“What do you know about Arabs?” asked Tommy Connolly, landlord, racehorse owner and non-professional, West London living, Irishman. If the youngster Davie Benton was going to be of any use to him, he’d have to know something or two.
They’d been mentioned in Chronicles 12:11 when the Arabians brought good old Jumping King Jehosophat several thousand goats and sheep. But Davie couldn’t see this piece of Biblical trivia being the kind of information Tommy would be after.
“They’re very tribal, “ Davie offered, “they rely a great deal on the strength of the family, of the clan. You know, it’s like if you do something to Sam,” he indicated his elder brother working behind the bar at Connolly’s while Benton Jr propped it up during his spare time, “then I would have to do the same or worse to you.”
“Right, right, like the Travellers then”, Tom replied as if he’d forgotten his own question, which he hadn’t.
“Why Tom?”, it could have been for several reasons. Tommy was a racing man. Tommy owned a pub just down from Marble Arch. Both were good reasons to want to know about Arabs and their ways. Benton shouldn’t really have prompted Tom for a reason, it was rare for the great man to have spoken much more than a “Howa ya?” to him. Tom had never asked the boy a question of any greater depth in the year and a half that Benton been following his brother Sam into the pub.
Davie was a strange one, not quite a local but at the same time related to one of the staff. Not Irish, not a Londoner, but of Irish descent and living in London. He wasn’t a good drinker either, three pints of Murphys and he was impersonating the accents around him. Three pints and a whisky and he got dewy eyed about the 26 counties only two of which, Dublin and Wexford, he’d ever visited.
Any more, and he’d start telling stories of the great times he’d had in O’Neil’s next to Trinity or he might start weeping. Give him one more whisky and he’d look to start fighting any one of the locals who spread themselves around the tiny boozer as best they could.
None of this stopped the boy, in all his 19 country-fed years, from thinking himself a mighty drinker, a holy drinker, a drinker who once he’d reached fighting pitch, could maintain the same level of drunkenness right through until dawn. A lie of course. But he spent a great deal of his life either lying to himself or to those around him who would listen.
That’s why he was working a shit job and smoking too much cheap hash while living in a pit in Kilburn Park. A mass of potential, he slid through life constantly under the shadow of his father’s elongated death, constantly blaming himself for being born, constantly trying to be loved, constantly getting on people’s nerves.
The reason he annoyed so readily was that he liked people as soon as he met them, he felt connected to them on a level that was far too intimate to initiate a true friendship, and he couldn’t help himself.
For Davie Benton, people were there to share troubles. He tried to stop himself from wrapping his emotions around the next person to show an interest but it just didn’t work. And worse still, he couldn’t help but attract them. He told great long stories, and listened for hours, giving good ear, often telling people things that they didn’t want to hear but which resonated with them later.
He gained their trust with his energetic attacks on the tedium of real life that were extemporised on themes of their own desires, and with this trust he marched into their time and priorities. Very rare it was for a man or woman to be in Davie Benton’s orbit for more than a month or two without being woken at one thirty in the morning by an agonised phone call that demanded to know whether they had meant that thing they’d said three weeks before and which they’d utterly forgotten.
You couldn’t save the boy, and sooner or later you’d want to avoid him or openly insult him. You couldn’t save the boy because there was nothing to be saved.
Davie Benton was a 19 year-old dissolution with the charm of Errol Flynn and the staying power of a mayfly. That was his own conjecture at least, and putting it to the test regularly had rarely proved it false.
Tommy wandered away from the boy, going upstairs to his own quarters to consult The Sporting Life. He liked the Benton lads generally. Tommy struggled to recall when he’d last heard them having a conversation of more than ten words each or five minutes, whichever was shorter.
Sam was the straight-up one, a clever man who knew better than to bring his cleverness to work with him. He was an adequate barman who remembered names, never ever got too familiar, didn’t drink the stock and was never late despite the fact that he lived in South London and was a student.
Sam had an amateur’s grasp of the gee-gees and liked to listen to people who knew better than him talking. Unlike his brother, he didn’t wear his Irish descent on his sleeve, nor out of this mouth, although he did know the songs.
Where Davie would answer a question with a torrent of tangents. Sam would be direct and economical, occasionally dry and often dull. For Sam, thought Tom as he settled down with a cup of tea, the Sporting Life and his slippered feet up on the ravaged claret and silver-blue pouffe, life was a matter of cementing bricks into place until he had something solid but not ornate.
Davie, on the extremely other hand, fled along life, adding curlicues and casements, crenellations and gargoyles to wherever he thought he could settle. Tom liked them both and, despite Sam’s occasional tediousness and Davie’s borish boy-drinking, was comfortable enough to allow them to remain as drinkers in his pub. No plans needed here.
“Have you seen our mother this week Sam?” Davie was on his third pint, and with no new people in sight, he’d plucked up the courage to try and extract a word or two from this brother.
Talking back to his brother made Sam genuinely nervous. Despite being from the same stock, having lived in the same houses, and despite looking vaguely similar, Sam could not understand his brother.
