It was a dark bar, not just in comparison to the strong sunshine outside, it was a dark bar by nature, by decor, sometimes by the mood of the customers. Half an hour after opening time the bar man was idly polishing glasses while leaning against the rear counter. The radio softly played, the volume so low that he could, if he listened for it, hear the ticking of the clock, the settling of the coals in the open fire as the sticks he’d used to start the flames burned through. Later on there would be noise a-plenty he knew well, for now he had the place ready for the day’s trade, he could quietly enjoy the peace and prepare himself for the long shift ahead.
His quiet thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a door opening. It was a gentle, almost apologetic sound. From where he stood the barman couldn’t see the street door into the little lobby but he could hear it, especially in the quiet of the early day. He had learnt a lot in his years in the job. The interpretation of sounds was skill he had unexpectedly developed since he started work in the trade as a sixteen year old earning summer money.
Without looking he knew that whoever was coming in was hoping there would be no one there. The early hour, the hesitant step told him so much. This was someone who wanted a drink, even so early, but also wanted discretion. For sure he would look around before picking the darkest end of the bar. Somewhere he could see whoever else came in, somewhere he could also make a quick and equally discreet exit out the back, through the yard, through the service gate and out on to the lane behind. Bending down to place the polished glass on a lower shelf he also figured that if all that was true, this was someone he knew.
Straightening up he turned around and said, “morning Bill, how are you? What can I do for you?” He was glad he had held his tongue abruptly when he almost said, ‘long time, no see.’
Even though true, it might not be what the customer wanted to hear. “You’re looking well,” he safely added, waiting for a reply while he quickly surveyed the man in front of him.
“Pull us a pint there, Tom, like a good man, and I’ll have a whiskey while I’m waiting.”
“No problem,” said Tom, safe to say more now that the order had been placed and the customer settled himself on a high stool at the end of the bar furthest from the main door, nearest the back door. “Haven’t seen you for a while Bill, have you been away?” Tom wondered what he would say, wondered again if what he had heard was true.
Sharply Bill looked at him, quickly looked away, “why, what have you heard?” There was an edge to the man’s voice that Tom couldn’t recall being there before.
“Nothing at all, Bill, nothing at all.” He put the whiskey and a small jug of water on the counter and turned to the beer tap, expertly holding the pint glass while the drink flowed. He also watched surreptitiously while Bill poured a little water into the whiskey, then taking a drink savoured it for a moment as if considering what he was doing. In an instant the contents of the glass were gone and he gave a little shudder. Tom reckoned he was reading all the signs right this morning.
Pleased with himself he placed the pint in front the customer, saying “there you are.”
He was taking the small glass away to put it in the dishwasher when he heard, “put another drop in that while you’re at it.”
Without comment he reached up to the dispenser to refill the glass. He heard a door open, this time the lesser used door from the yard, from the lane. Bill turned awkwardly on his stool trying to see who was coming at him from what he clearly felt was his vulnerable side.
“They’re pouring in today,” thought Tom as another man came in, also quietly, almost shuffling. He too checked around, taking in everything he could before mounting a stool two down the counter from Bill. The two men were similiar in age and demeanour.
“What’ll be, Andy?” the barman enquired, expecting by now that some drink or other would be ordered. Irrespective of the hour he knew Andy of old, although he too had been absent for a while. Nothing to do with me, he decided, as he waited patiently, listening now to the quiet so deep that he could even hear the clock ticking.
Andy settled a little bit more, shuffling on his stool, casting sidelong glance at Bill, avoiding eye contact with the barman, edgy in every way. He finally said, as if he had thought long and deep on a weighty subject, “pull us a pint there, Tom, like a good man, and I’ll have a whiskey while I’m waiting.” Saying that he glanced sideways along the bar confirming to himself from what he could see that Bill had ordered the same.
When Andy had tossed off the whiskey in one go, with no water, and had worked his way through half his pint of beer and repeated his instructions to Tom, only then did he turn to his neighbour and say, “well Bill, haven’t seen you in awhile, how have you been?”
“I was thinking much the same of yourself,” Bill was swirling the end of his beer around as if he might finish up at that. Tom decided to stand back, polish another glass and see what the two of them were at, what they might say.
“Will you have another?” Andy asked, nodding towards the glass. Bill responded by calling the barman over, “fill these up again,” he ordered gesturing towards the glasses on the counter, and winked discreetly at the smaller whiskey glass, making sure he understood that was to be included in the order as well.
“Thanks,” Andy said, “I’ll get the next one.” He was satisfied now that a flow of drink had been ensured, that the man beside him was perfectly happy, by the look of him, to go along with a morning’s drinking, no question about that
Relaxed now and easy in each other’s company the two men began to talk more freely, more openly. Andy tried again, “heard you were away for a while?” quickly adding, “I wasn’t around myself either.”
