The Dregs by Mark Mayes

‘Do you remember that time you hit me?’
‘I didn’t want to. You scared us all to death. It hurt me doing it.’
‘It’s ok. I’m not upset about it now. I don’t hold it against you.’
‘That was the only time.’
‘I was mostly well-behaved.’
‘You were good. A lovely boy.’
The older man touches the hand of the younger. ‘Let’s have another one, shall we?’
‘What about the car, Dad?’
‘I’ll be all right. I drove trucks in the army after a six-hour session. Never had a problem.’
‘I don’t know. Is it worth it?’
‘Go and get a couple more. And get some crisps.’
‘Okay, Dad.’
The younger man goes to the bar. His father watches him, thinks about him as a baby, how quiet he was, how little trouble. He wants to cry, but steels himself. Near the table, a fruit machine flashes silently. Lights chase each other: fruit, coins, golden and silver stars.
The barmaid studies the young man’s face, as he searches for coins in his corduroy jacket pocket. ‘You okay, love?’
‘Oh, yeah. Just got a lot to think about, that’s all.’
‘Don’t think too hard, will you? You’ll give yourself a headache. Here you go.’
She has a gold tooth and when she smiles you can see how old she really is. She moves the glasses and the crisps across the bar. He walks off with deep concentration. Must not spill a drop.
‘Cheers, Dad’
‘Cheers.’ They clink glasses, and the older man spills a little on the table.
‘You’re supposed to drink it,’ the son says. They drink in unison. The son wipes his mouth with the back of his fingers. ‘Do I look ill?’ There are bags under his eyes, his lips are chapped.
‘Do you feel it?’
‘My concentration isn’t good. I’m forgetting words. I really have to focus on simple things. Writing a cheque is really hard for me.’
‘Well, I never enjoyed that either, son.’
The son laughs, soundlessly.
‘I want to go away for a bit. Make the most of every day. I know it’s a cliché but I need to pack everything in. As much as I can.’
‘You do that. You’ve got to do that. We all want you to. I’ll get some money on the house. Travel, enjoy yourself. Do whatever you need to. Whatever you want to. Live as much…’
‘Shh, it’s okay. Don’t, it’s okay. You’ll start me off in a minute. I’ve got money though, from the job, selling my car. I don’t want you getting in debt.’
‘I don’t care. I love you. What do I care about money, what do I need it for? I’ve had my time. Money’s just…. Go where you like, squeeze the most out of every minute. You’ve got to, you hear me?’
‘Thanks. And to mum, too.’
‘She’ll have the dinner on. We should go after this one.’
‘It’s that lamb thing she does.’
‘She can cook all right. That’s why I married her. She was a cook when we met. Cooked for the mess. We might not always show it. But we do love each other.’
‘I know. Thanks for telling me, though. I like to hear it.’
‘When are you leaving?’
‘Thursday morning.’
‘Will you drop in on your sister?’
‘Sure.’
They drink and eat for a few minutes, each lost in their thoughts. The father remembers a walk they once took up Nunnery Lane, one cloudy Sunday, when he told his chubby-faced, seven-year-old that the twisted twigs at his feet could come alive, and grab him. He called them Snagworts.
The son thinks of someone he once knew. They stood on Parliament Hill, looking out across a London night, the faded blue and orange lights, a distant sigh of traffic. Her off-white coat, the blackest hair, wind-caught. The shiver.
A group of four men wearing expensive suits enter the bar. They are talking loudly about work, how crap the manager is, how they fancy a certain woman in the office. Her tits. The way she bends. What she really needs.
A large, bald man keeps glancing over at the pair sitting at the corner table. Then he says something to the others, and they burst out laughing. When the son stares at them they close together and turn their backs. One of them begins laughing again and spits out some of his beer onto the floor. Some of the group shake their heads. One of them says to the barmaid: ‘We’re not with him, love.’
‘What’s up with them?’ says the son.
‘Forget them. You get morons all over. Filth like that. Especially in Civvie Street.’
‘Yeah, life’s too short,’ he laughs.
‘I like your style, Son.’
‘Then again, I do have this urge to go over.’
‘Forget it. Let’s drink up. Your mother will be wondering where we are.’
‘Just want to try something out.’ He smiles. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be straight back.’ He gets up and walks slowly over to the group of men, their backs to him. He smells the aftershave of one of them.
‘Excuse me.’ He clears his throat. ‘Excuse me.’
