere far away, a clicking sound began to draw closer. It was still a long way off, that sound, but it was approaching steadily, and whatever was making it would be with him soon. The sound both scared him and put him at ease. It was a contradiction, a paradox, and although he wanted nothing more than to see the owner of what he was already thinking of as a strange voice, he also wished that it would turn away and leave him alone.
Brendan did not know what he wanted, but he was certain that he didn’t want this, whatever the hell it was. But he was sure that the owner of the arrhythmic, clicking voice wanted him... and for a moment he felt sure that that he had encountered it once before, perhaps a long time ago.
He looked down at his hands, drew them away from his chest. They opened like pale pink flowers, without him having to control them. He stared at the oak bud. Although the acorn had almost doubled in size, the carved initials had remained their original size. The two letters – a B and a C – looked tiny now, but they were still legible on the side of the seed.
The acorn felt warm and soft, like a small, living animal. It twitched in his hand, pulsing slightly – growing again, even as he watched. Then it was once again still and dead, just a discarded seed from an old tree, a small piece of nature’s detritus.
But for a moment there, as he’d held the acorn, Brendan had begun to think that it was alive, and it was reaching out to him.
IMON HAD BEEN
in a lot of pubs that were worse than The Dropped Penny, and had mixed with clientele even rougher around the edges than those currently surrounding him, drinking their pints and their shots and watching the world through rheumy, alcohol-blurred eyes. Back when he’d still lived on the estate, the pub had a reputation as being an old man’s drinking den – the haunt of ancient crones and wizened old blaggers who spent their days winding down towards the grave. It had always been a hotbed of gossip, the place you came to find out who had double-crossed whom, which bloke was sleeping with his neighbour’s wife, what the latest drug of choice might be on the streets of the Grove.
Brendan had called him thirty minutes ago, asking him where he wanted to meet up. The Dropped Penny had been the natural choice; a hotbed of street-level information, the place seemed tailor-made for this kind of meeting. And what kind was that, he asked himself as he sipped his pint? Was it just two old friends catching up after twenty years, or something more? What was the real reason behind them coming here, to this shabby little boozer that probably should have been pulled down years ago?
Simon stared at himself in the mirrors behind the bar. He looked tired, pale and gaunt. His hair was a mess and his cheeks were hollow. He had not been sleeping well, not since receiving the acorn. London seemed a million miles away, or part of another existence altogether. Right now, he felt that he’d stepped back into a cloudy past that had not changed, while out in the world everything about him had altered dramatically.
He had been shopping at the Tesco Express in Near Grove when he’d taken Brendan’s call. He’d gone straight to the checkout, paid for his meagre provisions, and then returned to the flat to unpack the bags. He didn’t have time for a shower or a coffee; he left the flat and came straight here, where the only reasonable thing to do was buy a drink.
An old man brushed up against him and leaned across the bar, interrupting his thoughts. “Pint of bitter,” he mumbled to the skinny barmaid. She was standing against the wall reading a fat, dog-eared paperback with a water-damaged front cover. Most of the title had been rubbed off – something about kicking a hornet’s nest. The barmaid glanced up from the page, nodded, and pushed away from the wall like a swimmer moving away from the shore. She put her book down on the bar and pulled a pint, her thin, hard forearms tensing as she tugged on the pump.
“Ta, petal,” said the old man, leering as he handed her a five pound note. She sighed, shook her head, and gave him his change.
“Stupid old fart,” she said to herself, as she picked up her book and drifted back to her spot against the wall.
Simon laughed, but she didn’t even acknowledge him. He coughed lightly, dipped his lips to his glass, and looked around at the rest of the drinkers.
The Dropped Penny had not changed a bit since he’d last been here. Even the faces looked the same, only older, more worn and wrinkled. It had never seemed to get too busy back when Simon used to sneak in for an under-age drink, nor was it ever empty. Always roughly the same number of punters, drinking quietly, chatting in low voices, and watching the world from over the rim of a dirty glass.
He saw Brendan enter the pub, watching him in the mirrored wall. His old friend looked twitchy, on edge. His eyes were rimmed with red, as if he’d already been drinking heavily. Or perhaps he was simply deprived of sleep, like Simon.
He was just about to turn around when Brendan saw him. A look of regret – or was it sadness? – crossed his face, and then he walked towards the bar.
“What can I get you?” Simon smiled. It took some effort, but it was the least he could do. He had to try and get the man on-side.
“Pint of Landlord. It’s good in here.”
“It certainly is,” said Simon, nodding towards the remains of his own drink. “Two Landlords, please,” he called to the barmaid, who was lost in her book.
The woman looked up, sighed, and trudged to the bar to pour the drinks.
“If it isn’t too much trouble, that is.” Simon smiled.
“Don’t get smart with me, son, or I’ll bar you.” She did not return the smile.
“The old Ridley charm... it never fails.” He turned to Brendan and winked.
Despite himself, Brendan smiled. “I remember you could charm the pants off a nun... an old nun, with a smelly crotch and poor personal hygiene.”
“Thanks, mate,” said Simon, handing Brendan a pint. “You always knew how to make me feel better about myself.”
“Let’s sit down. There’s a table over here.” Brendan moved away from the bar and sat at a table near the window, more relaxed now that he had a drink in his hand. He took a long swallow with his eyes closed, and then placed the pint glass on a soggy beermat but kept hold of it, as if he were afraid that someone might try to take it away.
“Shall we start again?” Simon sat down opposite him.
