A short story I wrote a year or two ago. I recently re-edited and posted on an old website. I’m moving it here because why not?
THE SMALL BAR wasn’t impressive, not even remotely. It was out of sight of the busy main street, around a corner next to a disused cinema, down a narrow, dingy alleyway, and down an even narrower stairway that had been worn down by the feet of many people over the previous centuries. The stairs were no longer smooth – they had not been used regularly for a very long time. It was a miracle that the bar was still open – very few people knew of its existence, let alone went there.
The door was easily missed. Black, flaking paint, it looked like any other old door, with what would have once been impressive, accented design on it now blending into the same part-glossy, part-matte texture. The handle was a remnant from another age, grand, ornate, but now the brass was a dark, ugly brown, a shadow of its former polished self.
The door flew open suddenly, and Tom ran in, gasping for breath. His head hurt, his lungs burned, and stars danced in front of his eyes. Stumbling across the room, he fell into a barstool clumsily, trying to let his racing heart settle. It didn’t.
His hair was out of place, and he ran his fingers through his black hair, moving it out of his left eye. He saw his reflection in the mirrored wall behind the bar. He had never had a striking face, but the slightly sweaty sheen on his face was not helping, and he quickly wiped it away with the sleeve of his hand-knitted jumper, before realising he was being stared at. The bartender appeared perplexed by his apparent rush, which was understandable – it was probably rare anyone came in here, let alone sprinting.
Tom looked around the room, cautious. Luckily, he was the only person here; the room was completely silent. For now, at least. Tom glanced at the door as lights flashed past, the distinct noise of tyres scathing through shallow puddles accompanying it. The sound faded, and he relaxed slightly. He wondered how a car could have squeezed its way down that alleyway – cars were considerably wider the size of the horse and carriages used back when this area was built up.
“Can I get anything for you?”
He jumped, almost falling off the barstool. Dangerously teetering, he managed to grab an old wooden pole and pull himself back to all four legs. A sliver of wood crumbled in the palm of his hand, peppering the concrete floor with dark-brown, almost black, flecks.
“Yes, could I have some water please?”
“Of course. What was the rush?”
“Oh,” he thought carefully, then responded quickly with a lie, “It was about to rain. I forgot my coat.” He smiled, the bartender eying him suspiciously.
“It’s Autumn now, you should know to bring your coat everywhere.”
“Yeah,” he replied, “Still getting into the swing of things, y’know?”
Mumbling in agreement, the bartender put a full glass of water down on the counter.
“Thanks,” Tom picked up the drink, took a sip, and put it back down. The water tasted slightly off, but that was Manchester these days. Not how it used to be. Everything seemed old, like the rest of the world had advanced and left it behind. 2016 had set in motion a terrible decade – they had developed technologically, but culturally they had reverted to the 1970’s. He wondered whether he would be here if that hadn’t happened.
Looking back around at the bar, he noticed the posters plastered on the wall. The old “Election Day” posters plastered in the middle of the assortment stood out. Tom laughed slightly, despite himself. There hadn’t been an election in a long time – in fact, most evidence that there had been elections was lost to time or destroyed, and he wondered why this place hadn’t been called up about it. An all-too-familiar face of an older woman stared coldly out at him from another poster, almost questioning his being here as if that were some crime in and of itself. The phrase “AN EFFECTIVE COUNTRY FOR ALL” blared loudly from underneath the face, drawing the eye. He shivered, feeling a sharp dagger of cold work its way down his spine. He could swear the temperature had dropped.
He took another sip of the water. It tasted ordinary now, and he chided himself for thinking it was off.
The door opened, letting in a cold draft, and a woman walked in. Tom tracked her position across from the door to the bar, where she talked quietly to the man at the bar. Ten seconds later, she walked away, and the bartender disappeared into the back.
She sat down slowly in the corner of the bar, took off her hat and coat, and laid them gently on the seat next to her. She glanced at him, and he quickly turned away. Too quickly. He had probably just told her that he knows she’s here for him, if indeed she was. He couldn’t leave now, not without arousing more suspicion. Not that it mattered.
He hadn’t told anyone about the work he was doing. He hadn’t even told his husband. Keeping it to himself seemed like the logical thing to do, as a secret is best hidden by one person, and even then, that’s likely to slip. What was the old line? “If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.” That was it. Tom supposed that there was a possibility he was ratted out about what he was doing, and the laws against anything detrimental to the government were harsh: accomplices get 35 years to life, and people like him? Death, if he was lucky.
