|A Quiet Drink
I hadnt been to The Moon & Bucket for months. The management must have changed because one of the walls had been shelved with fake books, but I recognised a couple of regulars on the other side of the bar and nodded to them. Im talking here about the regular regulars, the ones who pretend they dont have wives or kids between opening hours, but go home and rediscover them later, the way you might take off your shoes and socks and be confronted with the depressing reality of your feet.
I dont have the complication of family ties. You dont when you share a boarding house with three men. Its more of a bedsit really, although, well, Id rather not describe it in detailjust imagine living in a room where, if youre not in the bathroom, you can always see the fridge. So anyway, there I was sitting on a bar stool with my pint, not thinking about anything in particular, considering the optics, wondering if I could afford to splash out on a whisky chaser, and thats when I saw her, emerging from behind a frosted panel of glass. She spotted me, widened her eyes, and then she was walking over, cool as you like, wearing that expensive leather coat I bought her for Christmas four years ago. Hello stranger, she said, taking the stool beside mine and ordering her usual, as if this was the most normal situation in the world. I didnt reply straight away because the truth was, I couldnt; I had a mouthful of my own heart. My left hand was jittering slightly against the pint glass but I said, as casually as I could manage, Anja.
`Well, she said, handing over a tenner for her gin and tonic, it had to happen sooner or later, I suppose. How longs it been?
She never was any good at remembering thingssong lyrics, directions, what time to come home, the fact that she said she loved me and would never leave me, that kind of thing.
Eight months, I said, then cursed myself for knowing. Something like that, I said, which only made it worse.
Eight months, she repeated, and smiled at me in a complicated way I cant describe because it had affection and sadness in it all at once, and everything in me lurched towards her and I thought, Shit, shit.
I thought you were in France?
I was for a while, she said without offering any explanation. Youre looking really well. This might have been a lie, I dont known, but at least Id shaved earlier in the day.
So are you, I said. And she was. Her hair was longer and she must have just brushed it because it seemed to be shining, and she was wearing this dark red top that sort of clung to her without being really tight. I noticed her nails were done in this pearly polish, and that reminded me of a holiday we took to Martinique when shed sit on the balcony in her bikini, lazily painting her toenails. Anja always took care of her nails. I used to buy her these little bottles of polish, it became a thing with us; shed like me to find the ones with the most exotic names, Coffee Lust or Aubergine Gold or Morello Nipple, whatever it was. Stupid.
She asked if I was waiting for someone, and I say no, I just popped out for a quiet drink and she said, isnt that strange, because she did too and she hardly ever comes in here now. But neither of us said what we were really thinking, neither of us used the F word, that old bugger of a cliché, Fate.
Anya was never fazed about going into pubs alone. If some bloke gave her hassle shed tell him to get lost. Unless she liked the look of him. That was part of the trouble, too many quiet drinks that turned into too many messy, destructive ones. I thought about that, which made me remember the night she left, and the other sleepless nights that followed, when she didnt come back, even though I rang her up drunk and promised her one last chance. Just one, just one last chance to lie next to me again in our bed and let herself be forgiven. I stopped myself from remembering the pieces of the story after that, how it all went wrong without herlosing my job and then having nowhere but the bedsit with the divorced men.
So, I said, in a deliberately amusing here we are then kind of way, raising one eyebrow. This is something I learned to do at primary school and Ive found it comes in handy. My nine times table dissolved and floated away years ago, but I can still raise an eyebrow, skim stones, make an owl noise with my hands and kick a football over a house.
So, she said, and laughed. I wished Id been wearing my blue jumper instead of the stale sweatshirt Id had on all day,
Shall we sit down? I gestured to a private corner of the pub, the part with the red velour booths they call the snug. She nodded and followed me to the soft seats and we took off our coats and settled in.
