King of the Castle

by Joel Willans



There was a man called Wilkie Smith who tried to be the strongest. Not in the world, not even in the country, but the strongest in the village, because for him the village was all that mattered. Wilkie had a pub, The Castle, which was clean and ordered and quiet. He ran it alone, but none of the ladies, even those who admired his biceps and triceps and marked him like so many experts, ever asked for more than a drink.

When fights broke out, which happened often, pubs being pubs and villages being villages, Wilkie would jump over the bar and grab a man in each hand. Dragging them to the door, he'd tell them how he was no judge or jury. He had no time to take sides. What was hurting them was hurting him as much, because he wanted his pub to be a refuge from all the badness that lived outside.

What this meant was that his customers couldn’t get too drunk. Nor were they allowed to make too much noise, nor play music or cards. The sight of men slumped, dribble sliding down their chins, singing or gambling their lives away, reminded Wilkie too much of his past. And Wilkie did everything to avoid those memories. Still, sometimes, when he rang the bell for last orders, eleven on the dot, and wandered round the pub, tapping his watch, emptying ash trays and urging pints to be downed, he couldn’t help thinking about Caroline. In those moments, he'd gaze out of the window and wonder if his brother was with her still, or if he'd got bored and found himself another lover.         

When he dwelt too long on such speculations, his hands would shake as he put away the glasses and cleaned the pumps. He'd rush to his living room and smash the punch bag that hung there, cursing his brother’s name with every swing. In bed, he would wrap himself around his pillow and imagine that Caroline was back with him and everything was good again. If he made it to sleep, it was neither deep nor dreamless. The next morning the pillow was often damp, and no matter the weather, the day was always dark.

It was in the afternoon of one such day, with grey cloud sneaking low over the horizon and rain pish-pashing on the roof, that a stranger came into the pub. She shook her coat, spraying the floor with water, and ordered a double brandy and a tune on the jukebox.

"We don’t have one of them machines here,” Wilkie said, wondering over her accent, her mascara-ringed eyes and her friendly smile.

"Why not? Is it against the law?" She laughed and sipped her drink.

Wilkie frowned, and for half a second, considered saying yes. It was against the law, his law, the only one that mattered in here. But she was a new customer, a rarity, so he let her be and got on with running things his way. He didn’t seek out conversation, but soon he learnt that she’d moved to the village for a while and it was her first time in a proper pub.

She stayed until the evening, drinking more and watching Wilkie's world. Eventually, she leaned forward, and tracing a nail around her glass, asked why he didn’t play music and why everyone was so quiet.

“This is my pub and I run it my way. If people don’t like it, they can always go somewhere else, can’t they?”

“But there is nowhere else.”

“Not round here there’s not. No.”

“Is that why everyone looks so miserable?”

Wilkie shrugged, but looked at his locals to see if she was right. It was difficult to tell. He couldn’t remember what they were like before Caroline had run away, and now they just hunched over their drinks and made quiet talk.

“Once they’ve had a few drinks, they’ll cheer up,” he said and carried on cleaning classes.

And an hour or so later, the quiet talk had turned to chatter and glances to stares. Wilkie gave hard looks and shook his head, but as sure as rain falls on May Day, a youngster strutted up to the woman, bashed down his beer and shouted for all to hear. "I’d like to take you for a stroll, miss."

She smiled, and Wilkie felt his blood pause. A moth shivered about her head. "Thank you, but I’m very comfortable here.”

"Do you want me to pay you, is that it?"

The woman stood up, whispered something foreign and slapped him. He staggered back, holding one hand to his face. His other hand he made into a fist, but before he could swing it, Wilkie hurdled the bar and grabbed him. Unable to breathe properly, the boy calmed down and let Wilkie drag him out into the northern night. When Wilkie returned, the woman was supping her brandy with a trembling hand.

The pub was silent. Men and women, glasses poised in the air, mouths open, eyes wide, stared at Wilkie. Old man Jenkins whispered behind a big hand that this here young girlie better get ready to be carried out like a sack of spuds, but no one laughed, no one breathed.

"I’m sorry about that,” Wilkie said. “He’s normally a good lad. It’s just the ale speaking.”

"It was like watching rock explode, the way you moved." She held out her hand. “I am Nadia Morales. Thank you.”

Wilkie looked at her outstretched palm for a second, then turned his back on her and walked around the bar. She was the sort that caused trouble just by being her. That was certain. Give her an inch and she'd take a mile. She could lead him astray like his brother had and he knew where that path led. He grabbed the bell and shook it as hard as he could.

But it's not even half nine, Old Jenkins shouted, nods and murmurs following his words. It ain't even close to time. Wilkie flexed his arms and rang the bell harder, and no one said another word but drank their drinks up, quick sharp, and filed out the door into the drizzle.

"Why are you closing up? Is it me?" Nadia said.

"This is my castle and I want it as I want it. Now if you please, I'd like your glass."

"Thank you for saving me, Mr Smith. I’m sorry if I caused a problem, but you need to relax. Trust me, I know how dangerous stress it. But do not worry. I will help you.”

“I don’t need no help from nobody. Goodnight.”

She said nothing else but gave him a small smile before leaving.

Wilkie stood staring at the space she'd last occupied for a long time. Even when he finally locked up, thoughts of her stayed in his mind like a pip between the teeth. In fact, they lingered well into the night, following him deep into sleep. The first thing he did the next morning was to take his dumbbells and curl them until fire licked his arms, but the pain did no good. She was still there.

