“I’m just waiting for my friends, so can you leave me alone, please?”
“So? What’s that got to do with me offering you a drink, or you accepting? Your friends aren’t here yet, so what’s the problem?”
The small, round table was tucked away. The lights in the bar were low. The focus was on the deep blue uplighters dotted against the bare brick walls. In a shadowy spot at the far end of the bar, the table was easy to miss. So somebody was being a bit pushy? It wasn’t his business; he had chips to buy and late night TV to watch. He’d taken no more than a couple of steps when Sean stopped.
“What’s your problem? Why don’t you want to have a drink with me? I’m just being friendly. What’s wrong with being friendly?” The words were drink slurred and edged with aggression.
“Nothing, but I’ve told you—”
“Didn’t you hear what he said? He doesn’t want a drink. Are you fucking deaf as well as stupid?”
The words were out of Sean’s mouth before he could think. This wasn’t his fight, this wasn’t his problem. What am I getting myself into? But Sean knew why he hadn’t turned and walked away. The drunk was a bully, and his hectoring voice had scratched down Sean’s spine like nails over a chalkboard. Sean took a step closer to the table, narrowing the space between him and the drunk.
“Piss off, this hasn’t got anything to do with you.” The drunk made a good effort at standing his ground, but his voice had lost its edge. He was no longer so sure of himself, the ground beneath his feet no longer so stable.
Sean said nothing, offering only a grim smile. He knew what the drunk was seeing. Tall and well-built, and with his hair cut short and severe, Sean looked like a squadie, a soldier off-duty for the night. Have you got the uniform? Have you got the fatigues? Words, and others like them, he’d had panted into his ear more than once. Sean watched as the drunk hesitated. Unexpectedly challenged, he deflated like a balloon stabbed with a pin.
The guy shrugged and walked off, banging his shoulder into Sean in a final show of defiance. Sean let him have his second or two of triumph; he was gone and it was all that mattered.
A soft and cultured voice drifted out from the shadowy corner.
“Thank you. You didn’t have to, but, thanks. I appreciate it. He, erm, didn’t seem to want to listen to me.” The added words were accompanied by a nervous, hesitant laugh.
Now that the drunk had gone, Sean gave the guy at the table his full attention. He gave Sean a lopsided smile as he swept a dark, floppy fringe away from his brow.
“Are you waiting for friends or was that just a way of telling him,” Sean said, jabbing his thumb over his shoulder, “to take a hike?” He stared down at the guy who seemed as awkward and out of place in the overpriced, pretentious bar as Sean.
The guy nodded, fiddling with the mixer stick in his glass, stirring the ice and pushing down on what looked like a whole load of salad leaves.
“I am. This wasn’t my choice, but, well…” He screwed up his nose as he looked beyond Sean and into the bar.
Sean glanced behind him, surprised to see how in just a few minutes the crowd had swelled. He turned back to the guy, and met his wry smile with one of his own.
“Yeah, well, this place was my choice, but I’ve gotta ask myself why.”
The guy laughed. “Everybody’s allowed one erroneous choice. It’s a friend’s birthday and he wanted to come here, so I didn’t get a lot of say.”
“So where is he then?”
“Late, as always. And I’m early. As always.”
Sean nodded. It really was time to make a move, but the guy had an air of vulnerability about him that, in a place like Blue, for all it was smart and swanky with prices to match was, when that was stripped away, just another meat market. Leaving the guy on his own would be like tethering a lamb to a post, and letting in the wolves. Maybe I can buy him that drink, and stay until his mate gets here… But then Sean remembered the beer, and the tiny pile of change he’d got back from the tenner he’d handed over. He glued his lips together, and nodded again.
“Look, I can—” Sean began to ask the question he told himself not to ask, but it was as far as he got.
“For Christ’s sake, Laurie, we’ve been looking for you. Didn’t you get the message, or have you turned your phone off again?”
