The Scottish Arts Club announced the shortlist for their 2018 short story award last Saturday. This piece, “Going for a drink,” was entered. It was an expansion of a piece I wrote in the spring. It came nowhere.
Hadn’t he been told that he had the looks of a film actor? Standing in the hall, he looked at his reflection in the mirror, a fine figure of a man. Sandy, cropped hair, firm face, muscular neck, he adjusted the collar of his shirt, bought new the previous day. He carried a few pounds excess weight, but it was not fat, just the solidity that came upon a man of his age. Putting on a dark jacket, slipping his wallet into an inside pocket, he opened the front door and stepped out onto the pavement. The earlier chill of the day had passed, the wind had turned south and there was a sense of spring, there was still light in the sky beyond the end of Factory Street. He loved the feeling that spring was coming, the longer daylight, the mildness of the evenings, the re-acquaintance with places not visited during the months of winter, conversations with those you might meet along the way.
Music greeted him at the bar doorway, a singer half of his own age stood at the far of the room, earnest in his performing a song to which most of those present seemed indifferent. It was hard earned money, singing in a pub. Catching the eye of a bartender, he ordered beer, placing payment upon the bar as the glass was handed to him. The bartender gathered the coins and opened the till. The payment had been exact, that was the sort of man he was, a straight man, a man you could do business with.
Turning, he scanned the faces around him, looking for one familiar. The tale of a good win on the horses yesterday deserved to be shared with someone who would appreciate it. A man for whom he had done the odd day’s work stood deep in conversation with someone not unlike himself. Perhaps it was a business matter. He walked over to them, offering them both warm greetings. The man who resembled himself stopped talking; he appeared to have lost his train of thought and he stepped back, standing in silence, as if resenting the interruption. It must have been a dull conversation, if it could come to so sudden an end. If a new arrival had joined him in the midst of a story, he would have retold what the person had missed so they could enjoy the whole thing for themselves. He was a good storyteller, there would always be laughter when he had finished.
The chat between the three of them was no more than brief. The man for whom he had done the odd day’s work said he was sorry to go so hastily but that he needed to go to a meeting. He turned and left, as if in a hurry to be somewhere, the other man nodded and said he hadn’t realised the time and that he must also go. It was strange that anyone needed to go to a meeting on a Sunday night. It must be important. That was the way of work, though, you had to take it when it came along or someone else would get it – and the payment that went with it. It was always good to have cash in your pocket; people liked a man with money to spend.
A woman he recognised from the filling station sat at a table with two companions. Wasn’t she the sister of the one from the factory whose husband he had worked with in London? It was good to know about someone’s background, you could avoid mistakes with a bit of digging. Picking up a chair, he nodded to them and sat at their table, leaning forward to greet each of them individually. He had hardly had the time to discover their names, when he found himself alone. The three of them declared that they must go to the house of a friend who was holding a party. For a moment, he considered suggesting that he might join their company at the party. Wouldn’t any of them have been pleased to be arriving with a man like himself? There would be no need for them to make small talk with strangers if he was in their company. He decided that, on this occasion, his acquaintance with the woman was not sufficiently strong to do so, but he would keep an eye on her, someone who had friends who held parties might be a fun friend to have. He would call at the garage in the morning and ask her about the party, he would assess whether it would have been worth going along with them, decide whether he should listen out for the next party they might attend.
Rising from the party-goers table, he stood and looked around for someone who would enjoy an evening’s chat. In the far corner of the bar sat a woman alone, engrossed in her phone, he would make a welcome diversion from such dullness. Intent on the screen, the woman did not notice as he approached. Only when he sat down did she look up, “Sorry, I’m waiting for a friend – that’s their seat.”
“I see no friend.” He smiled in a way he thought was winning. “Anyway, there are plenty of chairs. What about a drink with me? What would you like? You look like a champagne lady to me.”
The woman set aside her phone and pulled her handbag to her. “No, thank you. I said to you, ‘I’m waiting for a friend.’” The woman spoke loudly; it would have been difficult for others not to have heard. Those sitting nearby went silent; eyes were turned toward the table at which he sat.
There was a moment of awkwardness, but hadn’t he had plenty of awkward moments? Wasn’t that part of the fun? “I’ll get you a glass of white wine, so, just while you are waiting for your friend, of course.” She wasn’t a bad looking woman and it would be a pity to give up at the first sign of discouragement.
“Which part of ‘no’ do you not understand?” Her voice was loud, except for the singer, everyone was silent. Two men at another table stood up and watched him. He felt the woman had made him the object of unwelcome attention.
“Her loss,” he thought to himself. Picking up his beer from the table, he slowly drained the glass. Affecting a casual manner, he stood up and walked to the bar. Everyone watched. An embarrassed silence surrounded him. He placed the glass on the counter and bade the bartender, “good evening.” He would drink elsewhere. He hadn’t realised the people here had such a high opinion of themselves, it didn’t used to be like that here, there were women who would have been pleased to have had a drink bought for them by a man like him. It was a dull place, anyway, there was no-one here now who enjoyed a good laugh. He would go to the pub further down the street, a place where they would recognise a man with money in his pocket.
Turning to leave, he caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror. Hadn’t he the looks of a film actor?