– Regrets –
I found out today that the bastard’s dead. Cancer, apparently. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer bloke, in my opinion. Ah, well, the thug’s gone now, so I suppose that means something else left unfinished, one more regret to take to my grave.
I had all but forgotten about him and the incident until I heard the news. Then the memories from twenty years ago came flooding back. I could see myself standing at the bar of the Crown. I was divorced, turning forty, living in the Ferry again. It was a Saturday lunchtime, the day after the incident. Apart from a sore nose and a bit of a bruise on one of my cheeks, I wasn’t hurting very much. I was more bothered about the state of my brand new suit in my flat up the road, wondering whether the drycleaners would be able to remove the bloodstains from it. And I was still smarting for letting myself be ambushed like that. Retaliation was in my thoughts.
That was when Terry McPhee, the owner of the Ship Inn, came into the bar. Terry was ages with me. He was a nice guy; far too nice for the morons among his clientele. Retaliation was also on his mind, it seemed.
‘Sorry about last night,’ he said to me after buying both of us a pint. ‘If had known what he was up to, I would have stopped it, honest. But, as it was, I missed the whole thing. So, sorry again.’
‘That’s okay,’ I shrugged. ‘He was pretty sneaky about it, and I was too drunk to catch on. But I’ll be sober the next time ... and I’ll be carrying a baseball bat. The fat fuck won’t know what hit him.’
Terry smiled; that was just what he wanted to hear.
‘Well, when you do, I won’t be seeing a thing. I’ll go down the cellar and change a barrel or something. It’s about time someone taught him a lesson. The way he acts these days, ruling the roost, deciding who can drink in the place and who can’t, you’d think he owned the fucking pub. You just fill your boots, pal.’
I felt better knowing I had Terry’s support and probably the support of quite a few of the Ship’s regulars. I would fill my boots, all right, but not immediately. No, my revenge would be taken when the bastard least expected it. I could wait.
It was obvious from his actions the night before that my fat friend had also been waiting, nursing his wrath from our previous meeting a month earlier. I remember the sun had come out just for a change on that Saturday afternoon, which was why Lenny the Hippy, young Denny and I went for a walk along the esplanade.
We all called wee Lenny a hippy because his appearance had remained stuck in the late Sixties: the same long blond hair and Zapata moustache, the same denim jacket and baseball boots. The only thing about him that had changed over the thirty years was his nose, which had grown bigger and redder and more pitted from the effect of constant boozing.
Denny was about ten years younger than Lenny and I, and a distant cousin of mine. His open, friendly personality made him appear a bit naïve, but he was a streetwise guy all the same. Unemployed at the time, he had been taking part in a literacy course organised by the Broo. As a measure designed to improve his vocabulary, he was asked each time he attended the course to learn two new words, which he should go on to use as frequently as possible in everyday talk. The course had obviously been running for a good few weeks, because it had reached words beginning with ‘s’, Denny’s new words for that week being ‘supercilious’ and ‘surreptitious’. I kid you not!
Anyway, on our way back to the Crown the three of us decided to nip into the Ship Inn for a drink. The Ship wasn’t a place that any of us frequented. It was smaller and quieter and less comfortable than the Crown; more like an old man’s pub. As we entered it, we stepped past a group of five or six men hanging about outside. Wearing kilts and sporrans and tee-shirts with Scottish National Party slogans across the front, the men were handing out leaflets to passers-by in an attempt to encourage them to vote for the local SNP candidate in the following week’s General Election. They were obviously using the Ship as their base of operations, but they looked more like tinkers than political activists. Among them were Jimmy Riddell, the thug himself, and his short-arsed sidekick, Wullie Laverty, the latter’s kilt being so big for him that it was wrapped twice around his scrawny frame and reached down almost to his ankles.
