Excerpt seven from Nick Alexander’s gripping 13:55 Eastern Standard Time.
Yanks And Paddies
An Irish guy at the end of the bar is raising hell about the name of the place – Paddy’s. He’s saying that it’s an insult, a racist slur.
Scott fingers his pint and watches the bubbles break free and rise to the surface, and concentrates on not glancing over at the shouting man or the arguing barman.
It’s not that he doesn’t care; he simply doesn’t have an opinion. No way of knowing what lies deep in the history of language and culture, and what it might mean to these people. And anyway, it strikes Scott that if you don’t like the name of a bar, the easiest thing is not to go in there in the first place.
But different peoples have different cultural baggage, different perspectives on things. They’re a funny bunch, these Brits. He has to think for a minute if Brits includes the Irish or not, but he can’t remember. All he knows is that there’s some confusing business about Great Britain, and the British Isles and the United Kingdom all being different.
Scott sighs and stares at his glass as the argument reaches a new level of energy.
The owner is saying that Paddy just means Patrick, and the Irish guy is asking to see him – to talk to Patrick, the ‘supposed’ owner.
Scott sips his drink and glances along the bar. He thought a straight pub might be more interesting; he thought it might be a better place to talk to real Brits, to find out what they’re thinking, what makes them tick. For that is Scott’s thing – people, and what they think.
Some travel to see things, to capture and take home in photographic form the Taj Mahals and the Niagara Falls of this world. Others travel to do things – to ride the biggest roller coaster, or climb the Eiffel Tower. But though he doesn’t know why, though Scott has no idea whether it’s genetics, or education, or some weird freak of brain formation, these things have never interested him. His thing is people. His thing is knowing the minutiae of people’s day to day lives.
And voila the problem with Britain, or England or whatever… Because the Brits just don’t give anything away.
In the gay bars people talk just enough to get him home for sex. And that’s good. Scott likes sex. But he has learnt that it isn’t that different wherever you go. Sure, it’s different from partner to partner, from tribe to tribe, but not truly from country to country. Gay culture is pretty homogenous these days and whether it be New York, Chicago, or London there will be the same tribes. The same dingy leather bars, the same executives in wine bars, the same giggling retail queens huddled in the nearest bar to the gym. Sure, Americans are all cut, and built. And the Brits, it would seem, virtually never are. But other than that…
He wonders, again, if this whole travelling alone thing isn’t a mistake. He wonders again if he shouldn’t just change his ticket and go home. But then Britain isn’t Europe, he reminds himself. And London probably isn’t Britain either.
And in the straight pubs like here, people talk eventually. But it’s all Bush and Iraq and global warming. It’s all political and Scott wants the personal. Scott longs for a good New York conversation with some stranger in a business suit whose father abused her, and who is having a lesbian affair, and who always keeps a dildo in the refrigerator – just in case. For that’s the stuff New Yorkers tell each other.
The Irish guy has left now, and Scott has finished his pint, so he glances at the barman, now standing close by, and points at his glass hopefully.
“Fucking Irish,” the barman is saying. “Alcoholics every last one of ’em.”
“Now that,” Scott thinks, “is a racist slur.”
The barman raises his chin at Scott’s neighbour, apparently expecting a reply.
The guy shrugs. “Hey Matt, I have no opinion,” he says in an amused tone.
“Cute,” Scott thinks, forcefully reminding himself that he is in a straight bar.
The barman smiles. “Wise man,” he says. “You should have been a diplomat. So how’s your wife? Haven’t seen her for a while.”
Scott tunes in – the scent of human life is in the air.
“Not my wife, Matt. Girlfriend. We were never married.”
The barman nods. “Sorry, I just assumed,” he says.
“Anyway, we split,” the guy says with a shrug. He looks a little worse for wear. He’s drinking whisky.
“Sorry mate, I didn’t know,” the barman says.
Scott snorts in spite of himself.
They both turn to look at him, the barman slightly aggressively, his neighbour in a vague, drunken, dreamy way.
Suzanne Vega comes on the radio, or jukebox, or whatever the source of the music is – an old song, Small Blue Thing. Suzanne Vega is so New York, it makes Scott feel truly homesick. “Sorry guys,” he says. “I wasn’t listening or anything. I was just thinking about things – stuff in my head,” he says, tapping his forehead with his index finger.
“You need a refill there mate?” the barman asks and Scott nods and pushes his change, a banknote with coins piled upon it, back across the bar.
“Can I buy you one?” he asks his neighbour.
But the guy shakes his head. “Nah. I’ve had enough I think,” he says. “Thanks all the same.”
“So what happened Sime?” the barman asks, as he waits for the tap to fill Scott’s glass.
“Nothing,” the guy says. “She left. That’s all.”
Scott snorts again, and both men turn to look at him.
“Hey I’m sorry guys, I’m just…” he sighs. “Look; I was just thinking about how, you know, private you Brits are.”
The barman raises an eyebrow and hands him his drink. He lifts four coins from the pile, slides the remainder back to Scott, and moves off towards the till.
“Private?” the guy next to him says.
Scott nods. “Yeah, I mean, you two know each other right?”
“I drink here, that’s all,” he replies.
