Pub Tales is a completed, but as yet unpublished, series of short stories by yours truly. At the moment it is intended to be my penultimate collection of short stories, as I am striving to complete all of those novels which I have begun writing, but not completed.
The conceit of Pub Tales is that all of the stories are related in the same public house, although the action occasionally moves from there. The person listening to these fantastical stories may or may not be me. He has my first name, anyway.
None of these stories are true. I never heard such stories related to me. But they are far more interesting than some person talking about their car, or about football, or about other things which I find to be incredibly boring. What is the point of going out to a pub if that is all that you are going to talk about? I want to be entertained when I go out for a drink.
In this collection, when it is finally published in some form, you will have odd little stories of ghosts, aliens and other odd things. Anyway, as a taster from the collection, here is one of those tales.
Tale Seven: The Tale Of The Jazz Man
There is a guy who goes down my pub who is called the Jazz Man. Actually, if I am being truthful, he is not called that at all. But he does play in a jazz band; and, if he has told me his name in the past then I have forgotten it. I suspect that he has told me what he is called, in the past, but that I have forgotten what it is. I don’t like to ask him again, as I don’t want to appear ignorant. So I just think of him as being the Jazz Man.
Anyway, I think that the Jazz Man is around seventy years old. That is only really a guess, as I am not that good at judging the ages of people. Maybe he is only in his sixties. Maybe he is in his eighties.
He is tall – taller than me – and has short, fluffy hair which is snow white in colour. He tends to wear a check shirt and loose, grey trousers. He is not really a fashion icon.
I don’t usually get to speak to the jazz Man. Maybe once a month I might exchange the odd word with him. But we are both regulars in my local pub.
Anyway, one Friday night I was in the pub, as it slowly inched towards closing time. The pub, for once, was surprisingly quiet – and this was on a Friday night. There were fewer than a dozen people in the place. It was like half the clientele had suddenly been abducted by aliens.
The Jazz Man was one of those few who had been left behind. He tends to only come late to the pub. Unlike me, here is not there all evening. I think that he just comes for a couple of pints towards the end of the evening.
The Jazz Man sat down at the table next to mine. He didn’t say anything to me at first. He enjoyed his pint, while I enjoyed mine. But people like company, don’t they? They like having people to talk to, and I guess that this Friday night he didn’t have any of the people who he normally spoke to.
“Evening.” was his opening gambit.
“Evening.” I replied. I took another sip of my pint of Crazy Sheep.
There was silence for another couple of minutes – just the background noise of the pub. But the noise was subdued, with there being so few people in the place. Maybe it was the pub which had opened down the road. I had gone in there one evening, but I had not been impressed: it had shite piped music, nowhere to sit, and beer which was on the turn. Yes, the beer was about thirty pence cheaper than in the pub I was sitting in. But what is the point of buying cheap beer if you got a slightly vinegary aftertaste in your mouth when you drank it? I hated pubs which didn’t care for their beer. There is always a reason why beer is cheap. It is usually because the landlord has got some money knocked off as he was buying beer towards the end of its life.
It was Enville Ale which they’d had in that other pub, down the road. I like most of the Enville beers, especially Enville White. But it is a beer which doesn’t like being slugged around all over the place. I heard somebody say, once – I don’t know if it is true or not – that Enville beers should be moved no more than five times. So maybe that beer had been moved half a dozen.
The fact that the pub had piped music was the final reason why I’d never go to that hellhole again. Having a jukebox is acceptable. At least you can then try to find some music which isn’t execrable. But no piped music. Not if they wanted my custom.
So, after one unpleasant week checking out the competition, I had returned to my favourite pub: one with beer which was drinkable; with no music forced on you; with no annoying one-armed bandits; with three real fires; and with somewhere comfortable to sit.
But I digressed.
“You don’t play any instruments, do you?” the Jazz Man suddenly asked.
“No, I’m totally unmusical.” That was true. Back at school, when I had been growing up, I had not even managed to master the descant recorder.
“Ah, then you won’t know the difficulty involved in buying a new musical instrument.”
I sensed that there was some strange tale here, waiting to be told.
“Go on.” I said.
“I needed a new guitar. I play jazz guitar, you see.”
Yes, I had just worked that out.
“Well, I went around all of the local music shops, but I could not find exactly what I wanted. I am very particular about the instruments which I use. They have to feel perfectly right. Do you play an instrument?”
“Oh. Anyway, none of the guitars felt right.” he said. “Unless you are a musician you won’t know what I mean.”
