Speakeasy by Benjamin McCulloch

A self-absorbed and lonely young expat defies the lockdown and goes to a hidden bar in Brno. His attempts at socialising lead nowhere while he’s plagued by his prejudices.

This must be the place, I thought to myself. I approached a solid wooden door sunken below street level on an old brick apartment building. It had tiny windows down beside the pavement slabs that had been blacked out from the inside. It was in my neighbourhood and I’d heard voices when I walked past the previous evening – shouts and laughter that suggested a gathering.

I descended the few steps and knocked on the door, feeling as if I should look back over my shoulder in case I was being watched.

It opened just a crack; not enough to see inside.

I waited but nobody spoke.

“Eh, you’re selling beer?” I said. Funny how I’ve been speaking English all my life but when speaking with foreigners I use such odd phrases, as if I need to say everything in the most ridiculously obvious manner. Although how better could I have put it? Is this the illegal bar? That probably wouldn’t have sounded much better.

The door opened some more. I saw a man who filled most of the doorframe. He wasn’t smiling. Czech barmen rarely do.

“Come.” He said.

I followed him in.

It was a large basement space like many I’d seen converted into bars and restaurants throughout the Czech Republic; an arched brick ceiling under which there were a few stark lightbulbs that cast huge shadows and bulky wooden tables and benches precisely arranged throughout the room. Everything was orderly and clean but there was no bar – just a table in the corner with kegs under it and the kind of beer tap that Czechs have in their summer cottages. Everything seemed to have been carefully prepared. That didn’t surprise me. Czechs like to have things in order, even when they’re defying the law.   

There were a few ‘customers’ scattered around the room – all seemed to be thoroughly comfortable judging by the way they were slumped along benches, over tables and against walls. There were only a few hushed chats and no music to be heard.

I liked it because it wasn’t my living room.

I nodded to the sole man who stirred when I’d appeared, then followed the barman to the beer-tap.

“What you want?” he said.

“Just a beer thanks.”

I’d been looking forward to this. It felt quite ridiculous as I waited for the man to laboriously pour my pint how much I’d fantasised about this moment – my first beer in a bar after another horrifically long lockdown. This was going to be my ‘screw you Covid for everything you’ve done to me’ pint. I’d received a tip from an expat friend that this place existed, under the radar of the police, and apparently under my nose as it was just a few blocks away from my apartment. You could say it was my ‘local’.

Although I felt bad about breaking lockdown rules you couldn’t exactly say they were strictly forced. They felt more like guidance than orders. Pity for the Health Minister (of all people) who’d thought the same and had been caught emerging from a restaurant in the night when none were supposed to be open. Pity for him, but not for me. He was supposed to set an example, but nobody was checking up on me. Besides, it was only one pint and the other reason I’d fantasised about visiting a bar was because it was forbidden. It had been a dull year. In my fantasy it was like going to a speakeasy during the Prohibition.

Finally, it was ready. He asked for fifty crowns! Bastard. I’d read that beer prices were going to go up after a terrible year for breweries – was this the sign of things to come? I’d lived in the Czech Republic long enough to know that fifty crowns for a pint was daylight robbery.

But I paid it. Of course.

I picked a seat in a corner beside an old gent who looked like he was asleep. I didn’t much feel like talking to anyone.

I took a sip. The first sip is always the best. This didn’t disappoint.

The taste of the beer brought back memories; the first summer after I’d arrived here when I stayed up drinking in Luzanky through the night with a huge group of expats. I’d lost contact with most of them even though it was only a few years ago. Then I thought of home. Britain, and all the things that were familiar; a proper cooked breakfast, ale that wasn’t a trendy new micro-brewery experiment (it was the same ale your grandfather had drunk when he was your age), weather that trains the best meteorologists in the business, sea beaches where you wouldn’t dare to swim in case you came out frozen and blue. It was all the stereotypical crap that expats reminisce over when new conversation topics have dried up, and I wanted to experience all of it more than ever because we’ve stopped being expats – we became prisoners. Freedom of movement was denied because of a virus.

I’ve come to realise where my home truly is though. After a year of living my life through a laptop screen; video calls with family in Britain and with work colleagues in California, a server full of messages sent to acquaintances all over the world, I think it’s fair to say that my laptop is now my home. I’ve seen the world through it so much that I even dreamed of putting my spoon into the computer screen to take a mouthful of cereal from the other side. Maybe we all now live in a server in some industrial estate, and our lives are just imaginary experiences we share online, and it doesn’t matter where our bodies physically exist? This past year I’ve had a lot of thoughts like that; too much time to think without the daily contact that helps to smooth off the sharp edges. I’ve felt peculiar most of the time. Not quite myself. I lose the thread of the-

“Where are you from?”

