By: Philip Charter
Aiden McNealy tried his key in the door for the third time. Sodding thing always jammed. At least he didn’t have to worry about waking anybody up. The teenage tossers downstairs had gone out, rather than DJing into the small hours, so his bedsit was quiet for once. After jiggling the key the right way, Aiden got the door open then stumbled into the front room.
The beer festival had stopped serving at twelve and he’d even managed to get the last bus home. Last year he’d missed the bus and had a three hour walk up the A429, with a few blunders into the Warwickshire hedgerows. That was a good one to tell the lads on the building site on Monday morning.
Although his workmates thought the Irish were all just pissheads, Aiden actually knew his stuff. He had been a member of Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), since the 70s, back when nobody knew the difference between an IPA and an API. Whatever the year, he never missed the chance to try the latest award winning brews. Beer wasn’t just a ‘cold one’ to be cracked open at the end of the day, it was a craft, a work of art.
Aiden emptied his pockets and dropped the contents on the table next to the front door — a Nokia mobile, a few coins, and handful of losing tickets from the bookies’. He could smell the unwashed plates in the kitchen, but he’d deal with them in the morning. He went through the plastic sliding door into the bedroom, kicked off his boots and flopped down onto the mattress on the floor, fully clothed. What was the point in paying £149.99 in Argos for a bed frame?
A couple more weeks in the flat would mark the third anniversary since the break up. It had all come at once, Polly’s affair, and Mary finding out she was adopted. The years had gone by, and it had been too damned difficult to tell her.
He stared up at the ceiling. Polly might be gone, but he shouldn’t give up on Mary. He’d have to dream up a pretty good excuse to go down south and knock on her door.
Things were looking up for tomorrow at least. After a full breakfast at the Big Eats Café, he would head onto campus for the 4pm start. For those in the know, the university beer festival was one of the best in the area. It was mostly students wanting to get drunk and posing for selfies, but this year the Real Ale Society had sourced over 100 beers from around the country.
He had tried a good fifteen or so today, and would try to get around the other new ones over the next two days. Before he could finish his prayers to the big man upstairs, Aiden drifted off into dreamless heavy sleep.
At 3:45 p.m. Aiden boarded the Stagecoach from Earlsfield to Warwick University.
“Day return please, fella.”
“£4.70,” the driver replied, without looking.
“I can’t wait for me feckin’ bus pass,” Aiden mumbled, dropping a fistful of change onto the plastic counter. He was running lower on funds than he had hoped. The 2:40 at Kempton Park hadn’t gone as expected.
There was a free aisle seat on the top deck next to a lady wearing a silk head scarf — beige raincoat combo. She offered him a smile as he sat down.
Aiden caught a glimpse of himself in the rain spattered window. Jesus. He looked rough as old boots. His face was a blotchy red. Grey hairs bristled out of his nose and ears and his herringbone jacket was looking tatty. He used to have muscles, and a healthy glow.
The lady leaned in as if telling him a secret. “Off to see my granddaughter at the university today.”
Mary had gone to university in Bristol and it seemed like yesterday that Aiden was a proud father at her graduation. The first McNealy to get a degree.
“It’s lovely she is studying down the road,” the lady said. “I never saw her much before, but now—”
“What does she study, like?”
“Sociology. Or is it Psychology? One of those I think.” She chuckled.
A man with spiky hair and a red shirt sitting opposite Aiden, leaned across the aisle.
“Blink and you miss it, eh? Then you’re not needed any more.”
Very true. Aiden hadn’t covered himself in glory as a father, but he had done a darned sight more than his pa.
“They’re so lucky nowadays. I was out earning at sixteen.” Aiden thought back to the cold lunches and meagre pay packets during his carpenter’s apprenticeship.
“I suppose you’re too young for grandchildren,” the lady said.
“Well I’ve got one on the way, or so I hear.” He sighed. “My Mary lives down in Devon with her husband, but we’re not in contact much.”
“Oh that’s a shame,” she trailed off.
