Friday, 19 November 2021

Pub Fiction: Rituals

A freezing easterly wind blew through the village as the old man limped to the doorway of the public house. He turned the cold handle and opened the door with a sharp creak, closing it quickly behind him and resting his palm for a moment on the brass push-plate, staring at the fading condensation marks from his fingers when he pulled his hand away. He turned and glanced at the others in the establishment as he rolled up his worn cap and shoved it into the deep pockets of his overcoat. Four men were lined out along the counter, their elbows on the dark mahogany countertop and their hands held in front of their mouths as if in prayer. They stared straight ahead, even when they took a sip from the small glasses sitting in front of each of them. Two well-dressed men were sitting at a table on low stools, one talking in whispered tones as the other nodded along, tipping the ash from his cigarette onto the floor at his feet.

He made his way to the bar where the man behind the counter looked up at him from his newspaper and without a word took a small bottle of stout from the shelf behind him and opened it before pouring it with care into a glass and placing it in front of the old man. He took some pennies from a small pouch in his pocket and put them on the counter, then he picked up the glass and walked to a table at the back of the small room, conscious of his ungainly gait and the eyes of the men at the counter, and the man behind it, on his back. As he sat down, he heard the scrape of his coins being removed from the counter and the sound of them being thrown into a drawer that held precious few other coins on a night like this.

The two men who had been talking got up, put on their caps and left with a small nod to the man behind the bar, letting in a blast of cold air that even managed to reach the corner where the man sat. There was silence in pub now, just broken by the wind that whistled outside and the rhythmic tic-toc of the clock that hung over the back of the counter, its pendulum swinging back and forth the only movement to be seen in the dim light from the lamps on the wall.

He lifted the glass to his lips and took a drink, being careful not to spill any of it as he did so, but he placed the glass back down on the table a little too clumsily when he was wiping the froth from his lip with the sleeve of his overcoat. The thud of the glass on the wooden tabletop broke the silence, causing one of the men at the bar to look over his shoulder towards the noise before finishing his whiskey and nodding to the man behind the bar for another, which he let it sit in front of him as he returned to the same pose as his fellow silent drinkers at the counter.

The old man thought about these nights and whether they really improved his mood, but the need for some interaction, even if it was almost hostile in nature was better than staying home and staring at the flames dancing in the peat of the hearth in his hollow house. He had hurt his leg that day repairing the wood and wire fence that marked the boundary of his little farm, and the two mile walk to the village had been difficult and painful, but it was Thursday night and this was the short journey he undertook four nights a week every week to this public house in the village, where he drank two small bottles of stout before making his way back to his own house over the hill. He could not call his house a home, as a home was something comforting, a place you felt a part of, or an attachment to at least. It had ceased to be such a thing when his wife had died three years previously, and as they had not been able to have any children he was alone now in the house and in the world, or so it seemed to him. Since her funeral his life at become a series of tasks to be mentally ticked off every week or month, an existence to be lived through more than an actual life.

And this was one such undertaking, something that had to be done, like the sparse shopping he did once a month in the big town, or mass on a Sunday morning followed by a visit to the graveyard that fell away from the site of the church into what seemed to him to be the coldest part of world at times. But it was these habits that kept him functioning in this world and gave his life at least some sense of vague purpose, if only for his own sanity. He felt he was destined to perform these rituals until his body finally gave in to age and he would once again see his darling wife. He could picture her now when he closed his eyes, see her as she was in her youth. She had been a striking woman with jet black hair, skin like porcelain and green eyes that flashed and twinkled when she smiled. Even as she aged, and even as that foul disease had ravaged her body her eyes remained pure and youthful right to the end. He opened his own eyes and stared at his drink, blinking the wetness from them, as no man in this parish could be seen to be crying. He picked up his glass again and finished the remaining liquid in one go before standing up carefully and with some trouble from his lame leg going to the bar.

A bottle opened, poured, placed, and paid.

