brief lives (a love story)
by joshua weiss
Robert Gadling was cold. He stood, alone as usual, ankle-deep in the dirty snow of the streets of London. Before him was a behemoth door of painted-black wood from an aging oak in north-central Scotland. Just two feet of air and two inches of wood separated Robert Gadling from the warmth and communal comfort of the tavern.
High above the rooftops of nearby Westminster Abbey, the frigid January wind yanked a few solitary flakes of snow from the overcast sky and gently set them down upon the tavern's bright chartreuse neon sign ("THE L DY DIANA'S P B") that flickered its simple, yet profound message into the evening with an accompanying buzz that kept time to a tempoless tune.
Robert Gadling gazed up at the message, sighed, and opened the black behemoth. He wondered vaguely if this tavern were like "Cheers," and whether, at the exact second he entered, everyone would yell "Norm!" like they do on the telly.
Robert Gadling entered the tavern, and business continued without a large vocal interruption.
Outside, the tune continued to play.
The tavern itself had been founded some 640 years previous to Robert Gadling's present entrance, and had, for some 625 years, been known as the "Boar's Head Inn." However, with Diana and the advent of the "newer, gentler" British monarchy, the name had subsequently been changed. Presently, the owner was considering renaming the establishment yet again, this time to "Prince William's Tavern," for the owner had a keen, some would say tragic and vicious, sense of humor. The owner knew of Robert Gadling, of course, for how could any owner of a liquor-selling establishment in London not? There had been tales told of Robert Gadlings of the past, marvelous tales of the man who survived the black death, of the man who had seen a sea serpent in the Atlantic Ocean. The owner simply supposed that this generation's Robert Gadling was a descendant of those others, perhaps his full name would be something along the lines of Robert Alfred Gadling XIII, or some such double-digit number. The owner supposed incorrectly.
The heat of the tavern hit Robert Gadling like a blast from the depths of hell. Surely, he thought, the tavern need not have its fire burning, there are enough people here to compensate twelve-fold. But the fire burned still. Wasn't anyone else unseemly warm? The thought was fleeting, a gazelle on the African plain.
The tavern itself was perfectly square in shape, save for the small protrusion necessitated by the chimney. Rectangular wooden tables had been set up in three perfectly neat rows of three tables each, and at each table there were no empty seats. The bar occupied the other half of the tavern, but it was unusually empty, only three people seated with room for thrice that many. High above, six rafters spanned the ceiling, supporting the weight of the roof and keeping the walls from falling in. Or out, for that matter.
Robert Gadling removed his trench coat, hung it with reverence on the rack, and sat down at the stool farthest away from anyone else at the bar. It is not that he wished to be alone. Quite the opposite; however he did not wish to be with anyone in the state of drunkenness, as all of the patrons currently appeared to be.
"Oh Lord, another inexperienced tender," thought Robert Gadling as the bar's tender approached. From Robert's viewpoint, the dim lighting (for "atmosphere," of course) being what it was, the tender looked to be about twenty years old. His upper lip and chin looked so smooth he may as well not have needed to shave a day in his life, which was so foreign to the usually-hirsute Gadling that it frightened him. The tender had those bright blue eyes that just sort of pierce their way into your soul, like a bayonet, almost, only not as painful. His long brown hair cascaded down from his scalp almost, but not quite, brushing against his shoulders like a whisper. He smiled softly, and it was that smile that had wooed ladies and lords alike, and now would have wooed Robert Gadling, had he been looking to be wooed.
"Not even a boy," whispered Robert Gadling under his breath, so softly that he did not even hear it. "Not even a boy, yet so much more. He even transcends androgyny. The Kind Ladies must be enjoying this one."
"Oh Lord, another middle-aged drunkard," thought the tender as he approached Robert Gadling. To the tender, his new customer appeared as though he had just gotten off a plane from America, on which there were 300 screaming children preventing anyone from falling asleep or, perhaps, watching an in-flight movie. He could very well have been a corpse, animated by some ancient thaumaturgical ritual performed 600 years ago by a defunct sect of witches in order to create a hero for their time, but which backfired and produced a man who was simply tired. The tender did not know how accurate this thought really was. Robert had no distinguishing features, save for a full head of beautiful ruddy hair, despite his apparent age. The tender was immediately jealous.
"He sure looks like he's been about, though," admired the tender. "Bet he'd be a great chap to sit and talk with. Bet he's got some great stories to tell."
Outside, the tune continued to play. Inside, the buzz that accompanied the throngs of drunken men dwindled as they began to saunter home through the streets of London, back to their children and their wives, back to their comfortable homes, back to their worthless little lives they took for granted.
"So what can I get you?" questioned the tender of his new customer.
"Dark Mead, if you've got it," replied Robert Gadling, even though he knew the reply would simply be:
"Dark Mead, sir?" asked the tender.
"Oh, bugger all, just give me a scotch."
Robert Gadling missed the taste of Dark Mead. His fondest memory of it had been one night long ago when he had sat down with his friend dressed all in black and chatted about friendship over a cup of Mead. You couldn't get it anywhere. Not since 1847, at least.
"Here you go, sir," said the tender, pushing the glass gently toward his customer.
"Thanks. And stop it with that 'sir' business. The name's Robert Gadling, but you can call me Hob."
"Certainly, Hob. a pleasure to meet you."
"I don't suppose I could have the pleasure of knowing your name?"
"Sorry, no. Store policy."
Hob sipped his drink which tasted something almost, but not entirely, unlike scotch. He didn't approve, but didn't want to tell the beautiful boy. He couldn't do anything about it.
