Writing

A Matter of Destiny

by Nick Harkins

Jamaica-Inn

A Matter of Destiny

By

Nick Harkins

Gal White had been in the pub trade since his schooldays, beginning his career in a smoky East End boozer working as a runner for some of the local faces. Collections, pick-ups that sort of thing. Often he heard the muffled clink of metal in his school satchel as he scampered through the East End streets, would disobey his instructions not to look in the bag and gaze with a combination of awe and horror at his cargo. Guns, flick knives, knuckle dusters, ammunition, instruments supplied to maim and kill wrongdoers and rivals. Once, when his satchel was particularly heavy, but no clinking or rattling sounds came from inside, he opened it up and found a severed human head. He was never tempted to peek again and suffered very unpleasant dreams for months after. But still he carried on his errands. Perhaps, he told himself years later, there was no turning back after that.

After a youth spent in and around pubs, he supposed it was a matter of destiny that he’d end up as a publican. It was a world he understood; a place where people accepted him. Maybe if things had been different he could have done something else. He’d always liked to draw as a kid, used to buy comics with the money he earned running errands, and loved drawing the Marvel superheroes he read about. Was pretty good at it too, but that was all just fantasy. Had to earn a crust, a proper job.  Marvel didn’t let kids from Bethnal Green draw Spiderman. That’s what his father told him, anyway.

He took over his first pub in his late twenties. The Dog and Hammer; a grimy den of villains, drunks and off duty whores. The occasional copper, even the odd city gent looking for a bit of rough trade would call in, but on the whole it was the same nucleus of gnarled regulars. He had an easy charm that the customers responded to, but enough steel to ensure none of them ever took any real liberties on the premises, and so he settled easily into life as a publican and for a time was reasonably content.

For over twenty years he plied his trade there, pouring drinks for the same old faces, watching them age, occasionally die, ultimately to be replaced by younger villains, drunks and whores, often the sons and daughters of his original clientele carrying on in the family trade. Gal always had a friendly smile ready for them, knew when to laugh or when to offer sympathy to a maudlin drunk, and, more importantly for his own health, when to keep his eyes and ears shut. It was a living. But as time went on he became disillusioned and yearned to move away. Start again. Somewhere less raw. He wasn’t getting any younger, after all. The new generation of gangs scared him, their disregard for human life. The cold, dead-eyed young men that came in the pub, tooled up and would kill at the slightest provocation. Sure, there’d been violence, killings when he’d been young, but now it was different. Senseless, almost indiscriminate.

He kept himself to himself, and outside working hours became increasingly reclusive. His few friends from his youth having long since moved on, he spent most of his spare time moping around in his living quarters above the pub, dreaming of moving away. He spoke to the brewery about it many times, told them he’d like to take over a pub somewhere else. He wasn’t fussy, anywhere would do. For the best part of five years he received the same answer, that there were no suitable vacancies, but they’d let him know if something came up. He’d almost given up hope of ever escaping when one particularly brutal incident at The Dog shook him up so badly he came close to giving up the pub trade completely.

One night after the last punter had staggered from the premises he’d found someone in a cubicle in the gents. This wasn’t such an unusual occurrence; he found people passed out in there quite regularly, too fucked up on booze or junk to move. This person wasn’t drunk, though. They were dead. Very dead. One of his regulars, a scruffy, shiftless and smelly local toerag known in The Dog as Johnny ‘Bird’ Evans due to his regular stints in prison, was slumped on the throne, slit from groin to throat. Strange markings covered his bloodied flesh, letters or runes Gal couldn’t understand were scrawled across his chest in black marker pen. More symbols lined the walls on each side of the cubicle, while a huge crudely drawn face leered down from the wall above the cadaver. Whether the artist intended it or not, it looked a little like a clown. Gal assumed it was supposed to be the devil or some other such bullshit, and the killer, deranged though they clearly were, really wasn’t very good at drawing.

Either way, this was the final straw for Gal. The Dog, where he’d spent the majority of his adult life, had descended into savagery. It had always been rough and ready, and he’d mopped up blood, and even the odd eyeball after some pretty ferocious brawls, but this was something else. The next day, once the police had cleared off and left him alone, he got straight on the phone to the brewery to make it clear he wanted to move or he was going to quit on the spot. Brett, the area manager managed to calm him down and promised he’d try his best to sort something out for him.

A few days later when Gal had been on the verge of handing in his resignation, the brewery called with news of a vacancy in a pub in the West End, right in the heart of Theatreland. And so, later that week, Gal headed to what he hoped would be his escape route from The Dog, a little Victorian pub called The Boards Tavern. On the tube journey he prepared himself for the worst, not daring to let his hopes get too high; there surely must be something wrong with the place, or why were they offering it to him? As he strolled from Covent Garden tube station, taking in the bright, lively shops and eateries, the street performers and the throng of tourists and theatre goers, hope rose in him despite his best attempts to curb it. This was a different world.

