The English Top Hat.
Back in 2009, when I was a fresh runaway, a pig-headed know-it-all, for one rainy summer I lived in Hereford, UK. I had just finished my sales and marketing studies, given my two weeks’ notice at work, and told my mom I would be leaving Finland to go and shovel British horse shit.
Working the barn yard was not easy. First week, my feet turned into nasty, achy lumps, some shade of purple and blue. My brain got fried with the English equestrian words I desperately tried to learn and remember. It took me weeks to realize that the horse I rode was called Cal, not “Cow”.
There were about eight of us working at the horse farm. Our diverse crew had members from all around the world. The dinner table filled with accents from Norway, Iceland, Finland, Germany, New Zealand, Belgium, to name a few. We all took turns taking days off.
Have you ever tried to drive a car on the “wrong side” of the road? I did—but just once. On my days off, I preferred walking for 25 minutes and then deciding between the bus stop and “Penny’s”, the cute, local, red brick walled pub that served greasy, delicious food and Strongbow cider. What else does a twenty-something year old runaway need?
Although Penny’s was awesome, on my days off, I usually took the bus and rode it to Hereford downtown. About a twenty-minute bus ride took me back to civilization, and I’d wander the cobblestone streets for hours, letting the foreign atmosphere, old buildings, and too-fast-to-understand British accents sink in.
One time I went in the cinema and bought a ticket to see a Harry Potter movie, just to take a nap because I was terribly hungover. But that’s a story for another time. This story is about a day off spent in a pub in Hereford, writing, and meeting an old gentleman, dressed to impress.
Have you ever been to an English pub in the middle of the day? For me, it’s nothing like anywhere else I’ve been. You don’t see drunkies wobbling on bar stools, mumbling how things used to be better. You don’t see writers, bloggers, and starting entrepreneurs, tapping their laptops. In Hereford, the pubs were either empty, with the exception of a pint polishing bartender, or a handful of people drinking a beer and watching telly.
I walk into a pub downtown, sit down, and order a Cottage pie and a pint of Strongbow. Cottage pie is the first local dish I had when I first arrived in this town. And I fell in love with it instantly. Why would I ever eat anything else, ever again?
After finishing my fine dining, the bartender comes over to grab my silverware and drops off a large bowl of salted peanuts. My theory is, he knows the peanuts will make me thirsty and I would soon order my third pint of Strongbow and spend more pounds. And he is not wrong.
An old gentleman dressed in a perfectly fitting black suit and a top hat hovers close by my table with a pint in his hand. As the Finnish, barely mute introvert I am, I ignore his presence and keep typing on my old laptop which is nearly out of battery. I have brought the charger with me but forgot to grab the adapter.
“Pardon, is this seat taken?”
His voice is hoarse and low, but I like the slow-paced accent it comes with. Without looking at the intruder, I nod and keep typing the email to a friend back home. Just as I finish the email and I’m about to hit the send button, the battery dies.
“Ahh crap.” I mumble and stare at the black screen.
“Oh, just that my crappy laptop died.”
The Top Hat stares out the window. He picks a handful of nuts off the bowl the bartender brought me earlier. In shock of such thievery, I frown at the old man but don’t say a word. I reach over and grab a handful of nuts myself and stare out, to see what my new frenemy is looking at. He looks at the bowl and then at me, a faintly amused look on his face.
“I’ve worn this suit every single day, for the last five years. Ever since the funeral.”
Tongue-tied is an understatement, I can’t think of a one polite thing to say. “Who died” or “It looks good on you” just do not sound right in my ears. I stay quiet and peek at The Top Hat. I take another sip of the third Strongbow pint the bartender has brought over without me asking for it. I reach for the bowl of peanuts to get a few more mouthfuls before my pocketing friend devours them all.
“My wife, she was very ill when she died. Watching her suffer was painful, to live without her is excruciating. The last time we spoke, I told her I will wear this suit for the rest of my days, until we meet again.”
I swallow loudly, frozen in my seat, still not able to form a word, any word. The Top Hat takes another handful of nuts from the bowl, leaving only crumbs on the bottom. How sorry I feel for this stranger for losing the love of his life conquers the annoyance I feel about his ill-gotten peanuts. “Let the man eat.” I think. Who knows if this indeed is his last meal and he’ll be joining his beloved wife sooner than we thought.
Like he is reading my mind, he picks up the bowl and sweeps its bottom with his hand, licking the last crumbs off his wrinkly fingers.
“It’s been nice talking to you, Miss.”
The top hat disappears out the pub’s door and into the rainy, gray summer day. I stare at the door long after my sad, peanut stealing friend has closed it behind him. I wonder why strangers make me so anxious? Why do I automatically assume people want something from me? Why is it so much easier to pick out the annoying, negative traits in a person, instead of noticing the positive ones, the good?
My bartender walks over, a fresh pint of Strongbow in one hand, a bowl of salted peanuts in the other. He places the cider next to my laptop, looks around the table, picks up two empty pints and walks away. He doesn’t leave me a new bowl of peanuts.
“What a knob…” I mumble and slam the laptop’s lid down. Behind the lid, I see two more empty pints, a hefty tip for our bartender—and an untouched bowl of salted nuts. I sure do hope the well-dressed old gent didn’t mind his awkward, mute friend stealing all of his peanuts.
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“I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life's a bitch. You've got to go out and kick ass.”
― Maya Angelou