As you get older, you look back on things that happened to you during your life in a whole new light. Often, these things went virtually unnoticed at the time. They seemed trivial, insignificant, and quickly faded into the background, overtaken and obscured by more pressing concerns. Then, memories of these events resurface at some later date, waving a little flag saying, “Hey! What about this?”
After that pivotal moment of realization, they stick in your mind, eating away at you. If you don’t know what I mean, one day you will. Let me give you an example.
When I was a student, I worked part-time in a little country pub called the Railway Tavern. It was on the outskirts of town and, as the name implies, situated next to an old train station. It rarely got busy but benefited from the patronage of a fair few regulars. Having worked there two or three nights a week for a couple of years, I built up a rapport with some of them. I got to know what job they had — or once had, given the way the city had fallen into the economic abyss, where they went on holiday, what football team they supported, that kind of thing. It helped pass the time.
One of the regulars was a middle-aged guy who told me his name was Gary. He came in most Tuesday evenings and always sat at the same table in the corner, perfectly positioned so he could see the TV mounted on the wall. He was probably in his fifties, but Gary was the type who dressed slightly beyond his years, usually in a blue blazer and straight-cut trousers. He was always well-turned-out, and friendly enough. He even gave me the occasional tip, which is a sure-fire way to guarantee preferential treatment at your local.
At least you always remembered what they drank. Gary always had a double Southern Comfort with a splash of tap water and ice. One cube. Not two. Not three. One. I mistakenly gave him two cubes one night and the way he reacted you’d think I’d just dropped a couple of fresh turds in his drink or something. Whisky drinkers are a pedantic bunch.
As much as we played regular roles in each other’s lives, I never really thought about Gary, or any of the other regulars, when I wasn’t working. Why would I? I doubt they thought about me much, either.
The thing with people in your outer orbit is, when they drop out of your circle, you barely notice. They just blink out like lights. There one day, gone the next. I didn’t even realize I hadn’t seen Gary for a couple of weeks until he came in one quiet, rainy evening, and ambled up to the bar. He looked terrible. Haggard, and drawn, eyes red, skin blotchy, and face pulled into a sad, hangdog expression.
“Hey, Gary,” I said by way of greeting, struggling to keep the concern from showing in my voice. “How have you been?”
“Terrible,” he said, casting his eyes down. “I had some bad news today.”
As a barman, I heard that kind of response a lot. Some drinkers liked to have a sympathetic ear or just someone to moan at while they sipped their beer. In Gary’s case, though, I believed him. This put me in a slightly awkward position. Do I follow up and ask what the problem was, and at the same time risk sounding nosy? Do I change the topic? Something more cheerful, perhaps? Or do I maintain a dignified silence?
I settled on a non-committal, “Sorry to hear that,” then ducked to retrieve a whisky glass from the shelf and turned to face the optics behind me. I figured Gary would follow up if he wanted to. Turns out he did.
“You remember John, don’t you?”
I paused in my work.
Did I remember John?
I quickly flicked through my mental address book. I knew plenty of Johns, but none I associated with Gary or the Railway Tavern.
Gary must have realized I was struggling and made a quick bid to jog my memory. “You know John. The other Southern Comfort drinker? We always sat together over in that same corner every Tuesday night. Like clockwork. Sometimes we played cards. Mostly we just chatted. He was a good guy.”
“Yeah, yeah. He was,” I said. I don’t know why I said that. Maybe I was just trying to offer some condolences, or avoid the topic. The truth was, the conversation had taken an uncomfortable turn and I wanted out. I used some tongs to pluck a cube out of the ice bucket. Just the one, not two, and dropped it into the glass on the bar.
“I’m gonna miss that old fart,” Gary said, picking up his drink and heading off to his usual spot.
I watched him go, pushing to one side the fact that in all the dozens of times I’d served him at the bar and seen him in the pub, he’d always been alone. He came in alone, sat alone, and left alone. I never even saw him talk to anybody, let alone nurture this apparently long-standing, meaningful friendship with some bloke called John.
So was Gary crazy? Or winding me up for some reason? Flat out lying? Why would he do that? What could he possibly have to gain from making something like that up? Besides, he never struck me as a joker.
On the other hand, maybe the fault lay with me. Was I being woefully unobservant the whole time? Deluded, even? Or was something else going on entirely, something even stranger and more uncanny?
I never found out, and probably never will. And now, all these years later, this is one of the things that keeps me awake at night.
Christian Saunders, who writes fiction as C.M. Saunders, is a freelance journalist and editor from South Wales. His work has appeared in almost 100 magazines, ezines, and anthologies worldwide including Fortean Times, The Literary Hatchet, ParABnormal, Fantastic Horror, Haunted MTL, Feverish Fiction, and Crimson Streets, and he has held staff positions at several leading UK magazines ranging from Staff Writer to Associate Editor. His books have been both traditionally and independently published, the latest release being Tethered on Terror Tract Publishing.
Twitter @CMSaunders01, facebook, website.