Marti has become content with his solitary existence. Drinking in the darkest recess of the bar, he observes unnoticed. The relaxed tongues of his fellow drinkers provide endless scoops for the small-time magazine he works for. Then a surprise assignment to Eastern Europe promises Marti some action and he relishes the break from his routine.
Naria is a young Syrian, more accustomed to university life than the physical rigours forced upon her as she flees her war-torn home. Despite the atrocities she witnesses on her tortuous journey, Naria adapts and focuses on one goal – to get away.
On the trail of a story, Marti and Naria’s paths cross. Where once he just saw a story, Marti begins to understand the plight of the refugees. He didn’t set out looking for love. Despite his journalistic observation skills, will Marti see what is right in front of his eyes?
In the semi darkness of the pub, the man was nothing more than a shadow tucked away in the gloom. He sat alone in the corner with discarded bottles of alcohol around him, they were all varying sizes and shapes of rum, whiskey, brandy-basically everything the pub had that has been specifically brewed to dull the human senses.
All around him, the loud noises of activity rang out clear and shrill. The pub was one of the surviving few in the district that still had an old jukebox with all the lights and levers perfectly functioning. There was even an arcade in the area. Not that the man had much need for these though, he only comes here for one thing and one thing alone- to drink until his liver screams out: no more!
The bartender eyed him curiously. The bartender was a wily old man of almost seventy years old and he was one of the last few surviving relics from what was oftentimes referred to as the Golden Age of bartending. The bartender was originally from Kent but he moved over to this side of Cardiff to escape some rather unglamorous events from his past. He worked a few odd jobs in his time but then he scrounged up just enough to open this pub and for the past forty years, he had been working hard enough to ensure that when people walked past by 6am, looking for something heavy to set the pace of the day for them, his doors were always open. The bar started out as a plank of wood suspended between two oil drums on the street. His hippie mate Sef began it when he dropped out of high school at 16, much to the dismay of his overachieving parents. All those piano lessons gone to waste. He moved out and stayed with his friends for a while, then he got mighty sick of having back ache like some old man and he got motivated. His bar was a huge success, none of his friends were old enough to get into a real bar for drink. His raves made him pretty wealthy for a teen and everyone thought he’d be a druggie next, now that he was so flush and all. But that’s not what happened. He never touched a drop of booze, in his glass was water with food dye to make it look like whiskey, or water in a vodka bottle. Sef went right out and bought a suit, got a bank loan and started a real classy bar. In his years of operation, the old bartender had had the pleasure of serving many interesting characters and there was hardly a better way to understand human nature than around a bunch of raucous specimens who would unwind and be at their most relaxed, telling rather confidential stories loudly.
The man seated in the dark corner was not the strangest character that had ever walked into his pub, no, not by a long shot but still there was something rather intriguing about him. Most drinkers are creatures of habit. They usually come in for one thing and one thing alone; to escape their demons and drown their unglamorous memories in glasses of alcohol. Most people would usually order just one brand of a drink. There are Jack Daniels men, there are Budweiser people, and then the Carlsberg folks too. The pattern was usually followed so judiciously that the bartender could tell what every one of his major customers would buy once he or she walk in through the door. The same was true for the man in the dark corner. He would walk straight to the bar and start the night off with pints of strong beer. He always sat at the same spot each time he was around and whenever he comes in to see anybody seated at his spot, he would leave and come back later that night. He would then drink hard and fast until the only way to get out of the pub was by staggering and swaying from side to side. That was his routine every time he came into the bar and the bartender had come to recognize this for what he was.
And the man had an interesting appearance too. If they had met in other circumstances, the bartender would have said that the man looked attractive with his green eyes hooded over by a wide-brimmed felt hat. But not here. Here, the bartender barely has enough time to observe him before he goes straight to his favorite perch in the dark corner of the bar. The bartender did not know the man’s name and quite frankly, he could not care much. He had never seen the man come into the pub with any of his mates or even colleagues, that was assuming he had a steady job but in order to pay for the large amount of booze he buys every time, he must have one and one that pays well to boot!
The average man will think there was more to Marti than meets the eye and in this case, he would be right. Marti nursed his glass of vodka as he observed the crowd around him. He savored the smell of the vodka martini. In one swell move, he downed the content and it burned his throat as it traveled down into his stomach.
Marti pursed his lips as he waited for the burning sensation to go down. Tears tingled behind his eyes. He was a man to hold his liquor but after the fifteenth glass, even the strongest of drinkers would be having his fair share of tipsiness by now. But Marti was just getting ready for the night. He turned around to survey the crowd and then turned back to his drink.
The bar is hundreds of conversations told in loud voices, all of them competing with the rock music that dominates the atmosphere. The crowd is young, students from the university for the most part. The smoke twisted in its artistic way, forming curls in the gloom, illuminated only by the age-speckled bar lights. Along the wall was every hue of amber liquid in their inverted bottles
He seemed to be concentrating on his booze but in actuality, he was listening to the conversations going on around him. To the people around him, he was just one more person who had come into the bar to get his fix of alcohol but Marti was actually multi-tasking. He was on duty and right now, his duty required for him to drink some alcohol. The drinking is one of the few perks of Marti’s job as a reporter with one of the lesser-known magazines in the city.
The Daily Reel is one of those magazines with loud headlines that you see on newsstands all across the city but it is not the one you pick off the shelf to read while having your morning coffee. But Marti did not mind, he was a darned good reporter and at least, the job was making good on its primary purpose: paying his bills.
