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Copyright Ben Westerham 2018. All rights reserved.
The Old Hand
Frank Trondel knew a fellow crook when he saw one. It was hardly surprising, given he’d been one for over fifty years. By the time you reach your seventies, you’ve seen pretty much everything the world of crime has to offer. So the teenage girl, lurking at the end of the bar in his local pub, wasn’t fooling him. She might have been doing her level best to look innocent, but he knew she was really eyeing up the clientele, looking for a decent chance to pick a few pockets.
And she’d chosen well. The Red Lion was always packed on a Friday evening, workers spilling out of their offices and factories in the surrounding streets in search of a bit of end-of-week pleasure. They’d been two or three deep at the bar since before six and the half-dozen wooden tables out front were as packed as those inside the pub. The din from all those happy, chattering punters and the miss-mash of smells, sweat, perfume, leather and many more, gave the place a vibrant feel that Frank soaked up with pleasure. It was certainly better than his empty, often silent, flat.
All those bodies, packed in tight together, were an open gift to someone with quick, sticky fingers. What more could the girl want. From his seat at the opposite end of the bar, Frank watched her cool, calculating eyes move from person to person, opportunity to opportunity. Before long she’d get up from her seat on the far side of the pub and mingle with the crowd, seeming for all the world as if all she was doing was waiting for her turn to be served. One press against a careless body and their wallet or their purse would be gone, not that they would know it for a while, not until they next needed it.
He’d seen it a hundred times before and he knew he was about to see it again. Only, he wasn’t going to sit there and watch it happen. Pretty much anywhere else he would have turned away and got on with his drink, leaving a fellow crook to go about their business, but not there, not in his local boozer. He didn’t know all the faces at the bar, he never did, but it didn’t make any difference, he wasn’t going to sit back and let the girl commit crimes in his local. She needed to find somewhere else to ply her trade.
He placed his almost empty pint glass on the oak-topped bar with a measured care typical of a perfectionist like himself, straightened his stiff, aching back and began to ease his way between the packed bodies. He’d give her just the one chance to leave of her own accord and make it clear he expected her never to return. He’d got the voice for it, low and menacing, one he’d used countless times before, and he was still a big man, even if age had started to whither him. She’d get the message, no doubt about that.
And, if she didn’t leave of her own volition? Well, then he’d tip the wink to the landlord, who’d not pussy foot around, that was for sure. Barry too had once lived a life of crime and, like most reformed characters, had next to no tolerance of those who still transgressed. She’d find herself face down on the pavement if she tried to stand her ground with him.
He was almost there, just two more fellow drinkers to squeeze passed. Words were forming on his lips, ready to speak. He’d begun to block out the noise and smells that surrounded him and to focus only on the girl. And then he stopped. He’d been beaten to the punch, so to speak.
A tall, thin bloke, mid-thirties maybe, pushed out of the crowd of bodies to his left and stopped right in front of where the girl was sat. A look of surprise washed over her face, almost immediately replace by one of fear. She shrunk away against the back of her chair and pulled her arms in close to her chest. The man said something to her and tried to grab hold of her right arm, but she shook him off. He shouted now, though amongst the surrounding din the words were lost to Frank, who strained to make them out. The girl shook her head, her shoulder-length brown hair tossing from side-to-side. She almost fell off the chair, as she struggled to stay out of reach. But she had no where to go, no way of escape.
Others sat at tables either side seemed oblivious to the growing disagreement, or else they chose not to interfere. Maybe they didn’t recognise the signs, thought Frank, who’d seen more than enough domestic violence in his time. There was no ring on the girl’s wedding finger and none on the man’s, but they didn’t need to be married to be living together. They were a couple of some sort, that was for sure.
Bodies moved around Frank, closing off his view of the girl. He had to squeeze between two people to his left to get her back in his sight, all the while wanting to remain in the crowd, keen neither of them should notice they were being watched. This little scene hadn’t yet played itself out.
He found himself looking over the bob-haired head of a short plump woman who smelled of curry. The man had the girl on her feet now, a hand locked around her left arm, his face pressed close in against hers. He was saying something to her, pulling her back close to him whenever she tried to pull away. She looked cowed, her eyes fixed to the carpeted floor.
