Jackie Soames

Jackie Soames lives to work and works to live. She loves her job. She loves the hours, the socialising, the perks… Jackie runs a pub, and she’s virtually an alcoholic.

Early starts, late finishes, long hours… to most of her punters, Jackie is the Lion and Lamb personified. But there’s a silent partner helping behind the scenes – her long-suffering husband George. Jackie, of course, regularly tells him she could do without him and that it’s her name over the door. She’s probably right, but George is her rock, and she relies on him more than she thinks. She’d miss him if he wasn’t there…

Jackie Soames opened one eye, then closed it again. It was late. Too late. She should have been up hours ago. More to the point, George should have woken her up. Bloody man, he was absolutely useless. She didn’t ask much of him; she ran the business and looked after the punters, all he had to do was keep the home running and keep her happy. It was an unusual arrangement but it had worked well for more than twenty years now.

Jackie opened one eye again and double-checked the clock. Quarter-to-eleven! Christ, how could she have slept in for so long? She needed to get ready to open up. She’d never missed opening time before – not even on the day her father died – and she knew she’d get some stick from the regulars if she was late unlocking the doors today. More importantly, she couldn’t afford to waste time like this. Time was money. The pub was only just breaking even as it was.

In this trade, Jackie often told anyone who’d listen, you live and breathe the job. You’re never off duty. She worked from the crack of dawn until the very end of each day, and she couldn’t believe that George had let her sleep in for so long. Where was he? She remembered him getting up when the alarm went off just after six o’clock, but she didn’t remember him coming back. Strange, she thought, he usually brought her up a coffee before eight and left it on the bedside table. There was no cup there today.

Last night had been hard going. Monday nights were usually difficult, but Jackie always tried to put on something special to pull in a decent sized crowd. She’d tried quiz nights and theme nights and cheap drinks promotions but her traditional, dyed-in-the-wool punters were hard to please. Last night they’d had a band on, and bloody awful they’d been too. Nice enough lads, but they were all noise and no talent. She’d come across plenty of similar acts trying to make a name for themselves over the years. Crank the sound up loud enough, they seemed to think, and no one will know we can’t play.

They should have been here to pick up their stuff a couple of hours ago but she hadn’t heard them. The bedroom was right over the bar, and anything happening down there would surely have woken her up. Christ, she must have been in a deep sleep. Maybe she was coming down with something? She couldn’t afford to get ill. She couldn’t risk leaving George in charge.

The band hadn’t gone down well last night. The Lion and Lamb was a traditional British spit-and-sawdust pub with traditional spit-and-sawdust locals, and halfway through their set, the heckles from the crowd had drowned out the noise of the band. The drummer had given up straight away, sitting behind his kit and drinking, no longer playing. The others kept going for another song and a half before admitting defeat. Trying to make the most of a disappointing night without leaving the boys in the band out of pocket, Jackie had locked the doors after closing time and kept everyone drinking through the early hours of Tuesday morning.

Christ she was really paying for it now.

Finally managing to prise open both eyes, she picked herself up out of bed, stumbled to the bathroom and threw up. That was better. Once the acidic taste of vomit and the booze-induced disorientation had passed she began to feel herself again. As a regular drinker of admirable capacity and many years standing, Jackie was hardened to the effect alcohol had on her system. It was a well rehearsed routine now: she got drunk, she fell asleep, she woke up, she threw up, she felt better. And the next day she did it again. It was all part of the job. The first cigarette of the day helped settle her stomach.

Where the hell was George?

‘George?’ she yelled. ‘George, are you down there? Do you know what time it is?’

When he didn’t answer she quickly got dressed (no one ever saw her in her nightwear except her husband) and went out onto the landing. Nothing. No sign. Cursing her husband under her breath, she stormed back to the bedroom. He must have gone out. That bloody man had gone out and left her fast asleep. And the lads from last night wouldn’t have been able to get back in and get their stuff, either. With just over half an hour to go before opening time, Jackie was close to losing her temper on a massive scale. God help George when she got hold of him. He was probably down the betting shop, he decided, flittering away the money she’d earned on horses and dogs. She’d have sacked him by now if she hadn’t been married to him.

