Thirty years is a long time. Maybe not in terms of the movements of the planets. But for those of us going about our daily business down here, it’s quite a chunk of any of our lives.
Well, it’s been thirty years since I last had a drink at the “Blue’s Bar”.
The “Blue’s” is a modest place, similar to hundreds of bars all over Spain. It’s on a street corner and its floor to ceiling windows reveal an uninspiring interior. Dull brown tables and chairs, faun wallpaper and, beyond the odd football poster, not a single concession to the idea of décor.
In its heyday it was the focal point of the barrio where I lived. In the mornings, construction workers would call in for a snack and mothers would gather to gossip over coffee after dropping the kids off at school. It was packed for lunch time drinks and in the early evening, groups of older ladies, dressed in finery inappropriate to the dowdy surroundings, would spend hours playing parchis, their delicate fingers flying at dizzying speeds around the board as they rattled dice and gleefully devoured each other’s counters.
Our time for calling in was much later. We were a trio of English teachers, needing a beer after a long evening of classes. Despite the irksome apostrophe in the name – the kind of mistake we had spent all day trying to beat out of our pupils – we liked the place. It was always lively and, more importantly, did the cheapest steak sandwiches in town. At first, we were quite a novelty – there weren’t many foreigners in this rainy northern city – but we soon blended into the scene like everyone else.
The most assiduous group of clients were half a dozen “hombres del barrio” – local men of indeterminate age who spent most of their lives there. If there was an in-crowd at the “Blue’s Bar”, the “hombres del barrio” were it. Rogelio, who was the “Blue’s” owner, barman, kitchen assistant and occasional cleaner, attended to their every need. He handed them free cigarettes, topped up their drinks without needing to be asked and nodded vigorously at their observations on matters social and political. They always had first choice of which paper to read and frowned on anyone daring to take one of their stools.
After a while, my friends and I stopped going to the “Blue’s”. When we all found partners and began to lead a more settled life, it lost its attraction. A lot of the bar’s buzz had gone by then anyway. Other, trendier places had opened up nearby and the clientele had thinned out. Rogelio remained there behind the bar – his mat of slightly overlong hair showing the first signs of grey – with the resolution of a ship’s captain steering a course to nowhere. The most loyal of his customers – the barrio men – still came in for hours at a time, though I got the impression that even their number had begun to dwindle. “That’s life!” you might say, though “death” probably had a lot more to do with it.
For a few years afterwards, Rogelio would look up from emptying his dishwasher as I walked past and we would exchange a feeble nod, both in the knowledge that I wouldn’t be calling in. I couldn’t help feeling a little guilty, although I knew that my random beer wouldn’t make any difference to his finances or his self-esteem.
In the end I decided to avoid going near the place. It just seemed easier to use another route for my journey to work.
For years it was as if the “Blue’s” had ceased to exist. On the rare occasion I needed to use that street, I would hurry by without a sideways glance…
…Until a couple of weeks ago…
Thinking about past times – which I tend to do more nowadays – I decided to go that way, just out of curiosity.
It was late evening.
I was half expecting the bar to have closed, but the lights were all on and, as I approached, I could see Rogelio in his usual place, talking with one of the original barrio men – Victor was his name as far as I could remember.
It was like one of those scenes in a film when a room that has been locked for years is finally reopened. There were no visible cobwebs but the furniture, the paintwork and even the TV were the same as ever. And the two figures were standing there as if they’d been frozen to the spot.
As I walked past, they turned. For a second it was a bit creepy. Maybe I was in some kind of weird time warp.
But then they both smiled. A warm, genuine smile. I wasn’t expecting that. I always remembered the men in the bar as a gruff lot. Then again, I have noticed that everyone my age seems to have become friendlier in recent years. I suppose we’re all just comforted to see a fellow survivor.
Anyway, I smiled back and continued on my way.
Over the next few days I went past a few more times. I was fascinated by the fact that whatever time of day it was, there was never anybody else there.
We exchanged smiles on each occasion, but I didn’t go in. It felt as though I would be intruding…
…And then yesterday I saw the two of them again.
I was taking my morning walk along the promenade and I came upon them leaning on the balustrade and looking out to sea. It was a bright Autumn morning and Rogelio resembled one of those albino cave-dwelling creatures, suddenly finding itself in broad daylight. His pallid skin was drawn across his bony face and his hair was a mop of white.
We all greeted each other like long lost friends.
After exchanging a few pleasantries, I decided to broach the subject that had been intriguing me most about their endless hours in the bar.
“So, what do you find you talk about all day?”
“Oh, you know,” Rogelio said. “Philosophy, history, religion – that sort of thing…”
I gave a polite laugh. He obviously liked pulling people’s legs – and if it was a foreigner even better.
“No, it’s true. We’re just trying to unravel the mysteries of life. There’s a lot to it, you know…”
“Ah!” I said, though I was thinking: “And what about football…and women…?” Weren’t they the topics men were supposed to talk about in a Spanish bar?
“You see,” said Victor, “our latest interest is mythology.”
“That’s right. You must have heard of the River Styx.”
“Yes…” I answered with a frown. I was even more puzzled now.
“In that case, you’ll know it was the river the spirits of the dead crossed to reach the other world. The boatman Charon would ferry them across after their burial.”
Here he paused. He had a teacherly manner and I probably came across as a rather slow pupil. Satisfied that I was following his drift so far, he continued.
“Well, Rogelio and I liked the notion that our old friends – the ones who used to spend so many hours with us in the bar – have just ‘gone over’ to the other side. And, to visualize the concept better we decided to come down here.”
“I see,” I said, though I didn’t really. The cheery morning scene around us bore little resemblance to my idea of the Greek underworld.
“Now, the Styx could have been as wide as the ocean we see here. Of course, it’s an unlikely hypothesis, but it was always said that you couldn’t see the other side. And so – suspending our disbelief for a moment – we are able to imagine that far over there somewhere…” – he now pointed towards the horizon – “Tino, Angel and Jimmy are waiting for us to join them.”
“Oh!” I said.
In an oddly synchronized movement, the three of us lifted our hands to shield our eyes from the sun and looked out beyond the shimmering waves.
“Not only that,” he went on. “This notion has also reconciled us with the fact that we’ll be making the same journey ourselves before too long…”