The Pale Horse
One day in November
‘I hope I get old before I die!’
After a beat, Myleene Sheath snapped her amplifier on to standby mode, and unplugged the lead from her guitar. She could feel her pulse thumping in her neck. Her heart beat at exactly one-hundred-and-twenty beats per minute, in rhythm with the closing song.
The crowd cheered loudly for a few seconds, then the noise quickly faded into general bar room chatter. There was a dense cluster of people gathered in front of the stage, and a smaller grouping at the bar, waiting to be served. The rest of the pub appeared to be relatively empty. A lone voice near the toilets shouted.
‘Goodnight, Pale Horse,’ said Myleene, being careful not to exhale into the microphone.
‘Your musicians tonight have been Spencer Green on bass, and Mitchell Stratford on drums. We are The Neurones. We’ll be back next year. God willing.’
She switched the microphone off. Spencer touched some control switches and the stage darkened immediately, leaving various individual red and green points of LED light shining brightly from the control panels on the black equipment.
The three of them stepped off of the low platform, and headed towards the other end of the room. Spencer and Myleene were carrying their instruments. Mitchell had pushed his drumsticks into the back pocket of his jeans.
‘Aren’t you going to give us another encore?’ said a voice uncomfortably close to Myleene’s ear. She inhaled the smell of motorcycle oil and dope. She turned round to be greeted by a bone thin man with a face like a skull.
‘Are you going to pay us more?’ she said.
She felt a skinny arm trying to hold her around the waist. She deftly side stepped him, and nudged the neck of her guitar into his rib cage.
She looked around for a friendly face.
‘Nice set, Myleene,’ said the friendly face.
‘I love you too, Spike,’ said Myleene.
Spike held up his hand so that his palm was facing her. She leaned into a high-five, tightened her fingers around his hand, and pushed, forcing his wheelchair back a few centimetres.
‘How’s the merchandise selling?’
‘Slow tonight,’ said Spike, as she let go of his hand. ‘Most of the punters have seen you before. I’ll probably need to design a new t-shirt.’
He moved the chair forward, so that one of the wheels touched her boot.
‘How about an arm battle?’ he said.
‘When my muscles are all fired up from playing the guitar? You won’t stand a chance.’
‘Maybe you’ll be tired. There’s an ideal table over there.’
Myleene turned to the young drummer.
‘Mitch, can you take my guitar in to that so-called ‘green’ room?’
She unhooked her guitar strap and held out her Stratocaster.
‘I’ll just be a couple of minutes with Spike here.’
Myleene sat down on a chair and rested both of her elbows on the small circular table. There were islets of spilt beer on the table top, coalesced into random shapes and held together by surface tension. Spike wheeled across from the area where the t-shirts and vinyl were on display, and manoeuvred himself expertly into position. The beer puddles vibrated. Spike produced a grubby towel and proceeded to dry the table top. He used his teeth to remove a leather fingerless glove from his right hand, ostentatiously flexing his tattooed biceps. They each took a firm grip of the edge of the table with their left hands.
‘That was a great set, by the way,’ said Spike.
‘Don’t think that you can put me off with flattery,’ said Myleene. ‘Are you ready to lock thumbs?’
They gripped each other’s hands firmly. Spike’s arms were easily twice the diameter of Myleene’s. She knew that the forces of mechanics were against her. She decided to take the initiative.
‘Are you ready?’ she said. And then after a beat she said, ‘One, two, three.’
For a moment she felt that Spike’s hand would crush hers, and she feared for her precious fingers. A bulging vein appeared on his left temple. A few of the other customers started to show an interest in the contest. Closest to her were a fair-haired girl wearing a pale blue Ramones t-shirt, and a skinny teenager who had draped an arm awkwardly around her shoulder. Myleene sensed that the boy was watching her closely. When she returned the stare, Myleene felt that his smile looked familiar. In order to concentrate, she shut the out of her thoughts.
She felt her arm being gradually pushed back, as the sheer volume of Spike’s muscles worked to his advantage. She allowed him to make a series of incremental gains, and waited for the moment when she would be able to use his force against him. She closed her eyes so that she did not waste any energy processing visual data. She could no longer hear or smell. She counted slowly in her head, in anticipation of the moment to strike.
As soon as his hand was at a point directly above the fulcrum of their elbows, Spike started to grip her harder and stiffen his muscles. Myleene slowed the rhythm of her counting.
When she released her body’s energy, he capitulated in an instant. She forced his forearm down so that the back of his hand slammed into the table. She held that position for a few seconds before releasing his hand. In one movement she stood up and punched the air.
‘You don’t feel like a best of three, do you?’ she said.
Spike took a deep breath and laughed.
‘One day I’ll beat you,’ he said.
‘How many is it now?’ said Myleene.
‘I’ve lost count.’
‘Spare me the stats, Myleene.’
Spike wheeled his chair back away from the table. His face, which was normally pallid, was flushed and blotchy.
‘You know when you do your little victory salute?’ he said.
Myleene punched the air gently for a second time, even though there was no need to demonstrate the gesture.
‘Please don’t stand up straight away,’ said Spike.