The Boards looked much like many of the pubs in the area; a well maintained Victorian building with flower boxes in the windows and fancy tables and chairs outside. All the seats were filled with customers enjoying a drink and some decent looking food. So far so good, thought Gal. He stepped inside and found the interior to be busy, filled with tourists and locals. Brett, the rep from the brewery was sat at a table near the bar nursing a soft drink and working on his laptop. Gal greeted him and Brett rose, smiling and shaking Gal’s hand vigorously. ‘Hi Gal, good to see you’ he said.

Gal sat down and looked around him, taking the place in. It was heavily decorated with theatre memorabilia; framed posters, fliers and signed cast photos of West End shows from throughout the decades adorned the walls. This was all largely as Gal had expected given The Boards’s location in the Theatreland, but more unusual was the row of wooden masks above the bar. Gaudy and beginning to rot, there was a clown with a face that was once white but now grimy and worn, with a grinning crimson mouth and deep, hollow eye sockets. Beside the clown, a yellowing skull, a moustachioed strongman and a Native American complete with flaking headdress completed the curious collection. Gal felt them incongruous to their surroundings, more 19th century circus or variety hall gothic than something you’d expect to see in a plush West End theatre, and resolved to get rid of them at the earliest opportunity. That clown in particular made him uneasy, it rather resembled the drawing on the toilet wall that leered down over Johnny Evans’ butchered remains. Still, questionable décor or not, he had already decided to accept the position.

In his haste, it didn’t occur to him to ask what became of the most recent landlord and a deal was agreed, papers were signed and a date was set.

During Gal’s last few months at The Dog, he found it very difficult to sleep, partly because of his excitement at his imminent escape, but mostly as a result of what he’d found in the gents that night. Poor old ‘Bird’ Evans carved up like a Christmas turkey, his nickname proving appropriate even in his brutal demise. When he did manage to sleep, he was plagued by nightmares; often he was a boy again running errands for the faces, and unable to resist opening his satchel. He knew what he’d find in there, but in the dream he couldn’t help himself, and would find Evan’s head peering up at him, whining, pleading in that croaky, petulant voice of his “You let me die, he cut me in your toilet while you pulled pints and filled your head with fucking dreams. You’ll never escape, Gal. Never.” It always ended the same way, Gal dropping the satchel and Evans’ head falling out and rolling down the street still moaning and cursing, leaving a trail of dark blood on the dirty grey pavement.

In daylight hours though, as memories of the terrors his mind inflicted on him by night faded with the light of morning, he kept himself in good spirits. The punters seemed to notice and often asked him why he was so cheerful. He told them he was retiring to Majorca, got himself a little villa out there. He had no intention of letting any of them in on his good fortune in taking over at The Boards; the last thing he wanted was any of them turning up to visit him.

Slowly the days passed and Gal finally escaped the place he’d spent his entire adult life and began what he hoped would be a more pleasant chapter in the story of Gal Terrence White. His first day at The Boards was everything he hoped for; not once did he feel under threat for his life, or have to eject anyone for plying their trade in flesh or narcotics on the premises. He met some of the regulars who seemed to take to him and enjoy the carefully chosen tales he regaled them with of his time as an East End publican, giving them a vicarious thrill of danger from across town, an insight into a place they’d never dream of visiting themselves.

Eventually last orders were called, and the customers filed their way out into the London night leaving Gal alone with his thoughts for the first time. As he dimmed the lights, he smiled and shook his head, still almost disbelieving his good fortune. He began to move around the bar putting chairs up on tables ready for the cleaners in the morning. As he worked he became aware of the silence, an oppressive silence that seemed to close in on him, crushing the good cheer of a few moments ago from his body. Even at The Dog, it sometimes felt eerie in the moments after he’d turfed out all the customers, it was the sudden contrast between lively buzz of people chatting, and the still peace that followed, he supposed. But this was something different. He began to feel uncomfortable and glanced around him anxiously.

As he peered around the darkened pub, he caught a movement above the bar. One of the masks? No, that was ridiculous (it smiled at me) he was just getting spooked because he’d moved on after so many years, it was only natural that he’d feel some stress (it was that fucking clown) given the circumstances. He moved back to the bar to put the lights back on, just to make sure everything was…ok.

“That won’t make any difference you know, putting the light on” the voice said. It came from above the bar. It was a reasonable voice, friendly.

