(A/N: This has been edited many times, and I am still coming back to it to tweak it. It’s been entered into the Bristol Short Story Prize 2012)
His shoulders were hunched as he leant over the bar; his once neat and trimmed dark hair was now a shaggy mess, with a streak of grey. At first I wasn’t sure if it was him, so I made sure to get a closer look, joining a few of the other guys as they went to get the next round of drinks. The man appeared to be disappearing under the low bar lights, melting away unnoticed into the crowd around him, barely existing.
As we strode over to the bar, I felt a little of the alcohol taking over me, making me dance clumsily the jazz band playing in the corner. The pub we were in was a personal back-street favourite of mine simply because it was the first bar I had come to when I had returned from my deployment in Korea. After the occasional flavourless beer during the tour, this pub’s own cider tasted heavenly. Lucy had laughed when I told her I was having my stag do in this pub; her hen night was in the fancy restaurant up the road.
I came closer to the bar, but hesitated, nervous as to whether this downcast and lonely man at the bar was who I thought it was. Perhaps I had drunk enough that night already. I acted on impulse and clapped him on the shoulder, making him shake and put his glass down. I thought I had made him angry at first, but has he turned I was relieved to see it was the man I had thought it was
Yet he had changed. I thought he was too drunk, hence why he sat in solitude. But as he looked at me, his dark eyes were not just intoxicated and slightly bloodshot; they were full of regret and remorse. He had always been trimmed and proper, setting a good example to the new recruits, but it looked like he hadn’t shaved for weeks, with a lazy stubble speckled on his jaw and a lame excuse for a moustache.
‘Colonel Hastings!’ I said loudly, sitting on the bar stool next to him.
‘Roderick Hastings,’ he mumbled, nodding his head. He took up his wine glass and gulped down the last few mouthfuls.
I shifted in my seat and called the bartender over. There was silence between us as I fidgeted around my trousers for my wallet and Hastings stared at his empty wine glass. I told the guys to go back to our table.
‘What can I get for you?’ the portly bartender asked, wiping a damp cloth over the bar.
‘I’ll have your house cider and I’ll also like to get a drink for Hastings here,’ I replied cheerily.
The bartender glanced at the hunched over man. ‘You sure? He’s had quite a few tonight.’
‘Of course: we’re old friends,’ I reasoned. ‘It would only be polite to offer my old commanding officer a drink. Get him a… gin and tonic.’
He shuffled away and Hastings’ head titled up and stared at me. He did me a once over and chuckled quietly.
‘Since when did you ever offer to buy me a drink, Private Jones?’
I grinned, beginning to relax. ‘Since now you idiot, although the bartender’s told me you’ve had a bit too much already!’ I placed some change on the counter as the bartender returned with the drinks.
Hastings stared at the new drink in front of him. ‘Well this is a first,’ he mumbled, taking a sip.
“I’d always promised that when we got out of that hell-hole that I would buy you a drink.’
Hastings chuckled again, without smiling.
‘I suppose I had better ask what you’ve been doing with yourself since you left,’ he sighed, swirling his drink.
I ignored the resentment in his voice. ‘I left the army as soon as I got back. Went to university, got a degree in science and now I’m a science teacher at a high school. Pay’s not too bad and the job’s enjoyable enough. But Lucy’s the breadwinner at the moment,’ I sighed.
Hastings glanced at me suspiciously. ‘Lucy? Lucy who?’
My face felt warm. When I had been on tour, I was teased for the letters I had sent to my childhood friend, Lucy. Whereas others already had wives and spoke to them on the phone or via e-mail; we stayed traditional and wrote to each other. Back then we technically weren’t ‘together, but that had quickly changed when I had got back.
‘Lucy Marsh,’ I said quickly. ‘Yeah, she’s a doctor.’ I took a big gulp from my drink. I pulled out my wallet again and flashed a cute black and white photo of her at Hastings.
He looked at the picture and raised his eyebrows. ‘Huh… How the hell does she put up with you?’
‘Somehow… hey, you’re welcome to come to the wedding next week. I’ve got a few seats to fill and it would be good to see you there,’ I said quickly, tucking my wallet away.
Hastings stared off into the distance. ‘I can’t believe how much time has passed. You were only sixteen when you joined the army. Am I really getting that old?’ He sighed deeply and stared at his drink.
I laughed nervously, unsure how to respond. I thinking of some remark to break the tension, when a steady woman’s voice cut across.
‘Another drink, sir?’
A slender woman hovered on the other side of Hastings. She was of a similar age to him and wore a stunning black dress, her golden hair piled smartly on her head. Simple studs glistened on her ears and her hazel eyes examined the man beside me.
