The black ball rattled around the jaws of the pocket and then disappeared down the hole, rumbling its way into the bowels of the table. Nathan clicked his fingers. “Hand it over,” he demanded. At first, he thought the guy was going to resist but Nathan’s mates sat on the stools at the bar nearby and stared over the top of their pints with enough apathetic menace to suggest that whatever violence they were capable of dishing out would be very casual and done without too much trouble to themselves. “Come on,” Nathan growled and with a faint smile the man removed it from his head, turned it over in his hands as if he were examining it and placed the rather well-worn piece of head-gear on the pool table.
It hadn’t been part of any bet when the man had first put his money down on the side. Nathan had merely stated after the break that its ownership was on the line. Everybody who drank regularly in the Navigation Arms knew what it meant when Nathan wanted something except in this case it wasn’t really that he desired it but rather that he felt drawn to it. Perhaps it was merely operating upon him in the same way that differences in others did – those differences in appearance and manner that acted as a stimulant to some vicious instinct within. Then, as a pack of hyenas does to the weakest in a herd, he and his little group of thugs would close in, separate them off and do as they liked.
“Well played,” the man said. “I’ve had that for some time but well played. It’s all yours.”
“Yeah, well you’re a bit crap at this really,” Nathan replied. In fact, the man had played as if he’d never held a cue before but his lack of skill had in some ways made him an awkward opponent. Nathan picked up his prize, and then he looked at the man’s bedraggled hair. Jesus, it looked like he hadn’t washed it…ever!
He cast his eyes over the rest of him. Strange – he couldn’t remember what he’d seen before. He’d just spent ten minutes around the pool table with him but it was as if he had no memory of what he looked like even though at first he’d appeared familiar. His clothes were threadbare, old-fashioned and grubby and his shoes looked like the sort designed to strike sparks off cobbles. Now he was standing close, Nathan caught the stale whiff of something akin to clothes that had been left in the washing machine for too long before being dried. He wondered if the man was some sort of tramp and that was why he thought he recognised him. Maybe he’d seen him sitting on the street somewhere.
“Aren’t you going to try it on?” The man was still smiling that faint smile, just the slightest turning up of the corners of his mouth. There was a quality in it that made Nathan feel something he hadn’t felt in a long time – the faint tremor of trepidation that he was getting into something he should perhaps leave well alone. He stiffened.
“Nah, maybe later.” The hat disappeared into a corner, thrown with hastily summoned bravado. “We’re done. Now clear off.” At that point, people usually beat a hasty retreat as if they could sense the potential for sudden violence wound tight inside him but the man, still smiling, leaned closer in.
“We’ll talk later,” he whispered and patted Nathan on the arm before disappearing around the corner to the lounge room of the pub, trailing a rather tuneless whistling behind him. Nathan suddenly realised he was being stared at from the bar.
“Reckon he fancies you, Nate,” drawled his mate, Liam. The other two snickered into their beer. Nathan threw a twenty-pound note on the counter.
“Get the drinks in,” he muttered and went off to find the jukebox.
Nathan sat alone at the bar. As try as he might, he couldn’t shake off the suspicion that something was wrong. It was a new mood for him. No, mood was the wrong word. What he felt was a sense of doubt – a feeling that something had shifted, a something he couldn’t get a grasp on. Even the collection of cronies he called his mates had noticed the change. They’d left him to his brooding after Liam had nearly got himself a punch in the mouth for suggesting that perhaps Nathan was feeling lovesick. In a way, he was glad they’d gone. Their noise would only have been an intrusion. The drunken harshness of their voices bounced off the bare walls of the pool room followed by the clatter of a cue on the wooden floor and the cry of, “I’m not fighting; I’m not fighting.” After a few drinks, they often turned on each other.
What was it that was bothering him? Nathan tried to bore down into this newfound introspection. He thought back. It had to have been the man and the sudden invasion of his personal space although even now a clear memory of him remained elusive. He’d been touched without invitation, that much he could recollect, and that was a challenge to which Nathan had not responded. In the pack world of his little clique, every challenge had to have a response and he had failed in full view. But, more worryingly, if the man had known of Nathan’s reputation he had not been afraid and what good was reputation unless others feared it? He suddenly felt hot and clammy. He needed some air.
Nathan took his beer out the back, finding a table close to where the fence divided the garden from the river bank and stopped unsupervised children from ending up in the sluggish waters below. A kingfisher flashed metallic blue as it plunged into the water and a shadow fell onto the table followed by a soft thump.
“You left it behind. I thought you wanted it.” Nathan jumped. He hadn’t heard anybody approach and then the anger flared hot inside him. It was his pool opponent. He started to rise from the bench.
