Same Again, by Pauline Rooney

Hennessy New Irish Writing: October’s winning story

 

You won’t tell her that you’ve been waiting here, perched at the corner of the bar, alone. Hoping she would turn up. Sitting long after the others had gone, lurching and swaying towards the door; back slapping and high fiving. Home to their wives and children, where you should be on this Friday evening.

And you won’t tell her that from the moment you caught a glimpse of her in the mirrored bar tiles, her face red and flushed from the cold, your heart leaped. Even now, after all these years. Or that you pulled yourself up taller and sucked in your stomach. Or that you unfurled your rumpled shirtsleeves and straightened your tie, decided to tug the tie off completely and opened a shirt button, or two. Or not, after revealing a thatch of wiry grey hair.

You want to tell her that she has aged well and that you would recognise that glossy chestnut hair anywhere. Even though it is cut shorter now.

You watch as she unravels the woollen scarf wound around her neck, unbuttons the oversized coat and dips to place her bag on the floor, tucking a loose curl of hair behind her ear. A movement as familiar as breathing. Then, as she turns to weave through the crowded bar, you hold your breath and hope that fate will intervene and guide her towards you.

You watch her route, reflected in the mirrored tiles, as she wriggles through a gap in the wall of bodies standing at the bar before reappearing on the opposite side. How she tries to catch the eye of one of the bar staff in their tight black T-shirts. Young men darting and dancing, shovelling ice and carefully measuring.

You raise your drink and tilt it towards her. At first her brow furrows, then, as realisation dawns, her smile widens, dimpling her cheeks. She turns to push through the throng.

You swing a muscled arm in a wide arc. “Let the girl past, would you?”

Those around you step back, merge into the shadows, and in moments she is at your side.

“Hello, stranger.” You won’t tell her that even this is difficult to say.

“Oh my God! I don’t believe it!”

She leans forward to hug you, but you tilt your head awkwardly, and she bumps against the side of your face, the heat of your skin warm against her chilled cheek. You want to tell her that you recognise the perfume. An expensive citrus scent bought for many a birthday present. You reach for the empty stool beside you and angle it towards her.

“Pull up a pew.”

She slides on to the shiny red leather stool, her skirt riding up.

You want to tell her that you remember those long legs, tanned and glistening in the sun. Coconut sun cream. Pina colada days.

“What on earth are you doing here? And still wearing a suit at this time of night! That’s not a good sign, y’know.”

She waggles a finger at you. The nails are a tantalising shade of blue.

You clasp her fingers in your hand. “Blue?”

“Midnight navy.” She tugs her hand free.

“We were late out of court.” You flinch. “So, what are you having? Not one of those ridiculous cocktails, I hope?”

She throws her head back and laughs, a full-bodied guffaw. Her neck is long and arched. “Do you remember some of those weird concoctions?”

“I remember the very first one.”

“Really? You do?”

“Fuzzy navel!”

She gasps. Her eyes widen. “What an amazing memory you have! God, it was so sickeningly sweet!”

“Peach schnapps, I think. You weren’t the one that had to ask for it!”

She rests her chin in her hand. “Babycham.”

“Babycham?”

“My first drink. I thought I was so sophisticated.”

You smile at her attempt at sophistication.

Tilting your head to the side, you lean closer and whisper. “Slippery nipple.”

She shrieks and hides her face in her hands. Her head rocks from side to side, eyes tearing with laughter through the gaps.

“No! You’re making that one up!”

“You were the very girl who insisted on ordering it. If memory serves me right it was Baileys . . . and sambuca. With a well-placed cherry in the centre, too!”

“No! Really? How gross!”

You nod to the bartender, swirl the last of the whiskey around in the glass.

“Same again. And a . . .”

You look over at her. She has regained her composure. Through a slatted fringe her hazel eyes are flecked with gold, full of mischief.

“Don’t even think of it!”

She bits down on her lip. Pauses.

“Dark and stormy, please.”

You shrug your shoulders in mock disgust at the bartender.

“So how’s things? I’m amazed you recognised me. It’s been years.”

You want to tell her it’s been five years, to the day. And that today was the same date as when you first met. “Feels like yesterday.”

As she rests her arm on the bar her bracelets jangle. You see the silver one among them.

