He is knocked about a bit on the shoulders and arms by the Portuguese locals. Most of them are related to one another and to the proprietor. All of their time here is spent shouting at the football on the little screen stuck to the ceiling, laughing loudly or chasing errant children back to their mothers or sisters. He stands out so sharply, it occurs to me. He is an outsider without being outside – his body has joined with the bar stool and is now as permanent a feature as the television screen or the circular stains on the metal table tops.
Of course he is ignored by everyone. Only the children stare at him for a few curious moments when they collide with his shin in flight from a parent. He does not belong with the neon and chrome – how stupid of me! – he belongs somewhere made of stone, turned green by lichen; or a vast red plain stretching off to meet the whitening edge of the sky.
He scratches his head and taps a beer mat on the sticky top of the bar. I’ve seen him do this numerous times. It’s become like a trademark action to me. Sometimes I see him through the cluttered front window, framed between the gaudy Virgin Mother statues and displays of British Royal porcelain. He is a hunched over figure, darker even than the shade escaping the low coloured lighting. He is a dark figure, sipping the beer and tapping the beer mat.
It is hard to tell immediately if he is likable or not. There is a certain curl to his lip that makes him easily dislikeable. ‘That weird, mean man was there again today, Daddy,’ I imagined the kids to say in jumbled Anglo-Portuguese to their fathers when he first began to frequent the bar. But I don’t know if they did – I suspect no one said anything and that is the way it has stayed.
Perhaps there was a time, (yes, I think there was), a time when several of the young women and men began to notice him as a mysterious, permanent figure in their cousin’s establishment. He might even have been approached by one of the more daring girls. Pink sweatshirt unzipped and gold earrings following the motion of her hips, she flirts with him, touches him gently on the wrist, laughs loudly with a big fake smile and a glance to her table-load of onlookers. But she quickly goes back to them. He doesn’t understand what she is saying. She says he is weird and probably a homosexual. The others make jokes about him but against the noise of the other customers, crammed together in the thin dark room, he does not notice. I think how he probably has stopped caring whether they are laughing at him or not. He expects it and so it doesn’t touch him.
This is one of the tableaux when I see him though the glass, surrounded by things that do not fit him. They make him look more out of place, of course.
The first night he was here, he was with a girl. Perhaps it is cliché to imagine that they had been fighting, maybe in their bedroom or the street outside, but that is what this seems to be the aftermath of. They sit in the bar, side by side but not too close, both with identical solid glass mugs of beer, the noise and gazes of others gliding over them. She looks up at the clock behind the bar – it is a blue neon pairing of digital numbers – it is eleven minutes to midnight. She touches him on the wrist like the Portuguese girl would do later, gently stroking the dusting of light hair on the skin. She wants to kiss him. She wants to say sorry and for him to say sorry and for them to go back to their flat and make love. She hates the smell of the bar and the groups of tacky foreigners with enormous bellies protruding from sports tops that keep brushing past her lithe, naked arms. Even her hair hangs limply close to her skull as if shrinking from their surroundings.
He mutters something that I cannot hear. ‘I dunno,’ it could be. She briefly covers her face with her hands, but brings them down for fear of drawing attention to them. Here they are the foreigners, the outsiders. She wants her mother to hug her because his silence and the noise of the bar form one, awful attack on her. The undersides of her wrists stick to the edge of the bar and she retracts them in horror and irritation. I wish I could be closer so I could hear everything they say, but the girl is speaking very quickly and lowly and is leaning in so only the boy can hear. For some reason, at this moment, I feel like he is slightly older than her, maybe twenty-four or five, and this disappoints her. She wants to tell him to act his age. She wants him to act his age so that she will feel free to be young and still feel protected. She is desperate for her mother to hug her.
She touches him on the wrist again and he foolishly flinches. Ever since, he has not flinched when a child runs into him or a man knocks his shoulder, so this moment holds special significance for me. I replay it when I see him sat there, when he comes back to me drifting in the darkness through the neon visions of the Virgin Mother and her vacuum form child. The statue could be crying or it could be condensation on the plastic surface of her face.
The girl cannot bear his flinch and says, ‘Nathan!’ with her voice cracking. I think it was Nathan. Something like that. He looks down and away. He cannot look at her but he cannot get up and walk out of the noise and the movement of the bar into a night that is still, where his jumbled thoughts would seem huge and monstrous. Here there is always the most basic of distractions. When she tries to touch him again he does not flinch, and this signifies a sort of ending to the girl. She straightens her thin back, says something brief that I cannot hear and that I cannot read from the boy’s insistent lack of reactions. She looks around for her coat before remembering that there was not enough time to grab one, stands up, looks at him not looking at her, and leaves. I never hear what her name is.
He sits here, the boy that might be Nathan, and drinks his beer and plays with his beer mat. I don’t know if he thinks she will come back or, when he is elsewhere, at work or at home, in the flat she moved out from or the new one he moved into, whether he texts her or speaks to her of if they’ve even got back together in one way or another. Perhaps they made up later that night and he returns here now as part of some ritual I cannot understand. Perhaps they are married and he is having an affair and comes here to drift away into his guilt. Or perhaps it is to drift away into his love.
I cannot tell because I only ever see him here and I never see her. She may come back – but I haven’t seen that yet either.