The Old Sword and Mitre – shabby little temple to the warrior, priest or whatever else beer and whisky will draw out of you – was put up on this corner when carts delivered the bricks. And although its windows have been ripped out a few times since, the doors re-hung, the fixtures and fittings shuffled about, thirty layers of paint slapped on; and although a thick flicker-book of managers have stood behind the bar, the bones of the pub have stayed exactly where they were set, stoically bearing the weight of a couple of hundred years or more. This threshold, beneath the black curlicued metalwork of the sign, has an old stone step scooped in the centre by the feet of countless shadows, toe to heel from the end of a night in the eighteenth century, to me and Frank, banging on the door at one o’clock in the morning, July twenty eighth, two thousand and ten.
Paul, a tall man in a crumpled white two piece suit, comes to the door, his stripy shirt unbuttoned to the belly. He opens it enough to slip outside, slopping half his glass of beer on the pavement in the process. But he doesn’t seem to notice, and after a comically exaggerated glance left and right up and down the street, leans in at a precarious angle.
‘My friend Victor here is having some problems tonight. You see, what happened was, he saw the doctor – well, we think he saw the doctor. He had an accident, you see, a day or so ago. A taxi or something. Clipped him in the High Street. He was fine. He was fine, he was okay. But he hurt his leg, you see. And then he saw this doctor, hopeless, but you see, quite broken or something or some such. But this doctor gave him some stuff. Like medicine, I suppose. And it seems to have made him go a bit woo-woo. I mean, he’s only had the weeniest, tiniest bit of beer, about a half I should say, but it’s upset him a bit, and he’s a bit out of sorts. You’ll see. You’re the doctor.’
He frowns, takes a pull on his glass, then tries to carry on with his monologue, resisting my attempts to get past him by putting his free hand on my chest and leaning in a bit closer, as if he has thought of something even more important to say. But I brush his hand away.
‘Let’s go in and see the patient. What’s his name?’
‘Victor. His name’s Victor. His friend Arseny’s – ah’m - with him at the moment.’
We go in.
Arseny has got Victor face down on the carpet, his left knee in the small of his back, his right arm hooked under Victor’s right arm, drawing it back and up at a terrible angle, the wrist splayed inwards in a professionally applied lock. Arseny nods at us as we come in, leaning back and waving nonchalantly with his right hand, a cocky rodeo rider on a bull.
‘I keep him for you. I make sure of him for no danger.’
Arseny pulls back on Victor’s arm and elicits a whimpering kind of scream.
‘No worries. I have him here ready for you. You safe. He is my good friend but I am professional bodyguard, security man and kick box champion.’
The rope-veined muscles of Arseny’s arms, the V-shaped bulk of his torso and shoulders, are barely contained by the tight second skin of his Adidas t-shirt; his body seems to have bulked up at the expense of his head, though, a minimal, solid-looking nub screwed on as an afterthought.
‘Are you telling me that Victor is violent?’ I say.
‘No. But I control for you.’
‘Thanks, but I don’t want you to control anyone. It looks like you’re half killing him. If he’s violent, we’ll go outside and wait for the police. If he’s not violent, you can get off him and we can talk to him like a normal person. Yeah?’
Arseny grunts, gives Victor’s arm one last affectionate twist, then jumps off and stands to one side.
‘I do this for living,’ he says, articulating his shoulders and rolling his neck. ‘It nothing for me. Really.’
I crouch down beside Victor, who is still growling and grimacing face down on the carpet. Paul taps me on the shoulder and when I look at him he makes as if to carry on his monologue of explanation, until Frank takes him off to one side.
‘Let him talk to Victor,’ he says. ‘You can tell me what you know.’
Victor rights himself, his head bobbing and swaying drunkenly.
‘Come and sit over here,’ I say to him. ‘Tell me what’s been going on.’
He lurches suddenly upright, and I take a few steps back in case he takes a swing. But he simply throws an ill-focused arc of blame around him, and then staggers over to a chair.
