So whatís unusual about a six-foot, white rabbit, again?

ONE MAN'S MEET

by Alaric Paul McDermott © 2004

"Look at him. Just look at him."

Jane was in fits of laughter. I looked, as instructed.

And understanding dawned.

The man with the invisible friend was in the pub again. It had been three months since we'd last seen him, and in his absence the entertainment hadn't been up to much. The booked acts just weren't in his class.

I adjusted my chair so that I could see the cabaret.

Yes, all right. I know it was disgraceful of us to treat him as a spectacle. I know he might have lost someone near and had found a way of preserving them in his mind. I know he might have been senile--well, he was approaching eighty. I know we should have sympathized rather than mocked. But hell, when a guy stands at the bar doing magic tricks for someone who isn't there, keeping a straight face is hard.

This time he was working with coins--in the past we'd seen cards and matches. He placed a ten pence piece on the edge of his pint glass, balancing it with exaggerated care. Then he took a handkerchief out of his pocket, and laid it over glass and coin. Finally, he removed the handkerchief with a flourish and presto, no coin. Basking in his success, he smiled at the friend who wasn't there and spoke to him or her with a restrained confidence. "Of course I can't tell you how I do it," he was probably saying. "It's magic."

As we watched, his demeanor started to change. The smile faded. Perhaps the friend wasn't playing the game. Perhaps the friend very much wanted to know the secret. But oh no, our man was obviously standing firm.

The landlady wandered over, collected my glass.

"How come he never buys a drink for his mate?" I asked.

She giggled. "It's worse than that. The mate just stands there invisible, taking up space at the bar. He never buys a drink for himself either."

"How do you know he's a he?"

"He's called Anthony. I overhear bits of the conversation."

"Who's Anthony? Or should that be who was Anthony?"

"Not a clue. The bits I overhear are always one-sided."

Jane was still laughing, but she managed to splutter, "They've fallen out completely now."

I glanced over again. "Oh, he's in a right paddy," I said to the landlady.

He'd moved into the corridor which led to the gents and he was shaking his finger, giving the intangible bar fly a real telling off.

"Happens most nights he's in," the landlady said. "They just can't get on. He'll storm off to the loo in a minute."

"You should follow him, Alec," Jane said. "See what the trouble's about. Maybe you can act as a go-between."

I didn't do that, but I went up for my next pint while the old guy was paying a visit and stood as close to the Invisible Man as possible; without getting in his way of course.

The madman returned. He nodded briefly at me before giving his full attention to his friend, advising thin air, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have taken the huff like that. But you always ruin it."

The invisible barfly clearly gave a long and complicated reply to this. The old man listened carefully and politely.

My pint arrived. I paid for it and waited for my change. I lingered, hoping that there'd be something else to report before the lingering became obvious.

The old man evaluated what he'd heard. "Well, yes," he said, evaluation done. "But you have to realize that I'm a member of the Magic Circle. I can' t go giving away secrets willy nilly. You have to swear an oath when you join the Circle, you know. Secrecy at all times. Even with family members."

I couldn't resist. "Magic should stay magic," I said. "You should never ask how it's done."

At first, I thought the old man wasn't going to acknowledge that I'd spoken at all. He did, eventually, but it was only with a glare.

"Sorry," I said. "Shouldn't butt in on a private conversation." And I wandered back to Jane, struggling to keep my face straight.

"What kind of glare?" Jane asked. "Was he angry with you for interrupting? Or because he knew you were taking the piss?"

I wasn't sure. If he knew I was taking the piss, then it would imply he also knew either that the friend wasn't really there or that nobody else could see him. And both of those would indicate some mental competence. I thought that if the old guy was stable enough to come to conclusions about how others perceived him, then it was unlikely that he'd hold his conversations in public.

Another possibility, of course, was that the invisible friend had replied to me, and the old man had been offended that I hadn't answered. At that thought, I started to chuckle again.

"I think you were lucky, actually," Jane pointed out. "If you did insult the guy, his friend might have been thinking about hitting you. It's probably a good idea you left when you did."

It doesn't say much for my own sanity, I suppose, but I had actually been worried about that.

