It took less than an hour to pick Tracy up from her place and get to the airport, less again to check in and get through security and across the terminal. We had missed the early rush of business travellers heading to Brussels and were fortunate enough to get through check in before the massive onslaught of other holiday travellers got to the queues. We had just enough time to pick up a magazine and coffee before we were being ushered onto the plane.
The flight and train journey was straightforward, as promised by both the travel agent and Tracy. Once we pulled into Antwerp station we quickly got into a taxi, checked in at our budget hotel and headed back out.
We had previously agreed that this was to be a leisurely break without any particular itinerary, so our first day was primarily spent aimlessly wandering the streets, browsing in shop windows and occasionally stopping for a coffee or a small beer. It was refreshing to not have to be anywhere or tied to any timetable and as we weaved our way in and out of the side streets, I made a mental note to worry less about work and have more fun. I’d had such a pleasant time that I’d more or less forgotten about Jason and had hardly checked my mobile phone for messages from him.
Tracy had expressed an interest in taking a walk into the diamond district, hoping to buy herself something new and sparkly, which we did after having a light lunch at a small cafe en route. She tried to encourage me to make a purchase, but I had set a budget for myself for “treats” and there was nothing that met my rather strict criteria.
The walking had tired us both out and, to fuel us for the evening ahead, we picked a restaurant close to our hotel for our dinner. Over a meal of mussels in white wine, with parsley and bread, we discussed our plans for the night. We decided upon an Irish bar which we had seen, O’ Malley’s, which was tucked away just off the Great Market and only a short walk from our hotel. Although we hadn’t gone into the premises in daylight, it appeared to have been recently refurbished compared to the adjacent bars. An A -frame board outside advertised live bands. That night’s offering was going to be a soloist, Kieran Murray.
After briefly returning to our hotel to freshen up and quickly change our clothes, we headed out for the evening. I wore my trademark blue jeans, accompanied by a fitted black tee shirt with a small diamond design on the chest; Tracy wore smart black trousers with a silky pale lilac top and snake skin effect boots.
I slipped my leather jacket over my top, although the evening air was mild and despite Tracy insisting that it was far too warm for me to need it. I’d had it a couple of years and I loved it. It was from a seventies vintage clothing shop, which I’d stumbled across on a day trip to London, and was well worn by the time it came to me. The structured yet soft leather hugged my skin and made me feel less self- conscious. The top I had packed was a little more fitted than I’d anticipated and I didn’t like the feeling of being “on show.” That should teach me for buying things without trying them on first.
As soon as we entered the bar, I knew Tracy would be in her element. The place was rammed. I felt a little relieved that we weren’t walking into an empty bar with all eyes shifting straight to us. People were pressed shoulder to shoulder on the bench-style seating fixed to each wall, legs and arms brushing each other. The queue for the bar was three people deep and patrons were squashed into every space in between. I could hardly see the floor and had to watch my footing with every step.
It quickly became obvious what the draw was. A couple of feet beyond the moving mass of people, I could just spot the top of someone’s head. As we cajoled and weaved our way through the throng, I saw a small stage area, probably no more than ten feet wide by six feet deep. It was home to a bar stool, a microphone, and a guy with an acoustic guitar. He was belting out a pretty decent rendition of “The Irish Rover” while the crowd sang along, clapping and stomping their feet in time with the music.
Tracy turned to me, her face lighting up as she spoke. “Now this is my kind of place,” she grinned, gesturing with her thumb towards the entertainment, she added, “and he is hot.”
“I expect he is,” I replied, “he’s wearing an Arran sweater and it’s close to thirty degrees outside.”
Tracy shot me an incredulous look, grabbed my hand and lurched forward in the direction of the bar. I tottered as she pulled me through the crowd and I could swear that the guitarist smirked. Between the ground I covered in my stumble and Tracy’s determination to get a drink, we somehow found ourselves at the front of the queue at the bar.
At some point in our expedition across the room, she’d managed to push me in front of her. I asked her what she wanted.
“When in Rome” she instructed.
“What?” I asked, bemused.
