“Presumably, it’s for the benefit of visitors from more civilised countries,” Robert said, as he passed the ashtray to Jim. “You’re the electronics expert. What do you make of it?”
“It reminds me of Gareth’s X-ray detectors.”
Jim’s joke broke the ice.
“Yeah,” Robert said with a smile. “Those mostly ended up as ashtrays.”
Relieved to see both men smiling again, Alice offered to buy a round. Several minutes passed before she caught the barman’s eye. Jim came to help her carry the glasses. On returning to the table, she noticed Robert’s glum look.
“What happened to Gareth?”
“He died in a train crash…last year.” Robert’s voice faltered as he spoke.
Jim shook his head. “That was so wrong.”
“Yeah, if he was going to cop it, he’d have wanted it to be while he was doing 150 on his Kawasaki.”
Silence descended again. Robert looked close to tears. As an outsider, Alice found it difficult to witness their grief. She considered making her excuses and departing but decided it would be churlish–and possibly not in her best interests.
The bell rang for “last orders”. To Alice’s surprise, Robert ignored it and resumed his recollection of Gareth’s escapades.
When the bell rang for the second time Alice watched the man who had shown such a possessive attitude to the unfinished book shepherd disgruntled customers towards the exit, before finally turning his attention to their table. She glanced at Robert, worried that in his maudlin state he might cause trouble.
“The bar has closed,” the man said. “Please take your drinks downstairs.”
Robert glared at him. “Why the rush?”
The man crossed his arms, smiled wearily, and said, “It’s time to go.” Then he walked over to another table and repeated the ritual.
“I’m going for a pee,” said Robert.
Now’s your chance, Alice told herself.
“So, Jim, what’s your journey home like?”
“Piccadilly Line to Leicester Square then Northern Line to High Barnet. Not quick at the best of times.”
Alice grimaced in sympathy.
Jim smiled at her. “Fortunately, my flat is only five minutes’ walk from the station.”
She smiled back, happy to have secured that titbit of information, but wary of pushing her luck. Still, if all else failed she’d sweet-talk Robert for his mobile number.
When Robert sat down again and resumed sipping his beer, the man loomed over them almost immediately.