They had arranged to meet at the usual time and place. Seven o’clock at the Blue Angel pub on the last Monday of the month. They had kept this arrangement for several months and would often meet on other occasions as well, but had this regular date to catch up with each other’s news, to talk about work, life, love, the past, present, future and anything else that came to mind. A few drinks, a huge meal, a few more drinks followed by the much younger David usually driving the much older John home as he would have had a few more than was absolutely necessary. There was nothing extraordinary about their meetings. It was just a couple of friends having a quiet night out at the pub.
The last Monday in July fell on the twenty-fourth. David was still waiting for John to arrive at seven thirty, but knew that he would eventually turn up as he had a reputation for tardiness. He didn’t mind the wait as the warmth of the log fire and the comfortable, familiar atmosphere of their local were more than company enough. He decided to order their drinks anyway. His usual pint of Guinness, which would probably last all night and a pint of best bitter for John, which would most certainly not last more than ten minutes. He would usually leave a message at the bar with Sarah if he was going to be late, but she told David that it was much more entertaining listening to his excuses in person anyway.
Sarah had become quite a good friend over the past few months. David had an opportunity to chat to her while waiting for John to arrive. Mondays were generally quiet enough for her to spare time to listen and she only worked on Mondays and Tuesdays too, so would be there when they had their monthly meetings. John said she looked like one of his many former girlfriends. It seemed as though he had been out with every woman in the South of England. There was even a woman from Guadeloupe whom they had recently met on one of their Monday nights together. John was convinced that her name was Carmena and that he had first got to know her while working as a circus hand travelling with a troupe across Europe in the sixties. He said that she was one of the most acrobatically inclined trapeze artist that he had had the good fortune to have ever come across. David just accepted such stories as part of their friendship.
It was now after eight and David was getting hungry, as he had not eaten since a midday lunch with his girlfriend. He also knew that he would be feasting with his reliably late friend later that same day, so he asked Sarah to bring the food through in a few minutes as John would never be more than an hour or so late. One recent excuse was that he had got caught up with in traffic which quite disappointed David who had grown accustomed to far more colourful reasons for John’s complete inability for punctuality.
However, a problem of mere traffic congestion easily achieved on a narrow lane in Oxfordshire, somehow suddenly developed into an elaborate tale involving two nuns, numerous haystacks and twenty chickens running riot in and around John’s extremely rusty and incredibly purple Morris Minor, which he knew as Maria. He said that he had not cleaned his beloved Maria for a few days leading these poor creatures to believe that purple was the second colour of the wallpaper in this, their second home. After two hours of gathering and then returning the birds to their respective coops, he said goodbye to the nuns, who had most intriguingly decided to park their mini beneath the haystacks by John’s stables and had previously caused a traffic jam on the main road in front of the stables stretching at least the three miles back into town and then, finally, John headed for the pub. He was feeling neither guilty nor religious enough to help out the poor nuns. They had just caused havoc in his stable yard. He would never and probably could never simply get caught up in traffic.
His first ten minutes and often his first pint would be spent telling his young and receptive friend about how he had been involved in something tremendously exciting or at least, remotely amusing earlier that afternoon causing him to be late. The extravagance of the story depended on his mood or even occasionally, on what actually did happen that day. On another occasion he tried to convince David that he was late because he had been propositioned by an old flame while having lunch at a local restaurant and that they had spent the remainder of the afternoon rekindling that flame in the apartment above where she lived. It’s convenient being the old flame of a restaurant manageress I guess. His excuses for being late were always avidly absorbed by the younger and more impressionable David. Each time would be a test of both John’s imagination and David’s willingness to believe him.
David often thought John’s solitary element of stability lay in his physical appearance. A tall man with hair that was just that little too long for a man of his mature and supposedly respectable years, wearing a pair of spectacles with which he would peer down at his friend, giving him the air of a slightly eccentric university professor with bizarrely clashing shirts and ties to boot. An educated man with an experience of life that always fascinated David, who would avidly listen to John recounting the times when he used to harbour Chilean political refugees in his house in Paris, learning to speak fluent Spanish in the process. Or how he was arrested for being a prime mover in the anti-Vietnam demonstrations in late sixties America. Or as a teacher of philosophy in one of the more progressive schools in southern England, he would play his extremely old and battered guitar while his students sang the words to ‘the Times They-Are-A-Changin’’ or ‘Tears of a Clown’. He was of the opinion that his students would learn much more about the philosophy of life from the words of Bob Dylan or Smokey Robinson than from Nietzsche or Kant. Surprisingly enough, the school was not that progressive. John always thought they were rockers anyway.
