My first day at work placed me behind the bar of a pub nobody knew about. Five flyer girls were charged with turning its fortunes around, but looking at them drinking their vodka and Cokes, having convinced me that a free drink was a perk of their job, I had little faith. A shot of fear ran through me when I saw her standing at the back of the group. They had mobbed me, sensing the blood of a new barman, and, panicked, I had never made sure each one was of age.

‘You at the back,’ I said, ‘what age are you?’

‘Old enough to know you can’t do your job.’

‘Denise, you’ve some cheek,’ one of the others said, jokingly shoving her shoulder.

‘Who does he think he is?’ she asked, permitting the slightest of smiles to emerge among her friends’ laughter.

Her voice was soft, fitting her small frame, but the tone was cutting. Before I knew it, the five glasses were emptied and scattered along the bar. The girls went laughing into the cold afternoon to shove blindingly bright fonts and colours into the hands of disinterested coffee-drinkers and sandwich-eaters. I was left alone with Johnny, the one silent regular.

It was boredom that had led me to take the job. That, and the fact that there had been no application required, no interview, none of that. But after thirty minutes I had reached a level of boredom I had not believed existed. By lunch, I was truly down and getting worried. I knew college was nothing but it had a hold on me. I wanted to go on saying that I was a college student. That morning, when I took the job, I had made sure someone would be around to cover my shift during my lectures but no one had arrived. It was getting late. Denise came back alone, her bravado tamed, holding the spare flyers collected from the others. She stacked the flyers in the closet with an assuredness that made it seem she had been forever part of the pub. Watching her, I still struggled to connect her with the voice that had been so searing. With a swift nod of the head, she let me know I was to leave. I took my coat and jogged to college. In the lecture I worried about going back, about seeing her and what she might say. When I did return, a nod of the head was enough and she left.

My shift started each morning at ten. After restocking the bottles and scattering the stained seats around the stained tables, I stood by the taps of beer until four in the afternoon. Besides Johnny on his stool, I would serve one, maybe two people who wandered in, their faces alive to the bleakness of the place, not knowing the clock was the only important thing to see, its hands in charge of her arrival.

One day the clock made a mistake. She came in, though she was neither handing out flyers nor covering my shift. She sat on the stool drumming her fingers on the counter, as if for a moment she was one of the oblivious wanderers, and said she needed to kill some time. I waited before realising what I was to do.

‘I’m not paying for this,’ she said as I handed her the vodka and Coke. When I said nothing, she tentatively, not allowing object and self to touch, took a drink. She asked me what my story was—what year I was in at college—what I studied—how I got the job—what was my past bar experience. Her eyes shone grey when I told her I didn’t have any experience. She looked steadily at me. I was being instructed to defend myself but instead I went to the back room to get the mop. ‘I’m in college too,’ I heard her say.

After that, she began to come to the pub regularly just to sit at the bar. She continued to do this even when I began to refuse her free drink. More customers seemed to come in when she started to hang around. The clock was a lot less noisy. Johnny became less sullen. We didn’t talk all that much but when we did, we argued. Everything I did would incite her. She would click her tongue and ask how Nudge had had the audacity or the stupidity to hire me. She never seemed to have to go to class. I had never seen her around the campus and at no time had she mentioned assignments. I would always tell her that she looked too young to go to college just to get a rise out of her. It made little sense, since, if she were too young, she should have been in school, but people drop out of school, so she might have done that.

‘When did you start working here?’ I asked. It was raining outside. She had been waiting for me to open up, something she had never done before, and her hair stuck to her cheeks, making her look even younger than usual.

‘Before you did,’ she said.

I tried to feel bad about getting the job, or at least sorry she had been overlooked for it, but it wasn’t some grand calculation I had made. I had just been in a certain place at a certain time. I gained, while she lost out. She would look at me with her grey eyes, willing me to confess. I wanted to tell her that it was just life and that she should understand. If she really were in college, it might have been her who had been walking to the bus that morning having decided the rain was a good enough reason to give the day a miss. I had not fully realized how much of a loner I was before having to spend the majority of each day in my own head—walking from lecture to lecture, sitting in the library pretending to study, moving quickly while I ate so people would think I was rushing to an appointment. It was all getting too much for me. Nudge had been smoking in the alley speaking loudly on the phone, like a stage performance of a guy managing a pub, shouting about his barman who had up and quit with no notice, and that he would now have to rely on the ‘young one’ to run the bar for the day shifts.

It was a strange compulsion I had, but not an evil one.

‘You can’t have some girl run a bar,’ I said, braving the rain, all but making him hang up the phone. When he did hang up, not saying bye to whoever had the displeasure of listening to him, there was a look he gave me, his eyes conspiratorial below his hood.

