The Gnome

Chain Border

He sat immobile and erect on the third stool from the left level with the extra cold Guinness. His gaze travelled neither left nor right in response to the comings and goings of the busy pub. He spoke to nobody and nobody replied in kind.

Deb called him The Gnome. He resembled a gnome with his bright piggy little eyes and bulbous red nose. He was small and wiry with dirty black hair that was badly in need of a decent cut. He was an odd little man no more than four foot tall with the strange appearance of someone who looked as though he had once been much bigger, but had shrivelled into his body like a semi-deflated balloon. He seemed not to care that his clothes were worn relics of a by-gone era. Polyester trousers and wide lappelled checked shirts were his uniform and he gave no heed to the giggles of the high fashion bimbos who stage whispered to each other and made cruel jibes about the weird little man.

The Gnome was a man of habit. Every evening he came straight from work and took the third stool from the left somewhere between twenty and half past six depending on traffic. He always had the correct money for his one pint of bitter clutched in his grimy hand. His nails were long and blackened, underscored with dirt and pointing towards the palm of his curled fist. His one-pound-ninety warm from being held.

Football held no interest for him and while the local louts yelled and jeered at the wide screen television he remained still, eyes facing forward caring not who scored or who won. Music didn't appeal to him. Pop, rock, country and ballads played to customer taste from the juke box on the wall, but he neither tapped his dangling foot nor nodded his head in time to any beat.

Deb was a natural flirt and chatted brightly to locals and contractors alike as they came to lean on the bar, but something about The Gnome gave her the creeps. Maybe it was the way his eyes had the ability to remain devoid of expression. He was always polite, said please and thank-you, gave her no trouble and seemed not to be unfriendly in any way. But at the same time there was no warmth to be found in his face, no crinkle of laughter lines at the corner of his eyes. He was unfathomable and like a book with no cover.

Every half hour or so he would glance at the watch on his wrist and at exactly eight thirty he would struggle down from his stool, nod once in her direction and say thank-you before he left. Deb wondered where he went, what the rest of his evening consisted of, if he had someone to go home to or if he returned to a cold and unwelcoming flat. But he didn't encourage idle chit-chat so she served him his pint and left him to his ruminations.

So it had been for the six months she had worked at the Pheasant, and so she expected it to remain.

Les Collier was the local gob-shite. He had a smattering of knowledge on a large amount of subjects and liked to latch on to someone and talk at them for a couple of hours several times a week. Presumably they were the evenings when his long-suffering wife could stand the sound of his droning voice no longer. On that particular evening at a quarter past eight he was deep in conversation with John Goldridge.

"Groats they was, Golden Groats." John tried to maintain his lapsing look of feigned interest as he hurried to finish the last dregs of his pint and make his escape. "Used `em in the olden days they did. They had a couple of little rings on em wot you pulled off and sold."

The little man on the third stool to the left of the door audibly cleared his throat.

"Doubloons." he said

The single word was small in the noisy bar. It could have been mistaken for a second clearing of the throat and nobody looked more surprised that the resident figurine had spoken than The Gnome himself.

Les, who was standing next to him, turned so that his back was no longer facing the man and stared. "I think you mean Doubloons sir," said The Gnome in a small voice devoid of expression.

"Eh?" said Les rudely. His fourth pint of extra strong lager had already taken his conversation with John Goldridge and sailed it on the gust of a forgetful wind. "Do I know you lad, you look familiar?"

"Forgive my rudeness. I think we do not know each other and I have no right to interrupt your conversation, but I believe doubloons are the currency you referred to, not Groats. Doubloons were first used by the Phoenicians who were merchant seamen trading predominantly in fine silks. The doubloon had sixteen lugs and every time a purchase was made, one lug would be broken off the rim of the coin. When all sixteen lugs were taken, the coin was spent and rendered useless. That's where the verb 'to spend' comes from."

"Really," said Les abashed and not a little pissed at being corrected. He believed himself the font of all local knowledge and was not one to be disagreed with. There was a moments silence in which Les tried in vain to sum up a sensible sounding argument to come back with, but his understanding of doubloons was underpar with that of Golden Groats, which had already proven to be lacking. Deciding that on this occasion a change of tactics was the better part of valour he said the first inane thing that came into his head. "So are you a sailor then?"

"No, I'm a French Polisher."

"Oh right." Les was about to turn away and resume monologue with his previous silent partner when The Gnome spoke again.

"But I've done my share of sailing."

"Pirate was you, making malt into rum and playing an accordion?"