Here in the bar, Marti usually opts for the darkest corner because it is the most inconspicuous and over time, people even forget that he is there and they talk about basically anything and everything imaginable. Here in the bar, there are no restraints, people talk about anything. That was how Marti was always getting his scoops, well, one of the ways anyway and whenever he tells his superior he got a piece of news from an anonymous source, this is usually what he means. Sometimes, he wonders why more reporters are not stationed to bars and pubs around the city for fact-gathering missions. In Marti’s experience, you can learn more about basically anything out here than you would anywhere else in the city. And the people are always ready to talk! And then there is the booze which Marti can never get enough of, anyway, he chooses to look at it, it is a win-win situation for all the parties involved.
He checked his wristwatch in the gloom; the luminous dials announced it was a few minutes to 11 pm. Time to pack up shop. Marti felt a bit woozy as he stood up to leave his seat. As always, he unsettled the bottles on the table in front of him and he had to quickly reach out before one of them could tumble to the ground in a crash of shattering glass.
He headed over to the bar where he settled his bill for the night. He always paid cash and as he left, the old bartender smiled back at him. As always, the reporter in Marti wondered just what the man’s story was. His old eyes twinkled with tales of intense adventures yet untold. Yet again, Marti made a mental note to maybe sit the man down and run a feature on the story of his life one of these days. Maybe he would add a bit of a spin to it to make it sound more glamorous than it really was.
But as always when he stepped outside, all of these thoughts vanished. All that was left was the shade of drab greyness that characterized his days. To Marti, the world did not appear as bright and colorful as it does to regular people. He watched as a couple trudged down the grey road bordered by large trees to head further downtown. Maybe yet another man coming back home late from work.
The streets were illuminated by bright streetlamps.
The street was glorious in its inception. The sidewalks were smooth grey stones, joined with such precision that the joins were almost invisible. The walls were concrete, but not like a villa in rural Spain; they were more akin to the construction of a modernist skyscraper, all sharp edges and corners. The buildings were nothing short of monoliths, the bastions of the city’s pride, stamping its arrival on the map of financially significant places to trade with. Yet no-one had communicated this vision to the citizenry. The street that should have been such a joy to walk was littered with garbage and the detritus of dogs.
The street winds over the hill like a carelessly discarded belt, grey and cracked with age. On each side, the houses are separated by yards large enough to accommodate farm animals, but this is no rural district. The homes are many times larger than even the biggest of families might need, yet in each are mostly parents with one child. To each dwelling, there are more sports cars than people and kitchens that cost more than the homes just a block over.
The street has seen so many transitions. There were redbrick terraced homes that were built for the railway workers without even internal washrooms. Inside their walls had dwelt families far too large for two bedrooms up top. Marti could bet the children mostly slept in the long narrow living rooms that blended right into the kitchen. But this is London and from the latter half of the 1900’s these solid houses close to transit and the city center could never remain for the poor. They became “executive” with all the amenities the professionals demanded. No longer were the gardens for growing vegetables but instead became home to new horticultural creations in vivid magentas, yellows and burnt orange. In the soft late autumn light, they are simply deserted. Inside the damp creeps ever upward, peeling away designer wallpapers.
Marti leaned against one of them as he sucked in deep breaths. He had to get sober and soon too. When he felt suitably ready, he straightened up and resumed his walk down the street. Most of the houses on this side of the street were the sort associated with small families. Marti walked past slowly, enjoying the steady feel of the gentle night air on his skin. He felt the air brush past his hat. He felt relieved. He felt alive.
His destination was a single-story house. He walked up to the porch and leaned on the doorbell. Minutes later, the door was pulled open to reveal an attractive blonde woman. She could be in her late twenties, mid-thirties or even early forties. She had one of those annoyingly ambiguous faces. But Marti did not care. She had a purpose and she served it well.
“Are you drunk?” She asked.
Here he was in the middle of the night ringing up yet another one of his female friends with benefits scattered around the city. Here was yet another perk associated with his job.
“It’s a cold night.” Marti answered in a soft voice.
“That it is.” She agreed as she leaned towards him and drew him closer for a kiss. It was long and within moments, Marti felt the last bits of booze leaving his system. He slid his hands down the length of her body and laid them to rest on her ass. It still felt soft and sizeable. He squeezed.
“How about we take this party upstairs?” She asked after they broke away to get some air. She sounded out of breath and her hair was already out of place.
With the two of them still tightly entwined, Marti led her up the stairs and on into her bedroom. He knew his way around the house as if it were the back of his own palm.
The kiss of the sun on his face woke him up a few hours later. He winced as he felt a stabbing pain in his head as he made to sit upright in bed.
“I should know better.” He groaned.
The bed was already properly made and his partner was not around. As always, there was a note on the nightstand. It said something about breakfast and where to keep the keys.
Marti enjoyed relationships like this. Short and mutually beneficial. There was no exclusivity contract and he was free to do pretty much what he wanted. That was exactly what he did.
He reached for his phone to discover that he had about seven missed calls from his boss. Instinctively, he opened his mail app. His eyes lit up as he read through the documents. They were details of an assignment. He was being sent to cover yet another unrest in the Middle East. He grinned broadly. Maybe this month was going to have some action after all. But after he read through the documents, he only had one question:
“Where the fuck is Tovarnik?”