Cursing, he ran downstairs and phoned Mrs Sheldon, the postmistress, and asked her what she knew. Of course, it wasn’t her business to pry but she had heard that Nadia Morales was a recent widow, her husband struck down in his prime by a heart attack. And there was a rumour that she was a musician, which would explain why a guitar, a violin and a piano, had been delivered to the cottage she’d rented on the moor. She was sorry she couldn’t tell him anything else, but would be sure to let him know if any information came her way.

A musician. Wilkie had never known one before. It explained a lot and unnerved him even more. He wondered how long she would be in his village. He was still pondering when he heard someone knocking on the door. He opened up to discover that it was her. Nadia. She was carrying a guitar on her back.

"What do you want?"

"To audition.”

"For what?”

"The job as a pub singer.”

“There is no job here. I don’t have singers in my pub.”

“You should have, Mr Smith. It would do good for you to hear music again.”

Wilkie closed the door in her face. What right did she have prying in the whys and wherefores of his life? He knew better than most that it did no good exposing yourself to the frivolities of the world. He flexed his arms. Hard as iron he was, and that was the way he intended to stay.

For the rest of the morning, as he changed the barrels and wiped the tables, he found himself wondering what she sounded like with that guitar of hers. He didn’t have to wait long to find out. When he opened for lunch, she was first through the door, and before he could say a word, she’d taken her guitar out and was strumming it at the bar.

“What did I say this morning? No music. Do you understand me? Those are my rules. No music. No drunkenness and no gambling.”

“You can’t ban life forever, Mr Smith,” she said and began to sing.

The words flew over the bar, down Wilkie’s ears and arrowed straight to his heart. He felt himself start to choke up. Tears that had lingered for months threatened to break free. He clenched his eyes shut and tensed every muscle in his body, but he knew he couldn’t stop them for long. He rushed around the bar, grabbed Nadia by the arm and marched her to the door.

"Don't fight it, Mr Smith,” she said. “ I know your story, let it go. I’ve seen what happens to people when they don’t let the world in. It’s a killer, Mr Smith. A killer.”

He closed the door and bolted it shut and didn't open for the rest of the day. It pained him to do so, because he'd never closed on a weekday, not even when he was so ill it hurt to pull pints. It was one of the rules, his rules, the rules that he'd promised to stick to no matter what. And now this woman from nowhere had messed it all up. He paced up and down the pub all day, hiding when people knocked on the door, pulling the curtains shut and turning off the radio and skulking in his bedroom doing weights and wondering why he wasn't stronger.

He thought about not opening in the evening either, but he didn't want the whole village at his door, banging and shouting and running amok. No, he didn't want any of that craziness to screw with his head. He'd had enough of that already.

His hands trembled when he pulled back the locks that evening. It was dark and when he didn't see anything, he breathed a sigh of relief. You're a stupid one sometimes, Wilkie Smith, you know that. She won’t still be waiting for you. Not all day. Crazy woman, but not that crazy.

“Good evening,” Nadia said, emerging from the darkness. "You are making much trouble not opening today. People even said it to me and I am a foreigner."

"Why don't you leave me alone? Let me be." He felt sick.

"Let down the drawbridge, Mr Smith. That is what it is called, no?” She smiled. “I told everyone you’d closed today to think of my offer of a concert.”


“Yes. They are very happy to hear of it and I am very happy to play in it.” She nodded up the road, towards a large crowd walking towards them. “Will you say yes to it?”

Wilkie could hear people laughing and joking. It surprised him and he realised it was because he hadn’t heard the sound for so long. Laughing and joking belonged to another time, when he wasn’t alone and when things were less ordered. He took a deep breath and looked at his sparkling clean pub. It was the only place in the whole world where he could make sure everything went as planned. He was closing the door, when he heard Nadia shout.

“Don’t be such a coward, Mr Smith.”

“I’m not a coward, I’m the strongest man in the village,” he said through the gap.

“Prove it. Let my music in.”

Wilkie remembered the last time music was played in the pub, the night he found Caroline’s note, the night he smashed up the kitchen and living room. The night he first slept alone. He was not a coward. He bit his lip and opened the door.

“Thank you. I won’t let you down,” Nadia said, strolling in and unpacking her guitar.

The locals followed close behind, all as bright as brass, smiling and patting Wilkie on the back and saying what a right good idea it was to have Miss Nadia sing. Wilkie tried to answer but nothing came out. Instead, he flexed his arms and barricaded himself behind the bar, all the time gazing at the happy faces of his customers.

Nadia’s voice was so sweet and so powerful that the villagers gasped as one. It made them want to stand on tiptoe, clap their hands and swing the nearest person round and round. So strong was the urge, that many people did just that. Wilkie had never seen dancing in his pub before and it made him feel better than he could have imagined. The music and the movement got to him and after a while, when nobody was looking, he started to click his fingers.

The night went faster and faster after that. Old Jenkins staggered up to the bar and told Wilkie what a lucky man he was to have found such a cracking singer. Best night he’d had in fifty years. Was it true she was going to be playing once a week, sometimes twice? Wilkie didn’t say anything at first, but then nodded and felt a rush of pleasure when Old Jenkins shook his hand and said he was doing a grand job as landlord.

When the clock eventually struck eleven, Wilkie didn’t notice at first, so loud was the noise. Only after the final chime did he remember himself and pick up the bell to ring for last orders. It felt as heavy as always, but for some reason it no longer gave him that old feeling of comfort. He turned it over in his hand to try and see why, but it looked the same as ever. Then he looked at the villagers jigging around and Nadia flushed and grinned and everything became clear. With a half smile, he put the bell underneath the bar and started clapping along to Nadia’s singing, the same as everyone else.

©2008 Joel Willans

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