The Man Of The Crowns

Well, the old place had had a good innings, Sandra thought to herself. All things considered, it had outlasted most of the other locals in the vicinity, and when you got down to it, it was just the way of the world, wasn’t it?

The Three Crowns had been through a lot in its time: world wars, recessions, depressions and the vagaries of the public’s drinking habits (smart coffee shops, cocktail joints, wine bars and cheap supermarket lager, depending on the aspirations of the decade and what the economy was doing) and had withstood them all, even with beer duty being ratcheted up a penny or two with each passing Budget like an expert torturer gradually tightening his thumbscrews. But consistently falling profits and the exponential increase in the value of property had finally done it for the Crowns and for Sandra King, owner and licensee. She’d done her best to keep the old place going and it had undeniably been a success in the nearly two decades she’d run the pub since buying out her elderly uncle (who in turn had run it since virtually the end of the War, and owned it since the ’70s after buying it from Morland). But just recently the gap between the pub’s takings and outgoings, combined with the mortgage on her own house which she was paying solo since the divorce, had begun to eat into her savings in a way that just wasn’t sustainable. And then, when old Ted Simpson had died – well, it had occurred to her and apparently to all the other regulars simultaneously that this was as good a signal as any that The End Of An Era had been reached, and with a heavy heart she’d phoned the local commercial estate agents the next day and asked them to do an evaluation. He had, after all, been a sort of guardian spirit of the Crowns for longer than anyone could remember.

At this point, you’d be forgiven for thinking Ted Simpson had been one of those good old boys who’d lived a life full of warmth and love – leaving behind devoted children, grand- and perhaps great-grandchildren – faded Polaroid photos above the bar showing him skydiving for charity, helping dig wells or build a school in Tanzania, posing in rugby kit with a team of beaming and similarly attired youngsters around him, that sort of thing. Nuh-uh. Ted had been that sort that is generally euphemized as a “character” – and, in a sense, that is exactly what he’d been. He’d had bags of personality, all right; it just happened to be a notably ignorant, lecherous, tight-fisted, misogynistic, pugilistic, alcoholic, xenophobic and flatulent personality. And while it would certainly have been a stretch of vocabulary to say anyone, staff member or regular, had liked him, exactly, he had ended up becoming a sort of unofficial mascot of the pub, perhaps simply on account of having spent more time there in total than just about anyone else, including Sandra.

A closing party was held, of course, and there was much drinking, much reminiscing, a lot of laughter and, invariably, a few tears. Some of the regulars decided, after about six hours of solid drinking, that the party should jointly be considered a sort of unofficial wake for the recently deceased Ted, and began making toasts to the ‘lovable old rogue’. A rather greater number drinkers had then reminded this first group that there had been nothing remotely lovable about Ted and that, while it was generally frowned upon to speak ill of the dead, there was also no need to perform such a wholesale whitewash on a character as universally unwholesome as he had been. Voices had been raised and it taken Sandra to intervene and prevent any serious unpleasantness.

That had been a week ago, and the place was now unrecognizable. All the more individual or characterful fixtures that were worth anything or had particular sentimental value to Sandra had been stashed away in her garage (for what eventuality or future use, she couldn’t say), with the exception of a few bits and pieces which she’d doled out to some of the longest-serving staff and regulars. The manky 1980s carpet had been taken up, wallpaper stripped, basic furniture auctioned; the front windows with their original late-Victorian frosted glass decoration bearing the flowery logo of a long-vanished brewery and the promise of FINE WINES, ALES, STOUTS, CONTINENTAL LAGERS, BRANDY and WHISKY was of course left in place by the property developers, because the demographic making up the intended market for the new flats was well known to love a bit of authentic local colour and history.

Simon, the agent leading this particular project, had been pleased with the progress made by his team in the first three days. After a hard morning mirco-managing his crew of half a dozen heavily tattooed lads in hard hats and hi-viz, he’d opened his copy of the Times, placed it on a bit of the nearby trestle table not covered in decorating equipment, extracted the sports supplement and then turned his attention to the sandwiches lovingly prepared for him by his better half. Having taken the first few munches of Kingsmill, ham and lettuce, he turned back to the paper and found himself looking, not at the photograph of the prime minister putting on his Extra Serious face that the paper had borne when he’d put it down, but the toothpaste-ad smile and perky, naked C-cup breasts of Mandy, 21, from Sevenoaks, who was apparently exhorting him to Support Our Boys in that week’s overseas military venture. For his copy of the Times had somehow – in about eight seconds, and without his noticing anything happening – been replaced with today’s issue of another Murdoch-owned title, open at page 3.

Simon leaped up from the folding chair he’d been sat on, upsetting it in the process, and drawing bemused (and amused) looks from a couple of the workmen nearby. But none of them was within five metres of him, and it seemed impossible that one of them had snuck up and switched the papers while he’d been sat just there. He smiled weakly, trying to communicate that there was nothing to worry about. When the lads had turned back to their own lunches, papers and conversation, Simon gingerly reached down and picked up the substitute newspaper. Whoever had been responsible for this incredible trick was even better than he had first guessed, as the Times sports section had miraculously become a copy of the Racing Post. No part of his original newspaper was anywhere to be seen. He resolved to keep an eagle eye on this particular crew, as at least one of them was evidently an amateur prankster and magician to rival David Blaine.

The rest of the working day passed without incident, much to Simon’s relief. Perhaps his vigilance had been noted and the joker had decided against any further pranks. But the following day, an incident occurred which, while not quite as unsettling as the newspaper trick, was in its own way just as baffling and much more viscerally unpleasant.

