The College Bar

Entry by: Seaside Scribbler

11th September 2015
It's not like any college bar I've ever seen. From the doorway everyone looks familiar, as if I've met them before. It's quiet and everything is so clean it seems to glow. I stand, uncertain on the threshold, wondering which direction to go in.

I think back to the college bar I used to work in. Packed to the roof every night - and most lunchtimes - people talking and shouting and discussing; sports teams chanting; a grinch of goths in a corner; hippies trying to hide joints behind their hair; serious students looking around in disgust, ready to take their informal tutorial elsewhere. And the smell - unwashed beery bodies, cheap perfumed girls (those on full grants), expensively perfumed girls (those payrolled by the bank of Mum and Dad), and cigarettes, smoke so thick you have to wade through it.

This bar has no smell. Or rather it does; it has the smell of newness. New furniture, a sort of plasticky mattress that you've just unwrapped smell. I'm unsure who I've got to meet here. Or when I have to meet them. Was it midday? I look at what people are eating to try and work out what time it is (why is everything so unclear? Suddenly I don't remember getting here, either. I wonder if I've been slipped a drug. I was at some kind of interview, wasn't I? Did someone spike my drink? But why?) I'm a normal, middle aged woman. I had to come here for... for... but it eludes me, so I carry on standing on the threshold, lost.

I remember meeting Stephen; cliche but love at first sight. The students, for the most part, were rude, arrogant little shites who treated anyone they considered beneath them like dirt. As a lowly bar tender I was definitely down there on the bottom rung of the social scale, a girl - orphaned, didn't you know, - put there solely to furnish their rich little hands with beer. You can tell I hated my job. They weren't all that bad, anyway. Some of the students even worked behind the bar also so I am exaggerrating, just a little. I hated the damn job, that was all, but it was well paid and easy, and it fitted around my job as a carer. Stephen was different. More polite, less often pissed, had nicer friends and chatted to me. It wasn't long before he asked me out.

Maybe it's Stephen I'm here to meet. It feels like ages since I saw him - it always did, whilst he was away at lectures, whilst he was working, when I was on night shifts. I can only go a few hours before needing to see him.

We married after knowing each other exactly one year. Our families thought we were bonkers; as did all our friends. Gran called him a toff, his looked at me with more respect as they ordered their pints, but also with a bewilderment they didn't try to hide. I decided to look for another job. When I look back on that it seems like life plans it all out for you - I became a care manager, went on loads of courses and could deal with any kind of ability or disability and ran one of the best care homes in the country. Which helped me greatly, when life went haywire. It was too good to be true, that's what I told myself. After the unsettled and reasonably unhappy life I'd had, I simply didn't deserve so much happiness so when Stephen had a stroke, aged only 40, I felt as if I'd been waiting for it. A second stroke took him from me two years later but in those two years I took care of him - looked after his every need, physical and emotional. He was getting better. I felt like I'd won a battle.

I look for Stephen but can't see him. Everyone's wearing white, which is odd. The place is looking odder by the minute. Suddenly, someone notices me and something frightening happens. One by one, all eyes turn to me. A silence falls. I want to turn and run but something is dawning on me, right back there in a corner of my mind. It's like when the answer to a question's on the tip of your tongue, you KNOW you know the answer, but it won't... quite... come. As I watch, the bar seems to stretch in all directions, until I realise I can't see the back wall. Was it there a moment ago? I look harder, wondering if I'm about to start a college course. Is this why I'm here? Did I finally make it to Nursing College? Is that why everyone's in white? I know I've been forgetful lately, but surely, SURELY, I'd remember that? I'd remember passing my entrance exams? I want to sit down.

After Stephen got better, he had two months of healthy life and then he had another stroke. It was like a terrible joke, a sick joke played by a sick god. This one took him right away form me though, to a shadowy place in his mind that he never escaped from. he got stuck on a Stroke Ward at Ninewells and they wouldn't let me take him home. It's just a matter of time, Mrs Hamilton, they said. But theyw ere wrong. He fought, silently, for weeks and by the time he died he was thin and grey and not the man I knew. He couldn't speak, move or feed himself. I wish I could ahve helped him but I was never left on my own. They must have seen it in my face, a loving murderousness.

