What Happens After “After You”

“After you”

Two simple words, but they can sometimes initiate a disproportionate amount of wellbeing to course through your system, something akin to a stiff whisky chaser on a cold January night. 

“After you.”

Two simple words, but they can sometimes initiate a disproportionate amount of irritation to course through your system, something akin to a tepid doner kebab on a cold January night.

Let me tell you my story.

We reach the bar at precisely the same moment; honours even; I have a perfectly legitimate right to speak up, place my order, get my drink.  But, I make an assessment.  They look like visitors; out-of-towners; tourists even.  I decide to extend a bit of home-town, London decency to these strangers:

“After you.”

Oh, how I would regret those two simple words.

They look through me as though I do not exist.  Turn that same blank, bovine gaze to the chalkboard of beers available for purchase.  Stand and stare.  Silent.  As though we are all transfixed in rapt admiration of a beautiful sunset.

The barman attempts to prompt them, but the soundless status quo continues.  Are they members of a religious sect?  Some insular community, where the spoken word is forbidden?  Finally, they turn to one another, converse in low tones, oblivious to the fact that I am waiting; oblivious to the barman standing in attendance:

“What do you want, darling?”

“I don’t know.  What do you want?”

They return their gaze to the chalkboard.  In the meantime, I have learned something.  They may still be out-of-towners, but they are English out-of-towners.  You examine them more closely.  Middle aged; quite well-to-do.  A recent couple?  The ‘darling’ might suggest that.  Their self-absorbed insensibility to everything else around them might suggest that.

The barman tries again:

“Do you like a beer or a lager?”

There is a puzzled look on the face of the man, as though he has never contemplated the question before; never stood in a pub before; never heard English spoken before.  He turns to his partner:

“Do we like a beer or a lager, darling?”

It is clearly a question that is not going to receive any decisive reply.  Even during my brief acquaintance with the woman, I can recognise this as a God-given fact.  Meanwhile, I mentally answer the question for him.  I like a wheat beer.  It is #4 on the pumps.  If I hadn’t said “After you” to you, I would have said “A pint of #4, please” to the barman; it would have been poured by now––even allowing for the time it takes for the frothy head to settle––I would have paid by now; I would be halfway upstairs, heading towards my favourite seat in the far corner by now; practically taking my first sip by now.

By the time that I return from my counter-factual excursion, the reality has changed.  Against all odds, the man has come to a decision; the vaguest gesture on his part towards pint #2 has been seized upon by the bar-tender:

“A very good choice, sir.”

He is pouring out a glass before there is any opportunity for the man to change his mind.

“And, madam?”

We are back into the twilight zone.  It is a scary place to inhabit, filled with fear, doubt and introspection.

“Madam?”

The barman is pressing now; he sees me waiting; we exchange a look that conveys a thousand unspoken words: I feel your pain; this is hurting me as much as it is hurting you; but what can I do?  There is genuine anguish there: what can I do?

The woman’s mouth is beginning to open; there is a sign of the most primitive interpretation of sentient life; a basic sentence begins to take shape:

“Can I have a taste of #7?”

A taste?  A taste!  What is this?  A fucking wine-tasting evening?  Who do you think you are?  Jilly fucking Goolden?

The barman is indulgent.  He pours out a thimble-measure, which the woman sips, pulling a cat’s-arse face, as though she has just sucked on a raw lemon.

Should I just jump in?  Express my exasperation; state my order?  Instead, I stand and wait.  Fume and wait.  Conduct my own personal mental dialogue and wait.

The man has taken a sip of his drink:

“#2 is very nice, darling.”

“If you’re sure.  In that case, I’ll have a half of #2.”

Hallelujah!  It has only taken ten minutes to come to a decision, but we are there.  Praise be!  Surely nothing can now stand between me and my pint?

The barman turns to the couple again:

“That will be £6.50 please.  We don’t accept cash.  Card only.”

Once again the bovine look of blank incomprehension settles upon the pair:

“Card?  Do we have a card, darling?  I don’t think we have a card?”

© Beery Sue

Beery Sue vows to never again let good manners get between her and her beer.

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