The Red Roman wasn’t much to look at, just another ramshackle building on Fountain Street. It had brown bars on the windows and a few rotten benches outside. The sign hanging on the front door was swollen and cracked from water damage, like its oak counter and the paint on the walls.
It had been in business since the 60’s, when Old Town was a good neighborhood and people came to shop and mingle over weekends. But Fountain Street became an on-ramp to the freeway in 1981, which quadrupled the flow of traffic and drove people away. Petty crime rose, families left for the burbs, and soon the place faded into a sea of exposed face brick and scattered litter.
I don’t remember being interviewed (I’m pretty sure I was hired on the spot), only that I was young, angry and in desperate need of a job. Any job. My dad had kicked me out and I was sleeping at a friend’s flat, on his damp, musty couch.
I started off working day shifts beside Sheena, the manager, this hard woman in her mid-thirties who’d been through a lifetime of drama; arrests, assault, evictions, abortions. Several of each. Nothing shocked or rattled her. She knew a thing or two about losing.
Sheena would arrive for work at ten in the morning with a fresh pack of Cavalier Reds, these cheap cigarettes that gave you a migraine and a numb tongue. Her first order of duty was to complain about the bus drivers on Fountain Street. She’d swear and fuss and hammer out a list of reasons why they were destroying the neighborhood, finishing off with the same prediction every day: “Someone is going to get knocked over – just watch. It’ll happen.”
Business at the bar was terrible. I counted stock on Fridays and showed her the numbers before lunch. You didn’t need to be a mathematician to work out how little we’d moved. She’d laugh at the sales total at the bottom of each page, then go to the office to smoke her heavy cigarettes and make the necessary phone calls. From that empty, liquor-soaked bar counter, I would hear her arguing with suppliers over payments, with the owner over cash flow and with the cleaning staff over wages. It was always the same story: everyone wanted money, and there was none.
On a rainy morning, under black clouds and through miserable winds, an interesting customer made her way to the Red Roman. The bar was empty and Sheena was at the bank. She’d been fielding angry calls from a supplier who’d not been paid in months; the man was threatening to come over and load up furniture if we didn’t give him something.
I was lying across three chairs, listening to the rain drumming on the windows, when the front door swung open and scared me halfway to death. I got down and hid, thinking it was the supplier, until the gentle voice of an old lady asked me a question: Are you open?”
She stepped through the front door and shook the water off her raincoat. The woman wore a floral dress under it, pressed and clean. A matching blue hanky protected her white hair. Her eyes were painted purple and she wore faded lipstick.
“Can I help you, Madam?” I asked, assuming she was senile and had mistaken the bar for the shopping centre. She dabbed her face and took a seat. I took my post and offered her the menu.
She pointed to a sign: ‘Double brandy special’, then produced a floppy Ten Rand note.
The lady sipped at her drink without saying a word, holding the glass the way a baby cups a bottle. Her eyes darted between the windows and the door, like she was scared of being seen. I wanted to say that her secret was safe, because hardly anyone came here. But there was no talking yet.
Halfway through her drink, she put her glass down, cleared her throat and met my gaze. “My name is Celia Ashworth, and my husband passed away two weeks ago.”
“Jesus, ma’am, I’m so sorry about that. You want another one?”
Her eyes turned red and watery for a moment, but her face withstood the emotional wave and she composed herself. “This is where we came for our anniversary every year,” she said. “I was told by my physician, Dr. Roberts, to take two drinks every day. I’m a Christian. I’m not here to get drunk. I just need my two drinks.”
I offered her my condolences again and another round when she was done. She declined. After putting her coat and hanky back on, she left.
I was surprised to see Celia Ashworth back a few days later. Sheena was on duty this time. I was cleaning tables in the restaurant area and noticed a flash of white hair at the bar. The old girl ordered brandy again and told the story of her husband’s passing.
“I’m sorry to hear that, Madam,” Sheena said.
Celia sidestepped any sympathy again and sipped her drink. She finished it this time and left without the slightest wobble or hiccup.
