She found him in the corner farthest from the bar. As a consequence of this, it was also the farthest point from anything. He was hunched over a half full schooner that looked as if it hadn’t been attended to for well over half an hour. In fact, it looked as if Jim was unaware of anything going on around him—the noise, the smoke, the jostling… the testosterone—and that he rather preferred his own private world than the one surrounding him.
She approached him carefully, unsure of what type of mood he was likely to be in. In three years of knowing one another, there had never been a situation like this, something that could probably cause a strain between their relationship. The five metres between them were both physical and metaphorical virgin ground—an allegory that Jim might have found humorous at any other time… but now? Emily stopped abruptly, abruptly enough for a flannel-clad local to plough into her, spilling precious drops of beer onto the floor.
“Aw, shit, sorry!” he drawled, eyes crawling over her body. The smile oozing over his face made his lewd thoughts blatantly obvious. “Does your momma know you’re here?” he inquired, blowing a foetid cloud of boozy breath into her face.
“Does yours?” Emily quipped, spinning suddenly, all of her second thoughts dissolved. She slid onto the vacant stool across the tiny table from Jim, who as far as she knew had still been staring into his schooner while Neanderthal Man had ogled her.
Apparently he hadn’t. “I see Ted’s still trying,” he muttered.
“Ted?” she looked over at Neanderthal Man for the briefest of seconds, aware that he was glaring intently at her. Seeing her looking at him, he blew her an extravagant kiss.
“Come to drag me home?” Jim asked. His eyes were still fixed intently on the brew sitting in front of him.
“I’m not your mother,” Emily told him.
“John told us all what had transpired. Minus the confrontation… I heard that from the office ladies…”
Jim glanced up for the briefest of seconds. There were large black bags under his eyes that she had never noticed before, either as a result of the poor light in the pub or further symptoms of what occurred on Tuesday. Either way, they transformed his face into a distended, inglorious mask. But it wasn’t until her gaze was torn from these afflictions to the redness of his eyes that she realised their true nature. By then, he had lowered his gaze, once more in contemplation of his beer.
“It was a very censored account of what happened if that’s any consolation.”
He pushed the schooner away from him. “I bet it was,” he said. He raised his eyes again. They were still wet and shiny and red with tears.
For seconds that felt like hours, Emily could only stare, her heart skipping a loose rhythm inside her chest. He was staring at her in a way no man had ever stared at her in all of her life. There was not the Neanderthal Man style of lust, the loving genuflection of her father, the deep, warm, passionate gazing of a lover… or the old conspiratorial exchanges shared many times with the man sitting before her… This was… the look of somebody who was completely and utterly at a loss. Dark, dilated pupils reflected not only the sordid antics of the locals behind her, but the disenchanted soul of Jim Hallaron. A soul that had had its wings cruelly cut and its feet bolted to the ground. Here was an unanchored galleon tossed on the wild seas of uncertainty.
“I thought at one stage that I’d be one of those silly fuddy-duddy old professor types… with kids chucking paper planes around the room while I, in my dotage, would be reciting shit about Shakespeare, oblivious of everything.” A screwed up smile briefly lit Jim’s face, until the obvious discomfort this action caused stole it away. There was still a strange twinkle in his eyes that held Emily fixed to the spot. What she was seeing was a cauldron of emotions set to brew slowly, each emotion flickering across his eyes momentarily, before vanishing down to the end of the queue, ready to start again. “It’s not likely to happen now. Especially after John is finished with me.”
“Forget John,” Emily replied, snaking a hand out to clasp one of his. It was like holding a cold bag of bones in her palm. She looked into his eyes, watching with wonderment the cascading emotions playing for poll position across their landscape. What was he going to do? she asked herself.
“You know,” he began, giving her hand the tiniest of squeezes. “Once upon a time—I’m going back about ten or so years… when I was still quite young—I used to be as quiet as a dormouse. You would be hard pressed to get three words out of me. At my first job, everyone kept saying to me: ‘Why are you always so quiet?’ They’d always say stuff like that. ‘Why are you always so quiet? Why don’t you talk more?’ Back then, I was of the mindset that unless you actually had something to say, you kept your damn mouth shut. I thought, Christ, there’s probably two people having twenty people’s conversation; why the fuck would I want to join in? So I didn’t for a little while. And then… I don’t know; I was bitten by some kind of bug. Some kind of, I don’t know… political bug of some sort. The sort of thing where you speak what’s on everyone else’s mind. Like a fucking politician, I was. Shit, you couldn’t shut me up for nothing!” Jim paused then, his free hand busy rubbing underneath his jaw. “Wow, four days off work and I’m already using double negatives…” He grinned and shook his head slowly. “To cut a long story short, I transfer here, spout my damn mouth off at everything nobody else was going to touch with a fifty foot cattle prod. I trod on the wrong toes, and now, John is casting me out to the sharks. I’d have been better off being the quiet Jim Hallaron… the one who took the crap good-naturedly. The non-controversial Jim Hallaron.”
“I don’t think I would’ve liked that Jim Hallaron.”
“That Jim Hallaron would still have his job.”
“That Jim Hallaron wouldn’t be the good teacher I know today.”
The eyebrow above his battered right eye shot up into a high arch. “Are you flirting with me, young girl?” he asked.
Coming from absolutely nowhere, the question pole-axed her. Her hand slipped from his, rested lazily on the table. He was smiling, obviously pleased with her reaction. He reached out and reclaimed her retreating hand.
“Sorry I said that,” he remarked, patting the back of her hand between his. They were now warm, charged with a new vitality, as were his eyes, no longer stained red with tears. Even the bags were vanishing… albeit, slowly. “Wanna drink?”
“I… um…” How could she resist?