I stood at the bathroom door of The Shield waiting on Francis. It had been a long Friday night like most of them had ended up being. This old place had been standing longer than we had but somewhere along the path between here and the hospital visits it stopped feeling that way. But we were alive. More than can be said for our beloved Shield.
When we first started coming down here, when we were no more than kids, we’d stand outside in the heavy rain laughing at the old guys stumbling out at closing time, watching them slowly disappear down Barish Street into the dark, while we waited to be old enough to go inside.
“I don’t care what the odds are and how my dad’s going…there’s no way we’ll ever be that old.”
Little did we know. We rode our odds over the years, me and Francis. He fell in love with my best friend, right there in that booth across the other side of the hall. She meant a great deal to me, more than most knew but somehow Francis meant all the more and he deserved that happiness. We all do, but him…he hadn’t had the best start. When his old man passed a couple of weeks before his eighteenth, we wanted to get him something special. Turns out that was Rosie.
Francis was the youngest of us all, but even when we’d all hit eighteen, we didn’t abandon him outside even for shits and giggles. To us this was the most serious business in our lives. This was something that was fucking ours and no-one, not even the miserable foreman at the pit, could take away what was behind that bar if we only had the money to pay for it on those most colourful of Fridays. It was November of 1973 when Francis finally hit eighteen and he walked through those doors with some kind of bravado. Granted that same night he left barely an hour later with the rest of us having drowned one too many pint-sized sorrows that for most of us didn’t yet exist…all three of them. He woke up the next day and told me it was the best night he’d ever had. It was only going to be the next night that that would all change.
Rosie was one of those rarest of things in that she actually lived up to her name in almost every way. Genuine chestnut hair, a smile that opened up with some kind of grace and the presence, the Irish warmth to contrast the cold Celtic white skin that her parents had gifted her. The middle child, between two boys, the one that got the best of both worlds, completely undamaged from expectation. As close to perfect as you could imagine. Why she chose my little fuckup of a friend I’ll never know, I never asked her. It didn’t grant the question, they just looked so good together even on that first night when Scotty tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to that booth across the way. I froze because I knew him and I knew her. It was like watching a mole making his way underneath a beautiful garden and you know at some point he’s going to pop his head up and make hills and ruin it. There was a part of me that wanted to be able to wander into that garden I think. But I’ll be damned if I didn’t look over and see him change into something better, something that over the years would make her grow.
Now Francis is sat in the cubicle just as he has been for the past twenty-five minutes while the bar staff only want to clean up the shit I couldn’t so they can go home. He’s considerate like that. Twenty-five fucking minutes he’s been in there, much like I guess he has for the last fifteen years. The difference is now he finally has good reason to be behind that cubicle door throwing up, looking like he’s praying. That’s the closest I think he ever got to God. If Rosie were here today, she wouldn’t be stood here against the wall listening to Francis hacking out his chest, she’d be in there, little man on the door sign or not. She didn’t care about things like that. She’d probably hold back what was left of that wispy hair and tell him it was okay or something, but I can’t. He’s my best friend but we just don’t do that even after twenty-four fucking years and eight rounds of bourbon and beer. Sometimes he seemed at one with this place as he did with me, I just never thought we’d end here just as we started. Rosie was hit by a car a little further up Barish Street about five years ago. Not long after that Francis got the news about his condition. He didn’t have the best of starts and it didn’t look like he was going to have the best of endings either. Yet I’ll bet you all that he’s crouched down in there, laughing to himself between the pain.
We’d been scuffling on-and-off all night about the meaning of life and all that shit, the same shit that you attempt to philosophise over when the whiskey top pops one too many times and the only reason we’re leaving now is because we have no choice. Staring at the far wall, adorned with pictures of the great and the good who’ve sat in this bar, I laughed to myself about us. Not fifteen minutes ago we were pontificating about the punk movement and how when it came to what was important they stood for what they had no matter what and how in the very next moment we were being asked to leave and we agreed without a word. Now the only thing I’m leaning on is the fake brick wall and him the door of that cubicle. We’re not as young as we used to be but then again we’re not as old as we were going to be. But I can wait. I’ve waited this long and my mind is wandering back to Keeley, the girl in school who never really got away. She stands opposite me in the line for train tickets every morning, me travelling out of the city to clean the city stadium before the midweek and weekend games, her going further into the city for whatever she does now. We offer smiles and little else. She dresses in business attire, perhaps a little better than I’d have pictured for her. We sat close in class, close enough to talk from time to time and for me to get to know her a little. She liked Charlton Heston and I liked Rita Hayworth and we’d talk about what kind of film those two would make together. The answer was almost invariably ‘a bad one’. Being a stupid kid I didn’t fully realise what was going on and that on lunch she was sitting with me and I never understood why all her girl friends were giggling. I know now. I know now when I look over at her heading into the city and she smiles at me, when I’m all the more aware of the bald spot on my head and the bags under my eyes.
I never realised until five years after that when we were there in the corner of The Shield that Rosie was one of those girls giggling. She’d been my best friend for a couple of years and she’d never told me. That’s why I always figured maybe she had a thing for me until Francis walked over to her and charmed her right out of her garden and into his.
‘Keeley has the biggest thing for you, you dumb fuck.’
‘No fuckin’ way.’
‘Yeah. You missed out. She’s a hell of a girl. She’s with Will Dawler now. You missed out.’
It didn’t last with Will, no-one expected it to. I saw her one night right here sitting on her own next to the bar talking to Francis while he was getting our beers. That was a rarity in itself. I sat next to her for a while.
