It was a rainy November evening when Andrew, a retired Captain of the Armed Forces, stepped into the dimly lit and some what seedy jazz bar known only as "The Cantina". As he stepped out of the rain, the familiar sights and sounds hit him: there was the smoke hanging in the air, the quiet murmur of multiple conversations, the jazz band playing one last number. He removed his fedora hat and walked across to the bar.
"You're late", said a gruff Scottish voice. It belonged to Asim - known about the place as 'Fat Man', a Scottish national who frequented the bar and was one of the better known faces about the place. "Where you been?" he pressed, not taking his gaze away from the layer of whisky that lay in the bottom of his glass.
"Traffic", replied Andrew, beckoning the bartender over. "I only got your telegram this morning, bureaucratic bastards. How was Georgia?" Andrew asked, sitting down beside Asim on one of the hardwood stools. That was the only feature of the Cantina that really stood out - the stools. Every one looked new and out of place, and to the outsider this seemed a little odd. However, once they got used to the place, they realised why they looked so new: they were constantly being replaced from the various and frequent brawls that occurred.
"It was ok. I wouldn't go back, though. Got into a terrible fight over some dame", came the reply from Asim.
"Aint that always the sad truth?"
Andrew ordered himself a Scotch - ice heavy - and began to slow drink. He became so engrossed in the drink that he never even noticed that someone had been stood behind him for the past few minutes, their gaze fixed firmly at the back of his head.
"Not going to say hello?" asked a female voice, with a tinge of Irish to it. "I've been here for the past 2 minutes". Asim sighed and shook his head, finishing his drink. Andrew looked around, knowing who it was before he even made eye contact - Svenja, his some what tempestuous girlfriend. He motioned, offering her a drink, and she stood firm, staring down at him. "The usual", came the monotone reply.
Svenja took up a seat while the bartender fixed her up a drink. Soon all three were sat with strained and forlorn faces, staring down at the surface of the bar in front of them, privy only to their own private thoughts. Suddenly, however, they were distracted from their thoughts; a loud crash, followed by a muffled cry, came from across the far side of the cantina. A few younger locals were engaging in fisticuffs over some poker game and owed money. This was common place for the Cantina, and when three burly security guards - known only as the ISA - flew over to handle the situation, the rest of the patrons went about their business, ignoring the same old protests from the fighters.
"This place never changes, does it?" Andrew ventured, shaking his head gently and laughing to himself. "We've been coming here for, what? 4 or 5 years now? And the place is still the same."
"Would you change it?" Svenja replied, looking about the place, her gaze wandering from the jazz quartet, to the bartender, to the other patrons, and to the maintenance crew - led by the oddly named 'Eagle' - who were busy clearing away the debris from the skirmish. "I mean, it's… like home, you know? And the people here are like family. I mean, you've got ol' Tex over the corner…" She pointed over to a gruff looking sort wearing a traditional sort of cowboy hat. He was the licensee of the place. No-one knew that much about him, but everyone respected him. "Then you've got Iain," she added, pointing to a slick-looking middle-aged entrepreneur who looked like he could drink at much classier - and safer - environments. "And then there's Pat and Korny, with their Dirty Harry re-enactments; you've got Lee, one of the main bouncers; you've Dawn, Polson, Anthony… the list goes on. Sure, it's hardly the most glam place on the Earth, but we're hardly the most glam people, are we? Where else could you find such a varied and interesting bunch of reprobates?"
"Prison", Asim replied, quick as flash. Asim was known for his humour and dry wit, which often served to lift the mood of the place, and he'd done it again. "But yeah, you're right. It's… home away from home, guys."
Andrew gave a non-committal sort of shrug and turned his gaze back to the bar.
The night was beginning to wear on when into the Cantina walked the local Compare, Queenie. No-one knew her real name, but everyone knew her affectionately as Queenie, and she had a reputation for being a gin and party girl. As was the tradition on a Saturday evening at the bar, it was time for the quiz. It lasted for a couple of hours and was a 20-question general knowledge quiz which always drew many players, young and old alike. The quizzes has been a selling point for the bar - along with the Poetry and Book Reading nights - for many years now, and they were as popular as ever.
"We taking part again this week?" Andrew asked his two companions. This was a rhetorical question; of course they were going to take part, everyone who was present at the time would be joining in.
"Aye, fella. And I'm prepared this week; I've been reading up on the news over the past week. We should be good to go this time!" replied Asim, with a slight grin creeping across his face.
The three were soon huddled around the quiz sheet, arguing amongst themselves about the answers to the questions. The questions were notoriously difficult this week, and the three were struggling. Andrew slammed his drink onto the bar in frustration, drawing disapproving glances from the bouncers. Andrew gave a mock apologetic look to one of them and turned back to face the bar.
"Which swine came up with these? They're nasty little buggers, this week", mumbled Svenja, rattling her brains over the recent question. Asim said nothing, and stared silently down at the table.