He was old enough to be David’s father and at times, their relationship was very much akin to that of father and son. David would have liked him as a father as he had never really got on with his own and equally, perhaps John would have liked David as a son as he never quite saw things in the same way as his son. It didn’t matter. They got on well and made each other laugh, especially at the Blue Angel on a Monday night.
Sarah was just lighting the candles on the table as David went to sit down at his usual place with a full view of the fireplace. He then sipped at his Guinness and gazed at the fire, which always instilled in him a warm sense of tranquillity.
“You know you shouldn’t do that. It’s terribly bad for your eyes.”
David looked up and saw John with pint reassuringly in hand already.
“So sorry I am late, my friend.”
He then began to explain how he had been involved in a road accident on Wakerton High Street that morning and that he had been admitted to hospital. He was surprisingly evasive about the accident itself, but enthusiastically continued to tell me about something, which he had found far more stimulating.
“And there was this beautiful nurse who looked so familiar!” he said, evidently fully recovered.
The story that followed was well up to his usual standard. The nurse was Brazilian. He first met her in a bar in Rio de Janeiro about twenty years previously. She wanted to live in America and thanks to a rarely seen father born in New York in the twenties, John had American citizenship and wanted to help her out. They were married in Las Vegas within a week. He returned to Europe three months later and had not seen her at all until now. David did not even get to find out about the accident because John kept talking about the nurse, who it later turned out, went by the familiar name of Maria.
Despite the brevity and convenience of their relationship, seeing his first and only wife again gave David the opportunity to see John in a very different light. Showing his emotions had never really been part of John’s contribution to their evenings before. He was still clearly in love with Maria and David could not understand why John had never even mentioned her before, but either way he enjoyed listening to his friend chat endlessly about this woman. He had never even spoken about a previous affair with such passion. Who knows, maybe this one had actually happened! It certainly did not seem like just another one of his stories. After all she also had the dubious honour of sharing the same name as his beloved car. The whole subject had been a revelation to both John and David. Sarah brought the food through.
This Monday night was like all the others. They were definitely creatures of habit open these occasions. They both spent the evening talking about anything and everything. With Maria the person as opposed to the Morris Minor, being the most popular topic of conversation. By closing time they had had a veritable feast and had shared several pints, though as usual John’s share was a tad greater than his friend’s. David finished his drink and asked Sarah for the bill as it was his turn to pay this month. He had ordered a medium rare steak with roast potatoes and vegetables followed by apple crumble with custard for dessert. John always had the same except that he preferred his steak rare. Then there were the drinks. David’s solitary pint of Guinness and John’s six pints of best bitter. The bill was always the same as they always had the same to eat and drink, but David just felt like checking through it. He had never really looked at it before.
At the top of the bill was the Blue Angel name, address, telephone and VAT number. Beneath that were the items that had been ordered and their prices, which were not that bad considering the quality and quantity of food and drink they had both consumed that night and every other night in the pub. Then at the bottom was the date: 28.12.94. It had been five months since John had been killed in that road accident on Wakerton High Street. David still went to the Blue Angel on the last Monday of each month. Still ordering the usual menu, including John’s six pints. Still paying the same amount for the bill. Still waiting for John, who would always appear amidst one of David’s increasingly common drunken hazes. He only used to drink a pint of Guinness when he met up with John because he knew that he would more than likely have to drive him home. However, there was also the fact that he could not physically drink more than a single pint without getting completely slaughtered. He was now sharing the six pints of best bitter with himself and his drunken haze. David still came to the Blue Angel for that warm sense of tranquillity and familiarity but also, simply to talk to John. He missed his friend. He was not going to miss their Monday nights at the Blue Angel.
That wonderfully warm summer’s day seemed so far away now. This Monday night had not been very festive. David went to settle up at the bar. He thanked Sarah for her patience and help, wished her a Happy New Year and said that he would see her again next month. Then he called for a taxi.