Department of English and Modern Languages

  • English
  • The Walls Have Ears

    by Clara Gibson

    A clock ticks softly high up on the wall, as the soothing music of Ella Fitzgerald plays out across the room. A gentle dripping of a tap can be heard splashing onto one of the drip trays behind the polished yet over worn bar. The soft chuckling of one of the staff can easily be heard as she flicks noisily through The Independent at the rear end of the bar. Outside, a father on his phone speaks loudly to his wife on the other side of the world, a baby stirs as her pram brushes against the curb of the cobbled pavement, a flurry of pigeons flap their wings and fly manically as a group of children run towards them, screaming with laughter. Funny the things one can hear when you really listen.

    Sybil and Doreen roll their eyes at one another as they notice the chipped tiles on the floor.

    ‘A health and safety hazard, that,’ Doreen states loudly as she makes a point of walking over to the other side of the room, her eyes burning into the back of the bar staff’s heads. Sybil skims her eyes over the to their usual spot, smiling briefly to herself and then to Doreen as they both see that no youths have stolen it for themselves, unlike what happened on their last catch up in the December prior. Fortunately, today the bar is empty, being twelve o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon, other than the incompetent bar staff of course. They stroll purposefully over to the bar and pretend to look at the menu, despite both knowing exactly what they are going to order.

    ‘Yes, I’ll have the quiche,’ Doreen exclaims defiantly after some time, shutting the menu quickly for emphasis. ‘Excellent decision Doreen. The same for me, I think,’ Sybil retorts back as her unsteady hand causes her to drop the menu onto the other side of the bar.

    ‘Not too over done this time please,’ Doreen quickly explains to the barmaid, who is currently pouring their usual non-alcoholic ginger beer into their readily prepared chilled glasses with one ice cube in each. ‘It was much too over done the last time we ventured here. It was ever so painful on poor Sybil’s dentures.’ The barmaid nods and smiles, bends down to pick up the ignored dropped menu and puts their drinks down just that little bit too heavily onto the bar. ‘If the quiche was anymore underdone,’ the bar maid thinks to herself, ‘it would be bloody raw!’

    Sybil and Doreen pay the young blonde barmaid, in the highly inappropriate clothing for twelve o clock on a Tuesday afternoon, and make their way over to their table in the corner; Sybil slightly lagging behind as she desperately tries to steady the drink in her hand. Doreen had recently given up offering to help Sybil as any time anyone tried, Sybil would shoot daggers into the back of their head. ‘Not literal daggers of course, don’t be ridiculous,’ Doreen would explain. Sybil had a knack of saying thank you with her mouth and quite the opposite with her eyes. She was a lost cause in Doreen’s opinion, far too much pride if you asked Doreen. Nevertheless, Doreen understood. She understood absolutely everything about Sybil: why Sybil loved to sit on the broken wooden bench in the children’s skate park and moan every time one of the youths got far too near for her liking, why Sybil despised Lady Di and yet had worshipped the ground Maggie Thatcher had walked on and even why Sybil was afraid every single morning when she woke up, sometimes so paralysed with fear that she would stay there all day, unable to move until Doreen would come and sit by her side, with a cup of Earl Grey tea and tell her everything was going to be okay. Doreen may not have agreed with all of Sybil’s opinions and preferences and yet, she understood. It was the silences that spoke to Doreen; the speechless conversations the two of them would have together, when all their disapprovals and irritations about the world around them had been voiced. It was the little glint in Sybil’s eyes, the slight twitch in her lower lip, or even how she would strum her unsteady fingers across the wobbly wooden table that spoke to Doreen in a way that Sybil’s words could not. That was friendship, for you; forty years of chipped tiles, ginger beer, quiche and whispered disapproval. They could not be happier.

    ‘Daaaaaad, I thought we were going shopping!’ Rosie sulks as she follows reluctantly behind her father who walks at his usual weird fast pace that he always uses when he’s thirsty.

