Friday, April 26, 2019

Closure by Proxy by Tony Billinghurst

A drifter working as a barkeep is befriended by an unusual regular; by Tony Billinghurst.

My father died shortly after I was born. Mum's latest partner was a pig; he didn't like me and I didn't like him. To make matters worse, I think Mum was afraid of him; whenever we had arguments she'd side with him. It all finally blew up on my 16th birthday with another row and I'd had enough; I told them to shove it and left. The last time I saw Mum she was standing at the gate crying. I didn't know what I wanted to do in life so I drifted from one dead end job to another, I even briefly considered joining the Navy but didn't and I did bar jobs instead.

In this pub it always happens when it rains. The bus stop outside doesn't have a shelter; those waiting put up with rain till it gets heavy then overcome their misgivings and come in and wait. Most keep their backs to the bar and face the window. The more brazen sit at the tables and don't give a damn. A few buy something small like a bag of nuts to ease their consciences.

It's a biker pub and at night and weekends it's jammed with petrol heads. It's a beer out of the bottle, full throttle service, shots of whisky, ear shattering, hard rock, head shaking, hot, stale, dingy place with leathers and tattoos at every turn and the largest, most aggressive jukebox on the market. The only thing drawing breath that isn't tattooed is the landlord's dog, Vincent, and even he doesn't go near the toilets they're so dire. Most of the time the place is awash with testosterone but get a biker alone and you often see a messed up hurting life. This game taught me most people put on an act but eventually the real personality breaks through the charade. When that happens, most want to talk and some find it easier to talk to a stranger; as a barman, being that stranger is part of the job.

That day, it was raining hard; passengers waiting for the bus crept in, desperately trying not to catch a barman's eye. Amongst the crowd was an older guy; he definitely wasn't our usual sort of customer. He wore a suit, tie, raincoat and a Trilby. He looked around, hesitated, took his hat off, shook it, put it back on again then started towards the bar, got half way, stopped dead, drew a breath, went pale and stared at me, wide eyed. One of the other barmen greeted him, but he didn't respond; I don't think he heard him. Eventually he came up to me, still staring intently, then looking past me at the shelves behind the bar and pointed.

"Could I have one of those, please?"

"What, a pickled egg?"

"No, the pork things." He picked up the packet, took out his purse and paid. He clearly wasn't going to eat the scratchings. "Is this your regular job?" He asked putting them in his pocket.

"Yes, here most days."

"Have you always worked in pubs?"

"No, I've had a go at a lot of things but its all zero hours contracts now. When the boss fancies someone new the hours dry up then he chucks you out to make room."

"But surely that's not legal."

"Maybe not, but work's erratic and bills aren't when you're at the bottom of the heap."

A bus came and most of those sheltering rushed out. The old man turned to the window, then looked at his watch.

"I must go... it's been very nice talking to you...?"

"Glenn"

"Glenn. See you again soon."

I thought no more about him, but the following day he came back. I was serving a Knucklehead and a rough cider chaser. Knuckleheads take a while, especially when you can't find a clean tumbler, so another barman asked the old guy what he'd like. He blanked him and waited for me to finish.

"Hello... Glenn. Nice to see you again. Remember me, I was here yesterday? Is there any chance I could have a coffee... do you sell coffee?"

"Hello; sure, we can do you Americano, Short Black or Latte"

"Oh, I don't mind. What sort do you drink?"

"Americano."

"Americano it is then."

"Small or large?"

He thought for a moment.

"Large please; life's all decisions these days, isn't it?" Two other customers came in, so I gave the old guy his coffee and left to serve them. The old guy put his newspaper and coffee on a table near the bar and sat. Every time I glanced at him, he was staring at me; it was unnerving. He waited until it was quiet again, then got up and caught my eye. "Could I have a whisky please Glenn - that one looks interesting." He pointing to a half empty bottle behind me.

"Would you like to go large for another £2?" He didn't respond for a while as if the question was too hard for him.

"I'd better not. Could I have some water with it please? So, have you worked here for long?"

"Three months."

In bar work, if a customer wants to talk, you hear what they're saying, serve others and keeping the conversation going with bland chit-chat. An experienced hand can have two or three conversations going at once. The skill is to leave each customer thinking you were talking to them alone. People come to bars to talk, few come to discuss and most leave with the views they came with. The old guy was different; he could talk on a wide range of subjects and always asked for my opinion. If I side stepped a sensitive topic, he wouldn't let it go, he insisted I told him what I thought. He became a regular and only wanted to be served by me, and as time went by the conversations started to change. Other than asking how I was that day, or was there much traffic on my way to work, he stopped asking me my opinion and started to tell me odd things. I didn't realise what had happened for a while until one Tuesday I spotted the change. He started as usual.

