A Man of Wealth and Taste
by Alan Jackson
part 1 of 2
I rode a tank
with a General’s rank
as the Blitzkrieg raged
and the bodies stank
Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name, oh yeah
Ah, what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game, oh yeah 1
Longthwaite wasn’t exactly the arse-end of nowhere. It was more like a pimple on the backside of the arse-end of nowhere. I don’t know what possessed me to think that a night in a lonely pub on the moors might be ‘quaint’.
It didn’t matter anyway, no way was I going to make it to another more suitable destination tonight. Something had drawn me to stop at this place, plus it had been a long time since I’d stayed in an out-of-the-way pub and I was quite looking forward to it.
I pulled up outside ‘The Slaughtered Lamb’ and sat for a moment listening to the lusty rumble of the SL 55 Mercedes, just audible under the audio system as it pumped out the Rolling Stones.
I stopped the engine and the music died with it. All I could hear now was the buffeting of the wind coming across the open moorland. I got out, stretched my legs and stood savouring the view. Blasted heath as far as the eye could see in all directions. On the horizon, more hills and mountains disappeared off into the evening twilight. Dotted here and there was the odd tumble-down dry stone wall, and I noted the ruins of some barns and houses that must have crumbled last century. A sharp wind lay about the moorland grasses, flattening them first one way and then the other.
I pulled my jacket collar up. Across the other side of the single track road were three ancient rusting Fina petrol pumps, possibly belonging to the pub. In this context they were as enigmatic as three Easter Island heads, who would come all the way up here for fuel?
Then there was the Pub itself, the Inn, the Hotel. Standing isolated in its own, over-large, carpark it was a stern fronted Georgian edifice of blackened yellow sandstone. Brewery or management had made vain attempts at jollying the place up with signage promising ‘Hearty Food’, ‘Widescreen Sky Sports TV’, and ‘Authentic real cask ales’.
Picnic tables of reinforced concrete stood outside, as if only these would be substantial enough not to succumb to the winds. Withered and wind-burnt hanging baskets added nothing to the ambience. Mine was the only car in the carpark at nearly eight o’clock on an Autumn evening. All these portents did nothing to lighten my mood or convince me that this was a good decision.
I took my hold-all and entered the bar. It was dimly lit, as expected, you don’t want the punters to see the dilapidated furnishings or the worn and stained carpet. As long as they can see enough to sip their beer and play the slot machine, the lighting is good enough.
Sure enough, one of the brighter light sources in the place was the flashing neon frontage of the fruit machine, a real gambler’s wet dream of hold and nudge buttons. A melange of smells assailed my senses, yesterday’s beer, other people’s cigarette smoke, and sweat only thinly disguised by air-freshener.
Nobody to be seen, so I strolled in and dropped my bag on a seat, and what’s this? Hiding behind a pillar is a sight to make a true connoisseur of rock music weep, a mighty Wurlitzer juke box. Not one of your modern reproductions, but the real 1960’s macoy, with proper vinyl 45’s in a neat row.
I had to try it. Any Stones? I searched the list until I found one from the absolute correct period. I watched fascinated as the selector mechanism jerked into action and plucked my chosen record from the shiny black row, and then turned it and plonked it down on the turntable. The music rumbled out. I was instantly transported musically to another time and place.
Well this could be the last time
This could be the last time
Maybe the last time
I don’t know. oh no. oh no... 2
‘Now, he could dance...’ came a voice.
‘Hello!’ I whirled around, ‘where did you spring from? I thought the place was empty,’ I said to the figure behind the bar.
‘You can say what you like about Jagger, face like a smacked arse yeah, but that skinny bastard could dance,’ he seemed oblivious of my reaction to his sudden appearance or pronouncement. ‘Man, he could move like a greased weasel,’ he went on, I could just make out his outline in the gloom behind the bar as he waved an arm in my direction in imitation of a snake. ‘Looked like he didn’t have one solid bone in his body. Rubber lips — rubber bones.’
