Life: March 2004 Archives
I was out of work and down on my luck when I met up with a lad I hadn't seen in years. Rumour had it that Richie Castleford had become a man of the cloth, but when I met him in "The Bear in the Pink Sandal" he told me the truth. As I sat, drinking away my savings on a bottle of brown and half a stout (a combination of drinks that will last you a whole afternoon) I was nearly given an early bath by God and his angels when a fight broke out at the dart board. As the darts flew about the bar, I nearly lost an eye and - much to my annoyance - the last clue on the teddy bear crossword I had been labouring over for the last half hour.
When the dust settled, and there was a lot of dust in 'The Pink', a small, large shouldered man stumbled over to my table. Lifting my drinks before he knocked the crossword across the floor, I didn't greet him all that enthusiastically. In fact, I was waiting for him to apologise when he began to tell me his story. Although I had nothing else to do except do crosswords and begin to educate myself by making full use of my library ticket, this sort of interruption really annoyed me.
He liberally dipped his fingers in the remaining roasted peanut dust that was hiding at the bottom of the packet that some other punter had left in the ash tray. He showed me his tongue, just like a Maori, when he tasted the blizzard of ash from a Regal. Realising how uncouth he had been he pulled himself up in his seat, pulled his jacket back into place across his chest, wiped his hair back into position and cleansed his hands across his flannelled thighs: "I'm sorry", he said.
Being in a forgiving mood I began to gently quiz the man. I asked him about his past, where he grew up and what road he had lived in. It took me fifteen minutes to work out who he was (which in itself annoyed me further as all I had to do was ask him his bloody name). This wreck of a man was a boy who had once nearly saved me from a beast on Old Man Crabapple's Allotment. I say nearly as he valiantly tried to pull me through a fence rather than let me leap over it. While he was pulling me through a gap only five inches wide I was trying to hook one leg on top of the five foot fence. This battle was further illuminated by both our screams and the barking of Crabapple's beast: a Jack Russel that made up for its size in its accuracy for nipping an assailant in the testicles. Wearing a pair of rugby shorts and a pair of exposed Y fronts offered the little bastard a prime target. Needless to say that I won the screaming contest between me and Richie. Thankfully not much damage was done, but I will never forget the smile on the dogs face when he snapped his jaw shut.
Some years had passed until I saw Richie again. Although I didn't blame him for the near-loss of my manhood, he seemed to be consumed by an overwhelming guilt. Rumour had it that he had exacted revenge on the Crabapple's beast by introducing 'Sailor' (the beast) to the only gay Bull Mastiff in the whole of the North West. Sailor wasn't able to say no to 'Kieran' and, after the heat was over, the poor sod was left only half a 'Sailor' of what he was before. Gone was the tip-toed trot and the insatiable appetite for trespassers balls. As for Kieran, when he passed on he was immortalised in his favourite position (behind another 'bull') by the taxidermist who lived on Thingwall Street. He spent many years behind "The Stick and the Conker" bar before it was turned into a fun pub.
I asked for some light ale to sober Richie up. As he slowly sipped his beverage he began to become more self aware. He wondered how he had got into 'The Pink' in the first place. He explained to me that the last place he can remember being in was the job centre. He tried to explain how he must have got there when he realised who I was. There was that awkward minute when he realised he remembered me... from somewhere. "Frankie...Frankie Bootle... you've got a great colour about you since I last saw you", he said. "Well", I replied, "Given that Frankie died three years ago, that would be a pretty generous compliment you just paid." He stopped: puzzled. He looked me over again. "Gerry?" he asked. He went through a dozen names before I was allowed to put him out of his misery. When I told him who I was, there was a cold silence. It was as if Richie had seen a ghost. I could tell that some guilt still remained - even after all these years.
I wanted to know what had happened to him over the last couple of years. I told him that people believed that he had become a man of the cloth and had been serving God in a Parish outside Wigan. He laughed and said, "They're half right... I was a man of the cloth. I got myself an apprenticeship with O'Hanlons the Suit Makers. It was working out really well until Mr O'Hanlon died. Then his son died. Then his other son died. Then his wife came a cropper. His brother and second cousin then died after an unfortunate accident. I was last in line to take over the shop, but lacked the business acumen to make the business succeed... and the skills. I can't even thread a needle."
