"Most great ideas, Paul, begin in a pub."
"Agreed. It's our modern day version of the bath."
"Not with you."
"Football, fags, beer, chatting about life. They all belong in a pub. It's where we all unwind."
"Yeah but it's a bit sad - having to get pissed to get over the shite day we've all just had."
"But it's necessary. It's modern life."
"So years ago, there were other alternatives to alcohol?"
"Dunno - probably just beat the shit out of each other."
"And today we have the modern equivalent of the gym."
"Or the wife. Or a girlfriend. Or they just beat up a total stranger."
"It's funny though. How we can just sit here, talk it all out, and then just go home a bit pissed. Without feeling an overwhelming desire towards violence."
Paul nodded and placed his nearly empty glass on the bar.
He was becoming a little more animated now, Graham noticed.
Edging towards agitation.
"Take those bastards at football matches. Totally fucking ruin it for me they do. I can't take my wife because it's hardly Feminine City. My kids get too scared and to tell you the truth, so do I at times."
"Paul, it's all about tribes. Put thirty odd thousand men into an arena supporting two sets of teams and it all gets a bit Roman. But even I have to admit that the mindless thuggery sours it more than enough for me."
"It's fucking stupid."
And that kind of summarised the whole conversation for Paul. As if those final words had called 'time'. Home was calling.
"I'm off, Graham. I may see you tomorrow, depends on Karen."
"See you Paul. And leave the car eh?"
Paul smiled and maneuvered towards the door.
"I'm not stupid. Not me. Not like those other wankers."
In the corner of the room stood a green table. Round. The image painted onto the surface was just visible. A map. Eight glasses of water sat around the table edge - perfectly distanced from one another. The moonlight bounced through the water casting magical circles that rippled slightly, acting as spotlights across the charted image. The table was deliberately positioned by the window. At the right moment the eight circles would merge into one, highlighting a particular section on the map. This was when the force was at its greatest.
Paul decided to brave the cold.
'Cold' was a collective description.
It was raining, on and off. And every now and then the rain turned to sleet accompanied by gusts of ice-cold wind - courtesy of Siberia, the earlier weather report had informed him.
He was fucked - he said to himself - if he would let 'them' get the better of him. This was the FA Cup. Two steps away from Wembley. Mere hours away from the glory he had dreamed of seeing ever since he was a kid.
That conversation with Graham had spurred him to make an extra effort to get to this game. It had rekindled his affections for his team. Affections that had stayed with him even after the hangover had left. Graham and his armchair philosophy on tribal confrontation.
'Go to a real game' he should have screamed.
Feel the ice-cold air enter your very being as you inhale the fag smoke of a winter afternoon.
Enter the temporary warmth of the piss stench at half time then nudge your way back to your plastic home and shiver amongst those around you.
Paul had an almost perfect view of the pitch.
Eleven rows up from the halfway line. Close enough to feel the 'greeness' and hear the shouts from the players. All backed up by the roar of the home fans that is always delayed by a few seconds. Disconnected from the action on the pitch.
Two seats to his left sat a 'Nike'd-up youth. Paul noticed him because he was shouting louder than anyone else.
It annoyed him.
Paul looked over to where he sat.
Not for too long. He didn't want to be noticed. No eye contact.
He hated everything about him.
His pathetic hair - long and unnecessary. Tied back into a pony tail and held cheaply by a light blue elastic band.
The jacket was deliberately over large.
He wanted people to notice him, to nod at his trainers, wonder at his style.
He held a fury about him. A desperation that was timed to explode without warning. He could be sitting one minute, dragging quietly on his cigarette, then he'd be on his feet, elbows flailing, digging uncaringly into his neighbours. Forcing them to become part of his anger. He points and shouts, his face contorting - then he waits, listening almost. What did he want? A global response from the opposing crowd. All shouting together? For him?
Then he sits gruffly down. His jacket swishing against his neighbours. He is talking to himself. Creating an audience. Others begin to pass comments. Quietly at first. They do not know this man but feel obliged to join in. Yet he ignores them, preferring his global enemy and he focuses back towards the action on the pitch.
