(first published in Literally Stories Stories, Sept 9th, 2021)
As a schoolboy, Sam Groat had played in the same boys teams as a previous captain of West Bromwich Albion; his teammates from back then had all agreed that Sam had been the better footballer. His mother was an anarchist refugee from the Spanish Civil War. His father was killed in his car by a drunken plastic surgeon attempting an emergency plane landing on the B5032 outside Kirk Ireton.
When he first started drinking in the King of Prussia, he always wore a fringed suede jacket, lacking only a coonskin cap for the full Davy Crockett Effect. One night, Anna Gilinsky laid him out stone cold with a blow to the back of the head with an empty Guinness bottle. She then pulled his trousers down and attempted to bite off his penis. No explanation was ever given, in court or afterwards, by either party. In my cups, I did once ask Sam about it. He just said, ‘Every chance encounter is an appointment, every humiliation is a penitence.’ But Sam never wore the fringed jacket again.
He took different jobs and would sometimes disappear for weeks at a time. In the spring and the autumn, he worked a lot for rich owners, crewing their luxury yachts and cabin cruisers in their passages between UK boatyards and the Mediterranean resorts where the owners would holiday. Sam sometimes talked fondly about a café on a small Greek island off Corfu with its own helicopter landing pad.
He was knowledgeable about some odd subjects. Geese, for instance, and their strange mating habits. He would recount his multiple failed attempts to adapt an automatic egg incubator to take goose eggs. Had he succeeded, he would’ve bought his own damn yacht.
Gerry, behind the bar, joked that he ought to pay Sam to come into the King of Prussia. Because, if Sam walked in, everyone would always stay on til closing time. He was never loud: he just radiated a kind of warmth that made you want to gather round him. Colin and Arthur, the two old guys at the corner table, with their halves of bitter and their packets of cheese-‘n-onion crisps, they liked him as much as anybody. Arthur said Sam had given him some really useful advice about his old dog’s flatulence; he reckoned Sam would always stop by their table to ask after Captain.
After the funeral, we all agreed that we hadn’t been too shocked to discover, during the service, that in all those years, Sam had been a loss adjuster for an international insurance company. It was just that we’d wanted to believe those stories about giant waves in the Bay of Biscay, and when Sam was a kid, his mother hatching plans in the kitchen to blow up General Franco in Spain. We’d wanted to believe them because we wanted to believe in Sam: we wanted to believe that, in the twenty-first century, someone could still travel through life as blameless as a holy fool, and as dauntless as a questing knight.
Nope, it wasn’t his fellow loss-adjusters that shocked us. It was his poor wife, so beaten-down and haggard: a damsel in distress shackled to a permanently questing knight.