My first job was at the local pub. I was fourteen and washed dishes in the back corner. The chef used to throw plates at waiters, and once he gave me a lollypop. After a few months they invited me behind the bar and I pulled a few shifts this way, the only stipulation being I was out the door by 12pm when my mum would pick me up, her engine running. It was in this same pub that my brother reportedly once stripped for $50, and where my sister was hired based on her bosom size. What I did was put ice in jugs of beer.
Welcome to part two of our pub series! My piece of micro-fiction is set in a pub I’ve read of, but never visited.
He wasn’t tall but it seemed that way. I watched him as you might stare down a steel barrel raised to your chest plate. He ordered nothing but whiskey and there was a lurch to his walk, as though he had once worked a ship and never recovered his land legs, lost overboard. We had no seaside to this town or the next. I watched him and that meant watching her too. Her of the lank black hair, and listless flesh.
They arrived some years ago; she bound to him though there was no rope. That night, she was luminous. Her eyes were rimmed with thick lashes that swept shadows from the peaks of her cheekbones. That night, her hair did not hang but flowed down her back into dark waves. Over time, she has not so much aged as withered. That night, her fragility was seductive, now it is an embarrassment.
He still brings her to the pub, though he rarely sits with her. Instead he talks. His tales rush through the room in great bursts, always impossible, always charming.
In these tales, geese speak Russian, and fish walk on land disguised as beautiful women.
Always, in these tales he is the victor. I watch in quiet moments as his gaze flickers away from his rapt audience. It is not from concern I am sure. It is the look of a man checking to see his money is untouched. That his treasure has not fled when his back was turned. In this he can feel secure because she is always there. Her lashes lowered, and her mouth slack. I wonder if she is as stupid as they say. The kinder whispers suggest she has been hollowed out by grief, by her very barrenness. No children, they murmur, though you can hear them at it every night. I feel no pity. Just like a woman.
Tonight, I allow my eyes to linger on her bowed head. The ghost of her former beauty shimmers around her and I suddenly feel dizzy. My hand pauses in wiping the glass and when she raises her eyes to me I realise. She has been watching me too.
She comes to me in the long stretch of heat that overwhelms us all at noon. The doors are shut but she slips through as though the wood and iron was a sieve. She is alone, gripping a duffel bag, and I keep my tone blank when I ask what she wants. Water she tells me, just water. Her voice is husky and deeper than I would’ve imagined, more like a man. The accent is clipped. I reach for a glass but she stops me. Her hand is cool against my forearm.
‘More water,’ she removes her fingers and I pull back roughly. I look at her and she gestures widely. She struggles to explain. ‘I need big-salt-water.’
‘The sea is far from here,’ I speak softly though surely she must already know this. Perhaps she is undone by grief as they say, her thoughts no longer rooted to life. She sighs and I feel myself shudder as though it was me.
‘He is clever. He promise my shleva if we come here. I have shleva but not escape.’ Her words bump against one other, arriving in a rush between us. She looks at me and I think of the steel barrel. I think of my father’s fists. I think, honey, the world isn’t fair. Then, I give her the damn keys.
Later, much later when there is a man found dead, I will think about how her bag dripped the whole time she spoke, leaving a wet patch that would curl up on my floorboards like a dying cockroach.