It is late December in a pub in Dublin. Poised behind the bar, a barmaid watches her customers buzz between velvet bar stools, and neglected coats. There is a plastic clock on the wall behind her, as she waits posted in front of the array of liquors, spirits and bottles of wine. The bottles are lazily draped in pound-store tinsel. Pine needles rest upon the floor with a certain authority; the endless cycle of hoovering is no match for the green pins. The air outside turns cheeks pink and skin chapped. The bar has become a haven for restless sets of boots, and men’s frozen fingertips. A sign reads, ‘Our mulled cider is a must’. Drawing in a deep breath, she marks the beginning of her shift upon the shiny surface of the clock.
She swoops around the inside of the bar, a safe cornucopia as the sticky surface beyond the drip trays acts as a barrier between her and the hungry crowd. The bar is encircled by gossip and small talk. With every pint which she slides across the bar, topics spill from their mouths like foaming and gurgling bitter, the white foam of the ales, the spitting head of the lager, or the sweet singe of cider which simmers with the spittle around the edge of a man’s aged lips. Every few minutes, a group of men will erupt into a loud, rumbling laugh. A collective laugh, so it cannot be distinguished where one beer-bellied-boom begins and one ends. They lap up the froth and sink pints like dogs lapping cool water at the end of a walk. Man’s thirst cannot be quenched with water, only the feeling of gentle numbness in the fingertips and a dull headache in the morning.
Time passes, pints seep across the oak surface, women get up and leave, dragging their husbands towards the swinging doors. Two men, built like tree stumps, decide to brawl outside, the barmaid yelling after them ‘Not in the carpark!’. Cold air cascades through the open doors. Women smoke, and drink wine. The men smoke and drink lager. Ash builds up in the trays on the windowsill. Politics are debated and drinks are thrown: always followed by the scuttling barmaid and her mop. The sky grows darker, eyes grow heavier.
Come midnight, there are three men left mingling around the velvet bar stools. As those before them have left, crooning: I have work tomorrow, yes I’m safe to drive.
‘Let me buy you a… a drink darling.’ One of the remaining three men slurs, ‘You must be pining for a p-pint at this time.’
‘It’s fine, I’m not drinking this evening. I’m travelling to visit family for Christmas once my shift ends.’
‘Not drinking? Tis the season!’ He bellows, looking to his two friends for a reaction as they all erupt into laughter.
She laughs. That wasn’t funny. She thinks to herself, wiping down the droplets of stray beer which escaped his glass in his moment of comedic epiphany.
‘You know, you look a bit like my wife’ One of the other men continues.
‘Oh yeah? Huh.’ She says.
‘What’s your name, sweet?’
‘Where’s your wife this evening?’ She responds.
‘At home… seems likely. What’s your name?’ He asks again.
‘Christine’ The barmaid replies, lifting another tray of glasses into the dishwasher, the smell of stagnant water lingering.
‘Oh my apolog….’ A loud belch, ‘my apologies. Christine.’
‘Don’t you worry. Can I get you another drink?’ She asks.
‘A Guinness, darling.’ He smirks, a sly grin rising sideways upon the thin line of his lips. A pinched smile emerging upon her lips, she pours the pint silently, placing bets on how long it will take him to swig down the bubbling liquid. She has a round face, dark, lank hair and her arms bulge out of her black shirt. Her eyes are the all-seeing beady, black circles of omniscience for where other’s memories fail.
When the man’s two accomplices pick up their heavy bodies and mooch out the door, bumping against one another like hockey pucks on the way, it is only this single, solitary man left with a vacant expression on his muted face.
The barmaid looks at him, and tries to read his sallow cheeks, the blue veins below his eyes and the groggily repeated action of sipping his pint. She turns down the ambient Christmas carols which have lulled her through the evening shift: an explicit message to the customer about the slow consumption of the last inch of his pint. Christine ponders why it could be that he has nowhere else to be, and believes she doesn’t want to be anywhere better than this. The clock on the wall behind her is working its way through a loud and clipping rhythm, heightened by the quietened music.
It is a stakeout between the one remaining, lone drunk, making a low gurgling as he spins his house keys around his fingers, and the barmaid waiting wilfully for him to depart. The blinds are drawn and she leans solemnly against the cold wall, watching the last of the bar flies nurse the ends of his elixir. The wind is thrashing at the cold window panes, whilst ‘Driving Home for Christmas’ plays faintly on the speaker.
– Emily Black