Soon After Opening

Soon after opening.

Soon after open­ing I came down to the pub­lic bar in the plain old pub in the plain old part of Exeter that traf­fic flew through, dust­ing every­thing black and shak­ing crumbs from the cracks, fol­low­ing Mum for no spe­cial rea­son oth­er than that fol­low­ing Mum was my default course, and know­ing soon that I would be sent upstairs, away from the optics and the entic­ing piano, away from the plas­tic sign adver­tis­ing hot pies and pasties, away from the plas­tic Baby­cham Bam­bis and unbe­liev­ably, unthiev­ably mas­sive porce­lain ash­trays.

Soon after open­ing and the old sailor was in his usu­al seat with his quiv­er­ing dog and a bulb of brandy glow­ing like a port-side har­bour light on the table before him, in his grey Mack­in­tosh black at the cuffs, in his knocked-back flat cap, in his steel-capped shoes that anchored him in place. I had a sketch­book to show him and fold­ed it open so his quak­ing, tobac­co-cured fin­gers could trace my pic­tures of bombers, tanks and sub­marines, but not bat­tle­ships, thank good­ness not bat­tle­ships, like the one that burned and bub­bled away into the Java Sea beneath him in 1942, tak­ing half his mind with it.

Soon after open­ing and nico­tine-tint­ed frost­ed glass soft­ened the light, warmed it, and weak­ened it so that the far cor­ners stayed black as bot­tled stout. Last night’s spills and cig­a­rettes, twen­ty years of dust in the car­pet, and the gush of pumps into buck­ets, trailed the next turn of the cycle – anoth­er round of hands in pock­ets and make it a dou­ble, why not, and dirty play­ing cards slid­ing through pud­dles, darts drum, drum, drum­ming into a board more hole than fibre.

Soon after open­ing the juke­box came on, and imme­di­ate­ly we rocked down to Elec­tric Avenue, we wouldn’t let the sun go down on us, the Eton Rifles, Eton Rifles, Eton Rifles, Agadoo doo doo – cen­tre-less sev­en-inch records grabbed and flipped into place, clunk click every trip, as a sil­hou­ette in a shad­ow-black leather jack­et loaded coins into the machine with one hand, greasi­ly-fin­gered pint glass in the oth­er, knee bent and foot tap­ping. The small sound made the room emp­ti­er, a form of wish­ful think­ing.

Soon after open­ing and the stock­take con­clud­ed in the mush­roomy under­gut of the pub where the walls wept and Grand­pa spat gold into his hand­ker­chief. Scuffed plas­tic crates, pulled from pub to pub, brew­ery to dray, hurled and stacked and left to bleach like ele­phant bones in cracked-con­crete, weed-rid­dled yards. A short pen­cil, the tip of the tongue, a tal­ly kept on the curled page of an orange Sil­vine notepad from the newsagent by the Jew­ish ceme­tery – lemon­ade times two, cola times three, light ale, brown ale, ton­ic, Amer­i­can, pineap­ple, toma­to, orange – the car­il­lon chim­ing of scurf-necked nip bot­tles snatched and shak­en, stacked and tak­en, arranged into tow­ers and walls.

Soon after open­ing in the bar where my broth­er learned his first words which, yelled from a win­dow at a passer­by, were the shame of the fam­i­ly – pub words, not real world words, not words a grown man would say before his moth­er, let alone a fat-cheeked cherub in his ter­ry-tow­elling nap­py before the whole world – more men arrived, with skin­ny wrists and slip-on shoes, and took up post at sen­try sta­tions on bench­es and at the bend of the bar. Pound notes were snapped flat and primped and pinched between fin­ger­tips to be passed across – “Have one for your­self, love?”

Soon after open­ing the moment came for me to cross the the plum-coloured curlicues of the wall-to-wall, towards the door marked PRIVATE, towards the dark stair­well and the dusty steps with toe­nail thick white paint at either side and the cen­tre stripe of bare board, up to the flat where 80 years ago com­mer­cial trav­ellers dried their socks on the fire­guard and eyed their sam­ple cas­es with sor­row.

With apolo­gies to Dylan Thomas.

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