by Patrick O'Connor
IT was a bustling city centre despite the unseasonally chilly May air and clinging drizzle, with the usual shopping brands swamping both sides of the pedestrianised walkway.
Jet black steel and wooden benches were regularly placed along the route to provide weary shoppers with a momentary respite, waddling gluttonous pigeons in close attention.
About halfway down, towards the entrance to the cavernous shopping centre, a pony-tailed busker, positioned between two Victorian style globe street lights, plied his trade, willing passers-by to make a donation, no matter how small, as an acknowledgement of his skills as a saxophone player. It was mid-morning but so far he had only earned £4.50.
A slim, elegantly dressed woman in her early 30s, with silky brown hair in a bob, the epitome of chic, paused a few feet away from the busker and called out to two young boys who were straggling a few yards behind her.
“Sebastien, Claude, come and listen,” she said in a gentle, sweet-toned accent which betrayed just a hint of her French origins.
The boys, who were twins with striking, flowing blond locks, joined their mother who was racking her brains to try and place the tune the man was playing. She felt she had definitely heard it before.
They stood attentively and when the man stopped, Sylvie smiled at him and gave Claude a 10p coin to drop into a black baseball hat which was lying on the ground.
“Come boys, let's go,” she said as she ushered the twins in front of her.
When they were a few feet away, Claude looked up at his mother and whispered “Maman, that man smelt funny.”
All three started laughing and giggling, not realising that behind them the busker had dropped to his knees, his bright red Selmer Mark VI tenor saxophone with its ornate butterfly decorations, clanging on the pavement. Tears began to pour down his cheeks as the woman and her sons entered the shopping centre.
Lonsdale hadn't noticed the pub before but in his desperation to get a drink he wasn't that fussed as to where he went.
It was situated down an alleyway by the side of a large, imposing church which towered above it, separated by a brick wall and rusty steel railing and looked from the outside the sort of spit and sawdust boozer he liked to frequent. Above the pub, which was called The Anchor, hung a withered, windswept flower bed arrangement.
The door creaked slightly as he entered the establishment's solitary room which was sparsely populated and walked across a sticky tiled floor to the bar.
Lonsdale was 64, 5ft 7in tall, of wiry build, with spindly legs but a large protruding belly, out of synch with the rest of his proportions. He had silvery grey hair tied into rather minuscule pony tail and sported a goatee beard on a face littered with red blotchy patches. He was dressed in black drainpipe jeans, black T-shirt, a tatty multi-coloured fleece, black baseball hat and on both wrists sported a multitude of coloured bead bracelets. Over his shoulder he carried a black saxophone case.
Behind the bar was a shaven head, smooth-skinned man in his mid-40s. He was about 5ft 11in tall, slim, wearing an orange t-shirt and red jeans. The barman had an oval face, large clear blue eyes and a big beaming smile which sparkled into action as he said: “Yes mate?”
“Pint of Pedigree and large Bushmills,” said Lonsdale as he rested a red basketball boot with white laces on the faded bronze bar foot rail. He was tempted to pick a newspaper from a brown wooden rack but noticed that they were all faded and out of date.
The barman turned his head slightly to look upwards at a cream circular wall clock with its Roman numerals showing the time as 11.37am.
“You sure sir?”
“Of course I'm sure bud, are you in the business of serving drinks or not?” rasped Lonsdale with the husky growl of a seasoned smoker.
The barman poured the drinks and placed them on the bar in front of Lonsdale who downed the whiskey in one go before tackling the pint with equal gusto.
“Drinking to forget sir?”
Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Grover Washington Jnr, saxophone maestros every one of them but his memory had gradually deteriorated over the last few years so that when Sylvie turned up he was down to only one tune in his repertoire. He had forgotten all the rest.
A busker turning out the same tune over and over again, even if it was Junior Walker's soul classic What Does It Take To Win Your Love, wasn't going to make much money.
Oh the irony of it, what does it take to win your love Sylvie, pondered Lonsdale.
His right hand was shaking as he counted out the coins to pay for his next round of drinks, eyes struggling to focus to make sure he'd got enough money.
“Keep em coming bud,” he mumbled. His heartbeat was bouncing all over the place as he gingerly pulled a bar stool over and carefully plonked himself down.
