Mark came through the rain towards the pub, its door still open at eleven o’clock. The straps of his backpack had started to cut his shoulders, but he was more or less dry and that was something. The hallway of the pub was covered in thick, damp carpet, smelling of rain. Edwardian families looked out from the walls, suspended above vintage furniture, and a string of Christmas lights led through the corridor and down a small flight of stairs, to where a bigger light shone. Mark went on, towards it.
There were just a few other people inside, spread around a table at the back. A bell and a voice calling last orders rang out in unison. Mark went to the bar and sat on a stool, throwing his backpack down. He ordered a cheap, blended whisky, double, and gulped it.
“You’ve got time yet, fella. No rush.”
The barman was young and bearded. Mark took a few pound coins from his backpack and held them a moment before handing them over. Behind the barman a girl in a strappy top was cashing up. You could see part of a tattoo showing between her straps, the feathers of a bird. Mark tried to look at his drink. The barman came back with his change, before taking a cloth and starting to wipe the bar down. Mark palmed the silvery coins, tracing their patterns with his thumb.
“Shit night,” said the barman. “You just back from somewhere?”
Mark faltered, caught off-guard.
“The backpack,” said the barman.
“Oh – yeah… been travelling.” And then, still unsteady, but thinking he ought to add something – “I just got back, a couple of hours ago. Total mission, I needed the drink”.
The girl in the strappy top lifted a platter of untouched scotch eggs and a plate of sausage rolls from the side of the bar and went off through a darkened door. Carefully, discreetly, Mark watched her going.
“Where’ve you been?” the barman asked, and Mark started, feeling like a child standing in front of other children. Still, neither the barman nor the girl seemed in any great rush to lock up and get out, and the people at the back looked relaxed enough, their glasses almost full, their pace unhurried. It’d been awhile since he’d spoken to anyone. Maybe there’d be a free drink in it. Tentatively, he began: “Well– ”
Then they were talking about New Zealand, and Mark was doing well. The impersonal exchange of currency had been a mile-marker, and now they’d moved past it into the denser terrain of shared experience, both ambling amiably. The barman had been to New Zealand. He said that the South Island was better than the North, and Mark agreed. Wellington was a cool town, though. Was Mark into coffee? No, Mark wasn’t much into coffee. What about the bars? Mark preferred the bars. That little boho place just off the harbour, what was it called? But Mark had been down south mostly. It was beautiful there, in the mountains. The barman showed Mark a greenstone pendant, hanging solemn and deliberate from his neck. The jade had come straight out of a river in Greymouth – had Mark been through Greymouth?
“Yeah… yeah, I was there a few nights”.
The barman loved it there. The river was the same blue kids use to colour rivers in. Mark agreed with suitable effusion, and told him he’d swam in that river every morning the few days he was there.
Little fires of recognition were being kindled. The barman’s hands were moving quickly, as if scorched by them. Mark was doing alright. Content enough to listen, he was nonetheless reaching for things that might keep his teller happy, but which might also contain something final, a severing point. He couldn’t go much further.
The barman loved it there. The river was the same blue kids use to colour rivers in.
The barman was saying something meaningful about cities being too full when the people from the back brought their glasses to the bar.
“Cheers, Steve,” one of them said, throwing out his arm in an aimless, looping salute. “You coming to Dan’s on Saturday?”
The barman broke away from Mark, who pulled gratefully on his whisky. He was rubbing his closed eyelids when another voice came gently through the darkness.
“Did you get to Oz?”
The girl in the strappy top was facing him for the first time.
“… sorry?” Mark faltered, his confidence wobbling. What he’d managed until now had taken him to another hemisphere, a place far across the sea. ‘Oz’ had a more magical ring, but of course he knew it was a neighbouring headland, from which he now sat staring into the bigger, stranger country, but also at a girl whose top made a show of the red lace beneath it, and whose mouth was glossy and smiling. It was probably best to go no further. Mark readied himself to go on.
