Pen

The Best of Times Short Story Competition


Autumn 2018 Results




Time Gentlemen, Please

Copyright © Dean Briggs 2018


Ian glanced up at the town clock as he entered the pub and noted the minute hand loping up towards the nine, so he hurried in before he had the opportunity to trip and fall into the lost wasteland of belatedness.

Once inside, he was immediately aware of his peculiar saturated state, a combination of warm perspiration and clammy ‘cold sweats’. ‘Late’ was a word that did not even appear in his girlfriend’s lexicon, although his own dictionary had a whole chapter devoted to its nuances and synonyms. He quite recently messaged her to meet at Paddy’s Market, in something he called the ‘late morning’ without even thinking to add corroborating sat nav co-ordinates. She waited for forty-five frustrating minutes and swore on a stack of almanacs that never again would he be that vague or overdue. After confronting him about it, she gawped in slack-jawed disbelief as he explained that his family considered anything up to 12.45 as falling beneath the generous umbrella of ‘late morning’.

It was a pivotal, ‘never again’ incident for them both and a cause for ongoing vigilance.  

Today he hoped he had brought his ‘A’ game but still there was a malingering doubt, which quickly gathered its own work ethic. The bar appeared tryst free, except for a lonely, potted aspidistra standing with an erect expectancy by the coat rack.   

‘Seventeen forty five, sharp’ Army had warned, which converted to almost exactly quarter to six on Ian’s Playschool rocket clock. She had insisted that he bring all his timepieces forward by three minutes and used the twenty-four hour system in an attempt to avoid miscommunication. A very recent dispute regarding a ‘no show’ that grew out of confusions around the difference between ‘this’ Friday and ‘next’ Friday had given Ian’s confidence a hit of GMT proportions though.

There was a growing sense that their relationship might be living on borrowed time.

He carefully re-examined their exchange over the phone.

“Shit,” he hissed. A vague recollection of her using the old a.m. /p.m. system for his benefit appeared from the mists.

After ten aimless, Amy-less minutes, even Big Ted could have concluded that the arrangement was indeed for 7.45 and not 1745.

Two hours early would certainly have to rate as a PB for him. He considered options; plan A was to stay put, plan B was identical and plan C unthinkable; going AWOL would inevitably lead to distractions and complications and one too many acronyms. He had to remain clear headed, full of faculties and in his current geographical location. He decided on inertia and voted to wait it out.

The barman joined him after a listless eternity by the dishwasher, only trickling over after a triptych of Ian’s very loud throat clearings. The fellow winked a batch of crow’s feet, made a clicking sound with his tongue and attempted to flick a black mop-top out of his eyes.

"What’ll it be champ?”

“A glass of water please.”

“We specialise in alcoholic beverages y’ know.”

“I need to be sound of limb and true of eye, at least until 7.45.”

“Sounds serious.”

“Could be anything up to, and including, a marriage proposal.”

“You’re the third this week.”

“It’s Spring,” Ian shrugged.

“When young man’s fancy turns to lust.”

“Unrequited in this case I’m afraid, we’re practicing abstinence.”

“Gees, how do you practice that?"

“On your own I guess.”

The bartender laughed uproariously and sloshed a tap water on the rocks onto the damp towelling runner.

Ian blushed.

“This seasonal stuff’s a load of ullage anyway. One of the regulars in here, a teacher at the TAFE, reckons spring doesn’t actually start until the equalnox, which is the twenty first. That’s when day length, and the length of everything else, changes from short to long.” He smirked.

Amy would have been impressed by the chronologic logic of such a premise. Ian thought perhaps be he should get this teacher’s number as backup. He took a clanking sip and mentally dissected the double-entendre.

“Are you married?”

The barman chortled.

“Of course, but I’m a fish-in-the-sea, free-as-a-bird sort of bloke. My special topic is the one night stand and this is a great place to source them, if you get my meaning.”

“Never been interested in those… seems too much like dogs on heat to me.”

“Exactamundo matey. Is your libido asleep? A young bloke like you should be knocking them back with your stick. Sniffing out pheromones like a randy moth.” His face slumped in disbelief. “Gees you’re not still a virgin are you?”

“None of your business.”

He whistled and studied Ian with growing concern, leaning both hands on the bar, and was about to add another comment when a customer barrelled in to the front saloon.

