>NEVER A FRONTWARD STEP, PART EIGHT

>The pub stood at the end of a strip of retail shops that featured factory seconds and discontinued lines. It was in full weekend throng, with a blustery wind shaking large shopping bags in peoples’ hands up and down the street. I watched with interest one of many pram prangs at the entrance to an obviously popular clothing shop, as bright-faced young parents collided with other bright-faced parents trying to stretch their already stretched dollars and corral their already precious time so much that they didn’t look around corners.

The pub was more upmarket than I expected. Outside, various happy groups sat baking in the sun, soaking up beer in tall glasses and letting off familial radiation. I ventured inside, where high beech-light wooden ceilings held huge fans that swirled air around. This wasn’t what I wanted. A barman was showing off, slicing a lemon in mid-air because someone had asked for a glass of water. A table of china-doll-faced polo-shirt wearers sneered at me from underneath their indoor sunglasses. I ached for dark bars where the walls breathed smoke. I sat at the bar and ordered the most ordinary beer I recognised.

“Having a day out, chief?” asked the barman, his confident bravado belied by the finger scratches at the corners of his eyes.

I looked at him, long and hard. “Just got out,” I said.

“Out of where, buddy?” The barman cleaned a dirty glass with his elbows flying.

“Jail.”

The barman’s face fell, and the glass nearly followed. “Oh, right,” he said, before smiling nervously, caught in the customer service trap he’d set for himself. I looked away and let him move on. I cursed myself for a stupid mistake. My general dislike for pretence was not my most useful trait at times, especially not for someone who was often trying not to be noticed. I sipped at my beer, but it was in a fancy glass with gold along the top, and I began to wonder about metals poisoning. The smell of chips roused me, and my eyes followed a waitress disappearing down a sunken hallway. When she returned, the chips had been replaced by a tower of used glasses. This was better. I roused myself from the bar seat and walked down the hallway. The soft pop and warble of poker machines filled my ears, and I sensed the blue glow of pure drinking. This was much better.

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