“Just what the fu…” The man put his hand on Nathan’s shoulder, an action with a surprising firmness behind it and one which communicated that it brooked no resistance.
“Ssshh, I said we’d talk and there’s much for you to hear.” He sat down opposite.
“Look,” Nathan began, a slight desperation creeping into his voice, “you can keep the hat. I was only messing – showing off if you like.” The man slowly shook his head.
“It’s too late for that. It’s yours; you took it freely and now it’s time for you to wear it and listen.” The man picked up the hat from where he had dropped it on the table and placed it on Nathan’s head, tugging down slightly on the brim to overcome the snugness of the fit. For some reason that escaped him, he let the man do it. The inside felt greasy against the skin of Nathan’s forehead. “There, it suits you. Beautiful evening isn’t it.”
The man took a pipe from his pocket, lit a match with the edge of a dirty thumbnail and sucked fire into the tobacco in the bowl. His face glowed in the light of a flame that grew with each pull and smoke wreathed his head, the cloud expanding to encompass the both of them in a greyish-brown fug. It stank.
Through the smoke, the man smiled the same smile as in the pool room only now it seemed even more disquieting. Down at the river’s edge, the kingfisher trilled its metallic call and swallows zipped across the surface of the water, chasing gnats and mosquitoes in the long summer sunset. A cry came from downstream, the call of boatmen bringing barges up to the pier near the pub although even Nathan knew that nobody these days travelled the waterway. The noise from the pub’s open door drew back, reaching them as if it came from a far distant place and he told Nathan to look across the river to the far bank.
Nathan turned his head where he saw a striking figure, wicker basket and white umbrella in hand, striding down the towpath, a long coat of colourful patches flapping around his legs. Tendrils of pipe smoke trailed behind him. Once seen, he held the watcher’s attention but it was the wide-brimmed hat on his head that drew Nathan’s. It was the same as the one he now wore albeit in much better condition. The man faded to thinning light, becoming translucent and disappearing into the dusky air. Nathan’s instincts began sending urgent signals. He wanted to strike out, to run, but…but… but the man opposite had taken hold of his sleeve and held him firm from across the table and what was it about his eyes? They had grown wide, fixed on Nathan’s in a gaze that he found impossible to break and which fixed him to the spot.
“What was that?” Nathan’s lips trembled as he blurted the question.
“Calm yourself; there’s nothing to fear. That was the wizard of Badger’s Cross – Cunning Jessup – a man of rare talents. He’s dead now so maybe it was a ghost… or something else. I’ve seen so many things these past years I can’t or dare not try and explain.” He suddenly shrugged as if it wasn’t important and puffed some more on his pipe but it had gone out. He tapped the ashes out on the edge of the table. “I don’t expect you know what a cunning man is, do you?” Nathan shook his head and he was quite sure he didn’t want to find out but the man continued. “Once, maybe up to a hundred years ago, the country was full of them. Some were charlatans and tricksters but folk said Jessup could really do the things he claimed and his advice was sought from miles around. He saw the future and the past in his black mirror and could work high or low magic. He could heal, he could find lost and stolen objects and some said he could summon spirits to do his bidding but I never believed it. Might as well have believed what the vicar said in church.” He reached across and flicked the brim of the hat. “But this was his and I took it from him.”
“How could you have taken it? I mean…a hundred years ago…how?” Nathan’s voice began to falter as he tried to compute what he’d just heard. The rational part of his brain tried to reassert itself and told him that this was all a façade, that there had been something in the pipe smoke or the man was unhinged – too much of the old meths and cheap red wine had rotted his faculties – but the other part, the part he tried to keep hidden away in the dark with all the other things he wanted nobody to see, was still issuing urgent warnings. “Look, I really should go,” he blurted.” My mates will be looking for me.”
“Shush.” The man patted Nathan’s hand as if he were some fretful child. “We’re getting there but you must be patient. This is important so that you can understand. Your friends won’t mind.”
“I have to go,” Nathan insisted.
The man laughed.
“That time has been and gone. Now listen!” The last two words seemed to arrive directly inside his head – two arrows that transfixed Nathan’s attention on him. “I said that Jessup claimed he could find stolen objects but he also said he could see who had taken them or so I’d heard. I was a bit light-fingered in those days and had become a little bolder, sneaking in through the back doors of houses and shops until I was eventually taking things people missed.” He slowly shook his head as if he couldn’t quite believe what he was saying. “I was a thief but there’s a kind of art to being the sort of person nobody notices. I was proud of it and then somebody told me that Jessup had been consulted. Well, I liked a challenge.” He reached over and tapped the brim of the hat with a dirty fingernail.
