“Go on, love, give us a kiss, it’s Christmas!”
“Take your hand off my arm please,” Rachel said. She had exhausted her supply of bar worker’s bonhomie for the evening. It didn’t take long; she didn’t have a great deal of good will towards all men at the best of times. Especially not today.
The man laughed in her face, his breath reeking of tequila. “Aw, don’t be mean.”
He had started the night out innocuous enough, just another anonymous suit in the pack of once-a-year-drinkers fresh from their last shift at the office. He’d even been polite before his first drink. But now he was squeezing Rachel’s wrist a little too tight and standing close enough for her to gag on his cologne.
It wasn’t like her to let a strange man get so close, but she’d been distracted by the rack of pint glasses she was carrying and the woman who’d been throwing up in one of the booths as the man had approached.
The had to be at least six four and nearly a foot taller than Rachel. His broad-shoulders and broken nose indicated that he’d been in a fight or two before, or maybe he just played an aggressive sport like Rugby or Boxing.
“I’ll give you five seconds to take your hand off my arm.”
“You’re so mean to me,” he said in a whiney, baby-voice that was unbecoming of a man his age. To be frank, it was unbecoming of anyone old enough to dress themselves.
“Four,” Rachel said. She twisted her arm about in his grip, just so he didn’t forget what she was asking.
“I’m a nice person,” he said. “I’d look after you.”
“Three.” As she spoke, the man wobbled from one foot to the other and Rachel seized the opportunity. She planted the flat of her foot against his swaying ankle and dragged her trapped arm off to one side. The man stumbled over her foot and staggered two weaving steps to the glass collection point and grabbed on for balance.
Most importantly, he let go of Rachel’s arm.
The man’s eyebrows crinkled up and he stared at her face, Rachel was just grateful he wasn’t trying to stare down her top any more.
“Owwww,” he crooned. “That hurt.”
Rachel used the opportunity to put the glasses down on the bar. She hoped one of the other staff would retrieve them before Reg or any of the customers moaned. Rachel needed both hands free in case this giant toddler got into his terrible twos.
She tried to make eye contact with one of the bouncers through the packed pub, but one of them was in a booth near the back, his hand up the skirt of a girl perched on his lap. The other bouncer was just outside the doors explaining to a swaying office worker why he couldn’t piss against the wall of the pub.
All the other bar staff were busy serving customers – many of whom were still racking up to be served one at a time. It looked like Rachel was on her own.
“Mate, you’re going to have to leave, you’ve had way too much,” Rachel said. Might as well start gentle.
“I can hold my booze,” the man said. As if to demonstrate it, he grabbed one of the racks of dirty pint glasses and tossed them to the floor with a smash. “Look what you just done, you naughty girl.”
The crash drew everyone’s eyes to her, and for a brief moment, the Queen’s Arms was silent as everyone stared at the spectacle. All except for one man in a suit who stood up on a chair to start a round of applause nobody else joined.
Reg squinted over from the bar, his furry eyebrows twitching. If he hadn’t been in the middle of pouring out a pint of lager he’d have probably been over himself. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d had to break up a fight between Rachel and one of the customers.
She rolled her shoulders, hoping that’d relieve some of the tension seizing up her back.
“Look, we’ll call you a taxi and–”
He lumbered over. “Why? Where are we going? Back to your place?” He threw his big arms around her.
Rachel’s knee shot up, smashing against something soft between his legs. He gasped and Rachel stepped back, letting his arms slip away from her. She slashed an elbow across his cheek before using the same elbow to jab him in the solar plexus. He gasped, pinwheeling his arms as he flopped over backwards, slamming down into the shards of broken glass he’d left on the floor.
“Owwww,” he whined in that infuriating baby voice as he rolled about in the broken glass, dripping blood all across the tiled floor.
Now Reg took the opportunity to run over, he grabbed the man by the hand and hauled him back up onto his feet.
“You alright, mate?” Reg asked.
The man rubbed the back of his neck and frowned at his hand when it came away bloody. “She was mean to me.”
“Alright, fella; let’s get you outside,” Reg said.
Rachel noticed that the man didn’t paw at Reg or beg for a kiss.
Reg was cashing up the tills when Rachel went up to see him. From the looks of the stacks of fivers, tenners, twenties, and even fifties piled up on the table in front of him it had been a good take.
Rachel wondered how much of that money was going to be spent on repairs from all the damage the Mad Friday crowd had done to the pub.
“Have a seat,” Reg said, still frowning at the calculator on his desk. He didn’t even do her the decency of looking up at her.
“Am I sacked?” Rachel said.
