The Banana Bar wasn’t Conner Dalzell’s sort of place. I was behind it slicing lemons, wincing at acid burns, when he walked in alone in a buff duffel coat. The guy was at least fifty, maybe older, his hair turning white.
Tonight was student night, all the cocktails were half price, and fresher girls were getting fresh with lecherous finalists in the faux-leather booths. Conner Dalzell stood in the doorway for half a minute and I thought he would leave. But he took off his coat and searched for a peg to hang it on. To his evident surprise, he didn't find one, so he flung it over his elbow and waddled to the bar.
“What would you recommend then?” he asked. My hands were sticky with lemon juice. I hastily wiped them on my apron.
“Our featured cocktail today is the Blue Lagoon Special: vodka, blue curacao, and white wine.”
“Sounds awful,” he said, slipping from the barstool he’d tried to mount. “What’s blue carawhatsit?” He tried to mount again and just balanced.
“Curacao? Orange flavours, very aromatic.” I was attempting to climb back on board bar-spiel train but it was wheeling away fast.
“If it tastes of orange, why’s it blue?” rumbled the man. I didn’t think he wanted an answer, so I just cleared away the lemon slices. “Anything suitable for an old fogey like me. Whisky perhaps?”
“A Whisky Sour?” Something told me he wouldn’t be keen on a Flaming Ferrari or a Passport to Hell.
“That’s not very interesting.” He sighed, dissatisfied. “Let’s try this Blue Legume then. Lots of ice, just in case.”
And that was that.
Conner stayed there all evening, sipping his way through one Blue Lagoon Special, one Island Sunset, half a BMW (the rest he pushed at a reeling student in a very short skirt who promptly fell over and smashed the glass) and two Passports to Hell. He stumbled from the bar at ten to one, after most of the students had left for Silver or Big Underground. And I thought I’d seen the back of him.
Conner showed up again a week later and anchored me to the end of the bar all evening asking questions.
“Are you a student? You’re not planning to work here all your life, are you?” (I laughed. “You must be joking.”) “What are you planning to do then? You could set up your own cocktail bar, couldn’t you?” (I laughed again.) “No really! You’ve got this stuff off by heart. You’re really good. I bet you could make up a cocktail here and now better than any on the menu? Go on, I dare you.”
So I did. I can’t tell you what because if I did I’d have to kill you. But Conner - “Molly’s duffel coat man” as my colleagues christened him the instant he reappeared - said it was the best cocktail he’d ever tasted.
And of course I was flattered so I believed him.
After that Conner patronised The Banana Bar at least three times a week. He told me his name and asked about my shifts, promptly, every Thursday because he found out that was the day the manager put up the week's schedule. He even noted my shifts in his diary. I joked that if I ever forgot one I need only ring him up. He immediately gave me his mobile number.
And Conner asked so many questions! He asked about my flat and my flatmates and I told him how Becky was useless at washing up and Liz left her used rampant rabbit in the bathroom. He asked whether I had a boyfriend and I told him about how I’d spotted Martin sketching me in one of those arty cafés which people visit to pose and sketch strangers none-too-discreetly. And I’d made Martin show me the drawing, and his scribble was five times more beautiful than I was, and since he was the skinny, dark, poetic type I’ve always gone weak for, I pounced.
“How long have you been seeing him then?”Conner growled.
“Oh Jesus I don’t know. Five months, I suppose?”
“Does he still sketch you?”
“No, not anymore. No.”
“Does he sketch other girls when you’re not around?”
“Does he what? I honestly don’t know.”
Conner gave me a sympathetic look, cleared his throat and asked in a quiet voice for one of my “fabulous concoctions.” You’d think someone had died.
One evening Conner asked, “do you drive?”
“I can drive,” I said. “I don’t own a car.”
“I love driving.”
By that time I was tired of answering Conner’s endless questions so I determined to ask some back. Did he live nearby? What sort of car did he own? (A coffee-coloured M-reg Mercedes which had never broken down and he was very proud of, apprently.) What music did he listen to? What was his favourite book? Did he have children? Pets? A wife?
