No Ice

“I feel better as it gets dark”, said the bloke sitting next to me at the bar.

To be accurate, I sat next to him.

It had been a long day, and I needed a drink, but you don’t have to worry about me. I only drink now and again, and today was a big ‘again’.

There are rules about sitting next to someone at a bar. Something like the rules about standing next to someone when you need to pee — you don’t do it unless there is nowhere else to stand. You just don’t — end of story.

When I lurched into the bar (I’d never noticed it before, but I took a wrong turn on the way to the station and there it was), I was focused on the aroma and sting that goes with an excellent single malt scotch. I wasn’t thinking about the logistics of obtaining one (except that I expected to get stung on price, happy hour or no happy hour, and I wasn’t disappointed).

I could have tried to attract the barman’s attention, and I did try, but it seemed like a good idea to sit down — this was going to take a while.

As soon as I did, my bum said thank you, and I sank into the soft leather (soft leather barstool equals a twenty-per cent premium on drinks — you learn these things as you get older).

The bloke on my left stuck his elbow out just a little and turned slightly away — a clear ‘don’t even think about starting a conversation, and why the hell do you need to sit there?’

I got the message and the eye of the bartender. I ordered something smoky and rich, and it arrived in a flash. It was a waste of time saying, ‘no ice’ because the bartender was intent on getting through the next two hours without having to use his brain unduly. I flicked the ice onto the polished wooden bar without spilling too much golden liquid. The cubes clustered together, then slowly slid down the bar.

“Floors not level,” I said to no one in particular.

“You don’t worry about stuff like that once it gets dark,” said the bloke on my right.

Conversation alert.

“I used to be a shopfitter,” I said, knowing that any chance of having a quiet drink was well in my rearview mirror.

“In that suit?”

“No mate. A long time ago before suits were invented. I was an apprentice. We got called in when shops changed hands or when some bloke wanted to expand into the shop next door. New windows, display cases, counters, walls, stuff like that. They made me do skirting boards for six months. I got to be pretty good at it.”

The bloke on my left looked at me for a few seconds longer than was necessary.

“There’s this magic switch that goes off when it gets dark. It’s a different world,” he said.

“Do you work at night?” I said.

“Used to. Not any more. Too old.”

He didn’t look too old, but maybe night work rules differed.

I gave him a scan. His jacket was old but well kept. His trousers were even older and a bit shinny. His shoes were black leather and of indeterminate age. I couldn’t see his shirt from where I was sitting, but he had an old grey felt hat sitting on the bar in front of him. He expertly lifted the hat to let the ice cubes float by.

“Stupid bugger never listens when you say ‘no ice’,” he said, flicking his head toward the harried barman.

The manœuvre with the hat was handled with his left hand. His right hand never let go of his glass.

An experienced drinker’, I thought.

“I still sleep during the day and stay up at night. Some habits are hard to break,” he said.

Our conversation was carried out while staring at our drinks.

I’ve had conversations like this before. No eye contact means something. Usually, it denotes a tired soul.

“So, what is it about the dark?” I said.

While he gathered his thoughts, I glanced at the bar’s mirror. It was now completely dark outside, and I hadn’t noticed. A bit like going into a movie in the afternoon and coming out in the dark.

The bloke with the hat straightened up and looked over his shoulder. He tilted his head back and drained his glass. Finally, he turned and looked me in the eyes.

“You seem like a good bloke but I don’t have time to talk now, it’s dark outside. It’s my time and I don’t like to waste any of it. You look after yourself young fella. Nice suit, by the way. Shame to waste it on that job of yours.”

He grabbed his hat, adjusted it at a rakish angle and slid off his stool like a teenager.

While I was thinking of something to say, he was gone. Swallowed up by the night he purported to love.

The bar was beginning to thin out as the inaccurately named ‘happy hour’ came to a close.

The bartender looked an inch taller.

“Get you anything else mate?” he said.

“More ice would be good,” I said, and he didn’t get it, but I ended up with a glass full of ice.

“Do you know the bloke who was sitting next to me? Grey felt hat, dusty jacket?” I said.

“Seen him a few times. Someone said he used to be famous.”

“Famous for what?” I said.

“Buggered if I know. Just famous.”

And there it was, ‘just famous’.

But that’s the thing about fame. One day you’re Kate Bush, and the next day you’re Kate who?

I nursed my drink for a few more moments, then ventured out into the night. But, of course, by now, the trains will be half full, and I’ll get a seat all the way home.

The walk to the station was fresh and uneventful. I didn’t bump into anyone, and no one asked me for anything.

The bloke with the hat was right; it feels better when it gets dark.

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