It’s two AM and you’re in a dump that claims to be a bar, alone, drinking. In an hour it will be three AM, and you’ll still be in a dump that claims to be a bar. Still alone. Still drinking. It’s not the way you like it, but it is the way it is.
You’d go to alcoholics anonymous, but they don’t open this late.
The hour passes, marked only by the metaphorical ticking of a digital clock and the breeding of the empty glasses in front of you. It occurs to you that the stale dregs of each, combined, might add to a sippable amount. It further occurs to that this is not a good thought to be having. You finish your drink, deliver the empty glass to its siblings, and signal the barman for another of Mr Jack’s finest.
He delivers you another glass but does not take the empties away. He never does. You don’t know why.
Another man enters the bar and sits down two stools away from you. Near enough to be companionable; far enough away to avoid imposition. He’s vaguely familiar in a fuzzy kind of way. He nods to the barman, who – unasked – slides a glass of something in front of him. A regular then, like you. He wears the shabbiness and quiet desperation that those who drink alone at night habitually wear. You know the look; you wear it yourself. There was once a time when you didn’t, when drinking was a hobby and not a cause. When then such a man sat down next to you, you saw only his loss and not the journey he’d taken to get there.
You wonder what journey the man who sits not quite beside you took to get to this place, to a crappy three AM drinking club that thinks its a bar and fools no-one, least of all itself.
You nod at him, and he nods back, and just like that he starts telling you his story.
You’re not sure you’re listening and perhaps neither is he; but he tells it to you anyway.
“So I was in a bar,” he says to you after several minutes of pointless preamble. “Not this one, but like it. Then an old man appeared right beside me, suddenly, in a blink. He hadn’t walked over to me. Hadn’t walked through the door. He was just there. Beside me.”
“End of a long night?” you ask. It appears you are listening after all.
“No,” he tells you. “That’s the thing. I hadn’t been drinking. Didn’t drink much at all then. I’d gone there to work, to get away from the telly and the phone and the internet and every other distraction.”
“Work?” you ask. It’s not that you particularly care for the answer. You understand that. But as you’re listening to him talk you’re sipping your drink a little less and a little less often, and deep down inside you in a place that still cares you think that might be a good thing.
“I’m a writer,” he tells you.
“Anything I might have read?” you ask.
He shakes his head. “Maybe. Possibly. Not that you’d ever have known.”
You raise a quizzical eyebrow, and he explains. “I’m a ghost writer.” He takes a long sip of his drink. “Most people get confused at this point,” he tells you. “And ask me about ghosts and ghouls and why I wanted to write horror stories.”
You say nothing. You’re not most people, and you know what a ghost writer is.
“Sometimes I smile,” he tells you. “And correct them, and feed them a line about capturing a client’s voice and getting inside their head.” He smiles now, sadly, and then launches into a speech. “Sometimes I just smile and say nothing. It’s all bullshit anyway. These people might have a hole in their face that waggles and makes noise, but it’s hardly something I’d dignify with the term voice. And about the only good thing I could say about getting inside their head is that at least it wouldn’t be claustrophobic.”
He pauses, creating a silence in which you feel compelled to speak. “It sounds like you don’t much like them?”
He shrugs. “I turn a few hours of taped dictation into a hundred thousand words of story and then watch someone else claim it as theirs. I’ve seen these people walk up on a stage and accept awards for something I wrote. What’s to like? My relationship with them starts with a contract and ends with a cheque and that’s the way I like it.”
He resumes drinking.
“So who have you done?” you ask him.
He shrugs again. “Everyone and no-one.” He sighs and then launches into a list he’s clearly repeated many times, counting on his fingers as he does. “Okay, there’s bashed-up rugby forwards who’ve spent too long at the bottom of a scrum. Arrogant premiership footballers who frankly could have done with a few minutes at the bottom of a scrum. Teenage pop starlets who haven’t yet had a life. Aging rock stars who can’t remember the life they’ve had. Criminals, bankrupts, politicians and frauds – sometimes all in the same book. Talented, untalented, mad, bad and sad.”
“Quite a few then,” you say.
The two of you resume drinking.
You realise you’ve forgotten what the conversation is actually about, a common occupational hazard of those who drink at three AM in dumps that would like to be a bar, but aren’t. The guy two stools down is no longer talking. Has he too forgotten what the conversation is about? Or has he perhaps even forgotten that the conversation exists?
You take another sip, and ask a not-so-random and perhaps rude question. “So why are you here?”
“Are you asking why I’m here?” he asks, waving at the room, smiling. “Or why I’m here?” He nods at his growing collection of glasses as he says the last.
You nod in turn at the glasses.
He thinks for a moment. “There was an old man. White hair, white beard, and eyes so deep a man could lose his soul in there. That sounds like a line, I know, but it’s how they were. Anyhow, he just appeared one day when I was in a bar like this.”
