The stranger looked the type who didn’t stay in one place too long. While I served the other customers, I watched him drink his pint of dark ale and brood silently. He wasn’t local and we don’t get much passing trade.
Dark hair escaped from his dark green knitted hat and curled over the collar of a very shabby leather jacket. The rest of his clothes were an odd assortment; ripped jeans, well-worn cowboy boots that he must have got from a charity shop somewhere, and a spotless open-necked cream shirt. He brought a couple of messenger bags with him and kept them at his feet.
I found him fascinating, and the symbols tattooed on his hands only added to the mystery. Obviously my inspection wasn’t as subtle as I hoped because Sam, the other barmaid, started to tease me about him.
“Watching the customers again. Or maybe just Mr Mysterious over there, eh?” She nudged me while handing change over the counter.
“Oh, stop it. Why should some random customer interest me tonight, or any night for that matter?” I kept my eyes on the half poured Guinness in front of me, watching patterns swirl as it settled.
“He looks like he’s always passing through somewhere, for sure. Want him to pass your way maybe? I’ll ask him for you.” Sam stacked glasses as she talked.
“You will not.” I topped up the Guinness and handed it over the bar to the customer. “Bet he won’t be back tomorrow.”
But the stranger did return, every night for nearly two weeks. I served him perhaps three times, but he didn’t really speak to me until the night I was wiping the table next to him.
He said politely, “Excuse me, but am I upsetting you? You have been watching me these nights.”
My heart almost stopped, then hammered in my chest like a mad thing. “Sorry, no, of course not.” I raised my head, and found myself staring into clear grey eyes. He wasn’t aggressive or drunk, but I was wary all the same.
“Is that no, I don’t upset you, or no, you haven’t been watching me?” The ghost of a smile played on his lips, and I might have found him attractive if I wasn’t so flustered.
I pasted on my professional smile. “Enjoy your drink.” I went back to the bar with my head held high, and avoided him for the rest of the night.
Three shifts went by without seeing him. In quieter moments I wondered where he had gone. I had almost convinced myself that he had moved on as Sam had said, when he came in early the next evening. There were no other customers at that hour. He wore the two messenger bags crossed over his body. They seemed heavy, but not enough to weigh him down.
This time he came directly to me at the bar. “Good evening, Laura. I hope you do not mind my asking, but would you care to talk sometime, over tea perhaps?”
My mouth fell open. I closed it again, relieved that Sam had the later shift and would not witness this exchange. I took a deep breath and looked into his eyes. I saw no threat there, yet I hesitated. Working in a pub meant I often saw the worst of people, but he seemed different.
“Of course, I quite understand if you would rather not. Please forgive my impertinence. Good—”
“How do you know my name?”
“We are given two ears and one mouth. I use mine accordingly. I apologise for the intrusion.” He turned to go, and I decided there and then that my boring life could use some novelty.
“No need to apologise, and you are?”
“I have quite forgotten my manners. Gavin North, pleased to meet you.” He held out his hand, revealing a gold signet ring and rather cleaner fingernails than I expected.
I shook it, feeling a little awkward. “Laura Bevan. We could go to the coffee shop on the High Street. There’s only the one, you can’t miss it. Tomorrow at three, would that suit you?”
“Marvellous. I shall look forward to seeing you then.” He still held my hand, and for one crazy moment I thought he might kiss it. Instead he nodded and left, just as the first regulars arrived. I scolded myself silently for taking a chance on a stranger, even a cute one with grey eyes. Then again, there was nothing else in my calendar. At the very least, I’d get a story out of it to share with Sam.
I set out early the next day, but he was still earlier. He waited outside the coffee shop with his bags, a dark green hat pulled over his ears.
“I am so glad you came,” he said with a smile. “Shall we go inside? It’s a little brisk out here in the wind.” He opened the door for me to go inside first. We ordered, Earl Grey tea for him and hot chocolate for me.
“I wonder why you chose to accept my invitation, Laura. Although naturally I am delighted that you did.”
“No reason, except you look like you have a story to tell. We don’t get many travellers here, being off the beaten track. Apart from a few tourists looking for the end of the rainbow.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Really? I thought everyone knew that to be a complete myth.”
“Well, it’s said the rainbow touched the ground near here three times, and opened a gateway to the fairy realm. And of course the fairies buried gold nearby to distract anyone who got close. They don’t want humans troubling them. But no-one has ever found a door or any gold, and why would they? It’s just a yarn told to attract tourists, being as there’s nothing else going on around here.”
“Do you believe any of that?” He sipped tea, but his eyes never left my face.
“Oh, I loved all those stories when I was a girl. I wished I could be taken away by the wee folk. My dad used to tell me some really tall tales at bedtime. When he could.”
I looked away from Gavin’s intense gaze and studied my mug. I didn’t want to remember the nights when drink stole Pa’s stories and unleashed his temper on Mam and me. Life was hard, and stories became my escape. I was grateful when Gavin spoke, his tone gentle and impossible to place.
“Bedtime stories are the best kind. Some of them are even true. What would you say if I told you that my life is a kind of story, a search for something most do not believe in and have never seen?”
I sat up. “I would say, tell me more.”