Throughout this Christmas week, in addition to my normal seasonal posts (on Tuesday and Friday) and in the long-established TV tradition of festive repeats, I will re-post six of my very favourite Christmas offerings from Christmas Past. The third of these reposts is from Christmas in 2020, and is the fifth ‘Conversation with the Bearded Man’ story. It has the slightly melancholy air of a story written during Lockdown…
Yet another day when my spirits had descended to previously unplumbed depths: I was a compromised bathysphere, slowly sinking into the abyss whilst building up the kind of internal pressure that could foretell of nothing other than impeding disaster and a date with the fishes. My mood was black – I would say blacker than black, because ordinary black had become my normal default mood, but my mum always told me that there were no shades of either black or white, so whilst no saintly youth club leader could ever be whiter than white, I could not be blacker than black, just black, very black indeed – and my spirits were lower than the Trustpilot rating of the average Italian politician. I could not have been more down without being out. Except Christmas Day lay just around the corner: the knockout blow; the nightmare scenario for a man whose very best efforts at false bonhomie fell somewhat short of the minimum expected, a man abandoned by the Grinch because of his over-zealous views, a man whose ho-ho-ho had somehow become a strident no-no-no. I am tempted to say that I have always felt the same way about Christmas, but it would involve me in the kind of lying that would redden my cheeks and make my nose itch. This seasonal melancholy was relatively new to me, although I had been engendering it in others for years apparently.
Christmas is no time to be alone. I have no family, whilst the few friends I have, do have family, with whom they choose – treacherous scum – to spend the festive period, so, as usual, Christmas Eve found me alone in the pub observing life through the bottom of a beer glass. I had almost reached the decision to go home early – a plan that was only forestalled by the fact that the kebab shop hadn’t opened yet – when a hand reached out to take my glass. I was about to protest that I hadn’t finished, despite the fact that I patently had, when I noticed the cufflinks and the crisp white cuffs. The landlord was ok, don’t get me wrong, salt of the earth and all that, but not really a cufflink wearer. The kind of people he employed as bar staff were much more likely to have them through ears, nose or nipples than shirt cuffs. Given the state of the table tops, nobody in their right mind would wear a white shirt in the Public Bar. To be honest, a full forensic overall would be less out of place and definitely more suitable.
“Same again?” said the voice that I knew I was going to recognise even before its owner had spoken.
“How do you do that?” I asked, simultaneously nodding an affirmative. The man that I now knew as Lorelei simply smiled and walked to the bar. The landlord left his conversation and served him without a hint of rancour. If I had wanted serving in mid-Brexit rant, I would have been told to hold my horses in no uncertain terms. For Lorelei he was all genial host. But for the fact that he was as bald as a coot, his forelock would have been on the receiving end of a severe tugging. I could not hear the conversation, but whatever my bearded friend had to say, the coot found it exceedingly amusing. He made no attempt to short change him.
I thanked him for my drink and took a long draught from the glass. “I’m surprised that you drink beer,” I said.
“I don’t,” he answered, “but the landlord was so happy to serve me, I didn’t have the heart to ask for a dry sherry.” He took a long drink without flinching. “A bit more hoppy than I was expecting,” he said, after pause for reflection, “but quite adequate, all in all, I expect.”
“So,” I ventured, trying to sound as cool as I could. “What brings you here on Christmas Eve? Not exactly your local, is it?”
“Isn’t it?” He looked shocked and I realised – with a flicker of the surprise I had grown used to in his presence – that I had no idea at all of where he lived.
“Well I’ve never seen you in here before.”
“No,” he said. “Is this your local?”
I was painfully aware that he already knew the answer, but I gave it all the same: “It used to be” a mite more sulkily than I intended. “When I was… you know…”
He nodded. “More local?”
“We used to come in here a lot, when we were… you know… Before she left me for that…” I wanted to swear, but I felt quite certain that I would feel as though I had let myself down by doing so. Odd, I can normally barely stitch two sentences together without writing out an IOU for the swear box. “…Estate Agent,” I concluded, feeling it a more than adequate signal of my distaste.
“Ah,” he said. “Should I have bought peanuts?”
“I was just wondering, I’m quite new to this, Christmas Eve and everything: should I have got snacks with the drinks?”
“No,” I said. “No. This is fine. I’ll get some when I go to the bar. You will have another?”
“As long as it doesn’t have to be the same,” he said.
We sat for some time in companionable silence. I studied his face as closely as I was able to without seeming… weird. He seemed genuinely happy to be there, smiling, out of place in my mind, but not in his. He did not touch his beer. After what seemed to me to be a suitable pause, I asked him if he would like another drink. He asked for a whisky. “He keeps a nice malt under the counter,” he said. “His little weakness, I think. I’m sure he’d be pleased to share.”
I approached the landlord with caution, it always seemed wise, and explained what my friend had suggested. “A gent,” he said pouring an unmeasured tot into a tumbler. “Tell him it’s on the house. Here…” he said, handing me a freshly filled water jug. “He’ll want this.” Unsurprisingly, my pint was not on the house.
Lorelei seemed much more at home cradling his whisky than he had appeared to be with beer, although he did not appear to be convinced by the pork scratchings. “Well,” he said at length, “it’s so nice to be in company, isn’t it?” I had to admit that, even though the conversation between us was sparse at best, I was happy and comfortable in his company.
“Sometimes,” he said, “you’ve got to let old things go before you can find new things.”
“Sometimes,” I said, “it’s easier said than done.”
“Yes,” he agreed, “but it’s a whole lot easier to not even make the effort. Why don’t you like Christmas?”
“Well I… I… Why do you say I don’t like Christmas?”
“But,” I continued. “I used to.”
He swirled his whisky in his glass, peering down into it as though he was looking into a crystal ball.
I felt obliged to fill the conversational void. “It’s not the same, is it,” I whined, “when you’re on your own.”
“The same?” he sipped his drink with exaggerated pleasure. “The same? No, I suppose not. Nothing is ever the same, but you can find pleasure if you choose to look for it. Perhaps you ought to start looking.”
“Where? Everywhere. Maybe not through the bottom of that glass – it’s not been cleaned properly in years and the beer… oh dear, the beer – but if you look for joy, you’ll find it. If you’re content with what you find, then friendship will find you.” He drained his glass and began to rise from his chair. I looked at the clock on the bar; 11:30. Where had that time gone? What is it they say about time?
Lorelei had waved his goodbyes to the landlord, who looked like a dog who had just been given a Bonio, and had moved towards the door. “Do something tomorrow,” he said. “Don’t wallow. Paddle.” He opened the door and a cold rush of late evening air spilled in. I tried to stand, drain my glass and put my coat on, all at the same time. Two things too many as it turned out.
“Do you fancy a kebab?” I asked as he disappeared into the night.
“No,” he answered…
First published 12th December 2020