GOD sat in a far corner of the pub by the open fire; sunk deep into the slack-sprung depths of a dilapidated armchair, morocco leather scuffed to suede, horsehair escaping through splits and tears. Behind him, the lowest third of the wall was planked over, dark stained, grubby. Above the cladding the plaster that had once been cream was yellowed by tar-saturated tobacco smoke, pale ochre shading to rich warm umber in the corners. The smoke hung there still, surreptitiously adding yet another layer of patination. A pair of pale rectangles, slightly differing in their dimensions and side by side above the black mantelpiece bore witness to the location of pictures recently removed. At intervals around the sombre walls, brackets supporting inadequate candle bulbs behind heavy parchment shades provided the room’s only illumination.
The old man was grey. He wore the cloth cap, mottled grey with sweat and grease, of one who is embarrassed by his baldness. His grey face, skin deeply rumpled, grime in the crevices, grew a silver-grey stubble over chin and cheek. Grey eyes stared intently at the grey hands scraping the carbon from a crack-bowled briar with a rusty, pearl handled penknife. A collarless, frayed grey shirt showed evidence of a breakfast of egg and what was hopefully brown sauce. Grey flannels, belted and bracered, were open at the fly to reveal dishwater-grey long johns. The trousers were stain-speckled with bacci spit and, in the warmth of the fire, gave off a feint odour of urine. No socks. Swollen feet in faded grey threadbare slippers, out at the toes, were planted firmly on the beer-sticky linoleum.
“I dunno what you’ve come to me for. I gave all that stuff up yonks ago; whinging cripples, whining babies, bloody junky whores.”
He did not look up, coughed, and spat a gob of tobacco-brown phlegm at the fire. It hissed as it hit the iron grate.
“Our Lad’s the one you want; always a sucker for bleeding hearts. Though even he lost a bit of his enthusiasm, and shed a few pounds, hanging on that tree. …And who gets the blame? ‘How could he sacrifice his only son?’ As if I invented the sodding Romans.”
He finished scraping, produced a discoloured oilskin pouch and proceeded to rub and tease at a measure of dark umber shag.
“You could give him a try, if he’s in the mood to listen. The Old Girl can point you in the right direction.”
With his tobacco pressed into the old Peterson he wrestled a Swan Vesta box from out of his slacks. It was crushed and empty. The liberated matches had fled through a hole in his pocket and were dribbling down the inside of the trouser-leg.
“Buggering Hell! …Lass!”
She emerged from the crush at the bar, a pint of mild in one hand and a bottle of Mackeson in the other.
“Don’t fret, Dad.”
The tiny, white face was framed by thick, straight hair, matted into long strands, black as eternity. The too red lips shaped into the lie of a smile, whilst the deep, dark eyes sucked in sorrow from all around her.
“…And what can I do for you, ducky?”