He gazed out of the window at the pattering rain. One mistake and his family had jumped ship, leaving him adrift, in Coventry. “Families eh? What are you to do?”
The woman busied herself rearranging her bags, filled with supplies for the granddaughter no doubt. They sat next to each other in silence. Aiden checked his phone, but couldn’t think of anything worthwhile to bother Mary with. He put it back into his pocket.
The festival was on the top floor of the blocky Student’s Union building, in a bar called Zippy’s. He shook off the rain, and climbed the four flights of stairs, wheezing. Most of the students were still probably in bed.
He pushed through the double doors and was hit by the musty odour of beer and sawdust. Large beer kegs lined the walls with the cheap tables in front of them forming a bar. The Real Ale Society’s crest hung above the small stage — The 10th annual Warwick University Real Ale Festival. The early drinkers looked at the new arrival, nudging each other as if to say ‘watch out, Dad’s home.’
“Hello there. Are you a member of the Real Ale Society?” asked the smart alec on the door.
“Do I look like a student?” Aiden replied.
“Well, you never know,” he said, sitting up straight. “That’ll be three pounds entry please. Do you know how the system works?”
“Yeah, yeah, use the cards to pay.”
“That’s it,” he smiled. “How many would you like?”
“I’ll take four off you for starters.” Aiden handed over the twenty-three pounds and took the red cards from the student. “Ta.”
Yesterday he had drunk a good few porters and stouts — the heavy stuff which reminded him of the old country. Today, he’d start with an IPA and try some of the golden ales. Aiden had heard good things about the beers coming out of the Ringwood brewery in Hampshire.
He fished out the guide from his pocket and wandered towards the far end of the long bar. Circadian — that was it. He spotted the logo above the Old Thumper barrel with a boar on it. He hadn’t made it this far down the pumps yesterday.
Removing the half-pint glass from his jacket pocket he held it up to the light, clean enough. Half-pints weren’t marked up like at some festivals. You could try a lot more beers if you drank halves. They ranged from one pound twenty to one-eighty. Not bad. “A half of the IPA please,” he said pointing. “You mind if I use me own glass? Don’t like the plastic ones.”
“Sure thing, boss,” the lad replied. His gut was significantly bigger than Aiden’s, even though he was only 20. His Real Ale Society rugby shirt had ‘Big Mike’ embroidered above the crest. He poured the beer into Aiden’s glass, with just the right amount of head.
Aiden took a sniff — sweet summer. He brought the glass to his lips and swallowed half of it in one long gulp. A perfect mix of fruity hops with a slight bitterness underneath. “Ah. Now that’s real ale,” he said.
“Oh yes, we’re running out of that one already,” said Big Mike, crossing off one pound fifty from Aiden’s red card.
Aiden heard a deep voice behind him mimic his Irish accent.
“Ahhhhhhh. Now dat’s reeehl ale, boy.”
He did the ‘half turn’; managing to stop short of a full confrontation. From the corner of his eye, Aiden saw a tall, heavily muscled type; blonde side parting, perfect skin, and a Rugby team hooded top. The skinny girl clasped onto his arm was laughing.
Aiden was no coward, but on this occasion he decided it was best to ignore it.
“Some people are bloody fools,” he said to Mike, who was busy serving another
customer. “I just want to have a few decent beers in peace.”
The bar had filled up, and the students had formed into their little gangs; groups from residential halls, sports teams, and a birthday party. The rugby lads, including the big blonde one, were singing some awful sounding songs.
Much to Aiden’s surprise, the Real Ale Society had adopted Aiden. They had seen him, back for a second day, left well alone by the young crowd — the unwanted pork scratching in the packet.
“Where’s your local then, Aiden?” said ‘Scholesy’, the ginger president of the Real Ale Society.
“The Star & Garter in Earlsfield I’d say. I’m there most weekends,” replied Aiden.
“Got anything good on tap?”
“Nah, the usual crap, Green King and Marston’s I think. Cheap though.”