I wasn’t a musician, and I didn’t know what he meant. I could not even play a recorder. I was probably one of the least musical people in the entire world. Surely a guitar was just a guitar? I didn’t know why he would say one didn’t feel right in his hands. But, like I said, I wasn’t a musician.
“Anyway, I kept on looking, plodding all over the place, trying to find a guitar which spoke to me, which I knew was the one for me. I almost gave up. But I kept on looking.
“Then I found this strange little store which I had never seen before. It was in this out of the way road. Well, I call it a road, but it really was nothing more than an alley, even if it did have a postcode. I must have been past the place before, but I could not recall ever having seen the shop before.
“It claimed to be an antique store, but I saw in its window that it sold musical instruments. There was an old violin there. So I decided to go in, and to see if they had a guitar which felt right when I played it.
“I went in through the door. It had one of those little bells which tinkle when you open the door. They always remind me of old sweet shops, although I don’t know why. I don’t suppose that you remember when they used to have sweets in tall glass jars, and they weighed them out on a scales with metal weights.”
I did remember. There used to be a sweet shop up the road from where I lived as a kid which used to do that. You could get a quarter of a pound of lemon drops weighed out, and then slid into a white paper bag. My favourites were boiled sweets called rhubarb and custard. Which was quite odd, as I have never been able to stomach real rhubarb.
Anyway, I didn’t interrupt this old guy’s tale with such youthful reminiscences.
“An old man appeared by hind the desk. Now I’m no spring chicken, but he looked like he was at least ninety. I have never seen a face which was so lined before. But he still seemed to be spry and light on his feet.
“He smiled at me, but didn’t say anything. To tell you the truth I thought that there was something a little odd about his smile, even then.
“I asked him if he had any guitars for sale, as I couldn’t see one on show. But the place was so stuffed with stuff that was not really surprising. There actually wasn’t all that much room to move about. There were antiques in there stacked up as high as the ceiling: there were antique chairs on antique card tables, a double bass, all manner of stuff. I can’t remember everything that he had in there.
“He said that he had exactly what I was looking for. Then he pulled out, from behind the counter, the most beautiful guitar that I had ever seen. You could see every grain in its polished wood.
“But looks aren’t everything. I had to know what it sounded like, before I parted with any money. I asked if I could try out the guitar, and the bloke handed it over to me.
“I played a few tunes on the guitar. It had the clearest, most beautiful sound of any guitar which I had ever played. This was to guitars what the Stradivarius was to violins.
“I wanted the guitar. I asked how much it was. He told me that it was five thousand pounds – which I considered to be a ridiculous price to pay for an acoustic guitar, even if it was the best guitar which I had ever handled.
“I tried to haggle with him, as I was not about to take out a second mortgage to buy a guitar. He was not going to reduce the price, unfortunately. But he said that I could have the guitar for free if I just did one little task for him.
“I wanted the guitar, but I wasn’t sure about this. What sort of task would be worth five grand? But then I thought about it, and realised that the task had only to be worth the value of the guitar, which was considerably less than five thousand pounds.
“I asked him what the task was. There was no harm in finding out what he wanted me to do. It was not like I was committing to this task. If he was going to ask me to do something stupid or dangerous or illegal then I would refuse him, and just forgo the guitar, however good it was.”
“He told me that he wanted me to deliver something to a shop in London; I was to take a violin down there, and hand it over to the man in the shop. Well, that did seem a little fishy to me. Five thousand pounds just to delver a violin? He could have got any number of companies to deliver this violin for only a fraction of the price.
“I asked him what was so special about the violin for him to be willing to, effectively, pay me five thousand pounds to deliver it. Jokingly I asked him if it was a Stradivarius. He said that it was, but not any ordinary Stradivarius. He told me that it was a violin which Antonio Stradivari had made in 1699 for the devil, in exchange for knowledge of how to make the greatest violins of all time; and he told me that this was the Stradivarius of all Stradivarius violins. It was the greatest fiddle ever made.
“Well, I thought that there was some fiddle going on here. The idea that Stradivari had made some violin for Satan was absurd. There’s no such thing as the devil.
“I thought that maybe this was just some ordinary violin, but that it was stuffed with drugs, or something, and I was some idiot who he was going to try to get to deliver to some mate of his. I almost walked out of his shop, just then. But I had to admit that I was intrigued to see this violin. I had never seen a real Stradivarius before, although I was not sure that I would recognise a real Stradivarius if I saw it. It is not as though I am an expert on violins.
“I decided to agree to take the violin to this place in London. But my first thought was to examine the violin once I left the shop, and if there were any packages inside it then I intended to go straight to the police.
