Rosco of the Pineys
When me and my friends started at the paper mill the other guys who worked there said we’d get used to the stink, but I was the only one never did. I suppose I always saw the job as temporary, so why bother trying to come to terms with it? Other than me and Sean White it was Tom Kirklees and Marcus ‘Aurelius’ Towne, and the four of us drank every day in The Woolpack after our shifts. I can’t speak for the others because we don’t talk anymore, but if you want to know what it was like grafting in a stench that’s come to characterise my youth, then I’ll tell you: it was thirsty work.
That mill has a lot to answer for. To this day if you put so much as an omelette in front of me, I go all funny. The eggy mill funk was an unfortunate byproduct of dropping the woodchip into the liquor so it could be digested into pulp and later bleached, processed into paper. The process released Sulphur, which, as any self-respecting chemist or evil genius will tell you, can be used to make stink bombs, so imagine the reek of a paper town. The mill where I worked was in Stubbins, Lancashire, so naturally the place was nicknamed Scrubbins and the people who worked at the mill were known as Scrubbers, as was anybody unfortunate enough to live nearby.
These days they’ve brought in ways of masking the fugitive emissions but back then us scrubbers car-shared from the mill with the windows down. It was a few miles to The Woolpack so by the time we arrived our hair would be all over the show, four bog-brush-haired blokes in work togs, diving straight into a pint of lager each capped with blackcurrant, usually drinking until about eight, except on Friday nights when no one would drive and we’d down a shot of Jager every other round until closing time. We smoked screws of tobacco rolled in liquorice-flavoured Rizlas, and often only had one lighter between us that would never come home with its owner. I remember going round Sean’s one Friday after the pub and finding his stash: dozens of coloured lighters that belonged to the rest of us, bound by elastic bands and stowed in a cupboard. The efficiency of Sean’s operation astounded me – it had taken resolve. If any of us had tried that Sean would never have let it go. Then again that’s him all over.
We’ve known each other since school, state school boys from the middle sets: four braying, cartwheeling lads who lived on the same bus route, our houses a few miles apart. There’s not much to do in the valley other than drink, and you’ve eighteen years to get through before you can do that legally, so growing up us four spent loads of time playing football down at the rec, or hanging out in the pineys: a local wood.
Our friendship was whelped amongst those eerie towers of flaking bark. Hidden from the nosey occupants of a row of cottages banding the lane leading to the trees, we used to get stoned on teenths of weed that Sean bought off a woman on his street. Of the numerous methods we devised for getting high, the pipes fashioned from empty coke cans were probably the dirtiest. What you did was unwrap your weed lump from its cling-film, put the flame to it then crumble a load up along with some torn cigarettes, the outsides of which were toasted first to give the tobacco a better taste. A pinch of this mix was sprinkled over holes punched in the can with a safety pin. Light the bastard up and suck the fumes out of the drink-hole. Always Coca-Cola.
Each boy was another’s alibi to his parents. We even slept in the pineys, cosy in our sleeping bags like a row of pupates. Or when the pineys were riddled with the valley’s frequent showers, we retreated to an abandoned furniture warehouse on the Burnley road. To get into the warehouse we used a skip around the side of the building, which gave us access to a scaly tree that looked like it had thrashed out of the dirt fully grown. Usually drunk, always stoned, we’d step from the tree’s upper branches onto a twelve-foot high stockyard wall, tight-rope our way along that then duck into a smashed section of roof onto the ceiling beams so we could clamber to the ground. How none of us broke our necks, I’ll never know. The warehouse stunk of moldering carpet and cat piss and by the end of an ecstasy-fuelled summer where we set a junior world to rights, every window was smashed, the place covered in marker pen. BEST MATEZ, we wrote on the walls.
None of us bothered with college. We had the sacrament of the pool table and the dart board to be getting on with. We were the order of the benches in the beer garden. I loved The Woolpack, still do. In this cubby hole I met my wife, Sara. At that time she was taking a break from studying for her geography PGCE, a red-haired girl who tears up at other people’s good news and would eventually encourage me to take up a pen. Sean and the others still drink here and I suppose one day Sean will carry out his threat to knock me out. He was easily the most raging when I quit the mill and then the group. I tell myself that kicking-off is his way of admitting he misses me.