There isn't anywhere obvious to sit. I notice something strange: all of the tables are full, apart from one empty seat. It's as if every table is waiting for another guest. I take a big swallow and step into the room. Slowly, people go back to their eating and talking. Everyone seems to be happy. There is much smiling and touching, hands being held, faces caressed by fingertips, arms slung round a shoulder. Carefully, I pick my way between tables. Something still sits on the edge of my subconscious, a realisation I've not quite managed to grasp. The floor shines as I walk. The smells of food are delicious: I get spicey wafts of curry, the warmth of a roast dinner, the tang of lemons, the earthiness of rice as I wind my way amongst the chair legs. The place isn't very roomy, considering its size. And still, people seem familiar. I even think I see some famous faces, which i just do not understand.

I didn't have to help him, in the end. He went, quietly, as I sat holding his hand. It was just the two of us. We'd never had children, perhaps we would have, but with Stephen's stroke of course the idea had gone out of the window. I wasn't sure I wanted to be an older mum, but if it had happened, I would have welcomed it. It didn't though, and after the stroke, when he did get better for that brief wondrous time, I went on the pill. So it was just us as he slipped away, a light going out, a sudden emptiness in a room that was already quiet. I just sat, and watched and when the nurses came in they looked at me and didn't speak, just touched my shoulder and quietly ushered me out, when I was ready. There was no hurry. In life he'd been relaxed; in death he was calm. It was me who raged, once I got home.

Across the room, I see someone I do know. Mrs Anderson, the first person I saw die. She's at a table with a woman who looks just like her, an older man who has the same nose and wave in his hair and a few other people, all older. I stand and gaze at them. She sees me, and raises a hand. She nods, then goes back to her conversation. I can only stand and stare. My feet won't obey me when I tell them to move over to her, In fact, they won't obey me when I tell them to move back to the door, or to the left. I'm stuck on the spot. I try to move forwards, and I can go. I take two steps forwards and take another look at Mrs Anderson. Half of me knows it's entirely right she should be here, in the other half I feel a tide of panic surging up, a scream that is working its way from my abdomen to my lips. Something is very wrong here. I look for more answers and become aware of others walking among the tables too. I've not noticed them before - why? As I watch, a young woman reaches Mrs Anderson's table. It's some kind of reunion because everyone at the table rises to their feet and they all try to clasp her at once. There must be seven people at the table. As I watch, they all start to float into the air.

After Stephen's death I spent a good while in the student bar I'd first met him in, twenty years earlier. Nothing had changed but the accessories. The same groups sat in the same areas, but one thing they all had in common was phones. Held aloft, catching moments of joy, kisses, drinking games. The phones took over the job of the kids' memories. I wished I'd had one. Perhaps I'd have caught the look on our faces the night we first met, when I'm sure we would have seen love it first site reflected in our faces, lit up by the camera, through the smoke in the sir. I had only memories. I eventually stopped going to the bar.

The room is even bigger the further I walk. I can't see the end of the room at all, now. All around me, people are meeting and greeting and rising upwards, where they seem to vanish into a cloud. I think I know where I am and I being to look for the one face I've longed to see for most of my life. 38 years? Is that how long? The number comes to mind, although I am unsure why. I see him. Just as the night I first noticed him in the bar, I see him and the two moments are linked. My past and my present. My heart leaps and I want to run to him but I'm stuck to the spot once more. He comes to me, wonder in his eyes. Janey, he says, as he comes closer. I can't hear him, but I can see his lips move. I reach out my hands but something is wrong again. He's shaking his head. He's saying something else but I can't hear him. I feel myself pulled backwards, away from him and I can't shout or move myself or fight it. I'm being dragged away. As I go, I see other people I know. My grandmother, sitting with a woman who looks just like me. I try to yell to her to help me, help me....

...."....she's back! We've got her. Janey Harris, you sure gave us a fright there."

I open my eyes and the light is blinding. The strange white college bar is gone, and I'm in a room that looks like a hospital.

"Stephen?" I can speak, just. there's soemthing over my nose and mouth. Oxygen. They've given me life back.

"Janey love, you're at Ninewells. Had a little turn, didn't you? Don't worry, you're back here now."

I look at the person - nurse - who's talking. On her face I see fear, but relief. I'm sorry, I want to say, as I reach for the oxygen mask, and rip it from my face.