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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.

THE AUTUMN SERIES