He didn’t hear that question. At least, he didn’t look at me. He was watching the flashing MTV video on the wall-mounted screen behind me. I shook up his Kamikaze and tried again.
“Are you married?”
“Hm? Oh. Yes.”
He went back to gazing at the pumping dancers so I didn’t ask any more. When the video finished he took a gulp of his cocktail and asked, “do you know what the greatest happiness in the world is?”
“What?” I sensed the approach of a profound truth like the rattle of a speeding train.
“The greatest happiness in the world is a slow drive in a vintage Mercedes on a sunny May bank holiday.”
“I’m serious,” Conner said. “You don’t believe me, do you?" He gulped his fresh Kamikaze. "You’ll see.”
I was bothered by that “you’ll see”: partly because the idea of getting into a car with an elderly male customer, even a regular as regular as Conner, was uncomfortable; and partly because the image of a leisurely drive on a sunny spring day in an M-reg coffee coloured Merc, possibly up a Cotswold hill with a picnic of chicken mayonnaise sandwiches and Victoria sponge in a wicker hamper, sounded great fun, and I was rather sad it might never happen.
Over the next few weeks Conner began to tell me about “Doreen”.
Yes. Doreen. She had worked as a receptionist in the law firm he’d set up as a young graduate, he told me. These days she didn’t work but she was a school governor and volunteered in a charity shop on Mondays and Saturdays. She also baked fantastic chocolate brownies.
“I didn’t marry her for her looks, for her singing voice or her taste in cushions,” he guffawed, “but her brownies, well! Chocolate will compensate for all sorts of things.”
I mixed him a Chocolate Mint Martini and mentally added brownies to the wicker picnic hamper.
By April, Martin had left me for a girl with redder hair than I had. I took a few days off work to go to a ‘60s Butlins weekend with Liz and Becky, because Liz swore on her mother’s imaginary grave it was a meat fest. She abandoned us on the first night for an orgy with a rugby team and we didn’t see her again until the coach home on Monday. Becky, however, drip-fed me red wine and let me cry on her shoulder at 2am, so it wasn’t a total washout.
“I thought you’d taken off,” Conner exclaimed on Monday evening. The headache I’d been nursing to a flatline jerked into a throbbing fit. “I thought,” Conner continued, too loud, “I was going to see The Raspberry Bar opening up three doors down before the month was out, stealing all the Banana’s clientele. Where were you?”
“Drowning my sorrows,” I moaned.
“You and me both.”
I invented a cocktail called Martin Has No Pubes and passed it over.
“How’s Doreen?” I asked.
“Huh? Oh, off. With the choir, of course. Singing in St David’s Cathedral.”
“Didn’t I tell you? She sings in a choir. Fantastic soprano.”
“Oh. Yeah. Probably.”
He slurped his cocktail. “Very bitter this one.”
“Hey! May bank holiday. Next week, isn’t it? You working?”
Conner beamed. “Brilliant. We’ll take a drive. With a picnic. Let’s go to Wales, shall we? Get Doreen to meet us in the middle on her way home. Go on. Hey, I could put you on the insurance for the day. Ever driven a vintage Merc?”
“I couldn’t let you do that.”
“No problem. Not a problem. You’ve given me so much. All these cocktails, right? Come on.”
“We gonna have a picnic?”
“Of course!” Conner threw his arms up, swaying back on his stool.
“Don’t fall off.” And it was decided.
On Monday I wore a gingham dress and bubblegum pink lipstick because I could. I’d made the picnic, although I carried it in a plastic coolbox as I didn’t own a wicker hamper.
Conner rolled up outside the closed Banana Bar. He wore a tweed suit with patches on the elbows, a lemon shirt and straw hat. I was pleased I wasn’t the only one.
“What’s for lunch? No, don’t tell me. It’ll be a surprise.”
