I picked the pub, along the seafront, with the frosted glass. The view from the holiday let was out over Fairhead and Rathlin Island, and I’d had my fill. All I wanted to see was the pint glass and the wood of the bar.
On the next stool along, though, was a chatty sort. He had a whisky in front of him. As soon as I ordered my Guinness, he looked over:
‘Not from around these parts,’ he said.
‘Scotland,’ I nodded.
‘Business or pleasure?’
He turned towards me; always a bad sign. His clothes were those of a farmer – wax jacket, corduroy, stout boots – but a well-turned-out version.
‘What is it you do?’ he asked.
‘I’m a writer.’
‘Is that so. What sort of thing do you write about?’
‘The usual – death and sex.’
‘Is that so?’
‘Aye. I’d welcome one, but the other is likely years off…’
He chuckled. ‘I’m closer to one than the other, right enough.’
I nodded again, but was spared further conversation by the arrival of two men in their thirties. They wore high-vis jackets. One went to the barmaid, the other straight over to my new friend. I didn’t mean to overhear, but the bar was quiet enough.
‘Evening Mr Henderson,’ the high-vis man said.
‘I’ll get you a drink in. What’ll it be? A short?’
The man signalled and two drinks became three. He didn’t acknowledge me, but I was planning to be on my way shortly in any case.
‘That car of yours still giving you trouble, lad?’ Mr Henderson asked.
‘It is, aye. The fan belt, they say.’
‘Is that so?’
‘An expensive fix, Mr Henderson, near four hundred.’
‘Well, you stood me a drink.’
I lifted my eyes and saw the barmaid set a whisky on the bar. In the same moment, Mr Henderson took a chequebook from his inside pocket, scribbled in it and tore out the cheque. He handed it to the man in the high-vis jacket.
Over the next hour, the next two pints, I saw the self-same thing happen twice more. I should have gone for the walk I was planning, along the beach, or returned to the chapter I was writing, but this was far more interesting. Someone new would come in, go over to my new friend and offer to buy him a drink. He would accept, make conversation and the newcomer would give some sob-story that had him reaching for the chequebook. He gave a woman in her fifties two-hundred for a new washing machine and an elderly gent seventy-five for his gas bill.
I thought of my bank balance; of the advance that had petered out to only three figures. This trip, then I’d need to look for some freelancing.
The pub was two rooms and, after receiving their cheques, each of the supplicants shuffled off to the back room. There was an occasional draught of laughter from under the door.
Mr Henderson sat silent and slumped for a while, with me watching him sidelong, then he stirred as the front door opened. This one was a youngster, looked no more than fifteen, in the kind of shiny tracksuit that would catch fire at the sight of a candle.
‘Well, Hugh,’ he said.
‘Well, Pinky,’ Mr Henderson replied.
‘I’m needing a new laptop for college.’
‘Is that so?’
‘They cost two grand, so they do.’
‘Buy me a drink, lad.’
Young Pinky went to the barmaid and Hugh lifted his chequebook. I cleared my throat. Laptops don’t cost two grand, I wanted to say, this young one’s a chancer. Instead I waited until the transaction was over and Pinky was through in the back room.
‘Forgive me,’ I leaned across. ‘But… two thousand?’
Hugh chuckled. ‘Bit steep, eh?’
‘He could get one for a few hundred.’
‘I don’t doubt it.’
Hugh had both hands around his glass. I noticed that the previous two still had their measure of whisky in them, untouched.
Now, normally, I wouldn’t interfere. I mean, I don’t know the ins-and-outs. All these scroungers might be of the Henderson family, for all I knew. Nevertheless, three pints in, I needed to find out.
Standing, I made my way to the door at the back. If I was challenged, I could always say I was looking for the toilet. From the other side of the door came words I couldn’t make out, a punchline, then laughter. I took a breath, pushed the door.
There were three tables. The gas-bill gent sat at one, the washing machine woman was with a friend at another and, around the last, Pinky had joined the high-vis men. They all looked up.
‘He’s come to say something,’ Pinky said, with a grin.
‘You’ve come to say that a laptop doesn’t cost two grand.’
I just stared at him. I didn’t know if this directness was dangerous. The Provos had used boys younger than him through the years, after all.
‘Look in the grate,’ the washing machine woman said.
I looked over at her and she pointed at the fireplace. I took another step forwards. There was no fire, but instead a pile of scrunched up paper, ripped cheques, in the cold grate.
‘He gets through a book a week,’ she said. ‘There’s no harm in it.’
I shook my head. Pinky scrapped his chair round and, for an awful moment, I thought he was going to grab at my arm. He didn’t, it was just to give him space to tell his story.
‘Hugh Henderson,’ he said. ‘Used to build houses, right? Up until the crash. Did a lot for the local economy and that. But then – ’ he brought his fists together, then apart with fingers splayed. ‘It all went kaput. And she went and left him too.’
‘His wife?’ I asked.
‘No, she left long ago. His daughter.’
‘Dear love him,’ the washing machine woman said.
Pinky turned his seat back to the table, satisfied that everything had been explained. I stood for a second more, took a final look at the piled cheques in the grate, and went back through to the main bar.
Hugh watched me all the way.
‘So,’ he said, with a wink. ‘You’ve seen how things work. Buy me a drink and then tell me what you’re after…’
He reached into his pocket for his chequebook. Behind the bar, the poured pint of Guinness was settling and the barmaid was already measuring out the whisky.