The village wraps its way around the hill and back down. At the top is a shack, wooden slats painted white and a window thick with condensation. Hanging in the centre is the sign. Casino. Fluorescent and too bright against the open trees and grey sky.
Inside the jukebox is coming alive. The tune is distorted, but Orla sings garbled words as if it is a familiar song. In the corner, there is a slot machine where the boys from the village bet pocket money on. There is only one. Rumour has it Orla’s ex-husband brought it back from the city but ran off to France with a travelling saleswoman two weeks later. After that, Orla put it in the shed. Out of sight and out of mind. That winter, the head barmaid got the flu and the village pub closed for a week. Bored and restless, someone remembered the slot machine hidden away in Orla’s back garden. It was thick with dust, and the shed full of gardening equipment. Orla wiped it clean with a towel and brought the visitors tea in china cups and dark spirits in diamond cut glasses. The men arrived on the Tuesday night and stayed all week. As a joke, Ken, from the butchers, ordered the neon sign off Amazon and it arrived on Orla’s porch the next day. So, she put it up in the shed, along with a drinks fridge, and set up Casino. Orla is thrifty like that.
Orla’s wellies are thick with mud, and they leave clumps of broken leaves on the thin lino as she dances around the room. Fred is sitting in an armchair in the corner. His slippers are threadbare and his hair so pale it would disappear between your fingers. Five years ago, when he returned to the village, Orla brought the armchair across from the house for him. She and three-times-married Karl, from down the road, carried it across the garden and sat it in the shed. Fred likes to sit there and watch her. Sometimes he is too drunk, and his cheeks are red and his eyes blurred. Even when he hardly sees her, he still sings along.
As he watches, he knocks his slippers against the chair leg, and a soft beat fills the room. He is singing now. His voice cracking as it reaches the chorus. It is not a song anyone would recognise, but Orla and Fred sing it as if it is written for them. It is just them in the room, and with the song everything else disappears, back to before marriages, and families and mistakes were made. They are back at school together when her hair was in plaits coiled against her head, and he knew the answer to every question in class. The cocky evacuee, the village kids used to call him. He remembers those days more vividly than he remembers yesterday or the day before. He sees Orla as the tallest girl in class with thick round glasses and a love for stories of the big city. The girl who showed him secret hideaways and who he repaid with stolen kisses. The Orla Jameson who he wrote to every day when he moved home and who broke his heart with a cream-coloured wedding invitation. Although her blue perm and red cat-eye glasses confuse him now, her voice is the same.
The jukebox clicks, the song finishes, and Orla moves back behind the small table which serves as a bar. “Do you want dinner?” she asks and wipes each glass with a striped cloth. In her house there is meat in the slow cooker ready to make a shepherd’s pie thick with gravy. His favourite.
“I’m not hungry.” His voice is raised, and the jukebox is dull in comparison. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to –” His eyes are scrunched and his head hurts. He didn’t mean to shout. It shot out of him and he couldn’t control it.
“It’s okay.” She understands, sometimes he does this after a song. He jolts and shouts like he doesn’t really know where he is. He sits upright and looks at the room in confusion.
His prize trapper hat is still on his head, but his arms are bare. His skin sags from his arms, decorated with goose pimples and wiry hairs; it glows almost translucent under the strip lights.
“Do you want your coat?” Orla wonders if he is cold. The coat hangs heavy from a nail in the wall and smells of wet dog. It needs a wash.
“I don’t need it,” he says, but he takes it anyway and wears it on his shoulders.
“This will warm you up.” Orla pours him a drink. A glass of scotch. Neat. In the shed she serves only dark spirits and cups of darker coffee. She doesn’t approve of wine. It’s too French.
She gives him the scotch, and he drinks it in one gulp. It burns his throat, and he watches Orla move behind the bar. She strokes her hand over her hair to capture fly away strands. She pushes the red glasses back to the top of her nose.
On the bar she places the clean glasses in a row, and for herself she pours tea from a flask. She holds the thin china cup between her and smiles at Fred.
“They will be here soon.”
“Who’s they?” he asks.
“The boys, silly,” she says. The boys always come at this time, when the sky is dark and thick fog has descended over the shack. But they are not boys now. They are men with their own children and families. She does not mind their intrusion. In fact, she enjoys it.
“It makes me feel young,” she says each time a visitor wonders if Casino is getting too much.
Karl is first through the door. He wipes his feet on the bristled mat and does not remove his coat. It is cold in the shack today.
“Ellie painted you a picture at art class.” He hands Orla a thick piece of card covered in flowers. A stick woman stands in the middle. She has blue hair and red glasses. Ellie loves Orla and her constant supply of chocolate fingers. Orla’s face creases into a smile, and she pins it onto the wall behind her. It is one of many paintings, and they flap in the wind as the door opens and closes.
The room is starting to fill up.
Men shout greetings at Orla and ask for their usual. She pours each order and hands to them with a wide smile. She has known many of them since they were children, and they are fiercely protective of her. Once she bounced them on her knee, now they fix her plumbing and show her videos of their own kids. They lean over the bar and flick through photos on their phones. Orla, who still uses the Nokia Karl got her “in case of emergencies,” watches in amazement.
The men who recognise Fred clap him on the back, and he looks between them confused. They talk about the football and drink whisky as if it’s water. The room is too loud.
