100 Cocktails Later

Entry by: writerYNKGHTYLDE

21st August 2015
Jimmy was mute.
A street cleaner by day.
Fag butts and coffee cups. Sandwich wrappers and salad boxes. Beer bottles, plastic bottles, takeaway cartons, masses of them, all shapes and sizes.
Newspapers, leaflets, advertising flyers promoting everything from God to grunge, nothing escaped Jimmy’s big brush.
Train travellers, Tube travellers, arrivals and departures. Young and old, men and women, children even. It didn’t matter, they all scattered their rubbish around Euston Square.
Tottenham Court Road – Jimmy’s other patch – wasn’t much better, Goodge Street tube, a small park behind a takeaway coffee shop, he knew all the nooks and crannies where rubbish built up.
But far worse than the rubbish, the litter, the grime, was the barrage of abuse thrown his way every day.
Teenagers, mostly, taunting him as they hurled their ammunition, cans and plastic bottles in his direction. Jimmy learned to dodge the ‘bullets’, but he couldn’t deflect the abuse.
“What’s wrong mister, can’t you talk or somethin’, too afraid to speak are you?”
Jimmy never rose to the bait. He simply lowered his head and took it on the chin.
Every day when he got back to his small one-bedroom flat in New Cross, he took off his orange high-visibility jacket, climbed out of his black Pride of London branded overalls, and stepped into the shower.
The silver tap squeaked, the pipework gurgled momentarily, and then the giant metal shower head above him burst into action, an overwhelming downpour bouncing of his balding head and muscle-bound body onto the glass cubicle around him.
For those few seconds that giant shower head felt like his best friend in the world.
Jimmy turned his head up to the spray and submersed himself. Bliss.
Afterwards he’d put on a clean t-shirt and pair of jeans, he’d still got the body of a fit man, his torso well honed for a man of his age, a man in his late 50s.
He made himself a meal for one and sat down in front of the TV.
He never spoke. He never even opened his mouth, except to eat or drink.
This was Jimmy’s routine, day in, day out.
Except for Friday. Friday was different.
On Fridays, after his shower, Jimmy donned his smartest jacket, his shiniest shoes (his father from his days growing up in Glasgow had always drilled it into him a true gentleman always had shoes you could see your own face in), and headed across the river to his favourite Covent Garden haunt, a glitzy bar at Seven Dials.
As soon as he walked into the swish room, with its bright lights, sparkly mirrors, and row of shiny stools by the long curved bar it took Jimmy back.
He’d worked on cruise ships as a younger man. Travelled the world. Every day a new port, a new city. He’d got some tales. If only he could tell them.
Now his feet were firmly on dry land. The well of his life’s narrative had well and truly dried up. His throat was parched.
He always sat at the bar. Friday night was cocktail night. Tonight he treated himself to a Singapore Sling.
The dark-haired girl behind the bar served him with the broadest smile. It took Jimmy back. The dancer he’d lost his heart to on the cruise ship. Anna. The letters of her name, and Cupid’s arrow, still just about visible on his arm if he rolled up his sleeves. Faded tattoos the only remaining faint clue to the outside world of his previous life at sea.
Jimmy had fallen hook, line and sinker for Anna. Even married her during a stopover in Venice. Trouble was, by the time they got to Naples, she’d already got her eye on someone else. And so it went on. A different cruise, a different city, a different man.
Jimmy had thought Anna loved his stories, was enchanted by his Glasgwegian tones. He couldn’t have been further from the truth.
One day, sitting by the bar, champagne flute in hand, she cracked. “I’m sick and tired of all your fantasy tales Jimmy Douglas, I've had enough, it’s over," and with that she sent her glass smashing into smithereens across the dancefloor.
But that was then.
Jimmy had a different glass in his hand now. His Singapore Sling. The first moment it wet his lips, it was as if the working week was washed away. Reality was lost, for tonight at least.
After a few minutes observing everything and everyone around him, Jimmy, still silent, got out his weathered brown notepad, his blue fountain pen from his inside jacket pocket, and started to write down what he saw, and the snatches of conversations her heard.
What hit him immediately, was the way everyone was look at their mobile phones. Why did they do that? In a cocktail bar on a Friday night? Like they were sleepwalking through life.
Looking for what? Looking for love? But so busy waiting for it to land in their inbox, they missed what was staring them in the face.
All except one. A middle-aged lady sitting to his left. She had her iPad switched on in front of her.
“That’s just for company. My crutch. It gives me the courage to step out of the house and come here,” she said.
Jimmy was startled. She was engaging him in direct conversation. He wasn’t used to that. He did a double take. Just to check she too wasn’t hurling abuse in his direction.
Her smile, perfect white teeth, seemed to suggest otherwise.
Dressed in a short black dress which showed off her elegant curves, she looked a cut above the type of woman who would normally try to make small talk with Jimmy Douglas.
