Last night, we got an email from someone asking if we had copies of 20th Century Pub for sale because “for some reason, I have a desperate urge to read about the English pub”. That made us think that people might like the chance to wallow in pub atmosphere at home so we've decided to share a piece we put together for Balmy Nectar based on our various Pub Life vignettes from the past few years. So, here it is. Cheers!
That flight of steps down to the bar is a cruel trick to play on an old man who’s had a few drinks.
One… two… three… he swings his leg for a moment before concluding that there is no fourth step, and then falls forward, planting himself at a steep angle against the counter.
He gurns at the woman behind the bar and lifts a finger.
‘Are you sure, Patrick? Shall I call you a taxi instead?’
He blinks asymmetrically. ‘W… What time is it?’
‘One more… usual.’
‘I’ll call you a cab for nine, then, and you can have one more pint.’
He contorts to dip his hand into the pocket of his sagging jacket, and brings it up like a fairground claw crane, scattering coins across the varnished wood. ‘Zat enough?’
She scoots five pound coins towards him one after the other. ‘That’s for your taxi,’ she says, ‘and this will pay for the pint.’
Time passes. He drinks some of his beer, and spills the rest. Every now and then, he jerks upright as if startled by something no-one else can see.
As 9pm approaches, he begins to calculate his chances of another drink. ‘I wouldn’t mind… How much is a bottle of wine to take home?’
Laughing, but firm: ‘You don’t need a bottle of wine. You need a good strong cup of tea.’
He gurns again. ‘What I need… is a good woman.’
Side-stepping, she replies: ‘Well, you won’t find one of those in this pub!’
‘Whisky?’ he says, with a hopeful lilt. He pushes some of the coins across the bar.
‘That’s your taxi money, Pat.’
‘Na na na na na na na,’ he says, shaking his head, ‘Just take it.’
Somehow, he gets his whisky, and downs it as the door opens to let in a cold, watery wind. ‘Taxi for Pat?’
The barmaid comes out from behind the bar, puts an arm round Patrick’s waist and guides him across the floor.
A smile breaks across his face.
Before she knows it, they are dancing.
Patrick leads, and his feet are as nimble as those of a 20-year-old.
Then the taxi driver cuts in and waltzes Patrick out into the night.
The pub feels cold, quiet and empty.
* * *
A man of indeterminate age, somewhere between 30 and 50, strides up to the bar: ‘Shit, man, have I had a rough day.’
The baby-faced, slightly sleepy barman blinks and smiles.
‘Yeah? Sorry to hear that, man. What can I get you?’
The customer mounts a high stool and starts to unload his tobacco pouch, ancient mobile phone and various other knick-knacks, constructing a nest.
‘Half a San Mig.’
The barman pours the lager and places it on the bar.
‘Tell you what, I’ve had such a shit day… Sod it – give me a Sambuca, too.’
The barman turns to look at the spirits shelf. The customer drinks half of his half of lager. The young man turns back. His eyes dart to the half empty glass.
‘Er… Black or white?’
The barman pours the Sambuca into a thimble-like shot glass.
‘What it is, my wife – are you married yourself? – my wife, she was meant to meet me this morning but her train got delayed…’
He suddenly drinks most of the Sambuca, chasing it with another gulp of lager.
‘…so I’ve been hanging around Temple Meads…’
‘Er, sorry, man, but, er, I’m going to need you to pay for those drinks.’
‘Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, of course, man, no problem, yeah, yeah, yeah.’
He finishes the Sambuca.
‘My wife will be here in like two minutes and she’s got the cash.’
The barman begins to vibrate anxiously.
‘I really need you to pay for those drinks–’
‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, no worries, man, no worries – I’ll just give her a call.’
The customer very obviously pretends to make a call on what, at second glance, might actually be a toy mobile phone. And are his shoes… Are they held together with Sellotape?
He stands up, pockets his tobacco almost as if by sleight of hand, and retreats to a corner, and then further into the corner, and then clear through the corner, out of a side door we hadn’t noticed.
The barman deflates as he puts what is left of the glass of lager on the back shelf.
‘I’m so stupid,’ he says partly to himself, partly to us, but mostly to his own sneakers.
He makes sure to take the money before handing over our pints.
* * *
A small pub with dark walls, swirling with psychedelic rock, and swirling also with sweet cherry-scented vapour.
