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You'd be so nice to come home to

Howard Cunnell 

Howard Cunnell's novels are Marine Boy (2008) and The Sea on Fire (2012) which the Guardian described as ‘mapping new noir territory.’ He is the editor of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road - The Original Scroll (2007), called by the New York Times ‘the living version for our time.’ His most recent short fiction has appeared in Roadside Fiction, Pariah Press and The Picador Book of 40. He is currently writing a memoir.


Pete walked in the noise of traffic returning slowly from town in a procession of light over Vauxhall Bridge. The dark river below. On Kennington Lane he lit a cigarette, finding shelter from the wind in the doorway of the butcher shop. The shop was closed. The windows empty of the white tailed rabbits and pig carcasses that hung from hooks during the day. 


He had money left for food or drink. Not both.


He crossed the street, finding gaps in the thick traffic. Stepping onto the pavement, he passed below the illuminated windows of the Body of Christ church and pushed open the heavy door of the pub. The pub was quiet and dark and empty except for Jono. Pete went to the bar and stood with his hands palms down on the cool wood. His left hand was swollen. Gently he touched the rim of a clean yellow Ricard ashtray. 


Jono walked the length of the bar to serve Pete, walking slowly with the weight of himself, smoking and carrying a damp white cloth on his shoulder. He put the cloth down on the bar and put out his cigarette in the yellow ashtray. His white shirt was damp where the cloth had been.


‘Pint?’ he said, the glass already in his hand.


‘And a brandy,’ Pete said.


‘Righto,’ Jono said.


Jono poured Guinness. He flicked up the tap when the glass was half full. He waited, lighting another cigarette with a red lighter. Pete put a tenner on the bar. The dark beer settled. Jono flicked up the tap and filled the glass. He set the pint on a small plastic draining board on the bar. He poured Pete’s burnt-orange brandy and took the tenner to the old till at the back of the bar and brought Pete his change. Jono poured himself a half.


‘How’s Carla?’ he said.


‘She’s all right,’ Pete said, tasting his pint.


‘Only I haven’t seen her.’


‘She’s all right,’ Pete said, ‘she’s OK.’


‘OK so,’ Jono said.


‘The fight on later?’


‘I expect,’ Jono said.


Jono finished his half in a swallow and moved to the other end of the bar. He stood turning the pages of a newspaper, passing his free hand through his thick hair. He needed glasses. 


The pub was very narrow and had two entrances, one on the street that Pete had come in by, and the other that opened onto an alley. The pub was dark and the tables were dark. A red light shone above the glass backed bar, shining on the spirit bottles and on Jono’s thick, greased hair and on the drinkers at the bar. There was a blown up photo of John Conteh on one wall. The fighter had his taped hands raised and was wearing a championship belt. There was an action picture of Chris Finnegan on another wall. A glass paned door with a painted sign led through to the gents and to stairs up the flat where Jono lived. Most days and nights there was a big black cat sleeping or walking from table to table.


Pete sat alone at the bar, drinking and smoking silently and looking at his reflection in the glass. Mass of wild dark hair. Face a thick blur. The pub began to fill with men - labourers and navvies mostly -  who stood in caked boots at the bar. Few words were spoken at this hour, and those that were sounded gentle. The men gave their empty glasses to Jono, who filled them. The men thanked him and drank and smoked and began to straighten where they stood. Sometimes a man would lean in close and speak softly to Jono and he would nod and speak softly back.


Pete spent a part of every night in the pub. If you were looking for him, this is where you would find him. Mostly he drank with Carla, the Portuguese girl he lived with. Carla wore her long dark hair in a thick braid. She was small and Pete was a big man. Carla sat close to Pete as though in the shelter of him. If there was a fight on the t.v Pete liked to watch. Carla would call the cat over in her deep voice while Pete watched the fight. She would dip her fingers in the dark wine and let the cat lick them, as Pete shifted in his seat to get a clearer view of the men moving towards each other in the ring. 


Jono had told Carla that when she wasn’t in the bar the cat slept on his bed upstairs. You should see her there, he told her, like she owns the place.  


‘You don’t mind her on your bed?’


‘Why should I,’ Jono said, ‘she’s grand.’


Jono liked Carla. She drank too much but didn’t they all? Jono had no reason to think so, but he thought Carla drank so much because she was with Pete.


Pete was watching two boxers on the t.v. It was a big fight but Pete couldn’t remember their names. Jono had told him but he’d forgotten. Pete thought he could hear the boxers breathing as they threw and took punches. He thought he could hear their boots moving across the ring. The black fighter hurt the other with two quick right hands - two hooks. Pete drank and admired the way the white fighter took the punches. He believed he would take the punches the same way.


Three days before Pete had been late to the site and the boss said: You want to think about getting here on time instead of fucking your tart.


At dinner time Pete had found a pub and stayed there, his back to the window so that the name of the pub, painted on the window, was spelled out backwards in shadow at his feet. He drank all day and dreamed about knocking the boss down. When he came in the door late that night Carla, sitting on the bed with her back against the wall furthest from him, had said softly: You can’t leave a job every time you lose your temper. What are we supposed to live on?


The white boxer had been knocked unconscious. His corner man took the gum-shield from his mouth. There was some blood on the gum-shield. Men were screaming now in the pub. In his damp white shirt the referee stood with outstretched arms over the fallen fighter. Pete was on his feet and shouting, too. He tried to put out his cigarette in the yellow ashtray. The cigarette fell to the floor and Pete stepped on it. He stood up and walked slowly to the gents.


Jono saw Carla come into the pub with two big men. The men made room for themselves at the crowded bar. Both were balding but the larger had grown his hair long at the back and had blonde streaks added. They wore leather jackets. Jono looked at Carla. 

Her eyes were bruised and the left side of her face was swollen. 

Jono didn’t know the names of all the colours that her face was.

Jono brought the men pints and wine for Carla.


‘My brothers,’ Carla said. Her voice was quiet and strange.


‘No,’ Jono said when the bigger brother handed him a tenner.

The brothers talked to each other in their language.


‘He here?’ the big man said.

Jono nodded. 


Carla watches as her brothers go where Jono has told them to go. 

She turns away and looks at Jono.


‘Where’s la gata?’ she says.


‘She’s upstairs,’ Jono says, ‘on the bed, you know, like I told you.’


‘Is it warm there?’ Carla says.




Note: This is a revised version of the first story I had accepted for publication, over 20 years ago. For reasons I can’t remember, I never saw the edition of the journal - John King’s excellent Verbal - in which the story appeared - so maybe it never did. The story was originally called Little Roads South of the River, and was written in my early 20s when I was living in the fabled squats of Bonnington Square in Vauxhall, South London, and drinking in a pub called The Royal Oak.

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