“Yeah, but you’re on first name terms.” Scott shakes his head. “I’m sounding weird here. I’m just interested, you know, in all the cultural differences – between here and home. And where I come from, no one would ever just say, you know, she left me. You’d always get the full horror story. Most people would probably spice it up a bit too. Make it extra-tragic.”
Sime nods slowly, maybe thinking about what Scott has said, maybe trying to think of something to say. “So where’s home?” he asks eventually.
“New York,” Scott says. “I’m not saying it’s, you know, better or worse or anything. But it’s real different.”
The guy nods again and frowns slightly.
“I kind of collect thoughts,” Scott tells him. He half lifts a little pocket book from his breast pocket and then lets it drop back out of sight. “Only no one here seems to tell me anything,” he says, grinning dumbly and hunching his shoulders. “So not much to write.”
His neighbour tips his head to one side and squints. “So what kind of stuff do people tell you?” he asks.
Scott pulls his pocket book out and flicks through it. “All sorts really … general stuff, personal stuff. Sometimes it’s quite… Here,” he says. “MindBar, NY, twelve February. Woman in thigh high PVC boots. “It all started with my uncle. Truth was I enjoyed it. And really, it wasn’t the act as such; it was the guilt that wrecked my life, the guilt that I, you know, enjoyed it so much. That and the fact that I’ve been trying to match it, the sex we had, ever since.”
Scott stares at the page a moment, and then flips the book shut. “That’s just…” he shrugs. “So ugly and, the honesty is so … beautiful, you know?”
The guy nods. “Wow,” he says. “I do know, Scott. I know exactly what you mean.” He holds out his hand. “Simon,” he says.
Scott takes his hand. “Scott.”
“So what, you’re a writer?” Simon asks him. “You publish this stuff?”
Scott shakes his head. “Nah,” he says. “I’m in IT. This is just a hobby. A weird hobby I guess.”
Simon nods. “There are worse things to do,” he says. “Like abusing your nieces.”
Scott nods and smiles weakly. “I guess.”
“So what do you want to know?”
Scott wrinkles his brow. “Oh, no. Really. I wasn’t … I mean … I was just noticing that no one tells me anything, and then, kind of noticing that you guys don’t seem to say much to each other either.”
Simon nods and sips at his whisky. “OK, but, what would you like me to tell you?”
Scott shrugs. “I just like to know people better I guess, I…”
“OK, ask me a question. Anything. I’m tipsy. Make the most of it.”
Scott grins and blushes slightly. “OK,” he says. “Why did she leave you? Your girl.”
Simon smiles a broad, tight-lipped smile, and blinks very slowly. “Money … mainly,” he says eventually. “She came into quite a lot. She became … quite rich, I suppose. That’s the problem really. And it changed her. So we became different. Because of money.”
“You couldn’t keep up with her?” Scott says, nodding slowly.
Simon shrugs. “In a way. But it was more, that, we … became different, because of money. She wanted big and shiny. And I…” He shrugs again. “I didn’t … don’t … care.”
“And you’re right by the way.”
“We don’t – talk, that is. I mean, no one asked me. None of my friends asked me why we split. You’re the first.”
Scott scratches his head. “Wow,” he says. “So are you sad? Or did it feel right?”
Simon shrugs and smiles coyly. “I guess it was time. To make a break, that is. I miss her, I mean, it becomes a habit, and I do love her. Or I love who she used to be. But,” he blows through his lips. “No regrets, not really.”
“And sex? Do you miss that? I mean, that’s a habit too. We gay guys, you know, it’s pretty easy. I mean, you go to a bar, you pick up some guy…”
Simon smirks. “Yeah, I know,” he says. “I have – how do they say it? I have swung both ways, in the past. So I know.”
Scott raises an eyebrow. “Wow, a real bisexual?”
Simon looks around the bar.
“Sorry,” Scott apologizes. “I have a tendency to be too loud.”
“You all do,” Simon says, blinking deliberately and nodding his head. “All Americans have that tendency. But it’s fine.”
“Where did she get her money from? I mean, was it family, someone’s estate? gambling?”
Simon shakes his head. “She earned it. She’s in TV.”
Simon laughs dryly. “I am a writer – for TV as well, but a writer, so…”
Scott nods. “Ha!” he says. “You guys are always broke.”
Simon laughs. “Are we? I am. But I’m not sure we all are.”
“My best friend – back in the States – he’s a writer. He’s always broke too.”
Simon nods and sighs.
“So, let me get you another,” Scott says, pointing at Simon’s glass.
Simon shakes his head. “No,” he says. “I need to go.” He pushes his barstool back and stands. He has to blink repeatedly to make his eyes focus properly.
“Well, it was nice talking to you,” Scott says, feeling a pang of disappointment at Simon’s departure.
Simon pats his shoulder. “You too; have a good trip.”
Scott smiles and nods. “You get home safely.”
“Oh, I live just…” Simon points vaguely through one of the walls of the bar, then changes his mind and points the other way. “Well, not far anyway,” he says, his hand dropping to his side.
Scott watches Simon’s back as he walks to the door, and then as the door swings shut, he pulls the book from his pocket to write something down, but hesitates.
He could go after him – try to get an invite for coffee. The idea of a cute bisexual is quite hot really.
The barman looks up from the pint he’s serving to see Scott disappearing behind the closing door.
“Yanks,” he says. “Worse than the fucking Paddies.”