Libertine Street

Submitted into Contest #148 in response to: Write about two neighbors who cannot stand each other.... view prompt

4 comments

Fiction Drama

Libertine Street is a quiet place to live, most of the time. There’s a flower shop, a locksmith, a trendy café whose clientele got edgier and edgier over the years and, at the angle of Cumin Street, a pub, The Black Dolphin. With a grey painted façade and tall square windows, the place isn’t the most inviting and it is most likely that people would pass by for years before actually walking in. It took me seven months. When I finally pushed that heavy door, my Monday face on and my light résumé in hand, I was surprised not to be greeted by the wicked yet customary smell of beer and sweat. The absence of these elements alone brightened the place in a second. I remember being welcomed by a tall middle-aged lady, Lilian, with short blond air and fat glasses that didn’t soften her features. To my amazement, she was wearing slippers. It was December, and London’s winter isn’t the kindest. Her big feet marched towards me and called me lovely. I didn’t feel lovely at all but I understood later it was a mere British sign of politeness, another one. At the counter, a massive deep-brown wooden one were sitting two men, beers accompanying them of the same colour of the bar. I realize I was being asked a question when the lady Lilian started tapping on the wall with her fingers. Yes, I have bar experience. Yes, over a year. No, I didn’t get fired, my boss fled the country owing me, and the rest of his staff, our last pay. Yes, part-time works fine. I’m a writer, I could use the time off. The men at the counter finished their pint. Have I been in there that long? Although I have found out it takes less than the believed amount of time for an angry English man to finish his pint. One of them, the taller one, called on Lilian, who nodded and obliged. Whilst she was pouring the ales, I said something stupid that was meant as a useless compliment on the pub. She liked it I suppose because she asked me if I could start working tomorrow. Yes. Alright then, see you tomorrow, at 12 pm. When I left, I found myself thinking of the two men at the bar. One of them looked like a priest, the other one like a biker. What could the two of them possibly be talking about? I was sure I would never find out. 

It’s tomorrow already and I just walked into the pub. It’s sunny today and the place looks different. Smaller, more familiar. Behind the counter, there’s a young man, about my age. He’s rolling himself a cigarette moving his head to the rhythm of the song that’s playing loud, perhaps a bit too loud, but I like that song. He smiles at me and very politely tells me my name. Lilian told him about me, the new hire. He asks me if I’d like one, he means the cigarette, and although I’m trying to quit I said yes. We go out for a smoke and he tells me about the place. It’s a cool place to work. Especially when Lilian isn’t there. He tells me about his life, I remain evasive about mine. I like hearing stories, but I don’t particularly like sharing mine anywhere else than in writing. The cigarette ends and duty calls us back inside. There’s a mother with a kid, she yells at him for something wrong he must have done that I didn’t witness. Akiel, my newly met co-worker, gives the kid chocolate he takes out from his pocket and the mother looks at him with sparkling eyes. Thanks, Kiki. That’s what people call him, he told me earlier, but I prefer Akiel. I proceed to make the woman’s drink: a large glass of wine with ice and soda in it. Where I come from, this drink is a sacrilege. I give it to her and dial the machine but Akiel stops me. It’s on him. He winks at her and she sits at a table, calling her kid back to her so he can finish his homework. I think about my mom and how I could never picture her in a place like this. I smile. 

Tuesdays are pub quiz night and I can’t seem to be excited about it. I have been working here a full week and I started to agree with Akiel that it was indeed a fun place to work when Lilian wasn’t on shift. But on Tuesdays, she always is. It’s midday and my shift is about to start. I smoke a cigarette and step inside. At the doorstep, I freeze. It’s the two men again. At the counter, drinking the same chocolate-coloured beer. I get behind the bar so I can have a better look at them. I remembered them younger, but from up close they are at least in their sixties. They are sitting in the exact same spot and that, somehow, makes me smile. They are close to the till and from where they are I can easily hear what they are talking about. Except that Lilian calls me. She tells me she has a family emergency and that she won’t be back before the quiz starts tonight at five. Perfect. It’s okay, I can handle it. She looks at me, doubtful, but I got used to it. She has no choice, anyway. She leaves, her flip flops squeaking on the old floor and when the door closes behind her it’s a fresher air to breathe inside. 

