Alice smiled at Robert. “Sounds like a great idea. You should give it a go.” In truth, the concept sounded banal, but she did not want to discourage her friend.
“That’s what I thought,” said Robert, shaking his head. “But every time I try to write it, I think of Gareth, which kills it for me.”
The name sounded vaguely familiar.
“Did I ever meet him?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Robert said. “Gareth joined the Physics Department in autumn ’92”
“Yeah, I’d moved to Birmingham by then.”
She sighed. That had been a truly miserable period of her life.
Jim clinked his pint glass against her tumbler and said, “Booze cures all ills.”
Alice noticed his nicotine-stained fingers for the first time. Briefly, she considered suggesting they step outside for a quick smoke, but she refrained from doing so for Robert’s sake. It wouldn’t be fair on him, as he’d given up the habit only recently.
“So, Robert; tell me more about Gareth.”
Content with what he’d observed of the trio’s interactions so far, Joseph pushed through the crowd of customers standing close to the bar and placed the ashtray centrally on the trio’s table. The balding man gave him a quizzical look, exactly as he’d expected.
“Um, you do realise that we’re not allowed to smoke in here, don’t you?”
Joseph knew from experience the best way to deflect an awkward question was to act like someone who didn’t give a damn.
“Just part of the decor,” he said with a shrug.
“What–like this book?” The woman tapped its cover with a damp forefinger.
Her action gave Joseph the perfect excuse. He pulled a cloth out of his waistband, snatched up the book and wiped its cover.
“It’s not for reading,” he said.
All three of them laughed at him while shaking their heads. Nevertheless, he returned the book to its place on the shelf and made his way back to the bar.
Jim winked at Alice and then mimicked the man who’d removed the book.
“It’s not for reading!”
Robert chuckled while shaking his head. “Like Gareth’s PhD thesis!”
“Yeah, blank pages would have improved that a lot.”
With both men now in a much better mood, Alice took the opportunity to excuse herself and join the queue for the Ladies. But when she returned, she found them sitting in silence again, their expressions dour. Keen to lighten the mood again, she picked up the ashtray and turned it around in her hands. “Oh!” she exclaimed on seeing “No Smoking!” flash repeatedly at its centre. The warning ceased when she put the ashtray down but started up again when Robert flicked a beermat into it.