The Bar

The Bar illustration by Alex Hogan

by M A Naess

Illustrated by Alex Hogan

Josh

Every Friday night it was Spam, that concoction of pork, ham and god knows what else straight out of a tin.  Me granny was no cook and we joked a lot about spamalot Fridays – fried spam, egg and chips, accompanied by thick wedges of stottie cake.  But every Friday night I dutifully ate it, although Spam was pretty low on my list of favorites.
That was all right.  I loved me granny, she accepted me for what I was.  She didn’t care I used eyeliner and that me dad called me a waste of space.  Granny loved me and didn’t judge, me mam and dad resented me and were embarrassed.

So Friday night was Spam at granny’s.  Until this week, when Allan called and asked me to work.  I’d been working at the pub for about three weeks now, two nights a week, with the promise of more if things worked out.  I knew I’d been doing well and the call to come in wasn’t really unexpected, just the night was a little inconvenient.  I knew granny wouldn’t mind missing out this week though, and I could make it up to her another night so that was okay.  There was the added bonus I would see Andy, my on-the-job mentor, for an extra night too.

Andrew.  Why did I have such a crush on him?  Maybe because he was gorgeous – light brownish hair, pulled into fashionable peaks, blue/green eyes that seemed to see right through me and the cutest arse you could imagine.  Unfortunately he was also straight.  But a boy can dream can’t he?  I couldn’t resist teasing him sometimes, especially the times I caught him looking so intently at me.  It wasn’t hard to make him blush, all I had to do was brush against him a little when he was showing me how to pull a pint or work the register.

It was busy already when I arrived and Andrew seemed surprised to see me.  But then he flashed that smile of his and it was like coming home.

The evening went quickly.  Andrew and I worked well together as always.  I teased him a little, he smiled a lot and between us we made sure the customers were happy.  Holly hustled between serving bar meals and coming behind the bar on occasion to help us out, chatty and full of fun.  Finally things got quiet and we started cleaning up.  Holly was wiping down the bar, telling us her boyfriend troubles asking our advice – or rather, Andrew’s advice.  I was just hovering in the background, listening.

And that’s when it happened, when I opened my big mouth.  I didn’t even know I had done it until the words were out – they were supposed to stay in me head.  But I knew I’d spoken them out loud when Andrew got this funny look on his face and I heard Holly hold her breath.

Then everything went quiet.

. . .

Andrew

From the first moment I saw him, I knew there was something about Josh.  Something … unique? Unforgettable?  I don’t know what exactly, but it sure was something.  Maybe it was the way he seemed so flamboyant and out there, or maybe it was the eyebrow ring that glittered when he moved and matched the ring in his right ear.  Or then again, it could have been the completely unnecessary eyeliner he used to accentuate a pair of incredibly dark brown eyes.  Whatever.
I know what you’re thinking but, honestly, I’m not homophobic, some of my best friends are gay.  But when I looked at Josh that first time my stomach did these strange flip flops and my teeth sort of clenched, an effect that must have shown on my face – going by the glare Allan had given me when he was introducing us.

“Josh will be working the Monday and Tuesday shifts 6.00 pm to closing, just to start with.  You can show him the ropes, Andy, and if he works out we’ll give him some more shifts.”  Allan’s expression read a clear make damn sure he works out.  I’m not having a discrimination case brought against the pub.

As it turned out that wasn’t a problem.  Josh was a born barman.  He learnt the taps and the ales as quick as you like and could pull a Guinness nice and slow, just like it should be pulled.  He was popular with the regulars too, the girls treating him like their best friend and the guys appreciating his outgoing nature.

But from that first evening in some strange way my peace of mind was shattered and I was damned if I could work out why.  I mean, I didn’t fancy him, after all I am straight and I’ve got a few ex-girlfriends who can prove it.  But I found myself watching him even when I thought I wasn’t watching him, if you know what I mean.  At first it was because I had to check what he was doing, make sure he got the right spirits when he reached that long arm of his up to send a shot into a glass or that he keyed the right price for the drinks into the register.  But after a while it was kind of addictive to watch him move, the way he twirled and jived to his own internal music as he served the customers and chatted.  It got so bad I was even dreaming about him – strange, shadowy dreams that I couldn’t quite remember when I woke up, all hot and sweaty.  It was getting to me, I can tell you.