“You need to come along to one of our meets. We scout out the best pubs in Kenilworth, South Leam—
“We even went to Birmingham last month,” said a tiny Indian girl in the group. Her sweatshirt said ‘Half Pint.’
A token girl among the beer geeks, like your one off The Big Bang Theory.
“Where do I sign up?” said Aiden, mimicking a signature.
“No, really,” insisted Scholesy, handing a card to Aiden, “we could do with a few member who really know their stuff.”
“Well, I’ve got the experience, like,” said Aiden. “You lot are all right. You’ve got your heads screwed on.” He tapped the side of his head with a finger.
“It’s my turn behind the bar in a minute,” said Half Pint.
“Oh you work it in shifts, do you?”
“Mmm hmm.” She nodded.
The posh blonde oaf from earlier made an entrance. “Anyone know where I can get some good head around here?” He guffawed at his own weak joke.
Aiden stared into his empty glass.
Scholesy turned and gave forced smile. “Ha ha, nice one, Elliot.”
“You lot should come out with us, for Rugby circle, if you can handle it. Lashings of beer on Wednesdays.”
“Well, it’s more of a tasting thing for us,” said Scholesy.
“You lot should be called the Real Pussy Society.” Elliot looked back towards the rugby lads, who were hanging back, enjoying the show. He moved his attention towards Aiden, looking up and down, as if he had never seen an old person before. “Isn’t there an age limit on your society, Scholesy? This one looks like he could have a heart attack if he has too many more.”
“There ain’t no limit, boy,” replied Aiden. “I see they put an restriction on the Rugby team this year though. No IQ’s above two digits.” That was the beer talking. Aiden smiled a shit-eating grin at the Rugby captain, revealing yellowed teeth.
The hubbub of the bar did nothing to hide the silence that followed.
Elliot stood over Aiden, puffing out his chest. “Am I going to have to watch you, Paddy? You might have a pipe bomb in that jacket.”
Aiden thought carefully about his next move. Maybe it was the liquid confidence that made him do it, but he was tired of being made to feel small — even if he was small. He leaned forward and exploded an imaginary bomb with his hand in front of Elliot’s face. “Boom,” he whispered.
Elliot didn’t flinch. He looked down his nose with utter derision, then flicked his blonde hair out of his eye. “I like you, Paddy. You’ve got balls.” He slapped Aiden on the back, a little too hard, knocking the glass out of his hand onto the floor. Elliot rejoined his teammates looking pleased with himself.
Aiden picked up his glass and inspected it. It was chipped. He turned to the group, who stared back, wide-eyed.
Big Mike, who had done his turn behind the bar and finally had a beer in hand, changed the conversation. “So does your daughter go to uni, Aiden?”
“No, too old for that. Finished a few years ago.”
“Oh right. Managed to get a job OK? It’s pretty difficult now.”
“She married a rich fella. We don’t speak much on account of me putting me foot in it too much.”
“Oh,” said Mike.
Seemingly no amount of the ‘hail Mary’s’ he uttered in prayer could save his relationship with his daughter. His last conversation with her must have been just after the wedding. She didn’t want his ‘guilt money’, and told him not to bother calling again. He still hoped she would come around, and that one day his mobile would ring.
“I want to do a Master’s after I finish anyway.” Big Mike shrugged.
Aiden had forgotten he was even standing in front of him. He tapped Mike on the shoulder. “Don’t be in no rush to join the real world. I haven’t been out of work a single day since I became a chippy, like, and I got nothin’ to show for it.” He checked his watch. It was 10:25 p.m. “Time for another,” he declared, leaving Mike pondering his future studies.
The barman had changed. Or had he? Aiden had sunk enough beers that he wasn’t quite sure. He could be that bloke from the bus earlier — black hair, red shirt.
“What’s this one?” said Aiden, pointing at an unbranded keg at the end of the bar. “It wasn’t here before was it?”
