“I’ve worked out why people like stories,” says Nige. We’re in the Tavern and as is often the case his face is streaked with paint, rather like a Red Indian – Native American – in a cowboy story. I used to think he just didn’t get time to have a shower after painting someone’s house but now I reckon it’s more a badge of honour, or at least a sign to any single woman that he’s got a job.

“Because they have proper endings, unlike in real life?” I say. I’m dressed in a plain blue shirt with grey trousers, rather like an extra in the background of a movie. We’re both leaning against the counter. It’s Monday night and the place smells a little vacant, stories hiding in the shadowed corners as if waiting for the weekend before showing themselves.

“No,” he says, “because the characters can’t escape.”

For some reason I think about Old Harry then, who used to sit permanently at the end of this counter, large buttocks sculpted around the stool seat as if they’d never been separated. Although he didn’t say much, the bar wasn’t the same after he died. After he escaped.

“Like Julie?” I say.

“Well, yeah, but in her case I organised the escape committee and helped her dig the bleedin’ tunnel.”

Nige’s smile is a little taught when he says this but I let it pass.

“Bit part characters can escape,” he says, “but not the leading people.”

“I seem to recall once reading about some pigmies who were shown a load of western movies,” I say. “If the main character went into a shop, bought something and left, they wanted to know what happened to the shop keeper.”

“That’s because in their world, everyone counts; everyone is part of the story. In our culture, hardly anyone counts, just the main man which is yourself, mainly. If you’re a pigmy you can’t escape the world. But if you’re a westerner, that’s all you ever bleedin’ do. So we like stories, novels, movies because they perpetuate the myth that we’re actually in a world we can’t escape from.”

I think about the stories I’ve written. Never once has a character been able to simply leave the story. Unless they’re just the shop keeper who sold the hero something he needed at that particular moment.

“Are you saying we like to read about people who can’t escape their lives because that’s what we do all the time?”

He pauses in the usual way, by lifting his pint glass and swallowing half the contents.

“As usual, Tel,” he says, “you’re complicating things. What I’m saying is that people are reassured by stories because they’re the only place where their heroes, or the objects of their affection, or just their bleedin’ internet service provider, have to stay put until the end. They can’t just start something and leave it unfinished.”

“Unless they have a better-paid job to get to.” I raise my eyebrow in what I hope is an ironic gesture, modifying the dig, which is about the time Nige was supposed to decorate our place while we were on holiday. We came back to find an unpainted house, a step-ladder with cobwebs on the hinges bearing a note that said he was very sorry but Nige had to attend his grandmother’s funeral. The only problem being that he’d told me about this trick long before we’d employed him and I was able to point out later that this was in fact his third dead grandmother.

He blushes slightly, accentuating the white war paint. “Jobs is different,” he says, not entirely convincingly. “Because you do have to finish them.”

“Eventually,” I say, getting the eyebrow into the act again.

“The point is,” he says, “that while we’re obliged to complete stuff what we get paid for, we rarely ever complete the important stories in our lives – you know, romance, friendships. I mean, how many old school mates have you lost touch with, everyone of ’em a loose end what ain’t been tied up? How many girl friends did you break up with and you still don’t really know why?”

He’s got a point, of course. Most of my old girl friends don’t even seem to be in the internet. Although, I’m not sure Facebook is really a story you can’t escape from anyway.

“There are a few story magazines,” I say, “that don’t want you to send them anything with neat, moral endings. Instead they want characters who act ambiguously and don’t always get what’s coming to them.”

He nods. “Yeah, yeah, but they still can’t escape the story, can they?”

I look around the room, at the clumps of locals, and the odd visitor; at the miniature kayak that’s been hanging on the wall for as long as I can remember, it’s oars going rusty; at Eric behind the counter, not cleaning glasses with a white tea towel, because no barmen ever do that any more, gazing intently at his smart phone. It all looks like a place you can’t escape.

“I could stop coming here tomorrow,” I say. “I could escape and no one would even notice.”

Nige puts a hand on my shoulder. “Of course we’d notice, Tel,” he says. “We just wouldn’t bother to go looking for you.”


“I’m feeling conflicted, Tel,” says Nige. I already suspected this on account of we are actually sitting at a table, rather than leaning against the bar. The last time he wanted to sit was when West Ham got relegated to the second division in 2011.

