at him.

The woman’s face was long and narrow, vaguely horse-like, with a long nose and a wide, appealing mouth. Like a lot of women on the estate, she had dyed blonde hair, but hers was pulled back into a severe ponytail. Her black suit was cheap and in need of ironing but the blouse she had on underneath the jacket looked as if she’d spent a bit of money on it back when it had been in fashion. She looked at him again but this time she didn’t look away immediately; she held his gaze for a long moment and a smile played at the edges of her broad mouth.

“There you go.” Rose was back. He pushed a shot glass into Marc’s hand and slammed down two bottles of Becks on the table. “I dunno about you, but suddenly I feel like getting pissed.”

Marc raised his glass. “I’ll drink to that.”


THE AFTERNOON WORE on in a comfortable haze of whisky and beer. The craving for tobacco was almost crippling at times, because Marc kept seeing people nip outside for a smoke. He was drawn to follow them, as if some invisible umbilical were tugging him in that direction. But he fought the urge and managed to get through the worst of it. He drank more alcohol instead. It seemed to numb the craving.

He and Rose talked about a lot of things but they didn’t discuss anything of importance. Their conversation lurched between football and politics (Rose was a life long supporter of Newcastle United; Marc was a Sunderland fan. They both voted labour but Rose was in favour of a return to a more rigidly socialist doctrine), women and wine, friendships lost and broken and relationships renewed. The old man soon became maudlin and the effects of the whisky were showing. At some point after 3 pm, he announced that he was going to call a taxi and rose unsteadily to his feet.

“Here,” said Marc, all too aware of the slurring in his voice. “Use my mobile.”

“Thanks.” Rose thumbed the number and ordered a cab. He was told that it would arrive in about five minutes.

“I should’ve left earlier. I can’t take the booze like I used to.” His face was loose on the bones, the skin sagging. “But I’m glad I had someone to drink with, Marc. You’ve saved me from an afternoon sat in a corner drinking alone and wallowing in self-pity.” He smiled and showed his teeth, which were so white and even they could only be dentures.

“I’ll keep in touch,” said Marc. “Harry was a good man, and it would be a nice tribute if his death meant that we stayed friends.” He was surprised to find that he actually meant what he said.

“I’d like that. I know I can’t take back what happened between me and Harry, but the fact that you spent time with him in his last days is comforting. Right then…” He stood, swayed, and steadied himself against the table, clattering the glasses. “I have to go. My cab will be here soon. I’ll speak to you next week?”

Marc nodded. “I’ll give you a call. We can go for a pint.”

He watched as the old man wove across the floor, managing not to walk into anyone, and then pushed through the door and went outside.

Marc had about an inch of whisky left in his glass and the beer bottle was only half full. He knew that he should drink up and go, but the urge to keep drinking surged within him, a throwback to his younger days when he’d struggled with an addictive nature.

Just one more, he thought. One more drink after this one, and then I’ll leave.

The room seemed to shimmer around him. He knew he was drunk, of course; but what he didn’t realise was how drunk. He hadn’t stood up for about half an hour, and his legs felt strange, as if they’d blended with the table and the chair and were conspiring to keep him seated.

He finished the whisky without really tasting it and picked up the Becks bottle.

When he put the empty bottle back down on the table it was like coming out of a trance. He knew that only seconds had passed between his last thought and the act of replacing the green bottle on the table, but it felt like he’d somehow fallen asleep and lost at least a couple of hours. The air in the room felt different, heavy. The quality of the light had changed, as if the sun outside had moved across the sky without him noticing the passage of time. He was familiar with this sensation of dislocation from drinking bouts in the past, but still it troubled him. It was as if he’d emerged from a lacuna, a blank spot. Anything could have happened while he was away.

Panicked, he checked his pockets. His wallet and his phone, his car and house keys… they were all still there. He hadn’t been pick-pocketed during his mini fugue. He had no idea how anything like that could even have occurred, yet it made him feel calmer to confirm that everything was still in place about his person. The world might have changed fractionally, but he was still the same.

He glanced up and around and realised that the Unicorn was a lot less busy. People had drifted away, perhaps going home to their families or seeking a cheaper method to bring on oblivion by raiding secret stores of black market beer and spirits kept in the space under the stairs or beneath the bed.

The woman he’d noticed earlier was still in her spot by the jukebox, but now she was pushing coins slowly and methodically into the slot, one after another. He’d been aware of music playing but only now that the volume of the drinkers had lowered could he identify a tune. Neil Diamond: Sweet Caroline. That song, he knew, was one of the many that formed the soundtrack to the lives of people who drank in rough pubs and social clubs. Songs like this one — sad and sweet and with an instant hook — were sung by club singers throughout the country. The performance was always the same — a low-rent crooner on a low stage belting out bygone hits through a dodgy sound system. An overweight man in an ill-fitting black suit with white sweat marks under the arms, singing songs about divorce and heartbreak; always delivered in a fake American accent in a small northern town, a desperate attempt to delineate the boundaries of even smaller lives. To Marc, it was one of the most depressing experiences the world had to offer.

“Jesus,” he muttered. And he fought the urge to laugh at his own bleak musings.

He needed to do something to break his mood, so he slowly rose from the chair and started moving in a crouch towards the bar. At the last minute he jinked to the right and walked along the length of the bar, following its curve towards the jukebox.

The woman picked that exact moment to stop feeding money into the machine. She turned around and faced the room. Marc was too close to her by now to back out, so he kept going and only stopped walking when he was right in front of her.

Suddenly this seemed like a bad idea. It was as if he’d entered another of those drunken fugues and only come out of it when it was too late to make any difference to the situation.

“Hi,” he said, aware that he was swaying gently.

The woman stared at him. Up close he could see that she was wearing too much makeup. The dark rings around her eyes looked like week-old bruises. Her lips were thin and her skin, beneath the layer of foundation, was slightly rough, as if it had been sandpapered. But her eyes were beautiful: ice blue, piercing, holding within them the promise of something that he couldn’t define. Staring into those eyes was like catching sight of a cold, quick, elegant movement; the flickering of something living encased within an iceberg.

“I, erm… I noticed you earlier. Thought I’d come over and say hello.”

She didn’t stop staring at him but she looked bored, barely even interested in what he had to say. Not that he could blame her: his patter was as stale as the air inside the pub, and as lifeless as her stoic face.

“Okay… sorry. I’ll go away.” He started to turn, his cheeks burning. He wasn’t usually this awkward around women. In fact, he usually found it easy to turn on the charm; faking was simple, it was honesty he found a difficult trick to pull off. But there was something about this woman that disturbed him — the same thing that drew him to her.

“White wine and soda,” she said, without moving. She had her back to the wall. The glass in her hand was almost full. Slowly, she raised the glass to her lips and swallowed the contents. Her eyes never left his face.

She handed him the glass.

He struggled to think of a witty response, but there was nothing left to say. He turned around and walked over to the bar, ordered the drinks. Then he returned to her side, feeling as if he’d been trapped somehow, or manipulated into doing something against his will. Not a big thing, just a tiny act of coercion, something

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