That night, once we’d closed the shop, Sheena told me she smelled trouble among other things. “Something’s wrong with this picture, why would an old lady come here by herself two weeks after her husband died?”
We were lying on the office floor together. I kissed her neck and tried to pull her shirt up. Sheena smacked my hand and lit a cigarette.
“I smelled booze on her breath when she arrived. She was drinking before she came.”
I wasn’t as savvy as her. “Really?”
She nodded. “Just be careful. The last thing we need is some old duck dropping dead in here. I know this is a shit job, but I need it more than you do.”
We slept together occasionally, Sheena and I, but there was no fixed routine or pattern to these encounters; it was always on her terms and when she felt like it. Sometimes she wouldn’t look at me at the end of a shift, others she led me to the office and tore into my skin with her dirty nails and her teeth. I never got comfortable or used to it, and I never stopped hoping for it to happen more. I was very much in love and would take her any time and any way she’d give herself to me.
A week later I was visited by another old lady, my mother. She arrived at the bar with money and a winter coat. It was good to see her, but I knew why she was visiting.
“Go to your father. I know he can be harsh – he just wants the best for you,” Mom said, getting teary and desperate when I told her I was fine. I wasn’t really, but the last thing I needed was my dad’s unbridled disappointment.
Sheena could hear our conversation, which made me embarrassed – especially when my mom went on and on about how it broke her heart to see me working in such a “dreadful establishment.”
We got drunk together after work that night, Sheena and I, and I asked her what she thought of my mom’s visit.
“I think your parents are soft. You’re old enough to make your own decisions.”
It was a better response than I’d hoped for.
Then Sheena put her hand on my face. “You mom’s right, though. You should get out of here. Go to your dad and make right with him. This won’t last forever.”
“This place or this?”
She didn’t answer for a moment.
Then she ran her long fingernails down the back of my neck, to my hand, which she
kissed before telling me to leave.
Very soon, Celia Ashworth became a regular customer at the Red Roman. Ever charming, she’d arrive in her floral dress, hair done up neatly, and order her Double Brandies.
“Celia, be careful when you start drinking this early,” Sheena said to her more than once.
“Oh, no, I’m a good Christian woman. I don’t want to get drunk. I was prescribed these drinks by my physician, Dr. Roberts. My husband passed away 15 days ago,” Celia would say, tossing her bag up on the bar counter.
And there she’d stay, sitting on her stool of choice, walloping double brandies until she couldn’t see straight or speak coherently.
Close to the end, Celia started arriving at 10:30 every morning. She was so comfortable telling us about her husband and her prescribed drinks that she started saying it with a smile.
Ironically, business started to pick up at the same time. We were so busy that Sheena occasionally managed to pay suppliers and staff members. There wasn’t always time to worry about the old gal.
Celia spoke to other customers at the bar and howled at their jokes. She was our mascot; people recognized her as the ‘crazy little drunk lady who drank at the Red Roman’. It was funny at times, but sooner or later she’d start talking about her husband’s death and her prescribed two brandies a day – which by that stage was more like five or six. Sometimes she’d end up crying. Sometimes she’d get angry. Sometimes she’d try to dance and then fall over. It was always different and never easy to watch, but we did.
Just as I was starting to notice that our sexual pattern becoming more regular, Sheena broke my heart. She got a boyfriend, Claude; he was the angry supplier who’d threatened to take the bar’s furniture a few months earlier. As business got better, Sheena and Claude spoke on less hostile terms, and soon they started dating. It didn’t take long for things to get serious.
Then there was more change. New staff members were hired, which meant that I worked less intimately with her. Bar tenders were made to wear official Red Roman T-Shirts, me included, and fill out time sheets at the end of each week. I wanted some level of seniority or to be made Head Bar Tender or something official – to separate myself from the rest of them. But Sheena wasn’t interested. “Leave if you’re unhappy. You’re from a good family. Go to university or something. Get out of here,” she said.
Her indifference stung. And the fact that I wouldn’t leave made it all the more pathetic.
