Jack slipped under the counter and closed the door to the bar; propped behind it was a picture of Churchill, glass cracked, and in front beer-crates lined the wall leading straight to Georgie. Her buttocks strained against the seam of her skirt as she bent over and counted bottles. Jack tiptoed forward – one slap of the hand was all it would take. But her head was in bumping distance of the shelf, and she was humming softly under her breath. Jack hesitated; the floorboard creaked. She lifted another crate, placed it on top of the first.
‘You shouldn’t look so good on your knees.’ Jack wiped his shoes clean on the back of his trousers.
‘I’ll have you know I look good everywhere.’
Georgie smoothed a curl back into place; she turned to face him. His jaw dropped in mock surprise. ‘Oh, Georgie, it’s you. I thought it were someone else.’
‘Think you’re really something special, don’t you, Jack?’
She seemed to slide down the passageway towards him; didn’t quite reach his chin, even in her heels. But she stared into his face as if she thought they were the same height. He reached behind her for a bottle. She grabbed the neck.
‘Put that back unless you’ve got money.’
‘Ain’t you heard the talk? I’ll be rolling in it soon.’
The bottle clinked, settling back into place with the others. She folded her arms across her chest. ‘No tabs.’
‘You’d make a good boxer.’ He couldn’t help smiling.
‘I’ve seen my fair share of fights. Five brothers.’
‘Cleaned them up after a few scrapes, did you?’
‘I spent years scrapping for my share.’
Her toes touched the barricade of crates and her shoulders rested up against the staircase.
‘I don’t want to brawl with you, Georgie. I came to take you out for that drink you promised me the other night.’
‘I don’t remember promising nothing and besides, I’m working.’
‘You finish in…’ Jack checked the clock by the door ‘… five minutes.’ He didn’t expect the excuses to last long; she only wanted him to think it was her idea.
‘I don’t know. My landlady expects me in early.’
‘I’ll have you back in time.’
‘Hmm.’ She leaned forward, twisted the neck of a bottle until the label faced the same way as all the others. ‘Should have asked me before…’
‘What’s wrong with you? Most girls love a surprise, a bit of dashing Gone with the Wind stuff.’
‘I don’t expect fancy romance, Jack. But I’ve got rules. You’re a sporting man, you’ll understand that.’ She sighed and pulled out a cigarette from somewhere in the folds of her blouse.
‘Christ almighty, I ain’t asking you to lay down on the train tracks. A bite to eat. A drink or two. Home by ten. What do you say?’
She took a deep breath but didn’t answer, so he stepped around her and took a seat on the stairs. ‘Well, Georgie. Seems to me you’ve got some sort of speech prepared, so spit it out.’
Georgie peered at him through the bars as she lit the cigarette. Her parted legs stretched her skirt wide, feet firmly planted in an upright stance. He heard her voice somewhere inside him, but he was thinking about that cigarette on her lips. No money left in his pocket for a packet of Woodbines. He should have walked out; it really wasn’t worth the bother. Georgie smoothed the bottom line of lipstick into place with her thumb, not even pausing to let the smoke escape as she spoke. The banisters divided her up: brown eyes, red mouth, flushed cheeks. She wasn’t really like a picture on the wall; if he reached through the bars to touch her skin it would burn his fingertips. But she would look good on his arm out on the circuit. He knew Frank was going to win his big fight next week, didn’t need anybody there to hold his hand, only nothing smacked of lonely old codger as much as celebrating on your own.
She finally puffed up smoke. ‘You listening, Jack?’
‘Ain’t no one else here chewing my ear off, is there?’
She was a bit like a Jack Russell Newton used to have; it sat under his stool at the bar, licking up the angel’s share. Yapping and taking on anything that walked past. She was talking about promises or something, laying down her laws. Jack never could resist a battler. Maybe that was why he hadn’t snuck up and slapped her on the buttocks; she would have bitten his bloody hand off. Georgie stabbed the cigarette through the banisters at him. ‘What you laughing at?’
‘I was thinking you’d make a good trainer for Frank. Come on, I’m taking you out.’
Georgie sniffed and tapped ash on to the floor. ‘Hand me my coat, then.’
Jack snatched the cigarette and sucked down the last rush of tobacco. He took her hat and coat off the rack, drew her closer as she inserted her arms. He put his lips to her neck, she moved her hair aside, and he kissed her. There it was again, that small soft spot. No one had come close to finding his, not since Rosie: lips coated with sugared doughnuts and toffee apples. Georgie was none of those things, but the trace of talcum powder and lavender was warming.