First published in ‘Hotel Oblivion’ (Underground Voices), available here on Amazon (15th November 2011) //
Not in the habit of going out much he clumsily strangled the handle of the porch door to pull it open. It swung into carpet silence. At least, though he felt the face wash of cliché, this is what he imagined to have happened. In truth he did not actually know whether or where he had actually entered the pub to begin with as memories of doors and windows had long since eluded his pitted mind. But he found himself in there anyway, sitting at the bar propping up his small head on his smallish hands, not crying.
He gummed the lips and the teeth, and the gums, of course, with a wet saliva kiss that tasted a bit like a cigarette sealed with last night’s wine, that was both sweet and sick; a flavour that reminded him of the time he vomited after smelling the rank odour of cider-shit left in a friend’s toilet one morning, after he had crashed on the couch. When he had smelt it he had had to move quickly out through his friend’s big front door to splash bile on the driveway. His friend did not like this (though it was his friend’s fault, in many ways) because his friend would be forced to clean up after his guest at some later date. His friend could not do it immediately because they then went for breakfast together and did not return to the house for another two days. But this is part of the story not really worth telling. It bores me to remember it.
So as he was gumming his mouth, like an old man that’s just tasted something he knows is ‘off’, he looked across the bar at another man, a really real one, not much different from any other whom you may find behind a bar at a certain clock hand of an evening, who was perusing his foreign newspaper. The bar tender, that was what he was, or at least had been identified as at the time.
Now. He is in Germany, a well-known but quite compact city known as Nuremberg, so things are a little different there. There they have bread named after elementary particles, which also happen to share the name of a mysterious yoghurt-like substance. Strange, up-down things. And, being in Germany, he would have to address the man formally with niceties; otherwise he may be at risk of squandering said Barman’s good graces. But I’ll translate for you, because it’s easier that way.
Now again. I should also mention that at this time, to the right of our hero, there is a faceless man eating his dinner, seated at a table reasonably far off into the corner and with the front of his head facing the other way, at the wall. He seems to be forking the food in without hindrance so we can suppose he has a mouth, at least. But you never know, he may be simply scooping the potatoes and gravy down the front of his shirt which is, of course, also a possibility, though probably a quite preposterous one.
Back to our hero who, to his brothers at least, is known as Hector. This is because he works, during the day, as a ticket inspector. And you see, the two words rhyme. Yes, they do, don’t they?
So. The Barman, who is also perhaps the proprietor of the deceptively large pub, with its backroom for pool and darts and a second bar for locals, is sat reading his paper, which is laid out across the entire width of the bar. He is only staring at the one page, and has been for quite a while, so maybe he isn’t even reading it. But like Faceless, he at least appears to be doing what I said he was doing.
Hector at the bar: “‘Scuse me. My name’s Hector and I appear to be lost.”
Barman doesn’t look up. He’s still ogling the sports section. Something about the Champions League.
After a moment, enough time to finish a sentence, a long one with pauses for effect, Barman’s fingers tap on the bar next to where his paper’s laid out. ‘Right then,’ his fingers seemed to say, ‘What can I get you?’ A friendly enough gesture indeed. Nothing out of the ordinary in a German pub.
“Um, I guess I’ll have a pint.” One second. “D’you have lemonade?”
Two seconds. No answer. He assumes there is none.
“Right, okay.” He says, accepting the lemonade situation quickly. But a twist of lemon is nice though, isn’t it? If we’re being honest. What sort of pub doesn’t have lemonade, he’s wondering. ‘Strange German places these, aren’t they?’ he thinks to himself, idly. Hector’s problems don’t seem so much as problems to him by this time though; in fact he is quite content. So he can take the lemonade situation on the chin.
Barman doesn’t move from his seat but instead reaches under the counter for a glass, probably not clean, and distractedly pulls the pint without looking. He keeps staring at the paper but we both know that he isn’t reading it, he’s just pretending. You can tell from the lack of focus in his little black eyes, he’s watching in his periphery for the movement of the pint and/or Hector, our hero.
Hector spends the next few minutes quietly drinking his pint, occasionally looking around and then gumming like before, as if really tasting the barrel and liking it.
The pub from the inside is dark, there are booths and chairs and tables about, and the other things you usually find in a pub, even a German one which happen to be more like bars, just that everything in this one is dimmer by a few clicks. It contrasts the outer which is illuminated by what seems to be several streaming searchlights from up above. Strange, incoherent, confusing German places where people wait for the red man to turn green.
Hector had heard crime rates were extremely low in that city but the evidence in the sky seemed now to prove to the contrary. He drinks his drink as the searchlights search, perhaps for people walking when the man stands red.
“Right so,” Hector says (in German).
Not a peep. Same page. Champions League semi-finals. Barman immovable.
“Sounds like rain out there doesn’t it? And what are all these searchlights about?” He says, knowing silence will be his only reply. “Sounds pretty heavy that rain,” he says then, urging something, even sort of looking in the direction of Faceless, probing for a response and hoping the potato-gravy-beef mouth isn’t too full to gurgle words. It seems to be though, unfortunately, because there is only the sound of rain and window.
“Well, if I have to stay here I’ll guess I’ll have another.”
Two seconds. Two, two and a half, maybe. It doesn’t really matter.
“How about something a bit more special?” The voice comes now, for the first time, as if from nowhere, as if from god or someone fatter, heavy with jumpy phlegm that has formed into a ball at the pit of the wide man’s throat, sat there awaiting its purpose, much like the man who houses it, who is also a bit of a ball-shaped, phlegmatic thing.
Welcome, Hector is thinking, welcome to the conversation. Now he is just thankful for some vague communication that finally seems to be going somewhere.
“Sure, what’ve you got?” (He’ll take anything).