At the start of a new month, Sheena told me that we were getting a special visitor. “He’s a bar critic with a column in the newspaper. He’s going to review the Red Roman. I want you to get rid of Celia if she comes in today.”
“How must I do that?”
“We reserve the right to admission, so tell her to leave. That woman is a full-blown alcoholic. ”
“But she’s not breaking the law.”
“She’s bad for business. None of Claude’s friends will drink here if we’re serving that old tart.”
“How do you think this bar critic will react when we send a lonely pensioner packing?”
Sheena was stumped for a moment. “You serve her two drinks and no more. Understood?”
“Thank-you, Dr. Roberts.”
She scoffed at me and walked away.
That afternoon, as predicted, I had to tell Celia Ashworth that I wouldn’t pour her a third drink. The news took her by surprise. “No, I would just like my second drink, thank-you,” she said.
“Celia, you’ve had two.”
“That was my first one, Dear. You are mistaken.”
I shook my head.
“One more.” Her voice was stern.
I took a step back. “No.”
“One more, please.”
Her face clenched like a fist. The loose skin around her eyes and neck went tight.
“Please, pour me another, dear.”
“Mrs. Ashworth, we’re a bit worried about your health. I’m sorry to cut you off. You’ve had two.”
Then the levy broke and I was suddenly staring at a monster. She wailed and pulled her hair. Her voice exploded and tears streamed down her sunken cheeks. She reached across the bar for me. “I have been prescribed my two drinks by Dr. Roberts!” she cried, pointing at the roof like God was standing right behind her, backing up the story.
When I finally caved and poured her another, Sheena marched over, picked up the old lady up by her armpits and took her outside. In the indignity of daylight, minus her jacket, Celia Ashworth was little more than a skeleton and a poof of white hair.
“This is ridiculous, just let her in,” I said.
“She’s had enough.”
Celia started banging on the door, asking if we were still open in a polite voice, trying to act like she’d just arrived.
“This is cruel – she doesn’t even understand what’s happening,” I said.
The door was slammed and the discussion over.
Sheena called the police, then Claude, while I went back to the bar and downed the drink I’d made for Celia.
Five minutes went by and that poor, old woman was still calling to be let in, like a lonely dog forgotten outside on the coldest night of its life. There was no sign of the bar critic, but neither of us knew when that would change.
Sheena came over to the bar and sniffed my glass. “Is this alcohol?”
“I’ve been prescribed two a day.”
“You’re fired, get out!”
I wouldn’t move, though.
And then Claude came pounding in through the kitchen door. “Take him out of here,” Sheena ordered him.
He was a big son of a bitch with blotchy red skin. He looked out of breath standing still. I was feeling pretty cocky until he grabbed my face, wrapping most of his calloused hand around my cheeks, blocking the flow of air through my nose and mouth. I dropped quickly and back-peddled, swiping at him like a cornered animal.
“Take him out. I want this prick gone!” Sheena instructed him.
Effortlessly, with the same ease he stole Sheena away, Claude dragged me through the back entrance. When I stopped fighting, he stopped being rough with me and just dragged me along.
Sheena followed us down the alley, though, around to Fountain Street, and started slapping at my face and back. She was relentless and kept hitting me harder and harder. “You’re nothing, you little mother-fucker! Get out of here and go back to your rich parents!”
I started to cry as I realized I was having my first real adult experience – this chaos was my choice. I’d gotten to this point all on my own and had nobody to blame. I wanted security and comfort again. I wanted warmth. I wanted my parents. And mostly, I just wanted Sheena to love me as much as I loved her.
And then we all heard a terrible sound. There was a squealing of car tyres as Celia Ashworth walked herself into the path of a city bus that was flying down Fountain Street. Her poof of white hair was the last thing to disappear. One of those buses had finally struck, just like Sheena always predicted. Nobody saw the old gal until she was in harm’s way, ready to meet her husband on the other side, clear-minded after two drinks.
* Artwork by Steven ‘Joffy’ Carter.
* This piece was written in 2011 and had originally been selected for publication at a now-defunct literary magazine. It ended up on Amazon for a while after, before I finally decided to post it here. Welcome home.