by Arron O'Hare
Wally Thomas was a small man for such a big drinker. This was partly due to genetics but mainly down to not eating properly. For him, the drink was far more important to get into his system than food ever was, even more so since Queenie – his wife – had passed away. And besides, his appetite went right out of the window once he got stuck into the top-shelf spirits and the upside-down bottles that lined the wall behind the bar of The Legion, or The Leg-Iron as the locals jokingly called it.
Hidden away at the end of a cul-de-sac lined with brown-bricked, red-roofed council houses, The Legion was only ever used by local drinkers who had never managed to escape the gravity of the housing estate.
Drink had been a big part of Wally’s life for as long as he could remember. One of his earliest recollections was as a young boy of about six years of age, sitting on his father’s knee in the pub, gleefully swallowing large mouthfuls of stout as his dad and his ruddy-faced friends clapped and cheered. Alcoholism ran deep in his family and he was always aware that he was hereditarily partial to the bottle, but he often wondered if this warm and fuzzy, sepia memory was actually the fateful moment he fell in love with drink. Either way, booze had been a constant companion throughout his life and pretty much his only one now.
When Queenie died following a car accident, Wally slipped into a spiral of alcoholic decline. He was a good man at heart, but he was also a broken one, full of feelings that he didn’t know how to cope with. He became distant and didn’t or couldn’t care. It seemed that people quickly distanced themselves from him too, because all that mattered to him was the pursuit of oblivion in a dark and dusty corner of The Legion, with a pint of bitter in his left hand and a whisky chaser to his right.
The wind was hammering raindrops into the tiny windows of the Legion, and the world on the other side of the yellowing net curtains was cold and dark and miserable. Wally found himself sitting in the same corner of the public bar as he always did, drinks already to hand and pre-rolled ciggies in his little green tobacco tin. He stared out vacantly across the bar at the filthy rain-streaked windows and the weak electric light beyond them. He liked this corner because he could sink into it, becoming almost invisible so that he could quietly observe the other drinkers as they came and went. No one bothered him and most ignored him these days which suited him down to the ground. He had nothing to say to them anyway. The only person who really spoke to him was his old pal, Ronnie.
Wally and Ronnie had been good friends since their school days and now they were well into the twilight of their adult years. Each had been the other’s best man at their weddings, and both shared a love of the drink. Ronnie was seen as the jolly, eccentric old lush, often caught cheerfully talking and singing to himself around the town. Everyone loved Ronnie.
Wally watched in silence as the Legion door squeaked open and Ronnie was blown into the bar, cursing as he brushed rainwater from the sleeves of his coat and straightened what was left of his hair. Ronnie’s hair intrigued and amused Wally in equal measure. It was quite long at the back and sides but really thin on top and scraped across the balding, pink dome of his head. He always joked that it looked like an egg slice.
Mick the barman looked up from his phone, “Evening, Ron!” he shouted cheerfully, “Still raining?” he said before taking a glass down from the shelf and drawing a pint from a hand pump.
“No, I swam here,” replied Ronnie sarcastically. “Of course it’s still bloody raining. Just like it was yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that. It’s like bloody monsoon season out there.”
Mick laughed, “Take your seat, Ron. I’ll bring it over.”
Ronnie made his way over to the small round table in the gloomy corner where Wally was rolling a cigarette and watching him silently from the shadows. Ronnie shrugged his coat off and threw it over the back of his chair before slumping into it. It creaked loudly under his weight.
“Evening, Wal’. Fancy seeing you here,” said Ronnie.
“Ron,” replied Wally. “Still raining then?” he smiled weakly.
“Don’t you bloody start. Look at me, I’m soaked to the bone!”
Mick bought a pint of bitter over to Ronnie and clumsily set it on the table, the foam head spilt over the lip of the glass, “Here you go, mate.”
“Careful! That’s a bleedin’ quid’s worth there!” shouted Ronnie as Mick walked back to the bar. He turned to Wally and whispered, “He’s a dozy clown, that one. Anyway, how have you been, mate?”
Ronnie shrugged and tapped the end of his roll-up on the table.
“You know you’re not meant to smoke indoors anymore,” Ronnie chided, “They outlawed it years ago. Besides, those things will kill you.”