She pointed at the tricolour flag hanging above the optics. “Guinness! You should have one too – keep your strength up!”
I was worried. I’d learned from my nights out with Tracy that her idea of a good evening, usually involved a lot of drink, dancing and very often flirting with whichever good looking guy that took her fancy. It wasn’t that she ever did anything you could be ashamed of or embarrassed about exactly, but it could certainly get exhausting. She didn’t answer my question as she’d already turned on her heel and was heading back through the crowd in the direction of the toilets.
As the pub was packed, thereby discouraging any more customers to come in, I found that the bar itself gradually became quieter. People received their orders and returned to their seats once they were served. Others who weren’t lucky enough to have a seat had to satisfy themselves with whatever small square of free space they could find.
Although there were still a few people waiting to be served, I managed to catch the eye of the barman. I mouthed the words ‘two Guinness please’, raised two digits in the air and pointed them in the direction of the appropriate pump. He responded with a wink and a nod of acknowledgement.
I found myself smiling as I slid myself onto one of the tall vacant bar stools. It beat most city centre nights out, which usually involved waiting twenty minutes to get served, followed by someone spilling a drink over me.
While my Guinness was poured and set to rest for a couple of minutes, the barman proceeded to take other orders and I wondered where Tracy had disappeared to. She seemed to be taking a long time for a toilet break and I wasn’t relishing the thought of having to give up my bar stool to go and look for her.
My eyes scanned the stomping mass of people on the pub floor, eventually locking onto Tracy’s brunette head bobbing up and down at the front of the crowd. I occasionally caught a flash of her face as people moved around her. She looked in her element. I hoped that she had made it to the lavatory before she started all that jumping up and down. Mopping up the dance floor was not my idea of a good time.
I turned back towards the bar to see the barman standing opposite me, wiping down the bar with a towel and following my gaze in the direction of my friend. I looked down to see two large glasses of Guinness in front of me.
“Don’t tell me she’s abandoned you so soon?” he asked.
“Oh yeah,” I muttered, shrugging my shoulders. “She’s just having fun.”
“And you’re not? That hurts.” He clutched the damp bar towel to his chest. “Words can cut like a knife you know.”
He was smiling and I involuntarily smiled back. I wasn’t sure if this was part of some cheeky chap routine he put on for female customers, but he seemed genuine enough and clearly didn’t think too much of himself given his unkempt hair and aged band tee shirt. I knew it was Led Zeppelin; I’d grown up on my mother’s record collection. He had good taste in music and an appealing face, in a non-conventional ‘Rory Gallagher meets Joaquin Phoenix’ sort of a way.
“What can I say? I was miserable and then you came along,” I replied, trying to wear what I hoped was an easy going smile. Was I flirting? Maybe I was, I wasn’t entirely sure, but whatever I was doing, I quite liked it, especially behind the safety of the bar counter and the knowledge that he was still on the clock. Nice, safe, flirting; just what you need on the rebound.
He wiped his hands off on a towel and dropped in onto the counter at the rear of the bar. “Michael Kelly, County Derry,” he remarked cheerfully, his hand still outstretched. “My friends call me Mickey.”
“Hey Mickey – what a pity you don’t understand.” I cringed at the cheesy eighties pop reference. Sure, like he’s never heard that before. Getting over my embarrassment, I reciprocated the gesture and we shook hands.
“Sophie Morgan,” I said. “People just call me Sophie.”
We stayed shaking hands to the point it became comical, eventually stopping when a younger lad came up to Mickey from around the front of the bar. He had a tower of stacked glasses cradled in one hand and several bottles precariously trapped between the fingers of his other. He looked around eighteen, was a little taller than Mickey, and had a flame of red hair, which looked like it hadn’t seen the inside of a proper hair salon in a while.
Once he’d placed the bottles in a bin behind the bar and placed the glasses in the sink, Mickey picked up one of the pints of Guinness and handed it to him. I was about to protest when he asked him to take it over to the “overdressed brunette at the front” of the crowd. It wasn’t a judgement about Tracy, merely an observation on her appearance compared to the rest of the casually attired gathering.