The apparition that came into the overhead lights of the bar was a skinny gnarled old man with long greasy grey locks and side whiskers that a Dickens’ character would have been proud of . ‘I saw him dance in Hyde Park, after that other fella, Brian Jones, had just snuffed it. He danced like a mad thing, had a poofy “skirty” thing on though.’
Now I could see him clearly, I noted the blue tattooed arms, Harley-Davidson T shirt, and cut-off denim jacket. Slightly the worse for a drop of the hard stuff too, if I wasn’t mistaken.
‘Well, maybe he must’ve had one solid bone, eh?’ he leered. ‘He did alright for himself shagging all of that posh tottie over the years.’ He sniggered in a most unattractive fashion, and wrestled the top from a bottle of Jack Daniels. ‘She was there. That Marianne. Looking all peaches and cream, acting prissy and stuck up as if a Mars bar wouldn’t melt in her mouth. Christ almighty! That was thirty-six goddamn years ago!’ he shook his head as if in disbelief.
‘You were there then?’ I asked, interested now. I leaned on the bar to hear more.
‘Me and the boys were there as “security”,’ he emphasised the quotes. ‘We did all the festivals back then. Well they didn’t have a choice see, either we got in free and did the security, or we caused a ruck. We did the Isle of Wight a year after that. Me and Jimi we were like that!’ he gave the age-old entwined fingers gesture, ‘best of mates, stoned for a week. I let him ride my Bonneville, dopey son-of-a-bitch nearly dropped it. He nearly played that gig in a sling, I’m telling you.’ A finger wagged in my direction as he laughed dryly at the memory.
‘I met him soon after,’ I said. I don’t think he heard.
‘He was dead three months later,’ again he shook his head looking drunkenly maudlin.
‘He still one of my favourites,’ I said, ‘I’m pleased to have him in my collection.’
‘Do I know you?’ he peered more closely at me, and seemed to become focused on my presence for the first time, as if all that had gone before was just an internal musing. ‘Have I seen you before somewhere?’ he pulled himself up to his full height to examine me, braced two hands on the bar in front of us. He had obviously decided to put our relationship onto a more businesslike level, ‘whaddya want anyway?’ he slurred with obvious effort.
‘Ah yes,’ I smiled an almost convincing smile, ‘a room for the night please, the best you’ve got!’
He started a slow hacking laugh deep down in his chest, that after a few moments eventually turned into a phlegmy choking cough.
When he’d wheezed to a halt, I said, ‘Yes very amusing I’m sure. Now if you’ve got any lungs left, can I see my room?’
‘Well, we’ve got rooms. Two of ‘em, neither one’s better than t’other, but you don’t really want to stay here,’ he coughed moistly, ‘you could be down in the next village in forty-five minutes even in the dark. Why stop here? You must be daft.’
‘My reasons are my own, my friend, but do I get the impression that you don’t want to let me a room? Can you afford to turn away paying customers?’ I asked anyway knowing full well that my presence wasn’t wanted. Our gazes locked, and I wondered if he was going to attempt a battle of wills. The music had stopped and now the silence hung between us for a long moment.
He looked away. ‘You can have a room, if you’re sure that’s what you want,’ he finally said, grudgingly, ‘but tonight I’d think about staying put in it. It can get pretty rowdy in here, Bikers, Punks, lock-ins, and such.’ He poured himself another bourbon. As he did so, I glimpsed the unmistakable bottom rocker of his ‘Hells Angels’ tattoo under the sleeve of his T shirt. So maybe he wasn’t just a drunken old bull-shitter telling tall tales.
‘Yeah, I can see how this could kick off into a wild party,’ I looked around the vacant bar incredulously, ‘how’s about some food as well? The sign says “Hot Food served all day”.’ I could see from his expression that I was pushing things, but what the hell I had nothing to lose. ‘Can I see a menu?’
‘There’s some lasagne left over from lunchtime, I’ll bung it in the microwave for you when you’re ready,’ he growled as he passed me the room key for Number 1 on an ancient battered pink plastic key fob. ‘Top of the stairs, you can’t miss it. I’ll bring your food up on a tray.’
