Portraits from a town 10

He sits in the corner of the pub. His corner. He remembers how pubs used to smell. They don’t smell that way anymore.

He is here alone. There are other people here. Other men. They are alone as well. They are alone together. All of them alone and somehow together. In the pub. Scattered over disparate stools, staring at televisions mounted on dark walls, drinking beer from nearly clean glasses.

There is a younger man and a woman in the corner. They lean in, in close conversation. Her shirt reveals cleavage, a hint of bra and then flesh. He stares. It is his birthright. The woman notices. The man notices. He looks away. What is happening to the world when you are not allowed to stare. What is a woman doing in a pub anyway? He does not bring his wife to the pub.

She is at home, the wife. He thinks. He thinks she is probably at home. But mostly she is not at home. She might be out playing bingo with friends. She might be at that odd gastro pub up the road. She might be at her exercise class. He orders another drink. She might be with another man. Whatever she is doing, she is not at the pub. She is not alone.

He chats to the barman who is too busy to talk. He engages in mild conversation with all the others who are alone at the pub. He watches the TV at the pub. He can’t hear the words on the telly. It never used to be like this. He was never alone at the pub. There were friends, laughter, tales of brave drunken men and women waiting to be eaten. When did they all go home? Why did he stay behind? Now he looks down a woman’s top and the world hates him for it. He is indifferent to himself, whoever himself is. He stares at the beer mat. He could count his life in beer mats, he has known so many.  In his head he does not exist, it is all that makes the loneliness bearable. That and the beer.

He looks at his hands, there is no wedding ring. It is hard to remember why he doesn’t wear one. It makes him feel unmoored. Less like he exists at all. Less like he is tied to any kind of life. He has a freedom he does not want anymore. She wears a wedding ring and somehow she is the one that is free. It is hard to understand. He looks at the beer mat.

He likes beer mats. And ash trays and crisps and shirts that spill open as young women lean forward. He stares at wrinkled hands, wrinkles that somehow crept through the door and interlaced themselves all over his hands, what kind of alone is this? Whose hands are those and where did they come from? They are most comfortable wrapped around a glass. They once held the hand of someone who does not recognise him. He drinks some more. Looks at his phone, thinks his children might text. They never do. They learned long ago not to disturb him at the pub.

She is laughing, at the bingo. Wishing the children would stop sending her texts when she is out with friends. But then, remembering them makes her smile, she doesn’t mind so much. She looks at the wedding band. There is the nice man from number 85 sitting over there, perhaps she will slip it off later. It always feels wrong to be faithless with the wedding band on.

Tomorrow night is Zumba with Lexie, then drinks with the girls on Friday. This is what she waited for, its what made all that child bearing and drudgery worth it. Days in the sun, with laughter. They are all going to Portugal, Maisie’s son has a house out there. Girls only.

She does not think of him. He is at the pub. He likes the pub. When the children were young he was always at the pub. He still is. Probably. He barely exists in her mind. Except as a mouth to feed and some trousers to wash. And as a smell in her bed that she is used to but does not like. He slides into bed beside her. She often pretends to sleep. She used to shower as a courtesy buy she doesn’t anymore.

There is silence as she makes the breakfast the next morning. Every morning. She makes his lunch to take to work. Perhaps he knows, perhaps he doesn’t. How can he know anything through the beer haze.  She is still smiling, the man from 85 is quite ‘energetic’ as it turns out. She fiddles with the wedding ring. He married the pub, she has a life. He goes to work, comes home, trudges back to the pub.

Late one night, he wanders home, sits outside in the gutter. He cannot bring himself to go in. When he was young, he was out at the pub, he missed the kids growing up, but what a life he had. Now she has a life and he is alone. He did not see that coming. He did not predict the end even though it sat next to him on a stool every night. He remembers those old men, their hacking coughs, their sagging skin, joining in conversations they weren’t part of. Desperately free. Unmoored. He did not think he would be one of them.

He gets up, goes inside, the smell of another man mixes with the beer on his breath in bed. It’s like their paths crossed just the once in the middle somewhere and now they are moving further apart, and radiating out from the place they once met, are beer mats, like stepping stones. He’d like to turn around and go back, but the beer has slid down the side of the glass and the beer mats are wet. Someone has thrown them all away, there is no way back for him. He sleeps, snores and thinks of tomorrow night at the pub.