“Well, the guy brightened up once I agreed to do his task, and he told me that the guitar was mine once I got back from London. He would not sell it to anybody else. It was still a long way to go just to get a guitar, though.
“He told me that, whatever happened, that I must not play the violin, not even one note. I presumed that it was because I might notice that there was something wrong with it, if I did that. But I assured him that I would not play the violin.
“He said that the place I was to take the violin to was the antique shop in Downton Street in London. He told me to listen carefully, as Downton Street was hard to find. I listened as he told me just how to get to Downton Street. Having agreed to this task I wanted to get this play over and done with.
“He then handed me a violin case. He wished me good luck on my journey. And that was it, I think, as far as he was concerned.
“I took the violin case and walked and got into my car. I looked around, making sure that he had not followed me. But he had stayed in his strange little shop.
“Carefully, just in case there was a bomb in there or something, I took the violin out of its case. It didn’t feel all that heavy, and it was the most beautiful violin which I had ever seen. Maybe it was a Stradivarius after all. But it certainly had not been played by the devil.
“I examined the violin as best as I could, but I could not see any packages inside it. It was just a violin. There weren’t any drugs inside it. I could not take it to the police.
“I supposed that it was possible that the violin was stolen. But I had no evidence of that. I couldn’t take it to the police on what was just a hunch. I now had to take it all the way down to London.
“I started off straight away, reasoning that the sooner that I could get down there, the sooner that I could get back home. I wasn’t going to pick up the guitar that day. That could wait a day. Once I was done with London I intended to go straight home.
“I drove down on the motorway, just keeping inside the speed limit, at least until I reached the outskirts of London. Once I was there I pulled over to the side of the road. I entered Downton Street into my satnav. Or, rather, I tried to. But it couldn’t find any Downton Street in London.
“I had a London A to Z in my car, among my road maps. So I opened it up and looked up Downton Street. It was then that I discovered that there was no Downton Street in London. There was a Downton Avenue. But that was near Streatham. This Downton Street was supposed to be in the West End of London.
“I wondered if this was all some sort of joke. I really should have looked up Downton Street before I drove all of the way down to London.
“I almost turned around, just then, to head back out towards the motorway. But, having come so far, I decided to follow the old man’s instructions. It was possible that he had got the name of the road wrong.
“Luckily I have still got a pretty good memory. The advance of time has not yet played havoc with my little grey cells. I was able to recall the instructions perfectly, and I followed them to a tee, from Regents Street into Soho, that square which has Oxford Street to the north, and Charing Cross road to the east.
“I saw a sign on a wall saying Downton Street. It looked like an alleyway between a couple of shops. It actually said Downton Street.
“I got out my A to Z and I turned to the page which included Soho. But I still couldn’t find this street – or alleyway. It did not seem to be there.
“It was an old A to Z, anyway. I didn’t want to take my car down into the alleyway, so I decided to find somewhere to park, and to make my way on foot.”
“Do you fancy another pint?” I asked. I was out of beer, and this teller of tales only had a small amount left in his glass.
“Yes, why not? Another Saxon Gold, please.”
I went and got the beers in. I had a bit of a wait. There was a new barmaid, and she wasn’t all that fast. She was pretty, though, and girls who are easy on the eye tend to get away with stuff like that. The title of a Smiths track came to mind, for some reason: Pretty Girls Make Graves. Anyway, I was served eventually, and I took the beers back to the jazz guy.
He wasn’t there. I feared, for a second, that he had gone home, and that now I would never hear the end of the story. But I saw him walking back from the direction of the loos. He had used the time just to go to the loo.
I placed the beers on the table in front of us and waited for him to continue the story.
“Where was I?” he asked.
“Walking to Downton Street.” I said.
“Oh, yes. Well, I had found a place where I could park for an hour about ten minutes walk away from Downton Street. So the plan was to take the violin, drop it off, and get back to my car before somebody put a clamp on it, or anything like that. I walked as quickly as I could, wanting to get out of London and back home. So I walked straight to this alleyway. But the funny thing was that when I walked there I couldn’t see it, for a second. It was only when I looked again that I saw that alleyway, and the road name on the wall of one of the shops next to it. I swear that the road was not there the first time that I looked.
“I went down the alleyway. The guy who owned the antique shop had said that this London shop was halfway down Downton Street. I had no reason to doubt him.
“They alleyway actually opened out into a proper road after a few feet. The road, though, looked very old-fashioned. It was cobbled, for a start, and there were no road markings on it. Nor was there any pavement. And it looked like the two street lamps in the road were gas, rather than electric. But I did not think that they could be gas-powered. The last gas-powered lamp in Britain had surely gone more than a century ago.