Men like that were out of order, as far as Frank was concerned. He was from a world where a man had to treat his woman right. Show her the respect she deserved. Fair enough if she did a little playing away from home, she might expect to get a slap, but otherwise a man shouldn’t go roughing up a woman. And it was a world where you didn’t stand idly by if you saw someone transgress this code. You were as guilty yourself if all you did was stay on the sidelines and do nothing. He’d been brought up to know what was right and what was wrong and what he was watching now was definitely not alright.
It was going to be difficult to intervene in such a packed and noisy place, but he’d get his point across somehow. And he knew there were others there who’d back him up, if he needed it. That was a bonus, being somewhere he was amongst friends, others with a proper sense of decency. His age and lack of muscle wouldn’t hold him back when there were others to step in.
But he hadn’t managed to force his way through the edge of the crowd when he saw the man pull the girl out from behind the table and, still holding tight to her arm, hustle her between the close-packed tables towards the exit. Frank stumbled as he struggled to extricate himself from the embrace of the crowd and arms reached out to catch him as he fell forward towards the floor. Bloody idiots, what were they doing, he was alright. Let go. He needed to follow, before it was too late.
Frank was already facing a slow closing door by the time he regained his balance and turn towards the exit. They’d left before he could reach them. Sod it. But he wasn’t giving up that easily. He pushed open one half of the double doors and stepped out into the warm early September evening, the bright light making him squint. The smell of burgers and onions wafted over him from a van parked next to the pavement and his ears were assaulted by the confused chatter from the dozens of people crowded round the handful of bench-type tables crammed into the small enclosed area that fronted the pub.
He saw the girl and man, arguing on the pavement, just beyond the burger van. The girl was struggling, but the man wouldn’t let go. It was obvious his grip was hurting her and the threatening look on his face suggested he wasn’t beyond hurting her some more.
Frank took a breath, regained his composure, walked straight down the wide, pitted path and out on to the pavement. The man hadn’t noticed him advance and he wouldn’t now Frank approached him from behind. That helped. It gave him a bit of an edge. What the other bloke couldn’t see coming, he wouldn’t be able to avoid. Without so much as a tap on the shoulder to announce his presence, Frank stopped right behind the shouting man and delivered a boot, hard and fast, between his open legs. The effect was instant. The man fell to the ground, hands over his groin, shouting obscenities. Tut, tut, were Frank’s first words to him, as he bent down to speak. His next words made it clear what would likely happen to the man if he dared to show his ugly moosh inside the pub again. Best if he buggered right off and left the young lady alone.
The girl looked on, her eyes wide and her mouth open. Frank took her arm with care and respect, offered a word or two of encouragement and steered her back inside the pub. She didn’t say a thing, not until they sat down.
When he returned to the table with drinks for the two of them, the girl seemed to have regained her composure, the fear and the shock were gone from her face, as were the tears that had begun to streak her make-up. She shook her hair and tidied away stray strands, then thanked him for the vodka and lime. Her face, with its green eyes and round cheeks, reminded him of a girl he’d worked with at Woolworth’s as a Saturday boy, so many decades before. He’d liked her a lot. Been mad keen on taking her out, maybe see a film, if her father would agree. But some prat who worked at the chip shop kept hanging around, trying to chat her up, until one day he succeeded. She left a few weeks later. He never saw her again. He wondered now what might have happened to her. He wondered too if she ever liked him as much as he did her.
The girl was smiling. Terrific. Worth the aggro to see her face light up like that. The arthritis in his left hand bit hard and he squeezed it closed, fighting back the pain. It had been getting worse, every year now, for nearly a decade. Sometimes it hurt so much he couldn’t use the hand at all. Thank God the right one hadn’t yet got as bad as the left.
She asked him why he helped her. No one else ever had. It was, he said, the right thing to do. Community was just that. People were there to help one another when they needed it. And no man should mistreat a woman, let alone a girl. That made her smile. A girl? She was twenty-two, a youngster by his standards, she admitted, but hardly a baby. He found that hard to believe. Twenty-two? She looked more like fifteen. Her skin so clean and smooth, her hair glistening in the light. And the life in her eyes. That wouldn’t be there by the time she got to his age. They’d end up dulled by what they’d been made to witness. It always went like that. Life, death, love, pain. Couldn’t pick and choose. Had to take the rough with the smooth.
When he asked her what the man was to her, she grimaced and hesitated. He tried again. The man was, she admitted with some reluctance, her boyfriend. Yes, he was fourteen years older than her and, yes, he could be a thug. It wasn’t the first time he’d shoved her around. But she’d left home three years back, moved in with some friends and when they moved away, he’d stepped in and offered her a place to live. He used to be happy once, still could be even then. But she’d been thinking it was getting too much. His violence was growing worse and it came more often.
