Back In Town

The old man walked in through the open door of the Nightingale’s Song though the sign on it still said Closed and walked straight to the corner table that had room enough for a single chair and was largely ignored even when the place was in full swing, but as it was now empty, for him to take that chair would have a raised a few eyebrows but the only person present at this hour was the man who owned the place and he didn’t mind business specially if it came just as soon as it was time for him to open the place for the evening crowd. That the old man knew where to find this chair even in the far dark corner and knew exactly when the pub would open should have certainly come across as something that stood out, but the owner wasn’t thinking about it at all, despite the fact that the old man’s face didn’t belong to a local. Which only made the precision of his walk — both in terms of direction and the timing — even stranger. However the only reaction it got from the owner was a slow walk from behind the counter to where the old man sat and there he stood, waiting for an order. He didn’t bother with the menu as he knew about customers of that age and if they hadn’t yet picked their favourite drinks in life then they seldom walked into pubs like his.

“Dark rum with warm water.”

The owner nodded and turned away. He cursed himself for asking. What else would a man like that order and what kind of a bartender was he if he still had to ask? As a compensation for his own display of inadequacy, he poured him a generous measure and spiced the water with a few cloves. As he walked back to the table in the corner with the order and a bowl of peanuts, he saw the old man had dragged his chair to the other side of the table so that the entrance was now behind him. The owner had never thought the spot could get any lonelier than it already was. But he had just been proved wrong. The old man seemed to have shut himself from the world outside, and he was facing the sloping wall ahead that supported the ladder to the attic on its other side. The owner set down the tray and hovered about, unsure if a conversation was in order. The old man bent over his drink, sniffed the rum, saw the clove heads bobbing in the glass of warm water and nodded appreciatively. That encouraged the owner to say something.

“New to these parts?”

The old man smiled, and shrugged. Or was it that he had just then reached out for the water to mix in his rum and the action came across like shrug? The owner wasn’t sure. Which made things a little awkward, for it didn’t help him decide if he should still wait for an answer, or if he was supposed to utter the next word.

“Just the weather for a glass of rum, isn’t it?”

To this the old man gave a definite nod, one that carried not just an agreement, but an approval. And perhaps sensing that the owner had run out of opening gambits, he turned just a little towards him, took a sip and looked behind him at the road outside and the shops on the other side of it.

“There’s a lot that I could thank you and the rum for.”

The owner followed his gaze, and tried to glean something from that and his tone, for his words were not leading him anywhere. The shops across the road were the new ones that had come up in the last few years. They sold things that the place had not seen earlier. But the crowds that came to this place every summer to escape the heat seemed to like nothing better. Which the owner had initially thought odd, for these were the very things that they had left behind in the cities where they came from. Why come so far to eat and shop for things that you got back home? But that’s how it had been for some time. Even his own pub had suffered, but the locals gave him all the business he needed, and he knew ambition wouldn’t get him anywhere. The kind of things he had on his menu seldom appealed to the tourists, and the things that the shops on the other side of the road had things that the locals seldom had money for. So the road is effect was a good divide between the old and the new, or rather the locals and the tourists. The only thing they all shared was the easy summer under a mild sun. Other than that, every year they seemed to drift apart. The locals withdrew in what was theirs, and the tourists flocked to where things from their side of the country were stocked. The road was where they would brush past each other, but as their eyes were either turned towards the side that was to them just a curious world outside theirs, or to the one that was theirs, they seldom met each other’s and passed by without interacting or learning from the other.

Which is what made the entrance of this old man such a novelty for the owner, and even for the town.

“Are you trying to hide from someone?” The owner said it in a way that he could later claim was a question framed in jest, should the man take offence.

The man however smiled and took a big sip and nodded. He then gulped his drink down and asked for another one. The owner took the glass and walked away. The old man, as if steeled by the rum, took the chair back to its place under the sloping wall and resolutely faced the door and the road and the shops outside, most of which were closed with their owners back in the cities amidst the folk they lived with and had opened these places for.

“This place, wasn’t it called The Swan Song many, many years back?”

The owner stopped pouring out the rum when the heard the words after what was a long, long time. He again poured an extra serving into the glass, this time for bringing back old memories. So this man wasn’t completely unknown to these parts. Walking back, the owner, though at least twenty years younger than the visitor, felt a lot more warmth coming from that corner. Had it not been for the single-chair table, he would have fixed himself a drink and sat opposite him to continue the conversation. The people who normally frequented this place were never given to discussions. They came for their drinks with their chosen company and their conversations and if he wanted to could be a part of it but at some point he would have to get off and walk away to another group with their own conversations, never being around for long enough to contribute or take away from any one of these. The groups were mostly hidden in their own clouds of smoke, creating their bubbles of personal space that he and his helper hovered about brings drinks, peanuts and their bills and change. The name outside had once hoped to bring in a better crowd, and better business. But that was just a blind spot, one that the people inside didn’t care for, and those who did look at the faded words and the faded image of the nightingale about to take flight would see it as a sign of services and goods that were equally dated and would walk past.