Les laughed his derisive phlegmy laugh, but nobody paid him any heed though several people had stopped what they were doing to listen to the exchange between The Gnome and the local braggart. The former had a quiet unassuming voice, but spoke with air of quiet confidence that commanded attention. People had grown used to him doing nothing than just merely being there. The fact that he had something to say was new and nothing much 'new' ever happened in The Pheasant on a quiet Wednesday evening.

"Molasses. We made rum from molasses, but for the most part I was a fisherman, sir."

"Oh yeah," said Les. "What did you fish?"

"I netted giant cigar fish in the Philippine Sea and stone fish the size of blue whale off the coast of Java. That was on a good day when the trawl was bountiful. For the most part though we caught tuna and squid."

This was much better. Les was back on familiar ground and extended his chest an extra three inches to prove it. He too had done a brief stint at 'being' a sailor. He was much younger then and one three-month tour was enough for him, but for that short spell he'd fished a small part of the Pacific Ocean.

"A pint of your finest Deborah, and whatever my friend here's having."

The Gnome glanced at his watch. It was Eight-twenty-eight. A fleeting look that might have been panic passed across the stone features of his face and then was gone. "Thank you. Sir, I have enjoyed your company, but it is time for me to leave now."

"Rubbish man. We've just got into the Great Fishing Debate; you can't leave now." He motioned to Deb to pull the pint.

The Gnome's eyes hardened for a second and then his shoulders relaxed slightly and he seemed to resign himself to whatever lay ahead. Apparently it was decided that whatever he had to leave for could wait.

Les began to talk and to drink. At regular intervals more ale would be ordered and each time The Gnome voiced his protestations and each time he was shouted down with Les' bluster. The small wizened little man matched Les pint for pint and while Les became louder and gradually turned a slur to his words, The Gnome showed no effect at all from the alcohol.

"I remember once you know - I told you didn't I that my trawler was called The Haul-Galore? Sturdy lass she was, took some craftsmanship she did." Les made the vessel sound as though he not only owned and sailed it, but built it as well. It transpired through the course of conversation that he was only a mere deck hand himself.

"Well we had this deckker, bit of a kid he was. Skinny little runt fresh out of school and puke green most of the time. Hadn't got `is sea-legs like the rest of us, see. Anyway reglur as clockwork we used to throw `im in the sea. Couldn't leave `im in too long though, shark infested waters them was. He was only a little wind-piss, but he used to struggle like hell so he did. Found `im `angin one night from the lead mast. Bad do it were, bad do. Never ought to let kids on boats wot can't take a bit o kiddin' like. Were'nt our fault, he just wasn't suited to sea-life."

After sixteen pints had been consumed - eight a piece - in little more than an hour, Les groped into his pocket and scattered the remains of his dwindled purse onto the bar top. The notes had gone and the coinage left made scant offerings. "I do believe it isssh your round my good man. I shheem to have been doing all the bizz up to now. Come on let's see the colour of your money."

The Gnome turned his black little eyes on his drinking partner and said in the same still tone. "I have no money, sir, only the fare for my journey home."

Les, though generous when it came to buying his company, was not one to be taken advantage of. His tongue had been loosened to the point of slackness by alcohol and his temper rose along with a sound burp. "Well, thatssh a fine shtate of affairs innit? Jolly-Fucking-Roger here hash been drinking wish me all night and hashn't so much ash bought a firkin` round." He rose from his stool and spread his hands to employ group sympathy. I should think itsh about time he put his hand in hish pantaloons to stand hish round eh?"

"I am sorry, sir, but I have no money." the other man repeated.

He got off his stool and made to leave when Les grabbed the much smaller man by the oversized lapels of his shirt and pushed him back against the bar. "Lishten to me you." he began. "Thatsh not wot we behave like here." He got no further.

The Gnome brought both of his forearms with palms pressed together up between the stronger man's tight hold and with a single deft movement spread his hands and loosed Les' grip on him. Les staggered in retreat, knocked off balance by the speed of the movement and the beer consumed, while The Gnome took a step backwards also and dropped his hands to his sides.

"I bid you goodnight, sir, and thank you for your company and the beverage." He dropped his head and made a small bow towards the room and then nodded and passed his usual thanks to Deb before leaving the bar.

That was the night Les Collings died half way down smuggler's alley. Most probably choked on his own vomit they say. When they found him rigour mortise had made itself at home. It was only later on at the mortuary filleting table that his hand was prised open to reveal a tarnished coin with eight notches around its edge - eight more had apparently been removed.

The small trawler left the harbour lights behind and sailed into open waters. On the prow a wizened man with small, black eyes looked back from whence he came. He glanced fleetingly at the main mast and shook his head sadly. His debts were all cleared and it was time to go home. The Haul Galore strove steadily into deeper waters.

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