“Aye, Jimmy, pint.”
Same question. Same response. Every Saturday evening give or take. For the last thirty two years. Even today. Pat shrugged off the jacket he’d been wearing to fend off the early summer showers and approached the bar. He was a short, thin man. Seventy six years old. Somewhat stooped and stiffened by a long, hard life but with a latent energy and strength below the surface. His face was angular and bony and the creased, weathered skin was offset by dewy green eyes that retained their curiosity and humour. Seven high stools stood on sentry duty in front of the dark mahogany bar, all unoccupied. Most Saturdays you’d need to camp outside to gain access to one but tonight Pat had his pick. He was the only customer in the pub.
Probably the only customer in town. He pulled the one closest to him away from the bar to make room for his legs and hopped up. Pat noticed three ashtrays spread along the bar top. A few years since he’d seen those. Jimmy must have reckoned that enforcing the smoking ban was fairly low on everyone’s priority list these days. Jimmy had finished pulling his pint of stout. He severed the excess head from the top of the glass using a small, wooden spatula with the expert precision and practised ease of a surgeon and landed it in front of Pat with a flourish. The artist unveiling his latest masterpiece. Pat took a long pull on the beer and gave a satisfied sigh.
“Finest pint in Kinamare, Jimmy.”
“Hah, finest pint in Mayo.” Same compliment, same riposte. Thirty two years.
“You were at the turf today Pat?”
Question as statement. Statement as question. Basic tool of the barman’s trade.
“I was Jimmy, I was.”
Indeed he’d spent the day as he and his forebears had spent many before. The reliable heft of the slain. The fragrance of the heather. The strong, sweet, lukewarm tea and the ham sandwich. Finest meal he’d ever eaten.
“And sure we’ll not see another winter Pat, why’d you bother?’
Pat took another long, leisurely drink. Licked his lips. Planted the glass back on its coaster. Thought a moment.
“Same reason you opened the pub tonight I’d say.”
Jimmy raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips at this. Then shrugged and turned away. Couldn’t argue with that.
“Did you ever think of taking one of them buses?’ Jimmy asked, as he drained the last of a bottle of whiskey into two shot glasses and reloaded the optic with a new bottle. He placed one glass in front of Pat and the other for himself next to the cash till. Thirty two years. Same ritual. Same routine. Even today. Especially today.
“No. As likely to run into trouble as away from it. Way I see it.”
“The news said we should be gone. Them officials. TDs and all.”
“Well there you are then. All the more reason to stay put.”
Pat had never had much time for officialdom and bureaucracy. He sure as hell wasn’t going to start now. That was for sure. Pat realised he had been absently tracing his finger along a deep scar on the bar top. Staggers Cross.
Old man Stagg lived alone in a mobile home on a hill outside town, just beyond Evans’s field. Local lore had it that he survived on a diet of home-made poitin and raw sausages. One day about seven years back, Stagg had heard – wrongly as it transpired – that Jimmy had been bad-mouthing him one night in the pub. So that evening Stagg, fuelled by an abnormally potent batch of home brew, had stumbled into Jimmy’s pub and barged his way through a wary but curious crowd to the bar.
There had been a collective holding of breath as Stagg had glared at Jimmy, followed by a collective shocked recoil as he had drawn a vicious looking hunting knife and stabbed it forcefully into the bar top. He had then proceeded to slash a deep cross then stumble back and out the way he’d arrived without a word. The legend of Staggers Cross.
“A lot of history in this place, Jimmy.”
“There is that. They’ll dig this bar out of the ground a thousand years from now and treat it as a rare old artefact.”
“Yeah, they will.” Pat said.
He was suddenly struck by an image of Staggers, alone on his Mayo hill top, the only man on earth oblivious to the coming catastrophe. The last man standing. He smiled at this. Good for you Staggers.
Pat and Jimmy spent the next two hours sharing conversation and silence and drink and friendship. They had a bond forged by time. They had shared loss and bereavement, survived serious accidents and cancer battles and heart attacks and poverty and the blizzard of ’47 and countless, fruitless All-Ireland campaigns. They had laughed and mocked and blaggarded a path through decades of history and change. At 11pm Pat climbed from his stool, grabbed his jacket and headed for the door.
“See you next week Jimmy” he called over his shoulder.
“Grand Pat. See you then, God willing.”
Same farewell. Same reply. Even today. Jimmy had followed Pat to the door and had begun to sweep the old, worn tiled floor. Pat turned and the two men shook hands. First time. Thirty two years. No words exchanged. Pat crunched across the gravel car park and onto the footpath for the two mile hike home. In the distance a ball of white light streaked across the darkening sky, then disappeared. A moment later the horizon flared a deep, blood red and the earth beneath Pat’s feet groaned a low bass rumble.