Part 5 of Everyone a Winner – a serialised collection of horror stories. This part follows characters and events from Part 3 – so please start there.
Charlie walked into the office past empty desks of his colleagues. He liked to be at work early in the morning, though he was rarely the first to arrive. Andy was already there — he always traveled in early to avoid the rush hour. He had the desk opposite Charlie’s. He was going through his email, a steaming mug of coffee and a half eaten croissant on his desk. The mug bore the motto YOU STUPID BANKER!
“Morning!” he said, opening his top drawer. “There was a delivery for you yesterday… here it is.” He pulled out a small jiffy bag, just like one of the ones they had in their stationery cupboard.
Andy was his junior by one grade, though they were about the same age in their early thirties. Charlie had his heart set on promotion; Andy not so much. But then Charlie had seen guys like Andy before — the smart but slightly dishevelled look; the boyish grin; as likely to wink as make a ribald comment; equally at home and welcomed in any group. The kind of guy — and he did mean guy — who fell upwards into promotion, and was very happy to do so, though he always feigned that too cool for school attitude.
Andy brought the package over and handed it to Charlie, who was still standing at his own desk. Charlie recognised the package and his heart fell. He took it just a little too gingerly, obviously reflecting his reticence to open it and see what message — if any — was inside.
Andy gave Charlie one of his trademark sidelong grins and raised eyebrow. “No need to fret, Charles — it’s not a bomb! Not unless they make soft ones now!”
Charlie grinned back and nodded. He put the package on his desk and took off his jacket, hanging it on the coat rack next to his desk on a coat hanger he’d brought from home for that specific purpose. His suit was uniform colour and style, but quite a bit more expensive — made to measure, as was the crisp white cotton shirt beneath. He liked his clothes to fit — he spent a lot of time at the gym or playing squash, and wanted to show that off. However, no matter how much he worked out, or how many ‘weight gain’ supplements he bought from the internet, he was still very narrow-shouldered — and this had the effect in his own eyes of making him look short.
Once Andy had gone back to his coffee Charlie booted up his computer, and whilst all the corporate programmes automatically loaded, he picked up the packet to open it. Best to get it over with.
It was the same one he had sent, but resealed with sellotape, which he now ripped off. He tapped the open packet on the desk top, but the contents didn’t come out, so he reached in with his fingers. He felt the fabric first but tried to get better purchase with his fingertips before he pulled the object out. A keyring, with a furry blue doll of a genie attached. The character smiled up at him, its arms out, the oversized torso tapering below the waist to a curly wisp, the same shape as the tip of its black beard. There was a note in the packet too, handwritten on a page torn from a spiral secretary’s pad.
“Charlie — thanks for the gift, but as you know, I can’t accept it. So I’m returning it to you in the spirt I know it was given — from genuine concern and friendship.” That stung Charlie. Though he was engaged to someone else, he’d had a crush on Anish for quite a while. But he’d had no intention of ever doing anything about it, and he had sent the gift with the best of intentions, though at the back of his head, there was still…
He read on. “Thanks again for all your help with that racist at the counter the other day and being so understanding. When I saw in the paper that he’d been shot by mistake by the police, I have to admit I wasn’t sorry. You must have been very upset about what he said to you too. Sometimes I just can’t understand people. But one of the things I really like about my job is counter service and all the really lovely people that some in every day.
“So please accept this back, as my thank-you gift to you — wishing you every happiness! And take good care of him — I expect to see hm in pride of place on your desk when I come back to work on Monday! Take care, Anish x.”
Charlie slipped the note back in the packet and put it into his bottom drawer. The genie however… he turned to where his jacket hung and slipped him into the pocket.
Charlie had brought his gym kit with him to work, but when it got to 17:28 on his computer clock he just couldn’t be bothered. He really wanted a pint, so he kicked his sports bag under the desk, put on his jacket, and set off for the local.
The pub closest to the bank was called The Feathers. It was down a cobbled, narrow back street. He had no idea what the name meant but inside it did seem to have some sort of old fashioned military theme, with the stained glass windows, threadbare red velvet upholstery and curtains, and dark brown wooden panelling. It was a proper old man’s pub, serving real beer and lager — though it had now been forced to start selling craft ales.