“You don’t want that one,” the barman replied with his twinkling smile and perfectly gelled spikes. “You’ll regret it in the morning.”
The room was packed now and the noise made it difficult for Aiden to hear. “What is it?”
“It’s called Wishful Thinking. It’s a concept beer. Strong effects. 9%.” He hadn’t let his smile drop one inch. The barman leaned over the bar and put his hand across his mouth in a kind of ‘aside’. “It’s only for the open minded, not for sceptics.”
“For better or worse, I’ve always been a believer,” said Aiden looking heavenwards, “and I never pass up the opportunity to try a new drop.” He held out a red card for the barman to deduct the right amount.
“Are you sure? You feel it tomorrow.”
Aiden pushed his card forward again. “Bring it on.”
“If you’re sure.” The barman waved away his card. “This one is one me.” He checked around to make sure no one else was watching, then opened the tap and poured a pint of thick, brown, gloomy looking beer into a plastic cup.
“Grand. Thank you kindly,” said Aiden, taking the glass. He took a long pull on the pint, finishing around a third of it. It was a full bodied, fruity beer, it tasted better than it looked. It didn’t taste half as strong as 9%. “Not half bad,” he said, looking around for the server. The barman had disappeared.
There was a little space at the end of the bar, and Aiden sipped his pint. It had been hours since he had eaten, but the microwave meal that waited for him at home wasn’t exactly appetising. He’d probably manage to burn it too. With his back to the bar, he tipped the last drops of golden brown liquid into his mouth.
Suddenly, Aiden’s head was spinning. The air in the room turned thick, like molasses. Then with a flash of bright light, the barman appeared from nowhere, right in front him.
“What the—? How did you—?”
The barman brought his face right up to Aiden’s. “Finished I see, my good man. Now for your wish.”
Aiden blinked, taking a pace back and bumping into the bar behind him. “What is this? A wish?”
“Straight up,” said the barman, raising his jet black eyebrows, “make a wish. Anything is possible with a bit of Wishful Thinking.”
“I don’t believe in that bollocks. Magic cards and hokum pokum. It does nobody no good.” He was ready to turn his back on the barman and head home.
The barman reached out and touched him on the shoulder. “But you said you were a believer, friend. Tell me your heart’s desire.”
Aiden straightened up. One little wish couldn’t hurt. He thought back to his chipped glass, and that jumped up rugby player calling him IRA. Ignorant prick. He clenched a fist and crushed the cheap plastic cup in his hand.
There was another flash of pure white light in front of Aiden, which temporarily blinded
him. He screwed up his eyes and steadied himself on the bar. The next thing he knew, that very ruby captain was moving in on his spot, lining up the bar for a picture.
“Budge up there, Paddy. I want to get a picture for the team Instagram.” He muscled into the tiny space next to Aiden, squashing him against a group trying to get served.
Someone shouted “Selfie with the leprechaun.” They were taking the piss now. Just because he was older than them, didn’t give them the right to take the bloody piss.
Elliot laughed like the over-privileged donkey that he was. He held his phone up at a jaunty angle and pouted. Adjusting the angle of the phone, he crouched down and planted a wet kiss on Aiden’s stubbly cheek.
“What the feck do you think you’re doing, laddy?” he turned and shouted.
Elliot looked back at him in mock surprise and said in a badly mimicked high pitched voice, “Where’s your little pot of gold then?” He looked back to his group of mates. They were loving it.
Aiden hadn’t come out to be slobbered on by a 16 stone Country Life gobshite. Snorting like a prize bull, he squared up to the young man and took aim. It had been a long time since he’d punched anyone. Must have been way back in his 20s. Right foot back at a forty-five degree angle. He shuffled his left foot forward, and raised his hands.
Elliot was still grinning back at his mates and was fiddling around with his phone.
