James watched as the last of the group departed from his pub, the door closing behind them almost in time with Kirsty McColl as she exchanged reminiscences with Shane MacGowan of the Pogues. Now that they were gone the bar was now empty and he wished them a safe trip home. The wind could clearly be heard blowing a storm outside and there would no doubt be tidying up to be done tomorrow. A fresh torrent of rain lashed against the windows and as he took a moment to look round at the Christmas decorations, in less than a week they would all be boxed up and back upstairs in the cupboard, all the better for them to be out of sight and out of mind in his opinion, he only put them up because it was expected for him to do so.
A new song started playing on the jukebox and he checked his watch. A quarter past two in the afternoon and given that it was Christmas Day there were unlikely to be any more customers. The rest of day could now be his to kick off his shoes and sit upstairs with his feet up. There would no doubt be the usual feel-good Christmas TV on, inclusive of a token film in the vein of It’s a Wonderful Life, intermingled with a fair dose of TV drama.
As he walked the length of the bar he reached out without needing to look and stroked a finger across her photograph which had long been positioned in the same place on the wall. Tomorrow it would be three years to the day since she’d been gone and he’d unquestionably feel the same sense of shame he always did, perhaps this year the conversations he’d have with customers would be enough of a distraction. If not then perhaps this would be the year he’d take the medication he had stashed at the back of the bathroom cabinet.
He’d almost reached the door in order to lock up when it was pushed open. The man who entered had to bow his head in order to enter and James took a step back as he looked upon his face. Clearly over six and a half feet tall he had a large mane of hair which dripped freely from the rain, he looked at James through dark brown eyes, “If it’s not too late I was hoping for shelter from the elements,” he said, his tone of voice, though softly spoken, was still an echo of his large size.
James considered turning him away but there was something about the man’s persona that made him hesitate, he couldn’t quite put his finger on it but he had the definite sense he knew him from somewhere. Stepping aside he motioned for him to sit at the bar, “Have we met before?” he asked.
The man removed his coat and hung it over an arm, “I have come this way before. I’m not entirely certain how long it has been though”.
James walked back toward the other side of the bar. When he rounded the corner he saw the man had already seated himself. Despite this his size was still apparent and James idly wondered if he suffered from the same gigantism that the entertainment wrestler Andre the Giant had, “What can I get you?” he asked.
“Brandy please, should serve to drive out at least some of the cold”.
James poured a double measure and placed in front of him, as he saw the man taking a bag which could only have money in it from his pocket he held up a protesting hand, “Don’t worry about it,” he heard himself saying, “Merry Christmas”.
The bag disappeared back into the depths of the pocket, “Much obliged,” the man said. Glancing over at the photograph on the wall he pointed at it, “Would that be your significant other?”
James stiffened, “She was, she’s no longer with us”.
“You have my condolences”.
“Thank you,” he said quietly, “So what brings you to this neck of the woods?”
The man shrugged, “I was looking for shelter and saw your lights”.
“You were lucky to find somewhere still open. So what is it you do?”
“I travel a lot. This of course means I don’t get to see my home much”.
“That sounds rather lonely”.
The man hesitated, “In time you get accustomed to it. How about yourself, this is a fairly large establishment yet here you are running it seemingly all by yourself”.
James was poised to tell the man to mind his own business only for the words to die in his mouth as he saw that no offence was meant. Turning he took hold of the brandy bottle and a second glass, topping up the man’s glass he filled his own and drained it in a single swallow, “As you say it’s something you get accustomed to”.
The man remained silent and an air of expectation hung in the air. In that moment James knew he was going to tell this stranger something that he’d only before shared with a couple of close friends, “I don’t think I’ll ever forget the day we sat down and decided to try and make this pub a success, the name was her idea”.
The man sipped his brandy, “Let me tell you a story about a young musician and singer I once heard about. He married his child sweetheart in a grand ceremony with all their relatives and friends in attendance on what should have been the happiest day of their lives. The evening of the wedding one of his friends, while under the influence of too much alcohol, thought he’d try his luck with the bride and refused to take no for an answer. In the chase that followed she slipped and fell into a viper’s nest, the bite she received killed her in seconds”.
“I don’t suppose the two of them remained friends afterward?”
“You mean were there blows exchanged? Perhaps there would have been if he was a violent man but this wasn’t his way. At the end of the day his friend was genuinely contrite for what he’d done”.
“I don’t know if I would have been quite as understanding if I’d been in his shoes”.
“Understandable but the story doesn’t end there”.
“Surely the only thing left for him to do was to mourn?”
“He chose not to, he decided instead to venture into the Underworld in an attempt to reclaim her”.
James nodded in understanding, “You’re talking about Orpheus and Eurydice”.
“Indeed I am. I suspected you knew your mythology when I saw that”.
James followed the line of the man’s outstretched finger, “The warrior-goddess Athena who fought with the Greeks in the Trojan War”.
“So Orpheus convinced Hades, the Lord of the Underworld, to allow Eurydice to return to the Upper World, there was but one condition. He was to walk without looking back until they’d both passed across the border. He failed though, no sooner had he crossed than he turned to look only to see her disappear back from where she’d come from”.
“With so much at stake, I don’t think I’d have looked back”.
“Can you be absolutely certain of that? What if you suspected you were being taken for a fool?”
“Point taken,” James conceded, “I suppose not”.
“The story has it that afterward Orpheus turned from the gods and was killed for doing so, though you can hardly blame him. Perhaps this was intentional in a last effort to see them re-united?”
James refilled his glass and took a deep swallow, “I should have been there to meet her. It was supposed to be the anniversary of when we’d first met”.
“I believe the phrase is should’ve, would’ve, could’ve. If I’m not mistaken you were on your way to where you were supposed to be”.
James’ eyes brimmed with tears, “She’d given up waiting by then and had left the restaurant. According to witnesses she’d got less than ten feet before the car knocked her down and the driver kept going. They caught him eventually and he got six years, afterward the police sent a counsellor round and she told me that I should look at this as closure, can you believe that?”
“Never try to understand someone when you haven’t walked a mile in their shoes”.
James wiped the tears away, “Precisely, where did you hear that?”
“It could have been any number of places I suppose,” he leaned in conspiratorially and kept his voice low, “Though I like to pretend I thought of it first”.
James smiled, “Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me”.
The man looked round at the window, “It sounds like the rain has stopped, time I was getting along,” he stood and threw on his coat, “According to your prices I owe you just over six pounds and I always like to throw in a bit extra at Christmas”.
“Don’t worry about it. You can repay me when you next come in here”.
The man grinned broadly, “Many thanks, and Merry Christmas”.
“Merry Christmas,” repeated James.
He watched as the man turned and made his way over to the door before opening it and disappearing into the night. After he gone James retraced his earlier movement and locked up the doors before drawing all the curtains. After which he moved over to the photograph and took it down. He ascended the stairs and went into the second bedroom which served as a study and retrieved the album containing the last holiday in Germany they’d taken together and opened it up. Removing the photograph from the frame he paused and then replaced it on the first page where it had originally come from, perhaps it had looked over the pub like a ghost of Eurydice for too long now. With this done he began to slowly flick through the pages and think about the memories the photos represented as he did so. Tomorrow morning he would take the medication and flush the whole lot down the toilet.
As soon as he’d turned one of the pages he almost dropped the album like a hot coal. It featured the two of them within the Cologne Cathedral where they’d ask a passing local to take a photo of them in front of a statue of Saint Christopher, even though it was slightly blurred the resemblance to the man who’d just left was clear to see. It was not only this that caught his attention however for tucked behind the film sleeve of an album that hadn’t been touched in over two years was a ten pound note.