Ten minutes into the second half Paul was giving serious consideration to the pub across the road from the ground. The sky had turned a depressing dark grey and the coldness seemed to amplify every kick of the ball. Each tackle held an element of respect as players battled, bare legs grazing the iced surface. The crowd started to grow restless and some took to their feet, stamping the ground to keep warm.
An argument began several rows down to Paul's right. Heads were craning backwards and words being exchanged. More heads leaned forward in reply.
A coffee was spilt, the contents pouring down a column of seats. The crowd parted swiftly, avoiding the steaming liquid. 'Nike' man grabbed the moment and bounded into the space created by the confusion. Sucking him into the void, centering all attention on him.
To Paul it appeared obvious but others were unnerved by his presence, standing back - waiting for his next move. One figure stood out from the rest, or maybe he didn't, or was Paul seeing this after it had happened? Some sort of strange replay, he was asleep, or daydreaming in a pub.
The figure was straggly in build. Thin, lanky, weak. But he was standing out, in his loose light blue anorak. His jeans too loose for his arse. He was singing and waving his arms above his head. But so were a lot of supporters. Why him?
Paul hadn't prepared the room. Not for this. But when he thought about it afterwards perhaps the way that certain pieces of furniture had been omitted - maybe there was a reason for that. He wasn't sure.
The walls were bare apart from a single shelf that ran the width of the room.
It was filled with well-thumbed paperbacks. Throwaway airport literature he had called it. The light green carpet complimented the whiteness of the rest of the room. It was perfect.
Tonight the air was cool and Paul had slipped the catch on the window and pushed it fully open. Outside was silent. The field stretched out towards the darkness, lit, as if by a foggy lamp, creating shapes and enhancing the edges of the shadows. He breathed deeply and looked back to the figure tied to the chair. It would be light in two hours.
It reminded Paul of someone punching a paper bag.
The blue anorak swallowed his fist and the body buckled unnaturally, twisting backwards. The victim didn't have time to see his attacker; he was falling before the pain started. He crumpled and began to welcome the steepness that led to the foot of the stand. Pain fell upon pain now as he hit each row of seats, his head, his neck then his kidneys. The initial hurting had gone now, surpassed by a greater agony. The only respite to this is darkness he thought. Sleep. Unconsciousness. And when it came and his body lay twisted, it was if his body took this as a sign. And the blood started to flow.
Paul drained the water from the last glass and watched the moonlight reflect onto the pre-assigned area. He breathed deeply from the night air and swallowed. He waited, until he could hear his own pulse and he was sure that the moon was aware of his presence. That the 'pull' had begun. And he was being guided. He figured he had about an hour.
The chair was sturdy enough to hold him upright.
"They call it 'mindless' you know. But you have a sound mind."
The body in the chair stirred. The chin lifted for a moment then dropped. Then the head jerked upwards as realisation overcame sleep. The bladder relaxed as he became aware of the restraints. On his arms, his legs and his feet. The dampness spread between his legs turning his jeans a darker blue, the acrid smell filling the room for a moment. Paul walked to the open window and breathed deeply again.
"I haven't gagged you. The voice will return in a few minutes, slight side effect of the drug. Quite a useful one in this case."
He moved back towards the chair.
He felt ultimate power. Control over the situation. He held the key to understanding the psyche of this being. This fucked up example of life.
He grabbed his chin. Jowls of flabby skin oozed between his fingers and he squeezed hard, wanting to separate the flesh, to throw it on the floor.
"Do you ever get scared? Feel fear? Get that nervous feeling in the pit of the stomach. The expectation of violence."
He released the chin and wiped his hands on the man's grubby denim shirt.
"We don't ask to become part of your scummy world.
"You drag us in.
"We don't expect it and you exploit that fear - surprise is everything right?
"Schoolboy stuff that bully's dreams are made of.
"The football ground is your playground. Here, you can still get to us. Maim us, frighten us, and taint our nightmares, our late train rides home."
Paul crouched in front of him. Face to face.
"Real fear is limitless. The imagination running wild, disappearing down dark alleyways. And we all know about fear, but rarely do we touch it. We read about it, watch films about it. We entertain ourselves with fear."
Paul twisted round and looked over to the table.