What does it take to win your love, eh...
When he first saw her 10 years ago she was 24, gliding effortlessly around like a gazelle at Progres, the trendy cafe she worked in, in that most trendy of Paris locations, Montmartre.
The band he was playing in, serving up a natty jazz/blues/soul collection, had just finished four nights worth of gigs in the city and he was on his own, downing a double espresso to try and bat away a devastating hangover.
Sylvie looked the spitting image of the 60s French beatnik singer Francoise Hardy, a classier Marianne Faithful, the archetypal Rive Gauche girl, even though she was from Montpellier.
Long, straight, light brown hair cascaded down over her shoulders but above all else there was those gorgeous deep brown eyes which beckoned seductively. Long, luscious legs were cocooned in tight jeans which provided the perfect contours for a bottom designed by a God determined to tempt the male sex into madness.
Lonsdale was 30 years older than her, and at 5ft 11in, she stood four inches taller than him but within three weeks she had flown to England to move in with him.
Of course it couldn't last, deep down he always knew that but for a while life with Sylvie was bliss. She travelled with the band and the rest of the guys loved her as he knew they would. Nobody mentioned the age gap and neither did she until the day she left, almost two years after Lonsdale had first met her.
Erwin was an Austrian banker she met walking in the park whilst Lonsdale was sleeping off another hangover. He was rich, handsome in a conventional sort of way and her own age. Lonsdale was devastated, he felt that her bohemian roots and lifestyle and his total and utter devotion were catapulted aside for marriage, respectability and financial security.
He pined like nobody had ever pined before, he got pining down to perfection, he pined until his pining was pure. Drink, already a vital part of his existence, became his crutch, his physical decline rapid. Eventually the band got fed up with his tantrums, failure to turn up and general lack of professionalism and he was axed.
Busking became his only option but even that became a precarious existence as the booze took hold and he was already plummeting towards rock bottom by the time she had stood in front of him less than an hour before, the first time he had seen her since she departed.
It didn't surprise him that she was one of those French women who never seem to lose their looks. She was still gorgeous but what shattered him to the core was that she didn't recognise him. It was only eight years for God's sake, had he changed that much? Her only gesture was to get her son to throw 10p into his hat. 10p? Was that all he was worth?
Lonsdale couldn't tell how long it had taken him to unburden himself to the barman but as his speech became more and more slurred, he slumped into a swamp of darkness, sobbing and whimpering, words stumbling out in a fountain of dribble, bloodshot eyes reddened even further by constant rubbing.
The final straw in this sorry tale of lost love was the fact that Sylvie ended the affair with a short, emotionless letter: grown apart...different aspirations...time to move on... and of course, his drinking.
As the barman stood expressionless, hands firmly placed on the bar, Lonsdale's curses about Sylvie and her 'betrayal' ricocheted noisily around the room like fireflies on a summer's evening.
Eventually he felt spent, devoid of words, now it was time to disappear completely into his own personal Bushmills Bermuda Triangle.
His pockets were empty, he knew that, so he let his eyes do his pleading. No response, nothing.
“Look, I suppose you couldn't let me set up a tab, I'll pay you tomorrow, promise.”
Bud shook his head.
“I'll do anything bud...anything...anything you want.”
Again the polite refusal.
After a silent stand-off, the barman spoke in a gentle, almost whispering fashion: “So, you really loved her?”
“Yes, of course, I...”
“Loved her? Or loved the idea of what she did for you?”
“What do you mean?”
“How did you feel when she left you?”
Rage was bubbling back to the surface like a Cruise missile.
“I told you.. .told you...” he snapped.
“Were you happy for her when she told she'd met someone else?”
“Are you stupid, course not.”
“But you loved her?”
“And this man made her happy?”
“Hmm, yes I suppose so.”
“So if you truly loved her why weren't you happy that she was happy?”
Lonsdale opened his mouth to reply but the barman held up a hand and said: “At that moment you were thinking totally about yourself, nobody else, not the woman you professed to love, but about yourself, about what she could do for you. You talk about love but your actions were totally selfish, it was all about you, you, you, your misery.”
