It was late afternoon when Millicent Thatcher walked into the pub; early enough that the post-work rush had yet to begin. Sallow men lurked in the shadows still, nursing the same pint they had bought when the doors had open – an amber talisman to drag them through their day.
That was not a judgment on her part, she had come seeking the same thing herself. The days had been cruel lately, so insistent were they on just bloody happening. Time was rolling onward like some great miserable juggernaut, dragging her along with them despite her protestations. Lager would not really help, but what else was there to do? The pub needed her, and she needed it, at least today.
Heads turned as she crossed to the bar. The energy of the place made it clear at a glance that the business was not keen on making itself welcoming to women, especially young ones. Battle-axes and fishwives, maybe they would be welcome – the sort of women built of gristle and frowns – but Millicent had not reached that stage in her life yet. It was approaching for sure, but for now she was taking what little enjoyment she could in being able to wear fishnets under jean shorts, shave her hair to resemble a haunted thicket, and own the sort of thick boots that required their own jewellery box. It was an aesthetic of power.
The barman was bloated and pink, but he made eye contact and did not let his gaze wander, which was more professional than she expected. He served her a lager in a bottle without checking her ID but short-changed her for the privilege. She did not complain. The coins had been burning a hole in her pocket for days, it was good to finally be rid of them.
She drank the lager and watched the crowd, waiting for the one that would try his luck. There was always one, often shoved forth from a crowd. Working up the courage was all part of some sombre ritual these days – energy accumulated faster the more people who were there to bounce it off of, to boost the confidence, to provide an ego. There were three possible contenders that she noticed, but it took until the end of her second drink for one to make a move.
‘Buy you a drink?’ the man offered as his opening gambit. A classic, if uninspired, overture.
‘If you like,’ she said back, barely turning to look at him.
She did not need to turn to him. There was a mirror behind the bar which gave her a decent look without the risk of being perceived as showing an interest. Mirrors were better judges anyway; you would catch aspects of a person in a mirror that could fool the eyes otherwise. Her suitor was a good choice, though. Tall, well-built, a jaw with corners. His nose was off-centre, speaking of a break long-since healed, a memory of just enough danger to speak to the dark red parts of her mind – the bit that liked belts and chains, things with locks and warning labels.
The barman handed the suitor two bottles and the man slid one in front of her. ‘I’m Casper, and I’m pretty sure I don’t need to ask you if you come here often.’
Decent opener. She rewarded him with the faintest twitch of her lips. The suggestion of a smile. ‘Do I stand out?’
‘I mean, yes, obviously,’ he said. ‘This is a working man’s pub. Usually, the only time a member of the fairer sex shows up is to drag some incoherent lush back home for an overdue bollocking. Not that I mind a break from tradition. Never been a fan of it.’
‘Trust me,’ she said. ‘In this scenario, I’m the lush. The way I figure it, we all have a bollocking in our future eventually.’
That made him smile. The teeth were not all straight, or even all present, but it did not detract from his looks much. Casper was not her type, but she had no problem imagining a world where he would have been. The way his eyes crinkled was nice, too.
She took a swig of the lager, the cold bubbles bringing her back to herself. ‘Thanks for the drink.’
Casper shrugged. ‘Thank you for accepting. You’re better company than my friends.’
‘That a fact?’
‘They’re good guys, or as good as they can be. But I work with them all day and then come here. We have nothing to talk about but work, and I’ll take any chance I can get to avoid that when I’m off the clock. Especially if that chance happens to be a woman.’
Her cheeks requested permission to blush, just a little. Her brain denied it steadfastly. ‘Smooth work, mate.’
‘I’m not great at the whole chat up game,’ he said. ‘But I enjoy practicing. No expectations. You tell me to sod off and I’ll walk away. You turn down my number at the end of this, we’ll part amicably. But the way I see it, there’s no harm in putting a little spice into a conversation, provided it’s done respectfully.’
Casper was doing a better job than most, Millicent conceded. She had visited a lot of pubs lately, drawn in for reasons she did not really care to examine, and this was the first time she could really understand the appeal. This time, she could see how the bait could snare people.
She took another swig from her bottle and started to tear off the label absent-mindedly. ‘I like that philosophy, actually. Flirting as a sport. Or maybe a duel.’
She nodded. ‘Had an ex who was very good at that. We didn’t actually like each other, certainly never got as far as love, but we were together a long time because of the competition. Locking words like horns, this hugely inescapable tangle of linguistic chemistry. There’s a lot of power in the correct use of words, the competition really made us up our respective games.’
‘You an art student?’ he said. ‘You sound a bit like a poet.’
The label was a ball in her slender fingers now, rolling over the nails at the guidance of her thumb. ‘I just like words.’
‘Got a favourite?’
She laughed gently. ‘A favourite word? Who has a favourite word?’
‘I don’t know,’ he said, chuckling. ‘I’m showing an interest.’
‘Persistence,’ she said.
‘That’s my favourite word. Gets me through the day.’
‘I’m sensing there’s a story there.’
Millicent nodded and pulled a crumbled packet from the back pocket of her shorts. Tapping it against her palm, she plucked a dishevelled smoke with her lips. ‘I don’t want to get you down or anything, but I’ve got a pretty overwhelming job.’
He offered her a light. ‘More overwhelming than digging through granite for 12 hours a day or handling molten steel? I’m impressed.’
The barman tapped at a no smoking sign, but Millicent flipped him off and took a long drag of her cigarette. A million nerves sparked in joy at the return of their best buddy, ol’ Nick O’Tine. ‘You could say that. I work in a… decidedly male profession.’
‘Yeah? I must say, I’m not really getting that vibe from you.’