“No. Or I don’t think so.” Laurie scrabbled for his phone. “It’s on, I couldn’t have heard—”
“Whatever. Change of plan. We’re going to The Topaz Lounge, then onto Push. Come on, you’re holding everything up. Just as always.”
Sean eyed up the guy who’d barged in, noting that he was almost as tall and well-built as himself. Almost, but not quite.
Taking no notice of Sean, the newcomer made to lurch forward, to grab at Laurie, hemmed in between the table and the end of the bar, and clutching his drink that was really a salad.
Sean moved forward, blocking the guy from reaching Laurie. It was the second time he’d stepped in without thinking, in the space of minutes. Just like with the drunk, this was none of his business, but the guy’s ill-tempered, snotty-nosed voice got under his skin as much as the drunk’s bullying had.
“Can you move out of the way?” the guy said. “We’re going.” His brow puckered in a deep frown, giving him a pissed-off look. Sean doubted he was used to having his actions thwarted. “Who’s this?”
The guy was looking at Laurie as he jerked his head at Sean. He was barely bothering to acknowledge Sean’s existence, making Sean grind his teeth together and flex the suddenly tight muscles in his shoulders.
“Get your arse into gear,” the guy said, not waiting for an answer.
“We’ve got a taxi waiting outside, which you’ll be paying for if we have to hang around any longer.”
“Toby, don’t be so bloody rude. You’re—”
“You’re the one who’s rocked up late, and I’m the one who had to stop some wanker from giving your mate a hard time.” Sean leaned forward, getting in the face of the guy Laurie had called Toby. It was a small movement, but antagonistic, maybe even aggressive, but Toby had got on Sean’s tits, and what hadn’t been Sean’s business now was.
Toby stepped back and Sean didn’t bother hiding his smirk of satisfaction. But it wasn’t just wariness Sean saw on his face, but a glimmer of concern.
Toby looked at Laurie, his brows raised in a silent question.
“Somebody took exception to me sitting in a corner and having a drink on my own. Luckily—” Laurie looked up at Sean, his eyes widening in realisation. “I’m so sorry. You got me out of a very tricky situation and I didn’t have to the manners to ask your name or even offer you a drink as a thank you.”
Even in the bar’s low lights, Sean could see the deep flush stain Laurie’s cheeks.
“No worries. It all happened so quickly. I’m Sean.”
“And I’m Laurie — as you may have gathered.” He smiled, and Sean smiled back.
“Thank you for helping out.” Toby’s words sounded like they were being dragged out of him. “Take this.”
Sean smacked Toby’s hand away, along with the note dangling between his fingers.
“What the fuck d’ya think you’re playing at?” Anger boiled up from the pit of Sean’s stomach and rushed through him. His skin pinpricked with heat, and his body stiffened as it prepared for fight of flight. Running away was’t his style.
“Toby? What the hell—?” Laurie scrambled to his feet.
“I was making the offer to buy Sean a drink, in appreciation for his assistance.”
Toby's tone was level and reasonable, but his lips twitched in a smirk Sean itched to wipe from his face. He pressed his clenched fists hard against his thighs. If he took a swing, the black suited, mic’ed-up bouncers would be on him in seconds.
The tense silence that settled on them was broken by the buzz of a phone. Toby pulled out what Sean saw was the latest, top-of-the-range mobile from his jacket pocket.
“They want to know what’s taking so long. The champagne’s already on ice at The Topaz Room, apparently.” Toby looked at Laurie. “It’s time to go.” And leave your trashy new friend behind you… Sean could have finished Toby’s sentence for him. His jaw, locked tight, was beginning to ache.
Laurie bunched up his jacket in the crook of his arm. Shuffling out from behind the table, he knocked over his abandoned, half-finished drink, flooding the surface.
“Oh, bugger,” he muttered.
Producing a wad of paper tissues from somewhere, he began to wipe up, spreading the mess rather than clearing it. Sean couldn’t help smiling. It was like watching Bambie on ice.