The name had stood for over a decade now. Maybe longer. The owner had inherited the place and the new name from his father. But the other name that the old man had just brought up must have been at least twenty years old, or even more. For between the time the board outside read The Swan Song to when it was freshly painted as The Nightingale’s Song, there was a decade-long history of this place that lay locked in mystery. For that period the doors of this pub had remained shut as the interiors lay burned and charred because of a sudden fire, during which time the doors had been knocked off by some vagrants to sleep in till the current owner’s father had bought it from someone and resumed the services it had offered earlier. The owner’s father had said at the opening ceremony that The Swan Song had been a part of his growing up, and he owed it to the place to bring it back to life. That he was actually doing it for his son who had failed at doing much with his life or with his father’s savings, and that he had changed the name thinking it had brought bad luck to the previous owner wasn’t something he would admit to, even to himself. Soon after, the owner’s father passed away after handing the business over to his son, and the rich people never came back to the place after the opening ceremony to which they had been invited, for the place had equally been a part of their growing up too. The Nightingale’s Song didn’t take long to become a haunt for people who measured their drinks in the amount they saved had they had them elsewhere. Leaving the man with just enough to refill his stocks and leaving the sign outside unpainted.

But this old man was a pleasant change. Other than the promise of conversations and business, he also brought with him a chance of reviving something of the old.

“Did you visit this place when it was called The Swan Song?”

The man leaned back, now looking straight at the road and the shops outside. The evening was bringing back a few people from their offices and it wouldn’t be long before some of them turned towards the door, and the owner would be away serving them, and the old man would have to drag his chair back to facing the wall. They both seemed to sense it, and that brought a sense of urgency to their conversation.

“The Swan Song was part of my growing up.”

The long shadows that the sun managed to throw inside the pub from behind the shops that had obstructed what was earlier a clear view of the valley, the stillness of the room and the slight stirring of life outside, were a perfect backdrop for what the owner was feeling now. He looked at the man closely, and not without a little fear. Was it father who had come back from the dead? And even as he thought this, his bigger fear was not of the supernatural, but of what he would have to say about the state his last investment was in.

“But so it was for a lot of people my age.”

The man was living in another time now. His eyes were half shut, his shoulders relaxed and his drink forgotten. And the owner was back to breathing normally, having decided that even if this man was a ghost, it was certainly not his father’s. His father wouldn’t have ordered a rum. And before he would have ordered his favourite brand of Scotch, he would have found a million problems with the way he was running the place. And the owner would have had agreed with most of them.

“I was posted here as a doctor in the Civil Hospital. Did it reopen too?” Unlike the beginning of the sentence, this question was pointed directly at him. The old man was alert, stiff and even sounded like he was threatening the owner when he asked him. And he had asked if it had reopened too, so he did know that the Swan Song had shut down and then had reopened.

“No, the hospital never recovered from the fire. It was destroyed beyond hope. Were you there when that happened?”

The old man nodded. And then smiled. And then he reached out for his glass and took a sip, and then another.

“I was there. But that was in my last week. I had been transferred to another location.”

Logically, there was no reason for the conversation to continue. They could have picked up another thread, spoken about the state of business, about the shift in weather, about the time he was here last. He could have asked when the name was changed, and perhaps said a thing or two about how else the place had changed. But it seemed that the man had a lot more to say on the subject. He was playing with his drink, turning his glass around, and in between taking small sips. Eventually, he seemed to have made up his mind about something. He looked up at him straight and spoke.

“I first came here as a young man of around 25. I was a young doctor, and I could have chosen to work in a big hospital in a big city. I could have chosen foreign postings. But I chose this place. In those days, when even these tourists hadn’t cared for its charms. And for more than twenty years I lived my life between these people, expecting nothing more than a few friends in return for my services.”

The man’s mood seemed to have borrowed the hue of his dark rum. Or it must have been the sun’s withdrawal from the pub, and the shadows outside that made the owner feel a little shiver pass over him. He was still lacking other customers and had no excuse to walk away now. He would have felt safer if he could have. Felt even more so if there were more people here now. The old man in his tweed coat, his muffler, and thick specs was harmless to look at. And what could a man take from him? Other than not pay for the drinks? Still, the way the man spoke now, sometimes to him, at times to himself. And between it all, sipping at his drink. Never big or fast enough that would drain his glass and lose his audience to the act of refilling it. If the owner had been a student of performing arts, he would have known that the old man was preserving the atmosphere.

“Twenty years I was here. And then I got transferred to the city. The place I had said no to. The life I had refused. But this place that I had adopted, it never adopted me back. It let me go. There were tears, yes. Words of farewell. Gifts and promises. But I was never like family. Though I had called this place home.”

He paused, took a sip, and said, “They simply found another doctor.”

The owner’s feelings changed from fear to sympathy. From wanting to escape, he now wanted to reach out and put his hand on the old man’s shoulder, comfort him. Make him feel that he had come back home. But the old man shrugged, as if already shaking off his hand before he could put it there. And he steeled himself, like a man betrayed, his voice dropping even low while giving the feeling that it had in reality risen several pitches higher.

“For over twenty years the Civil Hospital and The Swan Song were my life. And then I was told to give it all up.”