It’s Friday night and I suppose I could be drinking elsewhere but the barkeep here knows my name and that’s something worth holding onto. Besides, Sara likes the place. She’s caught the bus into Manchester tonight with a few mates. I’ve been painting the wainscoting all day at the flat with her dad, Oliver, who booked the afternoon off work to help. By now I should be chilling with him and the boys but I’ve ducked out before I end up throttling him. The old prick still works at the mill, he had Sara too young and became aware of himself far too late. I’ve often overheard him telling my wife that she’s to put her foot down and force me to go back to that stinking nightmare, or at least to go full-time at the removal company that took me on. Full time. I’d like to see Oliver sneezing up cat hair and hodding couches around three days a week, let alone five. It’s not like I’m sat on my arse all day when I’m not working either. Raising twins and supporting an overworked teacher is a dear do, emotionally as well as spiritually, as for that matter is writing a book at the kitchen table till the early hours nearly every night. Life expects that much sometimes that, frankly, it needs telling where to go.
I’ve said I’m fetching tea: a pitta filled with doner meat, full salad and yoghurt sauce for Oliver, a lamb shawarma kebab for me and a cone of chips with red salt each for the lads. The order’s pencilled on the back of a receipt that’s collecting table-damp this very second, while in my hand’s a golden sleeve of bubbling lager. I’d stay all night if I could. If I’m quick I might even squeeze in another pint.
Although the past lurks down the other end of the bar in the shape of Aurelius Towne. One of my cohort’s always here, avoiding eye contact, making me wonder whether or not I should try and salvage something from the rubble of our friendship. Because we shared a lot, the four of us. Really we did.
Thankfully Aurelius hasn’t seen me. The Woolpack’s an odd-shaped pub with recesses that hide you from the main sections of the room, and the roof’s low, the walls populated by framed black and white photographs and a sort of padded wallpaper, so the occasional thrust of unwelcome voices like mine can be easily absorbed. I concentrate on my book and sip my pint. Another advantage of knowing Gerry the landlord is you can get your drinks on the tick, slip out unseen then come back another day to settle the tab.
Still, part of me wishes I could speak to Aurelius. He always found me funny so was someone I liked having around, even though he had a habit of borrowing money and not paying it back, which caused predictable tensions. The abuse Sean used to give him you wouldn’t believe.
A coarse, hacking cheer fills the bottom end of the pub. I can’t hear what’s been said but The Woolpack’s only pool cue is sticking out of Aurelius’ fist and two youngsters are facing him. One’s wearing those thick specs you used to get on the NHS that cost a bomb now. The other’s face is obscured by a hair-straightened curtain of bleached blond hair. The blond one, him in the red jacket and green Converse, has something about him that’s familiar. Fuck it, I’ve time for another pint. From my new position at the bar I can see a pair of sticker-pocked guitar cases propped against the windowsill. Around the corner is Aurelius, just hidden from my line of sight. That were a lucky shot, he says, in that natural baritone.
Luck? The youth in glasses replies. Yeah right, mate.
Peeking round the corner, I’ve to smother laughter at the sight of Aurelius flapping his hands as if they’re camp little T-rex arms. Yeah, right, mate, he’s going. Yeah, right.
Well, that’s pool, Glasses replies stuffily, looking to his blond friend for assurance and not getting it.
Pool. Aurelius jerks a thumb at the youths, summoning more stock laughter from a set of blokes I don’t recognise, all of them bald or balding, the kind of jocular disdain I’ve seen meted out by suggestible men throughout my life.
The youngsters huddle around the jukebox, unaware that not only have the tunes in The Woolpack not been changed in years, us regulars come here to escape our lives in silence. Aurelius strides over and switches the jukebox off at the mains. The gaudy animation on the screen winks to black.
Hey, we just put money in that!
Ah, selection’s shite anyway.
Come on, that’s hardly the point…
Have a day off, says Aurelius, producing two silver coins from his pocket. Take this fifty to cover it and stick this one in the fuckin’ table.
The youths exchange exasperated expressions. I still can’t put my finger on who the blond one reminds me of. He’s got diamanté earrings that do him no favours whatsoever, meanwhile his pal Glasses is soft and dun-skinned and as slight as Scrubbins paper.
I emerge from the corner with my toes clenching and unclenching, pausing behind Aurelius, whose head is as freshly shaven as it was the first day I met him, his shoulders far broader. I lean against the bandit, near the door, my elbow jarring against the flashing, sharp-edged buttons.
I thought it was winner stays on, says Glasses, indicating the row of change regimented along the wooden edge of the pool table. You said it yourself. You have to put a knock down then wait your turn.
Aurelius knows the rules, he’s been bending them since the nineties. He doesn’t answer the boy though because he’s making a point of ignoring me. Yet my presence does something. I can see it in the way Aurelius sets the pool cue on the table, rolling it towards the rich green of the parallel cushion. Two against one, he says, friendlier now. Twenty quid to the winner.