Four men are gathered around the bar, three of them playing ‘Cards Against Humanity’.
They all have the build of nightclub bouncers but one is dressed in heavy metal denim; another like the croupier on a Mississippi gambling boat; the third in tatty biking leathers; and the fourth, disappointingly, in jeans and trainers. The first three have different varieties of ostentatious facial hair; their less showy friend is clean-shaven.
No, his flair is not sartorial; rather, he is generating his own fog with an illuminated sci-fi e-cigarette. Clouds and clouds of it. He is too drunk or too disinterested to join the game, or perhaps just concentrating too hard on his art.
Croupier reads from his card: ‘“What do old people smell like?”‘
Bike Leathers slaps his thigh: ‘Oh, I’ve got the winner right here, my friend… “Sneezing and farting at the same time”!’
Everyone cracks with laughter, except the Vaper. Though the Vaper isn’t playing, he is thinking hard about the question, eyes narrowed and pink, fixed on a faraway place, or perhaps a distant time.
Heavy Metal begins his turn: ‘Right – “What do old people smell like?” The answer is obviously, “My balls in–”’
‘Decay!’ declares the Vaper suddenly, and loudly, killing the chatter in the bar. ‘Decay, isn’t it? That’s what they smell of. Decay. Impending death. Like…’ He generates a serving of particularly gothic graveyard mist. ‘Like their bodies are breaking down even though they’re still… Their eyes are still…’
Silence falls. Vapour churns.
‘Another round of these IPAs, lads?’ slurs Croupier, slapping his cards down on the table. ‘Or is it time to move on to that imperial stout?’
Everyone cheers, except the Vaper.
Vaper just vapes, intensely.
* * *
At 5:45 the crowd is getting restless – where is the pork pie? Where are the cubes of cheese? The nibbles and snacks?
Of course they’re a courtesy, not a right, so nobody can complain, even if they do it jokingly. But, still, when you’ve come to expect it and it isn’t there, you get restless, and start thinking about buying a bag of crisps or, worse, going home for tea.
There is a stir. The herald first, mustard and serviettes, then the thing itself, golden and stout, cut into eighths on a plate.
It has to go down in front of somebody and the somebodies it goes down in front of feign disinterest. A regular heckles, “Alright for some.” Temptation is too much: after about five seconds, someone shrugs and, takes a slice, might as well, then a second to pass to a friend.
The pie is already looking ravaged, crust crumbling and jelly spilling.
Panic sets in and chairs scrape, everyone rushing but trying to look as if they’re not.
Taking three slices, one regular offers a narration to explain his motives: “Best get in before it’s all gone, one for each of us.
The entire pie has disappeared before the first bowl of cheese has appeared.
The pub itself seems to sigh with contentment. No need to rush away, stay for another, maybe two. Sunday night saved.
* * *
Two barmen in matching polo shirts, one small, one tall, stand behind the bar with arms folded engaged in debate with a regular sat at the bar.
The tall barman leads: ‘No, you’re not getting what I’m saying: I’m asking, does a staircase go up or come down? Which way does it go?’
‘Up,’ says the baffled regular. ‘If it didn’t go up, you wouldn’t need it to come down. That it comes down is a side effect of it having gone up in the first place.’
‘No, it’s both. It goes up and comes down. It doesn’t matter that it was built specifically to go up. Once you’ve got an up, the staircase has to go down as well. So it goes both ways.’
The small barman frowns, laughs quietly, and shakes his head.
‘What are you on about? What are you actually on about?’
‘Alright, scratch that, here’s another one: is a zebra black with white stripes, or white with black stripes? Eh? Think about it.’
The regular says, confidently: ‘White with black stripes.’
‘Yeah, but how do you know for sure?’
The small barman claps in delight.
‘He’s got you there, mate!’
‘Alright, what about this one: we’re all agreed stairs go up and down–’
Regular: ‘No, but carry on.’
‘– but what about escalators? Does an escalator go up, or come down?’
‘You’ve hoisted yourself by your own petard here,’ says the regular. ‘It depends which way it’s going, doesn’t it? I mean, you literally get one to go up, and another to come down.’
‘Ah, see, no, you’re wrong, and I’ll tell you why: because it has to come down on the underside or it can’t go up. It’s a loop. So escalators always go up and down, just like staircases. Makes you think, doesn’t it?’
* * *
Smokers’ corner on the pub terrace, by the back door to the toilets.