‘She has experience. Have you ever worked in a bar?’ he asked, not taking the cigarette from his mouth.

‘No,’ I said. He nodded, appreciating the affirmation of how we, the inexperienced, looked. ‘But I’ll learn, and I can work whatever hours besides the few I have for lectures.’

‘Can you work now?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Grand job,’ he said, looking at the clouds. I followed him into the bar and after ten minutes of showing me around, he left me in charge of a place I had never known existed.

In Denise’s absence, there hardly seemed need for a barman at all. Johnny could pour his own and I could cover the loss from the two, maybe three, other customers with my wage. I was able to do my readings and assignments when Denise wasn’t there but I could do that a lot better if I studied in the library like a normal person.

‘Do you really go to college?’ I asked her one morning.

‘What are you talking about?’

‘You are never in college. You never talk about study or tests or anything. How can you be in college?’

‘Just because I’m not a college-head like you.’

‘I’m not a college-head,’ I said. ‘You’re the only person I know in college, if you actually go there.’

The nagging question turned to an obsession. She could be talking about anything—reality television, Palestine, serpentwithfeet—and all I would be doing is wondering if she really went to college. And it wasn’t just when I was with her: I thought about it in lectures, eating lunch, getting the bus, watching television. I would throw around different explanations for why she would lie about it or how she could go to college when she never seemed to be there. If she were studying Commerce, a far more impressive course than my own, you would think it would take up all her day. I examined all our conversations and every offhand comment she made looking for clues.

On a Wednesday, after back-to-back History and English lectures, I arrived at the pub to find Denise and Johnny talking. It was an unusually sunny day and the room had a silvery cleanness to it and there, amongst the shimmering brass and wood, were the two of them in effortless conversation. Johnny smiled at me. The same smile as the older lads when they asked could they join our game of football. The smile when they asked who, me or a friend, would win in a fight, or when they bought us drink from the off-licence, or when they asked why I still hadn’t a girlfriend: gay or a weirdo, or when they scoffed loudly when I said I was going to college.

‘What are you two talking about?’ I asked.

‘I was just telling Johnny about college,’ Denise said. ‘Nice someone believes me. Are you heading up there when you’re finished here?’ She threw her zip-up over the bar onto the stool beside Johnny. ‘Can I have a pint? I’ll go up with you once you’re sorted here.’

I couldn’t believe her nonchalance. When we left the pub, we walked together as if it was an everyday occurrence.

The college looked unfamiliar at night, with the lights switched on along the path against a crisp stillness. I had no business being there so I kept close to Denise. I longed for as many people as possible to see us.

‘Are you studying, is it?’ she asked, stopping outside the doors of the library.

‘Thinking of it.’

‘Right, me too.’ She hesitated. ‘God, I hate it in there. Don’t you? I mean it’s a drag. I just get pissed off the minute I sit down with everyone in there.’

‘It’s the only reason why I work at the pub.’

‘It’s so annoying.’

It was as if one of us had been walking the other home after a night out and it was now time to part, except for the fact that we were both supposed to be going into the same building.

‘I might go for a tea, if you fancy one?’ I said.

She shrugged, so we walked to the cafeteria. Not wanting to walk in silence, yet worried our relationship would always revolve around the pub, I asked what she had been talking about with Johnny.

‘Jesus, everything. It got pretty deep,’ she laughed. ‘He’s not a bad guy, you know.’

I saw the silhouette of people through the large window of the old bar and heard whispers in the shadows of the trees by the quad. It reminded me of a camping site I had been to in Italy.

As we walked through the hall of the science building, there were a couple of guys by a dock of lockers talking professors and classes.

‘Nerds,’ Denise said, grabbing the cuff of my jumper and tugging it down. A trailing finger lightly grazed my hand. She was almost careless in the strangeness of being in the red-tiled corridors so late. I allowed my arm to hang for a moment but her hands were just as soon back in her pockets.

I bought the tea and she found us a table. A group huddled tightly around the table beside us playing some sort of card game.

‘When you’re in school it’s all meant to be here,’ I said, nodding to the group as I carefully placed our cups on the table. ‘You’ll meet other outsiders and you’ll discover yourself or some shit but it’s worse. At least at school I knew how to pretend to fit in, or I really did fit in.’

She watched the card game, holding her cup with both hands, not saying anything. I hadn’t even poured my milk in yet.

‘I’m repeating first year,’ she said, her eyes on the group. ‘But I’m doing even worse this year. I physically can’t go here, like.’

‘I feel the same,’ I said, hesitating. ‘Maybe we should help each other. We could have tea together and lunch, and study and all that sort of stuff. We could just hang around, not all the time but as much as we wanted, as much as would be helpful.’

‘I don’t really have time. I can’t get to my lectures for chrissakes.’

