The 2017 winner of the Portsmouth Short Story Competition – Jacqueline Green – was announced at the Portsmouth BookFest launch event on Thursday 8th February. This year, the competition took three photograph images from the Portsmouth Archives and entrants could choose one image to inspire their story. Jacqueline chose a photograph of men in a bar from the 1950s or 1960s and wove an atmospheric story of real originality:
SPOT THE DIFFERENCE
His stare is direct, unashamed. I look down, concentrate on cleaning the glass in my hands. Smears vanish as I rub harder. Heat rises up my neck, threatens to expose me. The glass sparkles, no whisper of the grubby markings, perfectly clean. Wish I could say the same about me.
“Usual please, Tommy.”
His voice is level. Controlled. I bend and place the glass below the bar, taking time to line it up with the others. They appear identical but I’m aware of the imperfections. Of the one that stands just a little taller than the others.
Taking a breath, I stand straight, look into his eyes. He knows.
Reaching for the double malt, I wait for a nod before removing the top. His hand covers mine. A touch that is both gentle and firm.
“None of your half measures, mind.”
He is close but my face is a mask of calm. I can’t afford to react. He withdraws his hand and a smile flirts across his lips. Picking up the tongs, I finish the drink and add a single cube. He takes a sip.
“You always remember exactly how I like it.”
Long slender fingers reach into his jacket and he draws out a cigarette from a tan case. Nestling the cigarette between his lips, he looks distracted, pats down his pockets. “Seem to have forgotten my lighter, Tommy. Would you mind?”
I pick one up from the back shelf, take a moment to steady myself. The Camel wobbles as he supresses an escaping smile. I offer the light and he cups his hands around mine and bends towards the flame. I watch it glow in the reflection of his eyes before his lashes lower and he draws on the cigarette, dismissing the smoke with a lazy wave.
He uses my name with easy familiarity but I don’t know his. I know nothing about his life but everything about who he is. What he is. It hurts.
Rising from the bar stool he gives me a nod of thanks and glides towards the back of the lounge in one easy movement. His tailored jacket follows the contours of his back like a lover’s kiss. That suit would cost me a year’s salary. Like his life, he wears his clothes with confidence.
An older guy greets him and he melts into their group. A few jibes are exchanged and he lowers his head to whisper to the young good-looking guy. I notice a few furtive glances and the conversation drops to a low murmur as the hotel manager strolls by. Their class affords them some protection but only to a point.
The double doors burst open and three men march in. Two in uniform. I recognise the plain clothes detective fronting the group. It’s Brownlee from Central Portsmouth. They raid the hotel regularly. The Queens is an easy target. They busted a couple of blokes last month.
I busy myself refilling the bar and hope my hands will stop shaking.
Mr Burroughs, the hotel manager, stops in front of them. “Come now, officers. You don’t want to disturb my guests.” He gestures to the bell boys who rush into the lounge. “My lads will show you back to reception. We can have a quiet chat in private.”
Brownlee holds up his warrant card, “Apologies, Gentlemen.” He looks intently around the room then moves closer to Burroughs. “Just a friendly visit. Don’t want a repeat of last month’s little incident, do we, Sir?” His voice is quiet but conversations die and bodies tense. “My boys won’t keep you long. Just confirm your names and addresses, if you please.”
The uniforms flip open their pocket books in unison and start moving around the room. The torrential rain buffeting the hotel windows has discouraged many of our usual members, so the bar’s quiet tonight. It doesn’t take them long. Brownlee has a few words before they shut their tight-lipped books and tuck them inside their breast pockets. “Thank you. Enjoy your evening.” He pauses, sweeps the room with a penetrating stare, before tipping his hat and ushering his team out.
Two men place their drinks down and leave. The intimate conversations dry up and several people look nervous. I focus on the group at the back, find him leaning towards the blond man, with a reassuring hand on his arm. Raising a glass, he looks towards the bar. “Round of drinks on me, Tommy, if you don’t mind,” he announces, smiling straight at me.
My heart races. A ripple of thanks circles the room. The manager nods his approval. For the next ten minutes I’m busy serving drinks and the guests visibly relax. The atmosphere lifts again when the lively Jazz quartet join us from the ballroom. Cigarettes are shared and a couple of the band give an impromptu song by the bar.
It’s late as I bid farewell to the last few guests and finish wiping the tables. Picking up my shabby overcoat, I make my way to the staff exit. As I push the door open, the rain slams into my face. I yank my collar up, drop my head and stride down the alley towards the beach front. Emerging from the darkness, I almost trip, as he appears in front of me, blocking my path. “Hi, Tommy. Can I offer you a lift?” He seems unaware of the rain beating down on his broad shoulders and looks straight into my eyes.
“Well,” I stutter.