She is smoking, sipping from a pint of lager, and looking at her phone. He approaches, nods, places his own pint of lager on another wobbly old table, and lights a cigarette.
She stares intently, clears her throat, and says: ‘Not being rude… What’s that on your T-shirt?’
He sits upright and stretches the fabric away from his gut to display the graphic.
‘She’s yours, is she? Aw, she’s lovely.’
‘Yeah. Love of my life I always say. Expecting kittens, as it goes.’
The woman freezes with her beer halfway to her mouth and pantomimes astonishment.
‘Really? REALLY? You won’t believe this but I’ve literally been looking to get a new cat. I’ve always had cats, ever since I was a little girl, but I couldn’t have one in my last place. Now I just want loads.’
‘Well, Princess is white with black patches and the one we think is the father–’ He rolls his eyes. ‘–is black with white. So the kittens’ll be one way or the other.’
‘How much, then? If I wanted two, say?’
‘Hang on, hold on…’ He pulls out his phone, fiddles with the screen, and then holds it for her to see. ‘Add me on FB and we’ll sort it out later, alright?’
They both go back to smoking, in silence, and staring at their phones, those two cat people, basking in the sun.
* * *
An old pub in a quiet part of a busy city, and an elderly regular, watery-eyed and pale as paper, is sunk in his usual seat waiting for something to happen.
He looks at the TV, then at his newspaper, then at his watch. He stares into space, and perhaps into the past. He lines up the spare beer mats, then shuffles them out of line again.
Then, at least, some real excitement: a mixed group of twentysomethings enters, laughing and chattering. They are all tall, stylish, and distinctly Mediterranean.
The Regular’s glittering eyes track them across the pub carpet. Two per cent of a smile appears on his thin lips.
The Visitors are quietly excited to be in a Real English Pub, staring at the ceiling, the ornate bar, the prints and mirrors.
They all thrust bank notes at one woman, apparently the best English speaker, and shove her towards the bar as they take over the table next to the Regular.
The Regular, his neck long gone, slowly turns his entire torso so he can watch them. The smile increases by another degree.
‘Where you from?’ he gargles in their direction.
The Visitors freeze and mutter attempted translations at each other. The second best English speaker, bearded and quiffed, acts as spokesman.
‘We come from Greece.’
The Regular nods – of course, he thought as much.
‘Well, me – I’m a Weegie.’
Silence. Baffled blinking.
‘I’m from Glasgow.’
Bulbs light up.
‘Ah! Glasgow! Yes, we know it! Alex Ferguson! Celtic football club!’
A lucky guess, apparently, as the Regular is not offended, but after this breakthrough, conversation stalls.
Lagers and gins are sipped as the Greeks look anxiously at each other – when is it acceptable to start talking among themselves again?
After an uncomfortable while, the Regular shifts some phlegm about, and leans closer.
‘So,’ he says, ‘here’s what I’m wondering…’
‘When are the English going to give you back those Elgin Marbles?’
And with that, the conversation really catches light.
* * *
Why choose this pub, with its bare boards, real ale, hard white light, and stink of pork scratchings? Why make love here?
They arrive through a side door in a swirl of strawberry-scented vapour, interlinked and unable to stop staring at each other.
He is in slacks, leather jacket, slip-on shoes, and sockless. A chipped tooth gives his smile some extra flavour.
She is all dangling bracelets and earrings, hair teased high and fixed with spray – a proper Going Out get-up.
They loudly order drinks, lager and white wine, and lean upon the bar, still tangled together, her hand up the back of his leather jacket, his in her waistband. They whisper to each other over the mostly empty pickled egg jar on the counter and laugh dirtily.
The bearded man behind the bar looks startled. His wife looks startled. The regulars look startled.
The dog doesn’t care.
‘Hey, babes… Babes…’
Leather Jacket points at the shelf.
‘Do you want to play Connect Four?’ he says, somehow suggestively.
She goes to the toilet while he sets up the blue rack and sorts the red and yellow counters. She emerges with pupils dilated, blinking and bright, and speaking twice as fast.
They play as if nobody can see or hear them, as if they’re Faye Dunaway and Steve McQueen locking souls over a chessboard. Eventually, she wins, and they clink glasses in mutual appreciation.
Then, the game having got them going, they have to get going, linking together again and heading for the door. They stop on the threshold as cold air floods in around them.
