“Well, you gonna pull up a seat or what little man?” She patted the bar stool beside her. I walked up, staggering as the ship shook again, and hoisted myself onto the seat.

“So what’s the name?” Clarissa asked me, her voice slurring slightly as Jimmy pored another pair of drinks.

“Charles.” I replied.

“And what is a little man like you travelling to the big bad New York all on your own for?” She picked up her now full glass, spilling some of it over the rim and onto her fingers. I laughed quietly.

“I’m not, I’m with my family. My dad and my uncle build things, houses, churches, anything that anyone wants them to. We’re going to New York to build one of the new tall buildings- Skyscrapers they’re calling them. My dad says that the one we’re going to build will be so tall you’ll be able to reach into the sky and grab the stars.”

Jimmy and Clarissa began to giggle excitedly. The bartender slammed his hand down on the bar top, seemingly forgetting his injury during his mirth, and swore loudly as soon as it made contact.

“Kid,” the woman said to me, still attempting to control her giggles, “ain’t no one gonna reach those baubles any time soon. Believe me, I’ve known many a man who tried. They all go up fast enough, but you can sure as hell bet that they’re gonna come back down on their asses just as quick.”

Clarissa tilted her head to the side and blew another plume of smoke to the ceiling. In the mean time Jimmy had secured the handkerchief around his wound, stifling the bleeding, and had pulled another glass from beneath the counter.

“What age are you little man?” he asked me.

“Sixteen” I replied.

He smiled, grabbing the bottle of rum. “Well, that’s old enough for you to have a few little cups, eh? Want some?” He dropped a few cubes of ice into the cup and poured a small amount of dark liquid onto them. He passed it to me, grinning as I warily took it from him. I looked from the glass, then to Jimmy and then to Clarissa. She did not grin, but sat staring at me. Her look unnerved me. I couldn’t work out exactly what she was trying to gauge from me, although I presumed some of that was because of the alcohol, the light silvery glaze that covered her eyes causing them to sparkle like diamonds. For a few seconds I was mesmerised by them, the most beautiful eyes I had ever seen and somehow instinctively knew that I would ever see. Neither was it just her eyes: there was an aura about her, something that I hadn’t perceived during my snooping, I had been so preoccupied by other thoughts. Her hair was slightly greying at the roots. Her hands were small, dainty, with fingers like spiders legs, long and thin. The skin around her eyes were sunken slightly, the bluish purple hue surrounding them perceptible this close: wrinkles criss-crossed from the folds of skin around her sockets, the kind of lines that I had seen on many women from the city, the kind of lines my father described to me as the sign of a person who has seen perhaps a little too much of the world. All of this, along with her clothing, combined to create something that was intriguingly mysterious about this Clarissa, a field that captivated me now I had gotten so close.

Jimmy rattled the bottle on the table. “Well kid, you gonna drink or what?”

I broke my eye contact with Clarissa and looked down into the glass. Bringing it closer to my face I inhaled the fumes of the rum, the mixture of exotic spices and sweet sugars incredibly tempting, making my mouth fill with saliva. I swallowed several times but it continued to fill with the sticky substance, and each time my desire to swallow the nectar grew more fierce. I brought it so close to my lips I could almost taste it, feel the heat of the alcohol on my tongue, and at the last moment drew it away and placed the glass back onto the table.

“No thanks, I don’t drink.” I replied.

Jimmy’s face darkened, a scowl replacing his hysterical grin. “Pah, not drinking, when I was your age I was in a shitty hole in the ground trying not to die, we would have killed for a drop of alcohol, and by god when we got it we fvcking coveted it like Jesus himself had distilled the damn thing-”

“Oh give it a rest Jimmy!” Clarissa shouted over his ranting. Picking up the bottle she poured the last of the rum into her glass and shook the empty bottle at him. “Go down to the store room and get another one for me, huh doll?”

Muttering to himself the bartender took the empty bottle and placed it under the counter, came out from behind the bar and walked towards the double doors. Clarissa and I both turned to watch him leave, staggering from one table to the other, clutching the back of chairs every time the ship lurched, throwing off his already unsteady balance. The pair of us listened as he stumbled towards the staircase until the sound of the storm obscured him from our ears. We both swivelled round on our seats to face the wall of the bar, Clarissa shaking her hips in a little dance as the music on the gramophone switched.

“You know what this is Charlie boy? Dixieland! I love Dixieland music, always gets me on my feet.” She looked over at me, then to the glass and a smile broke out on her lips, parts of the bright red lipstick cracking, lines zigzagging across her lips. “Don’t worry about Jimmy. He’s a lovely little fruit, but he’s a bit screwed up. Got screwed in the war.” As if she read the question from my puzzled face, Clarissa answered before I could speak. “He’s Canadian. Part of your big, bad Commonwealth army. He was in France, in the trenches somewhere for a good year or so then got transferred to the front in Africa, and it was here our dear protagonist really got fucked. I mean really. By the Kaiser and by some very big black men.”

I drew breath rather more loudly that I would have wanted. “So you mean he really is….?”