    ‘A pint of Stowford Press and a J20 please, sweetheart,’ her Dad requests, skimming his eyes over to the rear end of the blonde bar maid and impatiently strumming his fingers along the side of the marked wooden bar. Rosie leans onto the bar next to her Dad and sighs ostentatiously in annoyance.

    Despite Rosie’s moaning, Rosie did secretly feel quite grown up spending her time in a bar. If only the girls in the year above could see her though. Then she wouldn’t even have to go shopping to get that new handbag like Sophie Robertson’s in year ten. She’d already be cool; but they wouldn’t see her. She was just here, alone, with her Dad – the same as every Saturday when Rosie’s Dad looked after her for the weekend.

    Rosie hears a loud ‘tut’ behind her and turns round to see two elderly women staring at her disapprovingly as they walk towards the doors of the pub. Rosie sticks her tongue out at them, regretting that decision instantly as she sees the looks on their faces. She turns back to face the bar, guiltily. They must be almost as old as the Queen, Rosie reckons.

    Rosie wonders what her Mum is doing as she sits down at the table by the television, waiting for her Dad to bring the drinks over. She glances at the clock, ticking away on the wall behind her; three o clock. Mum would probably still be out for lunch with her new friend Steve. Steve was nice, he was always telling Rosie rude jokes, and some were so rude Rosie had to even promise Steve she wouldn’t tell her Mum about them! Mum and Steve probably would have taken Rosie shopping; they never get as thirsty as her Dad does. He is a very thirsty man these days, which is quite surprising considering he doesn’t really move around that much. Poor Dad.

    Rosie’s father always takes forever at the bar. He always talks to the nice, smiley blonde bar maid with the big boobs, for ages. Maybe it’s because she always looks so happy. Rosie hasn’t seen her Dad look happy in a long time. She pulls out her phone to play the new game that Steve has shown her how to play, as she waits impatiently for her Dad to finish his first drink and then order another one, the same as he always does, before making his way over to his daughter.

    ‘So, how’s your mother doing?’ Rosie’s Dad asks, sitting down, as he pulls out The Daily Mail from underneath his arm and a pen from his tattered tweed jacket. Rosie sighs loudly. He always asks this question and never listens to the answer. ‘Oh she’s brilliant,’ she says peering at her Dad over her phone, who is already in mid flow of his crossword. ‘She’s off to become an astronaut next week, but not before she finishes her prison sentence for murdering the cat.’ There is a pause while Rosie waits for her father to take one of his larger sips of his drink. ‘Ah, good,’ her father replies absently, whilst looking up to smile at the passing barmaid who is collecting some glasses from one of the tables next to them. Rosie stares at the smiley barmaid, enviously. Maybe if Rosie smiled that much, her Dad would listen more. Rosie glances back to her Dad, who has almost finished his drink now and beams the biggest smile she can accomplish. Her cheeks tighten and her teeth ache from the strain, but Rosie is determined not to be ignored. Her Dad glances at her and frowns. Rosie quickly draws in her breath as she notices a slight twitch playing on his lips. ‘Talk to me, talk to me, talk to me,’ she pleads to herself, as she tries to make her grin expand as much as she can.

    ‘I’m going to get another drink,’ Rosie’s Dad states, pouring the remainder of his Stowford Press into his parched throat. He turns to Rosie once more and pauses. ‘Don’t do that to your face, darling.’ He frowns before adding, ‘You’ll get wrinkles like your mother,’ and makes his way back over to the bar where the stupid smiley blonde barmaid with the big boobs is there waiting for him.

    ‘So, what’s your favourite drink, sweetheart?’ Rosie’s Dad asks the barmaid as he wets his lips, ready for his next pint of cider. Rosie watches them for a few seconds before slumping back defeated, on her cold hard wooden seat, staring at the television, slightly blurred through her wet eyes, praying for someone to listen.