I watched him take a drink over to her, which she raised in the air to me, smiling.
“Does he always do what you ask, or are you his boss?” I asked.
“No,” Mickey replied.”God, neither.”
I noticed that he looked at the younger man with a trace of a smile on his lips. Great, I thought, they’re gay, just my luck, and there I was thinking that someone may find me vaguely attractive. I was about to give up hope of ever having a love life entirely when he added that the red-haired youngster was his brother.
For the next few songs, Mickey explained that they had been in Antwerp for about four and a half months. His brother had wanted to go travelling around Europe and see the sights when he left school and before he got himself sorted with a job. Their parents, who didn’t particularly approve, agreed that he could go on the basis that he at least looked for a job at home first. If he found a job, he should stay at home and just get on with it. Jobs were few and far between. If he couldn’t find a job after six months, then they wouldn’t put up any resistance.
Six months came and went, with no job for Sean other than occasional labouring. At that point, his parents were still no happier with his desire to travel, but given that there was nothing at home in the way of work, they conceded. Sean argued that he could find casual jobs as he went, which would finance the experience and probably make it easier for him to find a job on his return.
His mother proposed that he should consider taking his brother, Mickey with him as he could keep an eye on him. She hadn’t exactly asked her elder son, but he was happy to go and there was no point grumbling.
Mickey told me that he had graduated from Queens University in Belfast the previous July, which I assumed meant that he was at least a year younger than me. As he didn’t have a job lined up after graduating, he had agreed to take some time off to travel with his brother. After all, he admitted, he’d always fancied doing some travelling at some point, and now was a good a time as anyway. Plus, it meant he could minimize their mother’s anxiety.
As he spoke, I studied the way he watched Sean go about his duties in the bar. There was a mix of pride, worry and care written in his face and I understood that Mickey had also wanted to keep an eye on his kid brother. What a decent guy. Must be nice to have a sibling to keep an eye out for you, I thought. My family had dwindled down to just Mum and me.
The bar stayed busy for most of the evening, with our conversation intermittently interrupted by the dispatching of drink orders. I discovered that, since the New Year, the Kelly brothers had managed to explore Copenhagen, Stockholm and Brussels, before making their way to Antwerp. It had originally been intended to be a short sojourn before heading on to Bruges (I made a quick comparison to Colin Farrell when he mentioned this), but they stayed on when they were offered jobs by the bar owner, Maggie. As she was able to offer them the use of a small flat above the bar and open-ended work, they had made the decision to stay.
I in turn shared a little of my own background, little being the operative word. I had no illusions about the lack of excitement in my life and wasn’t too comfortable trying to portray myself as anything other than ordinary. It was one thing to big someone else up when I was trying to get them a job or an interview, but it was quite another to self-promote. I briefly explained that I was originally from South Wales and had ended up in the West Midlands after my university studies finished.
The mandatory topics of conversation were ticked off while carefully avoiding anything which implied I was newly single and quite possibly vulnerable. The last thing I needed was some astute lothario taking advantage of my recent dumping, or that someone I actually quite liked thinking I was desperate. I was feeling very sorry for myself.
No brothers or sisters. Very close to my Mum. Yes, she still lives in Wales. A few distant relations left – cousins and great aunties and the like. How did I find myself in Antwerp? Cheap weekend away with my friend. Yes, she is a Brummie, no I didn’t go to university with her, I know her from work and yes, she does like a good time, but don’t take that as she’ll do anything more than have a few cheeky drinks and a bit of harmless flirting.
Apart from the few brief occasions that Tracy came over to put in her drinks order, I rarely saw her. She was far too busy enjoying the music, chatting to all and sundry. The pub entertainment was clearly holding her attention and he seemed to be reciprocating as when he went for a break at the end of this first set he happily lifted her drink out of her hand and took a sip.
Kieran asked Sean if he could keep their drinks topped up and instructed him to deduct the tab from his money for the gig. After that, Tracy had no need to come to the bar at all and I didn’t see her for the rest of the evening. I hoped he wasn’t trying to get her too drunk, but I was confident I could keep an eye on her from the safety of my stool.
