Tony saw Gerald had his eyes closed and took out a cloth to wipe up the trickle of stout that had spent the last five minutes inching its way down from the rim of Gerald’s glass and across the oak bar top.
He dabbed at the bottom of the pint glass while Gerald sat with his two hands nestled around its curve.
“Won’t be long now, will it?” said Mike.
“No, I’d say not,” answered Tony. “Normally it’s when he’s on his third pint. That’s only his second tonight but he told me he’s on an empty stomach as he’s all out of tinned spaghetti.”
“Christ,” said Mike. “Isn’t he getting wheels on meals or something?”
Mike tapped his fingers on the bartop and looked up at the nine o’clock bulletin of the news channel Tony had put on the TV when he opened the pub at two. For some reason, Tony tended to always have the TV on a very low volume – not muted but not audible without straining your ears either.
“Any more of those young ‘uns in here recently?” asked Mike.
“Yeah,” said Tony, “two groups of them on Saturday night.”
“Oh,” said Mike.
He slurped at his beer and looked across to Gerald, who had brought his forehead close to his glass in a gesture that seemed to show increased concentration. Gerald’s lower lip was quivering – perhaps he was trying to whisper something, perhaps from emotion.
Mike sniffed. The dampness that always hung around Gerald’s tweed jacket had a slightly putrid whiff to it tonight. Poor Gerald. He’d told Mike once, back when his speech was fairly lucid, that news of the death of their son, and only child, in Australia had brought him and Ivy closer together than ever before. Now she was gone too.
“I was round Cartwright Court to see George and Belinda the other week, and you wouldn’t believe how many there are. All these posh bikes chained up outside,” said Mike.
“Christ, I wouldn’t leave a bike round there even if it was anchored into the bleeding pavement,” said Tony.
Mike eyed the barman with a smile as he watched him take a spotless glass from the rack above the bar and wipe it. He considered joking about Tony’s unnecessary cleaning but decided not to.
“’Apparently they’re getting leaflets all the time asking if they’ll sell their flat to a buy-to-let. Saying they can get 200 grand for it,” said Mike.
“Get away!” said Tony.
“They’ll be trying to turn this place into a wine bar next,” said Mike.
“It’s all theirs for a bottle or two or Rioja,” said Tony, who had moved onto wiping his next dry glass.
Mike took the opportunity to look around. He took in the tarred seams of the chintz wallpaper that had long ago peeled off at various corners to reveal pockmarked plaster. It must have been a while since Tony had even straightened the pictures on the wall – one of the 1987 pub darts team had a striking slant. ‘I don’t need no fancy gimmicks’, was Tony’s mantra whenever a regular suggested a refurbishment, and there was some truth to this. No visual features were needed for the sense of comforting isolation the pub provided – the sturdy black door with its big brass handle that had always creaked in exactly the same places was enough.
Tony nudged Mike on the elbow. “Here we go,” the barman whispered.
Mike swivelled around to see Gerald’s shaky right hand lift his stout up towards his lips. Gerald’s eyes were half open now, and focused fully on beholding the glass. He held the glass in front of his lips for a few seconds before kissing it gently on the rim and placing it back down, closing his eyes.
Tony shook his head and Mike put his hand to his mouth to smother a giggle. To avoid laughing, he avoided making eye contact with Tony for a while, and instead focused on the wild splatter of countless punctures in the corkboard and wall around the dartboard, accrued over the years.
“Could be handy if you ever want to sell this place,” said Mike.
“What’s that?” asked Tony.
“Having all those youngsters in here,” said Mike.
Tony mumbled a laugh.
Mike took his phone out to check for any messages from his wife. Tony was rattling some glasses around overhead, and Gerald was now moving his hand up and down to caress his pint glass. How long this went on for, Mike couldn’t say. It was one of those moments were life just seemed to freeze and before resuming again.
Which it did. Suddenly.
Mike’s right arm jumped in fright as he heard the creak of the door and the dim light of the spring evening crept along the wall to the bar, before being shut out back to the world outside again.
He was aware that instead of the usual lumbering in of the regular customers, there was a sheepish pitter-pattering on the sticky floor behind him.
Mike could see Tony scratching one of his eyebrows.
He looked to his side as two faces pulled up alongside and below him at the bar. A young man with curly hair sprouting in all directions, angular-framed glasses and a pastel-coloured jumper that reminded him of a doormat he had decades ago. Then his friend, and possibly also his lover – a young girl with long jet black hair, an oval face, a leather jacket over her sweater and shiny black leggings.
“Do you serve mojitos?” asked the young man.
“This isn’t a curry house,” said Tony. “We used to do bacon sandwiches on a Sunday afternoon but we ain’t doing any food at the moment pal.”
The young man reddened in the face and swapped several glances with his friend.
“I’ll have a pint of bitter and a tap water then please,” said the young man.
“Fine,” said Tony, reaching for a glass and the tap.
The pub returned to its normal level of quietness, with a newsreader – who was summarising the local football and cricket news on the TV in an enthusiastic tone – becoming the centre of attention.
Mike looked across to Gerald, who was now sat upright with his eyes closed and lower lip quivering away. He saw the young man moving along the bar towards Gerald and felt his heart beating. Then came the sound of the empty stool on Gerald’s right, on the far side of the bar, being dragged a little across the floor before the man jumped up on it and took out his wallet – leaving it on the bar top.
“Don’t” said Tony, and “please” said Mike, both speaking at the same time and stretching their hands out towards the young man.
“This man’s wife sits there,” said Tony, pointing to Gerald. “She’s –” he looked at Mike for help.
“She’s in the toilet,” said Mike.
“Oh,” said the youngster surprised, “well we’ll go to a table to have our drinks, I was just going to count out some change here.”
Gerald then turned his head to see the young man and emitted a deep prolonged shriek. The man climbed down, alarmed, and tugged on the sleeve of his friend’s jacket.
“You know what, I think I better go back home, sorry,” said the young man. “I’ll leave you a fiver – I guess that should cover the pint?”
“But what about the tap water?” asked Tony. The young man reddened again.
“Only kidding you!” said the barman.
The pair returned to the door much more quickly than they had come in and Mike heard it swing shut.
“On the house!” said Tony, placing the freshly poured pint of bitter in front of Mike.
Mike went to place the empty stool back where it had been at Gerald’s side.
The weather report was followed by a few minutes of nothingness.
Then, Gerald turned to the seat on his right.
“Pleased to meet you, Miss!” he said, his words slow and gravelly. “There was some rotter trying to pinch your seat but I think I scared him off.”
“Ivy Buttleworth, you say?” Gerald continued. “What a splendid name! You’re the stationmaster’s daughter are you? I must say I have a great interest in the latest locomotives myself, but I suppose that kind of talk is quite the tedium for you.” He laughed.
“I’m going out for a smoke” said Tony, “just keep on eye on him will you? You know, make sure he doesn’t come off his stool again when he starts waltzing with Ivy.”