The Lock-In

A brass bell set against an antique wooden background in a pub.

“Last orders, please.”

Joseph Garson awoke, as he had countless times before, to the sound of a ringing brass bell. His hands shook violently as he checked himself over, ensuring he was entirely there. He belched, scratched his armpit, sniffed his fingers. Raising his pint, he eagerly drained the last few dregs. The Cross Keys was a diminutive drinking hole, hardly there at all, that Joseph had started to frequent following the failure of his marriage. A traditional boozer of a type long lost, the walls were lined with dark wooden panelling, embellished with wrinkled sepia photographs of the local dead. A collection of vandalised chairs and tables stood rooted, scraped and scratched, all covered in a fine layer of silvery dust. The large brass bell hung from a hook next to the counter, reflecting the pub’s dim interior in lustreless gold.

As he squinted into the shadows, Joseph was relieved to see only the regulars in that evening. The Sleeper was in his habitual high stool, his long-haired head resting on a plastic ashtray. Saliva leaked from his mouth, gathering into a glutinous pool on the bar. Eamonn the Irishman looked across from his table and raised two fingers to his brow, before returning to consider an empty glass tankard, a dreamy smile on his lips. The Weeping Widow sat alone, silently sobbing into a handkerchief. Mascara ran away from her red-rimmed eyes, giving her a ghoulish look. Joseph wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his pinstriped Giovanni Rossi suit, purchased in more bountiful times, and picked absentmindedly at a raggedy hole in the forearm where his shirt showed through.

“Last orders gents, if you please,” repeated Cato, the ever-present barman. His impossibly crisp white apron and bronzed complexion were incongruous in the dingy atmosphere, yet for as long as Joseph could recall Cato had been there; offering neither judgement nor condemnation, Cato simply served, made polite conversation, and occasionally reminded his guests of the rules.

Joseph leaned on the bar, rubbing sleep from his gummy eyes. “Cato. A pint of the usual,” he ordered, “Packet of cheese and onion too.”

The barman threw a cloth over his shoulder. “I’m afraid we don’t serve food sir,” he said. “We didn’t see the need.”

“Of course, that was indelicate of me,” replied Joseph, ashamed of having asked.

“Not to worry, sir. Please, your drink,” said Cato, placing a lager onto the counter with a sterile smile.

Joseph avoided his gaze. “Good man. I’ll be on my way shortly,” he said, taking a sip. The brown booze had a calming effect on his tremors, yet his hands still trembled.

“Certainly, Mr Garson, it’s been a pleasure to have you here with us this evening.”

“Quite. I’ll settle up when I’m next in.”

“As you wish, Mr Garson.”

Joseph looked to his wrist but found only a ring of flaky flesh. “What time is it Cato, if you don’t mind?”

“Couldn’t say Mr Garson,” Cato replied, staring at him blankly.

“Oh for God’s sake man!” Joseph bristled. “Is it too much to ask, really?” He wandered back to his table as the barman bowed his head and sat, with some difficulty, in his usual spot. Joseph’s stool was upholstered in purple crushed velvet and there were no others like it. He was sure that one leg was shorter than the other two and was forever turning the damned thing about, flipping it over, trying to discover some ideal position, often needing to extend one of his own legs out for balance. Joseph wobbled as he attempted to light a cigarette and immediately burst into a coughing fit, hacking up a glob of phlegm into a napkin which he folded and slipped into his pocket.

“No smoking Mr Garson, please,” said Cato.

Mea culpa,” said Joseph, holding up a hand. He extinguished the cigarette on the tabletop and swept both butt and ash onto the floor. Cato winced.

A torturous shriek erupted from behind him, jolting Joseph upright; his back jarred painfully. The Weeping Widow’s mouth hung open, her jaw slack. A low gurgle persisted, bubbling from her lip. Those stained eyes were perpetually fixed on the black door at the far end of the bar, as if expecting someone to return at any moment. Clutching a bottle of Chateau d’Yquem to her chest, she fingered a gold ring hanging from a chain around her neck. Tears dribbled down her face, dangling for an instant from a dimpled, pink chin before dropping into her lap. She must have been a fine-looking woman, thought Joseph, and one of high-class, he was certain.

“Cheer up,” Joseph said, swivelling to face her. “Maybe he’s running late?” He neither expected nor received a response, or any indication she had heard him. She remained as she was, gaping at the door, her face quivering. Joseph leant towards her, his eyes wandering to her breasts, and lowered his voice. “Have we met before…” he jerked his head towards the frosted window “…out there?”