As we drank, not knowing what more to say, I noticed her eyes grow watery as she stifled a yawn. When she said she was going home I asked her about the library. She just shrugged and said she’d do it another day. I had it in my mind to go so I went to the third floor, warm from the tea, and opened a book I had taken from a random shelf. I tried to read it but I could hardly focus. I could barely keep myself seated. It felt like my first real college experience. The night could have been film-worthy, but in the end I still didn’t even know if she was a student.

Johnny had the same smile the next morning, watching me do my best to look busy. While I was getting him a pint, he spoke up.

‘You have a nice night with young Denise?’ he asked. ‘She’s a grand girl, isn’t she?’

‘It was fine,’ I said, thinking that maybe he was leering at me rather than giving me a smile.

‘She told me about what she’s going through. Tough stuff, real stuff, man. My heart goes out to her.’

His face was firmly set even as he talked about his heart going out to her. I knew he was hoping for a shift in my expression. I gave him his pint and went to the back room not knowing what he was after. Denise had been in that morning with the other flyer girls. I could speak with her when she returned to see if she knew what was up with him.

‘You know,’ he said, having waited for me to come back. ‘Me and Nudge go way back, a long ways back. He tells me everything.’

‘That’s good.’

‘I know how you got the job here.’

‘What about it?’

‘What about it, eh? Well the moment Denise comes through that door, I’m going to tell her how you got it. What about it? Then, I’m getting you thrown from here and I’ll make sure she gets the job.’

‘How about you get out,’ I said, walking to stand across from him.

‘Fuck off,’ he laughed. ‘What are you going to do?’

‘I’m not going to serve you and…’

‘You’ll call Nudge?’

‘Do you think I care about this job? I don’t need it at all. I’ll quit if you want.’

He took his pint and finished it off in a gulp. He didn’t order another but sat back, content with his smile, crossed and uncrossed his arms, looked at his watch. I looked at the clock. She would be back soon. Did he really think she would fall for this act? That she would somehow see him as being different from Nudge, see him as being different from me?

‘She’s struggling,’ I said. ‘If I’m a piece of shit or whatever, I can still help her. This is just some job. College actually matters. Don’t mess it up for her.’

‘You don’t care about her, you’re looking after yourself.’

‘You don’t know anything about me.’

‘I know enough.’

It was too early for any wanderers to arrive. His relentless smile would chase them away even if any did come in. If I had treated her badly, at least I hadn’t been condescending. I had taken advantage of the situation but I didn’t believe what I had said to Nudge. I didn’t think that way. I began to wash already clean glasses and re-arrange the bottles in the fridge, but in the end I just waited, we both waited, for her to come back.

When she walked through the doors, it was strange to watch her movements—hanging up her coat, putting away the flyers, pouring a glass of water—knowing Johnny was waiting.

‘Denise, come here a moment,’ he said. I wasn’t sure what Johnny’s voice had sounded like a day ago but now it could rustle through my own thoughts, threatening me with all these different outcomes.

‘What’s up?’

‘I don’t like to be the one to tell you this, but I suppose our talk yesterday made me think I had to say something. It gives me no joy, believe me, but this lad here stole the job from you… Said to Nudge that a woman had no place running a pub.’

As he talked, beyond a small flinch, her face was as if she was being told the day’s weather. She was wearing a plaid shirt at least two sizes too big for her, maybe it was a man’s shirt, and I watched as she took hold of the cuff and bunched it tightly in her right hand. In her left hand, she still held the glass of water. She sort of nodded to the rhythm of Johnny’s speech. He was talking quickly, repeating the same things in new ways to find the right phrase. When he finished, she went on nodding to the silence. After a bit, she turned to me and asked when I next needed coverage.

‘Not today anyway,’ I said, looking to Johnny. ‘I’m not sure about tomorrow but I’ll text you.’

‘No, don’t text me. Either tell me now or I won’t be here.’

I went to the cupboard and took out my bag. Crouching down, I searched through the books and copies to find my timetable. She had taken a few steps towards me, standing not on the mats by the beer taps but on the warped, faded wood. She was no longer holding the cuff of her shirt and, as she tilted her head back to take a drink of water, I saw a small scar to the left of her chin that I had not noticed before. She waited for a moment. I couldn’t find the miserable timetable and I couldn’t remember for the life of me the times of my classes. In the end, she left without a word. I stood up to see the front door creeping closed behind her. I waited for her to come back but by the time I was ready to knock off work, she hadn’t come back. I got a last pint for Johnny, got my bag, and walked towards college, hoping I might see her there. It was getting dark. The lights would probably be on when I got there. I thought about her scar and her rigid shoulders. It was pointless looking for her. She wouldn’t be around college just as she wouldn’t be at the pub the next day. She couldn’t care less whether the lights along the path were on or not. It was all the same to her.