But two nights a week I could handle.  Then he turned up on Friday night because Karen called in sick.

No problem, I could handle it.

We worked well together all night but I was getting a little tetchy about Holly’s attitude towards the end of the evening.  She seemed to think there was something going on between Josh and me.

“He fancies you, you know,” she told me after Josh had handed me a Coke then taken the dirty glasses to wash.

“Don’t be daft, he knows I’m straight.  He just likes to kid around a bit.”

Holly gave me a strange look then started going on about her and her boyfriend as she swiped at the bar with a cleaning cloth.

“How do two people know they’re right for each other?” she finally said after a long convoluted exposition on ‘feelings’.

I just shook my head.  I hadn’t found the ‘right’ person yet, so how would I know the answer to such a question?

I hadn’t realized Josh had come back and was standing behind us, listening.  But I heard his whispered words, so close to my ear.  “I believe we’d be right together.”

I turned to him and saw his face as a mixture of horror and something like regret flashed across it.  And just for a moment an almost unwelcome world of possibilities rushed through my mind, along with an undeniable impression that left me speechless – an impression that saw the two of us fitting quite nicely together.

. . .

Holly

Sometimes men can be completely gormless.  Take my Dave for instance, he just doesn’t get it most of the time.  He has no clue how to romance a girl or what makes her go all gooey inside.  I mean a sausage and fried onions from the catering van after the game just doesn’t cut it as a romantic meal out, and sweet-talking isn’t exactly his thing either. But I love him and that’s what counts.

I’d have to say though, for gormlessness I reckon Josh and Andy take first prize.

I’ve been watching them together since Josh started working at the pub and anyone can see that Josh fancies Andy.  As for Andy, well, I know he has this rep for getting it on with the girls, and I know a few he has gotten it on with and they had no complaints (mind, if it weren’t for my Dave I’d probably have a go too).  But it’s just as obvious to anyone with half a brain that Andy also has an eye for Josh.  A girl can tell.  And believe me, I’ve tried to tell Andy, but he just keeps coming out with that “I’m straight” routine. Well, all I can say is ‘how straight is straight?’

Last Friday night I really thought they were finally going to get there.  If Dave had said that line about being ‘right together’ to me, I’d have just melted right into a big puddle on the floor.  But Andy … nah!  He stood there looking at Josh like he’d been caught in a trap – you know, the way a rabbit looks when it gets caught in the headlights of a car.  I thought he was going to say something but the phone rang and he turned his back on Josh to answer it.  Josh just stood there for a moment, looking like his world had come to an end then he turned on his heel and walked out of the bar and the pub.

Andy didn’t even notice at first that Josh was gone, just finished with the call then looked around the bar like he was looking for something he’d misplaced.

“Holly, where’d Josh go?”

“Home, what do you think?” I was so mad at him I could have thrown something.

At least Andy had the decency to look a little guilty, but “We haven’t finished with the bar yet” was all he had to say.

“Andy,” I said to him, “you are a complete arse at times.”  And I picked up me bag and coat and left him to it.

I had felt like a lurker before, standing in the shadows and watching the scenes play out, watching them touch but not touch.  Watching Andy look at Josh in that way.  But it wasn’t right.  After all, it’s as plain as the nose on your face that those two are right for each other.  The role of lurker doesn’t suit me … and I hate shadows.  So, I just had to get Andy to see the light.

Josh wouldn’t be on again till Monday; me and Andy were working together for the next two nights.  Should give me enough time to work on Andy.  Make him see what a prat he’s being and get him and Josh together.

. . .

Andrew

If it hadn’t been for Allan phoning up to find out how Josh had gone in the Friday night rush, I think I might have said something to Josh right then that I’d have regretted later on.  But, maybe not.  I don’t know.  And that’s the problem.