Clarissa laughed at me, almost spitting the rum from her mouth, droplets of it cascading down her chin. She wiped them from her chin, chuckling. “Oh little man, this is the twenties! Sure, it’s not like people talk about it every day, but these things happen now. You never know, might be one yourself.” She winked at me, nudging my shoulder with her elbow. I couldn’t retort to that, merely watch my face in the reflective wall behind the bar burn a brilliant shade of pink. Clarissa either did not notice or merely let it slide, carrying on without a mention. “Turned out he rather enjoyed the whole thing, kept it up after. Naturally it was the only thing he enjoyed. Poor thing. Wakes up in the middle of the night, either crying his eyes out or screaming the place down. He says in his sleep, in the dark behind his eyes he sees the horrors of war. There are dead men, face down in the mud or sand, blood gurgling and spurting like ketchup from their wounds. Women and children running in terror, screaming as bullets and mortar shells whizz past in the night. Says the worst of the worst is the noises though, and not just the explosions- the rustle of the grass in the night air, not knowing if it’s mother nature playing you for a damn fool or if it’s a German soldier, rifle with bayonet in hand, come to shoot you in the face or stab your eye out. The amount of times I’ve sat cradling him in my arms, cold sweat running off him. It’s a fvcking disgrace what those men went through.” By the end of her sentence the words were barely a whisper, a ghostly wind in the empty bar and the pummelling rain. Her face had gone emotionless, her mind clearly far away from this ship, on a distant plain.

“So you know him pretty well then?” I asked, trying to reignite her.

Her body shivered, only for a second, as if a sudden chill had taken hold of her. “Well, I wouldn’t say I know everything about him. I’ve travelled on this ship a few times, between jobs in the city’s. New York to London is a long trip, so you learn to make some friends pretty quickly. Guess it’s just luck brought me on this tug every time. Most of the time we hole up in his cabin and drink ourselves into a stupor with some of captain’s special stuff- just a little pinch, not enough to be noticed too easily. We drink kid, god we drink ourselves to sleep just about every night. Then he wakes up. I nurse him as best I can, but he feels guilty you see.” She swung the hand holding the glass round towards me just as another flash of lightning cracked the sky, a monstrous figure leering down towards me, a dark shadow outlined by ghostly white light. Clarissa jabbed me with her index finger on the shoulder. The sheen across her eyes had suddenly turned shadowy, malevolent. “He’s guilty, you see. He survived. He survived, and all his friends and colleagues, fellow soldiers ,died horribly. Right in front of his eyes.” Her voice lowered to a whisper. I had to lean in to hear her, struggling to decipher what she was saying, even though all my instincts whispered that this woman was really just blind drunk, that I should get off the stool and leave right now. “He told me the most terrible thing. He walked out of his room- he calls it a ‘room’, it was a hole in the fvcking trench wall- onto a typical grey, wet French morning, the rolling thunder of mortar fire booming in the distance and saw one of his battalion standing on top of the trench wall. On top. He’d been diagnosed with dysentery a few days before. The week before that he had received a letter saying his wife had succumbed to her cancer. He shouted up to the fella in a blind panic, what the fvck was he doing, and when he looked down at him Jimmy could see it in his eyes. The poor bastard had given up. He’d just given in. Didn’t want to do it any more, any of this fvcking bullshit, the war, the killing. He wanted it to end. Jimmy could feel himself well up, the emotional cunt. He said there was a moment, an exquisite second of blissful silence he called it. Jimmy says he thought he could even hear a bird call in the distance. Then there was a squelch, a fountain of jam-red blood exploded into the air and the guy’s body fell,” she slammed her hand on the table, “with a sickly thump. His limp body sunk ever so slowly into the wet mud, the watery dirt the consistency of diarrhoea reclaiming his flesh. The gaping hole in the side of his head spat and gurgled clumps of blood like a kettle when it’s boiling. He hadn’t even heard the bullet whizz like he normally would have. Jimmy just stared at him, rooted to the spot, watching this soldier with half a head being swallowed up by the ground, and he couldn’t do a thing about it. It was another minute or so until another guy found them there, but it could have been a whole hour for all he could care. He looked down at that guy and he didn’t feel anything. Not a thing. No sorrow, no horror, no pity. He just stared at the corpse and thought ‘I wonder why I didn’t hear the bullet coming?’ The war had got to him by then, gotten deep inside him to where his humanity was and squeezed it like a lemon, until all the juice had squirted out of it. He was calm, and logical. It wasn’t his fault, there was nothing he could have done. The soldier who found him told him that, the command told him that, even told himself that for a while. Now… now he wonders if he should’a grabbed him, brought him down.”

I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, not knowing how to react, how to respond. Clarissa must have noticed my discomfort. She chuckled and shook her head, stubbing her smouldering cigarette out in the ash tray in front of her. “Never mind me kid. I’m just a silly drunken bitch.” She smiled weakly down at me. “Run along little man, I’m just gonna give you nightmares, any more of this talk.”

I nodded, slowly. Without saying a word I placed my hand on her forearm and gave it a comforting squeeze. I heard her quietly clear her throat, fighting down a lump. For a second her face twitched as if she might burst into tears and I moved my other arm, making ready to place it around her shoulders, but within a moment she had regained her composure, if still drunkenly emotional. Smiling to her I turned and began to walk towards the door, but within a few paces I was caught by a hard grip, as if a vice had been closed suddenly around my shoulder, it’s jaws digging in to my flesh.

“You seem good Charles. Pure. Innocent. Don’t let them take that away from you, don’t let them fvck you up like they fucked up Jimmy, like… like they fucked up me. The world’s a cruel, unforgiving bastard and you were lucky enough to be young when it was hurling it’s worst abuse at us all, you escaped most of it. That is the most precious commodity in the world, not booze, not skyscrapers, hell not even love. Keep it for as long as you can. ‘Cause you’ll come out on the other side of that tunnel and that big, bright light with the angel song, it’s just an old light bulb and a… and a busted up recording. All smoke and mirrors and damn lies.” She let go of me and I heard a long, drawn out sigh, a weight finally lifted from her shoulders. I turned to reply, but found Clarissa had already shown her back to me, arms crossed on the counter, head buried in the space in between. I nodded to no one, turned from her once again and strode towards the double doors, closing them over quietly as I left.

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