At the Bar                                                                                                                                                                      Posted 19th April 2014

The pub was quiet. When the big man with the ill-fitting suit came in, the barman noticed him more than he normally would have done. The suit was slightly out of fashion yet looked quite new and it was too big for him. He could have come back to it after a long illness. Yet it wasn't that either. Whatever had happened to him had tightened him but not diminished him. The char­coal grey cloth sat on him loosely but that looked like the suit's problem. You wouldn't have fancied whoever the suit might fit to come against the man who wore it.

He came up to the bar and seemed uncertain about what to order. He looked along the gantry with a bemused innocence, like a small boy in a sweet-shop.

`Sir?' the barman said.

The big man sighed and shook his head and took his time. His face looked as if it had just come off a whetstone. The cheek-bones were sharp, the mouth was taut. The eyes were preoccupied with their own thoughts. His pallor suggested a plant kept out of the light. Prison, the barman thought.

`Uh-huh,' the big man said. 'Fine day. I'll have.' It seemed a momentous choice. 'A pint of heavy.'

He watched the barman pull it. Paying, he took a small wad of singles from his pocket and fingered them deliberately. He studied his change carefully. Then he retreated inside himself.

Making sure the patch of bar in front of him was clean, he spread his Daily Record on it and started to read, the sports pages first. His beer seemed to be for moistening his lips.

Before turning back to the television, the barman checked the pub in his quick but careful way. The afternoon was boringly in place. Old Dave and Sal were over to his left, beside the Space Invader. As usual, they were staring past each other. Dave was nursing half-an-inch of beer and Sal had only the lemon left from her gin and tonic, her thin lips working against each other endlessly, crocheting silence. That should be them till they went home for their tea. At the other end of the bar, Barney, the retired schoolteacher, was doing The Times crossword. Did he ever finish it? In the light from the window his half-pint looked as stale as cold tea.

The only other person in the pub was someone the barman didn't like. He had started to come in lately. Denim-dressed, he looked nasty-hard, a broad pitted face framed in long black hair. He was a fidgety drinker, one of those who keep looking over both shoulders as if they know somebody must be trying to take a liberty and they're determined to catch him at it. Just now, standing at the bar, he kept glancing along at the big man and seemed annoyed to get no reaction. His eyes were a demonstration looking for a place to happen. He took his pint like a penance.

The television was showing some kind of afternoon chat-show, two men talking who made the pub seem interesting. Each question sounded boring until you heard the answer and that made you want another question very quick. The barman was relieved to see Old Dave come towards the bar as if he was walking across America. It would be good if he made it before he died.

`Yes, Dave,' the barman said to encourage his progress. `Another drink? What is this? Your anniversary?'

 The barman noticed the big man had the paper open at page three. He knew what the man was seeing, having studied her this morning, a dark-haired girl called Minette with breasts like two separate states. But the big man wasn't looking at her so much as he was reading her, like a long novel. Then he flicked over to the front page, glanced, sipped his beer till it was an inch down the glass and went to the lavatory.

`Same again,' Dave said, having arrived. 'The hell wi' it. Ye're only young once.'

The barman laughed and turned his back on him: He had to cut more lemon. He had to find one of the lemons the pub had started getting in specially for Sal. After brief puzzlement, he did. He cut it carefully. He filled out gin, found ice, added the lemon. He turned back, put the drink on the counter, pulled a pint. As he laid the pint beside the gin and opened the tonic, pouring it, he noticed something in among the activity that bothered him. He suddenly realised what it was. The big man's pint-dish held nothing but traces of froth.

The barman was about to speak to the hard-faced man in denim when the big man walked back from the lavatory to the bar. His arrival froze the barman. The big man made to touch his paper, paused. He looked at his empty pint.
`Excuse me,' he said to the barman. `Ah had a pint there.'

The moment crackled like an electrical storm. Even Old Dave got the message. His purse hung in his hand. He stared at the counter. The barman was wincing.

`That's right,' the man in denim said. 'Ye had a pint. But Ah drank it.'

The silence prolonged itself like an empty street with a man at either end of it. The barman knew that nobody else could interfere.

`Sorry?' the big man said.

`Ye had a pint, right enough. But Ah felt like it. So Ah drank it. That's the dinky-dory.'

So that was the story. The big man stared and lowered his eyes, looked up and smiled. It wasn't convincing. Non­chalant surrender never is. But he was doing his best to make it look as if it was.

`Oh, look,' he said. 'What does it matter? Ah can afford another one. Forget it.'

The barman was grateful but contemptuous. He didn't want trouble but he wouldn't have liked to go to sleep in the big man's head. And when the big man spoke again, he could hardly believe it.

`Look. If you need a drink, let me buy you another one. Come on. Give the man a pint of heavy.'

The barman felt as if he was pouring out the big man's blood but he did it. It was his job to keep the peace. The man in denim lifted the pint, winked at the barman.

`Cheers,' he said to the big man, smiling at him. 'Your good health. You obviously value it.'

He hadn't managed his first mouthful before the side of the big man's clenched right hand had hit the base of the glass like a demolition-ball. There was a splintered scream among the shards of exploding glass and the volleying beer.

Not unused to fast violence, the barman was stunned. The big man picked up his paper. He laid the price of a pint on the counter and nodded to the barman.

`If he's lookin' for me,' he said, 'the name's Rafferty. Cheerio. Nice shop you run.'

He went out. Lifting a dish-towel, the barman hurried round the counter and gave it to the man in denim. While he held his face together with it and the cloth saturated instantly with blood and he kept moaning, the barman found his first coherent reaction to the situation.

`You're barred,' he said.

Walking Wounded is available from Canongate.