The bar was central to the whole pub, like an island, but unless it was really busy, they only served at the front. There were a couple of old men at the bar, staring into their drinks, and in a wooden booth off to one side four teenage girls, perhaps already slightly the worse for wear, were laughing raucously. Charlie walked up to the bar and put his foot on the shiny brass foot rail.
“Evening,” said the landlord, putting his phone down. “What’ll it be?”
Charlie picked up a laminated menu from the bar. This was just for beers, though there were only about a dozen on there and for completeness, if for no other reason, it also included all the regular bitters and lagers.
“I’ll have a pint of Rocker Dog Puke please,” he said at length.
“That only comes in thirds,” the landlord replied, about to reach for a branded glass.
“Oh, of course — one of those then please,” said Charlie, puling out his debit card.
Whilst the landlord carefully poured the beer, Charlie tried to figure out what Stranglers song was playing over the high-pitched cackle coming from the teens’ booth. He glanced neutrally in their direction at one point — inadvertently catching the eye of one of the girls, resulting in a loud admonishing oooooOOOOOOooooo! from the whole group.
Charlie paid for the beer and took a drink. With a deep sigh, he started to relax, enjoying the fizzy hoppy brew (which he might regret later) and just letting his mind go blank. If he did this when he was out with his girlfriend, she would invariably ask what are you thinking about? And when he said, truthfully, nothing, she would never accept that as an answer.
He was absently stroking the genie doll in his pocket — the soft plush surface of its body, the pointed beard…
Charlie noticed a man at the bar beside him. He looked familiar, but Charlie didn’t know where he recognised him from. He was about Charlie’s age, had a well-groomed goatee with short brown hair styled back, similar to Charlie’s own preferred style. The stranger smiled at him warmly, somehow encouraging Charlie to continue his appraisal. A square jaw, good complexion — piercing blue eyes. He was also dressed similarly — the branch uniform of a competitor bank. The man had a well-used gym bag at his feet, a plastic sports bottle in a side pocket.
“You’re thinking where do you know me from, aren’t you?” he said, with a white toothed, even grin. “We go to the same gym. Except I didn’t fancy tonight; just wasn’t in the mood. You too, by the looks of things?”
“Yeah,” Charlie said. “Rough couple of weeks, all round.”
“Yes, that business with the racist customer — that was your branch wasn’t it? Nasty. Caused a bit of a stir down our end of the street as well, I can tell you. We had a half-day closed for equalities and personal security training.”
“You never know who’s going to come through the door, that’s right. Between you and me, I thought that after the redesign and pushing most customers online we wouldn’t get so many of the crazies anymore. But instead, it’s worse. We just get all the people who can’t or won’t use a computer.”
“Too true, mate. Our ‘greeter’ isn’t a sweet old bloke who gives lollies to kids. He’s ex SAS.”
“Wow, really?” Charlie was turned toward the stranger now, his right elbow in the bar.
“Yep. Strange times. I’m Jim, by the way,” he said, extending a hand.
“Charlie,” said Charlie, taking the hand and shaking it. The hand seemed larger than his, long manicured fingers, a dry strong grip, which Charlie reciprocated. “What are you drinking?”
“Is that good?” said Jim, pointing at Charlie’s glass. “I’ll have one of those, thanks!” Jim made a show of looking around. “You think it’s OK for us both to be… fraternising with the enemy?”
“Sure! We’re not fraternising, we’re networking!” Charlie smiled, waving his credit card at the landlord.
“Yes, we’re ideationing the create space, maximising our think time as liveware to streamline our productive excellence, but all the while, not solutionising!”
Charlie laughed. “I’m glad we’re not the only ones to suffer that bollocks!”
“I’ve often thought, I’ll go to a sushi restaurant, copy a word off the menu, and turn it into the latest business improvement franchise and make millions.”
“You and me both — thanks,” he said to the landlord as two more beers arrived, waving his card at the payment handset. “That’s not such a crazy idea.”