Aurelius smooths a purple twenty flat on the table, and as he does, I assess the youngsters, their closeness. You didn’t used to get kids like this around here: your students, your smashed-avocado-for-breakfasts. Am I to count myself among them? Aurelius might think I want to – I know Sean, Tom and Oliver do – and maybe they’re right. I certainly envy these boys. They’ll never have to break from everything they know in order to be who they’re sure they are.
What do you think? says Glasses to his friend. The blond one answers with a firm shake of the head, then, ignoring Aurelius, takes a fresh knock and glibly places it in the table’s coin mechanism, popping it to release the balls into the portal by his knee.
Aurelius’ mouth shrinks to the size of a dog’s arse but the triangle is full now and the lads are playing without him. The pack is smashed apart, a perfect geometry of colour diffusing across the baize.
Carrying his beer back to his seat, Aurelius has to pass me. I whistle at him gently, inflating my cheeks and crossing both eyes when he looks my way. The way he halts, my heart skips, but that amiability I remember so well finds my old friend’s face and he goes cross-eyed too.
Good old Aurelius.
I’ve just received a salutary second pint when a name I haven’t heard in ages is uttered.
I should have known. Perhaps I did know. I take a long pull on my beer and say Reight, boys, because Sean and Tom are by the brass cask pumps to my left. They must be off out because, unlike Aurelius, they’re not in mill togs. Their noses and cheeks are pink from the outdoors and both seem amused to see me. Tom in particular, I’m startled by. They used to say he and I looked alike.
Nice sideburns, he says.
Sara likes them.
Neither of them mention my hair.
Tom scouts for Gerry’s eye. She not out tonight?
I shrug. Gone town. You?
Embassy, man. Imagine a flotilla of lights on full-whack above a dancefloor, girls gyrating in clusters and various lads circling them like a bad mood. Every weekend there’s fisticuffs in Embassy’s car park, hordes crammed in the adjacent takeaway. Trays of chips with cheese and mayonnaise. The worst fucking music you’ve ever heard.
Summat up? says Sean, surveying me like I’m surveying him. Sean’s got this narrow, rugby-ball-shaped head and deceptively mild, open-mannered eyes. He also wears silver-link chains strung around his neck and a wrist. When he was fourteen, Sean took the short-term decision of not having braces fitted, and now he has to live with the long-term issue of having a gob overcrowded with teeth, especially on the top row.
I don’t make a face or shake my head. I don’t do anything except say Just can’t believe you’re still at it. And still Sean seems pissed off. He sticks his tongue behind his bottom lip and nods at Gerry, who prepares two Jagers, two beers.
He says, Nowt wrong wi’ Embassy.
Aye, if you don’t mind having the same night over and again, yeah.
Sean widens both eyes, slowly, which makes me feel like the most hideous snob.
Suppose there’s nowhere else to go though, I add, around here.
Tom gestures at the galaxy of paint speckles on my hands and clothes. Been doing your nails, Rosco?
I attempt a laugh. Huh. Me in paint scruffs while Tom’s got crow’s feet and wears a silk turquoise shirt with a white collar and cuffs. In the glare of the spotlight I can see the wet-look hair gel coating his scalp. It’s as slick and opaque as pork pie jelly.
Sara’s been wanting the flat doing, I explain. Me and her dad been on wi’ it.
Sean and Tom instantly recoil at the mention of Oliver, and our mutual glee, although genuine, is painful because the three of us found ourselves in laughter not even that long ago, and this reminds me that I really miss being young.
What about them stories of yours? Sean nods. Paying you a wage yet are they?
I could mention the thing I had in the magazine last year, but I don’t bother. They’re going alright, I say.
Well, least you’re looking the part.
The beer’s actually pissy and overpriced. I’m thinking of Oliver, of how much time I’ve got before he’s the right to start moaning at me when I get in. My book’s still in the alcove, my seat going cold. I dream of a blue plaque screwed into the wall there when I’m gone. A marker of a life drank, a life lived.
G.G Ross, Sean says.
So he did read my story!
What’s the other G stand for?
It doesn’t have to stand for anything, I reply, shrivelling inside. What you doing for work these days?
You know where.
An’ where you living now?
His silence is answer enough. If that flat were a noise it would be the sound of someone clearing their throat. It’s a one-bed above a pet shop that made the news a few years ago when the owners realised one of their fish had markings on its scales that said Allah in Arabic script down one side, and Muhammad down the other. Part of me was hoping Sean would have moved, another part of me wants to clicks its heels at the thought of him spending every night alone there, just him and his Pot Noodles.
I don’t have to say anything.
What? says Sean.
No, go on, Gaz. Enlighten me.
