Telling stories in the pub.
A distant Friday.
Staff from Nicholas Breakspear RC School (named for the only English pope) around a sticky table, torn crisp packets, glasses up and down like Eiffel Tower elevators.
Fiona, my beautiful, now departed friend tells the story of a study tour to Russia. She was a fine raconteur: comical, self-deprecating, a contagiously animated narrator. At school, Fiona had been assigned as my mentor. I was in good hands. I miss her.
Local sixth form students. Saint Petersburg accommodation in a grey block, the building sinister and cavernous. Unshaven men, whispering in hoarse conspiracies, Stalinist treachery lurking like toxins.
Fiona then recounts this conversation with a pair of students, both eighteen, both built like men, but with boyish hearts.
“Where did you two get to last night?” Fiona asked, in that direct, yet gentle way she had.
“Well, Miss, Billy and I went for a walk, you know, around the motel.” Henry kicked at the frozen ground.
“Then we somehow ended up in the basement.”
Fiona was curious. Not mad, just yet. “What was in the basement?”
“Well, Miss, there was a club. Yeah, I guess you’d call it a club,” Henry offered.
Fiona continued. Still not mad. She rarely got mad. Everyone loved her. “And what happened next?”
“There was a huge man at the door of the club.”
“Like a bouncer?”
“Henry, was it an adult club?” Fiona had a way that quietly extracted the truth. She made the kids feel safe.
“Well, yeah, Miss. It was a strip club.”
“Henry, this is a problem.”
“Yeah, I guess, Miss. But the bouncer let us in for half-price,” he chirped, pride swelling his chest.
“Because we’re still at school!”
We lived in St Albans, just north of London, in Hertfordshire, and there were eighty pubs! The older ones, in the city centre, are charismatic, and gorgeous. Simply strolling through a door can be a celestial experience.
The Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, down the hill from the Cathedral, dates back twelve hundred years. It’s the country’s oldest pub. Others like The Six Bells are enticing antique taverns, with exposed beams and squat ceilings and rugby murmurings.
My Friday afternoon pub, The Bunch of Cherries, up the road from my school, was built in the 1950’s on the outskirts of town. Architecturally, it had less allure than an abattoir. It was of a style that could be called “Red Brick Hideous.”
But, for the thirty months we lived there, I loved it.
I recently found a yellowing receipt from one of those Fridays during June when life was freshly abounding. With the transaction complete and diverse glasses plonked on the table, I fell into my chair: physically, psychically and fiscally powerless to speak or sip. In time, I recovered.
It was tremendous fun.
As you will note, it was an elongated shout, and offers insight into this ample and eclectic crew-
Two pints of lager (Carlsberg)
Two pints of Real Ale (Black Sheep Best Bitter)
A half pint of lager (Stella Artois)
Two glasses of New World Chardonnay (South Eastern Australia)
One glass of Old World white wine (suitably vague)
A rum and coke
A nip of brandy
Two bottles of orange juice (small)
A house champagne
A gin and tonic
Three ginger beers (diet)
A mineral water
A pot of black tea
Six packets of crisps
One chip butty
I can’t recall if there were TVs showing football replays, or piped music (doubtless Robbie Williams, the Bug-Eyed Yelper), or other distractions. This, of course, is high praise for the Cherries, as conversation is the ECG of a merrily functioning boozer.
Beyond several tonnes of pork scratchings, Walkers crisps, and peanuts I didn’t eat a meal there, ever. It wasn’t that sort of pub. There was a wobbly, self-imposed curfew which barred the communal breaking of bread. So, I can offer no analysis of its bangers and mash; nor its scampi, chip and peas; nor its gammon steak and eggs.
Home was by Verulamium Park, three miles away by bike through Fleetville, The Camp and Cottonmill. I’d take the Alban Way, a former rail line and now cycle path, popular among misshapen youth for torching stolen Vauxhalls and scooters. Seared metal skeletons are oddly attractive when covered in snow.
But, at 4pm of a Friday with the summer sun still high in the pale Home Counties sky, or with the sleety dark rattling the Christmas windows, it was a bright place to invest a jovial hour with the folks from work. Folks with whom I shared a vivid, momentary corridor.
Nearly a decade after leaving we visited one January with our boys, who tore about in the pub as boys will do, to the constant horror of their parents and the indifference of most others.
Only the red brick exterior remained. Inside had been renovated, but in a disingenuous way. Now superficially stylish and too polished, as if it would soon have souring aspirations, it had been renamed The Speckled Hen.
My disenchantment was exaggerated for it was a Tuesday. For me, the Friday stories at the Bunches of Cherries were long finished. But they had been magnificent, a cheery symbol of an enchanted time.
Of course, the worst pub in town just might have been the best.