    Anthony hurriedly enters the pub, his hair sodden and windswept from the storm that had decided to develop just as he was five minutes into his walk to town. Just Anthony’s luck. As he turns round for somewhere to hang his drenched suit jacket, he swerves into a young man and, hopefully, his daughter. ‘Oh, I am dreadfully sorry,’ Anthony apologises as he awkwardly steps in the same direction as the young man whose eyes, he notices, are remarkably glazed over. A mere grumble can be heard passing the middle-aged man’s lips as he barges past Anthony with his daughter trailing behind apologetically. Anthony sighs and shakes his head at the sheer rudeness of some people as he hangs his drenched suit jacket behind the main entrance of the pub. He surreptitiously glances at the many different faces surrounding him across the room.

    ‘Don’t let her be here yet. Please God, please!’ Anthony’s father’s words ring through his head; ‘Punctuality is the politeness of kings’. He does a full sweep of the room just as his body starts to give a mild lurch of panic; he notices the large metal clock ticking away on the wall and lets out a sigh of relief. Half past six; he still has half an hour before Emily is due to meet him. He efficiently pivots rounds and hurries into the gents to try and make himself look half presentable. Anthony reaches the smeared, cloudy mirror and pauses for a moment as he takes himself in. Maybe the suit was too much, he thinks to himself, as he tries unbuttoning a few of his shirt buttons before suddenly deciding that the look was much too informal for a first date and buttons them up all over again. He runs his fingers through his sodden hair and glances quickly over to the hand dryer, silently thanking God that no one else is in the toilets at this precise moment. He bends down and tries to dry off as much as he can. When finished, he turns back to the mirror and realises that he should have just let his wet hair be as he now resembles a man that has stuck his finger into a plug socket. Whilst attempting to brush his hair as flat as he can with his fingers, he takes a few deep breaths. ‘In through the nose, out through the mouth’. Many of his Dad’s mottos and sayings are stuck in Anthony’s head and for that, he is grateful to his father. After one more look at himself in possibly the dirtiest mirror Anthony has ever come across, he realises that his current appearance will have to do and swiftly turns out of the men’s toilets and makes his way over to the bar.

    ‘Christ all bleedin’ mighty!’ a woman shrieks to no one in particular, as she trips and stumbles into the now rather lively room of bodies. ‘Sort that bleedin’ door mat out will ya!’ Despite the rather large crowd that has congregated at the bar, a silence follows the woman as she continues to stagger through the passing faces of the pub.

    ‘Take a fuckin’ photo, it’ll last longer!,’ she yells to the crowd of uncomfortable pub-goers, before throwing her head back with laughter, not all that dissimilar to that of a hyena, causing her to sway into the most uncomfortable looking pub-goer of all. ‘GETCH’YA HANDS OFF ME, YOU PERVE!’

    The awkward looking young man in a suit stammers out an apology before moving as far away as possible to the other side of the drink spilled bar. Fran grips onto the side of the bar to steady herself as she waits impatiently for one of the bar staff to notice and serve her.

    A wide-eyed look is exchanged between the two young bar staff as the barmaid finally takes a deep breath, pushing her hair out of her eyes as she does so, and walks uncertainly towards the middle-aged woman who now appears to be singing a song to herself. The barmaid forces a smile as she reaches the woman, whose eyes are now tightly shut, as she belts out some unfathomable lyrics at the top of her lungs. As the barmaid politely waits for Fran to finish her last ‘note,’ if that’s even what you can call it, she suddenly notices the harsh details of the haggard face before her. The dry lips of her mouth are surrounded by hundreds of tiny little wrinkles; not the soft kind of wrinkles an elderly woman would have from years of laughing and smiling, but the harrowing, vicious kind from years of stress, grimacing and anger. Her cheeks relax after finishing her song which causes them to sag down into her face, flushed red and cracked on both sides. As she finally opens her eyes, the bar maid is shocked by the harsh deep red colour of the bloodshot veins that are dispersed across each eye ball. The barmaid draws in her breath, preparing herself for the awkward conversation about to occur and looks straight into the drunk’s empty eyes…