I didn’t say a word.
Typical fucking Rosco.
How do you mean?
Fuck off, mate, how do you mean?
Even Tom looks awkward. He knows as well as I do that the utilitarian dump Sean calls home wants tearing down. How can a guy get so defensive over a place littered with betting slips, duct tape mending all the splits in the cheapo flooring? There’s a picture of Sean’s kid who he doesn’t see Blu-tacked to the wall. Last time I was there, some new potatoes had been left by the sink for so long that they’d begun to sprout wan, green-budding tentacles.
I just hope you’re wiping your feet when you go in, mate, I say, chuckling.
Yeah, calm down, Sean-o, adds Tom.
Shut it, T, least I pay my own way, Gaz. Last I heard it were your missus…
I snatch my beer and walk away. Just like that. But on my way to the alcove I take a sip and realise I’ve picked the wrong drink up. It’s the wrong bloody one and now I’ll have to make do. Grabbing my book and coat, I gulp most of the tepid bitter down but the chemical flatness makes me gag and I’ve to stop at the door. That’s when I notice that Aurelius has talked himself into another game with the youngsters. It looks like he’s not giving the cue ball up.
I can’t help it, I go over, happening to fall in behind Sean and Tom in our old formation.
Aurelius stares. The Three Musky-rears, he says, aiming the cue at me like a rifle.
Don’t you start, Sean.
Has the emperor gone and had it? Has his luck finally finished?
And losing to Lord and Lady Tarquin here an’ all, says Tom, raising his pint cheerily at the youngsters.
The jury of bald guys crack up again, and Sean’s gaze flicks my way, probably to see if I’ll get involved like I once might have done, but I’m studying the two lads. I’ve realised what it is about the blond one that’s bothering me. He’s the absolute spit of Shelley Mullins, a girl Sean once fell for. There’s only three people in the world who know that when Sean White asked Shelley Mullins’ for her number, she gave him the details for Rollo’s Pizza, then, when he confronted her about it the following weekend, called him Jaws and said she wouldn’t touch him with a ten-foot barge pole. Shelley and me saw one another for a while after that, and she made me promise to keep it from Sean. I was true to my word, although it would have been easy to break it, necessary, even, after the way Sean became around women. I guess that’s how it was in our group: the slightest thing could become a currency between us that opened up a class divide it was easy to find yourself on the wrong side of. After his failure with Shelley the only option Sean’s sense of self-worth had was to come out swinging. That holiday to Magaluf I still think about to this day.
I doubt he’s noticed how much the kid looks like Shelley. Never mind the fact the resemblance runs right through the youngster, from his posture to those jeans that look painted-on. I consider his mother’s slender shanks, how I used to run my hands up them in her bedroom. I wonder how Shelley’s getting on, she ended things between us so abruptly and now she lives in the pineys in two cottages that have been knocked through to become one. I see her driving her Range Rover about sometimes. It’s got a private number plate.
This is in the bag, mate, her son says now, lining up his next shot. He looks at Sean and Tom. Check this out.
Sean just sneers. Get your haircut, love.
And Aurelius laughs.
The lad still pots, he can really play. Two shots still, he says, which makes Aurelius nearly choke on his pint.
It’s not two shot carry!
Hang on, you fouled and I potted so I’ve still –
You’ve the one!
Oh, come on, Marco, I blurt. Give the kid a break.
Who asked you, G.G? Sean says loudly, drawing the attention of Shelley’s son, whose eyes widen at the sight of me, before glazing pointedly. He looks away.
For some reason that dismissal hurt. When the kid misses his next shot, I cock my head at him. Just another barbarian, am I?
Aurelius takes the cue, chalks it and crouches so his eye is above the corner pocket of the table. The thing about games like these, he says. Is they’re a marathon not a sprint. He squints at a quadrangle of yellow balls.
Played, Marco, Tom says.
Well in, pal, I want to add. That was a lovely development on the next shot.
Aurelius pots a second ball, then a third. Meanwhile the lad in glasses checks how many cigarettes he’s got left. Ever alert, Sean can barely keep the anticipation from his voice as he demands one. Send us one of them, pal, he says, beckoning the lad with every finger.
Glasses does as he’s told, just the one smoke remaining now in his packet. Not that this is a problem for Sean, who passes the cigarette to Tom – Tom pops it behind his ear – then eyeballs the youngster again.
Sorry, it’s my last one, says Glasses.
I said it’s my –
A loud crack. Aurelius has struck the pool table with the thin end of the cue. Bastard.
The cue nearly bops me in the nose on its way past. Glasses seizes it by the tip and hurries to the table, ignoring Sean, who reflexively hides his crammed teeth, lips meeting as if he’s eaten something he can’t stand the taste of.