Orla pours them drinks, and they slip coins into the donation tin. The shack is not a business, just a point of meeting. On the weekend they go to town for the pubs with big glass windows and lines of colourful shots. On Sunday night they come back and tell her tales of the night. They confide their secrets.
“Karl met another one, didn’t you Karl?” said Gary, who works in sales and drinks like a fish.
Karl doesn’t catch Orla’s gaze.
“A fourth Mrs Wheeler?” she asks, eyes raised and pushing a brimming glass towards him.
He shakes his head. “Nah, don’t worry, Orla. Only got eyes for you.” He gives her a large wink and laughter fills the shack.
“Karl Wheeler, I’m old enough to be your mother!” she says, placing her hands on her hips and shaking her head. She almost is his mother. She took Karl lasagnes during the last divorce and picked the kids up from school, keeping them entertained with stories of their father as a naughty child. Aubrey Wheeler, now in churchyard down the hill, had been her best friend.
Fred is watching the exchange in silence. Now the shack is full, he looks thinner. Shrunken by their deep laughter and the large gestures from their heavy bodies.
“Don’t worry Fred, I’m only joking,” Karl says from the bar, his glass already empty. “I wouldn’t take Orla away from you.”
The noise is so loud. The faces in front of Fred mix and blur. Is that Norman speaking to him? It looks like Norman, but it’s not. He knew Norman when they were teenagers. They used to steal apples and make cider. Norman doesn’t have wild black hair.
Someone says “Karl” and slaps the man on the back. It can’t be Karl. Karl is just a baby. Fred went to Karl’s christening. Karl has a singular tooth and thick black curls. Fred held him on his knee the other day. He was sure.
“You alright Fred?” Karl’s neck is bent in concern. “I was just joking, mate, you know that. Right?”
Fred is looking up with pinched eyes. The room is too loud. There are too many people.
“Norman?” he says to Karl.
Orla and Karl catch each other’s eye.
“He gets confused,” Orla murmurs under her breath, and Karl nods.
Fred is watching them. He is not confused; he knows what he sees.
“No, Fred, it’s me,” says Norman, who is not Norman. “It’s Karl. Remember?”
Fred feels anger bubbling inside him and then disperse as his memory shifts back into place. It is Karl. Karl fixes his electrics and visits him once a week. He held Karl’s hand at Norman’s funeral.
“I thought for a moment—” he starts and doesn’t finish.
“We know.” Orla and Karl are looking at him with tilted heads and soft eyes. This has happened before.
Fred tries to stand, to move from this chair and join the men at the bar. To show Orla and Karl he is fine. He was just confused. He knows that is not Norman. The arms of the chair disappear under his fingers and his legs give way. He slips, falling heavy on the ground. A thud. A glass shatters. The room is silent now, and the jukebox reaches a loud chorus. Everyone is around him, circling him in concern.
“Fred!” Orla is beside him; pain sears up her leg, but she kneels next to him.
“Fred? You okay mate?” Karl’s hand is on Fred’s shoulder and he bends over, searching Fred’s face for an answer. Fred’s eyes are wide and scared. He does not speak.
“Shall we call an ambulance?” Gary asks. Above Orla and Fred people murmur in agreement. Someone has hit the jukebox and it stops mid-song. The room is hushed in concern. They sip their whisky and furrow their brows.
Fred does not move.
The words stroke and heart attack are whispered under their breath.
“Stop looking at me! I’m not fucking dead! Get the fuck out. Get out!” Fred is shouting now, and the faces in the crowd above him distort in discomfort at his outburst.
Orla grips his hand tight beneath her fingers. “It’s okay, Fred. It’s okay.”
“He’s not a spectacle everyone, come on, move along!” It’s Karl, he is helping Fred to his feet and sitting him back in the chair. Fred is light beneath Karl’s grasp, and he can move him in a single lift.
In the shack, everyone is still. They hold their half-drunk glasses and watch Fred sit hunched in the chair.
“Yes, everyone just give him some space. Take your drinks and get out!” Orla is on her feet, commanding everyone to leave. As they begin to file out the door, she realises they are taking her glasses and calls after them. “Please bring the glasses back tomorrow!”
Karl is wrapping Fred in his coat and places the deer hat firmly around his ears. “It’s alright, Fred. They’re gone now,” he is saying as he buttons the coat. Tears streak Fred’s cheeks. All the rage and fright has left his body, but the tears won’t stop.
“It’s okay. It’s okay.” Her pale hands are on top of his. “Let’s get you somewhere warm.”
Karl offers to lock up, and now they are alone again. She holds Fred’s hand as they walk down the garden. His fingers are cold and clammy, so she holds them tighter as she guides him down the path. Her cottage stands bright and welcoming in the winter air.
His slippers are soaked now and he sits by the radiator in silence. She makes him thick Horlicks and places chocolate fingers, his favourite, on a plate.
“Thanks,” he says under his breath.
“Sorry, I didn’t catch that,” she says, but she did. She waits, eyes raised slightly until he says it again.
“Thanks, Orla,” he says, and he means it.
“That’s okay.” Knitting needles click between her fingers, and she watches him dip the biscuits in the Horlicks and lick the melted chocolate until his lips are dark and sticky.
They watch a rerun of Midsomer Murders, and she guesses the culprit in minutes. He curls into the sofa like a lost child, and she sits by the window until he is asleep.