WHISKEY AND WATER

She’s in the bottle shop, again. Every Tuesday around four thirty she’ll be standing there, picking up bottles, reading the labels, placing them gently back on the shelf, umming and ahing over the malt, the strength, the price. Eventually she will settle on one, different each week; today, it’s Jamerson Black Barrel. Last week it was straight Tennessee. Once she’s decided she’ll saunter to the till, pluck a lollypop from the stand and suck on it. Occasionally she’ll buy a pouch of amber leaf. She always pays in cash.
That was how I knew her, Roisin. Chin length red hair, green wool coat, a string of faux pearls resting on her angled collarbone. I found out, later, that she’d been given real pearls for her twenty first birthday, but she never wore them – ‘they simply don’t carry the same sentiment’.
She was the youngest member of the bridge club, only forty-six, and after each session she’d sit by the window in the local pub and play solitaire. No one ever sat with her; her presence was mostly ignored by the regulars, the locals accepted her with conscious indifference. She was wealthy, already retired, and kept herself to herself, sipping on her whiskey and water, flipping cards, watching. Occasionally, she’d catch the eye of an interloper who’d had one too many. ‘Hey ginger’ they’d jeer, slurring their words and struggling to find a better pickup line. She’d smile at them, gather her things, and leave.

I was five pints deep, sat alone in the pub smoking area, mid-September, cold fingers fumbling to roll a cigarette.
“Got a lighter?” the voice surprised me, my tobacco fell to the floor.
“Fuck. Uh… yeah, yeah hold on.” I patted my jacket pockets, pulled out a book of matches. She struck one and lit her cigarette, took a long drag as she shook the match out. I brushed the tobacco from my lap, and pulled a fresh paper from my tin.
“Who uses matches in this day and age?”
I shrugged, “I like the smell of them.” My hands shook, I dropped my tobacco again.
“Need a hand?”
I nodded, passed her the tin. She rolled quickly, efficiently, and passed me back the neatest rollie I had ever seen.
“Thanks.”
She sat down on the bench next to me, smoked, drank, watched sky filter through the colours of the sunset, dissolving into a deep star speckled void. We didn’t talk, we just sat, and when we finished our smokes we stubbed them out on the wall, dropped the butts in the ash bin, went back inside.
She went back to her game of solitaire, I went back to my friends. On three occasions Roisin and I shared glances; smiles across the room. After a while I got up to bring in another round, and by the time I sat back down she was gone, her table uninhabited save for an empty tumbler glittering with condensation.

In the pub that next week she caught my eye from across the room, raised two cigarettes and gestured with her head towards the door. It began with comfortable silence, a brief exchange of words while we watched the world change colour. She taught me a few tricks on how to roll better, curling the edges of the paper before you fill it with tobacco so it tucks easier, leaving the filter half out so you can tap it back in when you’re done to keep it neat. It became a thing, smoking together on a Thursday night.
She started dropping by the bottle shop on my lunch breaks, we’d sit out back by the bins, share a pastry, watch the clouds. There was something deeply familiar about her, like I’d known her longer even than I’d known myself. She spoke about life as if she’d done it before, like this was her third or fourth run-through.
She once said, “You remind me of myself when I was your age… Or of a life I nearly had.” She took a deep drag on her cigarette, turned her face away. “I had a kid when I was young, she was called Annie, she’d be a little older than you are now. She would’ve turned twenty seven last month.”
“Would’ve?”
“She died. Six years old, leukaemia.” Her words were thick, I could tell she was crying, “marriage fell apart. It’s normal, really, when a child dies, but when you’re that young, I don’t know. It changes you.” she reached out and gently squeezed my hand. “I like to think that if Annie had lived, she’d be like you.” I squeezed back.

“I’ve never liked whiskey.” I admitted. It was half one in the morning, and we were sat on a worn-down sofa in the taxi rank, waiting. She smiled at me, blinking slowly.
“I’m told it’s an acquired taste.”
“Tastes like mud.”
“No,” she laughed, “it tastes like life.”
“So, life tastes like mud?”
She laughed again. A man across the room was shaking the vending machine, trying desperately to free a stuck packet of crisps.
“My Grandma drank Glen Moray. She was raised in Scotland. She used to say each bottle told a story, and when you drink it you can taste the oak it was aged in. Grandpa drank Bushmills, it was sweeter, more delicate. When I got sick when I was little they’d give me some. Och aye, jest a wee glass tae take the edge oaf, git rid ay that auld chitter. Now when I drink either, it tastes like home. Like an open wood fire, and cat fur, and absence.” She pointed out the window. “Taxi’s here.”

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