– The Cowboy –
Like a ghost making a sudden manifestation, Josie seemed to materialise at the end of the bar. He resembled a ghost, too: gaunt and white-faced, his dark eyes staring blankly at the mirrored gantry behind the counter. It was during that quiet, languid period between one o’clock and closing time on a midweek afternoon. I had just finished serving the only two customers in the place, a couple of ratings from the naval base along the road. I had turned my back for just a second or two to put their money in the till. When I turned round again, he was there, perched on the barstool next to the wall-mounted jukebox.
‘Lager?’ I called over to him.
‘Sure, thanks,’ he replied in a hoarse, nervous voice.
I took a pint glass from the shelf below the bar, placed it on the drip-tray under the lager tap and pulled the tap. As I watched the glass fill up, it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen Josie for a long time. I wondered where he had been.
‘Borstal,’ he said, as if he had read my thoughts. ‘Over in Polmont,’ he added. ‘Four fucking months, man. Just got out today.’
I wasn’t sure how to respond to that announcement, so I just said, ‘Right.’ Then I set the pint on a beermat in front of him.
Josie handed me a pound note, but I waved it away.
‘On the house,’ I said.
‘Thanks, man,’ he grinned, sounding genuinely grateful.
He took a large swig of the lager, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and expelled a long sigh of satisfaction.
‘Fucking nectar!’ he exclaimed. ‘The first in four months.’
He lit a cigarette, drew on it and then immediately tapped it into the ashtray several times to rid it of imaginary ash. His actions were furtive, secretive, as if he shouldn’t have been smoking. Before he began to speak again, he checked quickly behind him to make sure that he couldn’t be heard.
‘That place, man. It really fucked me up,’ he said in a hushed, conspiratorial tone. ‘Never again,’ he added, shaking his head emphatically.
He took another draw of the cigarette, tapped it into the ashtray several times again and continued.
‘It wasn’t so much the screws. Most of them were fine if you kept your head down and just got on with things. I even managed to get on friendly terms with one or two of them.’
I could believe that last bit: Josie could be a very affable guy.
‘Don’t get me wrong now, mind,’ he said quickly, anxious to correct any misleading impression that he had given. ‘Some of the screws were real bastards, you know. Fucking sadists. Had you scrubbing the floor with a fucking toothbrush for the slightest thing.’
Satisfied that he had presented a more balanced picture, he paused and took another gulp of his lager.
‘Naw,’ he resumed, ‘it wasn’t so much the screws that got to you. It was more the ... I suppose ... the loneliness.’ He had chosen that last word with some difficulty.
‘Aye, the loneliness,’ he repeated, as if he was confirming to himself that it was a good choice of word. ‘Especially at night when they locked you up. Six o’clock, man! Still fucking light! When you were lying in your bed, you could look up at the window and see that little patch of sky behind the bars. Made you want to cry. But the worse thing was hearing the jingle from the ice-cream van when it came into the scheme next to the place. That really fucked me up, man ...’ He stopped suddenly, his eyes welling up with tears.
I had known Josie all of my life. He was a Walter Mitty character, prone to lying and cheating and exaggerating, but I was convinced that he wasn’t exaggerating on this occasion. He seemed to have been truly shaken by his recent experience.
‘Right,’ I said again, trying to sound sympathetic. Then, as a gesture of my sympathy, I poured him another pint on the house.
One of the other customers came up to the bar at that moment, looking for refills. When I finished serving him, I returned to Josie. He had lit another cigarette, and he seemed more relaxed now, settling down to resume his account of Borstal life to his captive audience.
‘Anyway,’ he said. ‘One of the good things about being there was that the screws took us to see all the latest films. One of the films reminded me of you.’
‘Yeah?’ I asked, smiling.
‘Aye, it’s about these two guys who meet up in New York. One of them’s a cowboy. Well, not a real cowboy. Dressed up as one. He’s a really cool guy, though, a really likeable guy, good-looking, quiet. It’s him that gives the film its name. “Midnight Cowboy”, it’s called.’
‘Right,’ I said, still smiling. ‘I’ll try to go and see that one.’
‘Aye, you should,’ enthused Josie. ‘It’s a cracking film, man. It stars that wee, slim, dark-haired guy. The one that reminds me of you. Och, what’s his name now?’
He closed his eyes, trying to think.
‘Naw,’ he continued after a few moments, shaking his head, ‘can’t remember, but he’s been in other films. You’d know him if you saw him. Great fucking actor, man. Can’t remember the other one’s name either. Big guy. Blond. Foreign sounding name. Anyway, you should go and see the film. Fucking ace, man.’
Long after Josie and the two ratings had gone and the bar was empty, I stood with my back slouched against the gantry, tipping my make-believe Stetson, like James Coburn in ‘The Magnificent Seven’. I was Gil Favor, the Trail Boss in ‘Rawhide’. I was ‘The Virginian’, ‘The Man from Laramie’. I was the hero from ‘Midnight Cowboy’. Tough, lean and laconic.
On the following Friday, there was that usual early evening buzz in the bar. By seven o’ clock, the jukebox would be blaring, and the place would be heaving with thirsty matelots from the base and noisy girls from the whisky bond. For the moment, though, it was still fairly quiet. The first groups of customers had trickled in, and Ronnie had turned up for his shift.
Ronnie worked at the dockyard during the week. On weekday nights, he and his mates often went to the cinema to see the latest releases. Then, usually at about this time on a Friday, Ronnie would relate to me – enthusiastically, in graphic detail and using appropriate sound effects – the full story of the particular film that had fired his imagination that week. His rendition of ‘The Dirty Dozen’ some years earlier had been a marathon; for hours, the space around him had been filled with the ‘phut! phut!’ of silencers, the crash of machinegun fire and the blast of exploding grenades.
On this Friday evening, before Ronnie had the opportunity to launch into his latest narration and with Josie’s compliment still fresh in my mind, I asked him about ‘Midnight Cowboy’.
‘Ever go to see it?’ I wondered.
‘Yeah,’ he replied, shrugging his shoulders dismissively. ‘Not my type of film, though. Not much action in it, if you know what I mean. Boring, really. Didn’t see the point of it.’
‘Right,’ I persisted. ‘But what about the dark-haired guy in it? What was he like?’
‘Oh, yeah, him,’ Ronnie grinned. ‘Dustin Hoffman. Yeah, the guy from “The Graduate”. Great fucking actor, man. He plays this greasy runt with a limp. A wee junkie called Ratso. Plays him really well, too. But the real star is a guy by the name of John Voight. He plays this big, quiet, good-looking guy from the back of beyond. Comes to the big city, wearing all this cowboy gear. Thinks he’s some kind of a stud. He’s the “Midnight Cowboy”, obviously.’
I didn’t ask Ronnie any more questions about the film. I stayed silent while he prattled on about that week’s blockbuster. Thanks a lot, Josie, I kept thinking. Ratso, the runt. Ratso, the junkie. Some fucking compliment!
– o –