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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

Of Loyalty and Loneliness
by Andy Peacock

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"He is here already."

Laurent did not look up from the paper. "Of course he is here. He is here everyday."

"Not this early. Soon he will rouse us from our sleep to open up. Perhaps we should leave him outside for a few minutes today. Just so he knows we do not open at his request."

Laurent sighed and placed the paper down on the round wooden table in front of him. "Do not talk nonsense Didier," he said. "Open the door." Laurent rose steadily and made his way behind the bar. He pressed a large red button on the shiny espresso machine and pulled the miniature cup and saucer from the shelf above him. He also unscrewed the top off the brandy bottle and put it to one side.

Didier was peering out the window at the old man walking slowly down the street toward them. The Major walked with a cane but did not use it to hold his weight. Instead the cane was a companion for his left leg, and the two rose and fell at the same time with each stride. Didier turned the hand-written sign from 'closed' to 'open' with a flick of his wrist and sighed. He turned to notice Laurent's eyes were on him. "Why do you dislike him so much? Did your mother not teach you to treat the elderly with respect?"

"Yes but she was elderly herself," said Didier. "It is not that I dislike him, only that his kind are difficult to talk with."

"He is brave. He fought for your country."

"Yes, yes I know. He saved us from invaders so that we might serve him coffee and brandy instead of they. But tell me, do you think he knows your name anymore than mine?"

The wind chime above the door indicated that the Major had arrived. He greeted the waiters quietly from beneath his moustache and sat at the only table next to a window.

The table was decorated with a white vase in which a singular flower had been placed. From one pocket of his jacket, the Major produced a pipe, and from the other some dark rich tobacco. The tobacco was so strong Didier could smell it as he approached and he was faintly nauseated by it.

"Good morning Major," he said. "It is a warm day today." The Major did not look up from the pipe. He picked a generous helping of the tobacco and tenderly pushed it into the wooden bowl. "It is not so warm," he said. Didier shook his head and closed his eyelids for a moment. "No. I suppose not," he said quickly. "Will you be eating today or is it just the espresso?"

"Nothing just yet."

Didier looked round at Laurent, but his boss did not return the gaze. He was already pouring the Major's drink. Didier turned to go, but stopped and said "Nothing?"

"No, not just now." Didier shrugged his eyebrows and went back to Laurent at the small bar. "He doesn't want anything yet."

Laurent looked up, puzzled. "Nothing?"

"Not yet."

"Are you sure?"

Didier sat down at the table nearest to him. "Of course," he said.

The Major's presence was enough to compel the two waiters to look busy for half an hour or so, before they tired of the charade and sat down to smoke and to drink their own coffee. Laurent faced the Major, and waited for the old man to request something but he did not. Every so often he would take out a beautiful silver pocket watch and check the time.

The door went again and the Major's head sprung up. When he saw a young couple enter his attention fell back on his pipe.

Laurent made his way over to the old man. He was very smartly dressed, but then he had always been that way. "Are you expecting someone Major?" he asked.

"I do not know."

Laurent frowned. "Excuse me Major, but how can you not know?"

"I am waiting for someone, that much is certain, but I am unsure if I am expecting them or not." Laurent turned to leave, but the old man spoke again. "Was anyone here today? Before myself I mean?"

Laurent smiled kindly. "Major, you were first as always. We do not open until we see you walk from the fence gate." The Major nodded, but did not return the smile. "I am an old man, and the world has changed much since I have been alive," he said. "May I take a brandy before I leave."

The Major stepped out onto the uneven road and glanced around one more time. It was a warm morning, the boy had been right, but his mind had been elsewhere and he had not noticed. The narrow streets were quiet and the Major walked them without purpose. He made his way down the cobbles and through a small archway until he reached the barbershop.

The barber was finishing the haircut of a young man the Major recognised at once. He had seen him playing Spanish guitar, sat out by the side of the street with his hat by his side open for donations.

"Good morning Major," said the barber. "It has not been long since you last visited us. Can your hair really have grown so much in that time? Or perhaps you have come for a shave, so I can finally relieve your lip from its burden?" The barber nudged the Spanish man whose hair he had finished. "One of the last relics of the war the Major's moustache you see Pablo?" The man named Pablo smiled politely at the Major, who smiled back. The Major didn't mind the barber making fun of him.

The Major took a seat at the far wall and the boy who swept the hair came across and took his cane and jacket from him. The boy kept his eyes down and offered no greeting or acknowledgement.

"I am ready for you Major," called the barber gleefully dusting off the leather chair. The Spaniard went over to the boy who swept the hair and paid him. The boy nodded a thank you and the man left.

The barber began to tuck the cloth into the Major's clothes to keep the hair from him and started to snip quickly at the hair. "So, how is our war hero today?" he asked.

"I am well."

"Yes, good health you have been blessed with. Always you are well." The barber turned to the boy and said, "Listen boy, the Major has been coming to my shop longer than anyone else in this town. Longer than you even!" The Major looked into the mirror in front of him. Its corners were brown and murky. The boy was small and slight, perhaps fourteen and of Algerian descent. His skin was dark, and though his eyes were large he rarely looked directly at anyone.

"How long has he worked here?" he asked the barber.

"Maybe seven years."

"A long time for a boy."


"Does he speak French?"

"Of course."

"I have never heard him utter a single word in seven years."

The barber smiled. "No? Well, you are no great talker yourself my friend."

The barber moved around the Major and concentrated on the area above his neck. The Major's hair was still thick and grey. He had it cut every two weeks, and even in that short time it would grow unevenly. The barber noted the Major's expression in the mirror. He was puzzled, or concentrating on something. "What does the boy do here?" he asked.

"He sweeps the hair."

"Forgive me, but is it necessary to have him do that?"

The barber stopped cutting for a moment. He looked confused himself. "If not him then who?" he asked.

"I have been coming here all my life, for only the last seven years you have employed the boy to sweep the hair?"


"Then who did it before?"

"I did it myself. The boy was poor and without family. He came to my shop one day to beg for money. I asked him, 'If you want money then why do you not have a job?' but he said he was only a boy and no one would employ him. I was very busy in those days so I told him, 'Come and work for me a while and I will pay you and give you somewhere to sleep.' It was a temporary arrangement of course. After two years business was not so good. The tram system began to run efficiently. People were travelling to the city more and getting a haircut while they were there. I said to the boy, 'Now you are older perhaps you can get a job in the picking fields or the markets?'

"'Perhaps,' he said."

"'Anyway,' I told him, 'I cannot afford to keep you with me any longer.' He went away that night after we closed, and I thought I would never see him again. However, the very next day, there he was at opening time as usual, ready for work with a broom in his hand. I thought him simple, and sat him down again to explain. He said he knew I had nothing to give but he would work anyway. Well, I told him that was not necessary, but he would keep coming to the shop day after day until I relented.

"I thought he would soon tire," continued the barber, "but he is a child of great stubbornness, and I worried for his welfare. I had no money to give him so I let him stay with my wife and I. We shared our food, from time to time there would be some money to give. That is his story."

The Major did not speak then until the barber had completed the cut and dusted him down with a brush that looked like a white horse's mane. He found the barber a pleasant man but did not understand his ways.

"So Major, what plans have you today?" The Major entered his pockets and paid the boy for the haircut.

"Perhaps I will fish."

"Ah yes, it is a beautiful day for it," the barber said as he made his way to the back room to fetch the coat and cane.

The Major went out of the shop, but stopped to watch the boy through the window for a moment. He was sweeping the floor even though all the hair that had fallen there had been removed. The Major shook his head softly.

It was only a small shop with one barber's chair, and did not really require two workers.

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