‘So. Are you ill, Victor? What’s the matter?’
He sees me for the first time and grimaces again.
‘Go away,’ he says.
‘What do you mean, go away? Your friends called us in because they were worried about you.’ I look over at Arseny and maybe we both feel the irony of that, but I carry on regardless. ‘Something must be up,’ I say.
Victor reaches down and rubs his leg.
‘Paul seems to think you were hit by a taxi at some point.’
He doesn’t answer, but makes as if to stand. Arseny unfolds his arms and takes a step over; Victor slumps back into his seat.
‘Tell me how you’re feeling.’
‘I’m okay. Leave me alone.’
His eyes are plate wide. There’s something about the way he veers from micro-sleeps to sudden animalistic growls and jerky movements that makes me think he’s taken something.
‘Have you used any drugs tonight, Victor?’
He stares at me, and then drops a sneer in his top pocket.
‘Victor? What’s your health like? Do you have any health problems? Diabetes, for instance?’
‘No. Nothing. I’m fine,’ he snarls. ‘Go please.’
‘This is all pretty strange,’ I say to Paul, who has broken away from Frank to lean over me again. He nods so emphatically he’s in danger of pitching head first onto us both.
‘I’m not sure what there is for us to do here, Victor. Where do you live?’
Victor nods upstairs.
‘Do you work here, then?’
Paul puts a hand on my shoulder and whispers:
‘He works behind the bar.’
It seems incredible.
‘Where’s the manager? Who’s supposed to be locking up tonight?’
Just then a woman pushes in through the front door and walks across the carpet with a purposeful stride.
‘Hi,’ she says. ‘What’s going on?’
‘Can I speak to you in private?’ I say, standing up and leading her over to the pool tables. Paul tries to follow us, but the woman directs him forcefully back to the end of the bar, pointing with a dog-trainer’s straight arm and finger.
‘A regular,’ she says. ‘Means well.’
‘So – Victor actually works here?’
She nods. ‘What’s happened?’
‘I wish I could say. I think it was Paul who called the ambulance. When we got here Arseny had Victor face down on the carpet in an arm-lock.’
She nods and winces, as if to say I can imagine.
‘I can’t figure out what’s gone on. Paul was saying that maybe Victor had been hit by a taxi and put on something by the GP, and that’s maybe interacted with the alcohol, but Victor can’t or won’t confirm or deny it. He’s not able to tell us what medication he’s on, how he’s feeling, or anything meaningful. He’s emotionally volatile, very uncooperative. He’s refusing help of any kind and we can’t force him. I’m quite happy to call the police if you feel worried about us leaving you here with them all.’
She shakes her head.
‘No. I’ll be fine.’
‘I don’t know about this taxi story. My guess is he’s drunk a fair bit of alcohol and maybe taken something else, GHB maybe. Hard to say.’
I pause for a moment.
‘Shit,’ she says. ‘Well. Thanks for coming. Sorry to waste your time.’
We go back over to the three of them, Victor groaning on the seat, Arseny standing guard and Paul tottering forwards and backwards, clutching his beer like a spirit level.
‘Last chance, Victor. Will you come to hospital with us?’
‘No. Go away.’
‘Come on then, Frank. We’re off. You guys keep an eye on him,’ I say to Arseny and Paul. ‘Or something.’
‘You take him to hospital?’
‘We can’t if he says no. He’s very clear about it.’
‘Then thank you for coming. Please.’
Arseny holds out a lumpen mitt. I shake it. Then Paul joins in, and everyone ends up shaking everyone else’s hand at least twice. The manager watches from over by the bar.
Outside, Frank shrugs and sparks up a cigarette.
‘Well, what a pointless mess that was.’
‘God knows what was going on.’
Frank blows smoke and leans against the truck. ‘You know, when you went to talk to that manager woman I got a couple of straight words out of Victor. I asked him how long he’d been working there and he said three days. Three days! He asked me if I thought he’d get the sack.’
‘What did you say?’
‘I said three days? Three years and you could count on it.’