by Jonathan Waite

"Portents," the old man says. "Lights in the sky. Comets. Deformed babies being born. Wars and rumours of wars."

He looks around. The pub is full of very young people, all smoking cigarettes, taking long, deep, reverential drags and letting the smoke out very slowly through their nostrils as though it were a sacrament, all drinking beer or vodka or cider, all talking very very seriously in small groups, doubtless about Life and Art and other such matters. Most of them are wearing black. The old man has long ago given up paying attention to what colour he is wearing.

The old man, you have to understand, is only about forty. He has become an old man in the course of the last twenty minutes, by a mysterious and inexorable process of self-analysis which has involved admitting to himself, for the first time, that he is no longer a student. The pub is full of students, but he is not one of them. He is obscurely pleased by this discovery of his decrepitude, and is indulging what he fancies to be a prerogative of old age by talking to himself in public.

"They're all happening," he goes on, "all the time, only we don't notice. Or if we do, we put labels on them. It's Comet Thingummy-Whatsit that always comes round at this time, or it's a police helicopter, or Sellafield, or some dictator grabbing another half a yard of sand somewhere. We think just because it has a reason, it can't be a portent." He swivels on his barstool, taking in the whole dim, hot, smoky room. "The end is nigh," he announces in tones of doom. Nobody takes any notice. "Unbelievers," the old man mutters, and turns back to his cider.

At a table on his left, a young man in a black suede jacket is explaining to a bored-looking waif-like girl with long, straight black hair about a novel he's writing.

"It's an absurdist comedy," he says earnestly, twiddling his pen between his fingers.

"Are there any jokes?" the waif says, and the old man's heart warms a little.

The young writer looks down at his notebook, nonplussed. "Well, no," he says. "Absurdist comedy isn't really about jokes. You see, what I'm trying to do is strip away the illusions we all cling to about Life, and--"

Poor old Life, the old man muses. Illusions stripped away so often she must be down to the bone by now. Why doesn't somebody cover the poor old slapper up before she gets a chill?

In the far corner of the room the band is setting up, dimly visible through the coiling smoke. None of them look to be over fifteen. The old man has heard them before; frighteningly competent, frighteningly serious. Was I that earnest? the old man thinks, watching them, trying to see himself in his first band, achieving only a blur. Was I ever that intense?

A draught from the door chills the back of his neck, and reflex turns his head in time to see half a dozen young people come in and stand just behind him. Something about them catches and holds his attention, and he tries to narrow it down.

The clothes they are wearing, while all different in colour and design, seem to share a quality that sets them apart from the students' black leather or his own faded sweater and jeans, a quality of foreignness. Their faces, again, have a subtly foreign look, something apart from colour and shape, different in each but common to all. They stand close together, relaxed, looking about them at the knots of conversation. One of them says something, and they all laugh quietly, unaffectedly.

Exchange students, the old man decides. Visitors from another country. Somewhere warm.

A skirl of synthesized strings, a clatter of bongos, and the band launches into their first number. The old man listens without enthusiasm as the lyrics plumb the nether depths of teenage angst. The strangers are smiling, nodding, tapping along to the beat (body language, he thinks, that's what it is, their body language) all except for one, a tall girl with long auburn hair in a multitude of braids and deep dark eyes, who is looking straight back at him and smiling.

Embarrassment yanks away the trapdoor in the pit of his stomach as he realises he has been staring. He freezes up. Her smile, open and without mockery, acquires a slight edge of puzzlement. Her friends are looking now, interested, also smiling. Somehow he forces his facial muscles to smile back, and croaks "Hello."

The girl's face clears. She walks over to him. Her hands are gentle on his shoulders, her lips are soft on his, and when she draws away to look into his eyes she is still smiling.

"Hello," she says, and though her voice is quiet and the pub full of music and noise he hears her as clearly as if they were standing in an open field somewhere. Her smile is ecstatic, but her eyes are focussed and she seems, in any meaningful sense of the word, sober. "I'm Lanie. Who are you?"

The childlike phrases are uttered in the voice of a woman grown. It takes the old man several seconds to find his name, a couple more to make his vocal chords utter it. He is still trying to come to terms with the total and unquestioning openness of her greeting, her kiss. He gropes for words to express the contradiction, the utter impossibility of a person who would respond in such a way to being stared at by a total stranger. "What are you doing here?" is the best he can come up with, and he curses himself for a lame-tongued fool as the words leave his lips; but Lanie seems to take the question at face value (that's it, she takes everything at face value, they all do) and answers without surprise.

"We came back to watch the new millennium begin."

The old man laughs, somewhere between relief and disappointment. "Oh, my dear, have you got it wrong. For one thing, even by the most generous estimate you're several months early: for another, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but this is a nothing pub, in a nothing city, in what's rapidly becoming a nothing country, and the millennial celebrations here will be very muted, I can assure you."

Lanie frowns momentarily, and the light seems to dim; then her face clears again. "Not your new millennium, silly. Ours."

"Oh, um, which calendar would that be, then?" The old man knows nothing of calendars, beyond the fact that most of them go back much further than his own, but he very much wants this beautiful young girl in his arms to be making sense.

She shrugs beautifully. "Oh, calendars," she says. "They're just numbers, aren't they? Numbers do what you want them to."

This sentiment is so completely foreign to anything the old man has heard in the past twenty years that its obviousness shocks him like a blasphemy. Into his stunned silence the girl leans past him, her breast warm against his rioting body, and whispers "Oh look, it's starting."

The old man turns back to the pub. Nothing has changed. The band is still playing, the lead singer wailing about unemployment, the air is still thick with cigarette smoke and the boy in the suede jacket is still expounding the plot of his novel to the bored waif-like girl, who quite suddenly jumps up and pours her half-empty glass of beer over the boy's head.

"Oh, for God's sake, Norman," she says, "why can't you write something bloody cheerful for a change?" She gives him a long, measuring look, and adds, "If you did, I might just consider going to bed with you," and stalks off through the oblivious crowd.

A sort of collective sigh goes out of the group of colourful strangers. Some of them are holding hands. "Beautiful," one breathes.

"That's it?" The old man's voice cracks. "I mean--that was it?"

Lanie nods. "It was only the beginning, of course--he had to write it, and it had to be published, and even then it was only the first inkling--but that was the moment. And now we have to go." She leans close and kisses him again, warmly, softly. "Nice to meet you," she says, and releases him.

"Wait," the old man says desperately, trying to get his mind round what it smugly insists he already knows. "How long--"

"You'll see it." Lanie is in the arms of two of her friends, smiling over her shoulder at him. "You're not that old."

The draught from the door chills his face, and subsides. He turns again, looking around at the earnest young people, at the wailing band, at dripping Norman who is looking at his notebook as if he has never seen it before, twiddling his pen between his fingers.

There was a time when I hoped it would be me...

The man, who is no longer that old, smiles. He lifts his cider glass.

"Happy New Year, everyone," he whispers. "Happy New Year."