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You can’t beat the comfort, warmth and security of a good local pub. Somewhere where you can go and you are accepted without question. Nobody cares about what you may have done in the past or how your day was. Somewhere where the locals hang around a bar and they are just happy to see you for a pint and a chat before you make your way home, merrier and more relaxed than when you came in. I like to think of my pub as an antidote to the real world. Somewhere the punters can come after a stressful day at work to unwind and wash away their cares.

My pub is what I guess you would call a real pub. It would be spit and sawdust except for the fact that we have carpet, after all, this isn’t the dark ages. The carpet is chinsey and threadbare and not without the odd fag burn it’s been down so long and I don’t think it’s the adhesive that makes it stick to the floor but it adds to the character. Its dark orange paisley swirls beautifully offset the dark green tartan fabric that dons the Chesterfield style booth seating and many small wooden stools that neatly tuck beneath the dark wooden scared tables. The whole scheme is completed by the brown floral and slightly peeling at the edges wallpaper. Judging by the discord of colour I have drawn the conclusion that the interior must have been designed by ‘Tommy’.

On the subject of which, we also have a pinball table and not just any old pinball table but an ‘Addams family’ no less, Ballys finest. It sits square against the back wall right next to the door to the back garden and occasionally breaks into quotes from the film just to remind the punters that it is there, ready to be played. All of this picturesque beauty I survey from behind the large square wooden bar situated right in the middle of the pub with its optics island in the middle and pumps all around the outside that dispense a range of quality ales which I sell at very cheap prices. Competition from the big chains is fierce and I don’t serve food and so I have to have an angle to keep myself afloat, afloat on a sea of beer so to speak. It won’t ever make me rich but I am happy here, safely ensconced in my own little world in which I am the king of my domain.

The customer demographic fits neatly into three different categories. There’s the regulars, these are the bread and butter of the place and while they may not spend a fortune their contribution pays the bills. Secondly, there’s the travellers. There’s a site about a mile from here and though there are pubs closer they’ve all been banned from them and so they drink here. They don’t scare me. A few of them tried it on in the beginning, decided to help themselves to a free pint, leaning over the bar with their glass and using the beer taps like they were the ones in their own kitchen. Problem with leaning over like that is it throws your balance all out of cock. It’s easy for someone to take your legs out from under them, especially if you keep a baseball bat behind the bar. They didn’t do it again. Thirdly there are the students. These are my favourite kind. My pub lies just off of campus and so a month or two into their first year you start to see them wander in in small groups. Tired of the student union with its plastic glasses, six deep queue for the bar and the same playlist on a loop every Friday and Saturday night they come in in groups of six or seven all naive, young, fresh-faced seeking some local colour. They come to my pub, a real local, a den of iniquity with real beer in real glasses and maybe a story to tell in the refectory the next day of how a bare-knuckle fight broke out between two of the travellers and they all went out to watch as it moved out of the back door and into the walled garden at the pubs rear. Also, I am cheap, cheaper than the subsidised beer in the Union which is no mean feat.

It was on a quiet Tuesday night when a group of young freshers came in all decked out in the usual uniform, skinny jeans, Martins, band t-shirts. They were the only ones in on my otherwise deserted pub on at what was now rapidly approaching ten o’clock. I had been thinking about turning it in early. My regulars had all gone home for their tea hours ago and I was quite frankly surprised to see anyone on account of the football being on. I don’t have a telly in my pub, if you want that you can go to your local Weatherspoon’s. I hate them, they turn people into zombies and I have no time for that. A pub should be a part of the local community, a place where people come to chat not somewhere for mindless individuals to sit and stare blankly into space watching Jeremey Kyle or music videos with the sound down. If you want something to look at while you are waiting for your mates, look at Facebook on your phone that way you won’t disturb the rest of us. Or there’s a real fire going, stare at that, it’s relaxing.

The merry band of students, two girls and three boys, trundled in and took residence on the long oval table in the corner next to the pinball machine by the back door. A remarkably tall lad got up and moved toward the bar in a lumbering, maladroit fashion, ready to buy the first round.
“Can I please have”, started the statuesque youth, “A pint of Stella, one Guinness, one Spitfire and” at this point he paused and looked somewhat sheepish, “Do you do sex on the beach?” he finished flushing slightly.
I looked at him and raised my eyebrows. I read somewhere once that ninety-five percent of communication is non-verbal. Without speaking is said to the lad ‘seriously?’ His slight flush turned into a full-blown, fire engine red blush and he half said, half mumbled: “and two vodka and cokes please”.
I set the tap to pour the Guinness and picked up a pint glass from the shelf below the bar. Without taking my focus from the pour I said the young lad,
“What you studying then?”
“English literature”, he replied hastily. From the tone of his voice I could tell that he had felt foolish asking for the cocktails and that he that he was clearly relieved that I hadn’t taken his slightly embarrassing request to heart. The lad continued, “We’ve just come from our creative writing group and we wanted somewhere quiet that we could run through our stories”.
I looked up from the tap and replied, “This has all the makings of your lucky day”. He smiled a smile of tangible youthful relief.