Ian appreciated the hiatus and watched the two men quietly converse over the creamy head of a fresh schooner. He fingered his own middy (with a dash), made a set of dewy Olympic rings on the bar with its base as he sipped, and wondered how he would negotiate the remainder of the afternoon. The barman retreated to let the other man quaff in silence. Ian stared at his drink and contemplated something Dutch to boost his confidence and reduce anxiety.

The other customer finished his ale, ordered a repeat, appeared in the doorway, sidled passed the phalanx of stools and wriggled onto the one next to Ian. He was thick of set and crew of cut. They exchanged nods and then retreated to examining their drinks in silence. He looked up and fixed his gaze on the rainbow of cocktail mixers on the top shelf.

“Mo tells me you’re thinking about getting spliced in the foreseeable future.”

Ian could not conceal a start of surprise.

“Could be; if I ask and if she says yes.”

“So there’s still hope?” he chuckled.

“Sorry?”

“It still may not happen.”

“Are you?”

“Yeah, young fella; twenty eight years into the sentence and no sign of parole, pardon or euthanasia.”

He raised his beer in a mock toast and Ian reluctantly tapped it with his own glass.

“Come on, it can’t be that bad.”

“You know the ‘love, honour and obey’ business. Well there’s a lot of emphasis on the latter. The little woman’s very big on obedience.” He addressed the last remark to the barman who bobbed his head sagaciously as he drifted back into earshot.

“Doesn’t all that stuff work both ways?” Ian asked.

The big man snorted as he took a sip and a trace of amber fluid trickled from his left nostril. He laughed, gagged and coughed simultaneously and the barman dashed for a clutch of tissues. Ian worried they might need a paramedic but the man’s attack of ruddiness finally subsided and he regained composure.

"Oh sure… there’s give and take. She gives orders and I take them. I give money and she takes it.” 

“Actually, the young bloke mentioned something about the army earlier,” the barman remarked.

“Oh no that’s just a little joke between us. Her name is Amy.” Ian spluttered.

“Never a truer word spoken in jest. There is a certain military feel to a wedded blitz campaign and if ‘Private Parts’ keeps ‘Sergeant Chevron’ happy for the honeymoon period there can sometimes be a reward for good behaviour in the bunk on Sunday morning.”

The two older men shared a humourless grimace.

“You paint a very bleak picture.”

“The missus and I have known each other for one score and ten years. Not many surprises left. You’ve got to have a system to fall back on when the chemistry stops fizzing and the house is full of little uncivil, civilians running amuck.”

“Kids you mean?”

“Oh yes indeed; the world’s best contraceptive and a very efficient drain on my meagre resources.” He patted his beer and belly. “This is a receptacle for my only remaining vice and last chance at pleasure.”

The barman stood in front of the pair, arms folded resolutely and tea towel draped across his shoulder, hovering like a linesman.

“You’ve got a bit of global warming happening in your tumbler there sport,” he said, “I’ll just freshen it up for you.”

He dropped several ‘bergs into Ian’s glass.

As he did, the door opposite swung open and a tall, balding, middle-aged fellow in a dark suit, wandered over to join them, he had a long, lined face and tufts of hair hovering clown-like behind each ear.

“Gidday, what’ll it be?” said the barkeep.

“A tankard of you finest thanks.”

He shook hands with each of the three men.

“Good afternoon gents, Larry’s my name, cars is my game.”

He produced three business cards from his pocket.

“What do you know about marriage?” Asked the barman.

“What?”

“Young chap’s thinkin’ of popping the question.”

“It’s a good idea. I did it three times.”

“Did she say no twice?”

“Nah mate, three women, three affirmatives.”

"A new and used specialist,” said the crew cut with admiration.

“And I’ve just started cruising the yards looking to update to a model with better tyres and less on the odometer.”

“Pheeew, sounds expensive,” said the barman, raising his eyebrows.

“Everything has a shelf life.”

“What about ‘til death do us part?” Ian asked.

“Death comes in many forms my boy; the first big fight, the first credit card blowout, the first corrective surgery. I believe in the re-in-car-nation.”

“Sounds like you’ve taken a sheet straight out of Rod Stewart’s song book.”

The three wise men chuckled.

“I’ll give you a tip; the most important person to invite to the ceremony is your solicitor, you have make sure the pre-nup is tighter than a head gasket.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“Fair dinkum, otherwise you’ll lose the lot.”

“I mean, how can you be so cynical? I haven’t heard one of you guys mention love or respect or friendship. They’re the things that really matter and make it work, aren’t they”

The barman began bowing an air violin.

