Last Chance Saloon

Entry by: Briergate

26th November 2015
I push open the door to the pub hesitantly. Stepping inside, the warmth makes my hands tingle, and I pause for a moment to take in the atmosphere. The room is bright and busy, people standing along the bar in loud groups, with the noise and bustle gradually falling away towards the corners. I pull of my coat and walk to the bar, pulling out the note one more time to scan the contents. It still sheds no light on what is about to happen, or why I have been summoned here. The words are terse, with no signature.

"Meet me at the Last Wine Bar. 8pm. I will be seated in the far right corner. Female. Grey hair. Black coat.

~ A Friend."

I stuff the note back in to my pocket, and signal the bartender. He pauses, a glass in both hands, and cocks his head towards me.

"G&T, please. Ice, no lemon. In fact, a double."

He nods and drifts away, leaving me standing between two middle-aged men, both obviously inebriated. I nervously rub the small scar on my left hand; a nervous twitch I've had from childhood which seems to flare up whenever I feel uncertain. The bartender returns with a tall glass, condensation fogging the surface. I pay quickly and then take a long draught before turning to the right of the room. In the far corner, just as the note predicted, a woman is seated alone. She is studying me, and I frown. I do not know her, and she is not a friend of mine.

Stepping towards her, I feel suddenly irritated that this stranger has managed to drag me out to a bar on a cold winter's evening, but the emotion is not enough to stop me from heading up to the table, pulling out a chair and placing my drink down. Curiosity wins out, and I sit in silence and look at her, waiting for an explanation.

"Jennifer?" she asks, and I nod. Although my real name, no-one ever calls me that. I am Jen, or Jenny.

"And you are?" I ask her, sipping my drink. I feel the curiosity making me lean towards her. I take in her worn face, sad grey eyes and crinkled skin. She looks used and dilapidated; someone with a tough life who is used to losing. She isn't inspiring, and I wonder what has drawn her here to a lively bar, to meet a stranger. Even her clothes are drab and lifeless, exuding grey.

"My name isn't important, Jennifer. I just needed to meet with you, because I have a message for you. I hope you forgive the cloak and dagger approach, but as we have not met, I didn't think you would come unless I made it a little intriguing."

I drink again, and notice that the elder woman's hands are shaking as she also sips from a glass, Gin and Tonic, I suspect, with no lemon like my own. I gaze at the woman, wondering what the hell she wants, and who she could be. While there is something slightly familiar about her, I am sure I have never seen her before. I wouldn't seek out her company, of that I am certain. Her aura of sadness and hardship feels palpable, as if it is creeping across the scarred table and could contaminate me. I edge back in my chair, and wait.

"I want to deliver a message, because I have something very important to say. I need you to listen, and take what I tell you in good faith. I may sound insane, but please just give me ten minutes of your time. That's all I want."

I stare at the woman, and nod. I am completely intrigued now. She speaks with such intensity, her low voice stumbling as she half-trips over her own words. I drink. She mirrors my action, licking her lips nervously before leaning towards me.

"Jenny, you are at a very important crossroad in your life right now. Ahead of you, there is a choice. You can decide to follow your heart, listen to your instinct, and select the path which feels right. Or, you can succumb to outside pressures, and make a decision which goes against everything you are, to appease convention. I am here to ask you - beg you, in fact - to listen to your heart, and your instinct."

I stare at her in silence, becoming aware that my mouth is hanging open. How can she know so much about me? And yet, as a 23 year-old engaged woman, it would not be difficult to come up with some fortune-telling claptrap. Perhaps she is someone who knows my fiancé? Perhaps his meddling, sniping mother has paid this downbeat woman to warn me off. I begin to smile, suddenly, understanding.

"And what are you? Some gypsy? Do you want me to cross your palm with silver or something? You don't look like you're making a very successful living at this. I should think you could have done something a bit better, don't you?" I mock her, irritated that what promised to be an intriguing, or at least interesting evening, has instead turned out to be a rather dull attempt to prevent me from marrying my partner.