“I remember,” you say. “He appeared, in a blink.”
He nods. “Yeah, in a blink. From no-one there to someone there in the tick of a clock.”
“And you hadn’t been drinking?”
“Not a drop, I swear.”
“So what did he want?”
“He wanted me to write his autobiography.”
“Don’t people normally contact your agent?” you ask.
“That’s what I told him,” he says.
“He told me this wasn’t the first time he’d asked someone to write his story. He said he’d told it to several other people, but they always got it wrong. They always put their own spin on it, used it to push their message, and not his. He wanted to deal with me, and no-one else, and end up with a story that was his, and not mine, and that he could decide what to do with, and not me.”
“He wanted full publishing rights then?” you ask.
He looks at you, a not-quite smile on his face so intense you feel like you’ve inadvertently delivered the most ironically funny line ever, a line so funny that actual laughter would be inappropriate.
Finally, he speaks. “Yeah. Yeah, you could say that.”
He takes a deep swig from his glass. You don’t know what it is he’s drinking, but glasses that small don’t typically contain drinks intended to be swigged. A tremor appears in his left, non-drinking hand. His drinking hand remains stable, the liquid in the glass still.
He speaks again. “I asked the old man why he thought I could succeed where the others failed.”
“And what did he say?” you ask.
“He said that I was a ghost writer, and they weren’t. And that was what he needed. A ghost writer. Not a guy with a cause or a message or a crusade. Not a guy looking for answers. Just a work-for-hire ghost writer.”
His non-drinking hand shakes some more.
“So did you accept?” you ask.
He looks square at you for the first time in the conversation. “I didn’t get a chance to. He just took me away to an island in the Caribbean. Hut beside the beach. Drinks on tab. A table with an umbrella and a shiny new laptop. Said he thought we could work better there.”
“You could have said no,” you point out. “Said thank you for the free flights and the hotel and all that, but tell him you had other things to be doing.”
“No,” he says. “You don’t understand. There were no flights. He took me there.”
You suspect this wouldn’t have made sense at three PM let alone AM. “Sorry? What?”
“He just took me there. One moment I was sitting in a bar, like this, talking to him. The next moment I was sitting beside a beach on a private island in the Caribbean. I didn’t pass go and I didn’t collect my two hundred pounds.”
In several hours, as the sun rises and the world wakes, you will attempt to sleep, enduring several fractured hours during which you will not dream. You wonder if out-of-focus conversations such as this are an alcoholic substitute for your lost and missing dreams. Dreams feel real, but this does not, and while the man two stools down is presumably, at the most basic level, real, his story is clearly not. But his is the only dream in town right now, and you’d like it to continue.
“So did you write his biography?” you ask.
He nods. “Yeah, I wrote his biography. Took me two months, but I wrote it.”
“So what’s the problem?” you ask. “Did you not get the cheque?”
He looks at you, haunted. “No. No, he paid me.” A wry smile plays on his lips. “He told me he could give me anything I wanted, and he did.”
He waves a hand, and you find the glasses in front of you full to their brims. You begin to reconsider your previous conclusion that the guy two stools away needs to stop drinking. Someone certainly needs to stop drinking, but it perhaps isn’t him.
You take a sip from one of the newly filled glasses. It’s Mr Jack’s finest all right. In fact, it’s better than that. It’s good. It’s Mr Jack’s best. You’re not quite sure what’s real anymore and haven’t been for some time, but if only one thing were real you’d want it to be this. You take another sip, and it burns an exquisite trail down your throat with your captured soul riding shotgun.
You could get used to this.
“So what is the problem then?” you ask.
“He’s not sure he wants to publish. He’s scared that the people who read the earlier books might get angry.”
“But you still got paid, right? What’s the issue?”
It takes the guy a while to speak, and when he does he spits the words out, not in anger, but in pain. “It’s the greatest story I ever told. It’s the greatest story anyone ever told. And all I’ve got left is everything else I ever wanted and a story no-one would ever believe.”
“And that’s why you’re here?” you ask.
He nods. “That’s why I’m here.”
“How long has it been? Since you wrote it?”
“Two years,” he replies. “Two years of waiting. Two years of hoping. Two years of nothing.”
You see his journey now, laid out before you. But you still don’t quite understand what compelled him to take it.
“So who was the guy?” you ask. “And what was the story?”
He laughs bitterly. “You really want to know?”
“Yeah,” you tell him. “I do.”
He looks down. “Well I didn’t realise who he was until we started to write. He wasn’t sure where to start, so I told him what I tell all the clients. Start at the start. In the beginning.”
“And what did he say?” you ask.
He looks you straight in the eye and speaks. “What did the old guy say? Well he ummed and ahhed a bit, like he was a bit embarrassed. What you need to understand, he said to me, is that when I started, in the beginning, there was nothing. Just emptiness. A void.”
“And?” you ask.
“So he said, let there be light. And there was light. And it was good.”