Reg finally squinted up at her. He was tall and gaunt, this combined with his fluffy grey eyebrows and fading white hair made him look like he was perpetually washed out and sad.
“No, you’re not sacked.”
Rachel wasn’t sure if that news pleased her or not. “Great, can I go now? I’ve got a tonne of stuff to do downstairs.”
She still had to put the last few dozen glasses through the wash, then drain and clean out the machines, mop the floor behind the bar, and soak the shot measures in soda water. A lot to do after such a busy night, and since she stopped getting paid at two whether she was done or not, she needed to get a move on.
“Take a seat,” Reg repeated. “I won’t be a sec.”
Rachel sat in one of the padded seats opposite his desk and did her best to breathe as deep as she could until the anger went away. It was tricky, the whole room reeked of some kind of chemical disinfectant. The smell would’ve probably made her dizzy if the window hadn’t been open.
Rachel hadn’t always been this angry. When she was growing up, she just thought she was the only person who could spot the injustices around her. Nothing had been fair. It wasn’t fair that the boys got away with fighting each other, but as soon as she thumped Thomas Graves for throwing rolled up paper at her, she was the one to get in trouble.
By the time she was old enough for high school she was finding injustices, and fights, all the time. Especially when the boys switched from excluding her to snapping bra straps and sneaking into the girls’ locker room.
It was her dad who’d insisted on putting her in a Muay Thai class. If she was going to fight, he’d argued, it made sense that she learned to do it properly. For a long time that had helped. The exercise, and regularly getting to hit things, helped to calm her down. She still spoke up whenever she saw injustice, but she chose to fight it with her words instead of her fists.
It still didn’t make much difference, it always felt like the teachers and other kids weren’t taking her words seriously. But she wasn’t as angry about it as she had been.
Things had been getting better, at least until the incident at college.
“Sorry about that,” Reg said. “It was a busy night.”
“I can see,” Rachel said. “How much trouble am I in?”
“Hmmm? Nah, you’re not in trouble Rachel, the man was an arsehole. Someone should’ve decked him. If I’d been closer I’d have probably done it myself.”
Rachel doubted that very much. Reg was a decent boss, but had a tendency to be all mouth and no trousers. His favourite catch-phrase was always ‘If I’d have been there I’d have…”
“Are you happy here?” Reg asked. His face – which always looked like it belonged to a judge sentencing a criminal death – looked even more solemn than usual.
Rachel shrugged. She was many things, but she wasn’t a liar. “Not particularly.”
Reg nodded. “Thought so. This is the third punter you’ve knocked out this month.”
“All of them had it coming.”
Reg held up his hands. “Not saying they didn’t, like I told you, if I’d have been there I’d have been tempted to smack him myself. But you can’t keep decking people who piss you off.”
“It’s not my fault they were all creeps” Rachel said. Reg opened his mouth to say something else, but Rachel talked over the top of him. “And they’re stupid too. I always tell them they’re being inappropriate and I always give them a chance to leave me alone.”
“I know, I know.”
Rachel’s face was burning red by now. “In fact, if you really want to protect those dicks, maybe hire some bouncers who can keep from fucking the regulars when they should be on the doors. Or staff with some fucking backbone.”
“I hear you. It hasn’t been fair to have you working the floor for the past few days – on you or the customers – how about, instead of going around the tables all night, you stay behind the bar instead?”
“Seriously?” Rachel asked. That was all she’d ever wanted in this job. You weren’t immune from people’s disgusting comments when you were behind the bar, of course. But at least when you were serving drinks you were less likely to get your arse pinched or have someone stick their legs out to trip you when you were carrying a huge armful of glasses.
“At least until after New Year,” Reg said. “Would that be any better?”
“That would be great, Reg. Thanks.”
“In the meantime, we’ll look at our security problems. See if there’s a way to make things a little safer for whoever is going to be taking your place.”
Rachel was mildly annoyed it had taken Reg this long to notice and try to fix the security problems in the pub. But at least he was taking her seriously, that was enough for her. “Thank you, Reg.”
“Sorry for taking up so much of your time. If I get done here soon I’ll pop down and give you a hand,” Reg said. He looked at the clock behind Rachel’s head and sighed. “Maybe we’ll all get out of here on time for once, eh?”
Rachel bit back the comment she wanted to say, it was something along the lines of, “if you wanted us done on time you shouldn’t have kept me up her chatting about shit for half the night.”
But she said nothing because he’d offered to help her. That was more than she could say for the rest of the arseholes on staff.
True to his word, Reg came down to help Rachel close down the bar. Specifically the glasswash room and the floor of the back bar.