I finished pouring the drinks and the young lad paid cash. I used to say that I don’t do plastic but now even the notes are plastic so I’ve had to change that to I don’t do cards. I like my transactions to be invisible, you never know who is watching. The cash also helps with a little I’ve got a thing going with the delivery men from the brewery. When they take the empty barrels from their warehouse to the brewery for re-filling there are a few that go on the back that are, well, full and because my pub is on the direct route and so doesn’t show up on the tracker and because we have developed a system where I can unload the barrels at breakneck speed I get a nice little bonus. You could say that they fell off the back of a lorry. I pay the driver in cash and in return I get ale at a fraction of the real cost and I pass the saving on to the punters, you could say that we all get a drink out of it. That’s how I beat the prices in the local student union. I know it’s stealing but there isn’t a direct victim and I’m sure it won’t send the brewery broke or put anyone out of a job, at least as long as they don’t get caught. I look on myself as a modern day Robin Hood, fighting the major conglomerates and globalisation, helping the poor and the students. Actually I’m just a small-time Charlie landlord who has only managed to survive because I was lucky enough to get a tidy little scheme going on the side, without food it is the only way that I could ever keep the business alive.

Another of the group, a good looking blond haired lad, got up to join the big fella at the bar and give him a hand porting the drinks back to the table. As they took the drinks back towards the table, two of my newly acquired residents pulled out thin folders of A4 paper from their bags and I surmised that it must be their turn to tell their stories.
“Who’s starting?” asked a pretty blond haired girl with a face full of foundation.
“Well I think it should be me but as mine will clearly be the best or perhaps it is better if I do mine last otherwise everything else will just be an anti-climax”.
“You’ve got the all white in your beard”, said the pretty dark haired girl, ignoring the other chaps previous statement. He just smiled and wiped the residue from the head of the Guinness away with the sleeve of his top and said.
“My story’s called Bleed:

Max had always been a quiet kid. He wasn’t ugly or geeky or one of those kids who got left out, he just didn’t say a lot. The others in the group were the loud vivacious ones and Max just sat there quietly and let them get on with it. Early in his life Max’s Dad had said to him that you learn a lot more if you sit and listen rather than talking all of the time and he had kind of used it as a personal philosophy. Max’s maxim, if you like. Max’s Dad had had an accident as a young man at work and so he was now the stay at home Dad. I say stay at home Dad, stay at home is what he did in the morning and evenings, he spent his afternoons in the pub. He would say that the drink helped alleviate the pain as but then so does Nurofen. Max’s mum had left soon after the drinking had started. It wasn’t so much the booze that destroyed their relationship, it was more the fact that she just didn’t see him as a man anymore, just another victim who had said fair well to life in favour of welfare. Max’s mum had left with his two sisters and soon after remarried and moved up somewhere up north where the house prices were cheaper, the sea was closer and the people spoke with fun accents and said things like ‘why eye pet’. Max didn’t blame her, he often wondered how she managed to stick around for so long. He could have gone with them but he had chosen to stay with his Dad, someone had to look after him and besides despite his faults Max really liked his father. He was clever and funny, he’d just had a bit of bad luck which had really affected him. Together they had thrashed out a routine. By the time that Max got back from college his Dad had done the housework and tea was in the oven but then after a few pints at lunchtime he was usually asleep on the settee so Max would get his BMX out of the shed and cycle the half a mile or so to the local skate park.

This was the other reason why Max had decided to stay. Sure you could say that it was because of his friends or because of his exams but the real reason was that he loved to BMX and where he lived had the best park in the area. The local council had just built it and had chucked a load of money at it as part of their newly inspired ‘youth intuitive’. As soon as he finished college Max would go to practice and would continue until the fading light or the winter cold beat him back to the house. Max had a hero, a role model who he wanted be just like. A guy called ‘Josh King’. Josh had been one of the elder kids in Max’s year and he had gone on to make a professional career out of BMX. There were plenty of talented kids at the park but Josh had always been in a league of his own with his slender framed bike seeming to defy gravity as Josh sent it through multiple twists and turns. Max avidly followed Josh’s career as he bulked up and moved from cycling to modelling clothes for various brands in the niche skater market. Josh’s impressive frame was adorned with some of the most artistic black and white body tattoos that Max had ever seen and like his hero, Max’s planned to follow in his footsteps in every way. Max had spent hours in his bedroom designing and redesigning how his body collage would fit together. His wouldn’t be a pile of random tattoos what eventually joined together in the way that towns do when the council commissions a new estate on the final belt of green land between them and you end up with a sprawling mass of conurbations, not being able to tell where one town ends and the other begins. Max had picked his theme. Max had been heavily influenced by Dante’s Inferno which he had read in English Literature and he had planned a full body map depicting the nine circles of hell, starting on the back of his neck with Satan himself surveying the whole of his domain from the ninth circle. Max was going to do this properly, it would take time and cost a small fortune but as and when he could afford it he would work his way down until his whole body became a work of art depicting the first part of the Dante classic.

For his eighteenth birthday Max had got some cash from his Dad which he put that together with the money that he had managed to save from his part-time job and MacDonald’s and that Saturday morning he had a four-hour window booked at the tattoo parlour. Max found out that morning that tattoos hurt, or at least his did, really did. Other people had told him that it more like an uncomfortable twinge rather than pain. Bloody liars the lot of them. It was like being stabbed by a red-hot darning needle about sixty times a second and the pain grew stronger with each passing stroke but Max was determined to make it happen and no amount of pain would stand in his way. Eventually, the gruelling four hours passed and the tattoo artist covered Max’s body art with a protective covering and told him not to take it off for a minimum of four hours. Max was desperate to look at the start of his creation but he wasn’t about to do anything that would put his artwork in any danger of spoiling and so instead he got the bus home, weary from the pain but with excited anticipation of the first reveal.