It seemed he just may be lucky at this point.
He took another sip of the water, his mouth dry from the running he had done before. He was sweating slightly, which was odd, as the bar was cold. Even the wooden counter was cold beneath his slick hands. It had a rough finish as if it hadn’t been re-varnished in years.
A faint throbbing flashed into Tom’s head and stayed there. Strange, he could have sworn his headache had gone. Oh well, probably nothing. He was used to them by now. Taking down a government was hard, especially since the government revoked rights to the internet or anything that could be used to secretly communicate with anyone. Which always struck him as odd – a better idea would have been to take away people’s right to meet and talk to other people. Logically, you can track someone’s internet usage, store their data, their text messages. You can’t accurately monitor their speech and thought processes. But there’s only so much one can do to limit free speech without it becoming so obvious a blind man could see what they were doing.
He took another mouthful of water, kept it in his mouth for a few seconds, giving it a chance to stop his tongue feeling like sandpaper, and then swallowed it.
He looked at the staff door. The bartender still wasn’t back yet. Tom wondered what he was doing. Maybe getting the woman a drink, food, or something similar. Not that he personally cared for the man. It was what him not being here could signal that worried him.
He risked a glance at the woman, and her green-flecked eyes flitted away. That could mean…
No, she wouldn’t have waited. He was all right. He was the only person in the bar, it was understandable the only other moving thing in the room would draw attention. He laughed at himself for being so paranoid. The people after him weren’t the kind of individuals to wait – if they knew he was here, then he would already be dead.
The bartender emerged from the back room, carrying an overfull plate of delicious-looking, piping-hot chips. Steam traced the bartender’s movements, marking the space he had been just moments before, and curling up towards the ceiling, where it dispersed like it had never existed in the first place.
Starting to feel slightly ill, Tom finished the water and called the bartender back over.
“Hi, could I have a beer please?” he smiled politely.
“Of course. What kind?” the bartender looked at him and raised an eyebrow, prompting an answer.
“Erm… what would you recommend?” Tom had never been sure about beers – they weren’t really his drink.
“Harvest Ale is great at this time of year.”
“I’ll go for that then, please. I’ll just pop to the restroom while you sort that out if you don’t mind.”
The bartender nodded, and went about his work, which, admittedly, was only pouring drinks, but he made it look like a talent. It was queer to Tom that a talented bartender would be in such a terrible bar and not a more popular one.
He walked to the side of the bar, and followed the signs that said “TOILETS”. This area was not much prettier than the bar itself. The wallpaper, showing a dull, faded, pink-on-white floral pattern, was peeling in places, in some parts missing altogether. A single, flickering off-yellow strip light lit the corridor, casting the corners into almost impenetrable shadows.
Tom suddenly felt dizzy and put his hand out against the wall to steady himself. He closed his eyes, and waited for the moment to pass, before continuing towards the door marked as “MEN’S”. He closed the door and locked it, glad of the safety it offered. He leant over the toilet, the faint feeling of sickness resting in his stomach. It refused to move or leave, so he went about his business, unlocked the door, and left, his strangely heavy feet making for the bar area. He felt drowsy and wasn’t sure why, but a moment later, the feeling subsided to just a vague dullness.
The woman was still sat there, in exactly the same place. The only change appeared to be in the number of chips on the plate – about a quarter seemed to have disappeared. She ate fast, which surprised Tom – he had only been gone for a few minutes at most, and those looked like they would have been too hot when he left. He took the time to look at her properly. She was quite beautiful, with a very sharply angled chin, and prominent cheekbones. Very pale, as if she hadn’t been outside all summer, with large, dark-rimmed glasses contrasting her complexion. She turned towards him, their eyes meeting, and he smiled slightly, looked away.
The beer he had ordered was sat on the bar top, the foam slowly disappearing down into the glass, like an egg timer. He wondered what would happen when it all disappeared. Realistically, he knew that absolutely nothing would happen, but a gnawing fear in the back of his mind kept going, no matter how hard he tried to stop it.
Sitting down gently, he picked up the beer, the condensation on the glass cold against his palm. Every drop was a tiny, reflected version of his face, a million people were staring back out at him. He brought the glass to his lips and drank a long, large mouthful of the brown-gold liquid, the slight bitterness of the cold liquid calming his nerves slightly.