The old man suddenly slumped down in his chair, and the only movement he made was to pick up the glass, drain it, and hold it out for another one.

“I suggest you shut you place for today. I don’t think you will lose much if customers don’t come in today. But I will make it up to you. More than you would otherwise make.”

It wasn’t the offer of money that made the owner rush towards the door just as two men were walking in. Instead, it was a strange sense of something bad that could happen to them if they walked in now. The old man was looking at them from under his eyes, and saw the owner speaking to the two, and the two then looking towards him, and then walking out. The owner shut the door behind them. His helper never came in on Mondays, so that was that then. The two men, one man’s anguish and the other man’s switching feelings. He walked over to the where the bottle of rum sat and carried it to the old man, not bothering with the hot water.

“I was in love once. At my medical college.”

The old man had started speaking even before the owner reached him with his drink and had started pouring out the drink. He wasn’t even measuring it now. He knew the night would end in a way that it wouldn’t really matter.

“But she walked away from me when I gave up those fancy offers and a great future for this place that I had fallen in love with when I had come here as a young school boy on a school trip. And then, after giving it twenty years, I was told to go away.”

He took a sip, having mixed it with the remaining water that had long turned tepid.

“So I did. But before I was to go away for good, I had to make arrangements for my stay in my new station. So the first time I left, it was only for a short while. And when I returned after a week, I saw the Civil Hospital under a new doctor working like I had never went away. Like I was never here. People saw me, people greeted me, people invited me over to their houses for a drink and dinner. But at the hospital, the new doctor was to them everything that I had been for so long.”

“That evening I walked over to this place. To The Swan Song. And I took up this corner long before others walked in and sat here under my own cloud of smoke and saw the familiar faces filing in. The office clerk whose three children were all brought into this world under my watch. The merchant who had come to me with the secret diseases he had picked up on his trip to the city. The school teacher who walked with me every morning as both our places of work were on the same road. And many, many more. They all sat down in our familiar places, my old place taken up by one of us. They ordered their drinks and their snacks and yes, from here I heard them talking about me, missing me. But did it change anything? No. they lived their lives like I never left. Like I was never here. And then that chief of the electricity board, he walked in too. With the new doctor.”

The owner was beginning to understand him now. He had never left this place. He hadn’t come from elsewhere. He had never understood how people who came and went felt. He had a family, part of which was dead, and another part that was growing up. The place was a constant that he often dreamt of escaping, but it was all he had. He had never sat alone in a corner seeing it continue without him. But he was beginning to understand. He was also starting to see how an old man changed from taking small, decent sips to suddenly throwing back his head and gulping it all down like his worst customers who had to be asked to pay in advance.

“And then, look at how things turned out. The people I left everything for may have had no problem carrying on without me. But these structures, these places that have no life, no feelings, these wouldn’t.”

He was now looking straight at the owner, almost challenging him to find a fault with that.

“Both the places burned down within a week from the day I was to leave.”

He had tears in his eyes now. As if to hide them, he looked away. But soon he was back at looking at the owner.

“But then you opened this place again. You brought those people back.”

The owner felt he was being physically pushed across the room. And even as he was moving his arms behind his back to look for a chair or a table to support himself, he found himself cursing his father for burdening him with a place that had been a part of his growing up. Why was he having to defend his father’s attempt at preserving something that he, the son, never cared for? If anything, he had only grown up hating it. The place was where his mother would send him as a small child to look for his father, and he would see him amidst many like him, speaking obscene words, making filthy gestures, and he would remember how his eyes would lose their humour and turn cold at the sight of him. And how he would run back, alone and cold, knowing that he had passed on the message without saying anything and that when his father returned home it would be to use the same words on his mother. He had his own reasons for asking his father why had he opened this place again. Why had he brought back those same people saying the same words. But here he was having to defend himself against this old man who had slowly risen up from his seat and was now holding the bottle in his hand.

“And did you not wonder how both the places burned down within a week, and without a cause?”

It was only a small part of the owner’s brain that had registered that the old man wasn’t holding the bottle like a drunk wanting to make sure that he lost not even a single drop of the precious drink to the world swaying about him. He was more concerned about the smaller things. Things like calculating the cost of the rum he had served. Wondering if the customers would come in if he was to open the door right now. But that small part of his brain saw the bottle was held upside down and the dark amber liquid was slowly spreading out like a puddle around the old man’s feet and on the wooden floor and had now reached his own shoes and all he was thinking was if the old man would pay for the entire bottle or for just what he had drunk.

And then, for an instance, the place lit up like a huge torch, though the spark he had seen was only a small flicker on top of the matchstick that the old man had lit. And all that the owner could think was that the old man didn’t have a cigarette between his lips and if should find one for him.

When the matchstick dropped on the floor and the flames leapt up eagerly feeding on the dark rum and the wooden floors and the furniture, the owner didn’t hear his own screams or the old man’s.

All he heard were the words he had heard a little while back.

“Why did you open this place? Why did you let these people back in?”

And the last thing he remembered wondering was if the voice was his, or the old man’s.

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