"Blimey," I exclaimed, "what happened to the family?" He sat quite upright and answered as if he had been asked to give the original line-up of Bella and the Monk-rats in the pub quiz, "I killed them" he said. I couldn't swallow. I couldn't breath. I couldn't talk. I couldn't shift my eyes. But I close on lost control of my bowels. He continued, "Well, so the prosecution said. Apparently I wanted to run the business myself and needed to bump off the heirs to the fortune before I could get my hands on the business and the loot. It was such a good story that I nearly believed them myself. Close on nearly convicted myself too. If it wasn't for Smiling Simon, my legal bloke, I wouldn't be spitting my story at you. He proved it all wrong. The man is a legend."
"So, you're a free, innocent man then?" I asked nervously. "Kind of", he replied as I lost physical control of everything beneath my waist, "Between you and me - and I know we go a long way back - I am only guilty of two things... trying to pull you through that bloody fence!" The relief must have been obvious as we both laughed and I waited for some anecdote about Kieran, the gay Bull Mastiff. "And," he continued, "accidently pushing Mr O'Hanlon under the industrial press in his workshop... had to iron out a couple of problems!" He laughed again. Slapped me on the back, winked and offered me a pint when he got back from the toilet. I told I was fine and watched him disappear with a fixed smile only contestants from Blind-date have seen backstage with Cilla Black.
I have never tried to achieve an Olympic World Record (one dream that I have never been able to live), but I ran like Ben Johnston packed with every performance enhancing drug there was going. I ran until the 22 bus stop and jumped on the next bus. I have seen Richie twice since, once was on Crime Watch, and I hope I don't see him too soon either. Although I do perversely thank him for one thing: the tooth marks down below can be a bit of talking point when the conversation runs dry.
The walls of 'The Bear in a Pink Sandal' - or simply 'The Pink' to the locals - were decorated with pictures taken from magazines which fulfilled the dreams and lies of the pub landlord, Archie "The Blizzard" Jones. He had long told everybody that after the Great War, he had been left in France where he had then become some sort of racing driver. The pictures on the wall, of a man in a leather cap behind the wheel of a racing car, were supposed to be him. If any one ever questioned Archie about it he would threaten to remove a finger or to spit in their ploughman's lunch.
In build, Archie was like a barrel with legs. His arms swung around his barrel chest on a parallel line with the floor and he often took the odd one or two things off the bar. When he bent down you were guaranteed a view of male hygiene that scientists at a University in Arizona would be very interested in. To say that he had a hairy back was like saying that water was a bit wet. One year - it may have been the year that the pub won the darts league with Peter 'One Arm' Yates as captain - Archie had his back shaved and dyed in the design of the pub sign. By all accounts it took three days to control the hair on his back. For all that hair, there is one problem with it: he has nightmarish dandruff. It's not just a problem on his head, but his back hair is covered in a flurry of the white stuff. "The Blizzard" was given his name after one of the regular punters noticed Archie trying to close the snug door against a gale force wind. According to Duncan Duncan, there was a ghostly whisp of dried flakes whistling around his barrel like body. Perhaps what followed is more of a statement about the youth of today: a young man was found selling small foil packages of Archie's flakes and a young girl was found snorting a line of it in the toilet.
I had once heard a man ask Archie, in French, if he could have a pint of best, a packet of crisps and some darts for a game on the oche. Archie, who had long boasted about his lost years in France, turned to Alein De La Roche and told him that he didn't serve Germans in his pub. When it was explained to Archie that Alein was, in fact, French he grabbed a jar of French soil that he kept by the bar and shouted, "Ziz iz Frenchie land. Zat iz no Frenchman". Alein then produced his French Passport. Everyone in the bar was convinced that this was a man of France. Everyone was convinced except for Archie. He then dipped behind the bar and rose slowly carrying an original World War One rifle and bayonet. He shouted, teeth slightly yellow and showing. There were no words exactly, but he certainly shouted.
It was obvious to everyone in the snug that Alein was not just a man of France, but also a man of great verbal dexterity of France. He managed to conjure from somewhere an accent that had its base in the Black Country. Alein said, "Blimey Archie Squire... what's a joke with friends?" Archie, fingers sweating on the barrel of the rifle, sniffed, winked an eye over the trigger and cracked a smirk. In his mind he had gone over the top, dodged the biggest bullet that the enemy could launch and had dropped back into the trenches. It was obvious from the two fingers he had slung in front of Alein that he was satisfied with the man of France's retreat. Perhaps what cleared any doubts - if any fool in the bar had one - that Archie was perhaps one battalion short of an army he then said, "Now, if you had have said that you were Welsh... you could have had any drink in the bar, what can I get you Jock?"