Blowing kisses, he shouts, ‘Goodbye! We love you all!’
She yells: ‘We’ll have the KY jelly out tonight, I tell you that much!’
And then they’re gone.
The landlord blinks. His wife blinks. The regulars giggle.
The dog licks at an elusive Mini-Cheddar crumb trapped between the floorboards, pursuing his own love affair.
* * *
Last orders, shredded beer mats and sticky glasses everywhere, the regulars lurching out of their seats with groans and kidney rubbing.
‘Right, well then, see you Sunday, Jim.’
The landlord looks up from the sink.
‘No you bloody won’t.’
‘Eh? You off somewhere?’
‘We’re closed for two weeks. There’s signs up everywhere – look! I put it on bloody Facebook too.’
‘Oh, gawd help us…’
‘Jesus Christ. Hope it’s not like last time. Didn’t recognise the place. It’s taken five years to get comfy again.’
The pub is indeed well worn-in: curtains askew and moth-eaten; tables looking as if they’ve been stoned and stabbed; and seating burst open, showing its yellow foam guts.
‘Ten bloody years, it was,’ says Jim.
‘Cor, don’t time fly.’
‘Where are we gonna drink for two weeks?’
‘You’ll bloody live,’ says Jim, but there’s a shadow of doubt on his face.
‘Furnishings staying, are they? Not going all minimal is it?’
‘If any of the mirrors are going spare–’
‘Not turning into a wine bar, is it?’
‘Hope not but they don’t bloody tell me anything.’
‘Two weeks! Christ.’
‘Well, good luck, Jim. See you on the other side.’
Jim waves, casual and dismissive, but Jim looks worried.
We’re bloody worried.
* * *
Occasional words rise over the sound of Spotify shuffling on a laptop above the dog’s bed behind the bar.
‘The thing is, I always say, I’m not actually very sociable. I don’t really like people, when it comes down to it.’
‘Bloody hell. Why do you come to the pub then?’
‘I can summon the energy to do this once in a while... Once every couple of weeks... I suppose I feel as if I ought to. But I shall be glad to leave and be on my own again.’
‘Do you have kids or anything, then?’
‘No, no...’ A sigh. ‘Rather pathetic, isn’t it? But the silver lining is, I might have completely fucked up my life, but at least I didn’t fuck up anybody else’s.’
‘Ha, well, yes. Right. Uh... Still, you’ve got your faith, haven’t you? That must give you some comfort.’
‘Well, between you and me,’ (quite loud at this point), ‘I haven’t, not really, not anymore. I’m not sure I really believe in God at all. Haven’t for years.’
‘Mmm. Uh... Well, uh, the bitter’s drinking very well tonight, isn’t it?’
* * *
A West Country cider pub on a sunny afternoon.
A woman approaches the bar holding her glass in front of her, shaking her head.
‘I’m sorry, love, but I think you’ve give me cider instead of San Mig.’
‘I just pulled that, didn’t I? It’s definitely San Miguel.’
‘I don’t think it is, my love.’
‘No, it definitely is.’
There is a silent stand off until the drinker thrust the glass forward.
‘Well, taste it, then.’
The person behind the bar rolls their eyes but takes the glass and sniffs it.
They take a sip and grimace.
‘See, I told you. It is cider, innit?’
‘Worse. It is San Mig, it’s just gone off. This bloody heat... What else can I get you?’
‘What other lagers you got?’
‘Only that one, sorry.’
‘Right, so what else is there?’
The barperson looks around.
* * *
Take a gulp and put the glass down.
Place it on the beer mat, right in the centre, right in the ring of dark ink.
As you talk, as you listen, turn the glass on the mat, twisting it clockwise, then back, as if tuning in the conversation on a shortwave dial.
Take a gulp and put the glass down.
Tilt it so that light plays in the depths of the beer, so the foam clings to the sides and then slides back. Swirl it so the foam grows and flows.
Take a gulp and put the glass down.
Sweep the sides of their condensation with your fingers, tracing the shape, clearing the fog to reveal the gold.
Turn the glass, lights flash, sweep again.
Take a gulp and put the glass down, almost empty, light in the hand, almost dead.
Last gulp, then, ‘Same again?’
Defer the pleasure. Dip a fingertip in the cream and lick it. Let the beer sit a bit, then sweep, turn, tilt…
Take a gulp.