“What do you mean?” Brendan hunched his shoulders, and winced, as if he was experiencing mild pain.
“I don’t think I handled our reunion very well when I came to your place. I barrelled right in like a bull, ignoring all the pleasantries.”
Brendan shrugged. “Aye. Whatever. It doesn’t matter.” He took another swig of his drink, draining the glass to the half-way point.
“But it does matter. These things do matter, don’t they? We were best friends. We haven’t seen each other for twenty years. And what do I do? I charge into your house and demand answers to questions I barely even understand. I was out of order. I’m sorry.”
Brendan shrugged again. He looked uneasy. “No harm done. Want another?” He drained his glass and stood, moving towards the bar without waiting for an answer.
Simon watched him as he ordered two more pints of bitter, sharing a quiet joke – no doubt at Simon’s expense – with the barmaid. They seemed familiar; he wondered if she was an ex-girlfriend, or part of a crowd Brendan had hung around with after Simon had left the estate. He realised that he knew little of his friend’s life history. He’d known him as a child, and less so as a teenager, but was now meeting him for the first time as an adult.
“Thanks,” he said as Brendan sat back down and slid a glass across the table. “So. How have you been?”
Brendan laughed. “Jesus... you’re really asking me that?”
“Why not? We barely even know each other anymore. The last time I saw you we both had bum fluff on our chins.” Simon raised his glass in a small salute.
“I thought you’d kept tabs on me? You seem to know enough about where I work.”
Simon shook his head. “No... I’ve not kept tabs, not exactly. My Aunty Annie still lives in Near Grove. Whenever I call her, she mentions you – tells me what she’s heard. She knows we used to be close.” It was only partly a lie.
“Christ,” said Brendan. “Good old Aunty Annie. I remember her – she always used to give us those old-fashioned sour sweets.” He grinned. “I fucking hated them, but was always too polite to tell her.”
Simon laughed softly. “Me, too, mate. They were bloody horrible.”
They sat for a while in a silence that was almost companionable, or would have seemed so to a casual observer. They sipped their drinks slowly now, the initial nerves having dissipated. Someone put a song on the jukebox, an old number Simon didn’t recognise; a woman singing the blues. Her voice was strained, almost painful to hear. It was beautiful.
“How’s Jane?” He glanced at Brendan, wondering if he’d pushed too far.
Brendan’s eyes flashed, but then he relaxed again. “Took you long enough to ask.”
“Well,” said Simon. “It’s none of my business really, is it?”
Brendan licked his lips and blinked rapidly. “She’s fine.
fine, in case that was your next question. We’re more than fine, actually.”
“No, that wasn’t my next question.” Simon leaned back in his chair. “But I’m glad. I’m really glad that you’re still together. It makes sense; the two of you, it’s logical. Know what I mean?”
“Yes,” said Brendan. “It does make sense. It makes a lot of sense. We were always close...”
Whatever was left unsaid, Simon felt it prudent not too push too hard to find out. Had the two of them slept together when he and Jane had been an item? They were only fifteen, barely old enough to know their own hearts, never mind anyone else’s. That made sense, too: them sleeping together behind his back. He hoped that it
true; their infidelity would make him feel a lot better about the way he’d abandoned them.
Simon nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, I know. You have kids, now, don’t you?”
“Aye,” said Brendan. “Twins: Harry and Isobel. They’re ten years old... the same age we were when, well, you know. When that shit happened to the three of us.”
There was another short pause, when neither of them spoke, but this one was strained. Something sat between them now, something that had not been there before. It licked its lips and waited; it had all the time in the world.
“Are you still in touch with Marty?” Simon leaned forward; his back was aching. The bar seat was old and the cushion was too soft.
“No,” said Brendan, shaking his head. “We lost touch years ago, when he went off the rails. Did you know about that?”
Simon nodded. “I know a little. Didn’t he start boxing, and then some kind of injury cut his career short? Then he went... dodgy?”
’s the right word for what he is.” Brendan pointed at his glass. “It’s your round.”
Simon got up and bought two more beers, then returned to the table.
“Marty Rivers,” said Brendan. “What a fucking psycho he turned out to be.”
Simon said nothing. He just let the other man speak.
“He used to train for hours: up at dawn for early runs, then in the gym every night for sparring sessions. He was intense; serious about his sport. Then he crashed his motorbike and his girlfriend was killed in the accident. He was a mess. His injuries never healed, not properly, and his career was over before it even began. A lot of people said that he might have been a great, that he would have gone places. But we’ll never know.”
Simon blew air though his lips. “Jesus, I didn’t know he was ever that good. I remember he was always fit, and hard as nails, but I didn’t realise he took the boxing that seriously. I thought it was just something he did because of his dad – you know, the cult of the hard man, and all that.”
“No,” said Brendan. “He was serious. He loved to box. When it all went tits-up, he had nothing else to fall back on. He wasn’t academic; he wasn’t driven, like you. He didn’t have anyone special in his life, not after the bike accident. So he started working the doors on the roughest pubs in Newcastle. I heard a lot of rumours about illegal boxing contests in social club basements, maybe even bare knuckle bouts. Somebody told me Marty took on and beat the King of the Gypsies about ten years ago, but people tend to talk a lot of shit around here. You never know what to believe.” He stood up quickly, then reached out and steadied himself by gripping the table. “I need a piss. I’ll get a couple more pints on my way back.” He belched and then headed off towards the gents at the other side of the room.