|The Northern Lights|
Although I hadn't been there before, I'd been in many places like it. Ludgrove: small northern town, looking exactly like every other small northern town I'd visited. I didn't like the place, didn't like the feel of it from the moment I stepped off the bus. My immediate thoughts were that I should have stayed on the bus and gone straight through to Wellsop. But, like it or not, I was there, to break my dream, with a pocketful of magic.
Walking down the main street, I looked up at the sign above the door of the pub I was approaching: George and Dragon. There were two more pubs on the other side of the road: The Prince of Denmark and The Crown. The Plough turned out to be the last pub on the street, on the same block as the town's cinema.
The Plough looked old and dingy from the outside, the same as the other three pubs I'd passed. The front door opened on to a long, narrow lobby. On the left was a door marked Vault. I opened the vault door and popped my head inside. There were four men playing dominoes at the table under the frosted-glass window: apart from them, the room was empty. The combination of the sparse light from behind the bar counter and the late-evening sunlight seemed barely sufficient to enable the domino players to distinguish one bone from another, but the four men seemed totally engrossed in their game, so much so that none of them bothered looking up to see who had opened the vault door. I closed the door and walked down the lobby, past the Ladies and Gents on the right, towards a door marked Saloon Bar.
The saloon bar was brightly lighted in comparison to the vault, even though there were only three customers in the room. The bar counter was to the left of the door. The lone barman had the job of attending to both bars; he was leaning on the vault bar counter watching the domino players; I had to tap on the wooden counter-top with a coin to attract his attention. Not familiar with the local brew, I ordered a pint of Guinness.
I took my pint over to an empty table in the far right-hand corner of the room. The other three customers were directly opposite me at the table in the left-hand corner: a young woman with shoulder-length hair was sitting between two shorthaired youths. The youths looked to be aged 18 or so. I found it harder to judge the age of the young woman; she may have been the same age as the two lads, she could have been in her early 20s. My eyes were drawn to the young woman, I found her rather attractive. She noticed me looking at her as one of the lads leaned across the table to say something to his pal, his hand up at the side of his face covering his mouth from my view; her eyes widened noticeably as our eye-lines met. My eyes retreated from hers as I reached for my pint.
To take my mind off the young woman, I slipped my right hand into my jacket pocket. They were all there, trickling through my fingers as my hand dug deeper. They felt warm. I yearned to be rid of them; they were burning a hole in my pocket.
Lighting up a cigarette, I looked back over at the trio opposite. The two lads were sharing a joke, they were laughing loudly. The expression on the young woman’s face suggested that it wasn’t her kind of joke, she looked rather bored.
I was halfway through my second pint of Guinness, stubbing out my third cigarette in the glass ashtray, when I idly picked up the sole beer mat on my table, which someone had peeled the outer layer from. Turning it over, I stared at the picture on the other side: Winged Elk Lager in bold lettering, with a picture of an Eskimo holding up a large fish, his fingers locked into its gills as he held its head up level with his own. Before I could start puzzling as to what the picture was supposed to suggest, the music started. I looked up: the young woman was standing at the jukebox at the far end of the bar counter. I immediately recognised the intro to "Call me Al".
This can't be right, how could she know?
My mind raced back to the times that I played that tape for her, recalling the cassette player I had bought especially for that purpose and kept permanently at the side of my mother's bed. She loved that song, it reminded her of Dad, her Albert. But for all the hours I spent playing it over and over in that dismal hospital ward, she never came out of her coma. And that rainy evening I was summoned to the matron's room, and told in sympathy-wrapped terms that it was all a waste of time, and would I sanction them to pull the plug on her.
She couldn't know; it's just a co-incidence, life's full of them. If you've got too much going on inside your head you can make false connections out of anything.
By 9.30 a few more customers had drifted in. I had just about resigned myself to the fact that I'd come to another dead end when I felt something niggling at my ankle. Looking down, I saw a small pug-nosed dog sniffing at my shoe.
"Come here Algy," the old boy at the next table spoke softly as he tugged at the dog's leash. The dog instantly obeyed, turning back and stretching himself out under the old boy's table.
I sank the rest of my pint, and left.
It was dark outside, the street lights were on but they did little other than shed a pool of light 10 foot or so in diameter around the base of their posts. Just as my eyes were becoming accustomed to the lack of light, a flash of the dream hit my consciousness like a lightening bolt: my newly-deceased mother, standing in the lamplight, her voice, her words, the words I'll remember for the rest of my life: "When the time is right, we'll meet again at Mullsby. Trust to the heavens, be guided by the plough." But this isn't Mullsby, this is Ludgrove!
