2 – The Strath
At one time the Strathmore Hotel was well thought of. A striking granite building, on the edge of a sprawling green with views towards the hills across the river, it was an attractive setting.
In Victorian times it was a coaching house, welcoming wealthy, weary travellers as they made their way down the valley. In the early part of the 20th century, tourists from the south – walkers, fishers, shooters and golfers patronised the hotel, their laden wallets and purses sustaining a staff of 50 odd.
Over the decades, the hotel had become run-down and uncared for. In recent years The Strath had been best known as a drinking den, and not a particularly welcoming one.
The bar was shabby and furnished with a haphazard selection of unmatched tables and chairs. Some the sort of vernacular-style, dark wood you might expect in a Scottish country pub, others looked as though they’d been pilfered from the local school – metal frame chairs with rubber stoppers at the base of the legs, leather-effect seats and back rests. Many had been sliced causing the yellow foam inside to spill out. The pool table had a rip in it and a distinct roll to the bottom right corner, the dartboard had lost its wire and the TV showed a picture with a constant horizontal line of interference about two inches thick, roughly midway up the screen.
The drinkers didn’t seem to care. The better heeled in town began avoiding the place some years ago and now the Strath’s public bar had a hint of the Wild West about it.
David Lowe and Lachlan Slattery hated the place, though they visited it almost every day.
Both were 24-years-old, both had grown up in town and both struggled to understand why they were still there.
David worked for a small firm of solicitors on the high street, Petrie and Clarke. He had done for the last couple of years since being thrown off a graduate training programme he’d never wanted to be on in the first place. He did nothing of any consequence at work. He wasn’t training as a solicitor. He was merely an office boy. He answered the phone, took messages, organised filing, made coffees and looked after the petty cash. He showed no ambition to progress and his parents despaired.
Lachlan had done basically nothing since being awarded a first class degree in philosophy by Edinburgh University three years previously. He drank a lot, smoked almost as much, read quite a bit and listened to music. David thought him the most intelligent person he’d ever met and Lachlan thought he was probably right.
Days and months blended into one another for the pair and nothing seemed to change. They talked about moving away, about starting a business, about starting a band. They talked, but they didn’t act.
This day was panning out in a familiar fashion, David had clocked off early and met Lachlan on the walk to the pub. They’d sneaked through the swing doors, sidled up to the bar, procured lager and taken it to a table in the far corner under the battered dartboard. It was a tired script.
But this day was to be different. After a half an hour or so, things actually began to change.
David and Lachlan had been sitting in silence for a few minutes, concentrating on the last couple of inches of liquid in their glasses. Glancing across the room, David noticed the door swing open and a very strange looking character entered the pub.
It was a man, thin and stooped and dressed entirely in black. He shuffled into the room, un-noticed by the rabble around the cigarette machine or the bruisers propping up the bar. As he moved further in, the man seemed to unfurl himself like a bat preparing to leave its roost. He was enormous, well over 6 feet, and he was much younger than David had thought on first look. His face was pale but his eyes shone in his head like those of a cat. They were piercing blue, un-naturally blue.
David suddenly realised he was staring at this stranger with his mouth half open, he also realised that those burning blue eyes were looking straight back in his direction. The man was heading their way.
By the time he reached them, the stranger had somehow obtained a glass of red wine, but he certainly hadn’t got it from the bar.
“You won’t mind if I join you,” he answered his own question.
“It looks like we’ll have little choice in the matter.” Lachlan replied. David assumed his friend hadn’t watched the man’s theatrical entrance.
“Thank you kindly, my name is Conrad by the way,” the stranger replied with seemingly honest gratitude. “Now, I can see I have sat down with two gentlemen of considerable potential.”
“What on earth do you mean by that?” Lachlan snapped impatiently.
David gazed into his empty pint glass, trying to conceal the pang of terror that suddenly consumed him.
“I don’t know what would lead you to think we have potential,” Lachlan continued. “David’s got a shitty job at a bookkeeper and I’m yet to earn a single pound in my life.”
