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Award winning CafeLit short story

Dermot thought that he must've heard "Lady in Red" at least eight times since being in Riley's Bar. Taking another slug of his whiskey, he glanced at his watch. It was only ten thirty but felt more like three in the morning. His eyes felt gritty, his brain like blancmange.

The barman wiped the counter as if in a trance, his eyes fixed somewhere in the distance as if watching an apparition, oblivious to his last two remaining customers.

"Could I have another orange juice please?" Simon's question broke his reverie and he served the stranger his third orange juice of the evening.

"Sure. More ice?" The barman had a soft Dublin accent and his hands shook as he opened a bottle of juice.

"Yes, please and a packet of those peanuts." Simon decided to give it another ten minutes and head for home.

The phone on the wall jangled, making the barman jump. He grabbed the receiver as if it was a hot coal.

"Yes. How do you know? Okay, thanks for the tip off. Sure."

Slamming down the receiver, he turned up the volume of the music centre before disappearing into a room behind the bar, his eyes darting from side to side like a trapped animal.

Dermot called out, "Another whiskey - on the rocks," but his words evaporated in the stale air.

Crunching the last piece of ice in his glass, Dermot swivelled on his stool to face the stranger who had been sitting silently at the bar with him for the past hour.

"Not seen you here before." It was more of a question than a statement.

"Er, no. The barman seems to have disappeared. Not very friendly is he?" Simon looked directly at Dermot and saw a smartly dressed man in his late twenties with dishevelled brown hair. He wore a grey suit, his pink silk tie undone and hanging forlornly round his neck like a useless rag. The man was clearly as drunk as Simon was sober.

"I stood her up." Dermot announced.

"Pardon?" Simon asked.

"Left her at the altar. Couldn't go through with it. My life's a mess. Should have told her before. I'm just a ruddy coward. The guilt's eatin' at me stomach but I've no regrets. No, no regrets. She'll be at her mother's house by now. God, I can imagine the sobs and her mother's bloody righteous indignation." Dermot slurred before slumping across the bar.

Simon wondered if he had dropped off to sleep. 'He must be drunk to sleep through this racket,' he thought.

"I'm sorry it didn't work out. Look, I'm supposed to be on a blind date but she didn't turn up, so I'll be off in a minute. Where's that useless barman got to?" Simon addressed his new acquaintance in the hope that he might hear him.

Dermot sat up suddenly, as if revived from a coma. "Reckon we've got the place to ourselves," he said before staggering behind the bar where he poured himself another drink, gazing at the golden nectar as if his life depended on it. "Wanna whiskey?" he asked.

"No thanks, recovering alcoholic. Silly place for me to meet someone on a blind date."

"What you do for a living?" Dermot was back on his stool again, staring at Simon as if for the first time.

"I'm a pharmacist."

"Is that arable or do you have live stock?" Dermot asked.

"Neither. I'm a pharmacist," Simon realised he was yelling and both men laughed. "What job do you do then?"

"I work for the police department, believe it or not." Dermot shook his head as he said this.

"Interesting. Don't worry - I won't ask you any questions." Simon drained his drink and checked the time. "Well, I'm off. Got an early start tomorrow. Hope it works out for you. Bye now." Much as he felt sorry for the man, he did not feel equipped to be an agony aunt and hated the sour smell of the bar; too many ghostly memories in such places.

He made his way across the worn carpet with the sickly green swirls and noticed that the bar tables had not been cleared of dirty glasses, even though it was now past closing time.

The door seemed to have stuck. Irritated, he tried again. "Barman," he called, "can you let me out."

"Lady in Red," the music played on as Simon battled with the door.

"No use, mate. We're locked in. You might as well have a whiskey." Dermot staggered across to escort his new friend back to the bar, but didn't make it.

Simon looked at the collapsed form at his feet and dragged him over to a sofa, where he left him to slumber. In repose his tortured features had become serene, almost childlike.

Simon allowed himself the luxury of gazing at the row of bottles lined up behind the bar, beckoning him to have just one little drink, but he fought the urge, knowing that it could never be just the one.

Instead, he went in search of an escape after switching off the infernal music. Frustration mounting, he tried the door behind the bar, expecting to see the barman. Feeling like an intruder, he entered a shambolic office that reeked of grime and cigarette smoke. Suspicious looking posters glared out from the walls. Simon glanced around and, to his relief, found a door to the outside. He tried it and a waft of crisp, clean, night air rushed in. Freedom at last.

He hesitated for a moment. Should he leave the stranger asleep or call for help? He decided on the former after throwing some punts onto the desk. That should easily cover the cost of the orange juice and peanuts.

Feeling as if he'd been in a battle, he hurried home, deciding never to enter a bar or go on a blind date again.

The next morning, as he picked up his newspaper from the hall mat, a picture on the front page accosted him. It displayed the disappearing barman. Above it, the headlines shrieked, "Sean O'Connery walked into a police station in the early hours of the morning, saying that he had given birth," Simon held his breath as he turned the page and continued to read, "to the idea that not all bombers were bad people. He gave himself up, claiming that his identity had been discovered by a plain-clothes policeman and his associate in a bar last night. "

This story is available in Sue's latest book, Stories to Go - Ninety-three Very Short Stories, which is for sale as a paperback and e-book on Amazon.