The sight of that bunch of pseudo-Highlanders annoyed me. I didn’t care much for the SNP (and I still don’t), but I resented the hijacking of the party by a growing mass of wannabe clansmen, who were little more than supporters of the national football and rugby teams – ‘Saturday patriots’, someone once dubbed them – and who knew next to nothing about their or any other party’s policies, other than to recite the mantra ‘an independent Scotland’. I should have kept my feelings to myself, of course, but I didn’t.
We bought pints and took seats at a table across from the bar. Not long afterwards, Jimmy and Wullie came in and returned to their perch on the bench in the window alcove. They sat facing us, Wullie’s kilt hanging in folds over his skinny shanks; Jimmy’s straining around his oversize girth. Lenny struck up a conversation with them, asking how their campaigning was going and stuff like that. To be honest, I wasn’t interested in what they had to say in reply – well, that is until the devil got into me.
Only that week, there had been reports in the newspapers of a debate raging within the SNP on whether or not the party should support the existence of the Trident nuclear submarines at the NATO base in Faslane. It seemed that the party was divided over the issue of Scotland continuing to accommodate a nuclear deterrent. So, being a smart-mouth, I broke into the conversation and posed the question, my voice, I’m sure, exhibiting a suitable degree of scorn:
‘Tell me, what is the SNP’s policy on nuclear disarmament anyway?’
Wee Wullie looked perplexed and turned to his hero for the answer, but a stony-faced Jimmy remained silent, took a drink from his pint and looked away from us, bringing the dialogue to an abrupt end.
We left the Ship some twenty minutes later.
‘Did you see that?’ I said as soon as we were out of earshot of the rest of the kilts still outside. ‘Those Nationalist idiots know fuck all about fuck all.’
‘Whatever,’ shrugged Lenny the Hippy. ‘But mark my words, my man, Jimmy Riddell is not a happy chappie. I wouldn’t be surprised if that question of yours doesn’t come back and bite you in the arse.’
‘Yeah, cuz,’ added Denny. ‘You should know better than to ask Jimmy Riddell supercilious things like that.’
We all laughed.
Like I said, that was a month before the night of the incident. Vivid memories of the night itself have also been replaying in my mind. Being a Friday, I had been out drinking in Edinburgh with my friends from the office. Still in my suit, which I was wearing for the first time, and shirt and tie, I had returned well-oiled to the Ferry just as last orders were being announced in the Crown and just as Lenny and Denny were on the point of leaving it to head off to the Ship. The Crown closed at one am in those days, but it seemed that the Ship had recently managed to get itself an even later licence. I needed no persuasion to join the pair of them.
When we got there, I had forgotten all about the previous encounter with Jimmy Riddell. Not being on the lookout for him, I didn’t even know that he was in the pub. But he was. He and his little sidekick, both dressed normally this time, were at the end of the bar nearest the door. They were standing on either side of their wives, who were sitting on barstools. Nor did I know that from where he stood Jimmy was watching all the comings and goings in the place. But he was, including my every move.
The three of us sat at the same table as the last time, drinking, chatting, enjoying ourselves. Inevitably, I needed to go to the gents, which were at the back of the pub and which were empty when I got there. Inevitably, too, Jimmy suddenly appeared next to me at the urinal, although I hardly took any notice of him at first. I finished and walked over to the sink. I was swaying a little by that time, I think. As I was running my hands under the tap, I could see Jimmy from the corner of my eye quickly zipping himself up and following me to the sink. I recall thinking that he must have either had a very quick pee or been pretending to pee. It turned out to be the latter, of course.
He came up close to me. He was a few years older than me, a few inches taller and probably twice my weight.
‘What’s your problem?’ I asked.
He brought his face even closer to mine.
‘I’ll tell you what my problem is,’ he said quietly. ‘You embarrassed me a few weeks ago, wanting to know what the SNP’s policy on nuclear disarmament was. I couldn’t answer you then, but here’s my answer now.’
The headbutt came in a flash, striking me right on the bridge of my nose. I reeled back at the shock of the blow, but I didn’t buckle. Then, almost in slow motion, Jimmy punched me in the face with his right fist and punched me again with his left. I didn’t flinch at either of the punches.
