Let me start by saying that a part of me always feels sad when a good conversation ends. Because I know I’ll never enjoy that same conversation again.
So I'm with Carl and his friend Renny in The Duke on the Saturday night after payday and the air inside is warm, very warm, with people. It’s so busy we can’t be seated. We barely even have space to turn away from the bar and find something to lean against after collecting our drinks.
Carl takes a swig of something orange and icy, and says: “Let's go after this.”
I say: “What?” and he says: “Let’s go after this.”
Renny looks distracted, maybe by the ringing of fruit machines, clinking of glasses, clashing of pool balls, or any of a number of things as constant in here. Constant, like the sound of distant footsteps in a hospital ward.
“Agreed,” I say. “But I think everywhere’s going to be packed, to be honest.”
Sometime later, I’m buying our third round in The Duke. The drinks are served in three different-sized glasses, which makes it tricky to take them back in one trip. But I do. By now we’ve found a spare stool next to the fire exit, and we’re taking turns to rest our legs. The way it’s worked out is that whoever buys the round gets to sit down, for a bit. Our crumpled coats pick up wet dust on a shelf above our heads as our empty glasses reflect our shoes. It's not the best night out we've ever had.
Carl says: “We’re leaving.”
“You’re leaving? What, now?” I say. “But I’ve got your drinks here.”
“Keep them,” says Carl.
“What? No, this is my round,” I say.
“Mate, we didn’t ask you to get another round,” says Carl. “We’re going back to mine for a smoke, alright?”
He reaches for his jacket as Renny opens the fire door, inviting in a blast of evening air that flutters posters against the wall and slides flyers across the floor. I’m still holding our drinks awkwardly. And Renny’s smiling for the first time tonight.
“Sorry man,” says Carl, the unlit joint between his lips quivering with each syllable. The door shuts with a windy slam.
After a couple of minutes, I head outside for a cigarette.
“I can give you one of these,” I say to this guy. “My friends left them.”
Someone once told me it’s surprising how many people want to know you when there’s a free drink in it.
“Sure,” the guy says. He flicks open the packet.
Or maybe it isn’t. I mean, surprising. Anyway, they were right.
“Thanks,” I say.
I take the only cigarette that isn’t filter-up in the packet.
“Woah, wait. Wait. That’s my lucky one,” the guy says.
He doesn’t smile, so I put it back, upside-down, as it was, and take another, as well as the lighter from the middle of the table.
“Sorry,” I say.
“You’re going to have to speak up. I’m deaf in one ear,” he says.
He puts down the glass Carl never touched and mimes scratching a record on a turntable. “Too much DJ-ing.”
I smile politely and take a seat opposite him.
“So which country are you from?” the guy says. “Where’s that accent from?”
“Accent?” I say.
Maybe it's something to do with my lips being numb, or that I’m shouting to make myself heard.
“No, I live not far away,” I say.
“Norway?” he says.
“No, not Norway, not far away!” I say.
“Lovely country,” he says.
“No, not...” I say.
I’m thinking that it’s not like this night could get any worse, and the accent just kind of slips out.
“Yes, Norway. I am from Norway,” I say.
I expect him to notice. But he doesn’t notice. Nobody notices.
“I've not been to Norway, but I'd like to go,” he says.
I'm thinking me too, but say something like: “Oh, you should!”
Then it starts to flow.
“You can visit me and my grandparents in the north, in Tromso!” I say.
Tromso’s definitely a place.
“It's beautiful there in the winter time!” I say.
It's come up when I’ve looked for holidays. I'm not sure it’s in the north, but this guy is less sure.
“Well I'd love to... what's your name? I'm Bill,” he says.
“My name is Bjorn,” I say.
“Well, Bjorn,” he says. He's still shaking my hand. “I'd love to, someday.”
We talk for 30 minutes like this. He tells me about his two kids in college, and his second wife, who died. And he wants to visit my grandparents in Tromso so much that I wish they existed. It seems like a good time to move on when he finishes Carl's drink and seems to expect another, so I tell him I’ll be right back and go to the bar alone. As I serve my time in the ridiculous roll-call of impatient men gripping bank notes and staring desperately at the working bartender, I feel really bad.
Then I sit down next to a group of four girls, and wait. A woman with olive skin, wearing green, is closest to me. I tap her shoulder.
“Excuse me, do you have the time?” I say, in the accent.
I point to where a watch isn’t on my wrist. I've already seen she isn't wearing one, but I'm thinking this could be a way in.
“Oh, you know what? I don't,” she says, I think in a Midlands accent. “Sorry.”
“That’s OK! What is your name?” I say.
She shrugs, turns her back, and everything falls into the same rhythm as before.
I say: “You are very beautiful!” but she doesn’t respond.
Back outside, the man I was talking to is smoking alone. But I’m with a woman now, it’s going pretty well, and I’m thinking please, nobody recognise me. This woman has a friend who isn’t drunk.
“Tromso sounds wonderful!” the woman says. “Why come here?”
“I am a student, here at the university,” I say. “I just love the buildings here, and the history of the place. It’s great! And you all are very beautiful, you British girls!”
The woman laughs hard; her friend squints.
“I love the British women,” I tell the woman. “They are beautiful. And you are beautiful.”
Blinking slowly, she brushes her fringe out of her eye and stumbles. I catch her before she falls down the concrete steps.
In my arms, looking up at me, she says: “Where are you staying tonight?”
“I sleep maybe in, how you say, hostel?” I say. “If they have room for me.”
“You can stay at mine,” she says.
Now her friend, who hasn’t yet spoken, steps forward.
“Hey, is it colder than this in Tromso?” says the friend.
“Uh... yes. Most of the year, it is,” I say.
“That’s interesting,” the friend says. She glares at me.
“Remind me, what’s the currency in Norway?” she says, folding her arms.
“Uh...” I say.
But I don’t get even one attempt.
“Come on Kate, I’ll take you home. This guy’s a weirdo,” she says.
Krone, is it krone? I think, as they descend the concrete steps. Or is krone the Czech Republic? It doesn’t matter, I’ve blown it.
At work, a couple of weeks later, I say to Carl: “What’s the currency in Norway?”
“Krone,” he says. He reads on for a little while, before looking back across the desk at me. “Why? What’s funny?”
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