The Mason’s Arms

WARNING: Bad language and terrible tea.

Hale was roused from what his mother used to call a ‘deep melancholia’ by the sound of a familiar voice ordering tea. He looked up to see Jayne crossing the room towards him with a large white mug in one hand and her phone in the other.

‘Not chronic, eh?’ She put the mug down on the table as she spoke and slid into the booth beside him. The mug had actually seen the inside of a dishwasher recently.

‘What do you want, Guv?’ Hale’s sarcasm didn’t even make her expression twitch.

His glass scraped across the scarred table as Jayne pulled it towards her. ‘I’m not on duty.’ She raised the glass and sniffed it hesitantly. ‘Jesus wept, what is that?’

She’d indicated her off-duty status with faded jeans, a belted leather jacket, and a deliberately messy ponytail. The gear wasn’t designer but it was quality, like the tailored suits she wore at work. Her clothes were very different to the crumpled off the rack stuff she wore in her constable days. Hale tugged at his faded shirt cuffs and noticed the left one had a beer stain on.

‘I just thought you’d like to talk.’ She tucked her phone into her inner jacket pocket with one hand and fished a red sweetener dispenser from her handbag with the other. ‘Like the old days.’ One sweetener into her black tea. Ten years ago it was two sugars in builders’ tea.

Hale looked away. He could just about make out the pictures on the walls of The Mason’s Arms, but from further away they just looked like framed nicotine stains on yellow nicotine walls. For a little variation there were brown splatters and smears in a few places; hopefully not the same blood that had been sprayed around when he was a young PC.

Back then coppers only came into The Mason’s in pairs; usually after a tourist had been glassed, because they didn’t have the local instinct to get out of the way.

He sipped his beer, homebrewed in the landlord’s garden shed; it wouldn’t do Hale any favours if she saw him belt it back.

Jayne clasped Hale’s hand loosely. ‘Newcastle wasn’t your fault.’

The middle and forefinger of her right hand were straighter than the rest. When she was twenty-two a suspect had stamped on her hand and twisted. Hale had sat in accident and emergency with her as her hand turned purple and swelled up like ‘an aubergine’, Jayne’s description. He wondered if she’d had elocution lessons since then; the edges had been filed off her accent and every vowel and consonant pinned firmly into place, even the vanishing Nottingham h.

‘I was the DCI.’

‘But not the senior investigating officer.’

‘He didn’t get returned-to-sender with a demotion,’ he muttered, squeezing the glass until his fingertips whitened. ‘Thirty years graft to be a fucking sergeant.’

A muscle in Jayne’s jaw twitched.

Five years earlier, while he was still in Newcastle, Jayne had sent Hale an invitation to her wedding. Career woman ‘Jayne’ McAllen marrying career constable Robert Devon. He hadn’t gone. Hadn’t even RSVP’ed. The day Jayne got married he was working through a backlog of paperwork. He’d been hoping she’d end up an embittered singleton; a little of that sexual equality people kept going on about.

Jayne’s mug rattled against the table as she pushed it around by the handle. ‘A wise man once told me: “we win some, we lose some”.’

He snorted and swirled the brown liquid around the cloudy glass. ‘Fucking idiot.’

‘As I told you, often.’

Hale felt himself smile as he looked at her. Hale’s Dad had thought running a market stall made him a philosopher and used to tell him women are ‘like good scotch, they get better with age’. Jayne had quit marathon running and filled out taking the sharpness from her hips and cheeks; she looked healthier, happier.

‘I’m just waiting on the pension.’

‘You bleed blue, like me,’ Jayne replied.

Somewhere in the background a radio was playing static with a few bursts of bleak country music. He rubbed his temples and focused on a dog-eared beer mat advertising cheap lager.

‘If you don’t care, why are you here?’ she asked eventually.

He shrugged and sipped his drink, Jayne hadn’t touched hers.

‘Why didn’t you take early retirement instead of the sergeant post?’

He gagged on his drink and thumped his chest to clear it.

‘It’s my business to know,’ she added.

