By: Sam Paget
You win some; you lose some, as I always say. My father always said it, and now so do I. I’ve said it to my old pal Paul quite a few times. Our wives were friends from way back, and that’s how we hit it off. We went on a few double dates before either of us got married. We kept on meeting for drinks or curry more or less every payday after that. Paul often complained about a bad day or a bad week at work, and I’d say to him, “you win some; you lose some.” That was all I could ever think to say, because I didn’t really care how Paul’s work was going, truth be told. It was all I said when his wife Debbie got diagnosed with dementia. Sounds bad, I know, but I was so surprised that I just answered on autopilot. You know what I mean? I’d never realized that it was possible to get dementia that young. I think she was thirty-seven or thirty-eight, something like that, at the time. If she’d turned forty there would have been a big party and I would remember. Anyway, it’s apparently possible to get dementia at any age, it’s just a lot rarer for younger folks. Paul and Debbie were unlucky. You win some; you lose some.
I turned up outside their house at about six one evening. Paul had wanted to go for drinks. I knocked on the door and he let me in.
“Sorry about the mess,” said Paul. We went into the living room and sat down. Besides a few drying clothes the house was actually in good shape, though old Debbie wouldn’t have been satisfied. I know my wife wouldn’t have been either. He’d vacuumed the carpets, and probably dusted, but not as thoroughly as Debbie would have.
“You want a coffee?” he asked.
“Yes please pal.”
We drank coffee while we waited for a taxi to pick us up. Paul had had his hair cut earlier in the day and he was wearing his best t-shirt and watch. He’d put on a bit of weight recently and had bags under his eyes.
“How have you been doing?” I asked. “Debbie not around?” I was glad that she wasn’t. The last few times I’d spoken to her she’d been distinctly off and irritable. She’d forgotten things I’d told her more than once. Talking to her had been a long walk on a treadmill.
“Debbie’s gone into a home now,” said Paul. “She was attacking me too often, hitting me and slapping me when she was having a bad day. I wasn’t able to look after her too well. It wasn’t enough just to have the carers come round twice a day anymore. I’ve gotten her into a place where they look after her properly. It’s mostly old folks, but they accepted Debbie anyway. I moved her in the other day. Her parents helped organize everything. It’s the same place her gran was in for a little while.”
“Oh, okay. I see. You still visit her often?” I asked.
“Most days. I was hoping to stop worrying now that someone’s looking after her all day. It used to play on my mind a lot at work and she was at here. It still does, quite often, just not quite as much.”
“As long as they’re looking after her all right.”
“She seems as happy as she was here, more or less. ”
We talked about how my new car was, and how Paul was thinking of getting a new car soon. Then the taxi turned up. Paul locked the house up and we climbed in. We headed to a pub we’d been to before a dozen times. It had been under new management for a few months, and we hadn’t been to it since it had changed hands.
“Hopefully the new paint smell will’ve worn of,” I said.
The taxi dropped us off outside the pub. It was busier than I ever remembered. Dozens of people were smoking cigarettes outside. There was music on but it wasn’t too loud to talk over. We went in and I got the first round. I started off with pints of stout, and we set up by the slot machines. That was a mistake; I immediately started chucking money into the machines. That’s the kind of thing I like to do while drinking. I don’t do ‘proper gambling’, never have, but I enjoy playing slot machines. The stout was pretty good. It tasted of iron.
“They never really had decent craft beers before, did they?” I said. “This doesn’t taste bad.”
“No, I guess not,” said Paul. “I’ve gone off beer lately though. I normally have a gin and tonic on an evening now.”
“I thought you were a whiskey man. I thought you preferred scotch.”
“Whiskey’s still good. I just feel in the mood for gin a lot nowadays. I’ve got a bottle of Uaithne’s twenty-five year old that Debbie bought me the other year, for my birthday. I’ve been waiting to open it. I might open it sometime soon.”
“Uaithne’s? Is that Irish?”
“Yeah, Irish. Nothing wrong with Irish really. I know Scotch is the best, but the Irish make a fine whiskey if you ask me. She got it for me because we went to the distillery when we went there on holiday. Really good holiday, that was.”
I must’ve sunk about forty pounds into the slot machine. There was a pool table and a dartboard that we would have used but there were already a group of lads using each of them. We took turns going back and forth to the bar, mostly having bourbons with coke but having another pint every other drink. We tried the cider they had on tap, but it wasn’t great. It tasted flat. I prefer cider to be sharp and sour.
“How’s the little one?” asked Paul.
“She’s started going to gymnastics and dance lessons,” I said. “I try and get her doing as many after-school things as possible. Give myself some peace and quiet, you know?”
I could see the door from where we were stood. It swung open and a woman I knew from work, Claire, walked in. She wore a navy blue dress and a leather jacket. She’d put make-up on. She caught my eyes and waved, and came over. She’d said she might be there earlier, while we were chatting in the staff kitchen. She came over and we hugged.