With just a single question left to go, the three knew they had no chance of winning. Svenja took the quiz sheet, screwed it up, and launched it across the bar, hitting an ex-trooper on the back of the head. Everyone in the bar looked around. This meant trouble, it always did. The missile had just struck a heavyset and locally feared chap known as 'Osiris' on the back of the head. He was known for his fiery temper and angry disposition. Andrew, realising the trouble, quickly apologised, thus shouldering much of the blame. Osiris gave him a very menacing stare and turned back around. Andrew exhaled heavily, for a moment he feared he was going to be introduced, head first, to one of the glass windows.
"You wanna be more careful", Andrew said, shooting a brief glance between Svenja and the still mumbling Osiris. Svenja shrugged non-chalantly and faced the bar once more.
The quiz was long finished - won by a shady character said to have Mafia connections, known only as 'Amun' - and the place had returned to the usual hubbub of activity, chatter and drinking that it was long famed for. Everyone was going about their business; Andrew, Asim and Svenja were now chatting to Shane and Graham - two other locals who frequented the place - when everyone's attention was turned once again to the door. The most peculiar thing happened, and a silence had fallen across the entire Cantina. Accompanied by two heavyset gentlemen, the local Mafia boss, known as 'Octavius', had just walked in. Rumour had it that this Octavius owned the Cantina, and had hired Tex to run it in his stead, thus avoiding public attention. Well Octavius had not been spotted in the Cantina for years now, and everyone stared. Even the newer drinkers had heard of this man - his reputation ran like wildfire - and they were all whispering among themselves, "Is that him?" "He doesn't look like I expected…" Octavius grinned to himself and walked over to the bar, a few patrons stepping hastily out of his way as he did so. The bartender finally worked up the courage to make his way over,
"Wh… what can I g... get you, sir?" he asked, clumsily fingering one of the beer taps that stood close by.
"Nothing", came the frosty reply. Octavius had just pulled from a hitherto unforeseen pocket a silver flask, and took a draught from that. Everyone sat staring at him as he drank slowly from his own flask - an act prohibited in the bar, yet no-one said a word. After all, it was rumoured he owned the place, although it was never officially confirmed. Many just assumed it was Tex who owned the joint.
"What do you think he's doing here?" asked Asim, nodding discreetly over to Octavius. "I've seen him once before. But I've never known him to make a public appearance like this. I think something's got him spooked"
Andrew turned to face Asim and nodded slowly. "Something's fishy", Asim added, taking another drink.
"You know, I heard he had to file for bankruptcy and was selling this place on", Svenja interjected quietly.
"What'll happen to this place, then?" Andrew asked. He now realised that he did actually consider the bar a second home, and if it was shut down, there'd be many people without a place to go for an evening drink and bit of banter.
"I guess it'll become like the others: abandoned and remembered only by wizened drunks who have scattered to other bars. A memory; nostalgia"
"They can't let that happen. This place is an institution!" Andrew said, alarmed by his sudden passion. Svenja sighed sadly, then shook her head:
"I'm sure locals at other such places once thought the same about their joint, but look what happened there. I mean, this place has fallen somewhat into neglect and disrepair over the past 18 months. All the new clubs and bars are taking away members, and we're relying heavily on old games to attract new blood, old games that the new places are replicating themselves. Let's face it guys, this place is getting old anyway…"
Octavius, at this moment, rose from his seat and coughed loudly, drawing everyone's attention once again. He placed an attaché case on the bar and began to speak somewhat solemly.
"This place is being shut down", he said. There were several audible gasps about the place. "I'm having to sell it on to the council who are going to replace it with a new shop. After tonight, this place will be under ownership of the local council and will be closed down. Permanently." He then sighed somewhat sadly, before continuing. "Although scarcely seen, I do enjoy this place. I know many rumours about me have been around for the past few years, but as they say, ignorance breeds fear. I bid you all to take good memories away from this place; last orders, tonight, will indeed be 'last orders'…". With that, he turned from the bar, nodded to the bartender and walked off outside, into the darkening gloom of the British night.
Suddenly the whole place erupted. People were frantically trying to come to terms with the news and what had just happened. "The Cantina? Shut?! This place is a landmark!" one voice cried out. "Landmark nothing: if money talks, and bull--- walks; we're walking…" a voice replied over the din. It seemed the only people unconcerned and unmoved were Andrew, Asim and Svenja.
"This place is going to turn into a riot" Andrew said, bearly heard by his friends over the background racket which was escalating by the second. "Let's get out of here while we have good memories of the place".
Svenja and Asim both agreed and all three stood and made their way to the door for the final time. It seemed, at the moment, as if they were in a separate world that had crossed over briefly into reality. The background noise faded and time seemed to slow all around them. They seemed to walk in complete silence: the noise of the crowd now like a distant memory on a forgotten battle plain. It had dawned on the trio that this would be their last walk from the Cantina.
They reached the door and stepped outside. The rain had ceased, but the night was heavy with moisture in the air, and a low fog was circling about the place. Asim lit up a cigarette, and Andrew and Svenja clasped hands. The three didn't look back once into the Cantina; their eyes were focused on the street in front.
"Where to?" asked Asim, taking a drag from his Chesterfield.
"Straight on, brother" came Andrew's reply, and the three just walked off into the night, not once turning back to look at the place that for so many years had been a second home.