“You still wearing that?”

You reach forward and tap at the fine silver band.

“I like it. Just because we’re not together doesn’t mean I’m going to throw it away.” Her chin tilts up, defiant.

You smile, pleased that she has kept it.

The barman swings around to reach for a frosted highball glass, filling it with crushed ice, then measuring out rum. He finishes with a flourish of citrus droplets and a wheel of lime balancing on the lip, then slides the glass forward, admiring his handiwork.

You hand him a twenty.

“Keep the change.” You say this loudly, so she will hear. “So go on, tell me. What’s in this one, then?”

“Well, it’s a naval drink originally. Dark rum with a bit of chilli, ginger beer. It’s layered. Supposed to represent storm clouds brewing over the ocean. Here, try it.”

She points the straw towards you. You lean forward and sip as she holds it steady, tasting the sweet, sticky residue of lipgloss. You grimace dramatically.

“Like cough medicine.”

“Some people have no sense of adventure.” She giggles, a light-hearted tinkling sound.

You want to tell her that life feels better already with her at your side, laughing. “I stick to whiskey chasers these days.”

“Old man’s drink!”

“So how’s the love life, then?”

She pulls a face and sighs. “You’re not seriously going to ask me that, are you?” Her voice carries a tinge of irritation.

“What do you want me to ask you, then?”

She pauses to sip again at her drink. You watch the dark nectar travel up the straw and into her mouth.

“Well, it’s been more quantity than quality, to be honest.”

It’s your turn to laugh. Your thick fingers flex around the glass.

“So how’s married life, then?”

You swirl your drink around. “Fine.” And throw back a large, oaky gulp.

“Fine?”

“Grand. It’s grand. Nothing to tell.”

You won’t tell her that you are sitting at this bar because you don’t want to go home, that your own marital storm is brewing.

She stirs her drink with the straw, agitating the ice. “And work?”

“Work? That’s going well. Just finished up a big case today.”

“So I’m guessing from your smug look that you won.”

You watch the pout of her lips as they suck on the straw.

“Of course!”

You won’t tell her that there are no winners and losers any more, just compromise. Each side feeling that they’ve left with something.

“We got a good deal for the client.”

“Well done you!”

You toss back the remaining liquor. It burns the back of your throat.

She starts to open her purse, fumbling with the clasp.

“Let me get you a drink to celebrate. I’m supposed to be getting a drink for Joan anyway.”

Her fingers are on your arm. They feel silky as they curve tightly around your wrist. You grasp at them as she turns around to scan the crowd. Her blouse is partially undone, and you catch a glimpse of black lace. You imagine your mouth brushing against it.

“Looks like she’s found someone else to talk to.” She nods in the direction of her friend.

You glance over. “Oh no, not Joan the Moan.”

She bends over laughing, placing a hand on your thigh to balance.

She leans close to whisper in your ear. “You’re terrible!”

The words are a damp lick on your neck. She places a hand over your mouth. “Shh!”

You want to kiss her fingers. Taste the lime.

You watch as she tugs at a note from the back of her purse.

“Put it away. I’ll get it.”

You place your hand on top of hers. Your clammy fingers are reluctant to let go.

She looks at you, and for a moment her gaze lingers. Then, glancing away, she casts an eye over the murky horizon.

“I’ll just check on Joan. See that she’s okay.”

She slips off the stool and tugs down the hem of her skirt. You reach out to help, brushing against the soft flesh of her thigh. She clings to your arm and steadies herself.

“What did you call this?” You point to the rum drink.

“Dark and stormy.”

“I might give it a go. Same again?”

She hesitates, nods. “Same again.”

You won’t tell her that you have turned your phone to silent. Your heart begins to thud as, in the mirrored tiles, you watch her bend to collect her bag and coat. She wraps an arm around her friend, hugs her. Then she turns to face you. She pauses. Quickly you swing around and smile. She heads in your direction.

Pauline Rooney’s story Counting Strokes was runner-up in the Michael McLaverty Short Story Award and a finalist in Aesthetica Short Story Competition. Her writing has also been shortlisted for the Fish Short Story Contest and longlisted for the Bath Short Story Award and the Mslexia First Novel Award

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