He returned to his table and stared at the clock, listening to the tic-toc and watching the pendulum, wishing he could make it go faster and that he could force time to jump forward in huge leaps to get to where he wanted to be, but knowing it was a futile task. Things happened at their own pace and the progression of the hours, weeks, months and years could not be affected by the hopes and wants of a tired old man. His leg ached even more now and as he looked at one of the men at the bar raising his glass to his lips it occurred to him that perhaps a something stronger than stout might help with the pain. He held up his thumb and forefinger an inch apart to the man behind the bar, who looked down at him curiously before pouring out a small glass and bringing it to him. He placed it beside the glass of stout, taking the worn pennies that the old man had left out for it.

He drank back the whiskey in one go and followed it with a gulp of stout to wash the taste away, but it still burned his throat and caused him to cough. He grabbed a handkerchief from his pocket and held it to his mouth as he sat there, all the while the four men at the bar stared at him via the reflection of the long mirror that hung behind the bar. He felt embarrassed at not being able to take to whiskey but in truth he was not a big drinker, and rarely had anything stronger than his small bottles. The men leaning on the bar returned to their drinks and thoughts, and the man behind it stood looking at the door and then his pocket watch, before glancing back at the old man briefly.

He thought he felt the pain easing in his leg so with that belief in his head, and wanting to show the other men he could hold his drink, he cleared his throat and signalled for another whiskey. The barman hesitated at first but eventually stretched for the bottle and went through the same routine again, removing the empty glass and replacing it with a full one. More pennies scarped along the rough wooded table.

This time he sipped it, taking care not to breathe in as he did so and having a smaller gulp of his remaining stout after each drink. He immediately began to feel better, as the pain was almost gone from his leg and he felt a numbing cloud form around the thoughts in his head. Perhaps this could be a new part to his weekly routine he thought, on Thursdays he would add a couple of small ones to his stouts, especially on cold nights like this. Yes, that is what he would do. And look, time was moving quicker now too, the clock had jumped forward and the four men had left one by one, disappearing quietly and separately into the night so that now it was just him and the man behind the bar left in the place in the near silence.

The clock chimed on the hour and the man behind the bar got up and started tidying away glasses, draping a towel over them before counting the money and recording it in a small notebook which he dropped into the drawer and locked with the turn of a key. The old man nodded to him and slowly if a little unsteadily got to his feet, raising a hand towards him to say he was fine. The man from behind the bar followed him to the door and waited until he buttoned up his overcoat, retrieved the cap from the pocket and venture out into the cold night, before locking the door behind him and turning off the lights.

The old man was now standing in the middle of the rutted road, the pain in his leg just a dull ache as he started a little unsteadily toward home. He felt warm inside for the first time in months if not years. The full moon was in his back, as was the cold wind. He watched his dim shadow dance on the uneven road as he made his way up the hill, the few lights still shining in the houses in the village quickly falling behind him as he walked onwards.

He passed the abandoned farms and the houses that stood like roofless bunkers in the moonlight, inhabited only by the long-lost memories of the people who lived there in his youth. He crested the top of the hill and looked down on his own bleak house, roofed but with the same lost ghosts of his past waiting inside the door. He stood for a moment staring at that building of cold stone and ancient timber before feeling a sense of loss creep up along the road and settle into his bones, replacing the warmth that was there just minutes before. He wanted to turn back, back to the pub for maybe one more drink if the man from behind the bar would let him back in, so he started to return to the village before stopping suddenly. Foolish, he thought to himself, and he turned again back towards home, but his bad leg suddenly gave way and he stumbled sideways, falling towards the ditch. He put out his hands to save himself but his foot slipped on a shallow muddy puddle and he was falling backwards now instead, with the whole world tilting away from him. He heard a loud crack and an intense pain in the back of his head, then he was staring at the sky.

Even with the moon at its fullest, the stars were bright and twinkling. He no longer felt cold or pain and the stars were dancing now and changing, coalescing into a pair of green eyes that sparkled and shone in a pale face surrounded by black hair …

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