When Max got home his dad and his grandmother were waiting for him. They had decked the place with banners and balloons and Max was grateful for the effort but the pain in the back of his neck was reaching excruciating levels. He was glad when he washed down his final mouthful of Victoria sponge with a mouthful of Fosters, excused himself and went up-stairs to his room where he lay on his bed and drifted off to sleep. When he awoke the light from his bedroom window had turned into night meaning that over four hours must have passed. With a rush of excitement, Max realised that it was time to take the cotton wool pad off. Because the tattoo’s location Max had to twist his body right around and had to stretch just to be able to reach the edge of the surgical tape that was holding the pad on. Gingerly he picked at the corner of the tape with his over bitten nails and slowly the glue started to give. He picked and picked until the tape gave way and he managed to get purchase between his thumb and his forefinger and the large white pad came away. There was no way that Max could see the fruits of his labours because of where his new tattoo was situated but this was an eventuality that he had been prepared for and contingency plans had already been put into place. A few days earlier Max had mounted a mirror on his bedroom wall and this, combined with the mirror on the inside of his wardrobe door (the one that he stood in front of whilst he did dumbbell curls with the vinyl weight that he had brought off of Spock) he would be able to see a complete reflection of his back.

Max opened and angled the door and then stepped into position at the foot of his bed from where his reflection could be clearly seen. It was impressive work. Satan’s face was like a cross between that of a Lion and a skull, the former being accentuated by the main of curly hair from which two pointed horns emerged. Max’s eye’s moved down the etching and his he froze. At the bottom of the work, the tattoo had bled. The ink at the bottom of the head had blurred and had run. Max’s heart fell and his legs gave way from underneath him causing him to heavily sit on the corner of his bed. He felt sick to his stomach. All of his plans for a piece of body art beyond all others had been scuppered in before they had even left the traps. The tattoo artist must have used too long a needle. Max had done his research and he knew that if they went in too deep with too much ink then the pressure from the surrounding cells could cause the ink to blur and run. He would go back to the tattooist and show him the damage but what could he do? It’s not like he could just rub it out and start again. Besides the artist would probably blame Max, say that he had taken the protective pad off too quickly and that that had been the cause. He may even offer Max some kind of cover-up but it just wouldn’t be the same. His dream was ruined, he was ruined. Max curled up on his bed feeling like a five-year-old who had just been bullied in the playground. He started to cry until he cried himself to sleep.

When Max awoke the next morning for a brief moment he forgot about earth-shattering events from the day before but then as his consciousness fully returned a wave of dread and disappointment engulfed him. Despite this at the same time there was an underlying hope, that false hope that you hold one you know something to be true but wish that it wasn’t, hope that maybe it had not been as bad as he had remembered or that overnight the bleeding had faded away, or that he had dreamt the whole thing. Max jumped out of bed and flung open his wardrobe door. Standing at the foot of his bed and regarding his reflection he realised it was not as bad as he remembered. It was worse. The bleed of ink had seeped down toward the first curvature of his spine. In anger and frustration Max kicked a shoe box that was on his bedroom floor and it flew across the room scattering its contents of leads and games randomly across his bedroom carpet. He couldn’t go back to the tattoo parlour as it was a Sunday and it would be closed. He needed to take his mind off of things and so he headed down to the shed, got out his BMX and headed for the park.

Max spent the rest of the day practising roll-backs and bar-spins and fielding requests to show off his new ink. The thing that he loved the most about riding is that when he was riding he thought about nothing else. It was just him and the bike and the elements and everything else like girls, or exams, or work just faded away. Today he was not granted quite the same respite but it was at least a diversion which was better than nothing. Eventually, the fading light and the growing hunger in his stomach meant that it was time to call it a day. He rode from park to the local chip shop and stuffing the warm paper parcel that contained his dinner into his rucksack he pedalled off home. When he got home Max took the fish supper straight up to his room and sat there in the semi-darkness stuffing chips whilst binge-watching ‘Stranger Things’ on Netflix, all the time fighting the urge to re-examine the state of his new tattoo an urge that was fulfilled by him eventually dozing off.

Max was awakened by thin strips of light streaming around the corners of his bedroom blackout blind. It was morning and he knew that there was no way that he could escape a re-examination of the offending article because he would have to take a shower before college and their bathroom had more mirrors than a kaleidoscope. Max threw his long sleeve t-shirt onto the bathroom floor and braced himself for the inevitable wave of misery that was sure to follow. As he stared into the bathroom mirror a wave of emotions hit him. During the past twenty-four-hours the ink bleeding had spread significantly. Unnaturally. It had worked its way halfway down his back. Max stared incredulously. It wasn’t possible, you couldn’t get that much ink in the gun! As he closely inspected his reflection he was confronted with a weird realisation. The ink was making a picture of its own. Not Max’s design but much much weirder, the same subject but somehow more real. The thought of this made Max shiver. How could it be more real? It was an idea, a representation, no one really believed that hell was a real place. Did they? On the flip side of things, it could have been a fuck of a lot worse. The ink could have just run into a massive random ink blot ruining the canvas that Max held so dear. Or it could have formed into a massive Rorschach, actually, that could have been quite cool. Or it could have formed into the shapes of Mermaids or Unicorns running through rainbows. This last thought scared him more than what was actually happening. If that had been the case, he just would have never got undressed again. Bottom line was this, he was getting his body inked in an awesome design and what’s more, he was getting it for free. ‘Fuck it’, he thought, ‘I’m going to see where this leads’.

