“There’s that skittering again.”
Jay didn’t look at Kev. Didn’t acknowledge him or the sound that had come and gone for the last few hours. He kept his eyes on the drink he was pouring. Fake beer in a polymer glass that looked watery as shit but was all he had to sell. The real ale line had gone dry three hours ago.
“Be careful!” said Kev. “You’ll spill it if you keep shaking like that.”
Jay closed his eyes for a minute and took a deep breath. He moved the glass to the bar and set it down. He took the drink token without looking at Kev.
“You alright? Seem a bit jumpy today, Jay.” said Kev. “‘Ere that rhymes! Today, Jay.”
Kev gave a hacking chortle, a hollow sound that was full of phlegm and mucus. He spat on the floor. Jay smiled hesitantly.
“I’m. Fine.” Jay enunciated each word carefully.
The skittering noise had gone. Jay eyed the backroom door nervously.
“Got any food?” Kev asked.
Out of the corner of his eye Jay saw Kev moving his arm or something like it. He closed his eyes again and counted to himself. One, two, three-
“Got any food?” Kev repeated. The worlds slurred slightly.
Kev hadn’t had enough to be drunk, not that you could on this watered-down piss. He quickly passed over a cardboard tube of pressed starch chips without checking the flavour. It didn’t matter.
“Thanks.” said Kev and the tube disappeared from Jay’s limited view. He heard a pop, smelled the brief stink of vinegar, and then heard the crunch, crunch, crunch.
“That skittering’s back again.” Kev said.
Small crumbs sprayed over the bar. One landed on Jay’s hand and he violently snatched it away. It was back though. Jay hadn’t noticed. He’d been trying to stop himself from looking at Kev. Begging himself not to look. Lost in morbid curiosity and horror. It was hard not to look.
“I don’t suppose Keat’s fixed the lock?” Kev asked.
Jay stopped thinking. Stopped breathing. He lifted his eyes to the backroom door. The console next to it was dark, powerless. Like him.
Crunch, Crunch, Crunch.
“Where is the bastard anyway?” Kev said.
“In. The. Back.” Jay said. He had to concentrate on each word. “He. Went. To. Change. The. Barrel.”
Saying so many words made him feel sick. He swallowed over and over again.
“Ah, yeah.” Said Kev. “Never mind ey. I’m sure he’ll be back out soon.”
The soon invaded Jay’s thoughts and stood there waving. He glanced at the clock. Nearly last call. Nearly time to go home. What home?
The front doors slid open and Jay started. The sounds from outside tore through the relative silence of the bar. Banging. Skittering Dragging. Screaming. They closed again, and the newcomers sat at a table by the door. Jay began to fill two more glasses of fake beer out of habit. The skittering from the backroom had stopped again. He carried the drinks to the table, realising that he would have to squeeze past Kev to get there. He stayed close to the wall as he did, moving his head to the side and trying to unsuccessfully hold his breath. Kev stank of body odour poorly disguised with cheap body spray and cologne. There was something else, mixed in with the human smells. Something stale and musty, like damp wood and bad fruit that made the bile begin to rise in his throat. He coughed and swallowed over and over as he put the glasses down and took the tokens. The newcomers didn’t say anything. One of the tokens was wet with something sticky and cream coloured. Jay stared down at it, bile and mucus leaking from his mouth as he coughed and tried to swallow but he didn’t care.
The backroom door slid open and automatically, Jay looked up towards it. His fist closed around the tokens painfully, his knuckles red. His limbs locked.
“Pull uz a pint of real” slurred Keats.
Jay’s eyes followed Keats as he limped from the backroom door to stand next to Kev at the end of the bar. Jay stared harder, his eyes watering and bloodshot.
“Pull uz a pint of real ah said” said Keats slowly. Jay saw Keats’s remaining eye twitch in its gaunt socket. The other, gone.
Jay’s eyes twitched towards the door then back at Keats. He couldn’t take his eyes away. Not now.
“Yew leavin?” Said Keats. ”It still sounded like Keats”, Jay thought. He made his way back around the bar.
“Is not time to leave. Yor shiftsss not dun”.
“No.” Jay said. Eyes glued on him. He smelled the same as Kev now, but with the added stench of pipe smoke on its skin clothes. What was left of them.
“I got summin on me face?” Keats said cheerfully, eye blinking slowly.
“No.” repeated Jay.
He quickly looked away to the real ale pump. As soon as he tore his gaze from Keats he needed to look back. Desperately. The pump shuddered in quiet horror, and began to pour water straight onto the drip tray.
“Forgot the glash.” said Keats.
Jay grabbed a glass next to the pump and placed it in the stream.
“Jush give it a minit. Clear the pipesh.”
Painfully, slowly, the water cleared. Jay filled two glasses before it began to colour, but instead of the usual dark brown, it was a thick, sickly green. Bits floated to the surface. It looked like a stagnant pond. Fetid. Dirty.
He put the glass in front of Keats, sloshing some onto the bar. Keats took a sip and peered into the virescent liquid.
“Looksh like the burull needs changing. Be a good lad, sort it out.” slurred Keats.
“Yeah, be a good lad.” said Kev.
Jay turned to the backroom door. The skittering sound was back.
He began to cry.
Stephen McGowan is an emerging poet and author from the UK. He is a mature creative writing student at Northumbria University in his last year, and is active at spoken word events throughout the North East of England. Twitter: @geekdaddyprime