The first thing I should tell you about my husband – he’s practically useless. We’ve had this boozer, The Tortoise and Achilles, for years. Everyone thinks it must be a gold mine, but if it were up to Hugh to run it, we’d be on the street. Hugh’s his real name, though everyone calls him Odie of course. Like little boys, him and his mates – one name’s not enough for them, they love their little aliases.
Odie fits him though – he’s an odd one for sure. Odd as he is, there’s something about him. If you listened to all the stories, you’d think he was some kind of genius, but the truth is he’s never out of trouble. I’m left to pick up the pieces and keep the pub going. I’ve been a good looking woman in the past, if I say it myself. Our regulars are mostly men who stand at the bar watching me pull pints and thinking whatever men think about barmaids. I can still wear low cut tops, though my figure is running to what I might call buxom these days. Odie doesn’t like the regulars much. He calls them ‘suitors’ but it’s them pays the bills.
These days the younger ones have their eyes fixed on Illya. She’s from Romania or somewhere like that – a bit exotic with those big dark eyes. Poor thing is stick thin and she dresses funny – goth style is what they tell me. She doesn’t understand half of what the punters say to her and it’s just as well. I’ve warned her about the worst of them, but she’s so innocent and a complete romantic. She’s always scribbling in this notebook she carries everywhere – got a pink cover with pictures of butterflies on it. I sneaked a look once when she wasn’t around but of course it’s in her own language; all Greek to me. She tells me it’s mostly memories of home she’s writing. She’s so naive she called me Odie’s missus once – something she heard around the pub. I told her that’s his name not mine. I can’t abide nicknames.
Anyway the pub is just me and Illya and some hired boys that come and go and are nearly as useless as Odie. You know he got ten years for that last adventure with his so-called friends. They like to say ten years, you know, to big up their own legend. Actually he was out in three, what with time off and parole, but three years is still a long time. It all started to go wrong again when he began seeing Algy. I never trusted that one from the off.
Even when I first met Hugh, he could be a bit lairy, but he was never a real villain. He went through that wild stage when he was younger. The Tortoise is on the main road, and for a time whenever I’d hear the sirens passing by outside, I’d think it was the old bill come to arrest him again. He just seemed to settle down, and then along came Algy and the talk started about one last big job.
Algy wasn’t his real name either. At least, I never heard of an Algernon so dark and swarthy looking, like he was Turkish or something. It made me shudder to imagine his greasy hair and his back all hairy. He always came in with his ‘bro’, a big Nigerian guy called Manny Lagos. I felt sorry for Manny. His wife had run off with a white boy from Bermondsey. You can imagine how that made him look in our neighbourhood. There was always talk of going south of the river to settle scores, but nothing ever came of it.
Whatever these three were planning, they needed a younger man as a runner, which is where Bradley almost got dragged into it. Bradley is the golden boy – every manor has one; best looking, best at football, the one all the girls fancy. He used to meet his good friend Patrick and they’d sit at a table in the corner – maybe they were too good friends if you know what I mean. Illya couldn’t take her eyes off him, though I tried to warn her she was wasting her time. What can you say to a girl like that?
Somehow Algy wormed his way in with them and then it was the four of them making their plans – Patrick just sat off to one side looking peeved. Then one morning, Odie announces they’re going off to meet Troy that day. He’s smiling like it’s some big secret, but I never heard them mention any friend named Troy before. Anyway there’s this last minute panic, when Bradley shows up with his leg in plaster – he’s ruptured his achilles tendon playing football at the weekend, so they have to make do with Patrick, whose persuaded to go in his place.
It turned out Troy was the name of a horse, that had won all sorts of races. I never properly understood the plan. Either they were supposed to nobble the horse and someone would pay to get it back, or someone was paying them to nobble the horse. Either way it went wrong of course. I don’t know what became of the poor nag. Bradley was distraught when Patrick got a custodial. I just sighed – it wasn’t the first time I’d sat in that courtroom.
The pub was like a morgue for a few weeks after that. Bradley perched at the bar, staring into space and drinking himself stupid and Illya staring at him with the kind of moon face that puts customers off. I was glad when he started to turn up with some new friend who was a bodybuilder – tattooed arms as broad as Illya’s waist. The pair of them stopped coming in soon after. Last time I saw them arm in arm in the market. Bradley had let himself go a bit but he looked happier. I think Illya still writes poems about him in her book.
The night Odie came home there was a terrible commotion. He got drunk and started shouting and throwing his weight about. Then he claimed he was going to throw the suitors out of the pub from that moment and told them they were all barred. I had to soothe things over with them and remind him he was still on licence. He’d be back in clink if he started to cause trouble. The fact is, he was never much of a fighter and once he slept it off he was quiet enough next day.
No-one knows what happened to Manny and my worst fears about Algy came true. While he was inside, it came out he’d been abusing his own daughter. The wife screamed blue murder when her girl told her about it. Poor little Iffy is under the doctor for counselling still. She’ll always have that experience with her. Algy got a longer stretch, transferred to wherever they send kiddy fiddlers and good riddance.
Hugh’s been back home three weeks, less than a month, you’d think he’d have learned something, but no. I recognise that look on his face, and how he goes quiet and thoughtful. There was this Irishman drinking at the bar last week. They all called him Joyce even though that’s a girl’s name, obviously (god I hate their stupid pet names and the little boy mentality that goes with them). Before long he and my husband were getting their heads together in private. I called Odie on it last night and he admitted as much.
“One last big job, you said last time,” I reminded him. “My arse. Your sort will never settle down.”
He admitted it was true. I said I was finished with the Tortoise – I need to think about the future at my age. My sister has a place in Benidorm and says she’ll help getting a little bar started down there, where it’s at least warm. Illya and I can make a new start.
“I can’t blame you Penny,” was all he had to say.
I might put the new bar in the girl’s name. I’m hoping she’ll keep it on when I retire, so then I’ll still have the rent. I asked her what she’d like to call the place, but she came up with something typically wet, ‘The Illyad?’ she suggested. But of course it has to be something British to attract the customers, so we’re going with The Rover’s Return instead. I suppose I will miss my husband, but what can you do with a man who’s never there?