He takes my arm, guides me towards a waiting car. “Late Supper, maybe? Warm you up a bit, eh.” Leaning into the driver’s window, he instructs, “Dinner Club, Arthur.” The driver pulls away. Windscreen wipers throbbing, we glide down the beach front towards Eastney.
The rain drips off my nose and I rake my fingers through my hair, plastering it back.
“Eating alone is a miserable affair,” he says, settling into the Jaguar’s slippery seat. “Best introduce myself. Geoffrey Portman.” He leans forward, shakes my hand, holding it a little longer than necessary, before sinking back into the red leather.
I wrap my coat across my drenched trousers. I feel like a donation waiting for the next church jumble. What am I doing here? But of course, I know.
It’s what I’ve been waiting, hoping for. His name is Geoffrey. I‘d had no idea he was a member of the wealthy Portman family but wasn’t surprised. It explains his confidence, his authority, his effortless risk taking. The aristocracy aren’t called the privileged class for nothing.
Inside the dinner club, we are greeted by the Maitre d’. He flinches as I hand him my dripping coat, looks right through me but flashes a wide smile at Geoffrey. “Your usual table, Sir?”
I follow them through the dimly lit club. Hushed conversations escape from velvet couches and silhouetted against the discrete lighting, I recognise faces from the Queens so I quicken my pace. We are shown to one of the curtained cubicles at the back. I sit on the cushioned chair, fidgeting with my tight collar and try to brush the stubborn flecks from my trousers.
“So, young Tommy,” Geoffrey says, flicking open the menu. “What delights shall we nibble on?” The question dances in his eyes and the familiar heat burns my cheek. My face must reflect my inexperience as he leans closer and whispers, “Don’t panic, old chap, I have this sorted.”
After ordering a string of foreign sounding dishes he picks up his wine glass and I make a grab at mine. “Our adventure begins.” He takes a sip and appears lost in the moment. Eyes closed, he works the merlot around his mouth before swallowing with relish.
I gulp mine down in two hungry swallows. Although I earn my living behind a bar, I’m not a drinker. I’ve downed the odd numbing beer in the Bedford Arms after one of my dad’s beatings, but mostly leave it alone.
“So, what did you do for King and bloody country? Probably missed the worst of it at your age.”
I can’t look him in the eye. “Failed the medical. Dicky heart,” I mumble. I can see my dad’s face when I told him. He sent me back three times. Didn’t believe me. The last time he stripped his shirt off, showed them the scars he’d earned in the first one. After that Dad decided to give me some scars of my own.
He takes my chin in his hand and lifts my face towards his. “It wasn’t bravery that got me through. Just bloody luck. I had some cruel bastards at boarding school but nothing compared to what we saw in those camps.” He pours another drink and takes a large swig.
“Not just men but woman and babies thrown into a heap like garbage. For what? Being different. Believing in something else. Living their own lives.”
His fist hits the table and heads turn. Holding his hand up as an apology, he lowers his voice. “My men were disgusted. Hated the Germans for it.” A hard smile creeps across his face. “Then I get home and the same men are beating the shit out of blokes like us. Throwing them in cells. Hunting us down like dogs.” Fingers trembling, he picks up his glass. “For what, Tommy? For being different.”
The confidence drains from his eyes but fills mine. His vulnerability opens a valve in me. I want to heal his wounds, caress his skin and love him. I reach across and hold his hand. Not caring who sees.
I don’t eat much. Just listen to his voice, watch his lips. Study the scars and imperfections of his face. Geoffrey finishes his meal and mine. After dinner we stand on the steps outside. I wait while he lights a cigarette and after a couple of puffs he holds it to my lips. “I fully intend to encourage your bad habits. Go on, it won’t kill you.”
The smoke makes me choke and he collapses with laughterd clasps my shoulders. “Oh, Tommy, you really are priceless, my boy.” His lips brush mine before he pulls back, drops the cigarette and drags his collar up against the stinging rain. “We’d better beat it, my tailor will kill me if I ruin one of his masterpieces.”
He moves like a thoroughbred, splashing through the puddles with a measured lightness. My coat sucks up the rain, as I plod after him like a lame horse. I raise my hand, shield my face from the spiteful weather and make it to the lamp post. He is gone.
I stand puzzled, scanning the dark, flooded street.
A hand grabs me from behind and pulls me into a gap between the tall Edwardian houses. He kisses me, urgently, desperately. He pauses and looks into my eyes. The question is clear. I stand on the edge. Desire throws me over. Pulling his face towards me, I answer him with a passion I didn’t know I had. He pushes me against the wall, his hands pull at my trousers. I can’t breathe. I can hardly stand. Every part of my body trembles, needing more.