“Look at the stats, marriages don’t last.”

“I wish I was a statistic,” crew-cut moaned.

“Yeah and how long do you think your conjugation has been dead in the water.”

“Prob’ly twenty years.”

Larry pointed at him brusquely.

“Bingo!” he shouted.

“Then why do people make vows.”

“I saw a show on TV about that. Most young couples about to go into wedded dreadlock, do not expect to stay together, even though they were happy to promise that they would.”

“That makes no sense. Surely the expectation should be for a lifelong commitment.”

“You’re making it sound like a long stint in the loony bin and perhaps you’re right. Being mad helps.”

There was a generous trio-in-the-round of chortles.

“Those people are just being realistic.”

“They shouldn’t get married in the first place then.”

“What else can they do?”

“I don’t know. Enter into a serial monogamy contract or something.”

“Sounds good,” said Larry.

The barman and the crew-cut nodded their agreement.

“What a bunch of cop-outs.”

Mo folded his arms like one of his bouncers and spoke with a furrowed brow.

“I saw a doco about monogamous animals. There’s not many really; a few bats, deers, birds, otters and beavers. It’s not a great idea from a Darwinian point of view.

“Backed up with scientific evidence as well. Aren’t humans supposed to be a little different; we have the power of language, moral codes and ideas about how to treat others. What about loyalty?”

The three exchanged glances and nodded.

“You are the last of the Romantics,” said the barman.

"A dinosaur,” said Larry.

“A loser,” added the crew-cut.

Ian sculled the glass of water. He had had enough of these doomsayers,

“I think I’ll take a leak.”

He headed purposefully for the toilets but dropped back to slow motion once inside and shook his shoulders to loosen them up. The good-humoured jibes of his three new confidantes had a strong backbeat of quiet desperation that unsettled him and intensified the pangs of doubt. After dallying for an age, Ian peeked around the lavatory door, toying with escape attempt; the threesome remained in a huddle by the bar and from a distance seemed more comical and less formidable. He noted an easy familiarity between them as they, in turn, glanced across at the swinging portal. Ian’s suspicious nature, which usually hibernated deep within like a coy brown bear, stirred. There was a certain something in the triptych panel’s manner that caught his attention, poking him hard in the ribs until forced to accept its presence. There was a definite odour of cahoots in the stale barroom air.

He burst out of the lavatory like a gunslinger and smiled secretly as the men subtly but quickly disassociated. Collusion shuffled in behind poker faces. 

“We were about to send Henry Stanley in with a search party.”

"I was cogitating.”

“Sounds painful, would you like another aqua pura?”

The continuing raft of gentle intrusions had left him less than buoyant.

“No, I might take a walk. I think my head needs an autumn clean, though as you indicated I might be a little premature for that.  I’ll see you shortly, if not longer.”

He left the men in puzzled silence.

Out on the street Ian’s agitation grew as he walked. The whole scenario began to smell like a well-oiled intervention, a test of his readiness, willingness and appropriateness. He quickly convinced himself that Amy had arranged for the three stooges to quiz and stretch him and he resented it. Curiously, they had not made him doubt the beauty and sanctity of marriage but instead fostered a mistrust of his prospective fiancée. Could that be ironic? He hoped so.

Ian arrived back at the club just as his watch bleeped 7.40. There was a loose scattering of patrons but no Amy, because in her ETA etiquette bible, arriving early was no more acceptable turning up tardy. He approached the bar and noticed Mo tucked in the corner, speaking on the phone. He hung up when the pair made eye contact. He was for the first time, visibly furtive.

“Haitch two oh sir,” he asked.

"Was that her on the phone?"

Mo made to deliver a po-face but obviously felt painted into a corner and on the ropes at the same time. He nodded lamely.

“Are you a relative?”

“Uncle.”

“And the other two?”

“Friends.”

“To paraphrase John Lennon, did I pass the audition?”

“Yeah, as a matter of fact.”

“I should be glad I suppose but I’m worried she may have flunked hers. I’m not going to stay tonight.”

“Why?”

Ian drew a meditative breath, a short draught of water, a quick sketch, a ticket in a meat tray raffle and some wary glances, before answering. His tone had a ring of resignation.

“I’ve just clocked some things.”

“Because of what we said?”

“Yes, no and perhaps. Thanks for all your unwitting help. Please tell Amy that I will be in touch but in my own time."