“Really? I didn’t know that, but then again, you’re right, how would I when I was away.” He thought for a bit and added, “where were you at anyway? I went in for a while myself, seemed like a good idea at the time.” He was careful not to specify anything too openly. If Bill knew what he was saying he’d know why.
Looking carefully at his companion, pausing carefully before saying anything, Bill chanced, “I was in St Anne’s for a few weeks, things were getting on top of me a bit, had to get out of circulation for a while.” He said no more, watching and listening for a reaction.
Andy shuffled the fresh whiskey glass in front of him around the counter in a repetitive circle, when the fresh beer appeared he lifted it, drank long, slow and carefully, placing it back on the counter carefully. Only then did he say, “I was in New Horizons Haven myself, same as you were saying, needed to get away for a while, spend a bit of time sorting out a few things, you know how it is.”
“Aye, that’s how it is, sometimes. It get’s to the point where you have to do something.”
Neither of them said anything for another while, each lost in his own thoughts. Tom polished a few more glasses, wiped down the far end of the counter, left behind the bar and went to refuel the fire, by now well settled and throwing out welcome heat. He knew of the places they mentioned, he knew hard drinkers sometimes went there for “the cure.” There were some and he never saw them again, there were some and he only heard of them when others spoke of their funerals, there were others, like the two there now, who went away for a while and came back, still shook, but maybe less so than they were when they disappeared. There was very little he felt he hadn’t seen or heard in his line of work down the years. Two early morning customers talking about the treatment centres they had been in didn’t surprise him at all.
Then there were three. The lobby door from the street entrance opened with a decisive, audible, swing. All of them looked up to see who was coming in now. Bill and Andy shifted slightly on their stools as if prepared to move if necessary, depending on who it was.
The newcomer strode purposefully towards the bar, nodded to the other two customers and sai, in a firm voice, almost as if rehearsed, “pull us a pint there, Tom, like a good man, and I’ll have a whiskey while I’m waiting.”
Taking his place on a stool two his hands shook as he fumbled in his pockets for money. Loose coins fell on the floor.
“Here,” said Bill, “let me help you with that Chris.” The two of them were peering down at the floor now, scattered coins catching their eye were picked up and left on the counter.
Andy said to the barman “I’ll get that and fill the others while you’re at it.”
“Thanks,” Chris said, “I’ll get the next one.” He settled himself back on the stool. His hands still shook as he lifted the whiskey to his lips and drank it in one steady movement. In the silence you could hear the glass hitting the counter as he left it down.
“So where have you been then?” asked Bill.
“I was telling him I’m just back from New Horizons,” added Andy.
Chris sipped some of the beer in front of him, his hands steadier now with the infusion of drink. “Yes,” he said, “I noticed you weren’t around much lately. Were you away too Bill?” Nobody said anything, Chris himself filled the silence by saying, “I came back out of the Dock Road about a month ago. Glad to be out of there I can tell you.”
Listening while trying to appear as if he wasn’t, the very essence of his trade, Tom was replacing the paper receipts roll in the register. It came to him after a few moments, the Dock Road Project was a new treatment centre for addiction problems of all sorts; food, gambling, drugs and he knew from others, drink.
Contemplating the almost empty beer glass in front of him Bill asked, as if to no-one in particular, as if thinking aloud, “so how’s it been going then?”
Nearing the end of his own pint Chris said, voice stronger again, “oh, you know yourself, good days and bad days.”
“Ain’t it always the same,” interjected Andy, “doesn’t change much, does it? You out long yourself?”
“Five weeks yesterday,” Chris replied, “fill them up there Tom, like a good man, will you please?” His hands gestured generally towards all the empty glasses on the counter. This time the barman took all the empties away, leaving them in the sink behind the counter, then wiping the counter in front of the three men clean.
“Fair play to you, you’re still ok. I only got out of St. Annes myself yesterday, needn’t tell you I’m glad to be here. I couldn’t stand it, supposed to help people, help my arse!” His voice had a bitter tone in it matched by a twisting of his features as he spoke.
Nobody said anything as the fresh round of drinks appeared before them, as they all drank thirstily, greedily, paying attention to the glass and only ready to converse again when they were momentarily satisfied.
Andy spoke next, “I left New Horizons this morning, got the bus straight to here. I couldn’t stand another day there.”
“So that’s your bag I nearly tripped over in the lobby then,” Chris laughed, “you were quick out of the traps.”
“The bag! You’re right! I nearly forgot it, I’d better bring it in out of the way.” He made as if to move towards the street door but Tom said, “it’s all right, I’m on it,” as he retrieved the bag. “I’ll leave it back here, you can get it later,” he said as he left it in the store room behind the bar.
“Oh yeah,” Andy continued, “I couldn’t wait to be out of there. Shower of fecking idiots telling you what to do, asking you how do you feel. How do you feel? I felt like a drink, that’s what I told them, I felt like a drink. Needless to say they weren’t impressed.”