Ten minutes later, just before eleven o'clock, the unwitting entertainer left, holding the door open for his friend to go first. I was a bit more tipsy than usual, and we decided that it was time for us to head home too.

The old man was outside, trying to flag down a taxi. "It's always the same," he said to his incorporeal companion. "Which company did you telephone?"

This set us both laughing again. Offended, the guy glared at me a second time. "No bloody respect for age, you" he told me. "None at all. No bloody respect."

"Sorry," I said, biting my lip. "Do you want me to call you a taxi?"

"We've got one coming," he said. "All I'm saying is treat your elders with respect. I fought in the war, me. Fought for a better world, I did. Sometimes I wish I hadn't bothered."

"Did your mate fight in the war as well?" I asked, and Jane spluttered.

"Aye," the old man replied, without any hesitation. "That he did. PBI, both of us."

"Well done," I said. "Bloody good show." I nodded a swift farewell before he could moan any more, and hurried across the road, Jane sniggering in tow. Just as we reached the other side, a taxi pulled up in front of the pub, and the old guy got in. Jane nudged me to point this out.

I raised my eyes in my best Boris Karloff impression, and hummed The Twilight Zone tune.

"Well, at least the other passenger door didn't open," Jane said. "That one I couldn't have handled."

It was a ten minute walk to the house, which was nowhere near long enough to affect the alcohol haze. I struggled with the key in the lock, only succeeded with it when I swore at it.

Once we were indoors, Jane steered me firmly away from the kitchen and an unwise late night snack, instead guiding me up the stairs.

"Two more steps," she babied. "One more step."

Somehow I crawled into bed.

I was unhappily awakened, not enough hours later, by the telephone ringing. When I opened my eyes, the sunlight assaulted them, making my head throb. I fought off the sleep interruption and went back to the land of Nod.

When the damned machine started trilling a second time though, I forced myself up and reeled downstairs.

I fumbled with the receiver. "Yes," I managed, when I thought it was positioned just about properly. My voice sounded, to me anyway, like it was being filtered through gauze.

"Dad. Is that you? It doesn't sound like you."

The caller was Mandy, my daughter, her voice as always melodic and lilting--far too melodic and lilting for whatever time of the morning or afternoon she was using it on me.

"Yes," I said, "'S'me."

"You sound awful."

"M'okay."

"You didn't get drunk again, did you? Dad, you have to stop this. Who were you out with? Colin again. I'm going to have a word with his wife. This isn' t doing you any good."

"No, not Colin. Colin was.." I hesitated, so that I could touch my head; make sure that it was still bone on the outside instead of throbbing mush. "Don't see much of Colin these days?"

"Then who?"

"I was out with your mum. Your mum fancied a drink. Nothing wrong with that, is there?"

There was a long pause on the other end of the line. Next, I thought, she's going to start moaning about me leading her mother into evil ways. My daughter the puritan. Sometimes I wished she'd never been to that bloody Catholic college.

When she spoke again, it was in a slow, drawn out rhythm - the sort of rhythm I always associate with someone speaking to a senile old man. As a result, I resented what she was saying before she'd finished saying it.

"Dad, you have to get over it," she lectured. "You just have to. It's destroying you, and it's not fair on me or the kids."

"What isn't? Having a pint too many? Come on, Mandy. Grow up."

"You know damned well I don't mean that. And you know damned well what I do mean. Mum's dead, and you have to accept it. So you didn't go anywhere with her last night. Dad, you're starting to worry me with this stuff. It's happening too often."

I took a deep breath. And I felt the prick of tears. "I'll call you back," I said. "I need to wake up."

I heard her protesting as I put the receiver down.

Dead?

I stood in the hallway for a short time, fists clenched, fighting that battle, wrestling that beast. Then, when the rush of horror had calmed, when the fog started to return, I went upstairs to run the bath.

X X X

This story and its ending surprised me. Iím not sure what I expected, but this wasnít it. Well-told and eminently readable, its pace and structure drove me along until the final, startling paragraphs. I enjoyed this tale thoroughly. How about you? -GM




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