It was odd that I'd never noticed Tanner's Bar before that day. I must have passed it hundreds of times, maybe thousands, on my way to and from work. I guess I was always in a hurry, my mind already in the office waiting for my body to catch up, or still there preparing for the next day, the next meeting, the next client. I guess Tanner's Bar was just part of the texture of the city.
But not that day.
Tanner's Bar caught my eye that day. This quaint, tiny English pub nestled between the Halifax bank on one side and a jewellers on the other, apparently squeezed into the space like it had to hold in its breath, barely wider at the front than the open door, so that the specials board was forced to spill over into the street in front of the jewellers and anyone going in felt like they were entering a broom cupboard. As I stared at it, convinced I should keep walking but not wanting to go home to an empty apartment, a homeless man caught my eye, huddled in the doorway of the bank under a grubby sleeping bag.
“Any change, mate?”
I shook my head, and he didn't bother a second time. Just looked away. I felt a pang of guilt, but pushed it down as I stepped inside the bar.
It was a wedge shaped room, surprisingly large when compared to how it looked from the outside. A few tables were strewn haphazardly like they'd been scattered from a height, while the bar itself stood to the right with four stools placed evenly along its length. The place smelled of polished wood and leather. A single patron slouched in one, but otherwise the place was empty and silent.
“What can I get you there?” The bartender ambled my way, cleaning a glass with the end of his apron. He flashed me a warm smile and I forced one in return, though I didn't feel it.
“Cider?” I caught myself inflecting the word as though it was a question. Was my confidence so fragile that one setback could devastate it like that? “I'll have a cider,” I said, not sure that it sounded any less certain.
“Sure, no problem. You want me to bring it over to a table, or...?”
“No,” I said as I wandered forward and sat on the stool farthest away from the other customer. I wasn't in any kind of mood to chat, not that he had even glanced my way.
“Nice evening,” the bartender said, glancing behind me, out of the door.
“Yes,” I said, though I hadn't even noticed. I couldn't have told you if it was raining or clear, whether there was a sunset or grey clouds.
“I'm Hugh.” He poured cider from a bottle.
“You seem out of sorts, Carl.” He put the glass on a mat in front of me. “Anything you want to talk about? I'm a good listener.”
He didn't wait for my reply, but grabbed a second glass and a second bottle and began to pour another drink. For the first time, I think I actually saw him, this man in his early thirties, maybe a year or two younger than me, his dark beard and dark eyes, Meditteranean looks. There was a single stud earring in his left ear and just the hint of a tattoo between his pectorals, where the first few buttons of his shirt had been left fashionably undone.
“I...” I began to reply, but where would I start? He didn't push, didn't pressure. As I fell silent, he took a sip of his drink, mine still standing untouched. I shook my head, but he didn't say a word. He met my eyes without a smile of encouragement or indulgence, just interest. “I lost my job today,” I said, and he nodded. No judgment. “I've been doing that job since I left university, over fifteen years ago. I've never even really lived, never been anywhere or done anything, never had a girlfriend.”
“Are those things that you want?”
I thought about that for a moment. Were they? I'd never wanted them before. Maybe I just wanted another job. I shrugged my shoulders. “I honestly don't know what I want. I wish...” I took a sip of my drink. The cider was ice cold, sweet and rich. It might have been the best cider I'd ever tasted. “What brand is this?”
“What do you wish, Carl?”
“I wish I hadn't lost my job.”
Did I? Was there even any point wishing that? “I don't have any savings,” I said by way of explanation, and Hugh nodded. I laughed at myself. “Fifteen years in a well paid job, no life outside of work, and my bank account still looks like it belongs to a student. I couldn't even tell you what I've spent the money on.”
He nodded, took another sip of his drink. His eyes had looked black when I walked in, but now that I was up close I could see that there was more in their depths. Flecks of brown, even flecks of green. I wetted my lips.
“I know I should stop feeling sorry for myself. I have qualifications and skills. I can get another job. It's just such a lot of worry, you know?”
Hugh leaned over the bar, lowered his voice conspiratorially. He was so close, it was almost an invasion of my private space. “If you could do one thing, right now – I mean anything, the sky's the limit, go wild – what would it be? Would it be to have your old job back?”