Lonsdale grasped the pint glass and let the last mouthful of froth run around his lips before it trickled down his throat.
“Do you know where that gets you my friend, it gets you here with this lot. Turn around, take a good long look at them and tell me what you see.”
Lonsdale swivelled hesitantly on the bar stool so that he was facing the other people in the pub.
Only now did it dawn on him that none of them had come to the bar the entire time he had been talking to the barman. It also dawned on him that no-one else in the room had been talking, they all sat alone at individual tables. It was a grey, murky interior with faded, anonymous prints on the walls. It was almost as if a foggy rain mist had seeped inside to cloud his vision, the room seemed to be getting darker.
By the door sat a beanpole of a man in his mid-20s, slim built with light brown reddish hair, straggly beard and dead sullen eyes. He was 'playing drum' with his fingers on the table but there was no sound forthcoming.
Just in front of Lonsdale was a podgy man in his 50s, immaculately dressed in a green, red and brown checked 'Rupert Bear' type suit and wearing a brown bowler hat and regimental tie.
He had The Times crossword on his lap and was speedily filling it in. Lonsdale leaned across and noticed that the man was simply entering gibberish.
There was a woman in her 30s, petite and gaunt in a khaki beige gabardine trench coat with mousy untidy hair and largish nose on a plain, tired looking face. She had a plain sandwich and a packet of cheese and onion crisps and was tearing off the non-crusty bits of the bread and putting the crisps inside to make a butty. But she then put the food back on the plate and stared at it without making any attempt to eat.
Finally by the door sat a large woman in her 60s, with long blue skirt, green cardigan and support stockings which were rolled around swollen ankles. Her grey hair was tied back in a severe bun and she was crocheting as fast as her fingers could work.
Lonsdale continued to peruse them before turning back to the barman and saying: “They not drinking?”
There wasn't a glass to be seen.
“No, they can't any more.”
“But why, why are they in here?”
“They have no choice.”
“I don't understand.”
“You will Lonsdale.”
The busker felt a shudder ripple through his body. He could have been wrong of course, he had been drinking heavily but he didn't think he had ever told the barman his name.
“Look at them even closer, they were all like you, dying a slow, painful death because they were self-obsessed, because they couldn't break the habit.
“Drinking led them here, seeking out that next drink. Excuse me for the non-absolute metaphor but this was their Last Chance Saloon.”
At this point the people in the bar looked up and nodded at Lonsdale, an expressionless, soulless nod but an acknowledgement of his presence nevertheless.
“But they didn't take it Lonsdale, they didn't take their last chance. They were unwilling to put their friends, families, lovers or the people they damaged first and that's why they're still here. This is where you stay if you don't take your last chance. Somehow you have been fortunate enough to find your way here. Take this last chance.”
There was an explosion inside Lonsdale's head and he buried his skull in his hands. Like a jigsaw piece, everything fell into place. It was almost as if he could rise out of his body and examine his life, his actions with the forensic detachment of a scientist. All the mistakes, the anger, the self-destruction, all laid out before him in clinical detail.
“Help me, please help me,” he sobbed.
“I can steer you in the right direction but that's all I can do, the rest is up to you. Instead of wallowing in self-pity over Sylvie and letting that tear you apart, be grateful that you met her, that your paths crossed and that you had time together.”
The barman leaned across the bar counter and took hold of Lonsdale's trembling hand.
“Use your memories of your time together as a positive thing, rather than a negative. Make them happy memories and rejoice in the thought that she is happy now, that she is a mother with wonderful young and healthy children. Be happy for her Lonsdale. Cherish that thought and move on with your own life.”
A week later Lonsdale sauntered down the sun-soaked alleyway and entered The Anchor to find a packed pub buzzing with chatter and laughter, a blackboard containing a selection of organic, home produced dishes and a dartboard.
Behind the bar was a barmaid in her 50s, slightly on the plumpish side but with a pleasing, wholesome smile that radiated warmth as he approached her.
Lonsdale described the barman and asked when he was next on but the barmaid said that no-one of that description had ever worked at The Anchor.
“What will it be duckie?” she asked, a twinkle in her eye kick-starting long dormant senses into attention.
“Orange juice please.”
© Patrick O’Connor 2013