Over the next few days the design began to spread and grow, it covered his back and began to work its way down towards his legs and to the tops of his arms. Satanic rivers swept in torrents while demons danced and tortured souls in fire and ice. The whole vista was breathtaking and while the outward reaching parts of the image were still hazy leaving an uncertainty to what exact form they would eventually take the original, central part of the design continued to intensify in detail. The devil’s face and horns had taken on such clarity it was like you were watching Lucifer himself on a four K T.V. It was so clear that Max felt that he could see was thinking through the expression of pensive concentration on his face. Without a doubt, it was the best work that Max had ever seen and all off his on his back.

Despite the fact that Max’s tattoo was currently better than any of his friends could have imagined he felt a great reluctance to show it off. He told himself that it was because he was keeping his powder dry. He was going to wait until the whole thing had taken its course and then do a great unveiling whereupon everyone could marvel upon the spectacle that he had become but a little voice in the back of his head told him that there was another reason. This was not right and he knew it. Tattoos didn’t just appear. He tried to tell himself he was getting an awesome bodysuit for free, quickly and without the pain but these feelings could not totally override the unease that he felt. Something alien was happening to his body and it was beyond his control. He thought about seeing a doctor but what would they do? He wasn’t technically sick and all they could suggest would be laser treatment but for a tattoo that size, it would take more money than Max was likely to earn in the next ten years. If he told the doctor that it wasn’t actually a tattoo but a representation of hell that was organically growing across his skin, they would lock him up. It wasn’t even like he could get a cover up tattoo, the image was too extensive and too detailed. What were they going to do, colour the whole thing in black? He would end up looking Al Jolson. All in all, the whole thing was starting to make him feel uneasy. Max remembered a wildlife documentary that he had once watched about the spider-wasp. The spider-wasp was a wasp that would land on a spider’s back. Once there it would lay and attach on an egg to the back of the arachnid and then it would fly away. When it hatched the wasp’s lave would then burrow into the back of the spider, eating it from the outside in. Fresh meat, guaranteed and there was nothing that the spider could do about it. It knew it was there but it was stuck tight and because of the way the spider’s limbs are positioned there was no way it could get to the egg. All the time the spider knew the egg was there and what it meant and there was nothing that it could do about it. What if you weren’t a spider, what if you were a human being and the same thing happened to you? Surely that would drive you mad.

By the next morning, Max’s tattoo had spread to cover the whole of his back, his bum and the tops of his legs. Snakes had appeared and bleeding trees and demented souls the rocked and buffeted in the wind. The demons on his upper arms were now raining down fire on sorrowful individuals that unveiled themselves upon his chest. The sight was both awe-inspiring and horrifying but nowhere near as the horrifying sight that met him in the bathroom mirror as he poised to clean his teeth. In the bright light of the bathroom Max noticed small black dots, like large freckles, had started to appear on his face. It had never occurred to Max that the tattoo would spread to his face. He had assumed that it would stop at his neck and his wrists but then why would it. This wasn’t a painstakingly planned bit of art this was hell on the rampage. With every day it grew in intensity and there was no telling where it would stop or what it would become. Max thought of the spider and how helpless it was in its plight and then he thought, ‘I am not a spider and I am not helpless’. He replaced his toothbrush in the mug on the side of his sink and picked up his razor. Then he began to cut. At first, all Max managed was to remove the wispy black hairs from his face but then he increased the pressure, shaving his skin until it was raw. Then he increased the pressure until he began to draw blood. It was like he was taking a fine plane to a block of redwood. No, it was more like when you use a potato peeler to shave parmesan. Except soon he wasn’t shaving skin anymore, soon he was just shaving blood. Max kept going, demented, shaving and then hacking the skin from his body in an attempt to rid himself of his demonic picture bleeding profusely over his bedroom carpet. The last piece he attacked was the devil’s face. He couldn’t see it because of the position on his neck but if he could have he would have seen that it was smiling.

“Is that it?” exclaimed the dark-haired girl. “he cut his own skin off!”
“Yep, that’s it,” said the beard and sat back looking smug, like he had just delivered the keynote speech at a party conference to rapturous applause.
“What was his motivation?” retorted dark hair.
“Derr”, said beard “He’s got a demon on his back, I don’t think that he was exactly thinking straight”.
“So the demon made him do it?” said the short blond girl.
“Why does there always have to be an explanation!?” retorted beard. “Why can’t something horrible happen just because? Does everything always have to have a breakdown and a backstory?”
“I know what you mean”, said the tall guy. “It’s like when they make a horror film and then they make a sequel and then they make another sequel and then they make a prequel to explain how the whole thing started and they just suck the joy out of everything”.
“Yeah, and it’s not really a prequel anyway it’s just a chance for the studio to roll out they’re tried and tested formula as a way of making more money”. Added Beard.
“Everyone knows that,” said dark girl, “and that doesn’t detract from the fact that it’s still got to make sense, it has to obey its own rules. I mean one minute he was really pleased that he was getting an all over body tattoo for free, the next minute he’s decorticated himself with a bic razor”.
“Decorticated?” asked the good-looking blond lad.
“It means to skin, like when you peel an orange”.
“Good word”. Said blond lad appreciatively.
“And”, continued dark girl, clearly on a roll, “can you even cut your own skin off, surely you would bleed to death before you got anywhere near finishing the job”.
“And that’s the bit that bothers you”, said the tall lad. “Not the fact that the kid had a moving tattoo that grew across his skin?”
“It needs to be plausible”, said the dark-haired girl with a huff.
“Well I think it’s plausible”, said beard, “I think it’s fantastic”.
“You mean fantastical”, said the blond lad.
“No fantastic”, said beard “I was right the first time”.

