All in all, and pretty much no matter how you looked at it, it had not been a good year.
In March, he had been dumped by Ron, exchanged it would seem for a younger shinier model. He had asked Ron what on Earth he and the twenty-year-old would talk about, and Ron had said, “I don’t want to talk with him.”
In June he had lost his job and had joined the statistics of the many victims of the banking crisis. And since then, other than the slow inevitable dwindling of his savings (the government had, it seemed, plenty of money to bail out the banks, but none for him), precisely nothing had happened.
He felt like Tom Hanks in Castaway, watching the horizon and hoping for something new, anything in fact, to drift into view. But the horizon remained staunchly empty. Nothing but white-capped waves as far as the eye could see.
He looked around the bar – the usual collection of early-morning drinkers with their red noses and glazed expressions. Behind the counter, Giles was staring sideways watching passing pedestrians and dreaming – his half-smile implied – fairly happy dreams.
Giles had become the only ray of remaining sunshine in Mike’s life these last few months. A daily dose – if a homeopathic one – of calm, warm, and yes, rather sexy optimism.
Mike knew that he shouldn’t even be coming here anymore. His finances were looking so shaky that even two-twenty for a coffee was pushing the boundaries of what was reasonable. But he didn’t care.
He might no longer be able to eat out, or go down the pub, or pay his gym membership, or even go to the pictures, but he would not give up his daily dose of Giles.
For if he stopped having his morning coffee he might not speak to anyone else all day. And if you don’t speak to anyone, is there any way of knowing if you even still exist?
“They say it might snow this afternoon,” Giles said dreamily as he turned back from the window. “We might get a white Christmas yet.”
As he said this he winked at Mike and that tiny gesture made Mike feel loved. That smile, that wink, well, it was almost like the real thing.
“They say that every year,” Mike replied. “But it never happens.”
“Well, you have to live in hope,” Giles replied.
And Mike wondered what Giles might be hoping for.
For their relationship was one of barman/client, so whilst Giles probably knew pretty much everything about Mike, Mike knew virtually nothing about Giles. In fact, Mike didn’t even know for sure if Giles was gay.
The door to the bar opened and a heavily overweight woman pushed in from the cold, puffing and tugging a wooly hat from her head.
“It’s freezing out there,” she said, clapping her hands together. “They said on the telly that it might snow.”
“Yes, we were just saying the same thing. So what can I get you my lovely?” Giles asked her, smiling broadly and, Mike noticed, winking again.
And it was from precisely this kind of observation that Mike knew his relationship with Giles was a mirage. For Giles was nothing more, and nothing less, than a perfect barman – all smiles and winks and hints of intimacy. To everyone. To anyone.
Mike watched as Giles made the woman a Viennese coffee and thought, “Fat woman drinking coffee with two inches of cream. What’s wrong with this picture?”
And he watched how she too was cheered by Giles winks and grins, by his pseudo-intimate but in reality rather superficial banter.
It was a contract that they all accepted, he realised. For the time it takes to drink a coffee and, more importantly, pay, they would love Giles, and Giles, in return, would pretend to love them back. And though, if one were cynical, it could seem superficial and calculating – a kind of no-sex prostitution even – in another way, surely it was better to be like Giles. Surely it was better to pretend to love everyone rather than pretending to hate them all. Surely it was better to go through life making everyone feel special and loved rather than a little despised.
As he sipped the final dregs of his coffee, he decided that this was actually quite a profound life-choice on Giles’ part. And he realised that in a way, beyond the warmth that he invariably felt in Giles presence, he actually did love him a bit for being this way.
“Another?” Giles asked, reaching across the counter for his empty cup.
“No thanks,” Mike said. “On a bit of an economy drive.”
“Right. Christmas is an expensive time. You going away or staying here?”
Mike sighed. “Staying.”
“Me too,” Giles replied, with an ironic shrug. “Christmas is when we make our money.”
Mike nodded. “Oh well,” he said, making to leave.
“Stay and have another,” Giles offered. “On the house.”
“Really. It’s Christmas after all.”
Mike settled back into his seat, feeling almost tearful at this tiny gesture of kindness.
As he placed the fresh cup of coffee on the counter, Giles added discreetly, “Anyway, if you go she’ll start telling me about her mother again!”
