Gerry wakes up with a start, jerking his head upright so forcefully that he feels the bones in his neck grind together. He groans and reaches round to rub the muscles holding his puny head up, feeling whispery skin. When did I become so old? he thinks, fingers catching on cords of hair, hair that has not been cut for longer than he can remember and winds down his back. I used to laugh at men with hair like this, he thinks, remembering a tramp that wandered the village on Skye before the war, frightening the mothers.
His mouth tastes like curdled milk; an empty stub of whisky sits at his elbow. His eyes feel bruised; a sour burp burns in his throat. Next to him is a woman.
Her head is bowed over the bar, legs dangling precariously from a stool. Gerry blinks and looks around – ah, he is in Shay’s Bar. It is dark outside and the bar is lit by just one lamp above the time-bell, an obsolete item that has never been used to clear the punters from the place. He reaches out, tentatively, to touch the woman’s dyed blonde head – he cannot remember the last time he touched a woman’s hair. Maybe it was his wife, the woman whom was briefly his for a short, tender summer, before the baby and a narrow birth canal took her away. His heart aches in his chest. He wants to plunge his hands into the woman’s hair, feel the slide of it under his fingernails. But the woman sits up abruptly, mirroring Gerry’s jolt into consciousness only a few moments before. It is Angie. Her face has been creased by the edge of the bar; a pink fold lies in her skin like a knife mark. Gerry knows it is only sleep that has done this to her, but he cannot look at it – the sight of a scarred woman has always distressed him. He pulls his hands back to his side, ashamed.
Angie hasn’t noticed his discomfort. She surveys the empty glasses. She laughs. “Wow. How much did we drink? If Cruden walks in and sees this, he’ll pitch a fit.” She gets up, shaky-legged and, one hand on the bar at all times, edges her way behind the pumps and optics. Now she stands in her usual spot and Gerry feels the world right a little – that’s where Angie should be, he thinks. Serving me drinks, not at my side getting as wasted as I. But, her hair…he closes his eyes and sees a farm and a gathering of sheep, and a yellow-haired woman with a rounded belly.
Angie makes a circle with her arms and scoops the glasses together into a huddle. Then grabbing handfuls of shot glasses, transfers them to the sink. “Why did we use so many?” she asks. “Why didn’t we just rinse out a glass and refill it?”
Gerry comes back to himself, shaking away the memory of his wife. But he can’t answer Angie – he has no idea why they drank the way they did, just as he has no idea who has paid for it all. Certainly not him. He remembers Angie giving him chilli and pushing him to talk about something – what was it? He’s pretty sure that, whatever it was, his memory and his tongue was eased by Yukon Jack, and that Angie encouraged him to neck the whisky as quickly as water.
“Angie,” he starts. “I don’t know what happened here – I’ve got a head that feels like it’s going to burst – and I can’t remember much. Only thing is, Angie, I…” he pats his pockets and drops his eyes. He is a poor man and has little, and sleeps outside in all weathers, but he has pride. It hurts him to say he has no money to pay for something he has quite obviously taken.
Angie waves him away and turns on the hot tap, swishing glasses around clumsily. “Looks as though we stuck to Yukon Jack, and my stomach feels as though I’ve had just as much as you. I’ll tell Cruden I dropped a bottle. Whenever he shows up.”
“Cruden will be out somewhere in the snow, looking for clouds that look like bears.” A disembodied voice said from some black place, in the thick of the darkened bar. Gerry feels the hairs on the back of his hands stand up; the skin of his neck feels electric. It is not a voice he can immediately place – it hangs in the air like an orphan.
“Who said that?” Angie has no fear and squints into the bar. She makes a hurried movement and switches on a light, throwing the place into brightness. Gerry turns around, the shine from the bulb giving him courage.
It is a man, tucked away in a booth. Frank. He is wearing his usual brown overcoat and it has flapped over on one knee; Gerry can see garish red lining that Frank once told him had been sewn by Hettie. Gerry knows a little of Hettie – he finds it hard to believe she would chose a colour so brazen.
“Cruden will be out there in the snow,” Frank repeats. He leans forward, elbows on the table. In the glare of the bar lights, his skin looks paler than ever. Yet his eyes…Gerry stares. Frank’s eyes are round, just like a sovereign. They sit on his face as if drawn by a child; no shaping to the edges, just circles ringed by grey skin. They manage to simultaneously age and add youth to his face.
Gerry jerks, again, blinking furiously. Had he fallen asleep? His mind feels cloudy, as if he’d been hypnotised. He looks around, at Angie, wondering if the same thing is happening to her – if Frank’s curious gaze has put her in a trance, too. Gerry clears his throat – listen to yourself, man. Too much whisky and you start imagining.
Angie is looking over towards Frank’s booth, but not at him – instead, at the drink on the table. A tumbler full of honey-coloured water. Frank has helped himself, that much is apparent. Gerry can see Angie’s face struggle for control: the flesh lurches between anger that the man has gone behind the bar to sort himself out, and frustration that she cannot challenge him. Not with the whisky stubs still in the sink and the smell of un-paid-for liquor in the air.
“I told Cruden a story, once,” and Frank stands up and drifts over to the bar. He brings his drink with him, holding it carefully in a flattened palm. Gerry has a strong urge to shrink back. Or to hop over the bar beside Angie.
“About animals who live in clouds,” Frank continues. “Children’s tale, nothing more. But since then, I’ve noticed he likes to stand and look at the sky.” He closes and opens his eyes in that slow way of his – not blinking, exactly, for the motion seems too methodical. “How are you, Angie? Has the week been good to you?”
He settles himself down at the bar and tips the glass to his lips. “Seems as though you’ve had quite a drink, here. What could you have been talking about, to make you take to the booze in such a way?”
Stories abound in Shay’s Bar. Which one do you think Angie and Gerry were talking about?