“Of course, that was when I was in the Navy,” she said, carefully placing her glass of white wine down on the shiny, mahogany stained bar.
It wasn’t her first of the afternoon.
“The usual, Val?” Tony, the barman had asked just before midday.
“Just the one. I’ve got lots of Christmas shopping to do.”
He had smiled a professional smile and filled a glass from the remains of two bottles of Chardonnay, each with a different label.
It was now late in the afternoon. The December day had turned to dusk. Through the windows, obscured by artificial snow, shoppers plodded by with grim determined faces.
Between sips, she ran the underside of her tongue from one side of her bottom lip to the other. Her lips were thin and what remained of her morning’s lipstick had migrated to become red blobs at each corner of her downturned mouth. These were mixed with flecks of spittle, which she occasionally wiped away with a crumpled Kleenex.
Dressed in various shades of fawn synthetics, she sat on a high stool towards the end of the bar. On her right was a slot machine. It was a comfortable corner for a barfly. Her large, brown plastic, handbag hung from a brass-plated hook screwed to the bar in front of her, looking like a deflated crocodile On the curled cotton beer mat to her right she had scattered a handful of coins.
“Take it out of that, Tony.”
Next to the money, she had carefully placed her cigarettes-Bensons-and a gold Dunhill lighter all that was left of a long dead relationship, a gift from a man who later admitted that he could never stand her smoking. Or her for that matter.Next to that was an out of date and battered, powder blue mobile.
No one had ever heard it ring.
From time to time, she’d leave to have a cigarette in the gloomy, enclosed yard at the back of the pub, sitting on one of the plastic garden chairs that belonged to the tattoo parlour opposite. When she returned, a bouquet of nicotine had been added to breath that smelled of stale Chardonnay. A mixture that threatened to overwhelm the heavy perfume she favoured which reminded him of his butch Auntie Pam’s “ friend” in Southport.
“I was in America when Derek died. Of course, he was on the East Coast.”
She paused, looked quickly towards the etched glass door and raised a bony hand to cover her mouth. The yellowed whites of her eyes, blood flecked by age and alcohol, filled with tears. She pressed them away on the dry, wrinkled pad of flesh below her thumb and reached for her drink.
“Sorry. It’s just come back to me.”
Knocking back the remains and removing the glass from her lips, she noticed a congealed spit and lipstick mark on its rim and quickly wiped it away, using her thumb and forefinger, which she then rubbed on the Kleenex.
As the empty glass touched the bar, Tony appeared from the cellar, as if by magic.
“Same again, Val?”
She looked faintly surprised.
“Why not? One for the road? What about you?”
“On duty, love. Another time, eh?”
He reached below the bar, opened a cold cabinet, noticed he’d run out of Chardonnay and poured what remained of a screw-topped bottle of Californian Chablis into a fresh glass. He knew she wouldn’t notice, although guilt made him fill it up almost to the brim.
“Take it from that will you, darling?”
She nodded towards the pile of loose change, carefully raising the over filled glass to her lips before knocking back a large gulp.
“Yes, it was very sudden. In New York. He was an actor, quite well known by then. You might have heard of him?”
“What was his name?”
She looked irritated.
“Same as mine, of course. He was my brother. Enderby. Derek Enderby.”
He narrowed his eyes to feign dawning enlightenment and heard himself saying, “That rings a bell.”
At the far end of the bar, Tony stopped rearranging a peanut packet display and glanced warily towards them.
She drained her glass and put it a little too firmly down on the bar.
“You know what your problem is, sunshine? You haven’t discovered the secret of life, yet.”
He cleared his throat, “What’s that then?”
She turned away from him stared at the line of optics ranged along the back of the bar.
“I think we’d better change the subject. You wanker.”
He suddenly felt full of places he’d rather be.