Frank had witnessed that sort of thing before. Watched one of his best mates, from way back as a boy, turn into a violent, wife-beating arse-hole, bit by bit, year by year, until, in his mid-forties, half-a-dozen of them had dragged him out of his house one day, after a really bad attack on his other half. They kicked the crap out of him as a lesson best learned the hard way. He learned alright. He checked himself out of the hospital, packed a bag and left. No one set eyes on him again. Word got round months later, he’d moved up north, Newcastle way. Best thing for it, they’d all agreed.
And his advice to the young woman sitting opposite him was not to hang around. Best get out of there before her fella did something really bad. Something that might leave her in hospital. She knew, she said, she should go, but it was hard. Hard to leave behind what she had, not all of it bad. Maybe he’d come round. She could help him.
Poor thing, he thought. She hadn’t seen enough of the world yet to know how bad things could get. The warning was there, right in front of her eyes. She should heed it and get out while she still could.
The pub seemed to have got even busier, the bodies packed in so tight in places it was a real crush, while the noise had grown to such a din the two of them had to lean in close, over the table, to hear each other’s words. And the temperature had climbed to the point where it was getting uncomfortable.
After a short while, she got up and disappeared down the little, murky hallway to the toilets and, while she was gone, Frank wondered what more he could do. It didn’t seem right to let her go back to that thug who claimed to love her. Love? Some perverted type of love that was. No, she was better off without him. Maybe she could find herself somewhere to stay for the night. A friend, a relative. There had to be someone. He had a nasty feeling he might have made things worse for her, putting her fella on the floor like he did. Wouldn’t he be tempted to take it out on her, say it was all her fault? Bloody Nora, if she didn’t have somewhere else to go, he’d have to offer her a bed at his place. It wasn’t great, but it was clean and warm.
He felt a gentle tap on the shoulder. It was her. She smiled at him, her make-up restored and a confidence in her eyes he’d noticed when he first saw her. I should go, she said, to which he insisted it should not be back to her home with that violent boyfriend of hers. And when she wavered, Frank pressed the point, asked her if she fancied another beating. With what seemed to be some reluctance, she gave way and agreed to spend the night with a friend. She could, she assured him, catch a bus from outside the pub that would take her the few miles to her friend’s and he insisted he wait with her until the bus had carried her away, safe, for one night at least.
And while they waited, in the glare of a burning-yellow street light, they talked some more and, to Frank’s delight, she laughed, she actually laughed. Happiness, it made him smile. My God, there’s enough crap in the world, so to find he’d done some good, well, that made his evening. He could go home a happy man. And to think he’d originally been looking to kick her out of the pub. What could you say?
When the bus came, more or less on time, she thanked him again and climbed on board. Just the one wave and then she was gone, up the stairs, her purple trainers the last he saw of her. The bus inched away in a cloud of diesel fumes, rank and choking.
He walked back across the road and into the pub, where nothing else seemed to have changed. The same din and press of bodies. His friends at the bar had kept hold of his favourite stool and subjected him to only the mildest of ribbing's as to the provenance of his new lady friend. His good mood persuaded him to buy a round, pints for half-a-dozen. A little celebration of a job well done.
It came as a shock, hard to accept at first, to find his wallet was gone from his jacket pocket. His fingers lingered in the pocket, searching deeper, for a hole he wanted to be there. But there was neither a hole nor a wallet. There was instead a small piece of paper, something he thought had been torn from a poster or perhaps a flyer. The kind of thing the tourist company left in great hordes on the shelf in the hallway to the toilets. On the paper was scribbled a message in a hand he could only just read, “Thanks Frank, you’ve been a great listener, but I can take care of myself. Sorry about the wallet, but I couldn’t go home empty handed.”
He didn’t hear the questions from the barman, nor even much noticed the relentless background noise. The shock took hold completely. It wasn’t the money, it was the hope, the sense of something better, she had taken from him. That hurt the most. As he crumpled the little piece of paper, so the arthritis began to burn again in his hand. He started to squeeze his fingers closed, but changed his mind and allowed the growing pain to take away the moment, to overwhelm the disappointment.
Shorts in the Dark
Every month you will find a new short story here, always with a darker criminal theme. Below is December's story. Enjoy!