We talked about this and that. I had a hard time concentrating on the conversation for the first few minutes because while I was speaking, allowing the words to come out in a recognisable order, another part of me simply wanted to stare at her. Look, thats the mouth. Look at the mouth. Those are the ears, and the white skin inside the wrists, and there in the crook of her elbow, remember how soft. I managed to get myself under control and once wed moved past the weather, and the state of the pub, she started trying to exchange news about people wed both known. But I dont know them anymore; I stopped seeing them because they reminded me of her. She talked about her work, which was going well, and I tried to say as little as possible about my own circumstances, managing to talk about other things instead, films and music, and so on. I made her laugh, and the sound of her laughter came as a deep dark thrill, a pleasure I thought was lost to me forever. Then we started asking each other, Do you remember when and What about the time that we and I started thinking of funny things so I could hear her laugh again.
After wed done that for a while, I eventually brought myself to say, And hows Pete? I had to say it, I didnt want to, she must have known I wouldnt care if his face had been eaten off by pigeons. Pete, the artist, Pete the bohemian who could take her on wild adventures and show her what it meant to be in love and reckless, while all I could do was take her on expensive holidays and sooth her when she was tired and tell her she was beautiful and how much I loved her.
I dont know, she said, looking at the table, Pete and I arent together any more.
Oh, right, sorry to
No youre not, she said.
Youre right, Im not.
And we both smiled. Inside I was rejoicing, of course, I was doing the Samba, I was jumping around on a pogo stick.
The thing is, she said, I didnt know when I was well off, and then she looked at me seriously and gave me that sad smile again. My immediate reaction was, Did she just say that? Did I hear correctly? And I actually pinched my leg under the table to make sure I hadnt nodded off on the horrible green sofa again and was about to wake up with crusted dribble on my chin, like all the other times. But no, shed said it.
A couple of kids came in then to use the cigarette machine, loud and joking. The boy looked like an indie pop star, his fringe was too long and he had on some kind of army surplus jacket, and the girl was wearing those skinny jeans that are fashionable again now. A quick glance told me she was pretty. I didnt know Anja at that age but I imagine she would have had all the boys in a frenzy, poor sods. I was still trying to take in what shed said, but the girl began squealing about something and when we turned round to register the noise hed slid both his hands into the pockets of her jeans and was pulling her in for a kiss, the kind of kiss that is really a statement: We arent afraid. Anja and I looked away.
So what happened. I mean, in France?
Anja shrugged. Pete thought he was going to paint, and I gave up my job for a while so we could find a place. He kept raving about the light, telling me about all these great artists whod gone to work there, Cezanne and Picasso and blah blah blah. But he didnt paint. All he did was lie around in his shorts with a bottle of wine. I got bored. I knew, only too well, what could happen when Anja got bored. I wondered if shed met up with Pierre or Jean-Luc or Vivienne instead. Anyway, I dont want to talk about that. Thats all over now, she said deliberately, sliding her bracelet around her wrist in a slow circle, and fixing her eyes on me. Before I knew what I was doing, Id reached out to touch her. Then we were holding hands, her fingers with their pearl nails were curled around mine, and I wanted her again, I wanted her like the first time. My heart was beating hard. When I was well off. Her words. I imagined my hand on the white crescent of her hip, I was thinking about burying my head deep down into her hair. One more drink would do it.
Same again? I asked.
She glanced absently at her near-empty glass and nodded. I got to my feet and she got to hers.
Wont be a tick, she said, just popping to the Ladies.
And in the coy way women have when they know youre watching them, she sashayed through the tables. I stood watching her, and when her hand hit the swing door I reached for the leather coatthe three-hundred quid leather coatand I was outside walking briskly through the cold night air.
Kathryn Simmonds 2006
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Kathryn Simmonds lives in north London. Her short stories have appeared in print and been read on BBC Radio 4, and her poetry pamphlet, Snug is published by Smith/Doorstop Books. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, and is finishing a first collection of stories.
See also This Little Piggy from issue 42
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Issue 54: July - August 2006
|f i c t i o n
Josip Novakovich: Ideal Goalie
Julian Daragiati: World Cup
Nickolay Todorov: Penalty in Injury Time
Rob McClure Smith: Easterhouse
Alex Mitchell: The Society for Recreating the Hachiko Statue
Kathryn Simmonds: A Quiet Drink
picks from back issues
Irvine Welsh: A Fault on the Line
Suhayl Saadi: Sufisticated Football
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