He’s ever so sure of himself is beard I thought and then I considered this thought. No he’s not, I corrected myself, he’s totally unsure of himself and that’s why he overcompensates. I looked at my watch, ten thirty, last orders. I rung the bell. This time it was the girls that approached the bar.
“We still have to work through the stories from the rest of the group.”, said the dark-haired girl. “We were kind of hoping that you might consider staying open a little later?” she continued, doing a decent but wasted attempt at being coquettish. I picked up a glass from the shelf beneath the bar and started polishing it a towel. Without looking at the girl I replied.
“My licence’s hours are eleven till eleven, although….” I paused “If I were to say, put the drinks on a tab then no money would change hands and we could say that it was a private party, you would just have to clear the slate before you left”. I made a point of looking at my watch and then continued, “I’ve not got that much on tomorrow, I suppose I could do a late one”.
The girls were visibly excited. Sure there were other pubs in the area that they could go to that open into the wee small hours of the morning but this way they would have the whole pub to themselves and there is something illicit about a ‘lock-in’. The feeling that you are doing something that you’re not supposed to. Like your own secret club. I poured the girls their requested round of drinks and then locked the main door and threw the deadbolt across. By the time I got back behind the bar, their conversation was back in full swing.
“Okay, who’s going next?” Said the dark haired girl.
“Doesn’t matter”, said Beard, “it’s not going to be as good as mine”.
“Yours didn’t make sense, it didn’t have proper resolve”, dark retorted.
“Doesn’t have to”, replied Beard.
The dark haired girl went to respond but the blond one interrupted her.
“Let’s not get into all of that again, we could be here until morning listening to you two thrash out the finer points, besides I’ve got my story ready, I’ll go next”.
The rest of the group fell silent and the blond girl began.

Emily knew from the first moment that she saw Ethan that he was the one for her. He had a magic about him. When she first saw him he was in a bar downtown. He was telling some story of something that had happened to him at work earlier that day and there was a circle of friends around him that were hanging on his every word. He was magnetic and he lit up the room. Emily was a pretty girl in the classical sense of the word. Slight, tall, thin with blond hair and blue eyes. He looks were the total opposite to Ethan who was much rougher. He had darkened features, unruly curly black hair pulled back into a ponytail, a heavy beard and black ink tattoos working their way up his left arm. Not the type that Emily went for at all. Still, Emily knew from the first time that she saw him that she was gone. He must have seen it in her eyes because he stopped his story mid-sentence and with the swagger of a jungle cat walked straight up to her, held out his hand and said, “Come with me”. It was the most romantic thing that she had ever seen. And she did.

He took her to another bar just around the corner from the loud, party pub that they had left. It was a quiet mock Irish number with deliberately contrived miss matching tables and chairs, old books on shelves that on closer inspection were merely plastic replica covers and a bike with a basket chained up outside. They sat on a small round table in the corner and they talked for hours, never running out of conversation. Then Ethan took her home.

Emily was not the kind of girl who would give it up on a first date but with this one she was totally smitten. He was like a drug. When she was away from him he was all that she could think about and when she was with him she never wanted to leave. Within three weeks she had moved into Ethan’s flat and Emily could not remember a time when she was happier.

It is difficult to say when things actually went wrong. For a while everything was rosy. All they did was talk and drink and sleep together. They never argued and life was simple and blissful. Then Ethan’s mood started to change. He would come home in a bad mood because another one of his get rich quick schemes had gone south quick. Emily tried to be reassuring. She hated to see him crestfallen and she had always been sensible with her money, much of what she had earned she had managed to put away for a rainy day but somehow her intended reassurance just seemed to make him worse. Ethan was very old-fashioned in his attitude and the fact that he should be supported by a woman simply made him angry. This didn’t stop him taking the money of course, he just did it with a bitter distaste which left Emily feeling empty. Ethan’s jour de vive had been replaced with a growing sullenness. He had become stubborn unresponsive and moody. Then came the subtle put-downs when they went out drinking with friends. Detrimental jokes at her expense and when she did go out without Ethan, which was rare because this would put him in a bad mood for days, her friends told her that she should dump him, that she was losing her sparkle and that he was controlling her but whatever they said made no difference. She still loved him, the way that she had when she had first set eyes on him and she knew that if they stuck together they would come through it. One of Ethan’s schemes would come good and then they would be sitting pretty. She loved him and she had faith in him and she would prove all of her friend’s wrong. Unfortunately, there was a variable that she hadn’t counted on.

It was about six months into the relationship when Ethan announced that his mother would be coming to stay. Ethan’s mother was French and up until now the only contact that Emily had seen between the two was the twice-weekly phone calls that Ethan would regularly make to his devoted Mother. Ethan was an only child whose Father had left very early in the relationship leaving his Mother and him to fend for themselves. Emily wasn’t exactly jealous of their relationship, after all, his mother was never there. What she hated was the way he could turn from being quiet and surly to being all sweetness and light the moment that his Mother called. Needless to say Emily was less than excited about the prospect of the French invasion but if she even tentatively tried to suggest that perhaps Ethan’s mother would be better suited staying in a hotel rather than their tiny flat he would just say, “She’s my Mother and she’s staying with me” and then go into one of his sulks. The whole thing would be a fait accompli, as they say in France.

Ethan’s Mum arrived late on a Friday night. Cassandra, Ethan’s Mother, was a tall, gaunt woman who was pretty despite being rather lined. She was chicly dressed entirely in black accented by cascades of long grey and white hair that fell half the length of her full-length cashmere coat. Behind her in the hallway were two large brown leather bags which looked rather heavy and made Emily think that perhaps this lady might be stronger than she looked. It also made her think that by the size of the bags that Cassandra might not be going away anytime soon. Ethan greeted his Mother with a large embracing hug and introduced Emily who Cassandra didn’t so much greet as appraise, the way that you consider a friend’s holiday photographs, politely but with little to no interest.