The tavern grew emptier, and so, inversely, did Hob's stomach grow more full. More and more men filed out the door, swaying ever so slightly, drinking complimentary coffee and hailing taxis left and right. More and more scotch traveled the long road through Hob's esophagus, until he was, by the tender's estimation, thoroughly incapacitated. Finally, Hob and the tender were the only men who remained, even the last embers of the fire had since burnt, and the tender had become quite cold. It reminded him of home.
"DEATH!" shouted Hob suddenly, as the tender was starting the fire anew, not wanting to be reminded of his home any longer. "Death waits for no man, yadda yadda yadda, blah blah blah, however the hell that goes. Everybody dies. It's a fact of life, they all say, and then they accept it quietly as some big bloody plan or something. 'Bollocks!' I said! I didn't want to die, and I made up my mind that I wouldn't. And you know what? I haven't yet. Every now and then she sees me and asks if I want to yet. That's another thing that gets my goat. Death's a girl. A bloody girl. Not the whole skeleton and scythe bit. A girl. Wears black and a little Egyptian thingy. What do you call it? Anyway. So she asks me, an' I always say 'No, an' thank you kindly for overlookin' me for this long.'"
The tender, having lit the fire successfully, returned to his post behind the bar, listening attentively, if skeptically. He said little. After all, it was not his place. His was to listen, and little more.
"Can I tell you a secret? You seem like a nice boy an' all. I bet you'd keep a secret, wouldn't you?" asked Hob.
"Sure would. Tell me anything you want, my lips are sealed."
"You know how long I've been coming to this tavern? 600 years. 600 years. I was 35 when I decided not to die. And that was in the 1300's. Do you believe me, lad?"
"Of course. Why wouldn't I?" the tender lied politely. Surely that was impossible. Surely a man couldn't possibly live that long.
"There's a good lad. I've seen a lot. Been around the world at least a hundred times. Seen everything, said everything, done everything. Acted plays, sang songs, wrote books, drank a hell of a lot of beer, made love with at least one woman in every country of the world. How'd you like to do that, my lad?"
"Not my cup of tea, really," replied the tender uneasily. He didn't feel comfortable talking about women. At all. Women just weren't his thing. "I mean, the acting and writing sounds really grand. Have I read any of your books?" "Play the game, play the game, and maybe you'll get home sooner," thought the tender. The thought of his flat and the beautiful human that awaited him there aroused him tremendously, and he became red in the face as he tried awkwardly to hide it.
"No, no, of course not. They weren't any good. Had some marvelous ideas in them, some really keen ideas, but I can't write worth anything. I don't know why. Just can't. Ah well. There's always liquor to keep you goin'."
"Yes, I suppose there is that."
Time passed uneasily. The tender grew increasingly tired, yet Hob showed no signs of weariness. Story after story was told, about surviving the black death, and seeing a sea serpent in the Atlantic Ocean, and meeting this "really swell chap who wanted to be a woman. Alvin was his name. Cor, if that were my name I'd change it to Wanda, too." The tender listened politely, as was his place. He desperately wanted to return home, to be with his spouse, and yet he wanted to remain here as well, and listen to all these stories. Of course they could not possibly be true, and yet they were told in such vivid detail that he couldn't help but fall in to the magic and mystery of Hob's "life."
Time passed more easily now, until the tender excused himself to use the restroom. He glanced at his watch: 5:30 a.m. Three hours past closing. He returned to a conversation already in progress. A young girl had entered, far too young, it seemed, to be in such a place legally, yet there she stood, dressed all in black. An ankh hung from a thin cord around her neck. She was beautiful. Even for a woman.
"Took you long enough to get here. I said your name two hours ago," said an angry Hob, half falling off of his stool.
"You only said it once," mentioned the girl.
"My mistake. Are you ready then?"
Hob pondered the question for what seemed an eternity, as though he had been pondering it in the back of his mind steadily for 600 years and had forgotten the thought had even been there, and was therefore surprised to have it become so prevalent so quickly. He looked the girl in the eye, and said nothing.
"I see," said the girl with the faint smile that had wooed ladies and lords alike. She then proceeded to walk out of the tavern.
"I know her, don't I? I've seen her before, haven't I?" asked the tender in all seriousness.
"Only once, my lad. Thanks for everything. But now I'm afraid it's time for me to go home. I need my rest," said Hob, suddenly quite sober, leaving a 500 pound note on the bar.
"I'll see you around then, Mr. Gadling? Won't I? Hob?"
"I doubt it, boy. I doubt it." replied Hob, putting on his trench coat and stepping out again into the cold snow of London.
The tender looked after him for a long time, just standing there. The fire had burnt out again, and suddenly he was reminded again of his boyhood home. This time, however, it felt like the time his best friend had been in a car accident. It felt awful. Cold, hollow, and damp was what it was. Just like the snow outside, just like home. The tender turned off the tavern lights, silencing the merry tune of the sign outside, leaving only the emptiness no other city has but London. He put on his jacket, locked the door, and started his walk home, weeping silently for reasons of which he was not aware.
Upon arriving at his flat, the tender silently undressed and crawled into bed, careful not to wake his lover, but to no avail.
"Hey. Where've you been?" he asked, stirring slightly beneath his warm comforter.
"The bar. Crazy customer. Couldn't get him to leave," answered the tender, crawling into bed, their naked bodies meeting comfortably.
"I understand. Get some sleep, love."
They kissed once, sweetly, and lay themselves down in each other's arms.
Robert Gadling was cold. He lay, alone as usual, in his bed, sheets strewn about the floor in utter disarray. A single ray of sunlight shot like a bullet from his window, falling upon his silent face with such ease as only dawn can bring. Around him, London was waking up to a bright new day; showers were being turned on, breakfasts were being made, businesses were being opened. Robert Gadling lay in his bed with a smile on his face, a smile of satisfaction, of a job well done. Hob had been awake long enough. Now it was his time to sleep.
On the other side of the city, the tender began to snore softly.