“Hey, honey,” said the stranger as he sat on the barstool.
Stan, a regular punter, looked up from his tablet expecting a famous Shirley Hanson put down. No one calls me honey, least of all when I’m behind my bar. The stranger smiled, and any idea of putting him down exited my head. It’s strange, but I felt like he saw the real me, and not a grey-haired, wrinkled and sharp-tongued landlady wrongly assumed to have a heart of gold. Also, this look wasn’t the lecherous appraisal I used to receive and didn’t miss.
“How can I help you?” I asked. Stan spurted out a mouthful of beer in surprise.
“A pint of Lager, and some company,” said the attractive stranger. “Get a drink for yourself.”
“Thanks.” I put two pounds into the tip jar and watched his back as he fed the rest of his change into the fruit machine.
Drying the beer spattered tablet with a handkerchief, Stan said, “The tracking app is working. Looks like your mobile phone is right here.”
I pulled the phone from my handbag and blushed at my stupidity. Stan laughed with his old man wheeze and, hating to appear foolish, I changed the subject.
“Can you drop this off at Jenny’s house?” I asked as I handed Stan the contents of the tip jar.
“I heard Dave was off the wagon again,” he said.
Nodding, I turned away to serve another punter, but I could sense the new guy’s eyes on me as Stan told him how kind I was. This is where that heart of gold bullshit comes from. However, thanks to Dave, most of Jenny’s household budget was in my cash register, so I wasn’t exactly a saint for helping her out with a few pounds.
The pub was quiet that night, and as we talked, the handsome stranger became Bobby. We didn’t exchange the usual pub banter of which I was heartily sick. Instead, we had a proper conversation, and I even shared my secret dream.
“In two years my savings will cover a small villa on the Spanish coast. I can’t wait to escape the dank Scottish weather.”
“Won’t you miss the pub, Shirley?” he asked.
“No way,” I answered, and told the miserable story of my sorry life.
“When I married Paul, I thought I’d escaped this dump forever. But somehow, my Dad conned or bullied him into buying the family business which condemned me to a life sentence behind this bloody bar.”
“Is Paul still around?” asked Bobby, and it thrilled me that I detected an anxious note in his voice.
“Oh, Paul soon realised his mistake. I’m not sure if it was the mistake of buying the pub or marrying me, but either way, he left.”
“Good. Who needs Paul.” Bobby held my gaze.
Infatuated, only a week passed before Bobby joined me after closing time in the flat above the pub. I was happy for about three days before he revealed his reason for leaving his hometown.
“I had some gambling debts. All I needed was some time to get back on a winning streak, but the kind of guys I owe don’t wait.”
“No shit,” I said. “Did you think they wouldn’t track you down when you moved here?” He couldn’t be that stupid.
“If you could just lend me the money, Shirley.” Ah, so he wasn’t that stupid.
I’d worked in the pub long enough to understand the consequences of not paying this kind of debt.
“Okay,” I said, waving goodbye to my dreams of Spanish sunshine.
Bobby grabbed my hand. “I promise I’ll pay back every penny”
“How?” I wondered to myself.
When Bobby left me, he took the money in my purse, my laptop, mobile phone and even the contents of the tip jar. His doomed and desperate plan to win enough money to pay me back was clear when Bones McArdle appeared in the bar hours after Bobby fled.
“Shirley.” He tipped his fedora and looked around the pub. He spoke quietly with the confidence that the world would strain to listen to his words. “Your Dad would be proud.” As if I cared, but I mumbled my thanks as life was easier if you complied with Bones’ expectations.
“Where is Bobby?“
“I don’t -” I started, but Stan interrupted me.
“Got it,” he shouted and held the tablet towards me in triumph.
“Bobby is there,” I said showing Bones the flashing cursor that represented my mobile phone.