The manager had called the whole team outside to discuss the best way to tackle the task of scrubbing off the faded and frequently cracked navy blue paint that covered (mostly) the exterior of the pub, including the fancy Victorian plasterwork that the development company hoped to at least partly salvage as an original feature of the building. The discussion concluded, the seven men went back into the main saloon bar and were instantly confronted by a ghastly miasma of second-hand lager, pickled eggs and what may well have been cheese’n’onion crisps. Gagging and retching, they’d fled back into the open air, waving their hands in front of their faces and cringing and wincing as if in physical pain. Cries of “FACK ME, was that YOU?” and responses of “Course not, I been out here the whole time!” were exchanged, and the identity of the culprit remained elusive, as did the method by which this bizarre act of distasteful digestive ventriloquism had been achieved. Even with all the windows and doors open, it was a full twenty minutes before Simon could persuade any of the workmen to re-enter the building – not least because he was disinclined to do so himself.

Occurrences like these became an almost daily feature of the job, and it wasn’t long before everyone working on it was in a state of psychological high alert, verging on outright paranoia. Mobiles would suddenly and loudly emit the Crazy Frog ring tone for no apparent reason; tea mugs left unattended for a few moments would suddenly be overflowing with the still reeking remains of twenty B&H when their owners returned to them; crudely-drawn cocks and the word MILLWALL in permanent black marker appeared on sundry surfaces in the as yet undemolished toilets (cannily left in place for the time being to obviate the need for Portaloos for the workmen) when no-one could conceivably have been in the building. Nothing that was unarguably paranormal took place – there were no mysteriously levitating objects, threatening messages appearing on the walls in blood, nothing like that – just an ever-lengthening tally of weird shit that could, in principle, have been set up by an extraordinarily clever practical joker. In fact Simon and his team took instinctively to scanning the corners of the pub where the ceiling met the walls, the antiquated light fixtures and so on for anything that could give away the position of a hidden camera, so convinced were they that they had become the unwitting stars of some Dom Joly-esque prank-based TV show, albeit one of unprecedented scope and sophistication. Of course each of them suspected that one or more of his colleagues was either a patsy of their diabolically clever tormentor or even the primary agent of this catalogue of tricks that was rapidly amounting to psychological torture, and this atmosphere of mutual distrust and antagonism soon became as troubling as the tricks themselves.

A fortnight had passed, and the slow progress made by the now quite thoroughly frazzled workmen – those that had stayed on the job and not had to be replaced at short notice by men from an expensive temping agency, that is – was combining with the outré events to put Simon in a state of quite exquisite panic. Even some of Simon’s superiors at the development company, determined to get to the bottom of why this particular job was taking so long and had generated so much discontent and wild rumour, had visited the site in person and witnessed a few of the weird goings-on. It was not long before the entire company was rife with talk about the ‘curse of the Crowns’.

And then it happened – the final event that sealed the fate of the project that would have turned the old building, like so many others, into luxury executive live-work spaces integrated in a period character property. The entire workforce had by now taken to locking and double-locking every lockable door in the whole place whenever leaving it for just a moment, in a fashion seemingly totally uncalled-for in the middle of the day in an area not at all infamous for opportunistic crime. Furthermore, while no hidden cameras had been found, the workmen under Simon’s direction had installed a number of security cameras of their own, situated so as to cover every possible entrance to and exit from the building, as well as covering every room inside it. The crew, now numbering eleven (the workforce having been augmented in a desperate attempt to keep the project on-schedule just as it rapidly spiralled off-budget) quit the building at 1 pm for lunch, having checked and re-checked the cameras, locked and bolted the doors, and just about done everything humanly possible to prevent any conceivable kind of jiggery-pokery.

Simon had wisely taken the precaution of fully shutting down his laptop before leaving it in the makeshift office he’d set up at the end of the bar, safe in the knowledge that he and he alone knew the password to it. He reflected grimly, as he returned to the pub from the chi-chi Moroccan café across the road where he’d treated himself to his Friday lunch, that his mysterious persecutor might nonetheless have found the means to dump the laptop in a urinal or something similar, but fuck it: it was a work computer, a cheap Dell already a few years old, and no real harm could be done without password access.

But Simon could tell instantly that something wasn’t right after he’d laboriously unlocked the pub and walked back over to the end of the bar. Not only was the laptop open (he’d closed it) and powered on (he’d turned it off, he was sure of it!), but worse still, someone was logged on and had been very busy on the internet.

Scarcely daring to breathe, Simon slowly walked over to his laptop and saw that the tab currently open – the official Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown website – was one of maybe twenty. Quickly clicking through the rest, he found that three were accounted for by Betfred, William Hill and Paddy Power, with nearly two hundred pounds of Simon’s own money bet on various races and matches; one was a Facebook page and the remainder were an assortment of abnormally grotty hardcore porn sites, most of them with words like “teens”, “schoolgirls” or “barely legal” in the title.

But it was the Facebook page that Simon came back to. The most recent activity on it was a repost of a Britain First infographic fulminating against halal pet food, but what really caught his eye was the name of the account: Ted Millwall Simpson.

That was the last time Simon set foot in the building that had once been – and is now, once again – the Three Crowns. He quit that particular job and he quit his job in general there and then, and most of the workmen did likewise once he’d shown them the laptop. The development company decided to cut its losses and get rid of the property as quickly as possible, and in the sudden and unexpected sale, one Sandra King snapped it up for a little over half what she’d sold it for.

The pub is still running, the last thing I heard, restored to its somewhat shabby former glory thanks to the reinstallation of all the old fixtures that had, in the end, spent little more than two months in Sandra’s garage. If you go for a drink there, be sure to raise a glass to Ted Simpson, who seems – for now – to have finally vacated the place. Revolting old sod that he was.

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