As much as she appreciated it, Rachel kind of wished Reg hadn’t bothered. First thing he did was tromp dust and beer-grease all over her newly mopped floors, then he re-flooded one of the machines Rachel had already closed down, finally he capped off his help by spilling the plastic jug on the bar – knocking shot tumblers and soda water all over the back bar.
Rachel was annoyed, but she couldn’t stay angry for long. Reg kept apologising and some time after 3 AM, they finally finished re-doing all the work Rachel had done that night.
Reg checked his watch. “God, the time. Rachel, I am so sorry.”
“It’s fine.” It wasn’t fine. The last night bus was due any minute.
“If I hadn’t came down to muck everything up you’d have probably been done on time. Here,” Reg took out his wallet and handed over a ten and a five, “brewery won’t pay us after two, but I will.”
For a moment, Rachel had a flash of embarrassment at taking money direct from her boss. But then good sense took over. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome. You going to be alright getting home? I can give you a lift if you want.”
“That’s okay,” Rachel said at once. Taking money from her boss was one thing, but getting a lift home from him was really a step too far. As much as she liked Reg, she had no desire to see him, or anyone else she worked with, outside of the pub. It’d be too weird.
Reg nodded, as if that’s the answer he was expecting anyway. “Alright, love. Take care. Get home safe.”
The chill December air blasted her the instant she stepped outside. In spite of the thick coat and scarf wrapped around her, Rachel still shivered as she headed for the bus stop.
It had been a rough night, but Rachel wished she could say it was the roughest she’d ever had. And after her talk with Reg, things might be a little easier in the future. She wasn’t due back in until Christmas Eve, so that meant she had two days off to look forward to before she had to get back to work.
All she wanted to do now was go home, have a nice hot bath, then go to sleep.
She’d only lived in the area for a few months and was still getting used to the way these country roads curved about. It always amazed her when she was able to find the bus stop, especially this time of night.
The interior and the headlights of the bus was the only illumination in the otherwise dark street but it was enough for Rachel to see the last customer climbing aboard the packed bus.
She sprinted up the hill, waving one arm while the other clutched her bag to keep from dropping it. The bus held, its door open, right until she reached the back lights when it began to peel off into the road.
“Wait!” she yelled. She was close enough now to bang on one of the back windows, waking up the man who had been sleeping with his head resting against it. She was running too quick to notice his response, but she could imagine he wouldn’t have been pleased.
Rachel reached the side door, her panting breath steaming in the cold. The driver shrugged his shoulders at her, shook his head, and took off.
Without thinking, Rachel yelled and swung a kick into the door as the bus drove away. A chorus of laughter turned into a scream at the bang, but the bus still left and all Rachel had achieved for her effort was a sore leg.
“Bastard,” she hissed under her breath. She wasn’t sure if she was cursing the bus driver or the numbing pain spreading up her leg.
She had to use the light on her phone to read the schedule on the bus stop – as if she didn’t already know what it said. The 300 was the last bus at this stop for the rest of the night.
She paced around the bus stop, as if that would help, and cursed the dark houses all around her. The people inside were already snug in their beds, oblivious to the woman stranded just a few feet away.
Rachel whipped out her phone and searched for local taxi numbers, but she hadn’t thought to save any. Or any numbers for that matter, the only numbers in there were her own (so she could remember it) and the only pizza place in town. Not for the first time, she cursed this backwater town and wondered why in the hell she’d even moved here in the first place.
She wished she’d had the credit history to get a decent data plan on her phone, instead her shitty pay-as-you-go mobile couldn’t even get on the internet without a free wi-fi connection, so that meant Uber was out of the question too. Even if she could get on the internet, her battery was at 20% and she didn’t know how long that’d last. She wished she’d packed her phone charger before heading out for her shift yesterday morning.
But wishes weren’t going to get her what she needed any faster. They never did.
As far as Rachel could see it she only had three options; hike the two miles to her flat in the dark, walk back to the pub to see if Reg was still there and beg him for the lift he’d offered, or head into town through the drunken Mad Friday crowds and see if she could find a bus there.
So that was only one option.
With a deep sigh, she headed up the hill towards her flat.
Rachel had travelled along the 300’s bus route enough times to know it off by heart, so she headed the usual way, only a lot slower than normal. She passed St. whoever’s church, the dormant swimming baths, and the village library as well as more smug, judgmental houses than she cared to remember.
The streets were empty this late at night, or early in the morning depending on how you looked at it. But it didn’t stop Rachel from glancing over her shoulder every few steps.
