The bargirl began placing the empty chairs atop their tables one by one. Even with all the lights on in the pub it was very dark, but the younger man had no difficulty seeing his friend’s expression. Even many years ago, the older man’s eyes, set deep in a young face, were aged well beyond their years, but rather than showing weary resignation they glowed with a sort of simmering mischief, the sort of look one would see in the eyes of a man who was in on the joke. Tonight that light had retreated to some distant recess, replaced by a look the younger man had no difficulty recognizing. His friend, always somewhat haunted even in the light of day, was seeing his ghosts before him as real as if they were made flesh.
“You know my mother never trusted them,” he began.
“Never a one of them. And when she fell and broke her leg…she was a heavy woman, you know that?”
“And when she fell and broke her leg, she wouldn’t even go to a doctor, because all the doctors were prods. And she had my uncle set it for her. And she stayed in bed. We were worried, it was my dad that worried most of all, but she’d have no doctor, and then the infection started.”
The younger man said nothing, though he’d heard the story before. Somehow, listening to it in the telling calmed the both of them, the way a long sigh after weeping settles the muscles and bones of the mourner.
“We begged her to go, but she’d say, ‘They’ll take my leg, I know they will.’ And we told her they’d have to if we didn’t get to them quick. And sure enough, the leg became gangrenous. You could smell it in the room.” He paused as if remembering against his will. “We finally found a doctor who would come to the house. He was an Indian man. He told her, told us all, what we already knew, that she would have to go in hospital and the leg would have to come off. She wouldn’t have it. Said she’d die in her own home. That’s what they reduced us to. To that. And I begged the man and asked if there wasn’t some other way. I could see him wanting to say something, struggling with it. I begged him some more. Finally, he told me that in his village in India, in a case like that, they would tie a tourniquet around the leg and wait for it to spontaneously amputate. The person would die sometimes. He wouldn’t put the tourniquet on himself, but he told me how to do it, and I did it, and…can you imagine?”
“Well, she lived, somehow. And she lay in that bed for six months. We finally managed to get her to go a clinic where they made prosthetics, and given the nature of warfare on our green and glorious isle, they were able to fit one to what was left of her leg. And after all that time, I got to see my mother walk again, with a cane. And then it was me that couldn’t stand, because my legs left me and I slid right down the wall.”
He was quiet for so long that the younger man spoke to break him from his memories lest he drown in them.
“It was so long ago…”
“Did you ever feel,” the older man spoke abruptly, “that there was this time that was your life, and then there was everything after that? And the everything after is not your life, but something else?”
The bargirl, finished with her chores, turned off the lights and stood silhoutted in the door, holding it open. When she spoke her voice was quiet, distant, hollow.