Laughter spread along the counter, interspersed with coughing as drinks went down the wrong way. “Good man yourself,” commented Bill, “they don’t like hearing the truth, do they?”
“For sure they don’t,” Andy went on, “always on about it themselves but not able to handle it when it’s thrown back at them, and don’t start me on counsellors!”
Just then the first of the lunchtime crowd started coming in. Younger men and women, chattering away at higher volumes were quickly lining the bar, taking menus, drifting towards preferred corners, tables, seats. Extra bar staff in the form of young, black uniformed waitresses appeared from doorways beyond the bar, all bearing trays and little order notebooks, ready for action.
Quickly, before it was too late and they were overlooked in the crowd, Bill said, “pull us a few pints there, Tom, like a good man, and we’ll have a whiskey while we’re waiting.”
Once the spirits were in front of them Chris said, “we’ll move back over there Tom. Out of your way.”
“That’s right,” Andy added, “give you back a bit of counter space.”
Leaving notes on the counter Bill continued, “you can get one of the girls to bring over the pints when they’re ready.”
“Work away lads, work away,” Tom replied, already in a different, far busier frame of mind.
The three men went back towards the door leading to the lane. A corner there formed something of an alcove and there they settled around a low circular table. Physically they were bunched together much closer than they had been. After the drinks they’d had so far they neither noticed nor cared. With a full bar the background noise was much louder now. This only served to mask their own conversation, this they knew from experience.
Bill was curious about something, he asked Andy, “you’re out five weeks and it’s still OK?”
Sharply enough the reply came, “of course it is, why wouldn’t it be?”
“Hey, he didn’t mean anything by it. It’s just that…, you know, you were in…,” Chris interrupted Bill saying, “you were in a treatment centre, we all were. I’m just wondering, you know, you’re out five weeks and you’re still OK.”
Sipping his pint Andy relaxed, getting the point after all. He wondered if he had been a little bit slow following what was going on. That sometimes happened, he had noticed. He blamed the beta-blockers the Doctor prescribed for his heart flutters, which reminded him…
“Yeah, I’m doing all right. If you lads are worrying, don’t. Word of advice though, I’m thinking of changing Doctors. He’s the one who persuaded me to go there in the first place, almost forced me in.” He sipped some more, “definitely changing Doctor, he doesn’t suit at all.”
Chris turned to Bill, “how did you end up inside? I would never have put you down as a hard drinker.”
Laughing at the idea Bill answered, “no, you won’t find me sleeping rough under Green’s Bridge drinking rotgut wine!”
“Me neither,” added Andy.
Bill took his time before continuing, “they were on to me at work. I made a mistake and went in one Monday morning. Early. Not rightly ready. I nearly slept in and just rushed out without thinking, in a panic. I won’t get caught out that way again, needless to say!”
“God almighty, they could have given you a chance! That was a bit drastic!” Chris exclaimed.
“They said I’d done it before and that they’d noticed drink off me before, that there had been complaints before. I didn’t believe them, I have absolutely no memory of anything like that.”
They were silent then as some of the lunch time crowd passed by on their way out for cigarettes, laughing, smiling.
They sipped their drinks. Bill continued, “I’ve still got a week of sick leave left. I needn’t tell you I’m going to use it well after a few weeks in St. Anne’s!”
“Good man yourself,” Chris encouraged him.
“Yeah, well done Bill. There’s a bit slack up at the bar now, I’ll get us some more. Same again I presume lads?” Andy asked.
The other two nodded assent. Carrying some of the glasses with Andy made his way to the counter.
Tom turned around from completing an operation at the till, noticed Andy and asked him, “yes, all right? Another one?”
“Pull us a few pints there, Tom, like a good man, and we’ll have a whiskey while we’re waiting.”
Returning with the small glasses to their corner Andy was so intent on walking with the whiskey in his hand he almost bumped into one of the lunch time crowd.
“Sorry,” he said apologetically, not noticing the glare he received.
“What’s with your man?” Chris wondered, as they accepted the drinks.
“What? Didn’t notice anything?”
“You got a filthy look on your way back,” Bill observed.
“No matter, it’s just that bloody crowd. Think they own the place ‘cos they fill it up once a day.”
“You’re right, they wouldn’t keep going here without regulars like us.”
They fell silent each time any of the others passed by on their way to and from the smoking area. They ignored the occasional scornful glances cast their way. When one of the girls brought over their pints they silently accepted them. It was only when the rush died down, when the last of the lunch time crowd was gone and the settling of the fire, the ticking of the clock could be heard again, only then did they return to conversation.
Chris asked suddenly and out of the blue, “how many counsellors does it take to change a lightbulb?”
Andy said, “I don’t know, they discuss it in Group Therapy?” They all laughed at that.
Bill said, “they don’t, they form a coping with darkness group?” Again a round of laughter
Chris explained, “it only takes one, but the lightbulb really has to want to change!”