Aiden leaned back, pushing the students at his back, probably spilling a pint or two. He transferred all of his weight forward, windmilling his right fist in a huge arc. His hand felt like a mallet searching for a peg to thwack into place. The punch seemed to take days to reach his foe, making its way from below his waist, around and over his shoulder, forward and towards the rugby captain’s smug face. This was going to be good. Aiden’s fist found it’s target, just behind the ear, where the blonde side-parting was combed down. There was a satisfying crack, and a tingling sensation spread up Aiden’s forearm.
Elliot’s head snapped to the left and his body tensed. Just as Aiden’s thought he
was going to spin around and return fire, he flopped to the sawdusty floor, like a barrel of bricks being emptied. He crumpled to his knees, then his shoulder whacked against the bar and spun him over. The captain of the Rugby team lay on his back, staring blankly up at the ceiling, having just been decked by a sixty-year-old.
Time seemed to speed up. Aiden had to think fast. Nobody had reacted as yet. Most of the bar hadn’t looked over and were still chatting away. He crouched down and slapped Elliot’s sleeping face. “Night night, Prince Charming.” Reaching into Elliot’s hand, he removed the phone, which was still on camera mode. He lined up a shot of his pallid unconscious face, and pressed the capture button. “Beautiful.”
A prompt appeared on the screen on the phone in Aiden’s trembling hand.
Post to Instagram?
He didn’t give it a second thought. Aiden hit Yes, dropped the phone, and headed for the exit, before anyone started asking questions.
What was that throbbing pain? It felt like a car had run over his right forearm. Aiden tried to open his eyes, and with considerable effort, they pinged open one after the other. He lifted his hand in front of his face to inspect the damage. Bleedin’ hell, it was twice the size it should be, and felt twice as heavy too. Great, he was going to have to spend his whole Sunday in the hospital waiting room.
What had happened after the punch? How had he got home, unscathed, and without a hangover? It didn’t matter. He vaguely remembered the Ale Society lot helping him onto the bus and him promising to go to their next meeting in Coventry. Good lads.
Aiden scooted his legs off the mattress, straight onto the carpet. He still had trousers and white vest on. At least he had taken off his jacket and boots. He turned over and got to one knee, then two, then stood up grabbing onto a curtain to steady himself. “Ahh, Jesus!” he screamed. He had used his right hand to grab it. Idjit. The pain was fierce, it must be broken.
The bloody hand might hurt, but it wasn’t going to fall off. He may as well make breakfast first. He remembered to use his left hand to open the sliding door into the small open plan living room with galley kitchen. The kettle looked manky, but it had enough water in it for a cuppa, so he flicked it on. Making his breakfast omelette wasn’t going to be easy with one hand.
Right, get the eggs cracked first, then the toast. Putting his hand on the fridge door handle, he moved to his right so as to open it with his left. Then he saw it. The graduation photo fixed to the fridge door. It was something he looked past every day, but that morning, he really saw it. The McNealys, back in the good old days; before Polly had left, and Mary stopped thinking of him as ‘Dad’. That moment of achievement; the high point, before he had become the Irish stereotype — either at the bookies’ or the pub.
What a fool he’d been to waste his wish on clocking that big ponce, rather than fixing things at home. He needed a lot more help in that department. That barman was right. He did regret the pint, free or not. Hospitals were open twenty four hours weren’t they?
Aiden felt the cold coming from the fridge which was still open. He sighed. The breakfast could wait, so could the bleedin’ hospital. Today was the day to fix things. What should he say? Where should he start? It didn’t matter. He would have to wing it. The gift of the gab was the one thing that hadn’t deserted him.
He dug his phone out of the opposite pocket with his left hand, with some difficulty. He brought up the number and pressed the green call button before he had the chance to back out.
The phone rang. He listened. A few rings more. Maybe she wasn’t going to pick it up.
“Err . . . Dad?”
“Hello, Mary love, it’s your Da’ . . .
“I know, I have caller I.D. What is it that you nee—”
“Just listen. I’ve got some things I want to say.” Aiden settled down into the tattered armchair in the lounge and gazed skywards, looking for help. This wasn’t going to be easy.