“That’s not quite true,” he continues. “I used to be conflicted about this country – loved it as much as I hated it; but now I hate it more.”

“Is this because the Inland Revenue have caught up with you at last?” I say.

It’s Tuesday night and the pub is sparsely populated. Nige has an empty glass but he’s not going to the bar for a refill, mainly because there’s no one behind it. Sue, the barmaid, is on one of her fag breaks out the back. Before that, we had quite a long wait to get served because she was on the phone, chatting to her kids with her customer radar switched off. She’s a pleasant enough woman but like most bar staff she’s paid peanuts and therefore we’re not always her first priority.

“No – why, do you know something?” I shake my head and he relaxes. “It’s because of all this attention on the Establishment. Like the Sun setting up a whistle-blower phone line, where us scallies can anonymously tip them off about Establishment types doing wrong.”

I’ve been thinking about this too. How, with all the current difficulties in setting up the long-overdue enquiry into historical child abuse by powerful people, there seems to be a lot of open criticism about the Establishment. And, while it may be over-optimistic to believe, there is perhaps a growing feeling in the country that at last, there just might be some serious examination of the crimes of the rich and powerful, and their ancient knack of protecting their own from ever facing justice.

“But you hate the Establishment,” I say, “aren’t you pleased there are signs they might be losing.”

He doesn’t reply immediately. Instead, he goes to the bar and buys another two pints, having spotted that Sue’s back. He shares a joke with her and for a moment I think he’s forgotten the subject. But when he sits again, his expression reverts to serious with a shot of melancholy.

“They ain’t losing, Tel. The signs are they’re winning.”

“How do you figure that?”

“The very fact they’re being talked about means they aren’t working very hard to suppress interest, which they’ve always done in the past. And they’d only stop doing that if they’re confident it’s in the bag.”

I think about this while he’s taking a long swallow of lager.

“Because they figure people will grow tired of the subject?” I say. “That all these delays will result in a deflation of public outrage?”

“Yes, but it’s more than that,” he says. “They’ve knocked the spiritual stuffing out of the people. Basically, they broke the country financially but now the rich are actually twice as well off as they were before while everyone else has taken a hit in trying to undo their mess. People are exhausted and subconsciously broken by the fact the bastards always win. Now, they’re so cocky about what they’ve pulled off that they’re waving their sex crimes in our faces knowing we ain’t got the energy to do much about it.”

He really does sound tired. The streaks of paint in his hair from his decorating job make him seem conquered.

“And so,” he says, “I now hate this country more than I love it and because of that I can’t be bothered to work up a rage about putting things right. God save the bleedin’ Queen and all that.”

I begin to think of arguments to rally him round but in fact I think I know what he means.

“Go on, Tel,” he says, “time for your writing analogy.”

“Since you ask . . . the publishing world is obsessed with profits these days,” I say. “But there’s one thing they can’t control.”

“The public’s sporadic and totally unexplainable hunger for stories about elves and fairies and dwarves and spotty kids with wands who never have to work to be a hero, they just are because the author says so?”

“Well, yes, but the only thing they can’t suppress or manage into mediocrity is a writer’s desire to uncover the truth of the deepest, darkest corner of his soul and turn it into a story that resonates with meaning – even if no one else ever buys it.”

“I get that,” he says. “But I’m just a builder/decorator; which means my soul only has itself to look to and these days it can’t get out from under all the bleedin’ equality and unfairness and raping of the people dumped on us from our betters.”

I have no answer to that. He’s right. It does seem as if the country’s spirit has been broken in recent years. There’s a general election coming up but no one is fooled that any candidates are really saying anything they truly believe in.

“Are you thinking of getting out?” I say.

“As a matter of fact, I am. Got a cousin in San Diego who reckons he can get me some work out there.”

“The USA? But you hate all that capitalist cheerleading world-domination crap – to quote.”

“Yeah, but at least they believe it, Tel.”

For some reason, I think about Starbucks and McDonalds and Burger King. Perhaps he’s right: Americans believe in them. Here, we only have them because the Establishment put up everything in the country for sale, to anyone with the cash to buy. Never mind that most of the people didn’t ask for them in the first place.

I feel a story coming on, about how in the future, our genes will be branded, women’s wombs sponsored; babies born with slogans written by nanotechnology across their foreheads. But I’m not sure I’ve got the energy to write it.