Miss? They noticed me staring, they must have. I nod, acknowledging their call. The man on the left, the biker —I will later learn his name is Roggie Bobbers, makes a round gesture with his chunky reddish hand. Another round. As if I had been summoned to a privy council, I almost bow and head towards the cask ales. Sussex’ Best: Harvey’s. Two. £9.20. Roggie takes out of his thin wallet a card and taps on the card reader, his eyes never parting from his interlocutor, the priest, who I will later know to be Kenneth Mull. I grab the two empty glasses and toss them into the washer. It makes a louder sound than I expected and I narrow my shoulders, shameful. But when I look up at the men, I notice my mistake didn’t cause any annoyance. Roggie, with his hair-free skull and his menacing tattoos, suddenly looks like a little boy, no more prepared to deal with life than the child Akiel gave chocolate to the other day. Kenneth, whose face I can only glimpse in the mirror’s reflection, puts a hand on Roggie’s shoulder. I immediately look away. It’s a simple gesture I know, but it felt so private, so illicit, that I didn’t think. Roggie, unaware of my exaggerated reaction to his friend’s tenderness, glances at the clock. It’s 3:00 PM. It must mean something to him because he downs his drink and steps down the stool. Solemnly, he hugs Kenneth and disappears behind the black-painted door on the left corner of the room. I knew that door. It’s the door that leads to the apartment upstairs. I once took it by mistake, on my way to tell the kitchen to add chilli flakes for table five because the buzzer wasn’t working. I ran into a couple on the staircase, kissing and sharing the butt of a spliff. They immediately split when I saw them and I thought that was funny because they couldn’t be younger than me by much and yet I had seemed to scare them. Thank you. I return to reality once to contemplate Kenneth leaving too, behind the same black door in the corner. 

It’s almost 5 PM. I have been staring at the door continuously, only distracting myself the few times customers solicited me. Are you okay? It’s Akiel. What is he doing here? He’s not on the rota. Lilian asked me to cover for her. There’s no way you can deal with tonight on your own. I must have looked offended, or bothered because he smiled and added. It’s no regular pub quiz, at the Dark Dolphin. I nod, annoyed. Akiel rolls himself a cigarette and offers me one. Who lives upstairs? Akiel licks the end of the second cigarette. It’s a fun story. 

Terri Mull was seventeen when she fell madly in love with Roggie Bobbers. He was rock’n’roll and that made him simply perfect. Her parents being dead, Terri asked her cousin and best friend Kenneth the permission to marry Roggie, who wouldn’t see a reason why she couldn’t. A few months after, they got married and Kenneth offered the newlyweds his apartment, upstairs to the Black Dolphin. Terri was thrilled but Roggie asked to speak to her brother. So he did. Roggie and Kenneth met, on a Tuesday morning at the Black Dolphin. They sat at the bar and Lilian, who was a much younger soul at the time, swears that she saw them kissing. Of course, tender-hearted as she was she promised herself never to let that secret reach the first floor, but she couldn’t help telling her boyfriend, Hal, who worked in the kitchen, who couldn’t tell Johnny, the owner of the pub. Quite unbelievingly, such information never stepped outside the pub’s corner door. Never? Never. I dragged from my cigarette, taking in the sad story of two men sheltered by a secret who could have set them free. I feel lost in thought when I realize there must be more. So, wait, what happened after? After…The war started. 

Terri and Roggie got married that same summer and moved in upstairs. However, Kenneth and Roggie insisted on this before he accepted the wedding gift, and would live with them, in the extra bedroom. Terri didn’t object and on they went sharing the upstairs flat. It could all have worked out, had Kenneth never met Silvia. It was a few years after Roggie and Terri’s wedding and life was a bright blue sky for all until Terri, eager to find her brother a girl, introduced him to her friend from the shop. Silvia had just arrived from Brazil and only had to blink for the world to stop spinning. A few weeks after they met, Silvia was pregnant with Kenneth’s child. Once in the known, on an afternoon Terri wasn’t home, Roggie kicked Kenneth’s stuff out of the apartment. The next day, lawyers and constructors divided the flat above the Black Dolphin, and what was one became two. Silvia gave birth to a girl they named Daniella. Terri, who had refused to meet the newborn for weeks, finally invited them over to announce her pregnancy. A boy, Jordan. For a while everything was calm, but the storm settled in and growing up Jordan and Daniella were not allowed to spend time with one another. About that same time, a fight started between Terri and Kenneth, both asking the other to move out to rejoin the two flats as one. No one yielded and frequent battles were fought. Loud, for the whole street to witness from their windows. For years now, every week, the two families competed against each other at the pub quiz on Tuesdays, each tacitly putting on the table their flat’s lease. And they never won? Never, not on Lilian’s watch. 