The woman stares at me intently, and something about her gaze, her face, makes me pause and catch my breath. There IS something very familiar about her. I cast around in my mind, searching memories of spending time with Janice, my fiancé's mother, but draw a blank. I feel unable to tear my gaze away from hers, somehow mesmerised. The sadness, the blank despair that emanates from her, makes me shudder.

"Please, Jen? Trust me. If you marry him, you will be desperately unhappy. He will not be faithful to you. You will have children together, but always feel alone. He will be aggressive, and cruel, and torment you in ways you cannot even imagine just yet. But, he will destroy you. Would you want to end up being someone like me? With all your fire extinguished, leaving nothing but a dried, embittered husk?"

The intensity of her stare, her words, are frightening me. Suddenly I switch from mockery to concern. There is something so knowing in her gaze, as if she can see right in to my heart, and understands it. I drink again, and look away.

I don't want to have this conversation. She's raising questions about my life which I only ever entertain considering in the blank spaces of night, when I can close the covers over my head and dare to let myself dream of a different future than the one I have mapped out for myself. A future where he doesn't feature. Where I don't have to be the dutiful fiancée, entertaining his work colleagues with witty anecdotes. His trophy. I sometimes ignore the fact of his wealth, and his good looks, and good standing, and imagine a different future . One where I stand alone, and pursue my dreams.

"Did she put you up to this? Janice?" I ask sharply, and the woman before me smiles wearily and shakes her head. I believe her, and I don't understand why.

"Do you remember who you always wanted to be?" she asks me softly, and her eyes lose their intensity and suddenly grow warm, as if she is reminiscing. I nod, slowly. I never, ever forget. Since childhood I have always wanted to play my music, to lose myself in it. I've always had talent, but these days the 'cello sits gathering dust in the corner of the study. He doesn't like the instrument. He would rather I didn't play.

"Imagine that future, Jen? First 'cello in an orchestra. Playing the music you love. Achieving independence, even while every day you are simply doing the thing which makes you come alive. Can you imagine? You could have that. You could choose a different path."

I stare now, open mouthed. How could this haggard old crone know this? She's articulating my deepest desire, without hesitation. I have never admitted to anyone, not even him, how I sometimes close my eyes and play the music, imagining myself one part of a huge orchestra, contributing to perfection. How, in my more optimistic daydreams, I am centre stage, my bow racing across the strings, with an audience in silence, absorbing my music. Perhaps, composing. Meeting other people who share my passion. Living for it.

I finish my drink and push my chair back. The woman rubs a weary hand across her foreheads, pushing away straggling grey hairs. She stares at me, and once again I cannot drop her gaze.

"Jen? I'm serious. You have one chance. One choice. This is your opportunity, or your downfall. I am asking you from the bottom of my heart, as the truest friend you will ever have, to hear me."

I nod and stand, unsure what to say. She has made me feel unsettled and I instinctively reach to rub my left hand, feeling the ridge of the scar. She suddenly smiles, as if she recognises the gesture, and stands also. Reaching out to me, she grasps my right hand , and passes my index finger over her left palm. My eyes widen, as I realise what I can feel. An exact replica of my own scar, on her own wizened hand. I pull away from her, confused, and grab my coat.

I don't look back as I run from the bar. The woman, with her strange familiarity, has screwed with my mind. I want to laugh at the bizarre way she spoke to me; to pass the whole thing off as a particularly creative prank that Janice has dreamed up to stop me from marrying her son, but I can't. Her eyes, those grey hollow eyes. Familiar, yet strange. Her sadness. And that scar.

Without intending to, I find myself rubbing and rubbing at the livid red ridge which marks my palm. He said he didn't mean to do it. Didn't mean to hurt me. He was so apologetic afterwards, I forgave him. But, he has already left a mark.

Walking quickly, I reach the end of the street and look both ways. To my left, lies his house, where I am scheduled to return to cook dinner and spend the evening with him. To my right, is my own small flat, which has been left virtually unoccupied for months. And my 'cello. I feel a surge of hope blooming, tentative and new.

I turn right. I walk quickly, twisting my engagement ring from my finger as I stride, hearing the soft tinkling sound as it drops, and rolls away.