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 travelers heading to Brussels and were fortunate enough to get through check in before the massive onslaught of budget airline travelers got to the queues. We barely had time to pick up a magazine and a 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 hurriedly got in a taxi so we could get to our budget hotel, drop our bags and start exploring.
We had already 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. I made a mental note to myself, as we ambled in and out of side streets, that I’d spent too much time working of late. I was feeling increasingly over scheduled these days, particularly in work. Trapped by the routine, rather than reassured by it, it crossed my mind that I could do with making a few changes to my life. I wasn’t sure what but moping over Kip would probably be a good start.
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 have a light lunch of fish and salad in a small cafe en route. She tried to encourage me to make a purchase, but I had already set a budget for myself for “treats” and there was nothing that met my rather strict criteria. Many of the adornments were too extravagant in design for me, and even more were over the price limit I had set myself. I could have dipped into my savings for a particularly nice piece but as nothing stood out to justify that, I thought the best option was to keep my credit card in my purse. Besides, none looked as pretty as the diamond engagement ring I wore on my right hand, the unassuming solitaire which had been left to me by granny.
By the end of the day I’d had such a pleasant time that I’d forgotten almost entirely about Kip, and had hardly checked my mobile phone for text messages or voicemails. 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 ahead and decided which of the many bars that we had seen on our travels appealed to us both.
We decided upon an Irish bar which we had seen which was just off the Grote Market and only a short walk from our hotel. Although we hadn’t gone into the premises in daylight, it looked to have been recently refurbished compared to the adjacent bars. An A -frame board outside advertised live bands and the entertainment looked very appealing.
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 diamante design on the chest; Tracy wore smart black trousers with a silky pale blue 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 which I’d stumbled across on a day trip to London and was well worn by the time it came to me. But the structured, yet soft, leather hugged my skin and made me feel less 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 could see that Tracy was in her element. The place was rammed although 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, knees brushing each other at every small moment. 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 where I placed my foot with every step.
It quickly became obvious what the draw was. A couple of feet in front of the moving mass of people ahead of me, I could just make out the top of someone’s head. As we managed to cajole and wind our way through the throng of people, I caught sight of a small stage area, probably no more than ten foot wide by six feet deep, which was home to a bar stool, a microphone, and a guy with an acoustic guitar. He was belting out a pretty decent performance of “The Irish Rover”, while the crown 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 almost thirty degrees outside”.
Tracy gave me an incredulous look, grabbed my hand and lurched forward through the crowd 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. As I ended up pressed against the bar, in front of her, I asked her what she wanted.
“When in Rome” she said.
She gestured to the tri-colour flag hanging above the optics.
“Guinness” she said, “You should have one too – keep your strength up!”
I was feeling worried. I’d learned from my nights out with Tracy that her idea of a good night 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 already packed, thereby discouraging any more customers to come in, I found that the bar itself started to get gradually quieter. People took their orders and returned to their seats once they were served. Others who weren’t lucky enough to have a seat at least got back from the bar and found a small corner or other space to stand in. They were obviously better at maneuvering this type of environment than I was.
Although there were still a few people still waiting to be served, I managed to catch the eye of the bar man. I mouthed the words ‘two Guinness please’, raised two digits in the air and pointing them in the direction of the appropriate pump. He responded with a wink and 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 couple of minutes, the barman proceeded taking others orders and I wondered where Tracy had disappeared to. She seemed to be taking rather 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 on to Tracy’s brunette topped head bobbing up and down at the front of the crowd. occasionally caught a flash of her face as people moved around her, dancing and jumping up and down at the change of each song. 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 bar man was 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 already?”
“Oh yeah” I said, shrugging my shoulders. “She’s just having fun.”
“And you’re not?” he asked, “That hurts”. He clutched the hand the damp bar towel to his chest. “Words can cut like a knife you know”.
He was smiling and I couldn’t help but smile 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. It wasn’t a band that I’d heard of but judging by the lettering and design on the front, it was some sort of rock group. He had an appealing kind of face, in a non-conventional sort of way – a love child of Rory Gallagher and Joaquin Phoenix if ever such a thing was possible.
“What can I say? I was miserable and then you came along”, I replied.
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 in still on the clock. Nice, safe, flirting; just what you need on the rebound.
He wiped his hands off on the towel and dropped in onto the counter at the rear of the bar.
“Micheal MacErlaine of County Derry”, he said, his hand still outstretched. “My friends call me Mickey”.
“Hey Mickey – what a pity you don’t understand”. I cringed. 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 almost 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 barely eighteen, was a little taller than Mickey and had a flame of red hair, which looked like it hadn’t seen the inside of proper hairdressers in a while.
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 the 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 watched him look at the younger man and saw a trace of a smile on his lips. Great, I thought, they’re gay, just my luck, there I was thinking that someone may find me vaguely attractive. I was about to give up hope on 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 both been in Antwerp for about four and a half months.
His brother, Sean, 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, said 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, as 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 on a few local building sites. 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 had to concede. Sean had put the proposal forward that he could find casual jobs as he travelled, which would finance the experience and 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 him, but he was happy to go and there was no point grumbling.
Mickey explained that he had graduated from Queens University in Belfast in the previous July which I guessed meant 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 a year off to travel with his brother, after all he’d always fancied doing some travelling at some pointed, now was a good a time as anyway. Plus it meant he could minimise 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 despatching of drinks orders. I discovered that, since the New Year, the MacKerlaine 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 onto Bruges (I made a quick comparison to Colin Farell when he mentioned this), but had stayed on when they were both offered jobs by the bars 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 allusions 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 suggested I was newly single and quite possibly vulnerable. The last thing I needed was some astute Lothario taking advantage of my recent dumping, or worse someone that I actually quite liked thinking I was desperate.
No brothers or sisters, very close to my mum, yes she still lives in Wales, a few distant relations left but most succumbed to old age or illness. 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 read she’ll do anything more than have a few cheeky drinks and a bit of harmless flirting.
Apart from the few occasions that Tracy briefly came over to put in her order, I barely 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. In passing, he 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 by my friend ditching me for the entertainment, 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 entertainment. 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 off his 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 and Tracy, pointing to a notice on the wall which said ‘Live Irish music tonight and tomorrow’. She gestured back with thumbs up.
“Looks like it, “I replied.
His face lit up, which I could tell made him feel a little embarrassed. I could feel heat starting to creep across my own 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 swallowed up by the floor a manic, middle aged woman lunged at me waving a Polaroid camera in my face. A 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”.
“That’s Maggie, she owns the place. She does that sometimes, you know, stakes 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 the awkward looking Polaroid of me, which she was already 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.
Clearly feeling pleased with herself, she flashed a huge grin at me and then did the same to Mickey, this time accompanied by an extremely conspicuous wink and nod in my direction.
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, and waiting for Tracy to remove herself from the guitarists’ face, where it had been firmly attached for the previous half hour.
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 suggesting that he stay on in the sofa rather than drive home. 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 suggested 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 towards the doors 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 almost 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?” it asked.
I smiled to myself. I recognised the voice instantly. It was Mickey’s.
- Relative Strangers – Extract 3 (helentreharne.wordpress.com)
- Relative Strangers – Extract 2 : Vampire guts were the last thing I expected to be wiping off my kitchen lino (helentreharne.wordpress.com)