When John saw brown paper parcels being smuggled every night into the pub by the customers who then shared them out between them, he wondered if this could be anything to do with the Government’s recent measures against the private buying and selling of human organs for backstreet transplant operations. He surmised that there would now be a black market in them and he expected at any moment to see blood dripping from the ill-fastened wrappings. There’s no smoke without fire. No subject without object.

But he had unaccountable thoughts all the time, so he shrugged it off and continued sipping at his beer – far too small to contain a cello, too light for an old television, but maybe just right for a bucket. Too big for a Black Sabbath single or a pair of nutcrackers — unless it was a parcel for the start of a pass-the-parcel game….

But, then, suddenly, a parcel was dropped in his lap by a large figure of a man who just passed in the crowd without a word.

He merely sat and stared at it, not even daring to feel it. He left it on the seat where no doubt a bomb warning would result.

Back in the flat, he stewed over the incident. It may have been valuable, or something that could have established the meaning of life itself. The crazy idea about human organs did not hold water. It had been the drink thinking.

The next evening, John returned to the pub, heart in his mouth (as they say), wondering whether there would be any repercussions.

“Oi! You left your specimen ‘ere last night.” It was the short-arse landlord seemingly shouting at John, handing over a disheveled parcel from under the bar, miming its stench. However, John was not the sort of regular whom anybody recognised or welcomed with a friendly “Hiya, Arsehole, how yer jiggerin’?” He was a non-entity. A solitary drinker. One who could never summon the wherewithal to strike up an exchange of small talk with complete strangers.

When was a stranger not a stranger? He’d seen many of the faces in that pub for years now. He’d overheard the tribulations of their life histories, the ins and outs of their business or marriage, the vicarious football expertise, the ludicrous sayings that emanate from typical pub-talk, even the political and religious debates, debates that foundered on thr shifting sands of misaligned prejudices, debates which often ensued in public bars. He felt he knew these other people better than he knew himself. But none of them knew him at all. He expected they wondered what a lacklustre individual like John did with his life. None of them broke the ice. He may as well have been dead (or never born) as far as they were concerned.

Except there was sometimes a lady who also seemed to be a solitary drinker. There were not many of her breed. A matinée idol’s fan from a wet afternoon’s cinema-going. She would quite often look up from the surface of her drink and, John suspected, half-smile at him. But he never smiled back, in case it was not intended for him. He couldn’t smile, in fact. His mouth was set in a thin line which he could not bring himself to change. It would have been tantamount to admitting that he was kith and kin to the parcel-smuggling customers and wanted their company. Strange, he never questioned why he went to the Rocking Horse pub in the first place.

John’s semi-heated conversation with the landlord about a parcel had seemed to tail off into confusing pub talk that had no direct bearing on either of them.

Meanwhile, John saw the solitary lady sitting in the corner. But now she was exchanging some sort of small or big talk with a foreign gentleman. They both seemed deep in set routines of talk that excluded all else. Suddenly, she seemed to use something to peer at John, and the foreign gentleman looked up to follow the direction of her mysterious viewfinder. Meanwhile, she seemed to mime a gentle sawing motion with her other hand at roughly waist height.

John blushed. He got up to leave, his beer only half-finished. But there was an ugly incident at the door. So he sat down again. Then got up only to have third thoughts…

He must have looked silly, bobbing up and down, bobbing up and down like that, as if he were silently singing along as part of an imaginary Works coach-outing.

The parcels were still being passed around – more than he could ever recall on previous occasions. Even the titchy landlord was a recipient of one.

When people look back on life’s matters, they usually have a good grasp of their own personalities and motives. But, here John was quite mysterious even to his own thoughts. He knew more about the pub regulars than he did about himself. He may even have known more about those others than they did about themselves, which is another mystery. So, yes, he could describe every one in detail, down to their last dream. He was the inscrutable one, the intangible element in an otherwise quite understandable scene. If he could just get to the bottom of himself or, at least, round to the back…

He shook himself vigorously and, braving the off-stage fracas at the door, he left for the loneliness of his flat. Not that he was less lonely in the pub.

One Sunday evening, months later, he stirred and decided gratuitously to go to a pub other than the Rocking Horse. He wrapped up the black pudding he was planning to have in a mixed grill for supper and took it with him. He hoped, for the first time in his life, that an action he was about to take would break the ice and create small or pub talk of his very own which others could share. But he kept the parcel in his carrier bag, never daring to take it out because, of all the evenings he could have chosen at random, he recognised several of the Rocking Horse regulars who were here visiting the Garden Swing Inn, apparently, to witness a needle match between the two pubs in a darts competition. One regular was already sighting along the barrel of his dart, the other eye squinting at the circularly numbered cork board….

Many in the crowd had brought parcels which they proceeded to pass round.

John left pronto, along with his parcel, desperately glad that it had not got mixed up with the others. He noticed a bucket in the corner by the door full of what looked like large splinters of wood, tangled wire and broken glass. So typical of Public Bars in those days.

He was unaccountably sad that the lady had not been there. But she may have been. He supposed she could have been in the parcels.


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