And in the end there is nothing. By Martin Friel.
I can still see him sitting in there, off to the right of the bar, tucked into the corner. Pint and paper. He wasnt a loner - he often came in with his work mates on a Thursday or Friday but more often than not, he came on his own. And sat on his own.
He was friendly enough though, and I got to know him over the years. It can happen when you pour enough pints for someone. Starting off as a purely functionary transaction, over time little pleasantries are exchanged which ease into full conversations. Its not exactly a friendship that develops but when you see someone pretty much every night, you can get quite close to them. I saw more of him than I did my friends and certainly my family but we werent what I would call proper friends. There was always a barrier.
He was a nice guy though. I saw him get a bit nasty a couple of times with work mates when hed had a bit too much and sometimes hed get a bit leery if hed had a few when drinking on his own. But ultimately he was a gent. He had come in apologising a couple of times when he could remember going over the mark the night before but I always told him to forget it. I knew he didnt mean it.
He was a fixture. He was pretty much always there and became more than a punter in a pub. He had three dimensions by which I mean he was a real person. This, as youll know if youve ever worked any length of time in a pub, is rare.
I can still visualise him that last time. The night he did it. Off to the right of the bar, tucked into the corner. I can still see him. Head bowed, newspaper on the table but not reading, just staring, down, down. At one point I went over to get an empty glass off his table and he looked up suddenly. I saw redness in his eyes; asked him if he was OK. He looked up blankly at me yes fine.
You sure? I asked.
Same blank look; same answer. As I say although we had often chatted over the bar on those nights when he drank a little more than usual, we had never become what youd call close. So I left it at that. I felt it wasnt my place to intrude. So I left it. I left him.
Alex killed himself that night. It came as a shock which sounds stupid anyone killing themselves is a shock but with Alex it was certainly a shock. We had got to know each other and I liked his company. He had a good laugh too. Throaty and real. A proper laugh.
He was found hanging in the bathroom by his girlfriend. Thats what his workmates told me. She came home late from work and just found him there, twisting. Still warm to the touch but dead. Thats what they said at the wake. They had it here in the pub. It was his favourite.
Alex and I talked a lot when he came in on his own. This isnt the busiest of pubs so theres always time to chat, if you want to. And generally I wanted to chat with Alex he was good company. Slightly distant as I say but good company.
Did I see any signs? Not really. There were moments when I watched him staring into space. If he caught me looking, hed throw a smile at me and carry on but I got the feeling that when he was staring into space, blankly, that was the real Alex, the one that managed to hide so well.
It was an empty look a stare that penetrated the space in front of him, through the wall, into the street and on into the night.
When the pub was quiet and he was in a talkative mood, he would sometimes get onto the subject of space, as in the stuff the world floats in. It fascinated him but not really in a good way. He marvelled at it he would often talk of distant galaxies and nebulae but it seemed to worry him more than anything else. It was the endless SPACE that bothered him or as he told me one night:
All that SPACE going on endlessly into nothing and everything. How can we sit here now, yesterday, tomorrow just living, moving and carrying on knowing that there is all that ?
It troubled him as much as it marvelled him. He told me one night, after more than a few too many, that if ever I needed answers, they were all up there. Up there where everything we know means nothing and nothing means everything.
With hindsight, I suppose the warnings were there but how can you really tell? Loads of people trundle through life mumbling and moaning without taking themselves out. Lets face it, most of us indulge in variations of this. But one thing that bothered me about Alex taking his own life, aside from the fact he left a girlfriend, friends and family behind, was that I think he may have left knowing something.
When I look back to that night, that last night, I remember the dejection, the blank look in his face. It was as though he had reached some fundamental conclusion or truth. He certainly looked like he had given up. At the time I thought he was having a bad day or he had split up with his woman but now, when I think about it, I wonder what it was that made him so destitute. The change was so total but there was a calmness there. A sad calmness but a calmness nonetheless. He went about everything in the normal way the only giveaway that something was wrong was the redness of the eyes. Everything else was normal.
He seemed hollow and it makes me wonder just what it was that had happened that had affected him so much. I spoke to a couple of his friend s at the wake but no-one could understand why he did it. There was nothing obvious he was nudging 40, he had a girlfriend of 11 years, a steady and successful career, no children and the freedom to pretty much do as he wanted. There didnt appear to be any pressures. There didnt appear to be much.
Its been a year now since Alex did what he did. His friends came back recently and raised a glass in toast to his memory but, and its not really for me to comment, it seemed that Alex was almost a secondary consideration. Everyone was jolly, catching up. There was a moment where one of them made a toast but apart from that, you wouldnt have known it was a night to remember Alex.
Of course theres no point living in mourning no-one can do that but the difference in tone between the wake and the anniversary drinks was stark. The wake was a horrible affair people were openly crying but a year later, it was much more jovial.
Someone else has his job now. His girlfriend has apparently moved on. Someone else lives in his house. His car has been sold. His clothes sent to the charity shop. His music, listened to by others. His books filling the gaps in a different shelf.
Even now, as I look across the bar, someone else is sitting in his spot, reading a paper, drinking a pint. The spot where Alex once sat, from where he would look up and smile, nod for a new pint to be poured before coming over to collect. The spot from where he would shout out funny stories he found in the paper you wont believe this . The spot where he sat, every night, for as long as I had worked there.
But hes not there any more, in any way at all. I find it hard to see his face. I can see his presence and hear his laugh but the details of his face are fading. I remind myself that he was just a customer and that he wasnt one of my friends or a member of my family but his absence is still there. I dont know why it affects me the way it does.
Sometime I think I see Alex, but in reality, theres nothing there.
* * * *
More stories from Winamop
Copyright reserved. Please do not reproduce without consent.