The question had first been posed before they stepped in there – but through the course of the day, answers had been promised, and resolutions forgotten. Now, as the final strains of an evening began to dip beneath slated rooftops, it was time to put history to rest.
Waiting, courteously and awkwardly, as the Eastern European barman tended to another customer – a regular – he remembered their meeting, 17 years previously. The old gentleman being dealt with had shuffled into the place alongside them, and now sat with his pennies out on the bar. They were assembled in piles, in columns, perhaps testament to the hours of a working day, or a glance ahead to another evening to be drowned in an inexorable procession of sharp, stinging drinks.
He recalled his first impressions of George, a firm handshake, a strong jaw, & the elegant ease with which he greeted alien company, and then settled down amongst them. That day, like this, had been beautiful, steady, a gift for the emptiness of a weekend, a prayer answered, a funeral adorned. Despite the uglier times; disputes in a downpour for example, or the betrayal of winter, he felt that George belonged in a day like today.
Obviously, that first day, it would have been impossible to have imagined all that would pass between them. Impossible to have envisaged the effortlessness of that initial phase – their becoming friends, the simplicity of their company, or the pure pleasure they both took from days shared or evenings planned. It would have been impossible to have imagined, back then, how she would enter their lives; how she would have anchored George, and tormented him. How she would have come, and how she would have departed; leaving them now as awkward, courteous strangers.
‘So, will you tell me?’
George’s question cut through their fumbled dialogue, and cast off the flimsy veneers of affection and familiarity that had thus far permitted their drink together. He didn’t think about her straightaway, he tried to remember the name of the beer he had ordered only minutes before, to place the barman’s odd fidgety accent, and to imagine whether the old gentleman who had walked in with them had his coins arranged in piles of pennies of akin value, or whether each column accorded to the price of his next order.
He placed down his glass, and their eyes met.
‘It was the morning, about nine, nine thirty. She knocked, and she entered. She sat, and she smoked… and she spoke…’
He paused, squinted and caught sight of something. George exhaled, a combination of fear and frustration.
‘She said she loved you George’
With that he broke down. The old man, lost in conversation elsewhere, flailed his arms too wildly, and a drizzle of coppers cascaded onto the wooden floor.
George stared out of the window for a moment, just a moment, long enough to realise, and long enough to forgive. He took one more gulp, in silence, and took his coat.