I knew who this woman was instantly. When I had been in Korea, she had been the stern and hardworking Lieutenant Victoria Scott. It was obvious from Day One that Hastings and Scott had a history together. Although what exactly that history was, had always debatable. Some were convinced they were old lovers from school, whilst others thought they had just been classmates. It turned out they had been in the same foster home when they were younger and had, coincidently, joined the army at the same time and went through training together, before deployment in Korea
I took Hastings’ place as I began to disappear; Hastings turned all of his attention to Scott. He gaped up at her, beads of sweat clinging to his forehead.
‘What?’ he mumbled.
The corners of her mouth twitched. ‘I’m offering to buy you a drink, sir.’
‘I’m not your superior anymore. I’ve left the army.’
Her face fell. She lowered her head and bit her lip.
‘I’m surprised,’ she admitted, pulling out her purse. ‘I always thought you would stay in the army for as long as you could. You wanted to change it so much.’
‘Let’s just say I was fighting a losing battle,’ he said and smiled at her. It was the first real smile he had shown all evening. He was always took his work seriously and only ever smiled around this woman, his eyes lighting up. Hastings appeared younger as he gazed at her and when she smiled back, he nervously scratched the back of his head.
‘Well… good for you. Now what drink can I get you?’
He gulped and stammered nervously about perhaps wanting to share a bottle of wine with her. His face was flushed, not just from the alcohol. It was strange to see two middle aged people act so clumsy and innocent around each other. Despite being much younger than them, I suddenly felt much older as I watched their stolen glances as they waited for the drinks. I sipped my cider, pretended not to watch, but I couldn’t help it. It was so strange to have the three of us in the same bar on the same night.
‘I haven’t seen you for six years, Vic,’ Hastings said sadly.
Scott sighed and sipped her wine. ‘That’s because I left the army not long after Korea. You stayed in and got promoted. It was impossible to stay in touch.’
‘But I wanted to hear from you. I wanted to see you-’
‘Then you should’ve tried, instead of waiting for me to,” she interrupted. Scott closed her eyes briefly and placed a hand on Hastings’ arm. ‘Sorry Rod… look, I tried to get in contact with you – I wrote letters, e-mails and left messages, but I never heard back. You’d forgotten me, so I carried on with my life.”
‘I was travelling: deployed here and there… I never got any of those messages, I swear.’
Scott shook her head. ‘After all of these years, Rod, I’m not looking for excuses. Part of me never wanted to see you again, but now here you are, in the same bar as me, and I wonder why the hell not.’
Her cheeks were pink and her hand still rested on Hastings’ arm. He leaned in closer.
‘I’ve always wanted to see you. I thought you had forgotten me!” he admitted, desperately, reaching out and clutching her hands in his.
She grimaced. ‘You’re drunk,’ she stated, but didn’t pull her hands free.
He shrugged. ‘Yeah, a little. Look, I’ll make it up to you. Everything up to you, I promise. How about we meet tomorrow and go for a coffee? Yeah? I can take you to the new place that just opened at the bottom of town. Supposed to be really nice…” he trailed off, looking at her hopefully.
Scott pulled her hands away. A great wave of pity washed over me. It seemed that I was watching an old movie about wasted love and no matter what I did; nothing could ever change the outcome. They were oblivious to their audience, lost in each other.
But for the second time that evening, there was an interruption. A tall man wearing thick, stylish glasses and a smart suit strode over and stood behind Scott. He stared at Hastings.
‘Victoria, are you ready to go?’ he asked. ‘The landlord said he is quite happy to supply the drinks for the reception after the ceremony.’
Hastings glanced up at him in belief. He stared at Scott, but I knew it was true as soon as Scott nodded. She arose, placed a gentle hand on Hastings’ shoulder and then looked at me.
‘Oh, hello Ethan,’ she said faintly. There was no smile on her face or glint in her eye like before.
Hastings stood up too and grabbed hold of Scott’s arm. ‘Don’t leave, Vic,’ he begged, his voice cracking. The tall man wrapped an arm around Scott’s shoulders and gently tugged her away.
She held her head up high and bit her lip again. ‘It was nice to see you, Rod. Look after yourself.’ She turned away, avoiding Hastings’ gaze and left with the other man, not looking back.
Hastings stared at the door long after they had left. Soon enough, he moved back to his bar stool and finished off his glass of wine, staring at the glass Scott had left: a small lipstick mark on the brim.
My Best Man left my celebrating friends and joined me at the bar.
‘Hey, we’re missing you at the table! Matt says you’ve got to down at least two more shots before you’re allowed to leave.’
I nodded, tearing my eyes away from Hastings.
‘Hey, you’re friend there looks like he’s seen a ghost,’ my friend mumbled
I sighed and turned to look at him Hastings once more. I watched as the bartender cleaned up the empty glasses around him and asked if he wanted another drink.