The brass bell rang


“Last orders, please.” Cato called.

Joseph turned back to his table to find only the frothy remains of a pint. “Damn it!” he cursed. “What’s going on here Cato? I’ve hardly had a taste and some bugger’s drunk it!”

“I really couldn’t say, Mr Garson,” replied Cato. “Same again?”

Joseph eyeballed him angrily. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you? You’d have me here for eternity, eh? You scab.”

“Mr Garson, I’d remind you that you’re free to leave at any time,” replied Cato.

“Anytime Joe!” said Eamonn looking up sharply, a wry smile on his face.

“Right. Well, in that case…” Joseph rose from his stool and marched towards the door. Cato’s eyes followed him impassively. Eamonn smirked. Joseph placed his palm against the rough-sawn wood and felt a chill sweep over his hand. An awful, shivering fever took hold; his skin prickled and twitched, crawled with disease. White lights flashed behind his eyes and he held back the urge to vomit. He looked back over his shoulder. “Anytime you say?”

“Yes, Mr Garson, anytime,” said Cato.

“Anytime Joey, ma boy!” Eamonn echoed.

“I suppose I’ll have one for the road,” said Joseph, looking down again to the watch that wasn’t there. He took a stool at the bar next to The Sleeper.

“For the road, sir,” said Cato, setting a fresh pint in front of him. Eamonn side-shuffled over, his head lurching pathetically to one side, a needy grin on his face.

“Joe, me ol’ chuckaboo,” he said, standing uncomfortably close. He smelt of rotting leaves. “You wouldn’t fancy spotting me a drink now, would you?” He patted his pockets theatrically. “I’m a little short on the readies.” Joseph nodded to Cato who produced another pint and placed it on the bar. The Irishman snatched it and drank a half-pint in one long gulp. “Now that’s the ticket. Thank you, Joey!”

“Joseph, please. And why are you here, Eamonn, if you lack the necessary ‘readies’?”

“Well Joey, now that’s the particular conundrum, you see,” Eamonn said, carefully wiping foam from his upper lip. He raised his eyes to the ceiling thoughtfully. “Why are any of us here?”

“So?” said Joseph impatiently, “Pray, do enlighten us!” He tapped The Sleeper on the arm, keen for some support.

“Well now it’s complicated, I’ll tell you that,” Eamonn continued. “Who could say why Miss Church Bells is here?” he gestured towards The Weeping Widow. “She don’t say nothing to no-one, not since I’ve been here anyway. And old giggle-mug there?” He gave The Sleeper a sharp poke. “Well all he does is sleep, for as long as I’ve known him.”

“So why is he here? You’re not making sense.”

“Nothing makes sense here, Joey, nor should it.” Eamonn frowned. “I might suggestionise that sleepyhead is here to work out why he’s here. And he’s been at it for a long time, I’ll tell you that.”

“And you, Eamonn?” Joseph asked, fast becoming frustrated with the Irishman’s sermonising.

“Now that’s the one question I can’t answer. Some sorta mistake I shouldn’t wonder.” He looked pointedly at Cato who promptly became preoccupied with a smudged wine glass, studiously holding it up in the hazy light. “Surely some error on their part.”

The brass bell rang


“Last orders, please sirs,” Cato said quietly. Joseph looked down at his pint.

“Damn you, Cato! Are you fiddling my drinks?”

“Forgive me, I don’t know what you mean Mr Garson,” replied Cato, wide-eyed. “Same again?”

“Hell’s bells no! I’m leaving!” Joseph said, running a hand through his hair. “My wife will be waiting.”

Eamonn laughed. “Don’t sell me a dog Joey! No one’s waiting for you,” he said, gently slapping him on the back.

“I have work in the morning.”

“They won’t be expecting you.”

“My friends?”

“You’re long forgotten. Or at least they try to. Maybe they’ll pour one out for you!” Eamonn let out a barking laugh, striking the bar with a meaty hand. “I may be half-mad by now, but I know that they’re probably all best off without you.”

“I see,” said Joseph, clutching at his temples. “Things do get rather muddled in here, don’t they?”

“That they do Joey, that they do,” replied Eamonn.

Joseph clenched his jaw as pain bolted through his skull. “Same again Cato,” he said weakly. He searched inside his suit jacket for his wallet but found only the lining. “On the tab?”

