Hax drew on his cigarette, as he approached the sanctuary of his local.
A huddle of fellow addicts stood stamping their feet outside, alternating their hands from their pockets to hold their occasionally glowing comfort, like a fetal haven from the stresses and strains of life, taking refuge behind their constant billowing, smokescreen.
As he nodded gruffly to the familiar faces, he pushed on through the pub doors, pausing only to flick his own fag butt onto the pavement, ignoring the overflowing plant pot, placed specifically to attract a different sort of cross pollination, and weaved his way to the bar.
The place was half full, but today, Hax looked at it from a negative perspective, it was definitely half empty.
Pensioners were sitting in their little groups, hushed voices like prayer meetings, muttering about horses in the paper, vacantly staring at the television, nothing left of their lives he thought, just this.
A lifetime of graft and labor, routine, camaraderie, respect; all replaced by this.
This is all ahead of me he thought to himself.
No more pints after work, no proper conversation, just the monotony of going through the motions, like this lot he pondered, as he took his first sup of his pint and placed his accompanying malt whiskey to the side.
He gazed into space, a thousand thoughts swirling around in his mind, and then as he drew back from his daytime trance, like a TV camera refocusing, realized he was staring at a group of old retired Dockers.
He took in the grey hairs, bald heads and the myopic stares, the look of defeat, the look of something lost, bereft and beaten.
These men had been strong men at one time, large shouldered, proud men, who walked with confidence, and met hardship and challenges head on.
He thought of his own father, a man admired by many of this community and still held in revered respect, even over a decade since his death.
These same men had worked with his father, he knew them all.
This was before the gradual decline in manual labor took its toll and the corporations and shipping agents forced the industry to streamline the ports to the extent that men, good men, were discarded onto the dole queues and into a society they were never able to understand, – one of job dodgers, shysters, and benefit fraudsters.
He caught a glance of his own reflection in the bar mirror, and although at first momentarily dazzled by the twinkle of the glasses and the myriad colors of the countless bottles of spirits and liqueurs, he recognized the graying hair and the signs of the last six months and realized they had taken their toll.
With a moment of clarity, he stared back at himself; he looked just like his father.
It had been a tough time for sure, especially with the cloud of suspicion hanging over him.
He noticed the whispers when he walked by, the knowing looks, – the silence when he entered a room or bar, the atmosphere thick enough, that at times, he felt it cloying and choking in his throat.
The tribunal was uncomfortable to say the least.
Three of them were sitting going through procedures and guidelines, health and safety, asking,
probing, and trying to catch him out.
The more they tried, the more Hax relaxed, preferring to remain calm almost to the point of sedation, as he sat transfixed on a small point just above their heads, breathing softly, but deeply, from the diaphragm, in and out, in and out, slowly; like soft and gentle ripples lapping the shore.
Calm, and in control.
The smart arse, big shot lawyers with each passing day, became gradually frustrated and agitated with his long pauses and profound Zen-like answers, stymieing their attempts at cornering him into an opportune avenue where he would find himself at a dead end, facing the coup de grace; the final question to render him guilty.
Hax had worked as a Stevedore since he was twenty seven, almost thirty years to this day.
The disappearance of one of his laborers was a shock to many, and an almost impossible puzzle to decipher, as the man in question, Eddie Kozlovsky, of Russian descent, had no known enemies and had went to work as usual and never returned.
That the shipyard was ring fenced by security staff and each person was monitored coming in and signing out, or in the case of employees, clocking out, perplexed the detectives even further.
The breakthrough eventually came, when after two months from the disappearance, a defect was reported in one of the engines of a cargo ship which had been in port to receive much needed renovation and servicing to satisfy the strict maritime standards set down to meet the insurance requirements.
It took several fitters to disassemble the engine, and after a replacement team was brought in, due to the original gang being removed and taken for counseling for shock, they recovered the mangled body, or what was left of it, from the internal workings.
Rumors were abound, and a plenty.
The inevitable connection and speculation that the Russian mafia were involved, was the most prevalent in the ensuing aftermath, followed by the bar talk suggestions of gambling debts, promiscuity, and smuggling.
The tribunal had to blame someone, but with no proof or conclusive evidence, they had no choice, but reluctantly record a verdict of ‘death by misadventure’, with the caveat that Hax, would be offered a redundancy package that would neither be further negotiable, nor turned down.
In short, he was told to go.
That had been just before lunchtime, and he had his locker cleared out and his cards handed in, with the promise of six months pay as a lump sum and a lifetime pension on its way.
Hax was now in reflective mode now, as he sipped his malt whiskey and savored the lasting warmth of its reassuring embrace.
He remembered as a boy going to the docks with his father, sitting on his shoulders, seeing life from what seemed like an invincible height, his father solid and steady as a rock striding out greeting his co-workers with his booming deep voice, the respect emanating from a sea of faces.
He remembered the snug in this very bar, where he used to sit with a coke and a bag of crisps, listening to the raucous goings on next door.
He remembered how every now and then the door would swing open and the blast of conversation and laughter and bawdy singing would fill his ears with the most jangling cacophony of sound, as the workers made their way to the toilet.
The chinking glasses, the guffaws of laughter, the shouts of mirth and mockery; it seemed he could disseminate and separate each sound or voice and allocate it to who it belonged to.
He knew them all.
He remembered each of their deaths, and the effect it had on his father, and thought of the first time he had seen his father cry.
He remembered it wasn’t because of any death.
He remembered it was when his father arrived home early from his shift, and caught a young Russian laborer in bed with his beloved wife.
He remembered the monolith that was his father crumble from the inside, broken and betrayed, never to be the same again.
Most of all, Hax remembered the young laborer’s name, and thirty odd years on, had never set eyes on him again.
That was until just over six months ago.
Stephen Cooper is originally from Co. Down, NI, and has been published in several short story collections, and poetry anthologies. He has recently completed his first novel and hopes to see it published early in 2013. His website is : http://reflectivedarkness.weebly.com/