Another High School English Practice Paper Story. This one expected us to continue an extract from Jane Harper's The Dry as an unseen text that expresses the 'fragility of literary worlds.' So I wrote this piece for it.
Damien gave a nod to the dazed man with a stiff shirt who stumbled bleary-eyed towards his room, brushing past a handful of men nursing drinks and chips as they affixed the TV of the pub with a hypnotized stare. The old barkeep had finished wiping down the bar top in a feeble attempt to prepare for the dinner rush as the various sorrowful day-drinkers took their leave, exhausted after their best attempts to drown their sorrows. He wasn’t sure what had happened to Falk beyond some sort of funeral. He was sure Falk may have told him the details, but they were hidden behind a fog of stories from customers with no one better to talk to than old Damien. The barkeep had become an expert in looking like he was listening, though truth be told he could barely remember anything more than the most basic information about the respective plights of the townsfolk. Was grey-haired Gibbins the one struggling to keep their hardware store afloat? Was he the one who’s Bakery closed down however many months ago? A strange sludge of memories spoken through slurred sentences from the newest face to seize a stool in front of him broke Damien from this questioning stupor. Reflexively, the barkeep smiled at the newcomer. She was a small woman with bags under her eyes that seemed to absorb all the colour from her face, leaving behind a pale pallor framed by blackened hair.
“What can I get you?” Damien asked
“Gin and tonic” she muttered in response.
Damien did as she asked as the woman’s cracked fingernails drummed an absentminded rhythm onto the bar, reaching for a small circular object - no larger than a bottlecap - before looking up at the barkeep.
“What’s on your mind, ma’am” Damien asked as she served her drink.
She pocketed the small object, revealing a metal engraving of the roman numeral I and the words ‘to thine own self be true’ engraved into it. Damien recognised a sobriety chip when he saw one. The woman’s voice faded into the background as she spoke and cried and drank throughout the night, leaving yet another sorrow behind for Damien to sweep up off the ground along with the shattered glass and spilled food at closing time. The barkeep didn’t feel guilty not paying attention to whatever story the woman had to offer, she was just another one of those customers that would unburden themselves and never be seen in these parts again. He listened when he was younger, before he realised that nine times out of ten he would be the only one who remembered the conversation once the sun rose the following morning. Was a conversation only he remembered one worth holding on to? Damien didn’t think so. He looked up from the Woman’s newest drink to notice a different bar than the one he had last left in his introspection. The TV was no longer playing last week’s football game, the handful of men had long since staggered to their homes, since replaced by a loose collection of colleagues, friends and families that littered the pub, wrapped up in their own surely riveting and conspiratorial conversations about whatever the current drama that plagued their life was. Whispers floated across the bar to him.
“He was only nine years old when he did that!”
“Did you hear what Harry did when he got the news?”
“What did you think of her dress?”
By five in the morning they had all left again. Damien remained - having stirred the sleeping drunkards and swept the broken glass - in an empty pub. Another night only he would remember.