Bartending was not a job Harold Ferguson liked to undertake on a regular basis; after all, accountants were meant to prepare spreadsheets, not cocktails. Publicans should be worldly and sociable, but Harold failed to harbor these necessary traits. Talking to people made Harold sweat and talking to people he didn’t know made him stutter.
On occasion, Harold agreed to this loathsome task as a favor to his employer and longtime friend, William Abbott. Mr. Abbott was the owner and proprietor of The River Bed Inn and Tavern and his employees were powerless when faced with the elderly man’s persuasive and charming manner.
When presented with this unappealing task, Harold turned to the secret bottle of liquid courage in his bottom desk drawer. A nip or two beforehand, relaxed him enough to handle the job. He had taken up this practice last year, after a particularly embarrassing episode in the pub.
It had been early evening on New Year’s Eve and a young couple were seated by the hostess near a window in the corner. They were dressed up and clearly on a special date. The man came to the bar, placed his drink order and returned to his seat by the elegant woman. Harold prepared the requested refreshments and made his way to their table.
Disaster struck when the tip of Harold’s shoe caught on a nail in the old floorboards. He righted himself just in time, but the drink tray had sustained seismic tremors. A tsunami of red wine spilled onto the pale cleavage of the beautiful woman. A fitted white dress accentuated her chest, showcasing curves of round, soft breasts, now dripping and stained with merlot.
Harold tried to stutter out an apology, but she and her date left in dismay and never came back.
One year later, Harold found himself once again behind the dark wood of the tavern bar. Samuel MacArthur, the Tavern’s head bartender, was recovering from a nasty cold, so when Will asked Harold to take Sam’s place on this particular New Year’s Eve, Harold agreed.
Harold always agreed. He said, “yes,” when he meant “no,” and “of course,” when he meant “I damn well don’t want too!” He knew that sometimes, one had to wear different hats…even ones that may be uncomfortable or ill fitting.
The normally busy bar was rather quiet, due to the ongoing, seemingly never-ending, global pandemic. But someone had to be here and serve up courage to the few merrymakers still brave enough to come out and celebrate.
Harold had been sure to “power up” before starting his shift. The scotch worked beautifully, and he was humming along to the holiday music and making passable conversation with the few patrons who stopped in. Taking care of the villainous floor nails, Harold successfully finished serving drinks to a couple at the fated corner table.
He returned to the bar and began wiping down the worn countertop with a soft cloth. It was a cheerless moment for him as he looked out at the sparse gathering of guests. He bolstered his spirits with another nip of scotch.
He longed for the days when the pub had overflowed with merriment. Will would sit on a stool at the end of the bar, laughing over some anecdote exchanged with a guest. You couldn’t keep Will out of the tavern. It wasn’t the lure of drink but the company of people that brought him here. In fact, it had been a nightly occurrence for the charismatic owner to pop in and help Samuel serve the crowds.
Will made it a point to seek out visitors, find out where they were from, where they were going, and if they were enjoying their stay. Sometimes Will Abbott had been kicked out of his own establishment because closing time had meant nothing to him even though the rest of the staff had been ready for bed.
Tonight, Will was acting as host and showing guests to their table. The River Bed was short staffed which meant all “remaining” hands on deck.
Harold mulled over the current desperate state of affairs as he wiped up the bar, adding to the gloom of his burgeoning melancholy disposition. He had been struggling for days, trying to accept that the Inn could no longer keep its’ head above water.
Harold had been at it all afternoon; running numbers, balancing accounts, filing receipts. For more than 20 years Harold had faithfully handled the finances of The River Bed and now, on the last day of 2021, he finally arrived at the painful conclusion; there was no golden egg under this goose. The Inn was bankrupt.
For months he had watched the slow decline of income. The economy was bad, covid was rampant and people did not want to spend their hard-earned dollars vacationing in quaint New England towns. They had to put food on the table and gas in their cars. They were afraid to venture out into a world now full of masks and vaccines and virus variants and fear.
It was a hard fact to swallow and now Harold had to find a way to tell Will Abbott and his 28-year-old granddaughter and business partner, Finch Abbott, the heartbreaking news. Harold had kept the financial reality hidden from the Abbotts, hoping for a miracle.
Dear Finch. How would she handle the reality of losing the business her grandfather had so proudly built and the only place she had really ever known as home? Finch had lived here with Will since her parents died in a car wreck when she was a young child. She had grown up, diligently working by his side, planning to take over the Inn, when Will eventually retired.
Finch was in charge of hiring the staff, social media and event planning. She had accomplished so much at her young age and had helped to make The River Bed thrive. Finch was just as proud of the Inn as her grandfather.
Harold had a helpless soft spot for Finch. He had watched her grow from a little girl with pigtails (who loved to watch baby birds, which is how she got her nickname) to a savvy young woman. He wasn't married and had no children; Finch regarded him as a sort of uncle, which made Harold glow with pride.
Frankly, Harold wondered how the Inn had stayed in business as long as it had after the economy went in the tank. The town itself was pretty, if only rural and small. The shops were unique but not fancy. The tavern had good food and the scenery was nice, but it was more of a quiet get-away than a tourist attraction.
Finch had helped to grow the business and took advantage of the charming scenery to host exquisite weddings and family events. In truth, it was William Abbott’s magnetism and Finch’s savvy and opportunistic ways that had been the key to The River Bed’s success. But now, that simply wasn’t enough. Covid-19 had chased away the people, the parties and the unfortunately…the money.
And, he still had no idea how he was going to tell them; just thinking of it made the sweat bead on his forehead. “What the hell,” he thought, as he reached towards a bottle on the shelf. “One more nip won’t hurt.”
