FICTION: That Old Chestnut

“That old Chester, eh?” He says. I frown. What does he mean? He sits there smugly. As though what he’s said makes perfect sense. I take a sip of my pint. I should just leave it, ignore it, but I just can’t help myself. “What do you mean? That old Chester?” I say. He still looks smug. He waits a second before replying, staring off into the distance. Well, there is no distance. This is a small pub for starters and what small windows there are won’t show him anything because it’s the black of night outside. He finally replies “You know what I mean. Food poisoning. Everyone has used that one before. It’s a time-honoured classic. Unprovable, but still useful. I’ve used it a few times myself.”

He appears to be confused, which is understandable as I haven’t explained myself. He’s not wrong, though. I’m using food poisoning as an excuse to not go into work tomorrow. I haven’t used it yet at my new job, and it’s been over a year since I started there, so I’m due one. Thing is, I can’t go into work with a hangover anymore. Old age possibly. Anyway, that’s not what I mean so I tell him. “No, mate. That’s not what I mean. Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely going to say I’ve got food poisoning, but what I mean is, why did you say ‘that old Chester?” I say. He’s still being staring into the distance until that moment. Now, he turns to me with a look of confusion on his face. “What do you mean? Nothing wrong with that. It’s a saying. Everyone says it.” He says.

He falls silent. Is he winding me up? There must be a look on my face because he shrugs. “What?” He says. I take a much-needed gulp of beer. I don’t know whether he’s joking or not. We frequently do this kind of thing all the time, and it usually ends up with me being laughed at. Of course, I’m always game for a laugh so I’ll press on. Besides, if he’s wrong, then I can take the piss out of him forever. That is a risk worth taking

“It’s a saying, mate. But it’s not ‘old Chester’, it’s actually ‘old chestnut’. You do know that, don’t you?” I say. He looks incredulous and then shakes his head angrily. “No, it’s bloody not! Don’t be daft!” He says and continues to shake his head and grabs his pint. I can’t help but snort. I’m really starting to believe he’s saying the wrong thing and he doesn’t know it. “Me being daft? It’s you who’s daft, mate. You’ve been going around for forty-odd years saying, ‘that old Chester’ like a complete idiot.” I say and then burst out laughing. I just couldn’t contain it any longer. It’s been bubbling up inside me since he first uttered those words.

Now, he really doesn’t look happy. He deposits his pint down on the table firmly, spilling some beer down the glass rim. He sticks his finger out at me and begins to wag. “Now, don’t you be winding me up! I just want a quiet pint today. Seriously, I’ve had a shit day at work, and I’m in no mood for playing silly beggars.” He says while I’ve been laughing at him throughout my telling off. I catch a few breathes and take another swig of my pint. I laughed so hard I nearly fell off the stool. “Look, mate. Seriously, I’m not winding you up. The saying is ‘old chestnut’ not Chester! What do you think it meant!?” I say and then begin to chuckle again. He folds his arms. A sure sign that he’s not happy. “Nonsense, mate. That’s what you are talking. Bloody nonsense. The saying is ‘old Chester’, and you bloody know it!’ He says and falls silent again, his face like thunder. I snigger slightly but cover it will a gulp of beer.

We sit in silence for a while. He’s returned to staring off into the distance. I have taken to watching the footie on the TV above the bar, but it’s a thoroughly awful game. Both teams are clearly playing for a draw. To me surprise, he breaks the silence. Usually, he’s the stubborn one. “It’s ‘old Chester’ because Chester is one of the oldest towns in England, I’ll have you know! It makes perfect sense, so I won’t have you taking the piss.” He says. Glad for a reason to stop watching this shoddy game I glance back at him. Its dawn on me. He thinks he’s telling the truth! His jaw and face are set, and his arms are still folded. I shake my head in wonder. “Mate, the saying is ‘old chestnut’ you tit. It’s always been that. You look like a right pillock.” I say.

He’s having known of it. He shakes his head angrily again, his arms still solidly folded. “It’s bloody not! Why would it be ‘old chestnut?’ What does that even mean? Think about it!” He says and unfolds a hand to tap on his temple. I’m about to retort, but I stop. Old chestnut. What the bloody hell does it mean? I grope around for a few seconds while I rummage around my memory. There must be something in there. To my horror, it comes up with nothing. I tune back into him and find that he’s grinning broadly. A regular Cheshire Cat. It’s my turn to be angry. I point my finger, but I reserve the wag for the moment. “Now, hold on! Don’t you be turning this around on me! It’s not me who has been talking rubbish all these years! The saying is ‘old chestnut!” And you bloody know it!” I say, and he snorts. “Prove it.” He says.

My finger falls back down to Earth unwagged. He’s got me there. As a rule, we don’t bring our mobile phones to our weekly meetups. To make matters worse, there’s no one else in this pub because this is a lock-in. The pipes need cleaning, he’s the landlord, so we’ve got free reign to drink to our heart’s content, unless they burst, of course. He’s still smiling and look thoroughly smug. I grab my pint and take a sip to buy myself more time. I frantically search my memory. All my life I’m positive I’ve said and heard other people say ‘that old chestnut.’ Someone must have told me what it meant. It must mean something. Doesn’t it? Surely, it means something? My brain begins to hurt as I strain further.

Bollocks. It’s over. I can’t think of anything. Without realising it, I was staring at the floor. I raise my head, ready to throw in the towel. He’s beaten me. I’m prepared to take whatever he’s about to dish out when I notice that his head is in his hands. His whole body is shaking and jiggling up and down. “What’s up with you?” I say. His hand is clamped to his face but pulls it away to reveal his face.

Tears of laughter pouring down his rosy cheeks. His finger comes out again, but this time there’s no wag. “You… you… you bloody believed me!…” He says, and he falls even deeper into hysterics. He’s got me. I close my eyes. I know about to get the piss taken out of me for years on end for this. I reopen them again to find that he’s still balling with laughter. “You bastard!” I say, but as soon as the words leave my lips, I feel them break out into a smile. Before long, I, too, am shaking with laughter. “That old Chester!” He says and falls off his stool.

Elliot Harper has written the dark science-fiction novella The City around the World published by Sinister Stoat Press, an imprint of Weasel Press. His short fiction has appeared in FIVE:2:ONE Magazine's #thesideshow web series, Maudlin House, the Ghost City Review, Akashic Book's #FriSciFi web series, Litro Magazine's #StorySunday web series and Riggwelter Journal. He regularly posts short fiction and blogs on his website.

Image by Paul Falardeau (flickr)

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