I don’t hear them coming. Just feel my neck snap back, as the blow crushes my ear. My hands fly to my head as the truncheon lands again and again. The force pushes my face into the ground. Grit slices the soft flesh of my mouth. Then it stops. I’m on the floor and see the polished soles of Geoffrey’s shoes, as they drag him, prostrate down the alley. His head hangs down, his arms stretched wide, spread-eagled across the two coppers.
“We’ll come back for the other one. Let’s get him in the van first.”
I stumble to my feet, watch my blood mingle with the rain into a damson puddle. Edging towards the street, I can see them heaving Geoffrey into a black, windowless van. No time to think. I run and keep going.
My head is sore, my lips swollen but the continual scream in my ear is the worst. I haven’t left my room for two days. My Dad’s away on a supply ship and mum keeps her distance. After years of suffering my dad’s Friday night fights, she’s immune to my groans. From my attic window, I scan the street, wait for the knock, but it doesn’t come. It’s Tuesday when I return to work. A bit of mum’s face powder covers the worst bruises but my eyes are still bloodshot.
The hotel manager throws me a stern look and shakes his head but says nothing. I leave the bar and walk along the corridor to get out of his way.
“Jesus, Tommy, you look rough. Fell out y’er mammy’s cot did you?”
Sophie is the only decent looking chamber maid we have. Pretty Irish eyes that sparkle like the bottle of Crem de Menthe in the bar. She never misses a chance to chat to the single lads. I place my hand on the wall behind her and lean closer.
“One day, Soph, your cheek’s going to get you in trouble.”
“And that’d be you offering, would it.” She is clearly flirting and I begin to panic.
“Oi, lad. You with the girl.”
Detective Brownlee stands feet away, filling the narrow corridor with his oversized shoes. His uniform buddies are blocking the door to reception. I freeze and can feel the sweat bead on my forehead. I grab Sophie and kiss her hard. Feel her lips open in surprise.
I look up to see Brownlee’s face break into a smile. “Well, we don’t have to question this boy too closely, lads.” They laugh as they stride towards the bar.
Sophie tightens the pins in her frilled cap and starts fussing. “Mother of God, where did that come from? Ma warned me the quiet ones were the worse.” She winked. “She were right.”
Before I can apologise, she blows me a kiss and wiggles away down the carpeted hallway.
I should return to the bar. The manager will notice. Expelling my nerves with a shake of my shoulders, I hurry back. The detective is in the middle of a heated discussion with the manager so I slip behind the bar and get busy restocking the lower shelves.
“Tommy, the police want a word. Hurry up, boy. ” His face is flushed and he dabs his forehead with a large handkerchief. I stand but don’t move. “Out, come out for goodness sake.” He turns toward Brownlee. “He’s a good lad. Very popular. He might know him.”
I drag my feet towards them.
“We recently arrested a Geoffrey Portman, regular apparently. He was consorting illegally in Cromwell Road a few days back.”
I stuff my hands inside my pockets to stop them trembling.
“The other one got away. Probably had a nasty crack across his head.” The uniforms grin. “So, we’re wondering if you might know who Portman, was, well, friendly with.”
Desperate to wipe my forehead but keen not to draw attention to the bruises, I plaster down my fringe. He is staring right at me. He knows. I’m sure he knows.
“Haven’t a clue,” I stammer. “He’s here a lot. Has plenty of mates.” His eyes are fixed on my face.
Brownlee sneers. “Yeah, I bet he does.”
“Thank you, Tommy,” the manager interrupts, “You see, Gentlemen, we really can’t help you.” His highly polished shoes march over to the door and he pulls it open.
The detective hesitates then turns towards the exit.
Before I can think the words are out of my mouth, “So, what happened, I mean, how is he, Mr Portman, I mean?”
Brownlee abruptly swivels on his heels and walks back. “Why the interest?” He pokes me in the chest. “What d’you care?”
“I don’t… no, not at all. Just asking like.”
“So, where were you? Saturday night, early hours of Sunday morning?”
I fall silent. Can’t speak.
“He was working. Late night if I remember.” The manager’s eyes are bright. “Jazz band like a drink after the show. Tommy’s one of our hardest workers, Detective.”
Brownlee doesn’t move. I don’t breathe.
He shakes his head, “You were all over that tasty little chamber maid, earlier. Like a bleeding rash. Don’t reckon you’re his type, sonny.”
I hear his men roar as they leave.
The manager closes the door behind them and marches over hissing in my face. “Get your cards first thing tomorrow, lad. We don’t need any more trouble from the likes of you.” He glances over his shoulder and lowers his voice. “Guests are one thing but I won’t stand for it, not from my staff.” He picks a thread from my jacket and flicks it on to the floor. “No grubby queers on my watch,” he whispers. “Can spot ’em a bloody mile off.”
The door bangs shut as he leaves. Most look the other way as I walk behind the bar but a couple of the chaps give me lingering looks. Seems he’s right. Seems you can.