O’Keefe sat at the bar and told me that he was going to retire before the business killed him. As ever, he was wearing his old grey mac, sipping a stout and had just stubbed out a Carrolls cigarette before lighting another one. O’Keefe ran all the slot machines in West London.
He was a Wexford man who’d lived in the English capital for 50 years. He he’d been a regular in Kevin Conroy’s pub, The Exchange but everybody just called it Conroy’s, since it had opened. Before that it had been known as Farrell’s, and O’Keefe had been a regular there too. Conroy’s was in a small lane off Praed Street in Paddington. It was small, maybe cosy, and well maintained by Kevin and his crew, which had included me for the previous six months as a barman and cook.
“The Maltese have made me an offer”, said O’Keefe. “But they’ve done that before. Only this time it involves bad feeling and guns.”
This was a the same afternoon that Kevin Conroy returned from Newbury with his prize-winning chestnut mare, “Dancing Flyer”. He’d walked the Flyer up from Paddington station, past the Alexander Fleming so the doctors and nurses drinking there could coo over it and pet it. Then he’d walked the massive beast through Conroy’s double doors, its only entry and exit.
The Flyer stood in the bar, twitched his ears, nodded his enormous head and flicked his tail. The regulars, all of whom had put money on the mighty horse to win – nothing each way in Conroy’s – cheered. The horse appeared to enjoy the accolades, and nodded again. Someone bought him a pint of Murphy’s stout, someone else gave him an apple. Then the victorious horse was backed out onto the street where its transport out to the stables, to peace and quiet was waiting for it.
“Good horse”, said O’Keefe.
“Great horse”, I replied from behind the bar, with £150 in my pocket, my winnings. “So, what are you going to do about the Maltese?” I asked him while pouring him another pint of Murphy’s.
“Did I ever tell you that you remind me of my cousin?”
He had told me this once or twice before. His cousin lived in Sydney, Australia having moved there a decade or so before from a small town called Fethard on the coast of Ireland where his family ran a pub.
“You have. How is he?” I said.
He went quiet, became thoughtful and a little misty eyed as he considered my question. He rarely if ever answered questions. I’d learned this over the months. That didn’t stop me asking them though, it was conversational, I was a barman and part-time cook. I considered showing an interest in my customers an essential part of my job. I was 18 years old, it also seemed to be the respectful thing to do. He ran his finger around the rim of his glass until it sang at which point he stopped and looked at me.
“I think the Maltese are serious. I do. I don’t fancy a war in West London. I like the place”. He took a sip and smiled. He was a small man, less than five feet nine in his scruffy brown brogues. He always wore a brown suit with a waistcoat, and thick black belt with studs, and a white shirt and red tie. Always. He was a pale man, with wispy, cobweb fine grey hair that he combed over from left to right with using his long, thin fingers to manipulate a mother of pearl effect comb, which he replaced in his jacket pocket in a delicate movement.
Conroy had told me when I started that O’Keefe was worth millions. He was part-owner of The Flyer, and he wholly owned the stables out in Hampshire. He didn’t look as if he was worth more than a regular weekly wage to me.
“There’s a reason for that”, said Conroy as he polished the bar. “It’s camouflage. Watch his temper, mind.”
Months on and I’d never seen a hint of temper from O’Keefe even when one of his towering, marble muscled members of staff came and told him about a breakage in Southall or a fiddle in Ealing Common he retained a quiet, direct, thoughtful demeanour. He’d lay out a solution, usually in not to hard to crack code, and I’d remind myself never to wrong-side him. Never.
Outside, barrel chested, balding and sweating Conroy had finished manoeuvring The Flyer into its trailer and was giving the driver, a lad my age called James Plunkett, final instructions for the journey. The rain was coming on from the north and was pushing a strong gale up Praed Street past St Mary’s hospital. It was a Sunday I seem to remember.
“I think it might be time to retire. Marie is keen to go home and see more of the grandkiddies. We have a house by the sea, beautiful views, quiet, lovely and safe. Fine pub only a short drive down towards Fethard where they serve a grand beef and horseradish sandwich – not as good as yours, mind. I’m growing fond of the idea myself. I’m getting no younger after all”.
The double doors were pushed open so O’Keefe looked briefly to his left to see who was coming in. Nobody had been playing his slot machine, maybe this was a punter.
It was one of the Maltese. Black leather jacket, dark jeans, cowboy boots, slicked back black hair he removed his sunglasses and walked to the barstool next to O’Keefe. In the warm gloom of the bar two of O’Keefe’s boys shifted their weight, emptied their glasses so they became better weapons and began to stand. O’Keefe lifted a finger and they sat back down, disappointed.
“Whisky”, said the Maltese. I poured him a Paddy.
“Ice”, he said. I put ice in his glass.
“Thank you”, he said. His accent was a mixture of Valetta and Cable Street over in the Eastend.
O’Keefe and the Maltese looked at the mirror behind me, their faces sliced in the reflection by the bottles and optics. Conroy joined me behind the bar and began to clean glasses. The wind stopped and the rain began, hard, with no rhythm.
It was unheard of for any of the Maltese to venture into Conroy’s. A month or so before, they co-opted The Wilkie Collins near the station by walking in one night with sawn-offs under their coats, just visible, and knuckle dusters like a mad giant’s wedding rings on their fists, very visible indeed. That was their enclave, their beachhead out of their East London home. In Conroy’s that night, the presence of the Maltese added to the cosmopolitan mix of the pair of Lebanese, Irish, English, Sikh Indian, Jamaican and Barbadian who called our pub their home from home.
The Maltese drank his whisky. He patted O’Keefe’s hand. I heard O’Keefe’s sharp intake of breath and then his gentle exhalation. Conroy took the glass from the Maltese, finished the final pour of O’Keefe’s stout, and rang the bell for last orders and then immediately after ran it again for closing time.
“Time gentlemen please, can we have your glasses now”, he said quietly with no room for the usual, good humoured replies of “No! Conroy you cannot!”. It was seven thirty in the evening in Paddington, with the rain pelting down sending all the stray cats back to their home under vacant office block on St Michael’s Street down the road. The customers stood up and filed out quietly, leaving me, Kevin Conroy, the Maltese, Oisín O’Keefe and two of O’Keefe’s boys to see out the next few minutes.
“You need to go now”, O’Keefe said to me.
Conroy nodded, “Come back in tomorrow, usual time”, he said.
I picked up my coat and lifted the bar flap, and O’Keefe handed me a fat envelope.
“Now then”, he said, “you remind my of my cousin, my cousin Padraig, the one in Australia. I’ve told you that. Take this and maybe look him up in Sydney for me, there’s a fine lad”.
I took it and I shook his hand and I left The Exchange, Conroy’s bar and walked to the station feeling the weight of the envelope in the inside pocket of my raincoat. I was at work the next day behind the bar. I never did see O’Keefe again but I did catch up with his Cousin in Sydney. And I did look like him.