Cassandra quickly made herself at home seating herself at the head of the table and asking Emily for a dry white wine which Emily promptly produced and Cassandra took without recognition or gratitude. Perhaps it was a French thing, although Emily did think a thank you would be nice. Clearly, Cassandra was a ruthless woman, no merci. Never the less, Emily thought ‘I’m not your slave’. Yet all too quickly that is what she became. She ran herself ragged spending all of her spare time looking after Ethan’s Mum. She would clean and run errands for Cassandra who did practically nothing. The only thing that she did seem to do was cook. She had totally taken over the kitchen and this should have been at least some respite if it wasn’t for the fact that she had Emily run all over the city getting bizarre ingredients and roots that to Emily were previously unheard of. It wasn’t even as though her cooking was particularly special, it tasted alright but somehow it seemed to lack any substance. Cassandra was never grateful for Emily’s efforts and attempts to ingratiate herself with her belle mere, or belle mare to be more accurate, we’re met with disdain. One night, Emily got back to the flat ahead of Ethan. She had decided to make a real effort to win Cassandra over in the hope that if she could get on his mother’s good side he would mellow and start behaving again like the person for whom she had fallen oh so deeply. The plan was to get the shopping unloaded and then sit around the table with Cassandra and a good bottle of Chablis and really make an effort to bond. When she got back to the flat Cassandra was in the kitchen, cooking as usual and whilst unloading the latest list of random condiments and spices Emily set upon trying to impress Cassandra by relaying to her how well she was doing with her current work project. While she was in the middle of a sentence and without even turning around from the stove, Ethan’s Mother said, “You’ll always live in my son’s shadow’. Emily was incredulous. What are you supposed to say to something like that? As it turns out nothing. Emily was stunned into silence and abandoned any hope of a chance that they could bond.

It wasn’t like she could say anything to Ethan. For a start, Cassandra was there all of the time. On one of the few times that she had gone out, soon after the shadow comment, Emily had decided that she would front her boyfriend about what was going on. Emily had always been an outspoken girl and even though she could feel herself being eroded away the essence of her spirit was still there. She had given it to him straight. The fact that Ethan’s Mother’s outrageous behaviour was unacceptable and that Ethan would have to put her in her place or tell her that she had to go. That had been the first time that he had hit her. He had just lashed out, swinging his arm in a whipping arc catching her cheekbone with the back of his fist. Once again Emily had been stunned into silence. He wasn’t even apologetic. He insisted that she had made him do it. Her constant moaning and whining was more than he could take. Emily never brought up the subject again.

Two days later was Emily’s birthday and Cassandra had announced that she would cook her a special birthday dinner which had the added imposition of sending Emily even further afield foraging another set of unknown ingredients. Whilst Emily was walking through High Town in search of a random herb, that she bumped into an old friend. Charlotte, Emily’s friend, was clearly taken off guard and so did not have the time to conceal her initial shock at Emily’s appearance. “Emily!” Said Charlotte with the enthusiasm of someone who is backpedalling massively. She rounded off her exclamation with a compensating grin. Emily brought her hand up to her hair and brushed it across her face in an attempt to hide the bruise. The action had the opposite reaction. “Oh Emily”, said Charlotte remorsefully, “What had happened to you?”

The two girls went for lunch and Emily poured her heart out to Charlotte. How she felt as though her personality was being eroded away, how she felt that she had lost touch with the confident and vivacious girl that she had once been, as though she was now just a frail imitation of her former self. Charlotte pulled no punches. It was not the bruise on her face that had startled her about Emily’s appearance but how frail she looked. She was probably half the weight that she had been and it was as though all of the blood had drained from her complexion. Charlotte said that reason she was visibly shocked when they first met was because at first, she had thought that she had seen a ghost. Charlotte told Emily that she had to get out of her relationship, Ethan and his mother were making her I’ll. “Emily”, she said, “you are a shadow of your former self, you’ve got to do something, you’ve got to get out”. She told her that she could come and stay with her for as long as she liked while she got herself back on her feet. Emily said that she would think about it. She felt so weak and although she still really loved Ethan deep down inside she knew everything her friend said to be true.

Emily went back to the flat and sat down with Ethan and a bottle of wine whilst his mother concocted her special birthday dish. Ethan and his mother were both being unusually nice which she put down to the fact that they were making a special effort for her birthday and yet all the time the voice at the back of her head kept telling her that something was desperately wrong, that she should listen to Charlotte and get out before it was too late but she was tired. We wine tasted good and it was going straight to her head. She would have her birthday and then she would re-evaluate her position in the morning. The truth was that she still loved Ethan. If there was the smallest hope that they could return to the way they once were she would take it, she just couldn’t bear the thought that she would ever be without him. Even if the situation never changed and he remained in his sullen controlling state she knew that she would never leave him, she would rather be miserable with him in her life than happy with him out of it.

Ethan had said that after dinner he would take her out, back to place where they had first met, kind of a birthday celebration but after dinner, Emily’s head began to swim. She didn’t think that she had had that much wine. She didn’t drink as much as he used to and perhaps she had lost more weight than she realised and so it was having a greater effect on her. Ethan said that they didn’t have to go out if she didn’t want to and instead helped her up to bed where she lay down and passed out instantly.

