Jeff had read about the Circle in the local online ‘newspaper’ and had actually been to the pub twice already without finding the courage to join the others. On the first occasion he did not even enter the pub, on the second he followed what he assumed was a member into the Lounge, but left without ordering a drink as soon as he realised that there were more than a dozen members there already and he would have to introduce himself to them all en masse. He vowed to return at an earlier hour the following week, giving himself the opportunity to introduce himself to one or two members at a time. Much less daunting. Much more manageable…
So, here he was, a week later, alone in the velour-seated splendour of the Lounge Bar of the Steam Hammer, hovering between door and bar, and truth be told, on the point of leaving again before any of the members arrived when the landlord peered around the partition wall between the Lounge and the bar and smiled. Well, sort of smiled. It looked a little like a smile, although there were definitely some slightly disturbing elements to it.
“You’re here for the Writer’s Circle,” he said.
“Well I…” stuttered Jeff, once again on the point of fleeing. “That is I…”
“You came last week, I saw you, but you left as soon as you saw them. They don’t bite you know. You’ve no need to worry about them, they’re a total bunch of losers. You can’t be any worse than they are.” Jeff could feel the pressure of the prized manuscript rolled up in his breast pocket. He could almost smell the mediocrity of every single word leaching out into the air around him. “Go and sit in the corner over there; that’s where they congregate when they first come in. I’ll let them know that you’ve come to join. They’ll make you welcome. They’re always after new members. I thought of joining myself once.”
“No. Are you mad? I told you, they’re all losers – no offence – they all lack friends. They just come here for the company and to feed their egos.”
“You don’t like having them around?”
“I love having them around. Have you looked through into my bar? If I didn’t get this bunch in every week I’d come nowhere close to hitting my gin target. My only regret is that the licence doesn’t allow them to drink upstairs. Besides,” he continued, “it makes a change from having to spend my entire evening looking at the mis-spellings on the faces of the cretins in there.” He indicated that Jeff should look into the bar, which he leant forward to do. “Easy,” warned the landlord. “Don’t let them see that you’re looking. They wouldn’t like that.” Jeff sprang back with all the nonchalance of a chicken at a fox’s birthday party. “See the fella in the beanie hat?” Jeff nodded. “Got ‘LOVE’ and ‘HAT’ tattooed on his knuckles, on account of losing a pinkie while trying to break into a safe with a Stihl saw. The other bloke with him, Lucky we call him, the bloke with one arm, he was holding the safe.” Jeff made a gallant attempt to swallow his own Adam’s apple, but it wasn’t going down. “See the group around the pool table? They’ve all got teardrops tattooed on their cheeks. S’posed to signify that they’ve killed someone in prison, but most of them have never been inside. They got them done when George Michael died.”
“You didn’t hear that from me though, and I’d advise you to keep it to yourself. It’s easy to unwittingly stir up trouble, if you catch my drift. Besides, they’re good lads, they spend a fortune on pickled eggs. What’ll it be?”
“To drink. This is a pub. What do you want to drink? I’m guessing you’re a red wine man, am I right?”
“Well, I do like red wine, but I thought I’d have a pint, if that’s ok.”
“Of course. What do you want? Lager? Guinness?”
“Do you have any real ale?”
The landlord looked, just for a second, as though he was going to take offence, but then his face softened. “I’ve got Newcastle Brown in bottles,” he said.
“I’ll have red wine,” said Jeff.
“I’ll go and get it,” nodded the landlord. “I keep it upstairs. If I keep it down here, the locals interfere with it when I’m not looking.” He moved his own heavily tattooed frame towards the doorway before turning back. “By the way,” he said, “the lav over there is broken. If you want to go you can either go into the bar or hold onto it.” He looked Jeff up and down. “I’d hold onto it if I were you.”
Jeff was now uncertain whether to linger by the bar – he felt fairly certain that the landlord was unlikely to offer table service – or to head for the corner table so, eventually, he opted for loitering self-consciously, mid-way between the two.
Phil was the first member of the Circle to enter the room. Jeff felt the cold rush of air as the door opened just as he heard the landlord coming back down the stairs. Both men appeared at the same moment. “I’ll bring it over,” the landlord shouted into the otherwise empty lounge.
“Right,” both customers answered simultaneously.
Jeff moved over towards the corner table where Phil was already placing his coat over the back of a seat. “Can I join you?” he asked.
“Are you here for the Circle?” asked Phil. “I hope so; we could do with some new faces.”
“Yes,” answered Jeff, looking over his shoulder, still uncertain whether he should go over to collect his drink or wait where he was, but before he had the opportunity to reach a conclusion, the barman appeared carrying a pint of Best Bitter for Phil and a tumbler full of red wine with a cocktail umbrella in it, spearing a glacé cherry. Jeff looked at his red wine, the barman and then at Phil, who held out a hand to shake. “Phil,” he said.
“Erm, I hope you don’t mind me asking Jeff, but you look a bit uncomfortable. Are you ok?”
“Ok? Oh yes. Yes, fine. It’s just a little bit… Well…” Absent-mindedly he picked the umbrella from his drink and ate the cherry. “It just seems like a strange place to hold a literary meeting. Here, I mean.”
“Well, it’s just…”
Phil looked over Jeff’s shoulder and caught the unmistakable silhouette of the landlord convulsed in laughter. He looked at Jeff’s red wine. “What’s he told you?” he asked.
“Kenny. The landlord.” Phil sighed. “What’s he told you?”
“Well, nothing really. Much. He just… have you seen that lot in the other room? They look like a load of mobsters.”
“Ah… Well they are, sort of…” said Phil, light slowly dawning. “The Sharks and the Jets: local am-dram production of West Side Story. They rehearse in the room upstairs before us.”
“And Kenny? Is he really the landlord?”
“Oh yes, he’s the landlord, but he’s in play as well. He’s playing Tony, although, truth be told, he would probably have preferred Maria…”
This story started its life as a simple conversation with the landlord at the end of which Jeff once again bailed out before the Circle members arrived, but just as I was writing the final sentences, the absurd possibility of West Side Story occurred to me. So, having written the new ending, I had to go back to the beginning and rewrite the whole thing. I wish I was more organised…