I should have been annoyed at my friend ditching me, but it was pleasant talking to Mickey and I happily snatched moments of conversation with him as he worked. We shared ideas on places to visit during my trip and discussed our respective hometowns, which we discovered sounded very similar. Now and again we replaced chit chat with singing along to the music. By this time, I had learned that the singer was also Irish, but from Dublin, and that this was a regular venue for him on his local circuit. He generally played over the weekend so he would be there the following night too. By the way, that Tracy was figuratively hanging on every word, and literally hanging off him whenever he took a break, she’d be pleased to hear that.
“So, do you think you’ll be back again tomorrow?” Mickey ventured.
I looked over my shoulder at Tracy, pointing to a notice on the wall which read ‘Live Irish music tonight and Saturday’. She gestured back with a thumbs up.
“Looks like it,” I replied.
His face lit up, which I could tell made him feel a little embarrassed. Heat crept across my cheeks at the unimaginable notion that maybe this guy actually liked me, me! I quickly gulped a swig from my pint glass, hoping that the floor would open up and swallow me whole so I wouldn’t have to think about what to say next.
Instead of being eaten up by the floor, a woman with a cloud of white hair, dolloped in a loose bun on the top of her head, lunged at me and waved a Polaroid camera in my face. The flash went off before I had time to react and I was certain that all she’d have ended up with was my extremely startled grimace.
Mickey laughed. “Looks like you’ll be on the wall of fame.”
“Huh?” I snorted.
“That’s Maggie,” he explained. “She owns the place. She does that sometimes, you know, takes snaps of some of the customers. She sticks them on that notice board.” He gestured to a glass covered display board at the end of the bar. “She thinks it brings in customers if it looks like people have a good time in here. Right enough, I’ve seen people come in here every weekend trying to get on that wall.”
“I guess I should be flattered then.”
I wasn’t convinced about the appeal factor that an awkward looking Polaroid of me, which she was now in the process of pinning up, would have, but it wasn’t like I’d ever have to see her again. It seemed rude to make a fuss.
Maggie, evidently pleased with herself flashed an enormous grin at me and then at Mickey, the latter accompanied by an extremely conspicuous wink and a nod in my direction. Her skin crinkled at the corners of her mouth and coupled with the white hair, I had difficulty guessing her age.
Before I knew it, the evening had come to an end. We stayed until the last customer left, chatting about nothing in particular with Mickey and Sean. Tracy was occupied, firmly latched on to the guitarist’s face.
I was conscious that we were the only ones who actually needed to leave the premises, as the lads and Maggie all lived above the bar. The guitarist was also staying, Maggie proposing that he stay on the sofa rather than catch a taxi or try to arrange a lift. I was relieved, I didn’t want there to be any suggestion of him coming back to our hotel with us.
“C’mon Trace,” I instructed as I hooked my arm under hers and lifted her up off her bar stool. “The nice guitarist will be here tomorrow, and if you behave, I’ll bring you back then.”
Tracy was well and truly “under the influence’, both of the beer and good old-fashioned lust. I gently pulled her away from Kieran and steered her through the doors and out onto the street. As I looked at Maggie and the three Irishmen left remaining in the bar, I quietly muttered that I was sorry about the state she was in. I had no objection to her having a drink or a good time with lover boy, but it was a bit on the embarrassing side to have to prop her up when I was barely tipsy. You’d think that I was the older one of the two of us, not five years her junior.
As the saloon style doors swung shut behind me and the balmy evening air hit us, I could hear a man call after us.
“See you tomorrow?” he asked.
I smiled to myself. I recognised the voice instantly. It was Mickey’s.
Relative Strangers is available to download from Amazon and in paperback at Amazon, Createspace and Barnes and Noble.
It is also FREE this Saturday on Amazon for Kindle http://www.amazon.com/Relative-Strangers-Modern-Vampire-Sophie-ebook/dp/B00MRAZGK0/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1424682559&sr=8-1&keywords=relative+strangers+helen+treharne