The pub was dim and smoky, the only lights colored a dull blue and slanting across the room at strange angles. Candles glowed red inside stained glasses on the long bar, their flickering flames waning beneath the dense atmosphere of soot, ash, and heartbreak.
Everything in the bar, except for the glasses and the booze, was made of wood. Walls, tables, chairs, stools, floor, plates, pool tables. Old wood, cracking wood, wood in desperate need of a good dusting and oiling; it was worn smooth from so many years of being touched and abused, like the faces of the regulars. In some places, wood and faces alike were stained with signs of cigarettes and beer. In others, they were broken in fits of rage or grief. Every piece of furniture and every body in a seat had a story to tell.
It was a low-talking crowd, people minding their own business, burying their faces in their glasses and trying not to think. A haven and a home to many, a last-ditch resort to the rest. The occasional younger patron flirted, flashed white teeth and bright eyes, but their efforts went largely ignored. No well-muscled chest or long leg could entice the regulars from the solemn contemplation of the bottom of their glasses.
They weren’t here for sex. They were here for booze, and for music.
Old Tom sat in a rickety chair on a stage barely higher than the floor, an old mic whining in front of his mouth, a might-be-antique guitar cradled in his lap. The black fedora hooded his eyes from the slanting blue lights; the trenchcoat and trousers hid the rest of him. He was a stocky man, not tall but quite broad, with plenty of muscle and fat bundling his frame up in thick rolls.
The fact that he was a bulldog didn’t seem to matter to anyone. His voice was made of gravel and tobacco, and his paws were hand-like enough to play his old six-string, and if his jowels flapped when he thumped his booted heel on the floor to keep beat, no one complained. They’d learned to sit far enough to dodge the occasional splash of drool.
He sang about them, their woes and miseries, their hardships and their failures, his eyes closed like he was communing with everyone in the room. Sometimes he would name one of them in a song, and it became theirs – Marcy’s Song, Dave’s Song – or sometimes they just knew without the name being necessary.
The newcomers to the bar would sometimes stare, wondering how such thick, stubby fingers could make chords and strum. One of the regulars might provide a helpful elbow to the ribs and a muted glare, if a glass was empty and one happened to glance up to catch the stupor. But at the end of the night, when the last chords were dying away in the poor acoustics of the smoke-filled room, every man and woman in the bar would file past the bulldog and drop money in his guitar case.
And every night, Old Tom was back to sing them another round of comfort for their misery.