The basement of the pub was so packed with people that the walls breathed with the accumulated sweat and heat of the gathered crowd. Irene, the landlady had stood there, sipping at a mug of tea, quietly resenting them. It wasn’t the amount of people. Irene knew the pleasure of a good crowd, laughing as the drinks flowed.
Most of them made a glass of coke all evening. She had turned down a perfectly raucous poker evening because of Greg. Her son, who had been a quiet, odd child and grew to resent the world because of it. This was his crowning achievement, to gather together a group of people who would darkly mutter and listen to a succession of slightly odd men and women sell their books on their theories. Irene had tried to read one of them, in order to cross the distance that she felt growing every day, but she managed about five pages before her head started to hurt. She scanned a few pages, to make sure he could ask her about it. All she had to do was to play a bit dim with him, she thought, and was absurdly pleased at the thought of it.
He never did ask her.
His distance from her, his obsession with the growing literature and the ideas that were floating around out there, trying to grasp at them all converged into a grand series of mania. Irene had taken him to a clinic where he would sit in a room and say nothing to strangers before returning to his room, reading and writing.
Letters, mostly. Some of them, he even sent.
He hung himself in the field over the road. A couple of dog walkers found him. He had used his belt to do it, but had strangled rather than anything clean. By then, the group was a going concern and when Ken came over, eyes rheumy with too many late nights and bleak days, and asked if they could keep coming, she didn’t have it in her to say no.
They had an author down there tonight. He had a book to plug, all about some Jewish family who controlled 80% of the world’s wealth. Started wars for money and controlled the world.
Irene thought it was ‘bollocks’. She wouldn’t have said it, not to the group or even the author. Unless they asked her, which they never did. Apparently this author had startling new evidence or some shit. Irene had binned enough complimentary copies of them to know that it was a good scam, you added another chapter or some photos and charged more for it.
There never was any startling evidence.
Irene was about to walk outside for a cigarette. She missed that, although her chest didn’t, but on nights like this, she resented having to stand in the rain.
Until the man walked in.
He was dressed in a dark blue suit, with a shirt of cornflower blue and black dress shoes polished to a mirror sheen. He shook off the black umbrella behind him and smiled at her over his shoulder.
‘Good evening, Madam Sallis.’
His voice was rich, evocative in a mannered, educated way that sounded alien to her. He told her name with the confidence of a long-standing friend. She enjoyed it in a small way that thrilled her.
‘Do I know you?’
He shook his head. Irene liked the cleft in his chin, and how close his shave was. He was bald but his eyebrows were thick and dark.
‘No, but I have come to make your acquaintance. An offer, to be precise.’
She rolled the cigarette between her fingers. The weight of his words stabbed at her. The hairs rose on the back of her neck.
‘What sort of offer? I ain’t into nothing funny.’
He set the umbrella so that the handle rested against the table and raised his hands.
‘May I reach into my jacket? I have some papers for you.’
Irene glanced at the rotary phone to her right. The man gave a small sigh and shook his head.
‘I am here in a business capacity, Madam Sadler.’
She nodded and he reached into his jacket, withdrew a fat envelope, sealed with tape. He offered it to her, his rich brown eyes never moving from hers. He set it on the bar and took a step back.
She opened it. A sheaf of papers.
The details of a bank account. Caribbean, she noted. A line of zeroes that made her feel faint.
Her name, printed in neat, black type.
More accounts. A ball of flame started slowly in her chest, and she breathed in, to keep herself upright.
‘What do you want for this?’
He gestured towards the stairs to the basement.
Irene followed his gesture then back at him.
‘I can’t be doing… I mean… who are you?’
He shook his head.
‘It doesn’t matter. What matters is who you are. What those papers could allow you to be.’
She glanced at them again. It was a new life in every possible way. The only thing she needed to take with her was her name. She could get rid of that later if she needed to.
‘Plus, all you have to do is walk away.’
She put her hand at the back of her neck, stroked there as a comforting gesture. She thought of clearing up the empty pint glasses, the books and fliers that were left behind. All the Monday nights left to her.
She looked back at him.
It was a gas leak. She left him the keys and as she got into the cab, she saw a black van pull up outside. She turned away.
Three days later, Irene Sallis stood on the beach in Fort Myers, Florida drinking something fruity and strong. She doesn’t read the news. She would rather be uninformed than misinformed, having been educated about the world and how it really worked.
She wondered if she would ever see the man again. She was not sure precisely how that made her feel.