On the redbrick wall facing the bus stop an overhead lamp illuminated a Northern Omnibus Company timetable. On inspecting it I discovered that the next bus, which also happened to be the last bus of the night, wasn't due until 10.30. Having 40 minutes or so to idle away, I decided to return to The Plough.
I ordered another pint of Guinness and sat down at the table I had previously occupied. The old boy with the dog was still there, as were the two youths and the young woman. The lads' camaraderie was flowing thick and fast, they were pulling faces and wagging fingers at each other, bringing about cacophonies of laughter from the pair of them. The young woman smiled at me as our eyes met. Sensing a bout of acute self-consciousness coming on, I quickly averted my eyes from hers. I reached for my pint, attempting as best I could to hide my embarrassment.
I finished my pint, and looked at my watch: 10.15. I had another quarter of an hour to waste before the bus was due to arrive, but I decided to leave; I wanted to get out of the place; it was beginning to get on my nerves.
I strolled towards the bus stop, feeling much better for being out in the fresh air. I arrived there with what should have been five minutes to spare, but I had only been there a minute or so when I saw the last bus approaching, its headlights blazing as it came over the rise and down into the town. I moved to the kerbside and thrust my arm out to ensure that the driver didn’t go rushing past the stop. As the bus neared my eyes focused on the illuminated destination panel above the driver’s cab: Mullsby. Sod that! I lowered my arm and stepped well back from the kerbside. The bus sped straight past the stop, and less than 30 seconds later it had disappeared over the bridge at the other end of the town. I pondered on what to do. There was only one answer: back to The Plough.
The young woman was coming out of the saloon bar as I entered the lobby. We walked towards each other until she reached the door of the Ladies, where she stopped and looked directly at me.
"Excuse me," she said as I drew level with her. "Are you looking for someone?"
Her question stopped me in my tracks. I ran my hand through my hair as I struggled to formulate an answer.
"What makes you think that?" I said, and instantly regretted giving out such a rude reply to what was nothing other than a polite enquiry.
"I'm sorry," she said, looking somewhat slighted. "It’s just that there was a woman in here earlier...," her voice trailed off.
"No, I'm not looking for anyone," I answered, trying to project a friendly smile. "I'm just out having a quiet drink."
"My mistake then," she imparted, then turned on her heels and disappeared into the Ladies.
Back at the same table with another pint of Guinness in front of me, I lighted yet another cigarette and had a good think. The bus: Mullsby; another co-incidence; the driver probably put the wrong destination up. I should have stopped it and asked him if he was going to Wellsop. I slipped my hand into my jacket pocked; they were getting warmer.
I had re-attained a degree of control over my thoughts by the time the young woman came back into the room. I kept glancing over at her as I sipped at my pint, hoping that she would acknowledge my glances with some slight gesture, but she didn't look my way even the once, she was engrossed in conversation with the two lads.
10.50 The barman flashed the lights, signalling last orders. I drained my glass and headed for the bar. The two lads and the young woman were getting up to leave. I stood at the bar and watched them pass through the doorway, the lads leading the way, the young woman walking behind them. I was hoping that she would glance my way as she left. She didn't.
11.20. I was the last person left in the room. The barman was leaning on the bar counter, casting impatient looks in my direction, "Haven't you got a home to go to?" written all over his face. Concluding my deliberations on the note that I had no alternative but to start walking, I finished my pint and left.
It was quite warm out on the street. The night was still; there was no wind at all.
I walked down the street pondering on the chances of being able to thumb a lift. As I approached the town’s cinema I saw one of the lads from the pub standing on the bottom step of the entrance. Drawing nearer, I saw his pal and the young woman: he had her pressed up against the cinema’s glass doors, his hands roaming all over her. Looking back at the lad on the step, I noticed that he was glaring at me. I focused my eyes on the pavement as I drew level with him.
“What’re you looking at?” he growled.
I raised my head and shrugged my shoulders in what I hoped would be taken as a gesture of misunderstanding.
“I said, what’re you looking at dickhead?”
Figuring that I was on a hiding to nothing, I slipped my right hand into my jacket pocket. Boy were they hot.
“What’s that you‘ve got there?” he asked, noticing the muscles in my neck tightening appreciably.