Two hours and several scotches later, Harold was feeling pretty good. The cold feeling of misery inside his chest had been replaced with the fiery warmth of top shelf liquor. He had even managed a small exchange with a young man about the unusually warm weather this season. Harold was feeling quite pleased with himself...and then he saw his neighbor Marion Plumcott walk in.
What was she doing here? Marion and her incessant prattle were sure to interfere with what Harold felt had shaped up to be a somewhat passable evening. He felt the telltale beads of sweat emerge on his forehead. Ducking behind the counter Harold gulped down another satisfying swig from a quickly diminishing bottle of scotch.
He could imagine Marion’s shrill voice scolding him for consuming hard alcohol and its evil side effects. Marion only approved of wine and even then, only one glass. She had very strong opinions about alcohol….and, well actually, everything.
When Harold reemerged, he saw that Finch and Marion’s new boyfriend Charlie had also arrived. He felt a little better knowing Marion’s officious nature wouldn’t be suffered alone. He watched the three of them make their way towards the bar.
“So, this is where you’re hiding,” said Marion.
“Not hiding, working,” Harold replied.
“Really Harold, you’re like a fish out of water here.” Harold started to protest but Marion had already turned to Finch. “Isn’t there anyone else who can take Sammy’s place besides poor Harold?”
“Marion, Harold does just fine,” Finch said, fighting to keep her tone even. “Grandad doesn’t have a lot of staff. It’s tight, you know? I cleaned rooms all morning because we are short on housekeeping.”
“Quite right dear, which means you can’t afford to have guests dashing off, doesn’t it?”
Finch knew Marion was referring to last year’s red wine incident and saw the color rising in Harold’s face. She quickly tried to change the subject. “Shall we have a drink?”
“Just water for me,” said Marion. “And make that in a glass Harold, not on my clothes.” She gave a shrill little laugh and hopped up on a barstool.
“Whisky,” said Charlie as he helped Marion out of her winter coat.
“I’ll have a whiskey too,” said Finch. She sat down on the other side of Marion while they waited for their drinks. She directed the conversation towards Harold, hoping small talk would make him less nervous about serving them their cocktails.
“We just finished giving Charlie the full River Bed tour,” Finch remarked.
“How nice!” said Harold, regarding Charlie. It was strange to see Marion with a boyfriend. How on earth had she managed that?
Marion wasn’t a bad sort of woman, just prickly and opinionated and…well, overly judgmental. On the flip side, she was smart and hard-working and loyal to the core. She had friends on the gardening club and friends at church. Harold himself wasn’t sure how he had come to be friends with Marion Plumcott. In fact, he was certain he hadn’t had much of a choice in the matter. Marion seemed to just push her way into people’s lives and settle in like a bad chest cold.
“The Inn and its’ grounds are a wonderful place.” Harold spilled a bit of Jack Daniels on the counter and looked around for his towel.
“Yes, quite charming.” Charlie leaned around behind Marion’s plump figure so he could see Finch. “I especially love the rambling stone walls that twist around your property. I would love to take some pictures. This place has quintessential New England charm.”
Finch craned her neck around Marion. “I love them too,” she said. “I always think about the first settlors and how it must have taken them ages to make those walls.”
“Did you show Charlie the graveyard?” said Harold. He had just come back up from behind the counter and was wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. Finch looked at him with a puzzled expression.
“Um, no. Not yet.” She slowly pulled her focus from Harold back to Charlie. “The guests love it. It’s a creepy attraction. Lots of old colonial graves. You must have seen it? It’s just across the road.”
Harold came over and placed their drinks on the counter, slopping Marion’s water over the side of her glass. “Shamuels wife Bea likes to go on ghost huntsh,” he said.
“Uh, oh, better watch it,” thought Harold. He was starting to slur his words. He saw Marion watching him closely, her left eyebrow slightly raised.
“Yeah, she’s a real character our Bea,” said Finch nervously. She glanced over at Harold and noticed he was slightly green.
Marion sniffed. She didn’t have high regards for Samuel’s wife, Bea MacArthur, who was also The River Bed's chef. Marion thought she was a simple uneducated woman who was always getting hysterical over the ridiculous lures of the spirit world.
“Bea should stick to staying in the kitchen,” remarked Marion. “Seriously Finch, between her and Harold here you won’t have any guests at all. It will be your fault, if this place bottoms out!”
Harold slammed his hand down on the counter. “Shut up, Marion,” he snapped.
Marion eyes opened wide as saucers. Harold never raised his voice. She started to say something, but he cut her off.
“You, of all people have no right to criticize anyone!”
Charlie and Finch were frozen to their chairs.
“You’re always looking down your nose at everyone but you’re the one that nobody likes! How dare you judge any of us here?” Harold grabbed on to the side of the bar. The room was spinning but he didn’t care. He wasn’t finished.
“We’ve worked our fingers to the bone, especially Finch. What’s happening here is not her fault, it’s not……,” Harold faltered.
“What’s not my fault Harold?” said Finch. She had stood up and was leaning over the dark wood of the bar. “What’s happening? What’s not my fault?”
The tavern walls were closing in on him. He saw Finch’s little face wavering before his eyes. “The River Bed, Finchy,” he croaked. “It’s not your fault that The River Bed is bankrupt.” Harold turned his head and threw up in the sink.
Marion handed Harold a napkin to wipe his mouth as Will Abbott made his way over to the bar. The clock began to strike twelve. “Why the long faces? Drinks on me my friends!” cried Will. He reached over and gave Harold a vigorous clap on the shoulder. “And, Happy New Year!”