Glasses has just bent over the table when Shelley’s son pipes up.
Come on, Sam!
Everyone cracks up at that, even me. The kid sounds like Mary fucking Poppins! He retreats behind that torrent of fringe. I’m sure he’s staring at me. Come to think of it, I know he is. Right through his hair. Was I laughing louder than the others or something? I finish my flat beer and fake a cough.
Sam bends over the table again. It takes a minute for him to overthink his shot though and ultimately he slices it. A sarcastic cheer fills the room and once the beery surge and sluice of laughter has subsided, Tom calls out. Here, Where’s Wally, he says, gesturing at Sam’s thick, black glasses. You might wanna get them bloody looked at!
Ah, fuck off, Sam says good-naturedly whilst reclining against the windowsill, and although the room knows how the comment was meant, it still goes quiet.
The silence feels almost velvety. Offence is the order of service and Sean White is its incumbent spokesman.
You what, lad? Sean says, stepping towards Sam.
You said summat.
No, I didn’t…
What did you say?
Honestly, I didn’t say anything.
Come here a sec, mate, I wanna talk to you.
Sam focuses on his drink, as well he should. He shifts and straightens but thank fuck he keeps his mouth shut and thank fuck he stays where he is, because the room isn’t silent anymore, not in the slightest.
You little shit, Sean says, so everyone can hear.
The game is nearly over, everyone amused by Aurelius’s rash play, everyone except me. I’m more interested in Sean. His curls creep out of his head like a thousand twisting ampersands. Whispering in Tom’s ear. Whispering, with so much to say.
Shelley’s son is up next. He has to come this side of the table to reach the cue ball, and that’s when I see Sean’s hand move.
Oi! I cry, reaching out to try and stop him, accidentally knocking the youngster’s elbow and making him miscue his shot. The white cannons into the black and sends the match ball plummeting down a pocket. Everyone goes fucking mad. Aurelius dives onto the table, his cycling feet catching the lamp and sending an oblong of pukey light rocking up the stucco wall. Sean and Tom are pissing their sides laughing. Tom even shakes my hand.
Get in, Rosco, he says. Fucking legend, man.
Shelley’s son is pointing at me and we look so alike in the moment that it could be me standing there, humiliated. And it shits me up. Jesus, it does.
The boys are forced to hand over the money, which Aurelius uses to get a round in. He buys pints for Sean and Tom and, to my surprise, hands one to me as I reach the door. As he claps me on the shoulder I can see the hurt in his eyes at the distaste I’ve been unable to keep from my face.
So in a way I’m glad when Sean makes his move. He strides up to Sam and pretends to deliver a savage one-shot to the nose. Sam dodges, trips on the pool table and falls into the radiator. His glasses have come off and one arm is askew when he picks them up again, gingerly touching his head. Blood. He has to be helped up by Shelley’s son, who says something visceral to Sean that I can’t make out, then barges out of the back door with Sam following. No one else sees the bereft look on Sean’s face. No one else cares. I shove past him, grabbing the boys’ guitars on my way to the beer garden.
Lads! I shout. Lads, wait!
There’s no sign of them. I wonder if it’s worth fetching the car. I’ll find them easily enough. Maybe I’ll run them up to the pineys where Shelley lives, chatting to them about music and books and films, telling them life won’t always be like this, even though that won’t be true. I set down the instruments. The Woolpack door’s ajar and I can hear the jolly rumpus bustling inside. I think I must be the only person who finds laughter like that sad. Maybe it’s because it never seems to include me. Maybe it’s because I can’t help suspecting it’s at my expense. Above me is a litany of movement in huge trees I don’t know the names of. I head to the nearest one. Each bough’s this crazy track, a wooden route to a silver hermitage in the sky, perhaps. Oh, that’s nice. I make a note in the jotter Sara bought me. It might fit in this story I’ve been working on about a girl who takes a trip out on a yacht with some mates. Their boat capsizes in a squall and they all have to swim for it. The girl’s almost made it to shore when she realises some of her group are still in trouble. She swims back to help, and that’s when she finds, struggling, this boy she’s always had a thing for. I’m not sure what happens next. Either the boy’s so wild with panic that when the girl gets to him he clambers all over her until she has to kick him away. Or he’s not drowning, he wasn’t even drowning in the first place and the girl gets so tired swimming back to shore that she passes out and drowns. I’m not sure if there could be another ending for my story. If a different outcome for these people could exist.
From James Clarke’s forthcoming book Hollow In The Land, which will be published in Spring 2020 by Serpent’s Tail.