I like Josh, I really do.  He’s different, unusual and so damn attractive that if he were a girl I’d have been in there quick as a flash.  But he’s not a girl, and that’s the point.  Liking a guy is one thing, having those kind of feelings is something else.  I couldn’t feel like that about a guy, it just wasn’t possible.  Was it?  And I can’t help it if Josh fancies me can I?

I felt real bad when he rushed off like that though, before I had a chance to say anything.  Not sure what I would have said anyway, or what I could’ve said.  Thing is, Josh is a real mystery and I wasn’t at all sure what I should do about him.

So I did the best I could and ignored it all.  At least I had a few days’ break before he’d be back again and maybe by then I’d have got me head around it and there would be no more mystery and Josh would simply be the gay guy I work with.

The trouble is, I hadn’t reckoned on Holly, who seems to think she’s on a mission and that mission involves me and Josh.  When she puts her mind to something Holly is unstoppable, and she’s about as subtle as a brick.

It started on Saturday night.  It was early and there weren’t many people in yet so we were just hanging around behind the bar.

“You’re gonna have ta talk to him you know.”

“Talk to who?”

“Josh of course.  Tell him how you feel.”

“I don’t feel anything for Josh!”   She gave me a look, which I ignored.

“You wanna know what I think?”

“No.”

That sure didn’t stop her ’cause she just went right on with, “I think you’re bi, well at least where Josh is concerned you’re bi.”

“I’m not bi or gay or anything.”

“You know Andy, sexuality is sort of fluid and can change depending on the individual.  According to the Kinsey scale men vary between being exclusively heterosexual or homosexual to varying degrees in between – like being het but liking a bit of homo or being homo but liking het occasionally.  You probably fall somewhere in the middle of the scale.”

I stared at her for a minute, trying to figure out where all this was coming from.  Then I gave up.

“What are you on about? You sound like a bloody TV doco.”

“Oh Andy, haven’t you seen the movie, you know the one with Liam Neeson about that guy Kinsey who did that study on gays?  Don’t you think he’s hot, even if he is getting on a bit now?  Liam Neeson I mean, not Kinsey.  Though he might have been okay too if he looked anything like Liam does.”

By now I was completely lost.  Or maybe it was Holly who had completely lost it, I didn’t know which.

“Holly, what’s Liam Neeson got to do with anything?”

“See, you do think Liam Neeson is hot!”

I gritted my teeth and tried again.  “I don’t think Liam Neeson is hot.  I think he’s old.  And I have no idea why we’re talking about him or even what we’re talking about.”

“Pay attention Andy!  We’re talking about you and Josh and how you’re attracted to him and how it’s actually quite natural.”

“There is no me and Josh and I’m not attracted to him – natural or not.”

“Yes there is, Andy, and yes you are.  I’ve seen the way you look at him.  And you’ll have to decide what you’re going to do about it.  I’m just hoping he’s back Monday.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t, the way you treated him. ”

I gaped at her then.  What the heck had I done?  Thankfully we got busy, so I didn’t have to answer her.  But she didn’t let up on me, giving me looks and making comments right through to Sunday night, by which time I could have cheerfully strangled her.

But I knew Holly had a point, that I had to talk to Josh.  I couldn’t let it go, whatever it was I was feeling for him.  It was all just too confusing.  And I was at a loss to know how to make it right with him either.  But I knew I had to somehow, I just wasn’t sure why it was suddenly so important.

Then Monday came and Josh called in sick.  I didn’t know whether to feel relieved or worried.  And my stomach did that clenching thing it had done the first time I’d seen him.  Only this time my stomach seemed to be saying, “What if Holly’s right? What if he doesn’t come back?”

The Bar illustration by Alex Hogan

The Bar. Illustration by Alex Hogan

. . .

Josh

I felt so stupid.  Andrew had just looked at me like I was daft and I reckon that phone call was all that stopped him from voicing the scorn I could see on his face.  It saved me, that call.  Gave me the chance to get out of there without any more words having to be spoken or any more damage done.