Rachel hated walking home alone at night. It was better than walking alone through crowds at night, of course, but not by much. Too much time on her own like this made her think about what had happened in college.
Rachel never expected to pass her exams, much less end up with five A-star’s, two A-s, and two B-s. Not the highest results in her class, but it was more than enough to get her into college, and if she worked hard at A-level the future was hers. This, combined with how good she was getting at Muay Thai gave her a little hope that things might be better in future.
To celebrate the end of her first year exams, Rachel had gone to a house party and had drank way too much. She could barely remember the party itself, but she remembered the walk home better than anything.
It had been late at night and her friends had warned her not to go on her own. They’d begged her to spend the night, or at least take a taxi. But Rachel didn’t want to get in trouble for staying out all night and she’d spent all her money on cheap wine. Besides, the night had nothing to scare her. Even if it did, so what? She sparred with trained men and women four times a week, every week. She told herself she handle anything the night threw at her.
What Rachel wouldn’t give for a little of that confidence now, as she turned left onto Crepesly Road.
This was the bit of her walk home that she’d been dreading. It was alright when she was on the bus, the entire road took less than two minutes to clear. It wasn’t even a bad walk in the day time when the sun was shining – or at least when it was bright enough to see the road under your feet.
But Crepesly Road didn’t have street lights, at least not in the time Rachel had lived here anyway. Before long Rachel was surrounded by darkness on all sides. It didn’t matter now if she looked over her shoulder or not, she couldn’t see much of anything back that way. Just endless long shadows and a tiny flicker of light back from the way she’d come.
That was just how those three lads had managed to spring out at her during that walk home from her after-exams party. They must’ve been hiding in the shadows somewhere and crept up behind her. Or maybe she was just too drunk to notice them following her. Nevertheless, one of them managed to get an arm around her throat as two more circled around in front of her to demand her money and phone.
They were all bigger than her, but that didn’t frighten her. She elbowed the guy behind her, kicked the legs out from under one of the lads in front and returned to a combat stance just as the remaining lad jammed the knife into her ribs.
She hadn’t remembered any pain, thankfully. Just one minute she was standing, the next she was on the ground with blood running from her chest. The lads, and her handbag, were gone.
If that couple hadn’t stumbled upon her and called 999 then Rachel truly believed she would’ve bled to death on that street corner.
These weren’t good memories to dwell on while walking down Crepesly Road at close to four in the morning. There was a light up ahead, thankfully, and Rachel hurried towards it in relief.
That relief died when she saw that was the only light up ahead. There was still a generous chunk of darkness between Rachel and the rest of civilisation. It only got worse when she saw what the light was shining down on. A rusty iron gate with a single sign that read ‘BERRYTON CEMETARY.’ Beyond the gates Rachel could just about make out the first row of stone crosses before they blended in with the darkness.
Rachel had completely forgotten the cemetery here. It always seemed like just a part of the scenery in the day time.
She told herself to calm down. It was just a cemetery. The dead were as likely to get up and start walking around now as they were during the day time, and that likelihood was zero. The scariest thing in that cemetery was probably the teenage goths drinking cheap cider out of plastic bottles.
Nevertheless, she hurried past as fast as she could.
The shadows shifted just ahead of her and she froze. Something had moved up there, she was sure of it.
Rachel’s scalp seemed to shrink tight around her skull and she ground her fingers into her sweaty palms. It was probably just a fox.
Even if it wasn’t a fox, it didn’t matter. There was no other way home. At least she knew it was there. Whatever it was, she was ready for it.
In spite of herself, she still let out a scream when he lurched out of the darkness. She saw a wide-brimmed hat pulled low over a skinny face, a mouth open wide and hissing like a snake, and his teeth. At first glance, in the shadows, she thought they were fangs. As he got closer, she realised it was much stranger than that.
Rachel had once fallen down a Wikipedia hole and found a picture of the inside of a penguin’s mouth; barbed, greasy teeth running in a line all the way along the penguin’s beak. The man’s mouth looked like that, but worse. It was like his teeth were on sideways. Multiple rows of teeth and they all ran down his mouth sideways.
That, combined with the hissing, made Rachel react. She didn’t think, she just let her training take over. She loosed a flurry of fast jabs on his scrawny body. He grunted as she pummelled his rib cage, hammering warm breath from his. As he stepped forward, Rachel slammed her knee upwards. She was aiming for his crotch, but she caught him in the meat of his thigh instead. He wobbled, his knee buckling. That hissing mouth fell towards her face.