"Morning Glenn; how are you today? I'm a bit later this morning, I've been planting parsnips in the old strawberry bed, the one by the fence."

"That's nice."

"Yes, tricky blighters, I've tried everywhere and they won't grow, so I thought I'd try there; it might work. The grass has started growing early this year, the patch by the kitchen window is still too wet to cut so I took the mower to bits and found why it was squeaking instead."

"Did that fix it?"

"Yes, a bit of fence wire was caught in it."

The old guy was always polite and often didn't drink what he ordered and always left a generous tip. But every time he left, I felt uneasy, but not for any reason I could pin down. He'd been coming in for nearly three months and I thought he hadn't been looking too good lately but I didn't like to mention it, when one day he got off his bar stool a little more unsteadily than usual and instead of saying goodbye, he stood still. I looked to see if he was ok and I thought he had a tear in his eye. After a while, he lent over the bar, swallowed hard and patted me on the arm. "Well, goodbye... take care of yourself," and he left, turned at the door, waved and never came back.

A few weeks later, an older lady came in, very cautiously. She wasn't our type of customer either. As she searched around the room, she spotting a large wall poster of a biker chick who'd forgotten to dress draped over a Harley; she recoiled, clutched her handbag tightly and took a rapid step back. She saw me, looked relieved and came over, rather hesitantly.

"Excuse me... are you Glenn?"

"Yes. What can I get you?" Ignoring the question, she opened her handbag and took out two photos.

"Oh, I'd better buy something. Do you have tea?"

"No; I can do you some coffee."

"Better not, it doesn't agree with me. Can I have an apple juice then please?"

I found a bottle at the back of the chiller cabinet and as she watched me pour it, she seemed to be coming to a decision.

"Glenn - you don't mind me calling you that do you?" I tried to put her at her ease.

"Glenn's fine, I answer to a lot worse." She didn't smile.

"Glenn - I understand a while ago my husband used to come in here." She put one of the photos on the bar and pushed it towards me. It was of the old guy.

"Ah yes, I haven't seen him for a while, how is he?" She didn't reply, but took the photo and put it back in her bag. Looking at me closely she nodded and said something so quietly that I couldn't hear it, then she put the other photo on the bar, facing me.

"I wanted to come and thank you. You were a great help to my husband - a very great help."

"Was I?" She nodded to the photo. I picked it up. It was of a young man, my age and build. It was uncanny, like looking in a mirror, we were so alike we could have been twins. "Good heavens."

"Yes - this is our son. He was a Corporal in the Army. He was killed in Afghanistan last year - stepped on one of those improvised bomb things. He was terribly injured and died two weeks later. He and my husband had a silly row at the end of his last leave, he went back to Afghanistan and they never had a chance to make up. Talking to you helped him to come to terms with our loss. It gave him a lot of peace, I think in his heart he was finally able to say goodbye to Jonathan. I just wanted to say I'm very grateful to you - very grateful." She looked at me, tears welling in her eyes and picked up the photo. I didn't know what to say for the best.

"Do tell your husband I always enjoy our chats... I look forward to seeing him again soon."

She shook her head, almost imperceptibly and as she turned to go, she whispered:

"Goodbye dear." I watched her go and just said:

"Goodbye..." but couldn't say more.

6 comments:

  1. an excellent, thought provoking story. i expected it to go in a different direction, but this was infinitely preferable. great characters and dialogue.
    Mike McC

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  2. An excellent slice-of life story. The MC didn’t have a chance to be a son to either his father or his mother’s partner, but fate gave him another chance. I thought the description of the pub in paragraph three was fantastic.

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  3. What a great story. I felt like I was sitting in the pub watching it unfold before my eyes.

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  4. Yes great description of the pub scene. Rolling sentences that were full, never boring, and put you right in the steamy middle of it.

    Good ending.

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  5. Thank you for all your comments. Whilst minimalism's fashionable, it's difficult to judge how much description's enough, but when readers can smell the place, you've know you've got it about right. Much appreciated, glad you enjoyed it. T.B.

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  6. Poignant story, well told. Characters are well described, and the dynamic and interactions among them.

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