Yet another wave of dizziness hit him, this time harder. What the hell was wrong? He put the glass down too fast, and the beer sloshed over the side. Cursing, he got up to grab a napkin from the end of the bar. The barman watched him as he stumbled across to the holder, grabbing one of the thin pieces of paper from it, and then turned as Tom sat back down clumsily.
He hadn’t had too much to drink unless that water was tasteless vodka, which he doubted. Letting his head clear, he looked around and noticed that the woman in the corner was sat there, quietly, the same amount of chips on her plate. She had eaten the first quarter too quickly, and now wasn’t touching the rest. Interesting. Tom noted it silently and went back to his beer. The foam had almost completely disappeared now, and Tom’s previous fear came back. What if something happened when it had all gone? As before, he dismissed it, certain it was completely irrational, but still, the fear stayed.
I need to put my mind off it, he thought and rushed down the rest of the beer. The slight bitterness was perfect in the smallest of mouthfuls, but when rushed down, it tasted vile. He fought down the urge to be sick, and put down some money on the bench, ready to leave. The bartender said his farewell, and Tom muttered a reply just loud enough for the man to hear.
As he turned to leave, he noticed the woman getting up to leave too. Suddenly, his fears got the best of him. He ran for the door, slamming it behind him, and running up the stairs, tripping two or three times on the way to the top. He slammed his shoulder off a pole, sending a flash of pain through his left side, and continued to run down the narrow alley, kicking plastic bags and other miscellaneous rubbish aside as his feet slipped on the mossy layer. He rounded the corner, blinded by the sun-like light of the cars’ headlamps. Pausing and leaning against the wall of the cinema, he looked back down the way he had come. The woman was walking the opposite direction, towards a car park. He had almost hurt himself multiple times for no reason. Stupid.
His breath returning to him, he started walking calmly down the street. Apart from the cars, there was no one here. He was safe.
Then, another wave of dizziness hit him, this time so hard his vision went black for a moment, and when his sight returned, he was kneeling in the middle of the road, with a pair of white lights about three feet from him. They rushed forwards, hitting him, and sending him keeling over backwards.
Screeching brakes filled his ears, and he opened his eyes. His leg was at an odd angle. Broken. The pain would hit sometime soon.
But it never did.
The dizziness returned, clouding his vision. He couldn’t feel his extremities. He couldn’t move, he couldn’t breathe. He felt a rising panic, threatening to drown out every thought in his head. Then, every muscle in his body tensed, sending him into a fit, agony shooting through every single fibre of his body. His brain switched on and off, colours flashed in front of his unseeing eyes…
As suddenly as the fit had started, it stopped. His vision cleared, and he could see lights reflected off the tarmac, and tiny ripples as the rain began to fall. He tried to move and realised he couldn’t. He tried to speak, to get anyone to help, but his mouth refused to move. All that came out was a faint, pathetic hiss that slowly faded, leaving just the sound of car horns.
He noticed a pair of legs walk past his vision and stop, turning so that the body and head connected to them could see him. A hand reached into the pocket of the trousers, and took out a mobile phone, lifting it out of Tom’s vision. A minute later, the phone was returned, and the legs ran over, crouching down and revealing the rest of the person. It was the woman from the bar, moving his body, putting him into the recovery position.
“You’re going to be all right,” she said, slowly and clearly, “An ambulance is on its way.”
He stared, unable to do anything except blink. So he blinked in acknowledgement. He wasn’t sure if she saw him do it, but he couldn’t do much else.
The beer must have been spiked with some kind of drug. That was the only explanation there was. He trusted one person, and they were the one he should have been worried about. He was an idiot, not realising that. He shouldn’t have trusted anyone. Then again, if he hadn’t had a drink, the bartender would have found some other way to kill him.
But he wasn’t dead. The drug had paralysed him. Whether permanently or not, he didn’t know. He feared the former; that was the kind of thing the people who were after him did. They rarely murdered you. Torture, whether direct or indirect, was more their style.
Blue, flashing lights lit up the road and wall, and a minute later, the world moved, and he realised he had been rolled onto a stretcher. The sky was streaked with rain, falling straight down onto him, and he felt a pang of guilt. He hated this world, but that didn’t stop it being beautiful. And that image he saw in front of him, of the rain as thin lines falling around him, was undeniably beautiful, and he would never see it again. As the ambulance roof blocked his view, his vision clouded and blurred, and he realised he was crying.