“You know, between the two of us, I bet we could save the whole high street banking sector. Cheers!”
They clinked their drinks and took a swig of the heady fragrant beer. Charlie closed his eyes against the bubbles and the alcohol hit at the back of his nose. Jim stared at him over his glass, the smile momentarily disappearing from his face.
“Why don’t we sit down away from the bar, before it gets crowded?” said Jim.
“Well, I looked around when I came in, and its pretty full,” Charlie replied.
Jim raised an eyebrow. “There’s an empty booth, right there,” he said, indicating over Charlie’s shoulder with his glass.
“But what about the girls…” Charlie turned. The girls had gone. He hadn’t noticed them leave — and they must have gone in a hurry. Some fresh drinks, still with fogged glasses, stood amongst the empties on the table.
“OK,” said Charlie, going over and sliding in to the seat on one side of the table, as Joe went to the other side, sliding his bag to the end of the seat.
“Must be our lucky day!” said Jim, finishing his beer. “Another? Who thought thirds was a good idea anyway?”
“Joe looked at his glass, still half-full. “Yeah, why not? But maybe not something as potent — maybe an Amstell or something?”
“Leave it up to me mate. I’ll surprise you.” Jim turned back to the bar. Charlie instinctively reached for his phone, but then stopped. Jim was… different. He was talking with the landlord, pointing at beers, drinks, some of the other customers, animatedly. The landlord was smiling and then had to put down the glass he was holding as he was laughing so hard. Jim was definitely the proverbial life and soul.
Jim came back with two of the most extraordinary-shaped pint glasses Charlie had ever seen. The beer was golden and cloudy, and the branding on the glass was some kind of indecipherable rune.
“Weisbier!” said Jim, sliding into the seat opposite. “Mein Host was hiding this little gem away, crafty sod. Cheers!” They clinked glasses again. “Come on, Charlie, you’re lagging. You’re the one that wanted to come here!”
“Yes, of course!” Charlie drained the craft beer, and put the empty to one side to join the others, moving the fresh pint closer to him.
“Yes, you know, I bet we really could put the world to rights, eh?” said Jim, sitting back. “The world’s in a real mess now, proper screwed, from global warming to TV star presidents, terrorists, racists attacking our friends and colleagues in our own high street, for fuck’s sake, it needs something. An intervention.” He took another swig of beer and smacked his lips. “I love a good German beer! Can’t beat it.”
“You’re right. But what can we do? And the system is all screwed. Democracy is a joke.”
“OK,” said Jim, leaning forward conspiratorially. “Say you did have the power — no don’t shake your head — I mean it. Say you had the power to change it all, for real. What would you do?”
“I don’t know, I…”
“AHA!” said Jim, clicking his fingers and leaning back, putting one arm across the back of his seat. “That’s the problem right there. No-one can make a decision any more. No-one can take responsibility for anything. It’s always a bloody committee, a working group, a commission. I honestly thought better of you. I thought, Charlie, he’s a solid bloke, he’s not afraid to take a stand and lead from the front. He looks after his people and is prepared to take the consequences. That’s what I thought.”
Charlie was rattled. Not because a stranger was openly criticising him — but at the possibility he had disappointed Jim.
“No, that is me. I can take the hard decisions. I’m not afraid. I can take charge. I…”
“Oh come on, Chaz! I can quote from the fucking management course too, you know. Hey… but we’re all friends here, right, we’re just shooting the shit over some excellent beer.” He clinked Charlie’s glass again, and took a long pull on his pint. “Whoa, that’s fresh!”
Charlie nodded, relieved, and did the same. The beer washed all doubt from his mind. It was as if Jim had known him all his life, a real best mate.
“OK,” Charlie said, setting his glass down. “You mean if I had the power — like three wishes?”
He caught Jim in mid-swig. He choked, and put the glass down, coughing and laughing, wiping his mouth on his arm.
“Haha… yes… for the sake of argument, three wishes. Go!”