‘It’s not a very visible job, to be honest,’ she said. ‘The sort of job you only really notice if you’ve already noticed it, you know? Shit pay, no benefits, and the tools of the trade are garbage.’
‘You’re really selling me on this, you know. What is it you do?’
‘Drink, smoke, get high and hate people, mostly. That’s how it goes. It all sounds fun and exciting when you’re just starting out, then they hand you a pack of twenty and an alcohol dependency. If you’re lucky you get a trench coat too, or an all-encompassing thirst for the sort of bad shit you rub into your gums or shoot up your veins. Professional burn-out, me, pal.’
Casper was a little stunned. Had she gone too far, lifted the lid a little too high? Who cared, honestly?
She had three balls of torn up label now, set out on the bar like the points of a triangle. Taking one last big drag on the cigarette, she stubbed it out on the bar in the centre of this triangle. It balanced perfectly, a crumpled centrepiece. Then she took one of the bottles by the neck and shattered it against the corner of the bar.
‘Jesus!’ Casper shouted. ‘What the fuck?’
‘See, the thing is,’ she said, switching her grip on what remained of the bottle. ‘I think everyone hates their job, right? I mean, do you honestly like yours?’
‘I… it’s okay, I guess. Better than being unemployed.’
No longer looking at him, Millicent was carving something into the bar now, the bottle chiselling away at the wood. ‘Is it, though? Sure, if you’re unemployed you have no money, but you’re also free of all that bullshit, right? You see the gossamer threads that hold up all the capitalist nonsense bullshit, yeah, but that’s all the stuff you’re supposed to see. I wish I was unemployed.’
A crowd was forming now. The sallow men had stepped out of the shadows, shuffling and belching their way up behind her. Flabby necks were craning to get a look at what she was doing, but only Casper could really get a good view.
‘I really don’t understand,’ he said. ‘What’s going on?’
‘What’s going on is that I’ve been drinking at work, my friend,’ she said. ‘Which I both accept is unprofessional but also, in a more real sense, don’t actually give a fuck about. Doing due diligence is shit, unless you’re also drunk. Now let me finish or there’s going to be a big pompous lecture going on.’
‘Oh, I see, you want the lecture. They always want the lecture. Every single fucking time, we have to pay our taxes to the god of drama. This is why people think we like hearing ourselves talk, I suppose, because we always have to play the part.’
‘I didn’t even drink before I started doing this, you know. Teetotal. But you can’t do this and not drink, you just can’t. It’s not even self-medication, not really. The story demands it. You can’t get anything done if the story doesn’t fit. That’s all magic is, really: telling bedtime stories to the universe to get it to just fucking calm down.’
Casper blinked for a moment. ‘Magic? What are you talking about?’
‘Come on, handsome, cards on the table. You think I just wandered in here by chance? I’ve been following this pub for weeks now. Fucking haunted pocket dimension popping up all across the city and eating people.’
‘We don’t eat people.’
She was still carving the bar, never taking her eyes from her designs. ‘People disappear wherever you’ve been. Young people, sad people, poor people. My thinking is you lure in the dispossessed, get them comfy, make them feel welcome. Can’t leave then, can they? Opened their minds just enough to get your claws in. Then, what, you digest them in the back room? Siphon their neurons for ghost stuff? Wait, don’t answer that, I actually don’t care.’
A cold breeze passed through the room and she felt the energy of the room shift. Casper’s face fell, sorrowful and a little afraid, but honest now. It hurt her to see the truth in his expression; there had still been the smallest of hopes that she had been wrong.
‘We just wanted more time,’ he said.
‘By robbing others of theirs.’
‘I was twenty-six when I died. Twenty-six! That’s not enough.’
‘Yeah, and how long ago was that, exactly? Fucking miners and steelworkers. Don’t think I don’t know the irony of someone with my awful surname having to deal with the quite literal spectres of British industry.’
‘They don’t suffer.’
‘They still fucking die, though, don’t they?’
She finished her carving and put the glass down. Around where the triangle would have been, she had carved runes, simple and angular – they would have looked Nordic to the layman, but a scholar would have seen the differences, the artistry. A rune per side of the triangle, position so that they almost interlocked and encircled it completely. Blowing the dust away made them glow for a second, the same soft luminescence seen only in the deepest darkest oceans.
Now she could look at Casper properly, lock eyes with him, let his story clash with her own. There was no malice there, merely desperation. The craving for each and every extra day, to live out his tale as it was meant to be. Predatory joie de vivre. In a sense, every ghost in the pub was more awake than anyone she actually knew, more desperate to live.
But that was the trick, wasn’t it? Working out the rules after the game was already over. Package your malevolence as innocence, your murders as mercy, and play on the humanity inside those that would stop you.
That was why she was like this, ultimately. There had never been a question of that. There had been nothing stopping her from turning to the last page when she had become a mage, it was encouraged. You needed to see the endgame, to understand why the self-destruction was so necessary.
They can’t play on your humanity if you spend every waking moment burning it out with every toxic substance known to man, now can they?
‘Bye,’ she said.
Closing her eyes, she flicked the top of the cigarette stub. There was a flash that burned her eyes even through her lids, a roar of wind, and then silence. When she opened her eyes again, the bar was empty. Safe. Sterile.
They never really were specific on where ghosts went after they were exorcised, and Millicent did not much care either way. All that mattered, at least in that moment, was that they were gone. Another loose thread tied up.
Reaching over the bar, she grabbed one last bottle. It was warm now, coated in dust and cobwebs. The label was faded, and the cap spotted with the beginning of rust. She popped the cap off on the corner of a table as she left, stopping only to rap the neck of the bottle gently against the doorframe, a gentle toast.
‘The fucking end.’