Four over Five
Whoevers idea it was to host a bar in the beached hull of a long-forgotten mariner should be labelled a genius. The black sea sloshed sleepily outside, blanketed by a sky loose-knit enough for the stars to peek through. Im romanticising it all; grungy high-rises pushed the beach back day by day, sand was doped up on forgotten syringes and Heaven lay like some beached whale against the moon.
Heaven. Stupid name for a bar, really. Id lost track of how many drunkards had shambled in hollering for entertainment, having mistaken the buzzing neon sign outside to be advertising a brothel. I felt the name a last resort, so out of place. The décor protested it. Countless shelves and crannies inside the bull boasted a maritime theme that was difficult to ignore. A brass teapot sat proudly in the porthole beside me, one of four Id counted through my visits, and bearded maps peeled free of their sticky-tape constraints. Splintered wood didnt agree with them. All the compasses, miniature gloves, wheels and other paraphernalia were either bolted or glued down, too tempting in a bar fight to be left just lying there. You cant trust anyone these days, especially not with thirty-cent pieces of junk.
Wind swept through the walls on occasion yet Heaven was surprisingly drip-free. Despite it being the only place open after ten for miles around the crowed almost never rose above a pleasant hum, an occasional group of university students breeching the monotony every so often. They were ignored by the regulars who crouched over their meals, the same every night, no questions asked. The kids would talk loudly, slosh away dollars out of their mugs and onto the floor, and leave. The place wouldnt change.
Old Franklin, a man who looked as if hed been born and bred on a ship like this, was rooted to his seat by the window, his gin mug barnacled to his weathered hands. His beard, a scraggly grey mat, often crept into his alcohol, sneaking its share as he dozed in the firelight. Stains often marred his shirts for days at a time and I was strongly in the belief that his carer visited on Tuesdays. It was the only day he was presentable and that never lasted long.
It was Tuesday tonight. Mrs Baker, the pleasantly plump housewife who sat across the room from me, met with a variety of young men and women here on Tuesdays. She was a social worker and these her clients. You never saw them twice: she met them, fed them and left with them but never, ever saw them twice. Both Bakers appeared on the Friday, after Mr Bakers six oclock flight back home. No-one said anything
The Asian Man I could never tell where he was from exactly nested in one of the corners. The triangular booths there seemed to appeal to him. A week after the mans first appearance the bars owner had set up a gas-lamp above the favoured table; sallow under the flame, Asian Mans thin fingers, nails cut painfully short, fumbled with squares of gaudy coloured paper. Cranes, everyone supposed. Who hadnt heard the story about a thousand of them? He never answered if you asked who they were for, only give a gummy, shaky smile as he crushed another paper wing.
Other patrons could have been found in any pub; the drunkard, the young musician with calloused, ink-stained hands and the ancient couple that never seemed to finish their meal no matter how long you waited. Oh, and there was her.
She was another one of those customers who you knew the face of, smiled at perhaps, but never dared speak to. A writer of some sort she never appeared without her note-book the only person shed let associate with her were the barkeep and the musician, who fawned under her attention. Some creature out of pulp fiction, her hair looped into loose curls at her shoulders and her eyelids were always darkly stained, lips red. No outfit was ever used twice, why I was never sure as it was near impossible to tell in this light, yet I noticed. After midnight party scraps aside, she was the youngest regular; no veins spidered across her calves, no shadows curved under her eyes. Odd, that, considering the hour. She was totally, utterly unapproachable and she knew it.
A few had tried their luck, some of the one-nighters. They received a disbelieving, smouldering stare for their trouble. Are you talking to me?. If that alone didnt drive them off then she would sigh, a short, sharp breath of irritation.
"Solve the square of sixteen over the square of twenty-five, fractional form. The answer, now, and you have a deal."
Infused with liquor she could have asked them what half of ten was and they would have been stumped. Everyone went quiet when The Question was asked, everyone knew the poor sod wouldnt get it. The aim was to humiliate as much as it was a diversion. They couldnt win, and she knew it. Shed watch them squirm under the pressure, under the scrutiny, squeezing lip-gloss like toothpaste from the tube and spreading it on top of her lipstick. It was a move designed to remind them that those lips were something they would never have. The answer was something that they would never know.