Something caught his attention; he realized the bartender was talking about him to the girls down the bar. He looked up and half-smiled.
“I was just saying I don’t usually see you during the week,” said the bartender, and the dark-skinned girl – maybe she was Pakistani or Indian or something – smiled for him, a wide smile of perfectly white teeth. He smiled back, though the effort seemed insincere.
“Came in unexpected-like,” he replied, trying to conceal how intoxicated he was feeling. “Family business.”
“How’s your mom?” asked the bartender, expecting another bizarre tale. Before she was home ridden, Franklin’s mother was prone to wander away from the minimum-security wing of the asylum whenever someone failed to keep a watchful eye, and Franklin loved to weave a good yarn. “She’s hilarious. Listen to this guy.”
Franklin’s face fell. “She’s dead, mate,” he said. “The wake’s tomorrow.”
The bartender froze and stared at Franklin, waiting for a punch line that didn’t come. Then an uncomfortable look a realization crossed his face. “Oh Jesus, Frank. I’m so sorry.”
The girls stared at the bartender and the Englishman with open astonishment, not entirely sure how to react. The shorter, dark-skinned one broke into mortified laughter until her blonde friend elbowed her, and she fell awkwardly silent. Both girls gazed intently at their drinks, unable to meet anyone’s eyes.
“S’Alright, mate,” said Franklin, ignoring the outburst. “It ‘appens to the best. Things ‘ave jus’ been… complicated.”
“When, uh…” the bartender stammered. He fumbled with how to end his question, and finally gave up, repeating what he’d started to say. “When?”
“Monday night. I flew in two weeks ago,” Franklin said. “Got to see her before the end, you know. Guess she was waiting for me or… somefing.”
“Christ, Franklin,” said the bartender, trying to find the words. “How you holding up?”
Franklin was starting to feel a little uncomfortable with all the attention. His trip to the pub had been planned as an escape, but now he was disoriented and drunk and desperately wanted to disappear, to lie down and sleep until it was all over. He paused a moment before answering, trying to find the balance between honesty and tact. The girls nearby were clearly trying not to openly stare, and quickly looked elsewhere when Franklin cast a glance their way.
“I’ll be alright, mate. You know, someday.” The bartender nodded, his attention completely withdrawn from the young women nearby, who Franklin noticed were trying hard to disappear themselves. “Look, um… should be prolly be making my way.” He fumbled for his wallet, but the bartender stopped him with a dismissive wave.
“Tonight’s on me,” he said offering a handshake instead. Franklin accepted, grateful that his unwieldy hands were still steady after all the alcohol.
“Thanks.” Franklin stood slowly, glad he had walked instead of driving. “See you again.”
He felt their eyes follow him as he left, the sullen face of the bartender and the terrified faces of the two pretty girls.
Outside, the cold surprised him. He tugged his heavy coat around him as a gust of wind whipped past; the sky had turned as ominous grey and clouds were bearing down. The first few droplets of rain started to fall, and Franklin shuddered – not because of the cold and wet, but because for the first time he realized that life as he knew it had dropped out from under him, and it would be a long while before he stopped falling.
The halogen streetlights above him shimmered, and threatened to go out, and as Franklin trudged out into the street he noticed a beautiful blue convertible pull into the parking lot behind him. Franklin could not claim to be an expert on classic cars, but the vehicle was stunning nonetheless. And, Franklin noticed, behind the wheel was a strikingly beautiful woman as well. Long dark hair, big brown eyes. He couldn’t make out the other passenger. Franklin allowed himself a brief smile, and disappeared into the night.