‘I’ll give that Spike guy his due,’ said Spencer, ‘he doesn’t give up.’
The makeshift green room was a small dark wood panelled area. According to the sign on the door, it had once been an off-licence. In many of the pubs they played in they had to change in the toilets. Spencer and Mitchell were slouching on a battered old sofa, drinking eagerly from dumpy brown beer bottles.
‘That was a pretty good set,’ said Myleene, picking up a bottle of water.
‘Next time I’ll bring my own kit,’ said Mitchell. ‘That’s if you want me to play again.’
‘Of course we do,’ said Mylene. ‘That was your baptism.’
‘I was actually baptised at birth,’ he said. ‘My old man did it for my Mum’s sake. He’s actually a nonconformist Satanist.’
‘Well that still makes you one of us,’ said Myleene, pointing to the crucifix that was hanging on a slim chain around her neck.
‘Have either of you seen my glasses?’ asked Mitchell.
Myleene twisted the lid off of her water bottle.
‘They’re right there on the table in front of you, buddy,’ said Spencer.
Myleene picked up Mitchell’s glasses, and handed them over to him. He slicked back his hair and tried to push them onto his nose, but he was sweating profusely. After three attempts he gave up, and let them rest on the top of his head.
‘Can you see anything at all when you’re not wearing them?’ asked Myleene.
‘Well, I can’t read sheet music without them, but playing with you two, that doesn’t really matter. Can you pass me another one of those beers, please?’
‘I never touch the stuff,’ said Myleene.
‘I know you don’t drink, Spencer told me. But can you just pass me a bottle.’
‘It’s not just that I don’t drink it. I don’t touch it.’
Spencer hauled himself up from the comfort of the sofa, took a few paces across the room, and picked two more beers out of a cardboard case on the table.
‘It’s a pledge thing,’ he said.
‘Have you got the opener?’ asked Mitchell.
‘Here,’ said Spencer.
He prised the lid off of his own bottle and tossed the opener to his bandmate. Mitchell was chewing on his fingernails, so he was late in his attempt to catch the opener, and it landed on the floor. He bent down, picked it up, and removed the lid from his bottle.
All three members of the Nuerones drank for several seconds, sharing a welcome moment of silence. Myleene closed her eyes and listened to her body. The pulse in her neck throbbed rapidly. She could feel the cooling sweat as she leaned into the soft leather cushion.
‘Did you beat that guy at arm wrestling?’ asked Mitchell.
‘She beats him every time,’ said Spencer, ‘even though he plays murderball for Buckinghamshire.’
‘It’s a mental battle,’ said Myleene. And then after a beat she said, ‘I’ve got into his head.’
And then after another beat, she suddenly ceased being a rock and roll singer. She pulled her right hand up behind her head and in one movement threw her black wig down onto the back of the old sofa. She ran the tips of her fingers across the top of her smooth bald head, and pushed down on her headband to make sure that it was secure.
Magdalena Zatopski-Green then took a crumpled red baseball cap out of the open guitar case. She flapped it up and down with a sharp movement of her forearm, and tugged it firmly and securely over the headband and on to her smooth bald head. A creased envelope that had been hidden inside the cap fell to the floor.
‘Take a twenty minute breather,’ she said. ‘Butch Cassidy in the bar says he’ll get a couple of those big guys to help us load the stuff into the van. I’m just going to the loo to get some of this make-up off, then I’ll go and sort out the money with him.’
She picked the envelope up from the floor, looked at the handwriting, and smiled to herself. Her mother was the only person who ever called her by her full Christian name, and even she did not speak it. Magda folded the envelope without opening it, and slid it into the back pocket of her leather jeans. She pulled an old grey zip-up hoodie on over her t-shirt, and left the rest of the band to drink their beers in peace.
The atmosphere in the lounge bar was calm, as if the place had not been busy in decades. The manager completed serving some customers before turning to speak.
‘Can I help you?’ he asked.
He was wearing a thick checked shirt and a black felt cowboy hat. A black lace band swung loosely just below his chin. His facial expression was blank.
‘Preston, it’s me.’
‘Who are you?’
‘I’m in the band. I was playing in the other bar ten minutes ago.’
‘I didn’t recognise you in mufti,’ he said. ‘You look like a different person. Nice set back there, by the way.’
‘Thanks,’ said Magda, smiling to show Preston that she was amused by the misunderstanding.
‘Same thing happened last week,’ said Preston. ‘I had to pay a clown for a children’s party, and I didn’t realise it was him. He didn’t even think it was funny.
’I guess he was out of character,’ said Magda. ‘Can you give your boys a shout in about twenty minutes? We’ll be ready to start shifting the gear then. We can square up now though.’
‘Sure. Just give me a second.’
Preston turned around and pulled some creased papers out from behind one of the cash registers that had been built into the back bar. It took several seconds to free them from the accrued detritus of the evening. He picked up a pair of red glasses that were next to the till, and put them on. He scrutinised the documents for a few moments, adjusting the unsuitable spectacles up and down his nose.
Magda attempted to take her phone out of her trouser pocket.