Wally frowned. He struck a match that flared and momentarily lit the up the dark corner, throwing his features into exaggerated highlights and shadows. A long but comfortable silence opened up between them as he took a drag on the cigarette, sending little embers sparking into the air.
“I saw her again, Ron. Queenie, I mean,” said Wally, his voice dripping with sadness. “I see her a lot or sense her at least. Sometimes it’s like she’s still with me, by my side. It’s comforting in a way but there’s something else I can’t quite put my finger on, like a heaviness that seems to fall over both of us when she appears. I still miss her, Ron.”
Ronnie took a sip of his pint, “I miss her too, mate. I miss the old you, too. Which is why I’m here tonight, Wally.”
Wally pulled a strand of tobacco from his mouth and examined it before rolling it away in his fingers, “What do you mean?”
“This. You. It can’t go on Wally. You’re my best mate and it tears me apart to keep seeing you like this. I want to help, but I really don’t know where to start. Only you can help yourself, Wal.’”
Ronnie stared deeply into Wally’s eyes and suddenly felt an intense sorrow he had never experienced before. It enveloped him and it was all he could do to stay seated. He fought the impulse to get up and move away to escape this awful, cold, hollow feeling that emanated from Wally and engulfed him in a wave of pure grief. He eventually steadied himself with a large swig of his pint and shakily put it down on the table, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
“What do you remember about it, Wally?”
“The accident. The car crash. What do you remember?”
Wally sat back into the corner bench seat and seemed to momentarily disappear in the shadows.
Slowly, he leant forward into the weak light thrown from the bar, “It’s like it happened yesterday but I keep reliving it. I keep seeing it…every single, bloody day. I remember we were on our way to your house from here. I know it’s only a short drive, but it was raining so hard that night like it is now. Exactly like it is now. Anyway, Queenie didn’t fancy getting wet, she’d had her hair done, see?” Wally smiled at the memory, “So I decided to drive. Stupid, I know, but we all make mistakes. I’d only had a few drinks but I shouldn’t have got behind the wheel.”
“We’ve all done it, Wally,” said Ronnie, “It doesn’t make it right, but we’ve all done it.”
Wally shook his head slowly, “We got to the junction at the top of the road out here…” his voice faltered and cracked as he pointed over Ronnie’s shoulder. “It was the rain, I just didn’t see the other car and didn’t even have time to brake.” He swallowed hard, “Of course we never wore seat belts back then, no one did. There was an almighty smash, glass everywhere, and then I just remember hearing the rain hammering down all around us.”
“What then, Wally? What happened after that?”
Wally looked puzzled. His mouth opened and closed as he searched for the answer to the question. He looked down at his roll-up and twisted it between his fingers, “I don’t know, Ron. I can’t remember anything after that,” he whispered.
There was a long and heavy silence between the two old friends. The only sound was the insistent rapping of the rain against the windows.
Ronnie eventually looked up at Wally from across his pint, his pale blue eyes had pooled with tears which spilled over and ran down his cheeks, “I think the time has come for you to accept that Queenie’s gone, Wally,” he said quietly, “And you have to let go and accept that you’ve gone too. And somehow, I have to accept that you’ve both gone.”
Wally stared at Ronnie for what seemed an eternity before lowering his eyes and nodding slowly, “I know, Ron, I know,” he croaked as he took a deep pull on his roll-up, “I think it’s time for last orders, me old mate.”
He tilted his head back and blew out a long ribbon of smoke from his thin lips. Ronnie watched slack-mouthed as the smoke continued to spill out of his mouth and curl around Wally’s head, becoming denser and denser, obscuring his features and form until he could no longer be seen through the thick fug. Ronnie grimaced and waved his hands around to disperse the huge cloud. When the smoke eventually thinned out, Wally was no longer behind it. He had disappeared completely. Ronnie closed his eyes tight and breathed deeply.
“Same again, Ron?” asked Mick as he picked up the empty pint glass from the table. He sniffed the air and looked around him with a puzzled expression.
Ronnie slowly opened his eyes and looked over Mick’s head at a small brass plaque screwed to the wooden panelling above where Wally had just been sitting, and read the old familiar inscription:
Wally’s Corner, RIP
“No, I’m fine thanks, Mick. I think I’m done too,” smiled Ronnie as he stood up. He dragged his coat across his shoulders, fixed his comb-over and walked towards the door, throwing a final glance into the corner before heading out into the pouring rain.
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