Mike felt actual tears well up at this sign that Giles might actually like him more than the average punter. He wondered why he was feeling so emotional today. Was it just the idea of spending Christmas alone? The thought of facing the new year with so little to look forward to?
“So what are you hoping for in 2010 other than snow?” Mike asked. “God, 2010. Sounds weird doesn’t it?”
“Yeah, it sounds like the future,” Giles said with a nod.
“I suppose it is really. It is the future. But I know what you mean. So any new-year wishes?”
“Nah, not really, the usual stuff. You?”
Mike shrugged. “A job. A new boyfriend. That would do me. That would more than do me. I suppose wanting both is too much, so even one of those two would do me.”
Giles nodded and then jerked upright as if on puppet strings. “God, I nearly forgot,” he said, turning and fumbling in a drawer, before slapping a business card on the table. “This guy… you are a translator, right?”
“Well this guy was in yesterday. he’s just a punter, I don’t know him. But he needs a translator. They’re doing an English version of a website or something.”
“Oh wow,” Mike said, turning the card to face him. “He didn’t say what language it’s from did he? Because I only do French and Span…”
“Yeah, French I think. From French to English. So I thought of you.”
Mike couldn’t decide if he was more excited by the possibility of some work or the fact that Giles actually remembered what he did for a living. “Thanks, that’s so brilliant. So I should just, you know, call him?”
“Yeah. I should think so. I wouldn’t wait too long though. He was in yesterday, and he said it was pretty urgent.”
“I’ll call him as soon as I get home.”
“Just ask the fairy godmother and you see what happens,” Giles laughed with a grin. “I’m afraid I can’t help you with the boyfriend business though. I can’t even sort that one out for myself.”
“So you are… you know…” Mike coughed.
“Gay? Yeah. Does it show?”
“Not much,” Mike said with a smile. “Although when you start referring to yourself as the fairy godmother…” He thought about adding, “I was hoping more than guessing,” but decided it sounded hopelessly cheesy.
“I wouldn’t have thought that you’d find it too difficult,” he said instead. “I mean, working here and, well, looking like you do… You must meet masses of people.”
Giles raised an eyebrow and glanced discreetly around the bar making Mike laugh.
“The weekend crowd are OK though,” Mike replied quietly. “I’ve seen some pretty hot guys here on a Saturday night.”
“Sure. But you take out the straight guys, and the crazy guys, and the alcoholics and the married guys… Plus there’s a weird thing when you’re behind a bar. I mean, in a way everyone chats you up. And in a way no one does. It’s all somehow on one level. Not sure if that makes any sense. Does that make any sense?”
Mike bit his lip and tried to work out how to reply.
What he wanted to say. What every cell in his body was screaming for him to do, was for him to ask Giles out on a date. But what if he said ‘no’? The risk of losing his daily dose of sunshine was such a big risk. For he knew full-well that if Giles turned him down he would never dare show his face in here again.
At that moment the door burst open and in a whoosh of freezing air, Ben, the alternate waiter entered the bar. Changeover time. “Hey, it’s snowing,” Ben said.
Mike stood from his bar-stool and crossed to stand next to Ben. Sure enough, beyond the pane, white flakes were drifting from the sky with a rather elegant laziness. He turned to smile at Giles, who beside him, beyond the bar, was also peering out through a small side-window.
“God I love snow,” Giles murmured, before turning to face Mike. Looking him straight in the eye, he said, “I wonder why. You see! Miracles do happen.”
“You think?” Mike asked, maintaining eye-contact.
“Sure. The proof.” Giles nodded his head sideways towards the window.
“Um, Giles,” Mike said, his voice suddenly trembling. “I don’t suppose you’d… No. Never mind.”
“No, go on.”
“No, it’s nothing.”
Ben, beside him pulled a confused face before walking to the end of the bar and removing his coat.
“Don’t mind him,” Giles said. “Please say what you were going to say.”
“Well, I was just… I mean… I don’t suppose you’d, well, fancy going for a drink – no, you’re a barman, of course you don’t – or maybe lunch or…” Mike’s voice petered out, and he suddenly felt hot and flushed and really rather stupid.
Giles sighed and then looked him in the eye again. Then he grinned his big Giles-grin, the one that Mike loved so much, and cocked his head on one side.
“Sure. Why not?” he said. “When?”
Have a great xmas everyone, and remember, The best things in life aren’t things.