Sunlight fell through the windows on the western wall of the office, throwing warm slabs of light down across the dusty wood floor. The traffic outside was barely audible over the soft, lazy drone of a fan that pushed calescent air about the room like a old woman mindlessly stirring a cup of hot tea.
The sky split open. Rain spilled out from that gray wound, covering the earth in a silvery blanket that somehow managed to wash away the icy grime of a long, cold winter. It seemed like that cut would never heal, but it did. And the sky, that once hung heavy as a stony gray mass, faded with the season. And the ground that for so long had laid at rest in the naked silence of its frozen slumber, eventually thawed. Slowly, twisted fingers of crooked growth sprouted into a tangle of green, and dotted across the landscape, blossoming flowers in a delight of color, fluttered in the gentle breeze, creating a fragrant breath that whispered the arrival of springtime.
A cold swell of night air spilled into the pub as the front door opened. The bartender looked up from his newspaper and watched a soggy figure turn and shut the door behind him. He shook off his coat as he stepped down from the entry way and walked across the dimly lit room. The bartender smiled warmly and greeted him.
“Hello John, how’ve you been?”
“Good, how about yourself?”
“I’m all right thanks. What’ll you have?”
“A pint of Guinness for starters, we’ll take it from there.” John smiled as he pulled off his spectacles and reached for a napkin.
“It’s a devil of a night out there isn’t it?” George pulled out a glass from under the counter. John nodded. He finished wiping the mist off of his lenses and brought them back up to his face. The pub was empty except for a couple sitting at a small table beside the fire pit. Just beyond them a little stage stood in silence, peering out from the darkness at all the empty tables that seemed to house an empty audience. He reached for his cigarettes. “Slow night huh George?”
“It’s been bloody dead all evening.”
“How’s the music working out?” John asked,
“Well, it fills the place up on the weekends all right, but I just can’t afford it during the week. Kids are pretty firm these days about their fees. No pay, no play.”
“That’s too bad.”
“Well, what can you do right? George took a seat behind the bar. “How’s life treating you? have you been playing much?”
“No, no time really. By the time I get home I’m usually pretty wiped out. I figure once I retire, I’ll give it another shot. Get my second wind, right?”
Motion came from the table over by the fire pit. A young man turned in his chair and caught George’s eye. “Could we get our bill please?” He started writing it up as he left the counter.
John’s face tightened as he took a deep drag of his cigarette. He exhaled with a weary sigh. A blue cloud of smoke poured over the counter top and washed up into the staggered rows of bottles. He looked down at his hands, all speckled with white primer. He hated working with the oil based shit. He basically had to soak himself in turpentine if he wanted it off, but the fumes gave him terrible headaches. He started to pick at it. Soon this job would be done and he would move on to a different house. There was always another house. He had been painting them for seventeen years.
George came back up to the bar and put the money in the register.
“Thanks again mister” the young man said as he and his partner made for the door.
He sat back down across from John.
“Well, we’re finally alone.” John said with a mischievous little grin. George laughed and drew himself a beer. “It’s good to see you again.”
“Hey, have you talked to Paul lately?” John asked.
“Yes, as a matter of fact I have. He told me to give you his best. You know, you really ought to give him a call.”
“I know. I’ve been meaning to. I just haven’t gotten around to it yet, but I will. Is he still teaching 2nd. grade or has he moved up to those naughty high schoolers?”
“No, he decided to stick with the little ones. He’s really very good with them you know?”
John stared down into his beer. “I know he is. In fact, I read a piece on him in the paper yesterday – small town boy makes good.”
“Oh yes, about that new after school program he developed. Maybe that’ll help to keep some of those kids off the streets eh?”
“We all want to change the world.” John drained his glass and handed it back to George. “Hit me again old boy.”
He took the glass and reached for the tap.
Silence fell between them. John lit up another cigarette and started to stretch his back when the phone began to ring at the far side of the bar. George went to answer it.
A moment later, he came back smiling. “Anne says hello.”
“Hello Anne.” He continued to pick at his paint-speckled hands. “So tell me, how is Paul doing aside from his teaching?”
“He seems good you know? He and Sheila are planning a trip to the United States to visit New York City — the Statue of Liberty and all that.”
“Is he still playing?” John looked up and fixed his eyes on George’s.
“Yeah, he still plays a bit. He doesn’t have much time for it either these days, but he tries to pick it up whenever he can. Actually I had dinner over at their flat last Tuesday and we played some of the old songs. It reminded me a little bit of the old days – those crazy nights at the Indra Club. Jesus those were the days hey John?”
“Four sets a night, six nights a week,” John smiled proudly, “It damn near killed us, but I never felt more alive.” He leaned back on his stool and looked over at the stage. “For a time it really looked like we were going to make it,” his smile began to fade. “We were so close. I felt it in my bones.”
In the silence, the dark room felt heavy with memories. Their thoughts were taking them back to Hamburg.
Stu was the only weak link in the band, and when he left to pursue his painting, it seemed as if nothing could stand in their way. The four of them worked a killer of a schedule. It sharpened their playing in a way that no amount of practice could. The music was no longer in them — they were in their music. As they got better and better, their popularity began to grow. It wasn’t long before they were the most sought after band in Hamburg’s club circuit. They seemed to appeal to everyone, from avant-garde artists, to angry mobs. Running themselves ragged, they started to take speed in order to keep up their steam for every show. By the end of the night, they were so wired that what little time they had allotted for sleep was spent tossing and turning, wild eyed and sweaty as their hearts raced and their heads burned.
As time passed, they began to run out of steam and speed didn’t help. As popular as they had become in Hamburg, no one would give them a record deal. They managed to save up enough between them to make a demo, and they sent copies to a number of record companies, but no one seemed interested. They tried hard to maintain their morale, but living in such close quarters for such a long period of time was beginning to take its toll. They were at each other’s throats. After six years of hard work, playing everything from dance halls to strip joints, in towns all throughout England and Germany, Paul finally decided to call it quits and went back home to Liverpool to become a teacher. The other three briefly considered finding another member, but ultimately they too decided to pull the plug. They had given it their best shot. It just didn’t work out.
A cold rush swept into the bar as a small group of youngsters stumbled in through the front door laughing. Their sudden entrance pulled John and George back out of the past.
The new arrivals walked past them and sat down at another table by the fire pit. They began pooling their funds.
“Well, I should probably be off. I’ve got to get up early tomorrow morning.” John gulped down the rest of his beer.
“Listen John, I’ve been thinking, why don’t the three of us get together again for a jam session- just for old times sake? I could close up the pub early one night mid-week and we could relive our youth for a while. What do you say?”
“I don’t know George. I haven’t picked up my guitar for a long time.” He got up off of his bar stool and began buttoning up his rain coat. George smiled sadly as John prepared to go.
“Think about it John. Just think about it.” He was opening the door to leave when George called out to him.
“Hey John!” Their eyes met. “We were really good back then. Do you remember?”
John’s gaze was steady for a moment, “Yeah, I remember.” He looked back over the empty stage. “I’ll see you around George.” He pulled up his collar and went out into the rainy darkness.