Of course I’d left him and Holly to finish up the clearing, but they were probably as grateful as I was for the reprieve.

The next day was a slow crawl through indecision and angst.  Should I try and ring Andrew and apologise or should I just leave it?  What was I going to say to him anyway that wouldn’t have made me look even more like the sad drama queen I was.

I’d have to face him some time though.  But Saturday wasn’t the day, nor Sunday.  I just moped around the house and put up with me dad’s never-ending criticisms and mam’s perpetual silence.

By Monday I felt sick inside.  So I called Allan and told him I wasn’t well enough to work that night.  Then me dad started up again.

“Why don’t you get a decent job?”

“I have a decent job.”

“Sure, two nights a week in a pub.  Hardly career making is it?  Though how you expect anyone to give you a proper job when you look like that, rings all over you and hair down to your arse.  Go scrub that muck off your face, get your hair cut, put on some decent clothes, stop looking like a damn pansy.  Then maybe you’ll get on and make something of yourself.”

Yeah, look ‘normal’, like everyone else.  Look straight.  Make myself something I’m not.  Same song, different night.

So I went around to me granny’s and the welcome comfort of Spam, egg and chips in granny’s kitchen.

She knew something was wrong straight off.

“Boy trouble, pet?” she said as I sat picking at the Spam with my fork.  That was all I needed to set me off telling her everything, from start to finish.

When I was done she looked at me for a while before speaking.

“It sounds like you like this boy a lot.”

“Yeah I do.”

“Well, you know pet, faint heart never won fair maiden”

“But the maiden doesn’t want to be won, Gran.”

“Maybe not.  But you won’t know for sure sittin’ here will you?  Good friendships are hard to find, pet, and I reckon you’ve already won a good friend in this boy.  Take what you can get, Josh.  Make the most of it and you’ll see, it’ll all work out.”

Have I told you how much I love my granny?

On Tuesday night I came back to the pub and back to Andrew.  He was there, working the bar with Holly, looking as gorgeous as ever.  They both smiled at me when I came in, which was encouraging.  Holly even hugged me, which was a bit scary.  It was busy, busier than I’d ever seen it on a Tuesday.  Apparently there was a buck’s night going on and the bar was packed.  It meant we didn’t have time for conversation but I managed a quick “Are we good?” to Andrew and got a smile to melt my bones and a “Yeah, we’re good” in return.

It wasn’t until pretty late in the night that things quietened down a little and we had a chance catch to our breath.  Then something a little strange happened.

Andrew and Holly seemed to be hotly debating something at the corner of the bar, Andrew looked desperate while Holly was all determined insistence.

“Do it Andy, or so help me I’ll …”

“Knock it off Holly.  You’re daft, you know that?  You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

I thought Holly was about to stamp her foot right on Andrew’s toe and Andrew looked madder than I’d seen anyone look for a long time – apart from me dad, and he always looked mad.  I strolled over, not really wanting to get involved but not wanting to see the two of them come to blows either.

“Um, problem guys?”

They both turned on me with an echoing “No!” and such identical furious expressions that I fell back a step and raised my hands to ward off the looks.  “Hey, just asking!”

They both looked a little sheepish then and Holly gave me a small smile.  “Sorry Josh.”  But the look she turned on Andrew would have stripped paint.  It just seemed to bounce right off him though ’cause he shrugged and turned back to stacking glasses.

“Andy and I were having a bit of a disagreement about somethin’.  It’s not important and he can’t help it if he’s a twerp.”  Turning, she grabbed her coat from off the hook behind the bar.  “If we’re finished then, I’m off.”  Completely ignoring Andrew still, she flashed me another smile and with a quick “See you later, Josh” was gone.

The silence she left behind was a little awkward so I left Andrew frowning over the glasses he was still stacking on the bar and finished the cleaning up I had to do.

All too soon I was done and still Andrew hadn’t spoken.  Unnerved, I ventured over.