“You stole it from him?” Nathan started at the sound of his own voice but the fact that he could still speak encouraged him somewhat. All he had to do was wait until his mates arrived.
“Did I steal it? Yes and no,” the man said. “I went up to Jessup’s cottage intent on taking something. God knows why. It was almost like I was being compelled to do it but there I went and saw his hat just inside an open window. I couldn’t see or hear him anywhere so I thought I’d have it and test just how good he was. Well, I found out all right. I hadn’t gone ten yards, escaping through his vegetable patch, when I heard his voice somewhere behind me. He said one word – hold – and I couldn’t move and that’s where he left me for the night, stuck rigid amongst the cabbages as he sat and watched me from his doorway, smoking his pipe and talking to himself or to something I couldn’t see. I got the feeling that we weren’t alone, anyway.”
“Did he speak to you?” Nathan asked. “I mean he must have said something.” Nathan looked around but the garden remained empty.
“Not a thing until the sun came up.” The man leaned back and turned his head to where Jessup’s apparition had disappeared into the dusk. “Then he walked over, took that thing from my hand and put it on my head. He said that seeing as I liked it so much I could wear it forevermore or until somebody, in turn, stole it from me then it would become theirs to wear.” He looked Nathan pointedly in the eye.
“Hold on a minute.” Nathan flapped his hands in front of him as if he could ward off the realization that threatened to engulf him. “I ain’t a thief. I’ve never stolen anything from anybody.” He was shouting now, struggling up from his seat in an anger-driven by fear. Where were his friends? “You said I’d won it and that ain’t stealing.” The man shook his head once more. His expression had hardened and a coldness entered his voice like a hanging judge delivering his verdict.
“I’ve watched you for some time now and you’ve stolen more from the people round here than you can ever imagine. If ever somebody earnt it, it’s you. I’ve waited a long time for somebody to come along – over a hundred years stuck in this place, unable to leave it, always on the edge of things, through hardship and hunger and winters that could freeze the flesh from your bones and now I’m free because of your greed.” He spat the last word. “Always greedy for whatever others have and you haven’t, that’s you.”
Nathan tried to step backwards over the bench but his legs refused to co-operate. He stumbled and fell, scraping his shin down the wood and landing heavily on the grass from where he gazed up at a face he usually only saw reflecting back from the mirror. It sneered at him with the same kind of contemptuous scorn he reserved for those he considered weaker than himself but the eyes weren’t his. Whatever was behind them couldn’t be disguised by flesh and bone. And what of his own?
He felt a twisting and a slithering in his guts and under his skin as if a nest of snakes writhed there. Things were stretching, swelling, shrinking and bone ground upon bone in places that his youth had not yet made known to him. His ears buzzed like an ill-tuned television caught between two channels. Nathan scrabbled backwards over the grass, fingernails tearing on the summer-baked earth beneath. The other him followed, step by predatory step. “No point in trying to go anywhere. Jessup’s curse is already working on you,” he heard this other self say. “I think you should sleep now and when you wake you’ll be a new man.” This seemed a very odd thing to say as he didn’t feel tired at all and why should he tell himself to sleep anyway. A blackness descended.
Somebody shook him by the shoulder and there was something rough under his cheek. Nathan’s hand clenched and his fingernails scraped against wood. He opened his eyes, the shades and shapes around him slowly coming into focus. He was still in the pub garden, his face resting on the bench at which he’d been sitting earlier, but now everything was cast in the shadows of the outdoor lamps. Somebody was talking to him.
“Come on, fella. Time for you to go home.” Nathan sat up, blinking. He caught the whiff of something stale that seemed to be coming from himself. “Had one too many have you?” He turned his head to face the Navigation Arms’ landlord. “I see you’ve kept the hat – thought those boys were going to give you a hard time over it. Nasty little bunch. I ought to bar them, really.” The landlord slipped a hand under his arm.
Nathan tried to form words but the tongue in his mouth felt unfamiliar as did his lips and teeth. He felt as one struggling through the thickness of a deep sleep and clumsily he found his feet, allowing himself to be lead shambling towards the gate. “They were talking about putting you over the fence into the river at one point,” the landlord continued, “but it was that Nathan lad that stopped them. Gave one of them a right smack, he did. Anyway, they all took off together. No real harm done amongst friends I suppose. Here you go.”
He caught a glimpse of his reflection in a window – a dishevelled figure in a grubby looking hat- as he was propelled through the gate and onto the lit space of the car park out front of the pub where the gravel scraped under his heavy shoes- shoes designed for kicking sparks off cobbles. “Safe journey,” the landlord called as he pulled shut and bolted the gate to the garden. The faint aroma of pipe tobacco lingered in the air and the road lay dark before him.