    It’s twenty past seven when Emily finally makes it to the bar. ‘Crap, crap, crap!’ she murmurs to herself as she stumbles over the door mat of the open doors of the pub. She glances at her watch; timeliness has never been one of Emily’s greatest assets. Maybe this guy won’t even be here yet…Tony… Adam… damn, Emily wishes she could remember his name. She was half gone when she met him the other evening when she popped into Sainsbury’s to buy some fags before a night of dancing, drinking and doing God only knows what else. As she pushes her way through the now overcrowded pub, filled with sweaty bodies and the usual locals laughing raucously, she suddenly clocks her ‘date,’ if that’s even what he is, sitting awkwardly at a table for two in the corner, sporting a jacket and tie. ‘A suit. He’s wearing a bloody suit!’ Emily quickly glances down to her outfit; black ankle boots so over worn that you can see the holes from a mile off, jeans and a weird multi-coloured jumper her and some mates had originally bought as a joke which she soon found herself growing attached to. ‘Well he certainly looks interesting,’ Emily thinks, trying to be as positive as possible. As she draws nearer, she notices a look of fear and shock across his face. He can’t be that scared, surely? As he stares into his glass of… what is that drink? Red wine? ‘Oh God,’ Emily thinks to herself, ‘he’s drinking red wine!’. Emily coughs and Anthony immediately looks up, looking startled. He quickly stands and begins to move with very odd jerky movements towards Emily, clearly debating whether to go in for a handshake or kiss on the cheek, whilst proceeding to knock his glass of Merlot all over the table at the same time.

    ‘Oh gosh… I am awfully sorry, just let me… err...’ Tony/Adam utters as the wine continues to spill over the table and onto the tiled floor, ‘Oh blast!’ Emily watches helplessly as he scrambles on the floor with a handkerchief he has magically produced from his pocket.

    ‘Do you want me to.. erm..?’ Emily asks gesturing towards the red wine currently making its way towards her scarcely covered foot. ‘Heavens, no! Please sit down!,’ he replies as he clambers up onto his feet and forms a light skip as he hurries over to the barman to save him from the minor flood he has just caused. She slides reluctantly onto the nearest wooden seat that isn’t drenched in glorious alcohol and lets her head fall into her hands as she giggles to herself in astonishment. How does she always get herself into these situations? As she waits patiently for Tony or Adam or… whatever his name is and his new cleaning partner to clear up the now red-stained floor, Emily begins to wonder what on earth could happen next.

    ‘Double vodka and coke, darlin’,’ Fran slurs as she contorts her face into an attempted smile, her stained yellow teeth sodden in saliva. The barmaid quickly glances across the room over to her co-worker, who is currently attending to some kind of spillage and realises she is on her own for this one. She instantly tilts her head up and places her hands on her hips. ‘I’m sorry but I think you’ve had enough for today’. Fran, clearly oblivious to her surroundings, blinks her crinkled, grey eyelids slowly at the barmaid and gestures for a drink. ‘I’m sorry,’ the barmaid says as slowly and loudly as she can,‘but we can’t serve you anymore’.

    ‘You what!?’ Fran shouts outraged ‘Why the hell not? Fuckin’ discrimination this is!’

    The barmaid apologises once more, feeling the heat rush through her cheeks as her face flushes a red not too dissimilar to the colour of the constant flush on Fran’s haggard face. Fran throws her head back as she shrieks with her hyena-like laughter. ‘She thinks I’ve had enough!’ She yells over her shoulder to no one in particular before leaning over the bar towards the barmaid, causing the barmaid to take a step back as the smell of alcohol and sweat creeps from one woman to the other ‘I just wanna ‘av a fuckin’ drink!’

    ‘Please leave,’ she says firmly hoping the woman didn’t notice the clear wobble in her voice.

    Fran stares blankly at the barmaid for a few seconds before a look of disgust creeps up on the woman’s marked face and leans through the beer pumps so that the barmaid can now feel the heat of her breath on her face. ‘Who the fuck do you ‘fink you are, darlin’?’ She slurs through gritted teeth, her empty eyes now burning into the barmaids forehead. ‘Look, get out,’ the barmaid says quietly, backing away as she feels her hands shake behind her back, cursing her body for giving herself away. The drunk makes no sign of movement so the barmaid adds, ‘Or I’m going to have to call the police.’