The bedroom was still dark and she kept it that way as she got herself ready. Regardless of what had happened to George, she still had a business to run and an image to maintain. When it came to the crunch it was down to her and her alone to keep the pub running. It was her name on the licence and on the contract with the brewery and the buck stopped with her, not George, and not anyone else.

In the semi-darkness Jackie began to assemble her public image. No one saw her without make-up but George. She was never seen in public looking anything less than perfect. Once dressed (squeezing into something that might have suited her and fitted better a few years ago) she sat in front of the mirror where she brushed her hair and painted on her smile. Copious squirts of her favourite fragrance to hide the smell of drink and cigarettes and she was ready to face the rest of the world.

The landing was as dark as her bedroom. Beyond that, her living room was as dark as the landing, and the first floor function room was as dark as everywhere else. Jackie popped her head around each door before going down. Strange, she thought, it was Tuesday. Paula Hipkiss, the girl who worked at the bakers opposite the pub, hired the function room every Tuesday morning to run her weekly keep-fit class. Where were they? There was no way she’d have slept through that; if the thumping music hadn’t woken her up, then the elephantine crashing of upwards of twenty sweaty, overweight housewives surely would’ve.

‘George,’ she yelled again, her smoker’s voice hoarse. She coughed as she stumbled down the stairs. Bloody hell, it was as dark down there as the rest of the building. Where were they all? The cleaners, aerobics instructors, crowds of chubby women, her useless husband… all missing. And she was right, the band hadn’t been able to get their gear. She could see it piled up at the far end of the bar.

‘George!’ she screamed at a volume that she knew he’d never dare ignore. ‘For Christ’s sake, where are you, you useless sod?’

Jackie opened the curtains and stumbled around the back of the bar. It was there she found her husband of twenty-three years, dead in the beer cellar. Poor bugger, he looked like he’d lost his footing and fallen headfirst down the steep steps, smashing his face into the concrete cellar floor. Shaking with sudden shock and emotion she went down to him, one precarious step at a time, stepping over his sprawled out limbs. When she got to the bottom she sat down next to him and began to sob.

Oh, George, Jackie thought, and there I was thinking you’d let me down. Overcome with guilt and a deep, raw sadness, she stroked her husband’s unruly mop of grey-black hair and gently shook his shoulder.

‘Come on, love,’ she whispered hopefully, even though she knew he was dead. ‘Wake up.’

A short while later, Jackie managed to tear herself away from George and climb back up from the cellar. It was almost opening time now, but that didn’t matter any more. She poured herself a large gin, knocked it back in one, poured another, then picked up the phone to call the doctor. The shadow-filled pub was still dark and empty, and the quiet felt alien to her. She knew nothing was ever going to be the same again. She’d always been the brains of the operation and the one who made all the decisions, but Jackie didn’t know how she’d cope without George.

No one was answering the phone at the surgery. Strange. She finished her drink, hung up and tried again. Still nothing.

Not the kind of people to waste their time with gadgets and modern fads, neither George nor Jackie had ever owned a mobile phone. Jackie decided to try and telephone from the bank next door. If the worst came to the worst, she thought, she’d walk up to the doctor’s surgery. It was only a little way along the high street. She decided she’d go out through the back door of the pub to avoid any of the regulars who might be loitering around the front, waiting to get in.

When Jackie stepped out into the cobbled courtyard behind the pub she immediately noticed how quiet it was outside. She buttoned up her coat, locked the door, then walked through the gate, down the narrow alleyway and out onto the high street.

The devastation she saw there was incredible. Too much for her to take in.

A bus was on its side a short distance up the road. In the distance she could see that Westwood Garage was on fire. There were crashed cars all over the place and, for as far as she could see in every direction, hundreds of people lay dead.

This looked like it had happened hours ago. For a moment she was too busy wondering how she’d slept through it, than to wonder what had happened and why hadn’t it affected her.

What do I do? Where do I start? Where do I go?

Too sober to think straight, Jackie turned around and disappeared back into the Lion and Lamb where she poured herself another gin.



Autumn: The London Trilogy omnibus edition