The barman Steve had moved on, too, and was wiping down the tables at the back of the room, a column of empties stacked artfully in the crook of his arm.
“Australia,” the girl said.
Australia, yes, but it was so big a place, so much of it to cover. What was the name of the beach the backpackers really liked? And the great rock that stood somewhere in the middle, surrounded by nothing? Melbourne was full of street art and Sydney had its harbour, its bridge, its opera house, but he was just scratching the surface with those things, there’d be much more he’d have to get around. What if he went another route, though? Took what he could get? Catching a stutter, Mark tried his voice again,
“Australia, right… is that where you got your tattoo?”
If she had sensed his ploy, the girl didn’t let on. Simply, immediately, as if it were something she was used to offering, she turned around and brought her arms across her body, catching the hem of her top in her fingers.
“This? No,” she said, moving the top to her shoulders, as casually as she might have skimmed the head from a pint. “This I got in Mexico, last year.”
The muscles in her back tautened as she held her top in place. Mark looked. Her skin was beautiful. Painted upon it in bright greens and blues, plumed around a brilliant red breast, the bird showed itself in full. Mark followed its long tail feathers down to the beltline, then moved back to where its wings touched shoulder blades. The bird was caught mid-flight in a sky of skin. Against the drabness of its surroundings it flew like petals from a pavement, lifted by the pull of passing cars.
“It’s a quetzal,” she said. “National bird of Guatemala, but you see them in Mexico. I used to see them all the time”.
Quetzal. Quet-zal. A name from a children’s book. Mark let it sound out in his head, silently mouthing the little click in its middle. It was a magic bird, perched just the other side of a hidden valley, promising something long withheld.
“It’s… great,” Mark said. “Nicely done, the details”. His disinterest was probably too forced, but he didn’t think she’d noticed. At least, if she had, it was the sort of exchange to which she was basically inured. “Did it take long?”
“Five hours,” she said. “I just lay there the whole time, one long go. It was good, actually, I was sort of up for it, the ritual. Didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would. Almost like a tickle.”
The bird was caught mid-flight in a sky of skin. Against the drabness of its surroundings it flew like petals from a pavement, lifted by the pull of passing cars.
Then she turned around to face Mark, and as his eyes caught hers it felt as if he were coming out of a trance. He thought he wouldn’t linger much longer. They were closing soon, and his drink was dwindling.
He was about to make his excuses when the girl spoke again.
“Have you been there? To Mexico?”
In the bathroom, Mark pissed gratefully. He stared up at the cistern block, covered with stickers from teen bands and local activists, and tried not to think about the girl, her back, her bird tattoo. Steam rose from the porcelain trough. It was time to get it together now, time to see about doing this.
He washed his hands, splashed a little water on his face and went over to the window. Unfastening it from its latch, he pushed it open and looked out at a plain, grey alley, leading up to a wooden fence on the main street. Squalls of rain were picked out in the glare of one streetlight. There were a few bins clustered around a drainpipe, and bits of wet rubbish matted to the floor, a newspaper amongst them, its pages lifting now and then in the wind.
The window opened outwards, which was good. Mark ran his hands around its frame. Then he reached for his coat pocket and took out a piece of metal wire with a curve at one end, an old coathanger he’d found, unwound and clipped. He turned on the hand dryer, which made a loud, long roar. Positioning the wire in the corner of the window frame, so that the curved part stuck out into the alley, Mark pulled the window closed upon it, replacing the latch, so that the wire was just beneath. He then bent the wire upwards around the latch and stood back. It was surely inconspicuous enough. You come in and lock the doors and if the window’s already closed you just leave it. They only wanted to go at this point, anyway. That was their priority, a cursory glance, lock the doors, home. No great operation, shutting down a pub.
He stood in front of the mirror. His stubble was dirty, his jeans and coat were dirty. There were lines on his face which he didn’t think had been there the last time he’d looked. The older lines were there as ever. He pulled at the skin below his left eye and lingered a moment.