“Oh dear, oh dear. Why are people so obsessed with earning money?” asked Conrad. “Why must everything be about money? I for one, think the best work is done when there is no financial incentive… Now, I’ve just seen you’re in need of another drink.”
“Yes, I think I am,” said David whose nerves were shot. He looked towards the bar to assess how quickly he might be served. As his eyes returned to the table he wasn’t as astonished as he should have been to see his empty pint glass was once again full.
An old drunk two tables away was slightly more amazed. He’d been watching this odd meeting since Conrad had sat down. He may have consumed a quarter bottle of Whyte & McKay but he could still recognise there was something strange about the liaison taking place two tables over.
“I saw that, I saw that,” he shouted. “That glass. It filled itself from nowhere. There was nothing, then it was full.” The man was causing a scene and the whole pub turned to see what was happening.
“Calm down sir,” said Conrad. “Nothing of the sort happened.”
“Are you calling me a liar?” the drunkard splurted out.
“Certainly not. But really, how could a glass fill itself of it’s own accord?” Conrad looked sympathetically towards the drunk and then towards the crowd of men standing at the bar. He shrugged his shoulders as if to ask them for back up.
“He’s right you old piss head,” a surly looking man with a bushy moustache addressed the distressed drunk. “Your eyes must be playing tricks.
“See,” said Conrad. “Glasses can’t fill themselves… They can empty themselves though. Oh yes, terribly quickly.”
Just then the surly character shouted.
“What’s happened to my beer? I only just ordered it and now it’s finished. Which of you bastards drank it? Did you have it?” he turned to his most immediate neighbour.
“No I did not,” the neighbour replied. “And, wait a minute, someone’s had my pint too.”
All seven of the men at the bar looked down at the glasses in their hands and were dismayed to see each was absolutely empty.
“Who was it?” Each began accusing the others. “Whoever it was owes us all a pint.”
“I bet it was you.” The surly man grabbed a short skinny character with a checked shirt by the collar and lifted him up.
“Hey, put him down Bill,” said another grabbing the surly man’s arms.
“Get the hell off me.” The surly fellow was at breaking point. A fight seemed on the cards. David glanced up at Conrad who was watching the unfolding scene with a grin on his face.
At that moment the fruit machine in the far corner, which nobody had been playing, began to spew pound coins all over the floor. The barman dashed towards it and began pressing buttons. Still the money poured out. Then he took out the plug from the wall but the pound coins continued to flow. He changed his approach and began to scoop the coins up and put them into his pockets.
While the barman was distracted the surly fellow leaned across the counter and began pouring himself a pint. The others followed suit. The Whyte & McKay drunk saw an opportunity, got up and stumbled towards the bar. Almost there he tripped, apparently on nothing, and tumbled into the surly man, knocking his newly acquired pint out of his hand and all down his front.
“That’s it.” Surly Bill had now totally lost his rag. He kicked the drunk in the stomach.
“Hey. You bastard!” Another group of younger drinkers at a table close to the door decided to get involved. One, bigger than the rest, strode over and squared up to the man with the moustache.
“Kick an old man when he’s down will you?” the challenger said. “Try taking on someone your own size.”
“Fine,” said Bill and he immediately took a swing at the younger man. The challenger ducked and the punch missed. The young man then rose and struck his adversary right on the moustache.
Now all hell broke loose and a proper brawl ensued. Pint glasses began flying around the room, though later nobody would admit to having thrown one. Pool cues and chair legs materialised in people’s hands and the pub was filled with shouting. Nobody seemed to know who was fighting who or what the objective was.
“Let’s go,” Conrad said to David and Lachlan. “We’ve done all we can here.”
The pair, feeling more than a little confused, rose and followed their new acquaintance. They stepped over the fallen drunk and tried to avoid the broken glass and the flying fists as they made their way to the door.
The trio emerged into the fresh air and began walking away. As they rounded the corner David could hear the approaching sound of a police siren.