A blast of damp, frigid air blustered through the opened doors of Marlow’s Tavern. The cold wake skirted past the punters, rushing the bar before they did. The barman Brian Legarty felt it raise a chill on his bare arms and watched it lift the flimsy Christmas decorations tacked to the dull walls, making them shudder and collapse like feeble flags. He pulled back the pump handle, poured a pint of Guinness half way, and left it to settle. A few old men took up a booth along the opposite wall, whished open winter coats, unwrapped scarves, tugged at woolen hats, stamped their damp feet, and said, Cold one, aye? Aye, cold enough for snow. Sure, but there’s never snow for Christmas. Ach, aye. Here, was there not snow that one time? Three years ago, was it? Aye, a real white Christmas that one. Just like in the films. Oh, aye. I remember. But you can’t count on it, like. No, aye. True, ya can’t.
Legarty shivered. He eased the pump handle back, gently topped up the pint and let it alone another minute. A warm blast from the ceiling vent whirled the cold but didn’t kill it. The men eased into their usual places, looking like they’d never left since yesterday. Tapping the rim of the pint with a bar spoon, he helped the bubbles rise to the top. Finally, he handed it over to an aged man leaning heavily against the bar. Old Aaron wore a flat cap, a worn green sweater, and a tattered camel-colored trench coat. Arthritic fingers pried open a puckered leather wallet. His yellowed hands worked numbly to extract a wizened fiver. The fingers of one hand slanted uselessly to one side. He played his penny whistle just as nimbly, for all that. It was the music that moved his fingers and transported him to a younger time. His eyes to heavenward, he stood on street corners playing and never heard the chink of coins dropped at his feet. Later he would glimpse them, glittering dully like a gift. The gift of a bed at night, a loaf of bread, or sometimes just a pint.
Legarty took the neat stack of pound coins and counted the man’s change. The old man murmured his thanks, munched his remaining teeth and shuffled off to his usual seat to enjoy his pint without so much as a newspaper to distract him.
“What’s the craic? Going home for Christmas?” Brian asked him, to make conversation.
“I wouldn’t think of it,” the old man answered spryly, but only after he’d taken the requisite time to sip and savor the malty dark brew. “The family wants me, but sure I’ll take the rabble over them lot.”
With a raspy chuckle, he crinkled his eyes. His hands worked with slow, measured movements and took from his pocket a wrapped parcel. Leaning toward Legarty, he glanced round as though he meant to indicate no one else should see the treasure he was about to reveal. Only slightly curious, Legarty stepped closer. He hoped it wasn’t anything that would make him feel embarrassed for the old geezer.
“I told you I’d buy it one of these days,” Old Aaron said in his whispery voice.
“Huh. So you did,” said Legarty, glancing at the unwrapped parcel. “That’s a wee fancy one.”
Nestled in a fine, silken blue cloth was a shiny, ebony tobacco pipe with ivory inlays.
“It was time, so it was,” said the old man, as though he spoke deeper things.
Glancing up, he patted the breast pocket of his worn sweater and held a hand there a moment protectively.
“I’ll not throw the old one away, but.”
“Nah, can’t do that,” Legarty assured him. “Best to keep it, just in case.”
The old man nodded, appreciative of the younger man speaking of his own thought.
“You don’t throw out the old just ‘cos something new comes along.”
He began to wrap up the new pipe and tuck it away.
“Aren’t you gonna smoke it?” Legarty chided him. “Just ‘cos you’ve got something old and reliable doesn’t mean you can’t try out something new.”
Another crinkle of the old, sparkling eyes.
“I’ll wait until Christmas, so I will.”
Legarty laughed and left the old one to see to another customer.
Another Guinness. He pulled back the pump handle and a sharp tinge rippled through his shoulder. He pinched the muscle where it joined the neck, and not for the first time today. It had been hurting like a bastard. Slept on it wrong, he thought. Maybe it was the old days catching up on him. His boxing days were a happier life, a bit of pain and sweat for cash in hand. Nothing could beat it. The shouts of old men urging him on, jostling outside the ring with frantic cries as they rushed to throw away money. It was the smell of leather, the dull crash of each blow, the haze and sting, and the glorious rush. Then it began to catch him up. In the beginning he only went a bit foggy right after a match. Then it started happening for a day or two afterward, and then for longer. Somewhere along the way he just wasn’t as sharp. His mates began to tease him he had a head like a sieve. It didn’t matter right up till the moment it was his fists that let things slip through. And there he was, unbeaten no more, down for the count.
He never saw the punch that took him out. The coma lasted four weeks and he was lucky, they told him. Strange kind of luck, he thought. It was the end of his youth at age twenty-five. Now he faced down the age of thirty the way other men looked at sixty—knowing in his bones that his best days were behind. Counted himself lucky if he remembered where he left the bar towel, or what a customer just ordered, or the face of a girl who chatted him up. He was handsome yet, despite what fighting had done to flatten and broaden his features. The women liked him but he mostly steered clear. It was one thing waking up the next morning not remembering who she was beside him, but it was another keeping track of the day to day. Women don’t let you forget what you forget, he knew that much. How could he keep a girlfriend, not able to remember all the things two people had to remember about each other? It didn’t matter how much he wanted to, how regular he was about his visits to the neurologist and doing all the stuff to build his memory, the wee puzzles and games and language exercises. He had gone off the drink, stayed away from smoking. He was in the best physical condition of his life and except his mind he might as well be Superman. Except he couldn’t save anyone, not even himself.
The doors swung open again and he caught a glimpse of the deepening twilight. Sure, it couldn’t be that late, could it? He glanced at the clock behind the bar. It was barely four o’clock, too soon to be busy. As if they knew something he didn’t, more customers kept coming in by twos and threes. Legarty felt a rising unease and tried to keep it in check, not let it show. He wasn’t good with crowds. He was hopeless in a rush. The night shift bartenders weren’t scheduled to come in until half past five, or was it six o’clock? Marlow’s never got busy midweek, that was why they scheduled Legarty. He could handle it without getting swamped. When he got swamped, he got muddled—and then it all spiraled out of control and he lost his temper. Better to walk out than to drown in confusion in front of a bunch of heartless punters. They didn’t see him as anything other than an automaton, slinging their coveted pints. No sympathy, no compassion—only rage or absence of rage depending on if he appeased them.
Slowly, steadily, with an uncanny attraction to the murky, beer-stained, cigarette smoke fogged interior of rundown Marlow’s Tavern, a crowd filled the place. There was no rhyme or reason for it—it wasn’t the night before all the pubs closed for Christmas. It wasn’t the weekend. The crowd wasn’t a bus load of tourists, lost on their way to a trendier pub. They were strangers occupying every seat, all the standing room, the entire bar top. They shoved their way toward him, money clenched in fists, waving to get his attention, shouting all at once. It was a freak weather system, dumping its contents onto some sleepy place known for minding its own business and with no resources for dealing with this kind of calamity.
Legarty blinked at them, unable to move. Unconsciously he wrapped the bar towel round his knuckles as though cushioning them for a fight.
“Hold on there, lad,” Old Aaron murmured, his feathery voice somehow reaching Legarty through the tumult. “Hold on.”
Legarty stared at the distorted faces all around him. Cornered. Pinned. He didn’t know how to hold on. He didn’t know.
Hanna Nielson is a scriptwriter and editor at a production company based in Los Angeles. She has a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Leeds, and has studied at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop. This is her first published short story. Set in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Old Man and the Boxer is one of several short stories written during her time living there. She is currently at work on a novel, also set in Belfast.