The girl had been pleasant enough, but only just enough. She had returned Stewie’s attempts at conversation with disinterest, doubtless cataloguing his harmless chatter as just another sleazy old man’s attempt to chat up a student.
Stewie had patter; he had stories that would make the girl and her friends’ university pranks seem small time, but the teenager’s body language spoke louder than her clipped words. Stewie returned to the warm dregs of his pint as the girl took a call on her mobile. Jackie, the barmaid, was in the back, slapping the top of the CCTV monitor in an attempt to force it into showing a picture before the night’s rush began. As he watched her increasingly violent efforts, it occurred to Stewie to wonder what the pictures would show.
To an uninformed observer, they would show a young woman waiting for service next to an older man. Not just that, though. Anyone looking more closely would show the teenager standing as far away from Stewie as possible. They would show the girl hugging her purse protectively at her side whilst glancing first at the older man, then at the door to the bar.
A gaggle of students entered, chatting noisily. The girl pocketed her phone without hanging up and skipped over to meet them, her relief obvious. Stewie swirled the remainder of his pint around. He had once been amongst that crowd, busy and boisterous and with too much to say in too little time. He and his friends had once beckoned bar staff as the group was doing now, ordering shots and talking over each other in their eagerness for each other’s company. Stewie drummed his fingers on the sticky surface of the bar.
Where had that feeling gone? That sense of a shared experience, of not having enough time in the day to socialise but doing it anyway? Stewie had dropped out of university in his third year but had remained a feature of the social scene. Then, slowly, almost imperceptibly, people had started to drift from the group. Kelly had gotten engaged and moved down south with her fiancée. Gumbo had received a job offer from the city, held out for more money, and received it. Soon, it had been just Stewie and Psycho in the bar on Fridays, then just Stewie, and then not just Fridays. There was no longer the sense of invasion, of a younger generation imposing upon the habitat of daytime drinkers.
It should never have reached this point. Stewie knew the bar staff more intimately than he knew any of his fellow customers. He could tell you that there was a pool of water underneath the second urinal from the right in the gents, and that the plug to the puggy machine sparked when you pulled it out. The flickering from the neon sign outside had taken up semi-permanent residence at the edge of his vision, a self-imposed cataract that he chose not to have removed. Somewhere, Stewie had ceased to be an intrepid imposter. He had become part of the décor, the mise-en-scene, that bloke whose arse overhung the bar stool and who was nervously skirted by hip young students and professionals on business lunches.
Jackie was balancing a tray of shots as she sashayed past Stewie on her way over to the students. He knew that she wouldn’t drop any. She never did. Stewie shouldn’t have that confidence in her. He shouldn’t have heard all of Jackie’s stories and told her all of his. The bar door opened again, and the wind from outside seemed to clear the fug of long-since banned cigarettes from his mind. Stewie heaved himself off his stool and tucked his shirt into his trousers.
‘Jackie, I’d like to settle my tab when you’ve got a minute.’
Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Near to the Knuckle, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, and Shooter magazine. He is a PhD student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father.
Not necessarily in that order