“Now wait a minute,” said Charlie, taking another drink himself. “I’ve seen those TV shows, it’s been done. No matter what the poor bastard wishes for, it’s turned on him. So he asks for world peace, and suddenly everybody else in the world drops dead. He wished for a million dollars, and the cops and IRS are knocking on the door wondering where all the money came from.”
“I feel an excuse coming on,” said Jim. “Besides, those are just stories to teach morals to kids. We’re talking real life here. And we’re just talking, right? Go!” Jim straightened up on his seat, and folded his arms across his chest. The tight white shirt pulled across his shoulders and defined upper arms.
“Right,” said Charlie, mirroring Jim’s position.
“No second thoughts, clear decisions, exactly what you would do. No excuses, total commitment,” said Jim.
“It’s all yours. Do it.”
“No. No I would do blah blah… full on. Go for it.”
“I’ll stop climate change, ban all fossil fuels and make the rainforests internationally protected wildernesses.”
“BOOM! Nice one! Save the planet — planet saved. Next!”
“All old people are treated with dignity and cared for by the state as a priority, that people can live in comfort and worry-free on the state pension.”
“Excellent. After what the bastards did to your dad, I should have seen that coming. Next!” said Jim, leaning forward now.
“Wait… how did you…?”
“Have another drink. You’re delaying! Can’t have that. Number three — go!”
“Stop Brexit, get someone sensible in charge of the government, and build up the high street and industry again.”
“Excellent. Trade as a priority. A true banker, through and through. Not a stupid banker, at any rate, eh?” Jim took another drink, draining his glass.
Something made Charlie feel uneasy, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.
“What’s the matter?” said Jim, reaching for his wallet. “Did you expect something to happen?”
“No, it’s nothing.” He took another drink — he still had half a pint left. He was starting to feel thick-headed, like there was a weight in the middle of his forehead. He closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose — and when he opened them again, a fresh pint was standing in front of him, and Jim was back in his seat.
“You see, Charlie, me old mucka,” said Jim, taking a long drink. “You don’t get any wishes. I’m here following someone else’s. You weren’t the one who released me. I was instructed to make you happy, always. And so you will be. Outside, the world you created is there. For eternity. You died in the pub. Sub-arachnoid haemorrhage. Dropped like a stone. Look.”
Charlie sat there, suddenly feeling very cold. He turned. He saw himself crumpled on the ground, staring at the ceiling. The teenage girls from earlier were crouched and kneeling around him, and whilst one was on the phone, the others were checking his breathing, his pulse, and then moving him onto his back and clearing his airway, starting CPR.
“Student nurses, all four. Don’t judge a book by it’s cover, eh, Chuck? You’re dead a doornail. Totally useless, but they don’t know that, and they’re trying their best, bless their little cotton panties. I’m a great believer in the NHS.”
“Is … is this some kind of… sick joke?” Charlie said, standing up as best he could, his legs unable to straighten in the booth.
“Sit down and watch the fun!” said the Jinn, his teeth sharpening into points as he took another drink. “I was supposed to make you happy, after all! And this beer is so good!”
“No, no this isn’t happening. You sick… you sick fuck!” Charlie squeezed out of the booth and past the girls counting breaths and compressions. He looked down into his own eyes, staring at the ceiling, not reacting as the young nurse in the halter neck puffed air into his gaping mouth.
He staggered outside. Heat smashed into his body and his shirt was almost immediately soaked with sweat. The pub was incongruously surrounded by dense, bright green jungle. He staggered over a vine. Insects buzzed at his face.
“Come on, Charlie!” said the Jinn from the doorway. He was taller now, his arms and legs disproportionate to the rest of his body, his skin reddening, the designer suit pulling at the seams. “You love the rainforest so much, how much more perfect than a pub in one? And you could at least finish your pint before you leave — money doesn’t grow on trees — not even here. And if you wander off, there’s no guarantee you’ll find it again. You could be wandering out there for decades! Come on, Charlie, SMILE! Be HAPPY!
THIS IS WHAT YOU WANTED, ISN’T IT? And you HAVE to be HAPPY!”