He sat quietly in a corner of a bar with a pint of anonymous beer in front of him largely untouched. The music was unfamiliar but he listened intently, his hands together pressed between his knees, as if trying to read a meaning into the words, something perhaps to anchor him in his surroundings, to explain to him why he was here.
The pub had seen better days; it could do with a coat of paint, some new light bulbs and the windows washed. The furniture, such as it was, was an eclectic mix of dining chairs of varying vintage and colour, a few comfy old leather arm chairs and scattered tables, stabilised with beer mats.
Despite its rundown and ramshackle appearance, the bar was busy, the predominately young clientele laughing and talking animatedly; a happy atmosphere. He wasn’t involved in any of it, he didn’t know anyone here, or at least he didn’t recognise anyone. He frowned trying to recall how he got here; actually, knowing where here was would help. Despite his lack of knowledge, he didn’t feel under any stress; he was perfectly comfortable in the warmth and vicarious company of the bar.
He looked through the grubby window onto a non-descript street where cars and buses were waiting for the lights to change. The world stood still for an instant and all went quiet as if he was suddenly alone. A car horn sounded; he shuddered and the world restarted.
He turned back to his beer, it had gone flat, and he looked around again. The people had changed, older now and less noisy. The music had changed as well; he recognised Bob Marley and the Wailers, Redemption Song. That was it. He looked at his watch, somehow an hour had passed. The street lights were on outside and the traffic had diminished. He still didn’t know where he was but the song was comforting, dispelling any lingering concern he might have. He hummed along “Won’t you help me sing, these songs of freedom. All I ever had redemption song.” His fellow drinkers were oblivious to both him and the music.
He stood up and patted his pockets looking for some money. He found a pound coin lurking underneath his handkerchief in his left trouser pocket. “That’s not enough,” he thought. He looked across the room where he spotted a fruit machine blinking enticingly in the corner. No-one was playing it, he shrugged and ambled over. The coin clunked into the machine and the play light flashed.
As the reels spun, he spotted his reflection on the shiny surface. He assumed it was his but he didn’t recognise the face. It wasn’t an unpleasant face, late middle age, salt and pepper beard, and a nose that had obviously been broken sometime ago and badly reset. The mouth was broad and the lips full, with laughter lines on either side of bright blue eyes, not conventionally handsome but not unattractive.
The reels came to a stop and money clattered out. The sound distracted him from the puzzle of the unrecognised face. He counted the cash; he had enough for another beer or two. His smile was reflected on the machines surface. His momentary concern vanished and he went back to the bar, ordered another beer and returned to his seat with a placid smile on his face. After a sip from the pint he put it on the table beside the unfinished one. Conversations and people ebbed and flowed around him and he remained quiet with a small smile on his face and took sips from his beer. A gust of wind blew some hard rain against the window, startling him.
The pub was getting busier and the windows were steaming up. The rain was hammering down outside, spattering the windows. He closed one eye and peered though the raindrops on the window. The light fractured through the raindrops and making the world outside look like a fairyland of spinning rainbows. The sparkling colours made him smile; a reminder perhaps of earlier days which he quickly dismissed from his mind. Not yet he thought.
He realised he was hungry. He checked his jacket for money or a wallet. He found the cash from the fruit machine, just enough for a packet of peanuts and another pint, it didn’t bother him that he could remember the price of beer and nuts. He swallowed the last of his pint and went to the bar.
“A pint of the usual George?”
The barmaid was looking directly at him; she was small and pretty with a bright smile and long dark hair pulled back into a pony tail. Bemused, he handed his glass over the bar and nodded. The girl took his glass, turned to the pump and pulled, the dark liquid frothed into the glass.
“Packet of dry roasted as well please.”
He took the beer and the nuts back to his table and sat down. He now had another puzzle, who is the pretty girl and is his name really George? Once again, the unfamiliarity of his surroundings began to impinge. He sipped the froth from the top of his pint. The familiar malty, nutty taste restored his equilibrium. He savoured the flavour and nibbled on the peanuts. The taste was as familiar as the odour of the beer. It was a comfort to him, he felt he was in a safe place, soothed by the warmth of the pub; the rise and fall of conversation lay like a comforting fleecy blanket around his shoulders.
He sat back and took another swallow of his beer; he felt that he had lost something. Somehow this wasn’t how it should really be. It was like he was missing a limb but still getting messages from the phantom nerves. He checked his watch again; he had a feeling he should be somewhere else. However, he felt comfortable where he was settled in the corner of the pub with a half-finished beer and a packet of nuts. Somehow it felt right, apposite, fitted to the moment.
The evening was slowly coming to an end, the rain was still pitter pattering the windows and the condensation had misted the glass removing all the details of the outside. He could still hear the traffic and he could picture the scene. The passers-by hunched against the downpour, hurrying from place to place trying to miss the worst of it, stepping round puddles and gushing drain pipes; a dance of the damp. Unfurled brollies gripped tight against the wind, the pedestrians head down fighting the elements intent on reaching their destinations as quickly as possible. Others were pacing rapidly through the rain as if speed would help keep them dry. Ruefully he shook his head; why do folk persistently try to avoid the inevitable. It’s raining – venture outside and you will get wet – get used to it, he thought. He just wished, wished what?
The door to the pub slammed back and a small blonde woman entered as if the wind had blown her in through the door. She looked tense, her eyes at first flashing round the room finally settled on him in his snug corner. She ran over to him, barging through the customers and hugged him.
His daughter – and it all came flooding back. The car, the accident, the funeral today, his beautiful wife wrenched from his grasp. He looked down and a tear dropped from his cheek.
“Oh Dad” she said, “There you are. We were so worried!”