“Um Andy, you’re not still mad at me are you?”

“Mad at you?  Why would I be mad at you, Josh?”  He smiled up at me and lifted his hand, maybe to ruffle my hair with his fingers, but instead his hand brushed against my cheek, just the lightest of touches, but that touch sent a shiver through me.  It seemed to do something for Andrew too, because he looked startled for a moment before he quickly dropped his hand back down to his side.

“I … dunno.  Just … things went a bit crazy the other night and …”

“Oh that!  Nah.  Said we were good didn’t I?”

“Yeah, you did.  Okay.  So, see you next Tuesday then?”

If I was hoping for a little more than one of his sweet smiles, maybe a declaration of affection or something, I didn’t get it.

“Yeah, see you soon, Josh.”

I gave him a nod and left, still feeling the warmth where his fingers had brushed my cheek.

The next day Allan phoned again.  It turned out Karen had got herself a new job, a full time one in an office and she didn’t want to keep working nights in a bar.  Allan offered me three more shifts – Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

I’d be seeing Andrew again sooner than I thought.

I was nervous on Thursday, worried how things would go.  But whatever the disagreement was between Andrew and Holly it had been put on hold and things appeared to be back to normal.  Well, nearly back to normal.  Holly was still occasionally ragging on Andrew about something but Andrew was mostly ignoring her – the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object.  Instead he seemed to be concentrating his attention on me, when he wasn’t serving customers, giving me looks that I couldn’t really interpret.  But he never said anything.

Between Andy’s constant surveillance and Holly’s hovering, by the middle of the shift I was starting to feel twitchy, so it was a relief when I heard a familiar voice over the general hubbub of noise.

“Hey, gorgeous.  Heard you’d got a job here.  How’s it going?”

I couldn’t help grinning as I turned to the figure leaning at the bar regarding me with affectionate amusement.  Tony, tall and handsome and as gay as I was.  We’d met in primary school, recognised our mutual difference from the rest of the horde almost immediately and remained friends ever since.

“All the better for seeing you, love.  What brings you to this neck of the woods?”

He laughed at that.  “Like I said, heard you were working here so had to check it out.”

We chatted as I got his order for him and all the time I could feel Andrew’s eyes burning holes in the back of me shirt.  I laughed some more with Tony and flirted a bit.  Tony raised his eyebrows at that but winked and let our hands linger as I gave him his change.  I watched him all the way back to his friends who were settled in one of the corner snugs.  When I glanced over at Andrew he looked quickly away, but not before I saw the flush that spread across his face and the wide-eyed glare he focused on Tony’s back.

It had gone quiet and I sidled over to where Andrew was making a big deal out of rinsing and stacking glasses again.  What was it with him and glasses?  And he was banging them down almost hard enough to make them crack.  Holly drifted over too and we both leaned against the bar, Holly on the customer’s side, me on the other.  Andrew pointedly ignored us and continued his obsessive cleaning and stacking.

After a glance at Andrew, Holly turned her full attention on me, giving me a smile that made me suspicious.

“Who’s the hunk?”

“You mean Tony? He is somethin’ isn’t he?”  I wondered what she was up to but decided to play along.

“Yeah, bit like a young Liam Neeson.”

Thunk! went a glass and I wondered what Andrew had against Liam Neeson,

“So, he your boyfriend?”

“Nah!  Not really.  Known him since school and we knock around together at times, ya’ know?”

Holly nodded sagely and Andrew banged another glass down hard on the counter.  “Better watch it there Andy, you’ll break them glasses if you keep banging them about like that.  Don’t wanna spoil your non-breakages record do you?”

“It could be your neck.”  Andy muttered barely loud enough for me to hear, but then I do have sharp ears.  If Holly heard though, she ignored it.

“Dunno, Josh.  Reckon this Tony’s too good a catch to let go.  He fancies you too, the way he was looking at you.  Sometimes it just takes a bit of encouragement to hook the good ones, you know?  Maybe you need to do something to get his attention a bit more.”