Three of the four men turn to him. The bald man sits at the bar chatting up the barmaid. The son can see the warmth in her eyes. Why is she interested in a man like this, he wonders.
‘I just wanted to ask your friend there what he said to make you all laugh.’
‘You what?’ says one, who dangles a cigarette from the corner of his mouth. The others sneer. Cold eyes. Dead behind them. The bald man makes the barmaid shriek. He performs wild gestures, puts on silly voices, and she looks like she will soon wet herself.
‘Excuse me. You. The bald man. Yeah, you. Bald man. Did you say something about me? I just want to know what it was. Or did you say something about my father? I would appreciate it if you told me what it was. Let us all in on the joke. Only fair, isn’t it?’
The bald man moves a little in his stool, he turns his head slightly, but does not make eye-contact. ‘Sit down, mate. We’re just having a quiet drink here.’
‘Quiet drink? If you don’t mind me saying, you’re not being particularly quiet, are you? In fact you’ve ruined the atmosphere in this place. As soon as you came in you shat on the peace and quiet.’
‘Peace and quiet,’ echoes one of the men, in a put-on effeminate voice. He wears sunglasses pushed back on his head and has a thick gold watch. Another of them fools with his mobile phone.
The son looks back at his father, who slowly shakes his head. Then the son says, louder than before: ‘Baldy. Baldy. I want you to come out into the car park with me. I think we need to do that, don’t you?’
‘That’s enough, Son.’ The father has stood up, one hand leaning on the table. The son sees how much his father has shrunk. How weak his voice now is.
‘Everything all right there?’ says the barmaid, looking at the son.
‘No problem,’ says the bald man. ‘I’ve got no problem. So there is no problem.’
The son kicks the stool near him. It tips a little but does not fall over. ‘Are you coming, then? Just you and me. A nice private chat, yeah? You can tell me what you said and we can see what happens next.’
The bald man slips off his stool and comes within two feet of the son. ‘We’re having a nice quiet drink, pal. Now sit down like a good little boy before you get a slap.’
‘Is that his daddy in the corner?’ says mobile-phone man. ‘Oy, give your runt of a son a spanking when he gets home. Teach him a lesson. Shit, he’s only about nine stone, Tony. You must be brave mate.’
Tony, the bald man, stands there, feet spread wide like a bouncer, thick neck straining his button-down collar. ‘Yeah, listen to your pops. Don’t be naughty or ya won’t get any pocket money this week.’ Tony has six inches and a good seven stone advantage. Tony is certain of his position in life, his power, both physical and financial. He knows he can attract women. He has had few complaints in that department.
The son appears stunned, confused. His face is shut in. He looks back at his father, who gestures for him to come back. The father is doing up his jacket. The thin, cheap, grey jacket. How far away he looks. Years away. Like in a photograph.
‘Ok, I’ll listen. I will listen,’ says the son, in a dull, mechanical voice. He turns and picks up an empty pint glass from the nearest table. He stares at the flecks of foam down the inside, the small pool of beer at the bottom. The dregs.
‘See that? See that?’ he says, holding the glass at arm’s length. ‘That’s the dregs. Do you know about the dregs? You should do.’
‘He’s a nutter,’ says the one with sunglasses.
The bald man stands his ground. Stares-out the man with the glass in his hand. He’s dealt with this kind of thing before. ‘Are you trying to threaten me, you wimp? Are you? You little shit. You should’ve strangled him at birth,’ he calls across to the father.
The father moves across the floor towards the other men. ‘You scum. You scum,’ he says.
The son raises the glass high in the air then brings it down with enormous force against a face. It shatters. The bald man backs away quickly, hand over his mouth.
‘No, Son!’ shouts the father. ‘For God’s sake, no. Christ, what have you done?’
All the men in the group are rooted where they stand. Silent and pale, they stare at the son, blood pouring in rivers down his smiling face.

Comments

A powerful story. The ending was unexpected. I was moved by the father-son relationship.

I enjoyed reading this now will try a few of the others ;-)

Not overly keen on this one. Read it twice to make sure. Not really my cup of tea, as I found the violence of the ending rather unnecessary. There might have been a better way to handle it. A few nice touches, but overall not wholly convincing, I'm afraid. CP

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