We listened to old cassette tapes on his crackly sound system; classical music I sort of recognised but couldn’t name. When we stopped for petrol, Conner insisted we swap seats. I drove us through winding riverside villages, over lush vales, and eventually stalled on a steep hill, distracted by a strong airborne infusion of cow manure.
We were cruising between dripping hedgerows and hummocky emerald mountains when Conner made me pull onto the verge.
“Molly,” he said as I turned the engine off, “I have to tell you something.”
My sinking stomach threatened to plunge me through the cream upholstery. I didn’t speak. I kept my hands on the wheel and my eyes forward.
“The real reason I wanted to bring you out here,” he faltered. “I mean, I’m an old man. I’m not married, I made Doreen up. What I mean, I mean, she was my secretary but she was very pretty and I never married her. I brought you here,” he took a deep breath, “here, because drinking cocktails with you, at the bar, for the last few months, it’s the happiest I’ve been for a long while. I just can’t bear to thinking of losing that. I just, wanted to let you know.”
He was looking at me.
“That’s how I feel, Molly” he said.
His eyes were sad and low, I thought, trying to interpret from the corner of my eye. His voice had sunk to that quiet tone only this time he was mourning his own grief. I clutched the wheel harder and fought desperately for a clear thought. At last one surfaced.
“Well, why didn’t you say?” I said. Conner looked up. “I didn’t bring my cocktail things because we were both driving, but if cocktails is what you want... we’ll have to go back.”
He turned in his seat, his head still bent. He wasn’t going to push it, I hoped. But I didn’t want to take any risks.
“How long have we been driving now, two hours?” He didn’t answer. “We can get back, I’ll pick up some booze, ice, shakers, you drive us here and I can drive us back. That way you can drink as much as you like. Actually I’ve got a great new recipe for you. Or will it take too long?”
“No,” he said, “no.”
“You don’t want to,” I didn’t want to leave him too much time to think. “It’ll take too long, won’t it? I’m sorry I didn’t think! I wish you’d told me. Never mind, next time then. Let’s go on and have this picnic. I’ll make you the special cocktail another time.”
He wasn’t saying anything. He was just going to let me drive on. I panicked.
“It’s a,” I paused, “a very special cocktail,” and at last I looked at him. I tried to make it sultry, but I was terrified. “It’s named after you, you know. But there are some very special ingredients I left at home.” I kept looking right at him. I was fighting my neck and eyeballs but I looked.
Conner Dalzell seemed uncertain. I bit my lip; and he smiled timidly.
“No,” he said at last, “if it means that much to you, let’s go back. We’ve got plenty of time. All the time in the world.”
“All the time in the world,” I echoed. I shifted into gear. The journey back took a little over an hour.
I pulled up outside The Banana Bar - "be right back,” - unlocked the front entrance, turned the key behind me and left the back way. I had to take a roundabout route home but I wasn’t followed. Inside, I pulled off the gingham dress, washed my face, switched off my phone (which had accumulated three missed calls) and went to bed at 2pm.
On Thursday evening Conner sidled into The Banana Bar at his usual hour, his buff duffel coat buttoned in spite of the warm season.
“What happened to you?” he asked.
“Oh, you know. Sucked in to do overtime.” I wiped a glass like a disinterested TV bartender. It was a terrible lie of course, the overtime. I meant it to be.
“We’ll have to postpone our trip,” Conner said. “How about Whitsun?”
I stopped wiping and set the glass down.
“You must think I’m as thick as pissed fresher on student night,” I said.
Conner frowned. “How do you mean?”
“Oh, you know," I picked up the ice scoop. "What did you want to drink?”
Conner, thinking the air clear, sat up on his stool and leant on the bar. “How about that special cocktail you were telling me about?”
“The Dalzell Knockout?”
“That’s the one.”
Well, he asked for it.
I didn’t mean for him to faint so quickly. But the paramedics looked like they’d take good care of him. One, a young woman, even had red hair.