This was getting interesting.  Andrew appeared to be ignoring us, but I knew he was listening.  “You reckon?”

“Yeah, something to make him realise what a catch he’s missing out on.”

“Any suggestions?”  I enquired, noticing out of the corner of my eye that Andrew’s hands had stilled on the glass he was rinsing.

“Oh, I’m sure you could think of something …”

“Holly,” the interruption from Andrew was almost terse.  “Think you could go sort out some of those crisps and nuts from the kitchen, the ones the boss ordered in special … for the bar.”

“Huh? There’s hardly anyone here to eat them, Andy.”

“Just … please, just do as I ask.”

Holly glared at Andy for a second and he glared back, then her face cleared and she almost grinned.  “Yeah, sure Andy.  Why not?”

Then we were alone and I could feel the weight of Andrew’s stare on me as he wiped off his damp hands with a towel.  I wasn’t at all sure what was coming next.

“So, this Tony guy.  You like him, right?”

The question surprised me, but maybe it shouldn’t have.

“Um.  Yeah, I like him.  He’s a friend.”

“Seemed like you were a bit more than friends, the way you were chatting him up.  And Holly sure thinks you have something going.”

Suddenly I was tired of the manipulations and games we were all playing, either I was in with a chance with Andrew and we could be more than just friends, or I wasn’t.  I had to know.

“Why are you even asking me that Andrew?  What does it matter to you who I chat up or flirt with?”

He didn’t answer straight off, just scowled down at the glasses again.  I waited a moment but he still didn’t speak so I started to turn away.

“Josh, wait,” his expression had softened and a small, ironic smile ghosted his lips as he looked at me.  “Because it seems it does matter to me, a lot.  And I don’t like watching you flirt with someone else.”  Throwing the towel down he looked out across the bar for a moment, seeming to study the customers before he turned back to face me.  “I was wondering.  Would you like to go out with me?  Maybe to a movie or something?”

Ah, it was a chance then.  But I still had to make sure, keep pushing.  “You, mean like … out … together, just us … together?  Maybe more than once?”

Andrew swallowed, like he was nervous or something was stuck in his throat – his words maybe.  “Look Josh.  I haven’t been able to think about much else but you and how I feel since last Friday, and now I’m sure.  Well, at least I’m sure I want to spend time with you, be with you.  And …and maybe we just see what happens?  What do you reckon?”  He smiled then, really smiled and it looked good on him.

“But … I’m a guy.”

“Believe me, I had noticed.”  There was a spark of humour in his eyes when he said that.

“And you’re straight … aren’t you?”

“Holly has some rather definite ideas about levels of straightness.  I’ll have to get her to explain them to you sometime.”  He paused and brushed his hands through his hair, making the peaks stand up even more.  “I never thought I’d fancy a guy but … it seems I do.  I’ve worked that out over the last few days, Josh, … if nothing else.  I … I just want to … dunno, can we give it a try?”  The last was almost a plea.

I waited for a heartbeat.  This was what I wanted, everything I wanted.  But there was a chance it could all blow up in my face.  Did Andrew really know what he was doing?  Then his eyes locked with mine and the look in them told me it was worth the risk.

“I’m game,” I said.

“Good.”  He took a step closer, moving right into my personal space and his hand reached out to brush mine.  We might have stayed like that forever, almost touching but not quite, if Holly hadn’t chosen that moment to reappear with fully laden platters and bowels of snacks.

“Hey Andy, this enough for …” her voice trailed off as she caught sight of us.  “Well it’s about time!  Talk about hard work.  I thought I’d never get you two together!”

I looked a question at Andrew but he just shrugged and kept right on looking back at me.  “So, what movie do you want to see?”  He asked as Holly bustled around the bar looking smug.  “There’s that new Terminator on at the Odeon.”

Fair maiden or Prince Charming?  The sudden thought made me smile.

“I don’t mind, whatever you fancy.” I told him.  And I didn’t mind at all.

© 2009 M.A. Naess

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