“Something for you,” I replied, taking my hand from my pocket and planting my clenched fist straight into his face in one smooth movement. I felt the cartilage in his nose snap. His eyes registered severe shock for a split second before he threw his hands up to his face. He began to groan through his outstretched fingers, the blood had started seeping through them and was dripping down onto his white sweater. The other lad, who had turned around to see what was going on, stood mouth agape, his arms still locked around the young woman, who also looked startled.
“I think your friend is trying to tell you something,” I said, winking at him.
“Uh, yeah,” he replied.
“Be seeing you,” I grinned, giving them a friendly salute as I set off on my way again.
I was approaching the outskirts of the town, having crossed the bridge and passed the last of the small terraced cottages on the other side of the river, when I heard the sound of hastening footsteps behind me. I reached into my pocket. Wow, they couldn't remain in there much longer. Then a voice.
"Hey, wait a minute!"
I turned to see the young woman from the pub clattering along on her high heels as fast as her legs could carry her. I waited for her to catch up with me.
"Have you got a light?" she asked, holding up a cigarette as she approached me.
I handed her my lighter.
"Thanks," she said, exhaling a cloud of smoke as she handed back the lighter.
I started to walk on. She fell in step with me.
"I'm sorry about the bother outside the pub," she said, looking up at me. "Dave is always looking for trouble, he can't handle his drink."
"That's OK, it wasn't your fault."
"I think you've broken his nose," she slowly intoned, studiously watching my reaction. "He'll probably have to go to hospital in the morning. Alan had to help him home."
"Is Alan your boyfriend?"
“Sort of," she answered. "Where are you going?”
“Wellsop? It’ll take you half the night to walk that far.”
“I missed the last bus. I was hoping to thumb a lift. Anyway, it‘s a nice night for walking. Look, there‘s a full moon,” I said, pointing up into the clear night sky.
“Sooner you than me,” she said, linking her right arm through my left. “I’ll walk with you until the next crossroads.”
“Does Alan usually walk you home?”
“What, Alan walk me home? You must be joking!”
I fished out my cigarettes and lighted one up. We were by now walking in open country. As we came over the brow of the hill the road stretched out before us in the moonlight, down into the valley and then rising again in the far distance. The grass verge at the side of the footpath began to widen; the hawthorn hedgerow separating the verge from the fields beyond grew thicker and higher.
“What’s you name?” she asked.
"It's not my real name. I just like to imagine myself as an Heather. My real name's Alicia"
"That was my Mother's name."
"What a co-incidence!"
"A co-incidence, yes."
"Are you married?"
"Have you got a girlfriend?"
"Ummm," I stalled.
"You have, haven't you?" She laughed.
"Yes, I have," I replied, hoping that it would bring an end to her line of questioning.
"Is it the woman who was in the pub earlier?"
"I doubt it," I sighed.
"Hold on a minute," she said, withdrawing her arm from mine. "I'm dying for a pee."
I looked back along the road. Not one car had passed in either direction since I had set out walking. I looked towards where Alicia had scurried off to; I could just about make out her crouching figure up against the dark hedgerow. The night was so still I could hear the hissing and splattering of piss splashing in the grass. It set me off needing a pee myself. I walked over to the hedgerow a few yards away from where she was now standing upright, adjusting her skirt.
"What're you doing?" she called out.
"Watering the daisies!"
She laughed in the dark.
Alicia was waiting at the roadside as I walked back. This time she walked on the outside, her left arm through my right.
"Well, that's it," she said as we reached the crossroads. "Unless you'd like to walk me home. It's only five minutes or so from here."
I looked up at the signpost pointing in the direction she was to take: Mullsby.
"No, I'm not going to walk you home."
"That's OK, " she said. "Let me give you a hug for walking me this far."
She threw her arms around me and gave me a gentle squeeze.
"Ooh, what's that you've got in you pocket?"
"Would you believe me if I said it was the aurora borealis?"
"The Northern Lights?"
"The very same!"
"Yes, I'd believe you. After all, you believed me when I told you my name was Heather. Can I see them?"
"Of course you can."
I told her to cup her hands, and then reached into my pocket. I took them out a few at a time to avoid spilling them, and dropped them into her open hands. Four scoops and they were all out.
Alicia looked down at pool of tiny orbs nestling in her hands, unperturbed by the heat emanating from them. Then she flung them up into the air. Up, up they soared, bursting into a multitude of coloured streamers fanning out into the night sky. As my eyes followed their progress up into the heavens I felt her grasp my hand, even though I knew she was no longer there.