The light had passed across the surface of the map and reached across the floor towards them. The light surrounding the moon was a lighter blue now, diluted almost. The sun would be here soon. To calm his will, to make good his bad.
"I was going to ask - why?"
Paul moved towards the table and picked up the first glass.
Gripping it and holding it up to the fading intensity of the night he drew his arm back and threw the glass towards the chair. It seemed to hang in the air as it span towards its target. The glass exploded against the wall. And for a second they were all one. Connected to that moment. Paul reached for the next glass.
"It would take too long. You'd probably say 'I don't fucking know' a lot and I'd get frustrated. And break more glasses."
The body in the chair was attempting to talk.
Gasping. His facial expressions making up for his lack of voice.
He was fighting again - still trying to make his point. Why he was who he was - part of 'a team' he was trying to say.
Paul shook his head.
"You're an individual. Too scared to grow up. A 'lost boy' of the nineties."
"Part of a fucking team."
"I bet you want your mum now. Or your girl. Or the kids who you only see when you are too pissed up to get out of the chair."
The blue from the morning sky reflected onto the white walls.
Morning had definitely broken Paul thought.
He would have to leave soon.
"So define madness."
"Very difficult Paul, I mean, it's the old catch 22 - if you think you're mad then you're probably sane. Madness is not part of the equation if you are mad. You are sane in a mad world."
"It makes for some interesting perspectives though. I mean, are new 'worlds' created? Ones that before were internalised within our dreams, our imagination. Only now they push our accepted reality into the background. In these worlds everything we do is acceptable while all around us lunacy reigns."
Graham checked his watch. The discussion was pushing towards obscurity and it bored him. He made as if to leave, drinking the dregs from his now flat bitter.
Paul grabbed his arm.
"When I was a kid there was a story that did the rounds. Usual thing involving an old spinster, big house, yappy dog. The thing was that we knew this particular old lady - used to run errands for her. In return she'd give us treats.
"'We' were part of this story.
"One day I guess something happened and she went a bit strange. Used to shout at us when we played in the street outside her house. Lecturing us about right and wrong. Why we shouldn't steal or fight. She specifically hated violence.
"People started to spread rumours about her interfering with kids but we didn't care - it wasn't true anyway - but we were too innocent to know what all the fuss was about.
"Then Stephen went missing and all hell let loose. After two days the police visited her and searched the house. Found bugger all. After about two weeks they were looking elsewhere.
"She used to tie him up in a chair during the day. Gag him. Talk to him, read him stories and let him watch TV. When he was really good she would turn up the volume on the TV and release the gag, then she would feed him ice cream. Every other day she would beat him with a broom handle, until he was unconscious or bleeding, which ever came first. His mum came calling one morning, begging the old lady to let her in, just to talk. Of course she obliged and they sat in her sitting room, sipping tea, the mother pouring her heart out - trying to gleam any information on places he might have visited. She was desperate. Plain and simple. Of course all the right sympathetic noises were made - yes, she was sure he would turn up soon or that whoever had him was treating him well she told the mother. And yes, she could pop round anytime, for a cry and a cup of sweet tea. No, no problem at all, see you again.
"When she was gone she released Stephen from the hall cupboard where he had been quietly sobbing. If he was good - she told him - he would get ice cream tomorrow. Tomorrow was a big day she told him. No, she couldn't take off the gag tonight - maybe tomorrow."
Graham was mesmerised.
Paul had began the story in second person but appeared to now be telling it first hand.
"Is this true?"
Paul was still staring into space.
"They found Stephen's body in the river - by the park. His body had been weighted down with bricks. They traced the bricks back to 45 Sycamore Close. Old Mrs. Priory died before the case came to trial. Stephen's mother killed herself soon after."
"I tend to be philosophical about it. Most things are written in the stars and if it's going to happen, it will. You can either accept it or utilise it. I do a bit of both."
Graham shook the hand that Paul was holding out.
It was a farewell shake.
Hard and certain.
Pausing at the door Graham glanced back at the hunched figure of Paul.
He was scribbling something into his diary.
As he braced the indifference of the night air, Graham stared upwards, marveling for a moment over the purity of the stars. So much to learn, he thought, but never enough time to dwell. And with this he started the long walk home, his thoughts already on the day ahead.