Her accent, sparkling necklace, and diamond ring, suggested she was used to moving in circles far beyond Jimmy’s world.
She looked a million dollars.
“Hi,” said Jimmy.
He could talk. It’s just he never had any reason to.
It was such a rarity he sometimes startled himself with his own voice. It always sounded loud in his ears. He hoped it didn’t come across like that to others, especially not to a beautiful woman.
They didn’t get to sharing much of their lives on that first night. A Singapore Sling was never going to be enough lubricant to smooth over Jimmy’s shyness.
And he wasn’t on for drinking more. He didn’t have the money. Not at these prices. Plus it was a point of principle that he would only ever have one cocktail a night, one a week, always on a Friday.
It was more small talk than anything meaningful.
But when Dianne got up to go - he'd found out her name at least - Jimmy plucked up the courage to ask her if she fancied meeting up again next Friday. “Same time, same place?” he said.
Her brilliant white teeth flashed him a lovely smile. “Yes, that would be fun,” she said. “See you then,” and with that she turned and headed out into the throng.
So began a weekly routine which lit up Jimmy’s life.
From the moment he closed the door in his flat, usually soon after midnight, in the early hours of Saturday morning, to the moment he walked through the cocktail bar door on a Friday night, Jimmy Douglas thought of only one thing. Cocktail night. And Dianne.
Neither wanted to rake up too much of the past. He in his late 50s, she in her late 40s, they had gone beyond all that. What was the point, anymore? It wasn’t going to change anything, what was done, was done.
So they had an agreement. They had for that one week, that one particular Friday cocktail night, to ask anything they wanted about each other’s past, and from then on they agreed their conversations would always be about the future.
Dianne found out all about Anna and Jimmy’s life at sea. In return Jimmy discovered Dianne had been an artist. She divorced her husband after he cheated on her when he’d invited a colleague back to their place thinking she was out on a commission, when she’d only just nipped to the shops. Even to this day she was proud of her aim when hurling Waitrose’s finest over the shocked couple.
But life on her own, meant money was tighter than it had ever been in her previously hitherto privileged life. She got a job in public relations with the sole aim of paying for her Marylebone flat. Her art had to be put on hold.
But never mind where they had come from, looking to the future their dreams were remarkably in tune.
Dianne dreamed of a career as a painter. Jimmy thought of writing his way out of a lifetime in litter. “My own form of gutter journalism, if you like!” he smirked.
And with that they made a pact. One cocktail together every Friday night. He would write. She would draw or paint.
Sometimes they went back to her place afterwards. Sometimes to his. But not always. It never seemed to bother them. It was never about the sex, although to Jimmy, he had to admit it was a welcome distraction from life alone, a life he thought he was consigned to for the rest of his days. Instead the only consistent was the cocktails and the art. They both liked it that way, gloriously uncomplicated, and refreshingly liberating.
Some nights they didn’t even talk that much. She sat there sketching. He sat there notetaking. They were comfortable in each other’s silence.
In the winter they sat in the far corner of the basement of the wood-panelled room, and studied their different subjects from a safe distance. In the summer they would move upstairs into the window, and sit there side by side on their stools with all the world their stage beyond the window.
Almost exactly a year this went on. No questions asked. No challenge to the status of their relationship. Both of their lives seemed perfectly in sync. No need to complicate it. No need for words.
Until one Friday night, Dianne didn’t show.
It was exactly two weeks before the anniversary of the first time they had met.
Jimmy looked up at the clock. 7pm. 8pm. By 9pm, however much he’d convinced himself she would be on her way, by now he knew she was not going to show.
The waitress had repeatedly asked if he wanted to order his usual Friday cocktail. But Jimmy didn’t have the heart without Dianne. He stuck to still water.
A whole week went by and he’d heard nothing.
The following Friday, with a heavy heart he headed back to the cocktail bar, more out of blind hope than expectation. Nothing.
A week later he went back again.
This time the barmaid greeted him immediately.
“Your friend was in earlier. She left you this,” she said, pushing an envelope into Jimmy’s hand.
He pulled out of the envelope, a most intricate portrait of such deft artwork, a masterpiece, it was a portrait of him.
He took a deep breath, and read her note.
“When I walked into this bar, a year ago today, my heart was broken. Fifty-two weeks, and 100 cocktails later, you have given me strength to face life again. Meet me at the Poetry Café at 9pm.”
He made his apologies to the barmaid, set off down the road, through the warren of Covent Garden streets, to arrive at the blue door of the café.
That’s when he saw it on the window. The leaflet. Not litter. A flyer which read: “Open Mic Night, Amazing Stories of a Life At Sea, by the famously talented Glaswegian author Jimmy Douglas.”
He walked inside, gave Dianne the biggest squeeze of a hug, and through the clapping and the whooping, walked up under the dazzling white lights to the single silver stool on the stage, and tapped the mic…
Jimmy Douglas had found his voice.