Most of the guys had scarpered to see Motörhead who were in town that night and Francis was naturally with Rosie talking up a storm in the booth so I knew no-one would miss me. I figured maybe it’s time to find someone who might. We talked for a long time, way after the bell rang for time and I asked her what happened to Will and she told me he just kind of faded away and stopped caring. downing what was left of her gin. I was never that smooth but I saw the time to tell her what an idiot Will was and kissed her right there and then. I gleamed. Leaning my arm across her shoulders, I smiled a big fucking grin like the cat had hit the mother-load of the cream and turned back to look for Francis and Rosie but they were already gone. They’d never believe me. They never did.
Next day I woke up to Keeley and she still looked good and I knew there wouldn’t be any regrets, not this time. A few days later I’d not seen her around and I found out her brother had been sent to prison for manslaughter. It hit her pretty hard and I never got a phone call from her. We’d just met and I reckon she didn’t think she could rely on me for an arm to rest on and I didn’t know what to say. That didn’t make it sting any less. I always hoped she might just come back in here through that door to the left of the bathrooms and ask me to join her up at the bar but she’d left town to be closer to the prison and I never saw her again until the train station.
By then, me and Francis knew each other well enough to see the bad signs and we knew enough about life for it to be okay to put an arm around your best friend and ask them what was wrong. This is what being a man was now. He told me there were a thousand Keeleys out there. I asked the dumb fuck if there were a thousand Rosies and he said nothing back. He might not have known the right thing to say but he just understood.
I thought about that long and hard while I stood there waiting outside the bathroom and I moved my view over to the bar where Keeley had sat that night. Nothing had changed but the drinks. Sandy, the only barmaid left walked over and asked if Francis was done yet.
‘Sorry darling, he’s pretty sick.’
‘Can’t he throw up at home?’
‘How long have you worked here?’
‘We’ve been here fifteen years. Go clean the taps or something.’
I didn’t mean to be such a prick to Sandy, but she didn’t understand and it was easier to be that way than to explain to her about the disease that was eating my best friend from the inside out. Why should she know? It’s bad enough that I did. I was the only one who did. She walked slowly back over to the bar and I watched her like I’d stared at fifty other barmaid’s asses as they made their way back to their work and I knew why we still came here. We didn’t realise it but we needed it. Our best and worst moments happened right here, for better or worse, for how sad that might sound. Francis never married the girl so in a way that meeting that night was the ceremony and in ten years he never once did a thing behind her back, nothing that would hurt her anyway. There were times he’d sit there and drunkenly stir his drink with his finger and talk to me and whoever I was with that particular week about how she was grinding on him, much like when I was with no-one and I’d complain about just wanting someone to need me. That’s when I turned and walked into the bathroom.
I could hear his laboured breath. He sounded like one of those old geezers we’d laugh at on the outside fifteen years ago.
I walked over to the only cubicle with the door closed, skipping past the urine that had seeped out of one of the others, the smell of too much bleach burning away at the hairs in my nose and I gently knocked, the door moving open a tad.
‘Can I come in?’
‘Fuck. Why?’ he said coughing.
‘I want to talk to you.’
He choked and sighed.
‘I’m not in the mood.’
‘Then I want to talk at you.’
He said nothing. I pushed the door open slowly and he was sat on the toilet seat staring at the vomit on the floor, more blood than beer. I grabbed the bin from the corner of the room and put it down against the white paving and the liquid and took a seat just inside the cubicle.
‘I want to talk about Rosie.’
‘Because we never do.’
Francis shuffled on the seat and sighed again.
‘Don’t you think that’s a little inappropriate?’
‘Well…fuck…being where we are?’
‘This is where you met her. This is where you spent every hour with her that wasn’t spent at home in front of the TV or walking home from the big store after a big shop. I don’t think there’s a better place.’
‘She died a long time ago. I’m glad I had her to be that piece that completed me but I’m dead too.’, he said, clearing away his sweaty brow. ‘I’m at least getting there and that’s okay.’
‘You two were the ones, weren’t you?’
‘Yeah. But there’s a thousand more out there.’
‘You know that’s a lie.’
‘I know. There’s a thousand more who are like her and don’t have the same quirks, that don’t have her fucking smile. There’s another five hundred that will never be able to say the right thing at the right time, at least not for me. Not for you.’
‘These things don’t change, whether you’re fifteen or…how fucking old are we now?’
He continued looking at the floor, but his back straightened, his face smiled more on and off though his eyes stayed closed. The lights were too much for the head after all those days of being pumped with chemicals, changing him into something else.
‘These things don’t change. She was like a fuckin’ lightning bolt. When you get hit by one, you’re branded. It’s not hot, it doesn’t hurt…all it does is send you across the room towards them. Sometimes that’s all it takes. That’s when you know you’re not that stupid kid any more.’
I sat there in that cubicle with him until he could move. The bar staff came in two or three times and I apologised and they told us it was okay. Maybe they understood now.
I got back into work about two weeks after the funeral. It was a beauty as funerals go and he got put in the ground next to Rosie, joint headstones. His brother John was at the other side of the park with the whole family but he wanted to be with Rosie who’d chosen to be on the east side, closer to the big garden, the spring sun shining over it. I sat in The Shield every day after that avoiding it, looking at the young people, wondering if they were looking at me, laughing, waiting for the old man to stumble home. When the sun shines like that around here there was always a storm coming. After that two weeks, I got up from bed, having barely slept through the lightning outside, I showered, I put on my uniform, my jack boots, grabbing my umbrella from the stand on my way out the door and walked to the train station. I stood in the queue as it slowly moved through watching the flashes and waiting for the rumble of thunder. I needed to know how far away it was. I watched the queue going the other way until Keeley’s face appeared. Little by little the queue revealed the dampened business attire she wore and she smiled at me a little wider for my absence I hoped, as we began to pass each other by.
I ducked under the railing, stood next to her and headed into the city, ducking the ticket inspector, opening my umbrella over us.