the sunset

By Iain McLean

"There was an offshore breeze, but it wasn't much of a sunset," I said.

We were sitting at the same round table we always did, wedged in the back of the bar. The owner had probably thought to throw it out but never got that far. Cast in the shadows of the corner it was just big enough for two people, two glasses and two small plates.

"What were you expecting?" The words filtered through his fingers as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. I took another drink.

"I don't know. More."

"More what, exactly?"

"More sunset." I said.

We both drank in silence. I watched how close I could put my glass back down in a perfect alignment with the ring it had made on the table. I never quite managed. I continued, staring at my glass, "Sure, there were people on the hill. Some sat on the rocks amongst the Saltbush and Pigs Face, a few on the breakwater. All watching the sky waiting. But the fire didn't light up."

"What, you mean all fire and aglow with the passions of the world?" he asked.

"Yes, I think. They just sort of disappeared without leaving. Like the sun," I said.

"So what did you do?"

"I decided to go home and read a book." I said as I watched two younger men meet at the bar. They looked happy to see each other, smiles and pats on shoulders.

"That's your problem. You want to be told about life. To learn about life you have to live one."

"I looked at those people. Not the pagans on the hill. The ones sitting by themselves on rocks at the edge of the water. They didn't look like they were living. None of them were smiling."

"Why not?" he asked.

"How should I know?" I stared into my beer, like the answer would float up. "I waited and watched them where the canal empties into the bay, right there next to the hill," I continued as he held his glass firm as if it would slide away if he let go.. Even though he was sitting at the same table and I would reach out and touch him, it felt like he was far away. Perhaps he wasn’t even there. I watched him, waiting for him to move but he remained motionless. "They looked like they wanted the bay to wash them away," I said.

"Maybe they did." He waved his empty glass, “another one?”

"Why not?" I drained his glass and handed over the empty.

He returned with two more beers and slid one across the table to me. We clinked glasses. He took another deep drink. We never bought imported beer or beer brewed to sit behind a fancy label. We drank what we had always drank. We drank the same beer our fathers had.

The place was filling now. No one noticed us in our corner. The background hum was increasing as people jockeyed for attention. "It's one of the wealthiest suburbs now,” I said. “Not like when we were kids. What have they got to be so sad about? What's so bad with their lives that they get to be washed away and we have to put up with all this again?"

"Because you can walk down the breakwater again tomorrow evening and watch the sky set on fire. Once they get taken by the sea and their self-pity there's nothing left for them." He pulled a packet of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. "Want one?"

"Given up again."

"Again?" He laughed himself into a hacking cough, the capillaries in his face bursting as the cough developed. I smiled over the top of my glass as I drank. “I'll be back in two shakes," he said and navigated past the bar and its patrons to the front door.

He stood on the side of the road, his feet in the gutter, to keep out of the line of people walking past, and lit up a cigarette. He blew vertical plumes of smoke by craning his head back until it rested between his shoulder blades. A young couple sitting at a table outside the bar underneath a canvas parasol turned away from him. He tried to smile at them. When he finished he returned to his stool by the small table and drank deeply, wiping his mouth with his hand.

"But do you know what happened?" I said as he wiped his face.

"What?"

"When I was halfway back from the breakwater, after everyone had started leaving, the street lights turned on by themselves. Then the sky lit up like there was a fire under the horizon but you couldn't see it. All we could see was the reflection of the flames in the clouds."

"Beautiful isn't it?" He poured the dregs into his mouth, put the empty glass on the table, and stared at it. "Another one?"

"Yes. it was. I've got to get home. She'll be wondering where I've got to," I said. We sat in a moment of easy silence. "It was a beautiful night," I continued. "The sunset went on forever."

"It does that."

"Does what?"

"Creeps up on you. Nature. It knows you're watching. So it waits. It's got all the time in the world. You've only got a blip in comparison. And even then you rush about everywhere. So it waits. And when you're not looking it does something amazing."

We stared into the bar, at the couples talking, at the men wearing business shirts getting agitated and at the young kids laughing.

"Funny isn't it. All those people, running, walking, talking on phones. And they're oblivious," I said. "You know how it happened?"

"How?"

"I was the only one left. Just me as a stray dog that walked past and sat near me. We watched the sunset together. Everyone else had gone."

"See you again tomorrow?"

"Probably not. Think I'll be walking the breakwater," I said.

"You know what? I don't blame you." He prodded my chest as he spoke. This was our routine. It had slowly developed over the years. And neither one of us knew the other’s name. We just met here, me after a walk along the breakwater, him on his way home from work.

He walked home to an empty house, took a can of beer from the fridge, turned on the television and watched a program about a man on the other side of the planet, sailing a dinghy around the British Isles by himself.