Barman only gets up at this point and doesn’t say anything else, his eyes, eyes like pinkies jabbed into Play-Doh, still entranced on the paper even though he’s standing now. He leans over slightly, puts the used glass under the bar and, hunching at the shoulders, taps the wood where the drink once was, but this time it’s different, the tapping; more urgent. A money request. Hector takes out the coins from his pocket and lays a few of them down, enough to cover two drinks. Barman taps again, slower, heavier like his fingers are growing thicker. Hector puts down another coin, a silvery one. Another tap. A gold one. It keeps going like this until all the coins are on the bar, even the little ones that Barman doesn’t like. Barman collects.
As he walks off he keeps his tiny eyes on the line in that paper, even as he moves off. Ridiculous. He puts his hands in his pockets and goes up the stairs toward the far end of the bar and finally gives up the pretence of looking at the paper when his head disappears up the stairway; his head that is thinking about Schalke and the 1934 Final and beating Nuremberg, 2-1. Sweet beershit victory.
Hector is now looking at the Faceless Man, for some explanation, some reasoning, or something. Because it all seems a little odd, even for a bar in Nuremberg. Germany’s safest of cities, to his mind. Faceless is still forking though, paying no attention. Just eating away at his dinner that doesn’t seem to end.
Barman comes back and as soon as we can see his eyes again they’re back on that line, back in that paper, his balding head doing what it does. Schalke: unbeaten 1935–1943, he’s thinking. Barman comes back with nothing in his hands and takes his seat and sits lurched there all over again.
‘€6.80, ‘he’s thinking. ‘Where’s my €6.80?’ Questions like these. ‘That was my last six Euros and eighty cents.’ Quite baffled he stands there waiting.
“How about that drink then, hum?”
Barman gets up. Barman goes over to Faceless and talks to him while Hector tries to listen. He can’t hear the words but thinks it too impolite to approach, plus he’s a little frightened of seeing a man with no face, and gravy all over it. There are only a few words exchanged, nothing really to speak of, except that they are the only words either two of them have spoken to each other so far. Which makes them somehow significant. More beams of light outside, the weather howling wolf.
Barman comes back; he seems to be the landlord of the pub so any complaints will have to be taken up with him.
Hector eyes Landlord, sitting there with his new title that he has earned via syllogistic evidence. Hector has slightly bigger eyes than he though, and feels mighty good about it.
“Yeah, how about that drink then? Where’s that something special?” (In German)
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, sir.” (Also in German, formal)
“I gave you €6.80 for a drink. Something special you said. Then you went upstairs.”
“I really have no idea what you’re talking about, sir,’ says the Landlord. ‘Captain. Do you know what’s he talking about?”
The back of the Faceless man’s head shakes side-to-side, quite eerily and murderously slow.
“See. We don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Look, I gave you…” Hector’s hand goes into the pockets to show that it’s empty, that he gave him all he had. But of course the money comes pouring out onto the hardwood floor. He can tell quite quickly, with the gold coins and the silver coins and the little ones that no one likes, that it amounts to roughly, perhaps exactly, six Euros and eighty cents. Dull coins that have lost their shine. Hector the Inspector gets a feeling of dread.
He sits down and thinks, looking out at the searchlights still searching and, through the translucent windows, sees them getting closer, more interested in the pub. The single glaze kind of rattles with the wind and rain; the kind of windows that close or open with no one around doing it. He feels slightly irked. The coins are still on the floor.
He takes a bow and picks them up, sometimes one at a time, sometimes pinched fingerfuls. He has a little trouble getting at some of the ones glued to the sticky floorboards.
That voice from over the bar, at the crouched Hector: “How about a drink then?” It feels a bit like pity with that tone and that formal register.
“Yes.” Three seconds. “OK.” Another drink.
Landlord is looking at him as he pulls the pint and as Hector stands up. Both pairs of eyes go straight past each other and through the other’s sockets into dark skulls. The pint is creamy. The pint is drunk. Tap on the table; money needed. The weather worsens and searchlights shine, on occasion, directly through the stained glass back and forth from the well-kept, orderly countryside of Germany.
“Do you have any rooms here?” Rooms to sleep in, rooms to rest his small head and smallish hands.
“Do you have any money?” Money for drinks, money to pay for rooms, money for rooms to rest his small head, smallish hands.
“None. No, wait. I have some, don’t I?” He smiles the first uneasy smile of many and sprinkles those coins down.
Landlord sits back on the stool, looks at the paper, reads the words. Hector sips. Hector wants to cry. He is finished.
“How much for a room, then?”
“Oh.” Conversation is coming easy now. “Don’t worry about that. You can go right up.”
“What room, where is it?”
“There is only one room.”
A nod from Hector as if to say ‘Of course there’s only one room. And it probably has a ‘K.’ on the door.’ He looks at the pint but remembers he has no more of the six Euros and eighty cents.
In the morning, it is still dark. As dark as last night. He gets up off the thin mattress and goes downstairs in a somnambulant daze, rubbing his eyes, as you do.
A man with his back turned to the bar is eating gravy and potatoes and slices of beef. For Hector, he has no face. A ball of a man, balding, is at the bar reading the paper. The weather outside is strange, spotlights and searchlights and beams of whatnot light the outer windows, windows translucent, windows that silhouettes may stand behind, in the right conditions, in the wrong story.
Hector is afraid to go outside, so he takes a stool, a different one to last night, more directly in front of Barman and he plops down.
“How about a drink, then?” Hector says, somewhat bored. He feels like crying still, but he can’t.
“How about something special?” Barman says.
Hector drops the coins again, seeing where this is going.
Six Euro coins; eighty single cent pieces.
Hector sighs, fakes his final smile, and carefully peels off the sunken features of his soon-forgotten face.