I almost answered 'yes' without thinking. The idea was magnetic. My old job back? Safety. I could start putting money aside, be more sensible this time around, save for a rainy day. But he'd said anything. “Anything?” I asked.
He nodded. “Anything at all.”
If I could do absolutely anything, wouldn't I prefer to travel to the moon? Or go on a wild adventure around the world? Childhood desires came floating back to me, things long forgotten. Romantic notions of exploring the Amazon or meeting an alien, being a pirate or a wildlife photographer or an actor. I laughed, shook my head. It was nice to indulge in a moment of daydreaming, but what was the point, really? The real world wasn't exciting, it was mundane and boring and if you didn't work hard then you ended up like that homeless man outside the bank next door.
“Shall I tell you what I would do?” Hugh asked, grinning wildly. It was infectious. I felt myself starting to smile the same, nodding, encouraging. Tell me what you would do, if you could do anything at all. “I would kiss you,” he said.
I think I stopped breathing. He would kiss me. He had the same parameters as he had given me, he could do anything in the whole world, go anywhere, be anyone. He could be a millionaire, a billionaire, have a yacht and a mansion and a hot air balloon if he wanted one. “You would...”
“Kiss you, yes.” He nodded. “What would I want with anything else? Right now, in this moment, if I had anything else, I wouldn't have that, and that's what I want. I live in the moment, Carl. Not tomorrow, not yesterday.”
I don't know exactly when it happened. I'm not sure if I stared at him for a while longer, or if I waited until the other patron left to relieve himself, or if I hesitated for only a fraction of a second. But I leaned in, and I placed my mouth against his. It was soft and cool. I don't know, I think I'd expected his lips to be warmer, but they weren't. I remember how cool they were. And sweet – sweet from the cider. My breath came in gasps as he took my head in his hands and held us together, his beard tickling against my face, his eyes half closed but still staring deep into mine. I felt my body react, my heart thundering, raising myself up on tiptoes.
In that moment, I forgot the job, the lack of savings, the worries for the future. I remembered that I had a family once, a mother and father, a sister somewhere in Devon. Now, they were just names on cards during the holidays, voices on the other end of phone lines inviting me to gatherings they knew I'd never attend. I had friends, too. Friends from childhood and adolescence. Where were they now? Those friends had been replaced with work colleagues I barely even knew. Work colleagues who I'd never see again. There were no ties between us, no friendships.
As our kiss broke, I blinked away tears, put a hand up to my face, embarrassed.
“Don't,” Hugh said.
“Sorry, it's just-”
“No, I mean, don't wipe them away. Crying is good.”
“I think I should go.”
I heaved a breath. Why? Didn't I enjoy the kiss? Didn't it mean something to me?
“Do you have somewhere to be?”
“I need to phone my sister,” I said, not even realising how true that was until after the words had left my lips. I needed to phone my sister. She had a husband I'd met once, a son I'd only glimpsed in Facebook posts as I scrolled past her name. “I need to go visit her.”
Hugh nodded. “Can we see each other again?”
My head was spinning. When I told him I'd never lived, I was talking about adventure and fast cars and a trophy wife. Now? Everything had changed. That wasn't living. This, right here, this was living. A beautiful man who wanted to get to know me. A family to reconnect with. So many lost years. “Yes!” I said, grinning. “Yes. I'd like that.” I scribbled my phone number on a napkin and handed it to him and he smiled and kissed me again, sweetly, on the cheek.
“Go phone your sister. Drink's on the house.”
As I left the bar, I took a deep breath of the evening air. The strange thing was, it wasn't warm, there wasn't a beautiful sunset, there weren't birds singing. I wrapped my arms around myself against the chill, dipped my head to avoid drizzle falling in my eyes.
The homeless man had pulled himself further into the doorway, knees pulled up to his chin. He barely glanced my way as I walked up to him, and when he did there was fear in his eyes. As if I might hurt him.
“Here,” I said, pulling out my wallet. I was going to give him a five, tell him to get himself something hot to eat. Then I hesitated. There was only fifty pounds in there.
“Any change at all, mate. I'm desperate.”
I took a breath, then pulled out all the notes, shoved them into his hand. “Go rent a room and get yourself a hot meal. I'm sorry it's not more.”
As I turned and walked away, I smiled and shook my head. Despite it all, Hugh was right. It was a nice evening.