“Not a problem, Mr Garson. I’m pleased you’ve decided to stay with us a little longer.” He placed a fresh pint on the bar.

Joseph took a sip and eyed Cato suspiciously, then turned to Eamonn. “You must have the time, don’t you?” he asked pleadingly.

“Ha! Cato, pour me another on him, he’s blootered!” howled Eammon. “Now what would you be needing to know the time for?”

Cato placed a firm hand on Eamonn’s arm. “Now now, sir. Best not?”

“Right you are. Sorry, Cato,” Eamonn replied. “I must remember to shut the old sauce box.”

“Ah ha! In cahoots are we?” Joseph exclaimed, jumping to his feet and knocking over his stool. “You two. An Irishman and a uh… where are you from exactly Cato?” he asked, picking up the stool. Cato released Eamonn’s arm.

“Thank you so much for asking Mr Garson. My parents lived in Tivoli, just outside Rome. I was a quiet child but had a fierce determination. I left home at a young age and set out into the world, with nothing but the−“

 “Has anyone checked on him?” Joseph interrupted, pointing to The Sleeper. “I mean… is he…?”

“He’s perfectly fine, Mr Garson,” replied Cato, with just a touch of vexation. “Perhaps sir should do what he does best and worry about himself, rather than others?”

“Well, well!” Joseph said, pushing over his stool again, “Finally showing your true colours, eh Cato?” He pointed over the counter, his finger shaking furiously. “And after all the patronage I’ve given you over the years, you parasite!”

 “Quite right sir, that was unforgivable of me. I’m truly sorry.” Cato examined the floor. “Same again, on the house?”

Joseph looked to his drinks. “God damn it Cato, you handsome devil!” His forehead throbbed. “I really must be leaving. What time is it?” He caught the bar to steady himself as Eamonn put an arm around his shoulders.

“Would you like me to dispose of these, Mr Garson?” said Cato, holding a pint of lager and a glass of whisky.

“What is that? Glen Caillte?” asked Joseph, eyeing up the twinkling cut glass tumbler in Cato’s hand.

“Twenty-five-year single malt, sir. Hints of toasted oak interwoven with subtle notes of sea mist and peppery aromatic−”

“Yes, yes, damn you! Hand them over.” Joseph grabbed both glasses and thrust the whisky under his nose, inhaling deeply. “On the house, you say?” he murmured from within the rim as he returned to his table. He lit a cigarette and enjoyed the mingling of whisky and smoke over his tongue.

“Mr Garson,” said Cato sternly.

“Christ Cato, what about him!” said Joseph, pointing to Eamonn. The Irishman casually blew a smoke ring towards the dartboard, a cigarette hanging from his hand. “Don’t know how he can bloody afford them either,” Joseph said loudly. Eamonn chuckled and took another drag, allowing the ash to fall onto his stomach.

“Unfortunately those are the rules, Mr Garson. I’m dreadfully sorry,” said Cato, as Joseph reluctantly put out the cigarette on the table. “You could have smoked outside, sir. You could have done whatever you wanted out there.”

Joseph glanced towards the frosted window from the corners of his eyes. The sun was setting and cast an amber hue across the bar, illuminating a pattern of dust motes suspended in the musty air. Beyond the thick glass, blurred forms scuttled in all directions: twisting, bumping, melting imperceptibly into each other. Joseph gripped his table and closed his eyes tightly.

“But what are they all doing, Cato?” he asked, opening one eye.

“Oh, I don’t know sir; living, I suppose. Loving, losing, fighting, forgetting.”

“I’m better off in here,” Joseph said, looking down at his hands, now pale and bloodless at the table’s edge. Cato smiled faintly and resumed his polishing, whilst Eamonn looked on pensively.

“I’m going for a slash,” Joseph announced, fondling his swollen belly. He weaved his way to the icy toilets and avoided his reflection in the mirror above the sink as he entered. Too much guilt, too much grief. He assumed the position in front of the long metal trough that ran along the tessellated tiled wall and grimaced as the pressure built in his abdomen. He stared sullenly at his flaccid penis. How much usage he used to get out of this little prick! And see now how it flopped about in his trousers, a wretched scrap of meat, unable to complete even the most banal of tasks.

Eamonn appeared beside him and let loose a thundering stream of beef stock piss, creating a pungent fog that drifted up into Joseph’s face. He stared ahead and tried not to react to the provocation. The Irishman elbowed him in the ribs.