‘Have you had enough?’ he hissed.
I didn’t answer him. I just stood there grinning inanely. I suppose I was trying to convey to him that none of what he had done had bothered me. That seemed to work, because he gave out an exasperated sigh, turned and left the gents.
I stood for a while looking into the mirror above the sink. I straightened my tie. I brushed imaginary dust off my jacket. I buttoned the jacket. Then, my back ramrod stiff, not faltering, looking neither left nor right, I marched back to the table, sat down, lifted my pint with a steady hand and took a drink. That was when the blood began to stream from my nose and drip onto my beautiful, new suit.
‘Oh, fuck!’ exclaimed Denny. ‘The bastard got you, didn’t he? The fucking bastard!’
He stood up, glared across at the bar and grabbed me by the arm.
‘Come on, cuz. Let’s get you home,’ he said, adding, ‘Come on, Lenny. Let’s get out of this fucking dump.’
As I was ushered out of the place, I caught glimpses, first of Terry McPhee, standing behind the bar and looking bewildered, then of Wullie Laverty’s wife, up off her barstool and gesticulating angrily, and finally of Jimmy Riddell, his face contorted as he watched her.
‘You’ve always got to be the big man, haven’t you?’ I heard her screaming at him. ‘See what you’ve done to that nice laddie! Waited till he was drunk and couldn’t defend himself. That’s your style, isn’t it? You’re nothing but a big fucking bully!’
And I heard Jimmy speaking, venom in his voice.
‘Wullie, get that bitch of yours to shut her fucking mouth, will you?’
His words were still ringing in my ears as the three of us walked along the street on the way to my flat.
‘I told you we should have followed that pig when we saw him going into the toilet, didn’t I?’ Denny castigated Lenny.
Lenny shrugged in that hippy way of his.
‘Well, how could I know what he was going to get up to? I thought everything was cool, man. Sorry!’
‘Naw, it’s okay,’ I said, holding my head back and trying to stop the flow of blood. ‘It’s not your fault, honest. The bastard just crept up on me. He was very fucking sneaky.’
‘Aye,’ nodded Denny. ‘Very fucking surreptitious.’
None of us laughed that time.
All of which brings me back to the Saturday after the incident. Later that day, I was still in the Crown, still smarting and still vowing retaliation, when who should walk into the bar but big Alan Walker, erstwhile Ferry resident and hardman, and Jimmy Riddell’s best buddy? And what had prompted his sudden appearance in the Crown after years away from the Ferry? I found out soon enough from Lenny the Hippy.
‘Alan Walker has just had a word in my ear,’ he told me. ‘Jimmy Riddell’s expecting trouble from us after last night, so he phoned Alan this morning looking for his backup. Alan says that if we start anything there’ll be a fucking war.’
I probably sneered a little bit when I heard that, but Lenny continued more forcibly, spelling things out.
‘It’s not a war that I want to be involved in. Have you got that? Take my word for it, my man, you don’t mess with Alan Walker. He’s a fucking psycho, man. So just drop it. Just forget all about it. Okay?’
I did drop it – and with a great deal of relief. I could talk the talk about revenge, all right, but I knew that I didn’t have it in me to walk the walk. Even if I could have laid my hands on a baseball bat, I wouldn’t have known what to do with it. The whole idea was alien to me.
So, yeah, the thug got away with it. For a long while, I grew angry every time I recalled being bushwhacked like that. Then I moved away from the Ferry again, leaving behind the Crown and Lenny the Hippy and Denny, thinking no more about the Ship and the bully who ruled over it. The years passed and the memories faded.
But today, having just heard about the bastard’s demise and having relived those memories once again, there are some things that I regret deeply. I regret having been stupid enough in the first place to bring up the subject of politics in a pub. I regret having been too smart for my own good by goading an imbecile with an intelligent question. Most of all, I regret not having found the courage twenty years ago to pick up a baseball bat and beat the imbecile senseless with it.
– o –