“I stood there, staring at the street. I realised that I could no longer hear the London traffic. It was deadly silent in that place, and I felt that I was in a place where I was not supposed to be. But I told myself that I was just imagining things. I reminded myself that there was a guitar waiting for me, and that all that I had to do was to drop off this violin.
“I began to walk down the road. It was one of the dirtiest streets which I had ever seen, and London is not one of the cleanest cities in the world. I saw that there was a public house called the Hanged Man. Its pub sign looked like the Tarot card of the same name.
“There was also a barber’s, with the old red and white pole above it. The barber’s appeared to be closed. I couldn’t see into the place at the time, as the window had so much dirt on it that it was impossible to see inside. Not that I would ever have gone for a haircut in a place like that.
“I saw only one other person on this street. It was some guy at the far end of the street, entering the walled front garden of a house. The man was dressed in Victorian style dress, with a top hat and a cape. There was something odd about him, although I could not put my finger on it.
“Then I saw the shop. It had a handwritten sign above the door saying Antiques and Curios. I had a look through its dirty window first, before going in. Like the other places in that street, its windows were extremely dirty. I don’t think that they could have been cleaned in years. There were also a lot of dead flies on the shelf the other side of the glass.
“I saw some old, battered boxing gloves, a dagger in a scabbard, and a book. I could just make out that the book said My Life and Crimes, by Edgar Allen Poe. It was not something which I had ever heard of before.
“I went inside the shop, a little surprised to find that it was open, as this road seemed to be so desolate. A little bell tinkled above my head as I went inside.
“The place was as dirty inside as the road was outside. I didn’t want to touch anything, just in case I caught something nasty from the place. The count was almost black with dirt, so that you could hardly see the grain of the wood.
“There was nobody behind the counter when I went through the door. Then, suddenly, there was. I don’t mean that somebody suddenly walked out from elsewhere in the place – the owner suddenly appeared as though he had just popped into existence. I swear that is what happened. I’m not making this up.”
I was not really bothered whether this was true or not, only whether it was a good story. That was all that mattered to me.
“This guy looked exactly the same as the guy I had seen in the antique shop in Birmingham. They could have been identical twins. Or they could have been the same person. I wondered just what was going on here. But I didn’t ask the guy that. I just wanted to get rid of the violin, and get back home.
“I showed him the violin case, and told him that I had been asked to bring this to him. He asked me if I had played the violin, or not, and he seemed disappointed when I said that I hadn’t. It seemed that he had expected me to have played the thing.
“Anyway, I got out of that shop, and out of the road. I was feeling a little unnerved, by then, and I guess that I did not relax until I got into my car and began to drive out of London. It was only then that I began to feel normal again, like I had just avoided some very nasty fate.
“I went straight home. It was late by the time that I got back, and I didn’t think that the antique shop with that guitar would be open.
“I went along the next day. Guess what?”
“What?” I couldn’t guess. I had no idea where this story was going.
“The antique shop wasn’t there. There were the shops either side of where it had been. But it had gone. There was not even space where it could have been.
“Now that was impossible, I know. It couldn’t be true. So I went into one of the other shops – a newsagent’s – and asked the guy behind the counter what had happened to the antique store which had used to be next to him. He looked at me as though I was mad, and told me that there had never been an antique store next door.
“I left the newsagent. I felt that some trick was being played on me, although I could not work out just how it had been done. But I was not about to give in just yet.
“I drove all of the way down to London, for the second time in two days, to question the guy in the antique store in Downton Street. I parked in the same place as before, and went on foot to Downton Street.
“But that was gone, as well. It had disappeared into thin air. I walked around for around twenty minutes, looking for it. But it had gone.
“I even tried asking about it in some of the shops. But none of the people had ever heard of it.
“Well, that is the end of my strange little tale. I’m sorry if it just trails off like that. I never got my hands on that guitar. But you want to know what I think?”
“I think that the guitar was only a lure, anyway, and that the guy knew that I was a musician. And I think that he thought that any musician would not be able to resist playing a few notes on a violin which was supposed to be a Stradivarius, that’s what I think. And I did almost play a few notes on it, when I was in my car, examining the violin for drugs. There was an urge to do that. But if I had then I think that something nasty would have happened to me, and that I would not be sitting here telling the story to you. Maybe the violin did belong to the devil after all.”
With that the jazz man stood up, drained the rest of his pint, and walked out of the pub into the night.