Strangers in a Bar

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We decided to meet in a bar, one where old men gathered for their daily brew and crepuscular women exchanged knitted secrets in the shadowy corners, around time-gnarled tables. I knew you instantly: the Celtic heritage of your red hair, unkempt even now; the cream-coloured Aran sweater, too warm for this time of year—though you were thinner perhaps and therefore colder. Half-way across the bar I could smell your cigarette smoke. I could feel the way it was before, in your fingers, stale and yellowing, chemical; the ash splintered deep beneath your nails, the black clot in your lungs which throbbed as you coughed. I remembered it, the way you would sit up in bed in the middle of the night as if struck by lightning, the thrust of it right up your spinal cord. I would bring you glasses of water; I would stroke your arm as if my fingers were falling leaves.

A pint of Guinness sat in front of you, barely sipped. You were reading a book, wearing glasses. I had never seen you wearing glasses. What was the book? I try to recall it. Frank O’Hara, perhaps, a handful of scattered street poems; maybe something by Whitman. You always had a thing for the Americans. It was part of your mythology, the dream of the road, the need to leave the homelands. You hated this city, but still you were here. You had returned.

I pulled up a barstool and for a moment you didn’t even notice me; didn’t blink once from your reading. I grabbed the glass and swilled some Guinness down me, the froth of it coating my lips. It came back to me, old friend: that black, hoppy, toffeeish stout. There were all those nights: the sticky surfaces of bars, voices that rung cacophonies, inane words snatched from strangers. Outside, the brisk March wind that billowed my hair in your face as you smoked and smoked. I tried to deny the way I loved your smoke. I could’ve sucked it in all day, like you were giving me wisps of your soul. Sometimes, when I pass a smoker in the street, I have to cross the road—the tarriness smarts my eyes.

I suppose I was hyperaware of everyone around us. What would they think? Would it seem strange now, to see this thinness of a figure stealing their way to a table and taking a man’s drink? Would they notice at all? We were always conspicuous: it was the black lines drawn thick beneath your eyes, the fox-coloured shock of your hair; my silence, my obvious adoration. The swirling limbs and all the dancing, the clubs we were thrown out of for being violent. You wouldn’t see it now. If someone took a picture of us, we would be two strangers in a bar. They’d have to pick out the way I turned towards you, hoping for your notice. The drink would seem my own, anonymous. How could they know of our entwinement on any number of sofas, the graffiti of our names we sketched on the tables of trains, the countless coffees and cokes and sticks of gum shared as if mouth-to-mouth in our indivisibility?

I watched your eyes follow left to right along the page, so engrossed; as if looking for treasure beneath the lines, behind the lines, at the end of the line, the final line. Maybe you were waiting to finish a chapter. I longed for you to acknowledge me, to make my interruption.

How could they know, the way we would meet every day, in bars like this, and our spirits were the same? The spirits we drank and sank and raised? How could they know?

Just then, you folded the corner of your page. You reached over the table and clasped my hand, the one that still touched the Guinness. I saw your lips raise a smile, the eyes the same, sea-green aglow.

You said: “Hello.”

24 Hours

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It was the summer of being totally numb. I woke up every morning with the sensation of being dragged down some strong gulf stream, warm and foggy and going nowhere.

I smoked cigarettes leaning over the harbour wall, watching the waves curl over the lisp of the sand, gathering in little billows. I worked a job at one of the out of town supermarkets, driving my car around in the day, stacking shelves at night. I worked from midnight till dawn, driving home as the birds sang and the junkies collapsed into their hellhole flats. I sort of enjoyed the boredom, the routine sense of drifting; the way the hours and days just dissolved away. I had a vague sense that something had to happen by the end of the summer, but never paid much attention to prospects of the future.

The doctor put me on these antidepressants, you see. I don’t know what they were supposed to be doing, but they made me very numb. I felt weightless, as if my skin wasn’t my own. There was an agitation, a twitchiness to my existence. I couldn’t help scratching, shivering. I worried the sores that rose in welts on my arms. Every time I tried to eat, I felt nauseous. Only the cigarettes helped.

I was getting through thirty a day, a pack and a half, that summer.

Then I met Oliver. I used to know him, years ago, at primary school. I was standing outside a club, watching the thin blue moon disappear into dark clouds, watching some sixteen-year-old kid throw up on the pavement across the road. Oliver came out of nowhere, wearing this flamboyant shirt, a shark-tooth necklace, his hair wiry and long. I don’t know how he recognised me; I barely recognised him. I wanted to melt into the wall.

But then we started talking about childhood. I guess it seemed like forever ago, this whole other world of messy innocence. The games we used to play, running over the fields, throwing clumps of hay at each other. Days out with the school, teasing one another over the contents of our packed lunches. We walked around town all night, waiting for the sun to come up, sitting shivering underneath a slide at the park, sharing a half bottle of vodka.

He gave me his number, refused the cigarettes I offered. Said we should talk again, but he had to go to work.

I never did text him. I went straight home, teeth chattering on the bus, then lay in bed all day, staring at the ceiling. I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about the person who used to run around those fields, laughing and shrieking, throwing wads of hay and falling back into the soft long grass. I smoked so much my room was a grey, tarry haze. At some point I must’ve slept.

I woke up and the world was brighter, clearer. The smoke was gone. I drove to work and the strip lights of the supermarket glowed in my brain, the colours of all the signs and products seeming ultra saturated, a pleasure to stare at. Everything felt so intense, so real. I guess I was feeling again. It was a joy to just touch things, finger the labels of tins and packets, brush my feet over the vinyl floor.

I’m not even sure I took down the right number. I never did text him.

It was a joy to stand over the bridge on my break, watching the cars pass on the dual carriageway, biting into something sweet, maybe a donut, maybe a piece of carrot cake. I didn’t think about falling over that bridge, about smoking a cigarette. I thought of Oliver, of the little girl asleep in the backseat, going nowhere through the night. Falling asleep on someone’s shoulder. That sense of safety. I don’t remember much else about how I felt, but I know that something had changed, even though in the end I didn’t text him.

I guess it was just that in those 24 hours, I’d forgotten to take my antidepressants. For once, it felt good to go nowhere.

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(Flash Fiction February prompts: ‘nowhere’)