It’s almost time. I would lie if I said something wasn’t boiling inside of me. Excitement? Of witnessing two families’ miserable quest for happiness? What a terrible feeling! And yet, here I am, counting the seconds until I see one of them. Akiel is cashing in the intakes: every participant in the quiz must put £3 on the Dolphin’s jar. It’s crowded tonight, and Lilian isn’t there to even the Boggers and the Mull’s scores. Who’s in charge of the quiz tonight, then? Akiel looks at me funny and hands me a mic. Your Honour. I stop breathing for a moment. You can do it, look, you just have to shoot out the questions, answer any potential questions and we’ll check the scores together. He looks so calm as if people’s lives weren’t at stake. I stare at the microphone when a woman enters, accompanied by a tall young girl, looking just like her: dark hair, immense legs, overwhelming smile. Silvia, Daniella. They sit on the window table, their nails and haircut matching and I recognize them. I recognize them as the people of Akiel’s tale but mostly, I recognize Daniella, sitting on the staircase, smoking a spliff with a boy about her age. And that’s when he enters. Jordan. Right behind him, were Terri and Roggie. My throat tightened and I feel dizzy. They walk in with their past and their present haunting them, sitting at the table next to the fireplace, across from Silvana and Daniella. I search for discreet looks between Jordan and Daniella but I am disappointed to discover they perfectly ignore each other. Years of training, I think. I look away, searching for Kenneth, but he is nowhere in the pub. I ask Akiel, he says that we should start the quiz without him. It’s time. I bring the mic to my lips and announce the pub quiz’s beginning. As I attempt to ask the first question, Terri stands up and walks to the bar, her high heels clicking on the floor. Where’s Lilian? Family emergency. Terri asks for two tequila shots, and Akiel serves her. I, hypnotized by her angry lines and her thin red lips, don’t say anything, afraid to remember her of my presence and then lose the possibility to observe. What about Kenneth? Was he around today? The question is addressed to both of us, I realize, but I continue to pretend I’m the quiz’s master ghost, in charge to read the questions and nothing more. Hey, you! Miss? I have to look up from my paper now, I know it. She knew Terri. Savior Akiel is in the room. He’s about this tall, no glasses, peppered hair, and looks like a choir boy with years tucked up in the bags under his eyes. Thank you, Terri. Behind her, Kenneth stands, looking devilishly sober considering the amount of Harveys flowing in his blood. Terri chugs down the tequilas and returns to Roggie. She whispers something in his ear. Some people in the pub complain about the quiz being delayed but I couldn’t care less. I watch Terri, dragging Jordan and Roggie out of the pub, holding the black door. In less than a minute, they are gone. To their upstairs, to Roggie’s lie, they can’t seem to get away from. Before I can articulate anything, I look at the other side but Silvana and Daniella are not there anymore. The heavy pub door closes and Kenneth looks at me with a tired face, enlightened with a secret smile. Thank Lilian for me, would you? And just like that, he leaves too. I don’t understand. Akiel pours himself a drink, Guinness and blackcurrant. There’s nothing to understand really except that perhaps they don’t trust you to keep the status quo. Change doesn’t happen, it is provoked, isn’t it?

That night was the first and last of me being quiz master at The Black Dolphin. It was also the last night I ever worked there, for Akiel’s words echoed in my ears and the Bobbers and Mull story resonated in my heart. Change doesn’t happen, no, it is pursued, it is desired. And I decided to change my life, before it got used to being what it is, stuck into a zone of self-depravation, before my secret become a burden, before my lies become my life. And ever since, I stopped saying I am a writer, yet I write. On rare occasions, I walk past the Black Dolphin and hear the screams and the hidden laughter, I catch the silhouettes of men who chose to remain in the dark, I feel their sorrows and cannot understand their pain, so I write it. 

June 02, 2022 12:26

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4 comments

Robin Owens
18:53 Jun 09, 2022

I really escaped into the pub, Sabrina! I felt like I was in another world. I think you captured the darkness and secrets and can lurk in a place like that, and I am glad the narrator could separate herself from that.

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Sabrina Semidei
21:26 Jun 09, 2022

Thanks Robin! Definitely inspired by the place I'm currently part-timing at so the story was a bit of a cathartical one for me! Glad you enjoyed it!

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Melissa Woods
01:30 Jun 09, 2022

This was an interesting story! I enjoyed the pacing--i didn't think there was a slow moment! Also, I like the way you teased the story of the two families by introducing the two men and having your narrator say she didn't expect to see them again. By stating that, it made the reveal of their story a fun pay-off. I think it would be nice have more dialogue between the characters. I'm curious as to how Lilian would say the things your narrator describes. Also, I would love to know more of the interactions between Akiel and your narrator. You...

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Sabrina Semidei
21:25 Jun 09, 2022

Oh, first of all, thank you so much for taking the time to read it and send over some feedback, I appreciate it very much, especially because I felt so unsure about this story! I definitely agree that I 'fled from' Lilian's character because I felt that if I kept her there I'd never stop writing ahah. Same goes for Akiel, and I guess it's because they are declinations of characters in my life so I decided to squeeze their essence to the minimum to explore the fiction, but I agree that it would be a better story with their actual voices exp...

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