I had an hour to wait for my connection. I came out of the station, wandered around a little and found a small pub. It was sunny outside so it took me a few moments to get used to the gloom.
The pub was empty except for me, the barman, and another man.
I settled at the bar and ordered a bourbon. While the barman was getting my drink, I had a look round the room. The other man, who could have been forty or sixty, was sitting two or three stools away, hunched over what looked like a large whisky.
I paid him no mind initially and took a sip of my bourbon. The variety of bottles on the shelves behind the bar provided some interest until the man mumbled something. Because I hadn’t been expecting him to speak, I didn’t quite catch what he said. Then he repeated it.
“Yep, ten inches. At least.”
I let out a little involuntary snort.
“What’s so funny?”
I turned; the man was glaring at me. He was unshaven, and even in the dim light of the pub I could see that his eyes were red, with grey half-circles under them. I realized I had a smirk on my face and wiped it off instantly.
“Nothing,” I improvised. “I was just thinking about … the first time I tried Tequila.” I pointed to a bottle behind the bar.
“Huh,” the man huffed, and I thought that was the end of it. Seconds later I got a whiff of unwashed armpits and whisky breath; the man had moved and was sitting next to me.
“I loved her, y’know?”
I’m the kind of person who’s careful not to make eye contact with crazy people in the street or on public transport because of the risk of being drawn into a conversation. I downed my bourbon in one and made to leave, but the man grabbed me by the sleeve—so firmly that I lost my balance and was forced to sit back on the stool or fall.
“Really?” I said, my mind racing to figure out an escape plan.
“And she loved me.”
“She did. Let me buy you a drink.” He gestured to the barman to top us up.
“No, actually—” I began to protest.
“Jus’ the one,” he insisted. By this time the barman was pouring. I settled back on the stool and peered at my watch, both to check the time and to show the man that I needed to leave shortly.
“Dover, it was.” He ignored my watch gambit and launched into his story, his tone one of doomy resignation. “You ever been to Dover?”
I told him I hadn’t, but it was clear that he wasn’t really interested in what I had to say, only in getting his story out. He started singing in a cracked voice.
“There’ll be blue birds over, the white cliffs of Dover.”
I glanced at the barman, who rolled his eyes but failed to come to my rescue.
“Y’know that song? We were singin’ it together that day.”
He took a big slug of his whisky and wiped his mouth with a grubby cuff.
“There was this path, see, ran along the top of the cliffs. Lovely, it was. You had a green slope runnin’ away on one side, then the cliffs themselves on the other, droppin’ down, and the sea in the distance.”
I took a sip of bourbon and looked at my watch again. I’d need to be leaving in ten minutes or so to get back to the station.
“Course, it was dead choppy that day. Windy, see? And that’s why there wasn’t nobody else around.”
The first misgivings began to tickle my stomach. I took a good look at the man’s face. He was staring at me but not seeing me; there was a vacancy in his eyes, like he was watching the scene he was describing and not registering the there-and-now.
“So I says to her—Lucy her name was—I says: ‘Go and stand over there and I’ll take a photo.’ And she giggles and goes and stands near the edge. She was lookin’ so pretty. Here …”
He pulled from his jacket pocket a faded, dog-eared photo, smoothing it on his knee before placing it in front of me. Lucy was young and indeed very pretty, her long, dark hair billowing to one side in the wind. She was standing close to the edge of the cliff. Much too close.
The man took the photo back and gazed at it lovingly for a few seconds before placing it carefully on the bar.
“That was jus’ moments before it happened,” he rasped. I could see now that his eyes were glistening.
“They should’ve had railings up there or summat.” His voice was trembling.
“What happened?” I ventured, knowing full well the answer. I was suddenly engrossed in his story, anticipating yet dreading the inevitable.
“A bit of the cliff crumbled—must’ve been the rain they’d had that week. And down she went.”
I felt my mouth gaping.
“To the rocks?” I could have kicked myself as soon as I’d said it—the lack of sensitivity. But he didn’t seem to mind.
I gasped with relief. He carried on.
“I ran and looked over the edge, and there she was, a few feet down the side, hangin’ on to a bit of a ledge with both hands. She was lookin’ up at me, screamin’ my name like crazy. I started to clamber down, careful like, so as not to kick stones on top of her. But that’s when I saw it.”
He grabbed his drink with a shaking hand, the ice rattling in the glass as he finished it. He ordered two more with a gesture; I was past protesting.
The pause lengthened and I felt knots in my stomach now. Impatience got the better of me.
Now he turned to me and took in my face, his eyes searching for what I realized later was understanding.
“A … a rat.” He shook his head. I could see his jaw clenching. “Brown, it was. Must’ve been ten inches long. Or more. Had its nest nearby probably. I tried to shoo it away with my foot but it wasn’t goin’ nowhere.”
He grabbed my jacket lapel.
“It was a rat, see? Bloody terrified of ’em, I am. Always have been, ever since I was a kid. It wasn’t doin’ no harm, but it was sittin’ there, right next to my Lucy’s hands. I froze. I couldn’t … I jus’ couldn’t …”
He picked up the photo and started sobbing. I can still hear the pain, 20 years on.
“Oh, Lucy. My sweet Lucy.”
“I’m so sorry,” was all I could muster.
I remembered the train and placed some money on the bar.
At the door, I looked back. He was gazing after me with those tired eyes, pleading, I think, for something other than my feeble offer of sympathy.
But it was something I wasn’t qualified to give him.