Helen stared at her reflection in the mirror behind the bar, her face framed between two vodka bottles, and then she looked at the group of men spilling out of the booth in the corner. There were six of them, all in suits, half still in ties. One stood up to let another out, and she tried to catch his eye in the mirror as he scanned the room. Looking for prey, she thought, for a woman to take home, although there were few customers in here tonight, a Monday, and she almost wanted to wave at him to come over. But he glanced past her, sat alone at the bar twirling the stem of her wine glass, and instead it was his friend who spoke to her when he came to the bar to order another round of shots.
‘You want a sambuca?’ he said, almost shouting over the music coming from the television above the bar, and he pointed at the half dozen shot glasses circled on the tray in front of him. He was one of those still in a tie, maybe the youngest one, and the smallest too, looking almost adolescent, with blotchy skin even the dimness of the bar couldn’t hide, and a quiff of thick blonde hair. Twenty-two or three, Helen guessed, although the suit made him look even younger, as if it might be his school uniform.
She said no, and lifted the wine glass.
He told her that his name was Michael, and offered his hand, which she shook as she told him her name. He was quite drunk, even though it was only nine o’clock, and the barman, tall and with short ginger hair, threw a concerned look that Helen responded to with a smile and a subtle shake of the head that said she was fine, the secret code of single women and the staff in the bars they frequent.
‘It’s a bit early for shots,’ she said.
This was taken as an invitation to sit on the empty stool next to her. ‘We’ve been here since three, though,’ he said, gleeful.
‘Oh, what’s the occasion?’
‘Brad’s birthday,’ he said, and he pointed at the tallest one of the group, the one she’d hoped would come over.
‘Is he American?’ she said, and Michael looked perplexed. ‘I mean the name,’ she said. ‘You don't meet many Brads. It sounds American.’
Michael snorted. ‘No, he’s from Dorset.’ He leaned closer, one hand on the back of her stool, blocking her view of Brad and the others. She could smell him, in close like this, beer and sambuca and deodorant, and the sharp smell of stale sweat beneath it. She glanced over his shoulder and saw that the group was now taking an interest in Michael's progress. Nothing positive or noble, no rooting for their friend to fall in love here, but the prurient interest that some men take when in a pack, all hand gestures and muted catcalling. Some of them were giggling into their drinks.
‘Where are you from?’ Michael asked.
‘Here, London,’ she said, and as usual even the most innocuous of lies felt ridiculous, and impossible to pass off as the truth. But Michael just nodded.
‘I’m American,’ he said. ‘Born in New York. But I was brought up here.’
He was a far worse liar than her, because he would have just said this as soon as she asked if his friend was American, if it was true, not blurted it out as an afterthought. It was just a pickup line. She was supposed to be impressed, that he might be American, and that was fine, because Michael was fine; the runt of the litter, but he would do.
‘Oh really?’ she said, and beamed. ‘I’ve never been.’ She took a sip of her wine and stared at him, fascinated.
He nodded. ‘Yeah, I’ve not been back since either though.’ Then a non sequitur, the question he’d wanted to ask at the start: ‘Where’s your boyfriend?’
Helen had been asked this by many men, and sometimes women, when sat alone at the bar in various pubs and clubs, in various cities, New York included. Looking pretty and presentable, begging the question, just who might she be waiting for, because the assumption was rarely that she was there on her own out of choice. But the enquiry was usually made obliquely, hinted at or teased out by men, and sometimes women, who wanted to pick her up, but weren’t sure what her situation was.
‘I’ve left Frank at home,’ she said. It was the first thing she’d said to him that wasn’t a lie, and she followed it with a laugh.
He laughed too, as if this was a great joke, and he didn’t pursue it. Instead he pointed down with both hands, to a spot on the floor between them. ‘To be continued,’ he said, as if they were getting somewhere interesting, as if this might be the start of something, instead of them having barely exchanged names. The gesture felt familiar, like something out of a film, and she tried to place where she’d seen it as she watched him in the mirror, bringing the tray of shots back over to his friends, chugging his one down on the way. He’d looked skinny sitting down, but she saw now that he carried a little beer belly that he was years too young for.
