July Short Story Competition Winner

C.R. Redd, North Somerset, England.

The White Hart

He was a self-styled wise man. A man who, to all troubled newcomers, would bestow simple and perfect advice. These concise nuggets of wisdom were always found amidst an air of sobriety indicative of a man who has seen everything, and often accompanied with a lowering of eyebrows that creased the leather of his face. It was not unusual for an entire evening to be spent in sombre consult with some poor downtrodden stranger, whose problems were inevitably eradicated by the clarity of his words. There was not much to discriminate him from the other men of his certain time and place, bound as he was to the path life had laid out for him.

His sodden leather jacket though was as powerful an identifying characteristic as the dusking stubble that clung to his cheeks. To those who were not strangers however, his standing as an oracle was non-existent, instead seen as a man whose narrow minded solutions were useless, especially as they had deserted him in almost every instance that he required them.  He had stumbled in life, and fell upon hindsight to prop him up. As if the constant reviewing of his failures somehow alleviated them, obscuring them with the belief that they would not happen again.

To us he was but another part of the daily mediocrity that we had learnt to accept, as we all sat and stewed over the contents of our mind, the contents of his no doubt being a cloudy brew of confusion, regret, and whiskey. To look at him was only to serve as a reminder of what I felt was my future. He was yet another man whose future had succumbed to misery, to whom childhood dreams were abandoned on the cusp of adulthood, using the common excuse that they were naive and immature when in fact all that happened was a dulling of his ideals, a bluntening of his character. Regret clung to his feet, like some spectral hound, and I could hear it moan through the pitiful advice he doled out to others.

He became, to me, part of the furniture of the room, in the way that consistent things merge seamlessly into the background of our lives. It was never a plan of mine to talk to him, or to discover the details to his mistakes. Details that would not improve my understanding of him, and that would only serve to expose the lack, on either part, of us to do anything that would remove him from his mire. He of course was obviously in a permanently dumbstruck case, and I, well I simply lacked enthusiasm for helping others when I could see my very own swamp, sneering out of the fog towards me.

But it happened. One day, particularly grey, particularly wet, the room was damp and empty, except for me at the bar and him, nestled amongst the chairs and tables. Perhaps I wanted something from him, a light, a cigarette, small change for another drink, or perhaps the weather had merely succeeded in increasing my solitude. Anyway, the reasons are inconsequential, the fact is we had a conversation, brief as it was, thus I became one of the few people in the world with a more than passing idea of who he was. The conversation was brief and faltering, the particular words said elude me as well as their general meaning, and all I have now is the feeling of an awkward social stumble. Unsurprisingly his measured voice withered when etiquette directed my questions towards his life. I often wondered why a man so full of advice for others could seem so lost when it came to himself. My only guess is that problems are easier seen through the eyes of another and he, a human, with a heart, became paralysed when viewing events through the shroud of his own emotions. And when these problems are not solved, they stay, haunting you, and slowly you stagnate, as does the emotions you felt, until, eventually, there is nothing but a husk covered in wet leather, filled with heavy clods of despair. We didn’t ever talk again. Though whenever each of us entered, or left, the comfort of the pub there would be a nod thrown in the other’s direction.

There were, of course, rumours about the fellow, that once, a young woman had joined him at his table, perhaps his daughter. I imagine it as a belated affair, one planned for years, with each preparing dialogue in their heads, and then it is slow to happen, neither making the first move, until finally, when it does happen, it is too late. They both know that nothing can now be done, they have both forgotten what to say, and what they do say comes out convoluted and uncoordinated. Even the objective of the conversation is gone, long since receding into the darkness of time.

Then, one day, he was not at his table, at first this went unnoticed, in the way that a subtle change in your surroundings goes unobserved, such is your familiarity with them. But a day turned into a week, a week into a month. Perhaps he has died.  Life seceded to death, as he finally realised he was living only for the sake of living. Perhaps he was moved to a home. A benevolent member of his past appeared to pack him away in more suitable circumstances.

I like to think though, that he merely upped and left. That suddenly the spirit of life in him transformed into a force of propulsion. I do not think he solved his problems, or forgot them. In all probability he carries them with him, though I hope not as a burden, but as the only reminder of who he is. Every evening he stops at a different pub, and will sit down with a pint at the table of a self-styled wise man. Or better yet, he takes his pint at the bar, observes the wise man and his consults, smiles knowingly to himself, and in the morning moves on.