Just the girl was left at the bar. Mark approached solemnly.
“Mark,” he said, offering a limp hand. “Nice talking”.
“Georgia,” she said, and gave her hand. A number? An email address?
“Well… good night,” he said.
“Night, mister,” said Georgia.
Mark took his backpack and zipped his coat, went back up the Christmas-lit stairs, past the watchful Edwardians and out into the rain. He made for the bus stop over the road and sat there, coughing a dry, nervous cough.
Twenty minutes passed, and then Mark saw what he wanted. The girl in the strappy top, Georgia, now wearing a raincoat, came out of the pub door and locked it behind her. She tried it with her palms to make sure, and then walked up the main road, turned left and went down a street lined with smart, comfortable houses. Mark watched her go, dissolving into the rain.
It was easy to climb the fence into the alley, but there was no guarantee the window would work. Mark pushed past the bins and found the upturned coat hanger sticking out of the frame. He took it in his palm and began to jerk it around in awkward convulsions, yanking the wire up against the latch on the other side. He could feel it gaining purchase against the thicker metal of the latch, but slowly, stubbornly. He struck the wire more decisively, moving it in sharp, violent volleys. Soon he was frantic, but it was no more than three minutes before he’d levered the latch from its cradle, allowing him to pull back on the wire, opening the window out wide into the alley.
He pushed his backpack through first, then started to pull himself up off the concrete and through the window frame. The entrance he had made for himself was narrow and the metal scraped his sides as he struggled against it. His body was now perfectly bisected by the window, half inside, half out. Anyone looking through a hole in the fence would have seen two legs in mid-air like the tail of a fish, or a scene from an old cartoon where a cannon misfires, shooting the villain into a wall. Mark had watched cartoons when he was a kid, at his parents’ house, endless cartoons on Saturday mornings, tousled in pillows and duvets with brightly coloured prints. As he climbed into the pub, the memory cut him for a moment and was gone with the next pull.
He wrenched the last of himself through and fell over the sink and onto the tiles with a few dull thuds. He stood up, shaking, then went to the mirror. There was a redness and some slight scraping, crowning the new ache where he’d landed. He splashed water onto his red body and again onto his face, loading great draughts of it into his mouth, drinking and drinking. When he’d taken his fill, appetite found him, and he remembered the door through which Georgia had vanished earlier. He knew he was alone, but still he went cautiously.
With its wood and stone and shining glasses, the room stood like an empty church. Mark was still a moment, before making for the darkened door, which led to a small kitchen. In the fridge he found the scotch eggs and sausage rolls, pickles and a tomato, and devoured them. He found cold chips in the bin. He knew better than to be discerning.
Then he went back into the bar, and through to the bathroom, where his backpack was. The clock above the door said it was quarter past one. That was enough. That would do him fine. He’d sold his mobile ages ago, so there was no alarm to wake him, but no-one would be back here until at least midday, so he should have plenty of time. At worst, he’d hear them unlocking the big door and have time to run before they made it downstairs.
In the warm barroom, Mark took a cloth cap from his backpack, then reached deeper and took out a ragged sleeping bag. He lay this out across the parquet floor, positioning the cap at the end where a pillow would go. Then he reached into a separate pouch and took out the last of his coins. Two-fifty or so. He thought of Georgia and her bare skin as he got into the sleeping bag, then reached down to his groin before thinking better of it. Just sleep now, then the morning.
He felt a huge, cumulative weariness fall upon him as his head met the cap and he lay breathing in the half-lit room. Before he fell asleep he saw the quetzal bird flying above, making brilliant spirals, and he thought dreamily about cold, still rivers, and a bright crayon-blue that doesn’t exist outside colouring books, until it does.
Then he thought about Mexico, wondering what it would be like to go there, and how there were places left in the world where you couldn’t even drink the water.
Jack Harris studied English Literature at Oxford, then moved to London, where he still lives. He is also a critically acclaimed musician, having released three albums of original songs. He is on Twitter at @jharrisfolk.