She watched Brad, the one she’d really wanted, slap Michael's back and huddle him in, like a trainer with a boxer at the end of a round, telling him where he should be aiming his punches, asking him questions she couldn’t hear over the music video blaring out of the television above her, so loud that it pounded in her chest. Michael thumbed his finger over his shoulder, an I’ve got to get back gesture, a final slap on the shoulder from Brad, and a laugh from one of the others as he joined round two.
‘Are you sure I can’t get you a drink?’ he said, voice slurring now.
This time Helen nodded. ‘Why not?'
He talked about work, and how he was such an asset to Brad and the team, all bank workers. And his political views, which were to the right. He asked next to nothing about Helen, and she had the impression that rather than listening to her, he was waiting for his turn to speak. He was far from perfect, she thought, but he would do, and two drinks later she asked: ‘Do you want to get out of here?’
He blinked in disbelief, as if she had correctly guessed his birthday, and she wasn’t sure if the surprise was because he’d pulled so quickly, or that it had happened at all. Then he shrugged, playing things cool. ‘Yeah, okay.’
As they walked out, her first, he turned back to his friends and grinned, and then leered at her, tongue out, maybe not thinking that she would see, maybe too drunk to care. But she did see, in the glass of the front door, and was disappointed, but not surprised. A lot of them were like this. His friends had almost forgotten about them, having turned their attention to a couple of young women who’d had the misfortune to sit in a booth beside them, but now they reacted with cheers and chants of something that Helen couldn’t quite hear. Something lewd. She didn’t look back.
Outside, in the cool quiet of the street, he seemed contrite, apologising for his friends’ behaviour as they walked towards her place. He seemed to forget that he had been a part of it, that he had leered at her as they were leaving, showing off to his friends, treating her like a prize he’d won at the fair.
‘They just get a little out of it,’ he said, although he seemed the drunkest of them, weaving on the pavement now. ‘They’re good lads though. Don’t mean anything.’
‘No worries,’ she said.
‘I’m not like that.’
‘No, you seem nice,’ she said, but he didn’t.
His phone rang, and he reached into his coat to answer it. It was a girl, a Sarah, and Helen almost laughed, because of course there was a girlfriend, and of course he was too stupid or arrogant to not answer her call. But he stopped in the street to take the call, and through his side of the exchange it was clear that this wasn’t a girlfriend.
‘Yeah I’ll come after work,’ he said. There was a pause, and he raised one finger to Helen in apology, a gesture he seemed too young for. Then he spoke again. ‘Say seven. Is that too late?’ Another pause, and then he ended the call.
He apologised and fumbled the phone back into his coat pocket. They carried on walking. ‘My sister,’ he said. ‘Just popping round after work tomorrow to help her go shopping.’ And then, by way of explanation, he added: ‘she has leukaemia.’
Helen could tell that this was the truth, presented as a simple fact, instead of glossed and embellished to present him as the hero. He looked sad, taken aback by the call, an unwelcome reminder of real life on a fun night out, a night when he'd struck lucky, and she felt sorry for him, the phone call fleshing him out, making him seem human, and decent, and more than just some boorish young drunk.
She thought of making an excuse then—a sudden headache, or telling him that she just didn’t like him. Of letting this runt go, back to the pub tonight and to the shops with his sister tomorrow. Her fingers curled around her phone. She could let him go and text ahead. Tell Frank to stand down. Lie that she hadn’t found anyone, and promise that she would hunt again tomorrow night.
But then Michael put his arm around her shoulder, and squeezed, and smiled at her, almost another leer, the brash young drunk again.
Helen smiled back, fighting the urge to shrug his arm away, and she let go of her phone. Frank was hungry, and was waiting for them. Michael wasn’t perfect, but he would do.
Paul Nevin is a London-born and based author of short fiction about ghosts, monsters, and the horror of attending a party on your own. You can follow Paul on Twitter at @paulnevin.