It wasn’t that he didn’t like him, it was more that he couldn’t figure out what they were supposed to have in common. There was no bond between them save for a dead dad, the consequent widowed mama, and a sister younger by two years to Davie and seven to Sam. They honestly did not have that much to talk about other than the pain of a ten-year death house vigil, and who wanted to talk about that?
“Do you think she’s over our dad yet?” pushed Davie wanting to stab the silence between them until it bled some form of revelation that could make him feel slightly more connected to whatever it was that kept everybody else going so cheerfully.
“I don’t know mate, I couldn’t say. I don’t talk to her about him at all when I go down there. She’s been through it all like we did, and I don’t even know if I’m over it myself yet.”
“I’m over it. I can’t be doing with it,” Davie said into his glass. “I know that she wants to talk to me about it because I remind her of dad. I’ve seen the pictures of when he was my age, and I even think that I look like him. But she won’t talk to me about him.
“She wants to know when I’m going to get a degree, I’m not going to get a degree for fuck’s sake. She always makes me feel like I should be doing something that I’m not doing. Do you get that?”
“I lie to her,” Sam was serious about this. He did. It made everybody’s life easier and hurt no one. As the elder brother he’d had to bear the brunt of the father’s illness, looking after his brother and sister during the holidays while their mother went off to town to work, leaving at six in the morning and returning at seven at night to tired and self-involved to do much more than check for behind-the-ear cleanliness, homework completion and general health.
She asked little of any of her children other than that they should not make her life difficult. She didn’t drink, she smoked too much but didn’t stay out late, she wasn’t visited by men friends, she wasn’t visited by friends of either gender actually.
Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday she’d go straight from the railway station to the hospital where she’d sit by the bed of the man she’d married eighteen years previously and look at him. The whole family would go on Saturday, well for the first two years of his incarceration at least, until he started shrivelling to a weight that would later become fashionable among the super rich models of New York and Paris.
Until he stopped being able to say anything at all, not even the broken, unrelated sentences that had fallen from his skewed, left-side, paralysis stroked lips. Then only Sam and his mother would get into the car and drive from the village where they lived to the massive hospital in the middle of the nearest city.
Sam learnt to lie to his mum in the car on the way over to the hospital, to the Ark Royal male surgical ward. At first it was hard for him, but the silences were harder and the crying harder still.
He would lie to her about his friends and the parties they went to, he would lie to her about drinking and girlfriends, he would lie to her about his exam work and his driving lessons. He would lie to her so much that after the first six months he discovered that he was living the lies.
His exam preparation improved as he focused all his energies on staying in his own room and found himself studying to keep from venturing into the house which at the weekends resonated to Wagner, Puccini or whatever old movie was being shown in the afternoon blob-out sessions that their remaining functional parent indulged herself in.
His friends found him becoming more self-assured, quieter, more direct as he rationed his thoughts, saving the best ones for himself. If he didn’t become popular, at least he became solid. He drank more, but only in public in two pubs, one in the village when he was needed to be close in case the phone call came, and one in the cathedral city when he had finished his studies at college or in the library.
He passed his driving test first time after mastering his gawkiness when it came to commanding the controls. He even managed a girlfriend or two. This pleased his mother in her occasional bouts of Catholic zeal (once every six months of so in between her elongated periods of agnosticism) that he wasn’t homosexual.
She had asked this on an early trip to the hospital, she asked both her sons this question because, aside from marrying one of the lovely coloured girls that they knew, being bent was the worst thing that could happen to them.
Sam lied his way into the mind and body of a very upstanding, unselfconscious, deeply focused, mature seventeen year old academic success.
“What do you mean you lie to her?” Davie was astonished by this. His family didn’t lie to each other. They didn’t talk to each other. They were the only really trustworthy people he knew. He’d never lied to his mother, never, as such.
If she asked him when he was going to buckle down and use his “immense natural talents” to gain security and recognition, he told her that he wasn’t, that none of that mattered, that it was all lies an bullshit anyway.
He asked his brother, “Do you don’t mean about the big stuff? Because you don’t lie to people. Not you. You’re a fucking saint remember?”
“Yes, right mate. Of course. How are you getting back home tonight?” Sam was eyeing the front door, it was six o’clock on a September London Tuesday and soon the bar would fill with a mixture of junior doctors, student nurses, post office and railway workers and the other, professionally undefined inhabitants of Connolly’s. This was good, it was what he liked best, at least since his little brother had decided that it was cool to have a London local and to sit in it on his days off.
“I just don’t know. I probably won’t, there’s a Blues party up the road that’s kicking of around chucking out time and I played in a band with one of the Rastas who’s on the door for it. I’m going to get some mates over and go down there, the sounds will be excellent and you never know what else might go off. Another pint please barkeep.” Davie’s fourth, “and a Powers with it.”
Upstairs, Tommy was making a plan. Tommy was after having a meeting with the Arabs. Tommy’s planned involved the knowledge of Davie.