‘These jeans are too tight,’ she said.
She tugged at the phone, but she could gain no purchase. Preston watched her, his eyes peering over the top of the red frames. She retrieved the phone after a few seconds, and deftly tapped and stroked the glass surface with her fingers. She waved the bright screen in his direction, watching the light reflected in his glasses.
‘Here’s my copy,’ she said.
Preston orientated the document in his hands and read slowly, holding the paper as far away from his face as he could.
‘It says here the balance is another two hundred pounds.’
Magda knew that it would be easy to negotiate with a man wearing a cowboy hat and women’s glasses.
‘Not forgetting our cut of the door money,’ she said.
‘I’ll check with my doorman. See how many paid.’
‘One hundred and twenty-three,’ she said.
Preston looked up from the crumpled contract.
‘I may have missed one or two, to be honest,’ said Magda, ‘but that’s a minimum. If your doorman says anything different, he’s cheated you. And us.’
‘You counted them all? Even while you were playing?’
‘Musicians are good at counting,’ she said. And then, after a beat, ‘You know - ‘One-Two-Three-Four!’’
Even though she was now out of uniform, in her heart Magda was still a rock singer. She had confidence.
‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. I’ll take your figure. It sounds about right.’
‘It is about right.’
Magda kept a straight face. It worked every time.
‘I’ll go back to the safe and get your money.’
‘I’m not travelling half way back across the Midlands with a load of cash. Has your company never heard of electronic banking? All our details are on the contract.’
She waved her phone screen at him animatedly.
‘We can do it your way if you want. You’ll end up paying more tax.’
‘I always pay tax. My family comes from a communist country. Obedience of the law is in my DNA.’
Preston turned away, and in one smooth movement he expertly picked up a vodka bottle and a pair of shot glasses from the back bar, and spun back around to face Magda.
‘In that case we should settle this in the traditional manner,’ he said.
He slid the glasses theatrically along the counter. They skidded on the polished surface and came to a halt a few centimetres from Magda’s right hand. She admired his competence. She loved watching someone demonstrating the mastery of their craft. However, she held her palm over the glass nearest to her right hand.
‘Not for me, thanks.’
‘Won’t you celebrate a successful evening?’
‘My father drank enough of that stuff for more than one generation.’
Magda had a number of valid reasons for not drinking alcohol. Tonight, she just picked the one that she thought would convince him the most easily.
‘By the way,’ she said, ‘does your hat have any sentimental value?’
‘Not really. Someone left it on the back of a chair in the other bar a few months ago. I’ve worn it ever since. I keep thinking they will come back for it.’
‘Would you do a swap?’
Magda gave him little chance to disagree. She reached over the bar with her right hand and removed the Stetson from his head. She inspected the inside band and the label closely.
‘You an expert on hats as well?’
She laughed. With her other hand she took off her baseball cap and placed it down onto the counter.
‘Shall we do this?’ said Magda. And then, ‘One-Two-Three-Four!’
At the count of four, they donned their new headgear. The Cincinnati cap did not suit Preston, but it was the same colour as his temporary spectacles.
‘It must have taken someone with a grim sense of humour to give you a hat with a big C on the front,’ said Preston.
‘I’ll check our account when we get back home,’ said Magda, ‘I am sure that I can trust you.’
‘I’d best get back to the other bar before we call last orders. Any chance of one of your t-shirts?’
‘You’ll have to pay for it. You can ask Spike. He’s running a business here, and so am I.’
‘Me too,’ said Preston. And then, ‘Anyway, I’m sure I can find it cheaper online.’
And with that they shared a high five and carried on with their jobs.
When the equipment was stored safely into the van, Spencer slammed the back doors closed. He tried the handle to check that they were locked properly. He thumped twice on the side panel, even though there was no-one inside. He grinned at Magda as he shared his little joke with her.
‘We are ready to roll,’ he said.
‘You see that band logo?’ said Mitchell.
‘What of it, buddy?’ responded Spencer.
‘It doesn’t actually seem to say ‘The Neurones’.’
‘We had to change the name of the band,’ said Spencer. ‘I tried to modify the design.’
‘What were you called before?’
‘Mel Anoma and the Braf Mutations,’ said Magda.
‘How come you had to change it?’
‘I had a complaint from Doctor Faust.’
‘Does he have a band with a similar name?’
‘No. He’s my oncologist.’
‘So, what was his problem?’
‘Google. People always look up their condition after diagnosis, and our band started coming up first in their searches. He thought it was unhelpful.’
‘And you agreed?’
‘What else could I do? He is saving my life.’
‘I might just hang out here,’ Mitchell said, ‘and catch up with you two later in the week.’
‘What do you think you’re going to do?’ asked Spencer.
‘Have a few beers. See what’s happening. My Dad might come out and pick me up.’
‘No one in this town will be interested in a drummer,’ said Magda. ‘Get in the van and come back to Milton Keynes with us.’
Mitchell looked a little unsure at this invitation. He chewed nervously at his fingernails.
‘Don’t worry, it’s not a weird rock and roll sex thing. We have a guest room. And my mother will make you a Polish breakfast in the morning.’