    Fran takes a moment, still swaying on the spot, appearing to process the information she has just received. There is a pause. ‘You’re not listenin’ to me, why aren’t you listenin’ to me!?’ Fran yells suddenly, breaking the silence as she sways into the bar, knocking a line of drinks over as she does so.The once noisy, animated pub has now turned into a hushed, cold room as people look away awkwardly, not wanting to draw attention to themselves. Some groups, unsure what else to do in the situation have got up and left, leaving their unfinished drinks on the now empty wooden tables. The remaining customers are staring tentatively at their pints, examining them intricately for fear of making eye contact with ‘the other’.

    ‘None of you care!’ the drunks shrieks, her piercing voice echoing throughout the pub ‘None of you care about me!’ A loud sob resonates out of the drunk as her face contorts into such sadness that, for a moment, the barmaid forgets to breathe. Fran feels a pair of hands on her frail shoulders, firm and warm. She sniffs in despair, loudly as she turns round to the owner of these hands; a large young man, looking down at her with hardened features yet the kindest of eyes. ‘You need to leave,’ the man states softly and gestures towards the door.

    She opens the chapped lips of her mouth as if she is about to say something but then shuts them quickly, her lips smacking together as she does so. Fran turns to the barmaid for a final time, wiping her eyes with the back of her cracked hands covered in cuts and sores and stumbles away, out of the door.

    Over the next few hours, the rain continues to splatter loudly onto the now darkened windows of the pub as the once overcrowded room begins to empty, taking their sounds of laughter, hysteria and annoyance onto the puddle filled streets outside. Giggling girls totter in out and out of the bar, wobbling slightly as their six-inch heels meet the tiles on the floor and their entourage of men follow in after them, yelling abuse to one another as they do so. As the sound of the steel bell echoes across the pub for last orders, a sigh of relief can be heard passing out of the barmaid’s lips as she pulls out a bottle of Pinot Grigio from the drink spilled fridge, wetting her lips in excitement as she reaches for a glass.

    She looks around the room and notices that most people have begun to make their way out of the pub; a few stumbling on their way whilst others shriek with laughter, some even having extreme difficulty deciding whether the exit door needs to be pushed or pulled. The only people remaining now are a few of the usual regulars drinking their bitters as they stand in silence, in worlds of their own, and a young couple that the barmaid had not noticed before. Strange, the barmaid thinks to herself, as they are not the kind of people she would normally have missed, given their ostentatious choice of attire. The barmaid takes another sip of her white wine before making her way over to their table to ask them to leave. She suddenly pauses as she reaches the table next to them. She hesitates. The young man is leaning across the table, his eyes wide as his large grin stretches across his face. The girl, on the other hand, is staring into her glass, timidly yet with a look of such happiness on her face that the barmaid can’t help but smile. The girl glances up at the young man, their eyes meeting as they do so. They hold each other’s gaze, beaming at one another.

    The barmaid shrinks back before joining her co-worker who is currently stacking a pile of wooden chairs under the ticking, metal clock. ‘Just another day, eh?’ he says, a yawn stretching across his face. The barmaid looks over to the couple once more and a feeling of nostalgia washes over her; she turns to her co-worker and beams her polished smile at him. ‘Same again tomorrow,’ she shrugs, rolling her eyes as she makes her way over to her glass of wine and pours the remainder down her throat in one large gulp.

    Soon all will be in darkness, other than the faded glow of the flickering lights on the wet streets outside. A few screeches and shouts will come and go throughout the night too as all different people in dribs and drabs will slowly make their to their homes to start a new day. The soft dripping of a tap, splashing onto its drip tray will soon be the only sound left in the room. That and the gentle ticking of the metal clock as one day ends and another begins.

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