Max found himself in a bar. He had only just pushed through the doors and entered the room and yet it was all a little vague.
He remembered standing out on the street and that the bar had seemed familiar. He had stepped into the foyer but the doors on either side of him were locked or at least he hadn’t been able to open them, and so he had climbed the stairs and there he was, standing on the threshold as the doors behind swung to.
When younger, Max had often stopped off on his way home from work for a drink or two. But he hadn’t done this in years and he hadn’t any memory of this particular bar.
He wanted to turn and scurry away; return home to his wife who was waiting and would, if he lingered here, begin to wonder and worry about where he was.
The barman, hunched over a newspaper, straightened up and looked across at him. Max moved into the room and not until he had reached the bar and placed his hands on it did he order his drink.
‘A Stella, please,’ he said.
The barman nodded and Max watched intently as he poured the drink and then placed it on top of a plastic drip tray. He continued to stare down at the glass, shuffling on his stool making himself comfortable. Readying for the moment when he would lift the glass and take his first sip.
As Max reached for the drink he glanced along the bar and noticed for the first time the old man sitting at the far end. He was watching Max with a look of amusement on his face. The face was pockmarked, his nose bulbous, a drinker’s nose, and his grey hair was long and greasy. He was wearing a white shirt and black shiny trousers. He was smoking a cigar and drinking whiskey and beer straight from a bottle.
The man laughed, a gruff but not unfriendly growl, and turned away to concentrate once again on his cigar, on the whiskey and the beer.
The old man had unsettled Max but when he looked across at him again Max saw he hadn’t any interest in him, that the moment had passed. Max was shocked by the sudden seething he felt inside.
Perched uncomfortably on his stool with a drink he didn’t want and trapped for as long as it would take to finish it in a place where he didn’t want to be, Max realised that he was envious of the old man. He appeared so at ease, belonging in a way that Max couldn’t. Fleetingly, he wished that he could feel how it felt to sit hunched over a drink with a cigar and for that tiny square of bar to be all that mattered.
The old man was moving. All of a sudden he was pushing himself up from the stool. His jacket was on and the cigar clenched between his teeth. He was set for the street and disappeared through the doors. For another bar, Max supposed, and for a moment he was tempted to follow but he quickly crushed this ridiculous notion.
‘Who was that?’ he asked.
The barman didn’t answer but studied Max warily and he didn’t need to say it, it was written there bright and bold. It was written there in neon – why should I tell you and why do you care? But at last he did speak.
‘I don’t know.’ he said.
‘Is he a regular?’ Max pushed.
‘Yeah,’ the barman laughed. ‘Yeah, a regular, you could say that.’
Max hung on grimly that night and tried to make sense of his obstinacy. It wasn’t that he expected the old man would return, but the barman had reignited his anger and he felt that in the space of less than half an hour he had twice been belittled.
It was ridiculous, he knew, but to simply get up and walk away, to go back to his wife and his life would have seemed to him like giving in. And so he stayed put and sat quietly sipping at glass after glass of ice cold Stella.
The next night the old man didn’t show and the following week he still didn‘t show. In fact it would be months before he re-appeared but it didn’t matter; Max realised that this, whatever it was, wouldn’t be resolved quickly, that it would take time.
He supposed that there were other bars like this one, places set apart from the everyday. Places that were almost forgotten and where only the lifers hung out but places that were lonely and ultimately lifeless.
He thought about searching for the old man, seeking out these other places, trawling through the bars and clubs scattered across the city. But no, to go to so much effort didn’t feel right, it wasn’t the way. And so he waited and as the weeks progressed and he settled into it in earnest the waiting seemed apt, felt right.
Max stared into space, he didn’t interact with others and nobody tried to draw him. He hardly needed to speak. Whenever his bottle was empty the barman would replace it. There was no acknowledgement between them and after a month or so Max suspected he had forgotten entirely their encounter on that first night.
He started to bring a newspaper and wrestling with it at the bar he quickly became adept at turning the pages with barely a rustle, folding and refolding it, hunched over it, intent on the newsprint, soaking it all up. He was still interested at least but beyond the bar he felt numb and couldn’t function.
His work was suffering and his wife, who at first had been concerned and confused, was growing angrier every day. He could lose her, Max was all too aware that he could lose it all if this didn’t end. An adventure without incident, this story that he wouldn’t ever be able to tell needed a conclusion.
When the old man did reappear it was without fanfare. Max glanced up from his newspaper and there he was, standing alongside him. Max looked down again but in that instant he had noticed just how much the old man had changed. He looked younger, healthier, his face was less florid and he was dressed differently, in a bright Hawaiian shirt, baggy chinos and comfortable shoes.
The old man turned and Max watched openly as he moved along the bar, reinserting himself, finding his place.
Max supposed that a woman was involved and that the old man had quite happily allowed himself to be remoulded a little and why not? He hoped that she hadn’t deserted him yet, that they still had some time.
Max pushed up from the stool and lifted his bottle. He had just a mouthful and for the first time in months he was eager to leave.
Illustration by Christine Renney