It was the sound of the music that caused her to wake. The thumping bass that they play in drinking establishment where presumably the management think that it is an advantage if their customers aren’t actually capable of talking to each other. As she slowly came to she started to recognise the place, it was the bar where both her and Ethan had first met. She recognised the familiar décor and smell of the place that she knew from her all so frequent visits and yet something was different. Her perspective was all wrong. Why was she was staring at the ceiling? She tried to remember how she had got there. Had she had a second wind? Had they gone out after all for that birthday celebration and had the drink gotten too much for her once again causing her to pass out? It was then that she realised that she couldn’t feel her legs. No, she couldn’t her body at all. She stared up totally unable to move at a shape that she made out to be Ethan’s back. She recognised the shirt that she had brought him when they first met and the emblem on the back of his expensive designer jeans that he had had to have despite the fact that he had absolutely no money at the time. He was holding court once again. Surrounded by a group of people who were hanging on his every word, just like the first time that they had met. She tried to call out to him but no sound came from her mouth and with a slow, terrible realisation she realised that it was because she no longer had a mouth. And the reason she could not feel her body was because she no longer had one of those either. She was a bodiless prisoner, chained to Ethan with no way to move and no chance of escape. As she watched him laugh and joke with his friend’s, oblivious to her presence, two things became clear: She would never leave him and she would always live in his shadow.

“I’ll take that!” Said the good-looking blond guy with the trendy haircut.
“Yeah”, reflected his tall mate “It’s kind of a pun, like the whole story was building up to the final punchline”.
“It was the sentence that first gave me the idea for the story”, said the blond girl who had just finished reading and was visibly proud of her effort.
“Of course it’s not as good as mine”, said beard.
“Like fuck it isn’t,” said the dark-haired girl. It was clear that these two were sparring partners and they seemed to enjoy rubbing each other up the wrong way.
“I’m not saying that it’s not without merit”, said beard to the blond girl whilst sitting back and stroking his beard.
“None taken”, she replied.
“You’re such a dick head,” said the dark haired girl to beard but before he could retort the tall lad interjected.
“Look”, he said, “I think that so far they have both been fairly decent stories. The question is”, he paused for dramatic effect, looked around the group and putting on a spooky voice said, “who’s going to go next and will their story blow the other two out of the water?”
I watched them exchange glances with each other from behind the bar and then, before any of them could nominate themselves for the next tale, I cleared my throat and said: “I’ve got a story and I think that mine will beat yours because mine’s a true story”. The tall one was about to say something which would probably have been along the lines of: ‘Thanks but we’ve still got stories of our own to get through’ but I silenced him with my best ‘Al Murray’: My gaff, my rules stare. “And besides”, I continued, “I’m so confident that my story will win that if it doesn’t I’ll clear your slate for the evening”. This last statement seemed to make the whole group very happy and so I began.

It all started one night just like any other Friday night. I hadn’t had the pub long at that point. I had called last orders, wiped that tables down and done the bottling up and so I locked up the pub and started to walk to the flat that I had rented across town while I was having the flat upstairs renovated. As I started to walk down the street I heard the sound of footsteps far off behind me. I’m not a hard man by any means but I’m a relatively big bloke and as a result I don’t get that much trouble so I thought little of it but as I continued to walk through the streets I realised that there was something peculiar about the sound of the footsteps. They matched my own step for step.

It was a crisp winters night and I could see the white fog of my own breath against the blackness of the night. The night was clear, without cloud and the brightness of a full moon glinted on the shards of broken bottles that my neighbours had cemented into the tops of the walls surrounding their backyards to stop would be burglar’s or kids who would dare each other to climb into a stranger’s gardens just for the sake of wreaking havoc. As I walked past the rows of cars parked almost bumper to bumper outside of the rows of terraced houses I could still hear the sound of footsteps keeping time with me like a metronome in the night. Eventually, curiosity got the better of me and I turned to see who was there. The street was empty, darkness there and nothing more. I shrugged to myself turned and started on my way back towards my rental flat. As I turned and started to walk back down the street once again the sound of footsteps matching mine beat for beat re-started. It was then that it struck me, when I had stopped the sound of the footsteps had stopped also. The realisation brought me to an abrupt halt. I tilted my head in order to hear better and listened for a gait other than my own. Once again nothing. I turned and stood motionless looking from side to side, searching the street in its while fluorescent glow for the cause of the sound but there was nothing but the deathly quiet of the suburban street. I turned and once again, as I started walking the once again the sound of distant footsteps started up behind me.

I’m not really one given to a fear of the unknown but something about far-off sound started to unnerve me. Perhaps it awakened some primal fear of being hunted, stalked in the stillness of the night by some unseen predator. A chill took over me and I pulled my black wool overcoat around me and I quickened my step. As I did so the speed of the sound of the far-off footsteps quickened also, matching mine like for like. Once again I stopped dead in the street. I threw my hands over my face and laughed out loud at my own stupidity. It was just an echo. What an idiot, afraid of the sound of my own feet, afraid of an echo. It was only when the sound of my laughter died away I realised that this time the sound of the oncoming footsteps had not stopped and furthermore, it had not slowed down. I span and searched the moonlit street, expecting to see somebody coming towards me. I squinted and at the end of the road and then scanned the entrances to the tiny alleyways that separated the houses that stood like royal guards ridged and motionless in the dark but the only thing that my senses perceived was the sound of footsteps, like the ticking of a clock, advancing towards me.