Gal turned the light on anyway. What the hell, it couldn’t hurt. It had worked as a boy when he was alone in the dark of his bedroom and he heard noises, saw things moving in the shadows. The shades of children that’d lived there long before, or so he’d believed no matter how many times his father tried to beat the notion out of him. Whether they were real or not, they’d always gone away when he put his bedside lamp on.

“I’m still here, Gal. Those things you thought you saw as a boy, your father was right; just shadows. I, on the other hand, am real. And real monsters don’t disappear when you turn on the lights.”

“Who…what are you?” said Gal, his back turned to the spot the voice emanated from.

“Look at me.”

“No, I…I can’t”

“Look at me, man. I’m not here to harm you.”

Gal looked up to see the clown mask, still rotting and faded, but now animated with a ghastly intelligence. It stared down at him, eyes glittering with amusement. To his horror, he realised the other masks were also animated with whatever unearthly vitality the clown possessed. They peered down at him, tittering and whispering amongst themselves.

“That’s better. We just like to talk, is all. We’ve been here so long, it gets lonely after a time; to see so much yet rarely have the chance to share it with anyone but ourselves. You’d be surprised at who we’ve seen and heard over the course of 150 years stuck on this wall.”

Gal headed behind the bar and poured himself a quadruple whisky and gulped it down in one. “So, tell me all about it then. What’s your story?”

“I know little of what came before I took up my place here. I remember flashes. Fragments of memories of another time. Frozen images. Orgies. Flesh. Flame. Summonings. What part I took in these things, I don’t know. Perhaps I displeased someone and this purgatory is my punishment.” said the clown as the other masks shrieked and gibbered.

“You must have seen some sights in a place like this, right in the heart of the West End?” said Gal, pouring himself another drink, telling himself he might as well drink while he still could. He doubted malt whisky would be readily available in the mental institution he was no doubt headed for.

‘Politicians, stars of the stage and the screen, the elite of the underworld. Jack. He may have done his best work in Whitechapel, but this is where he liked to restore himself after a hard nights work. Proper gentleman was Jack’ said the clown, chuckling to himself.

“You know who Jack the Ripper was? Tell me” said Gal, convinced he was in the throes of a full blown meltdown, but determined to ride it out. A meltdown was preferable to the alternative at least, given that the only alternative was that this was real. Gal refilled his glass and took another hit of whisky.

“Tell you? Oh, I don’t need to do that. You’ll be meeting him soon enough, he’ll be able to tell you all about himself”

“He’s here too, is he? Jesus…why didn’t I stay in fucking Bethnal Green?” groaned Gal. This was just his mind reacting to the stress of the last few months. Evans’ murder, the lack of sleep. Surely.

Surely.

“Because we saw to it that you wouldn’t. You were chosen to take over here, selected very carefully. A lonely dreamer from an East End drinking pit with delusions of grandeur; a bumbling publican whose longstanding regular customers have forgotten him already. A man who will be missed by no-one.”

A spark of recognition. Realisation. That face on the wall above Evans’ body, it was him, this fucking clown. And if that was the case, was there a connection between that and his getting the gig here? After all, if he hadn’t found Evans like that he never would have freaked out at the brewery and would probably still be at The Dog dreaming of a way out…

“You. It was you, your face”

“Finally you understand. Yes, it was my face in your ghastly little dive. I chose you as I’ve chosen many others before you. I have needs. We have needs. Needs that you will satisfy.’ The other faces began to shriek and howl, expanding in size, doubling, trebling, their mouths opening; gaping entrances to an endless void.

Gal backed away, his eyes glued to the horror before him. As he stumbled against the bar, hands grabbed him roughly, manipulated him into an arm lock. ‘How was your first night, Gal? No problems, I hope’ sniggered Brett who’d quietly let himself in while Gal was gazing up at the masks and trying to numb his senses with drink.

Gal felt himself being sucked towards the four faces; pulled by an irresistible force towards the gaping, howling mouths. As he was drawn closer, he felt himself stretched in four different directions; pulled towards each of the hungry orifices. He screamed as his limbs strained at their sockets, his rib cage began to pull apart with a tearing, cracking sound, until his body could withstand no more and burst into pieces, each morsel floating upwards to be greedily devoured by the four ecstatic faces, gobbling up each piece, blood and viscera dribbling from their mouths. Until, quite quickly, Gal was gone. His last thought before the darkness came, a regret: he never should have peeked in that satchel.

“You have done well. Tomorrow you’ll begin preparations anew” said the clown, the last trace of Gal White devoured, every drop of blood greedily sucked up, savoured.

“Who?” said Brett.

“A customer this time.”

“Which one?”

“We’ll see”

“Then can I join you?” Pleading.

“Perhaps”

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