“You got the morbs, Joey boy?” he said gleefully, looking down at Joseph’s cock for slightly longer than felt natural.

“All good here, thank you,” he replied, willing his bladder to release.

“I think you’re wasting your time there, me ol’ chuckaboo!” Eamonn slapped him on the back and left with a laugh.

“Damn you,” said Joseph under his breath, depositing himself back in his trousers, his midriff still bloated. He made his way through the piss-mist and back into the soft yellow light of the pub. A muffled thumpa-thump from somewhere above his head caused him to pause; he looked up to the roughly plastered ceiling to catch a cloud of falling white powder in the face, sending him spluttering back to his table.

“Party on the first floor tonight, Cato? Any ladies?” he said, massaging his eyes.

“I’m sure there are sir, we’re always fully booked.”

“Any chance I could…?”

“No. Private event, I’m afraid. Invitation only. However, you’re welcome to stay at the lower level for as long as you desire, Mr Garson.”

“Oh bollocks Cato!” Joseph shouted. “All I’m after is a little fun before I go… you know before I ah… head−”

“Home Joey? Is that where y’think you’re going?” Eamonn cackled.

“Oh sod off you old bastard! You think I don’t know where we are?” Joseph said, rising and shoving Eamonn against the wall. “I know all too well, my friend. And I know why you’re here, y’gobshite!”

“Do you now, Joey boy?” Eamonn responded, giving him a gentle push back.

“I do!” Joseph lit a cigarette with trembling hands and took a drag. “You’re here to bloody torment me, that’s what.”

“Sir, if you wouldn’t mind,” Cato said, looking pained. “Your cigarette?”

“Fuck off Cato, you’re the same!” Joseph leaned over the counter. “I’m on to you too! Keeping us in here like this.” He extinguished the cigarette on a bar towel. “How long does this go on Cato?”

“Perhaps you should sit down, Mr Garson, you seem exhausted.”

Eamonn guided him towards his damned stool. “You’re sick Joe,” he said softly, stroking Joseph’s back. “And you’re asking the wrong questions. Let me ask you, did you live a good life? Were you an honourable man?”

“What? I don’t know, I wasn’t the best, I suppose. I tried.” Joseph sat down heavily on his stool.

“Tried what, exactly, me ol’ cocker? Tried to make as much money as you could for yourself, forsaking all others? Got hold of the jammiest bits of jam and ignored her, ’til she hated you? We know all about you, Joseph Garson.” Eamonn’s face was inches from Joseph’s, his eyes wild. “Now you’re grinning at the daisy roots you’re feeling the choices you made, all the poor people you hurt.”

The brass bell rang


“I’d like to leave now,” said Joseph, his head spinning from a cracking shot of pain.

The brass bell rang

“Then put down your drink and go, Joe,” said Cato, his face grim and dark. Joseph stood unsteadily and tried a sip of whisky, spilling it down his shirt.

The brass bell rang

Joseph fell back onto his damned stool. He lit his last cigarette, wheezily inhaled, then stubbed it out on the table. Cato winced.

The brass bell rang

Eamonn giggled maniacally, thumping the table with his palm.

The brass bell rang

The Weeping Widow screamed.

The brass bell rang

Joseph’s eyelids drooped, his head nodding. The stench of varnish, beer, sweat and urine overwhelmed him as the bar slipped out of sight. Gasping for breath he struggled, for just a moment, to reach some other dark place. His eyes opened.

“Last orders gents, if you please.”

Akin Makanjuola

About Akin Makanjuola

Akin is a British author, currently working on his debut novel. He was born in Wales in 1982 and has lived in Swansea, Manchester, London and Ilesa, Nigeria. He has a Bachelor's Degree in English Literature & Language from the University of Manchester, and lives in Lincolnshire with his two daughters. His work has been long listed for The Guardian and 4th Estate’s 4thWrite Prize. Twitter: @Akin_Mak2022

Akin is a British author, currently working on his debut novel. He was born in Wales in 1982 and has lived in Swansea, Manchester, London and Ilesa, Nigeria. He has a Bachelor's Degree in English Literature & Language from the University of Manchester, and lives in Lincolnshire with his two daughters. His work has been long listed for The Guardian and 4th Estate’s 4thWrite Prize. Twitter: @Akin_Mak2022

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