“This is Paul. Paul this is Claire,” I said. “She’s in the office at my work.”
They shook hands, and Claire talked and drank with us. She knew a couple of other people who were already there, but she ended up sticking with us. She got on well with Paul. I saw them laughing and chatting while I was busy getting more drinks and chucking more money into the slot machines.
At work I’d overheard Claire having a few angry, personal phone conversations. I’d caught fragments about some child or other. I’d guessed that she must’ve been single, with joint custody of her kid. We’d always got on pretty well, but I’d never made much effort to pry into her personal stuff. She acted ‘single’ with Paul in any case. He acted single back.
Paul looked flushed and relaxed after we’d been there a few hours. His cheeks were red and his eyes were crinkled up. Claire and him made each other laugh a lot; it was good to see. I decided to go and get us a double absinthe each. I returned from the bar, and gave a shot to both of them. We clinked the glasses together and necked the absinthe. Claire almost choked. She looked disgusted.
“That’s vile!” she said.
“That’s absinthe. It’s an acquired taste.”
“We came here quite a few times back when someone else owned it,” Paul said to Claire. “I got pretty good at pool, especially after a performance-enhancing absinthe. I can blow most people away at pool, or I could before at least.”
“That’s fighting talk if ever I heard it,” said Claire. “Shall we have a game when the table’s free? Look’s like they’re just finishing.”
Paul and Claire played pool. He won at first, but Claire won after a few rematches. By midnight, Paul had drunk enough to have a dance. It always took a decent amount to get him to dance. He even ran his hands down Claire’s hips and gave her a kiss on the side of her neck. She’d taken her leather jacket off and left it next to me, by the slot machines. Her arms were bare, and she had some nice-looking tattoos on them. I saw her talking about them with Paul when they went over to the bar again. She turned around like a ballet dancer to show him the tattoos on the back of her shoulder blades.
We stayed until closing time. I saw Paul and Claire get their phones out and exchange numbers, while the pub emptied. They hugged goodbye, and we got into separate taxis. Paul and I returned to his house.
“You want to come in for some whiskey?” asked Paul.
“Aren’t you saving it for a special occasion?” I asked.
“No, I might as well open it. I’ll make it last me, but we might as well make a start on it.”
The taxi dropped us off. We went in, and I sat down in the living room. The room was spinning, but just a little. I thought I could probably walk back to my house without tripping over and smashing my head on the pavement. I didn’t want to get another taxi because my house was only a fifteen-minute walk or so from Paul’s.
I checked my phone. My wife had messaged to say she hoped I was having a nice time and said to give Paul her love. Paul came back from the kitchen with a bottle of rusty colored drink and two glasses. He poured us both a generous shot. It tasted earthy and smoky. It conjured up echoes of the times I had sat by a log fire with my dad and my granddad in the old house. That was probably my first ever introduction to alcohol. Sipping whiskey with the old man, and his old man, in front of a nice log fire. Those were the days. It made me feel good to remember all of that, even if the Whiskey was Irish instead of Scotch. Like Paul said, Scotch is best but there’s nothing wrong with Irish.
“This was the last birthday present that Debbie got me,” said Paul, swilling the whiskey around in his glass. His eyes were drooping. He was leaned back so far his stomach stuck out from under his shirt.
“You and Claire seemed to hit it off,” I said.
“Yeah. We swapped numbers. She seems nice.”
“She’s got a kid you know.”
“She has two. Boy and a girl. She told me. The father has them every other weekend but he bails on her quite often.”
“So you think you’ll talk to her again? Meet her and stuff?”
“Yeah, probably. Debbie doesn’t know who I am anymore. I really don’t think she does anyway. When she was still living here she would shout a lot and slap at me and tell me to go away. Not much there anymore…nothing really…”
I noticed a little band of dried skin where the Paul’s wedding ring had been. He hadn’t worn it the whole night. I hadn’t even noticed. Not even when I’d first arrived at his house and I’d been sober. “Lucy said to send her love, by the way. She worries about you, you know.”
“Tell her I’m doing fine. I’m gonna try and get myself healthy again. Start eating right, start exercising, that sort of thing.”
“Sounds like a plan. Did you…tell Claire about Debbie?”
“No, I didn’t mention it. No need to mention it until there’s something there.”
“I worry that she won’t want to do anything with me once she knows. I know that sounds really pathetic, but look at it from my position. I want to have someone in my life, to share it with, you know? I don’t want to be lonely when I get old. I don’t want to waste away in a house on my own, then die when I fall down the stairs and there’s no one to call an ambulance for me. That’s what happened to my dad. I think I’ve told you that before. I don’t want to be alone like that. That’s all.”
He had told me that before. I sat for long minutes, savoring the whiskey, enjoying the nostalgic, contemplative trance that had descended upon me. When I looked up, Paul was asleep, snoring softly. Inebriation had granted him temporary oblivion.
“Well Paul,” I said, “you win some; you lose some.”