She ducked back and swept across with an elbow. His cheeks folded around the blow, folded like rubber, and a sharp pain nipped Rachel across the elbow. The man staggered to one knee, gripping the gate with both hands to steady himself.
Rachel took a deep breath just as a sweet-smelling rag was clamped down across her nose and mouth. Dizziness washed over her as a strong hand clamped down on one of her biceps. She threw the other elbow blindly behind her but struck nothing.
Rachel fought not to breathe. Every breath she took made her neck weaker and her head heavier. She struggled to get a good look at her attacker, or at least enough leverage to throw him off.
One thought went pulsing around her head with every slowing beat of her heart: this won’t end up like last time.
Her lungs burned for breath, but she refused to listen to them. She threw her body forward, forcing her attacker to move with her as she shoved her leg backwards. Her kicking form was terrible, but she still made contact with her attacker’s shin. His feet skipped off the pavement as he fought to keep his balance.
His grip loosened and she turned her head, sucking in a deep lung full of air through her nose. Her vision swam both from a lack of air and from whatever that rag was soaked with, but she used what little strength she had left to throw her elbow backwards.
Rachel blinked. When she opened her eyes she was being pressed up against the fence, presumably by the same person who was still trying to clamp the rag back down over her face. But Rachel had tucked her chin low and had her left arm curved around her head to guard her while her other arm flailed backwards, tossing back elbow after back elbow in the hopes of hitting something soft.
“Bitch!” Her attacker hissed through clenched teeth. He was much taller than her, and strong too, which meant he probably weighed a lot more than her as well. Most of that weight was supported by his right foot. Rachel slammed her heel into his right foot, raking it across his shin and crunching down into his ankle.
He howled and his weight slumped forward, giving Rachel enough room to knock the rag from his grasp and shove herself free. She kicked backwards as hard as she could, finding her attacker’s kneecap just a little too far at the end of her leg to do much damage, but it kept her unknown attacker from chasing. At least for the moment.
She turned and gripped the fence for support as she backed off down the road.
Her attacker stood up and Rachel finally got a good look at him. His hairy eyebrows bristling out over his grey, hangman’s face.
It was Reg.
Whatever surprise she might have felt vanished when she saw the knife in his hand.
“Let’s all just calm down,” he said.
It was the tone of voice more than anything else. That infuriating, patronising tone of voice. Like it was her fault he’d followed her home with an oily rag and a knife.
“Fuck you!” She stepped in, jabbing her foot towards his groin. Reg hopped back out of reach and Rachel’s vision slammed into the top of her head. She’d come forward too quick, she was still dizzy from whatever Reg had shoved over her face.
If she went forward like that again she was in danger of losing her balance. And if her balance went then Reg could be on her with that knife. As much as Rachel wanted to feed Reg the side of the curb, she couldn’t fight him in this condition.
“There’s no need for us to fight. Just come back with me, I’ll explain everything.” Even Reg wasn’t convinced that line would work because in a flash he lunged forward, knife blade flickering in the dim light.
Rachel grabbed the railing for support and kicked him hard in the kneecap. Reg buckled, slashed his knife wide. Rachel saw an opening, the perfect chance to strike with her knee as Reg’s chin fell forward. But mad as she was, Rachel didn’t want to go anywhere near that knife.
One stab wound had been enough for one lifetime.
“I know you’re upset but how do you think I feel? You’ve been attacking our customers. You owe me.”
The shadows behind Reg’s back darkened a little. Something was behind him, something taller than he was. Multiple rows of slick black teeth glistened.
In all the chaos, Rachel had forgotten all about the strange man she’d met on the road. She’d been almost convinced she’d dreamt him up in some kind of drug-induced haze.
A slim hand seized Reg by the side of the skull. With one pump of his arm, the strange man slammed Reg’s head into the fence hard enough to rattle the bars. Reg twisted about and flailed with his knife, slashing the taller man’s coat.
The two men struggled over the knife, falling into the gutter with Reg on top. He hacked at the taller man’s belly over and over until the knife came back red.
Rachel sprang, just as she had practised many times over many years, and hammered the base of Reg’s jaw with the heel of her foot. Something cracked. Reg’s eyes rolled to the back of his head and he flopped sideways like a sack of wet laundry, his knife still wobbling inside the taller man’s innards.
Rachel went to the stranger’s side.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
The man’s mouth opened up. Those teeth were still there, from this angle they looked just like everybody else’s teeth, just in a different place.
“Tried to warn you,” the man hissed, and he made a sound that could’ve been a laugh.
Rachel dialed 999 and when they asked her what emergency service she needed she just asked for all of them.
—- Matt Holland 29/12/2018
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