That question. It’s become a cliché. Will I ever be accepted as a local?

I look up to see who asked. The old man who I’d thought was asleep.

“Britain.”

“Aha – I thought you were American.”

Well, whoop-de-doo. Good for you old man. Any other Czechs want to put me under scrutiny in this place? I kept the thought to myself, but I felt the anger enliven me.

I said nothing. How could I follow that?

“You like Czech beer?” he asked.

“Who doesn’t?”

“Czech women too? You got a Czech wife?”

Too many conversations started this way since I moved to Brno. After countless months locked-in I’d made a special effort to come out for this?

“Nope. Not even a girlfriend.”

I faked a yawn; laying the tracks for making an exit as soon as possible. I absent-mindedly reached for my phone in my pocket and slid it out.

“That’s a pity. Young man like you.”

“Thanks. I’ll take that as a compliment.” I barely even pushed the words out of my mouth, just breathed them out like a continuous sigh.

I realised that there was literally no life at all in this makeshift bar. I’d heard laughter and jubilant cheers when I’d passed by the night before. What had changed?

I fantasised about being in a group – a smiling group – sharing stories and jokes. People like my schoolfriends. That would be something. How much I longed to be with them!

I took my first proper look at him. He was in jeans and a coat with a baseball cap pulled tight over his head so that the peak arced just above his nose and hid his eyes in a dark shadow. In the gloomy basement he must have barely seen anything at all. He seemed very relaxed considering how he was slumped back in his chair staring at the floor. Probably drunk out of his mind. Funny how Czechs love to have everything rigidly in order when they’re sober, but as soon as the beer flows…

That thought reminded me of a summer I’d been working as a gardener when I was a student; my friends and I borrowed our parent’s lawnmowers and cut grass for all the mansions on the other side of town. During the day we did our absolute best to appear like the polite helpful young men that we thought the customers wanted us to be. Then every evening we took our earnings and got blindingly drunk. The release from that stiff-arsed pretence was often very very messy. Through the day we’d said things like “yes ma’am of course it’s no problem to pay special attention when cutting near the peonies”, and in the evenings we’d slurred and sloshed and said things so crude about where they should shove their peonies it made me laugh just thinking about it.

The laughter! I missed it. It’s not only the soundtrack to stupidity. It’s the song of a gang – the chorus you sing when you’re together.

I looked at him again. What was his story anyway? Perhaps even this dull old man would have something interesting to say if I asked…

“You’re local here?” I asked, surprised at the weak boyish tone of my voice.

“Yes. Brno is home.” He said matter-of-factly.

The silence returned. That was hardly an insightful response.What to say next?

Nothing.

I sipped at my beer and thought about how I’d ended up here – so far from home.

What had brought me to this place? The desire to see the world, a series of chance encounters and an unexpected opportunity to pause my studies (which had not been going well) to go and work in IT in central Europe. Nothing more or less. The people who’d given me these chances had faded into the background. My boss – a ghost on the other side of the world who I tried to pin down with emails. My co-workers – an oddball gang living in various places around the planet. Even those in the Czech Republic might as well be in Australia considering we’re never in the same space together anymore.

The rapid passing train of associated thoughts trundled to a halt. I slowly finished my beer.

Then the barman came and tidied the already perfectly organised beermats on our table and said:

“Zavíráme… closing time… a vy taky černoši… you hear me old man?”

My basic Czech was enough to know that the barman had just said ‘you too black man’, but who was he referring to?

The old man at my side stood up and whispered to me “these guys think all dark-skinned people are black! You believe it? I told the barman where I’m from, he looked at me as if I was going to steal his wallet. I’m no thief! Back home I was a doctor!” His voice raised at those last words and he became aware that all eyes in the room were on him.

“Thank you” he said aloud, and then he said something that sounded like “ma salam” with a voice that could surely soothe a mother in labour to muster her strength and go for the final push. The room stared at him and nobody responded.

And then he paid and left.

It was only when I’d returned to the safety of my flat and sat in that same comfy dent on my sofa with my laptop (the exact same spot where I’ve sat for most of the past year) that I Googled what he’d said.

It was Arabic.

It meant “with peace”.

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