‘No. I don’t think so. I’ll eat down here.’ I picked up my bag, ‘See if you can find me a nice bottle of red to go with it,’ I called over my shoulder as I headed up the short flight of stairs.
The room was actually cleaner and more homely than I had expected, small but with a double bed, a wash basin in one corner, and an antiquated wardrobe filling the alcove next to the door. I dropped my bag and threw off my jacket. I tested the tired springs of the bed, still with no real idea what had possessed me to come here tonight.
I splashed some cold water on my face and took the time to admire my features in the mirror above the basin. At least this one had a full head of hair, that was a blessing. Square jaw, high cheekbones, chiselled chin, and piercing blue eyes. Not bad, I thought, this is one of the best for a while. I may keep this look for quite some time. Satisfied, I headed back down to the bar and my evening meal.
The place was still deserted. A few more lights had been turned on over the bar as darkness had fallen and I spotted a bottle of supermarket Chianti Classico, uncorked, next to a single glass down at the far end. Mine host had obviously been paying attention. So I perched on a barstool and poured myself a drink.
The scents took me back to Tuscany, with cypress trees and olive groves parched by the hot sun. I took a sip, washed it around my mouth and remembered why the grape had been invented. I could hear bustling out in the kitchen behind the bar.
I took the time to look around at the decor. There were photographs of post-war motorcycle events here and in America, poster icons like Brando and Lee Marvin from the Wild Ones. Later Easy Rider memorabilia decorated some walls, as did badges for marques like ‘Royal Enfield’, ‘BSA’, ‘Norton’, ‘Triumph’, and of course ‘Harley Davidson’. Some of the bikes and riders depicted I remembered well, some were more obscure. Latter-day Manx TT riders meant nothing to me.
I took my drink over to the juke box and looked for a selection of peaceful tracks to aid my digestion. I realised as I studied the menus that I wouldn’t be disappointed. ‘Time is On My side’. ‘Ruby Tuesday’, ‘Love in Vain’, and ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ were all there. How could that be? The selection of vinyl 45’s in front of me couldn’t possibly extend to a selection as big as that shown on the menu I’d worked through. I got the impression that every Rolling Stones track ever recorded was at my fingertips, when the row of singles in front of me couldn’t have numbered more than fifty. There was some kind of base trickery going on here. I started my selection.
‘Broadband,’ the voice came from the open kitchen door, ‘they’re piped in directly from the brewery, over t’internet,’ he must have noticed my puzzled expression, ‘The 45’s are dummies, just for show.’
‘Ah, of course,’ I said, ‘the internet, what ever use will they think of for it next?’
‘You were serious about eating in here then?’ he carried my food on a tray, ‘I was going to bring this up to you otherwise.’
‘I’ll have it here, thanks,’ I said, I waved an expansive arm, ‘where’s your rowdy element then? Are they not coming tonight?’
‘Let’s hope so, eh?’ said my miserable host. He plonked the tray of food down on the bar in front of me, and tossed cutlery in a napkin onto the tray. The lasagne didn’t look too bad for being re-heated leftovers, and there was a basket of crisp French bread next to it.
I raised my wine glass in salute, ‘Bon appétit,’ I said. ‘Why don’t you join me in a glass? What do they call you?’
‘Name’s Clem. But no, thanks, vino ain’t my tipple,’ he reached for his glass of bourbon, ‘I’ll keep you company for a minute, though,’ he leant across the bar top. ‘What’s your name then? Are you a sales rep, on business, or something?’ He had become sociable drunk, momentarily, ‘And I’m sure I’ve seen you somewhere before.’ The Stones played quietly in the background.
‘My business acquaintances call me “Hightower,” that’s a reasonable translation of my name.’ I tried a mouthful of the pasta; it was surprisingly good. ‘You could say I’m in the lighting business. I bring light into people’s lives.’
1 Rolling Stones, ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ (1969)
2 Rolling Stones, ‘This could be the last time’ (1965)
Copyright © 2006 by Alan Jackson