I turned once again and pulling my coat tighter around myself headed for the flat. It was barely a ten-minute walk away, quicker if I picked up the pace and although it was far from luxurious the thought of locking the door behind me and collapsing on the sofa in front of the telly with a beer offered more than its usual appeal. I set off down the street my pace matching that of my invisible stalker. I reasoned, that as long as I kept my tempo the same as theirs then I would always stay the same distance ahead, perhaps I would even gain ground as one of the advantages of being tall is having a long stride. It would be like walking in footsteps in the snow even and equal, until, as I was about to land my sixth regulated stride I heard the sound strike fractionally before me. My doppelganger had quickened his progress.

I followed in turn and then again, about six steps later, I heard a foot strike fractionally before mine. I began to panic. Was this some kind of torture? Was I being played with like a mouse chased by a well-fed house cat whose ultimate destiny was to be killed for sport? I started into a light jog. My flat was only about five minutes away at this pace and that was surely enough time to outrun my invisible foe. I quickened my pace again. My feet went faster and so did my heart as I heard the sound of far off footsteps break into a run and so I matched pace. Turning the corner, I slipped on what must have been a patch of black ice, my knee buckled and my feet went out from under me.
As my right foot shot up into the air in a wide ark akin to a goose step I bent my left knee and jammed my foot backwards narrowly managing to regain my balance and once on firm footing I began to jog once again. I threw my head to the side once again, listening for the familiar sound of following footsteps but the beat had changed. Rather than matching mine almost like for like a more syncopated rhythm had evolved. At first, I feared that my hunter had doubled his pace but then with a slow terrible realisation I realised that it was worse than that. The extra sound that I could hear was another set of footsteps, there was now more than one of them.

I upped my pace to a fast run and almost instantly felt a stitch start to develop under my stomach. The sound of the footsteps behind me had now become harder to work out and I could no longer work out how many there were or how fast they were going. The one thing I was sure of was that they were getting closer. I reached the T junction at the end of the road and realised that I would have to make a choice. To my right, down the hill lay the way to my flat but at this pace, it was still a good three minutes away. Years of working behind a bar had left me far from fit. The pain below my stomach had now doubled in strength and I spat out the taste of lactic acid that was now building up in my body. I looked left. At the top of the hill was monument square. It was Friday and the brightly lit late night bars that faced the square would still be in full swing. There were always people milling around outside smoking and judging by the amount of alcohol that would have been consumed by now chances are one or two fights would have already broken out in which case there would probably be some form of a police presence. It was my best shot, I turned left and began to run up the hill.

As if in response to my observed change of direction the sound of my pursuers became that of an all-out sprint. I focused on the top of the road and tried to match that pace. My leather soled shoes slipped on the icy pavement and my long woollen overcoat flapped behind me like something out of a forties black and white detective movie. As I got halfway up the hill my legs turned to lead and I could no longer hear the sound of pursuing footsteps over the sound of my own heart pounding in my ears. I just focused on the monument and kept running, like a London marathon runner who turns into the Mall and catches sight of the palace.

With great effort and determination, I made it into the square. The youthful faces from outside of the pubs took a minute away from their cigarettes and vapes to observe the ridiculous sight of an old man in a long coat stumbling into the square. I reached the end of the road, unfortunately in more ways than one. I felt the pain in my chest, a crippling crushing pain causing me to wrap my arms around my rib cage as I fell crashing to my knees. I fell on one side and then rolled onto my back. I lay there crippled staring up at the monument and at the angelic statue that sits atop on a small metal plinth. Then in my periphery vision, other figures came into my view. They were not the youth from the local bars coming to my rescue. And they were far from angelic. I closed my eyes tight shut and waited for what happened next.

To anyone watching it was the sight of an elderly man having a heart attack. The paramedics arrived soon after, they were no stranger to the route from the hospital to the square, especially on a Friday night. They did the usual CPR drill on me but there was nothing that they could do, I was dead before they got there. The coroner recorded my death as a cardiac arrest but I knew different.

I took a glass from underneath the bar, placed it on the drip tray next to me and started pouring myself a Guinness. There was a brief silence from my audience and then beard started laughing and said.
“You said it was a true story but you’re standing there pouring yourself a pint”, the others in the group started to laugh along with him.
“Yeah, okay”, said the tall lad still sniggering and now starting to clap. “Very good, very good, you had us going for a while there”.
“I didn’t lie to you”, I replied matter of factly as I turned off the tap on the Guinness, this is a professional establishment and a decent pint of Guinness needs time to settle. If need be this one could wait until after the slaughter. “You find out soon enough”.
“Oh what?” Said beard, “Are the invisible people coming for us?” Countered beard to the increasing amusement of his friends. I don’t bother to argue with people anymore, I don’t have to. You could say that I am too long in the tooth. I just waited and watched as one by one their laughter faded away as they started to make out the far-off sound in the distance, the sound of footsteps.

Every so often we see groups of students come wandering into the pub enticed by the cheap beer and the chance of a lock-in. The beers cheap for a reason and as for the lock-in, well that speaks for itself. After all why chaise your prey if you don’t have to? Like I said at the beginning my regular customers are bread and butter, these students, they’re the meat. That’s why I don’t serve food. I watched them frozen to their chairs in their little table in the corner as the sound of the footsteps grew louder, they didn’t even try to run. One of them shot a glance at the door only to be faced by aptly named the deadbolt that I had drawn across earlier. I love my pub, it’s an antidote to the real world. Just for dramatic effect, I rung the bell for a final time and as I did so I thought of Hemmingway, ‘ask not for whom the bell tolls’ but I didn’t say that. Instead, I took my inspiration from the pinball machine by the door and in my best impersonation of Gomez said, “Showtime”.

The End

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