‘Let everyone think they threw me out?’ He replied hoarsely. ‘Why didn’t they?’

She shook her head. ‘Your methods are iffy but you get results. You’ll challenge your superiors; I have to say I’m divided on that lately. You keep me in paperwork, but I needed an experienced sergeant and my team is the stronger for it.’ She pursed her lips. ‘But you’ve got a case too many against you; you’ll never be promoted again.’

It all sounded a little too rehearsed to Hale. He wasn’t sure if it was a demonstration of her faith in him, or a slur on his reliability. But why not? He had a knack for it. First he’d failed Jayne, then those girls in Newcastle, and now he was all set to fail Jayne again.

‘It was a high-profile case, they needed someone to take the flak and you were the easy choice.’ She paused thoughtfully then continued, ‘How many more cases are you going to screw up if you’re drowning your sorrows? How many more people will you make suffer?’

He squeezed his eyes shut. He saw himself at his Dad’s bedside with the heart monitor beeping in the back ground and the smell of disinfectant stinging his nose. ‘One day you’ll meet a woman who knows you better than you know yourself. Either marry her or stay well away,’ he’d said through an oxygen mask. Hale had failed on both counts.

Jayne leaned close, her thigh pressed warmly against his, and murmured: ‘I’m here for you John, always. But you have to stop.’

The first time she’d found a suicide in the cells he’d held her.

Jayne had found her way back to the office, red and sticky with a smear of blood across her cheek. The memory of pressing his face into the younger Jayne’s hair was vivid, camomile shampoo and some zesty soap. She had shook, sobbed and clutched at his shoulders leaving rust coloured creases on his shirt.

Afterwards they’d sat in his office drinking cheap liquor straight from the bottle. Jayne had gotten damn drunk then.

Hale wondered if the girls in Newcastle had ever held anyone like that.

‘I remember when you signed the papers for my promotion to sergeant.’ She bumped her knee against his under the table. She used to do it when they interviewed suspects if he looked at risk of losing his temper ‘Grudgingly, as I recall.’

It hadn’t been a popular move. He chuckled bitterly. Hale would never tell Jayne that his decision hadn’t been completely unbiased and forward-thinking. But she was younger than him, better than him, and she knew how to play The Game.

Gently Jayne prised the homebrew from his hands. ‘You don’t need this.’ She set the glass aside.

Hale reached for the drink and she grabbed his wrist.

‘John, I want you in AA by next week. Even if I have to take you myself.’

‘That bunch of whinging-.’

‘You’ll be in good company.’ She pushed his hand into his lap. ‘It’s AA or I sign the papers to get you tossed out.’

‘Everything I did-.’

‘As long as I was under you.’ The venom in her voice made him look away. ‘Don’t use our history to manipulate me. You’re above that.’ She waited for a reaction.

He stared at the drink intently listening to Jayne’s breathing, slightly deeper as she tried to reign in her temper.

Finally she sighed and slid out of the booth. ‘I’ll leave you to mull it over.’ Almost as an afterthought she picked up the half-empty glass. ‘I want you in early, and sober.’

She left him the tea.

Hale tilted the mug and looked at its contents. Wrinkling his nose he took a gulp of the tepid liquid; it was bitter, metallic and left a fuzzy feeling on his tongue. He thought of the girls in Newcastle, and the way young Jayne had clung to him.

He forced down another mouthful.

Stiff and little unsteady he pushed himself to his feet and fastened his jacket. One of the buttons was hanging by a thread so he snapped it off, pocketed it and unpicked the loose thread. When he tried to squeeze out of the booth he banged his leg hard.

Shower. Sleep. Then he’d find the nearest place to sign up for AA.

For more short fiction see my archive. Check back Monday for a brand new article The Writer As An Observer or check out my writing advice archive for tips on Getting Started.

Published by Jesse

I'm a writer and academic specialising in fantasy fiction and creative writing theory. I'm allergic to pretentiously talking about fiction and aim to be unashamedly ‘commercial’. Surely all fiction is commercial anyway, or what’s the point in publishing it?

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