Pub Life: Brussels Edition

All the usual trappings: mirrors, coat-hooks, brown wood, low-light, stern overseer, aloof bar staff, glinting glassware of every variety, and two English tourists experiencing mind-expansion.

They have two beers on the go already but are too excited to stop there.

“Bruv, bruv — you’ve got a lot of beers, man. Like… a lot. What would you personally recommend?”

The barman (dunking glasses in soapy water, running a hand around the rim, dunking again, rinsing in cold water) pauses to think. “Personally? I like this.” He presents a bottle of Orval like a waiter with a vintage wine.

“Yeah, open it up, bruv — open it up. Let’s do this.”

“You want two glasses?”

“I got money, bruv — my pockets ain’t shallow. We can have a bottle each.”

“Of course but you have two beers already and it is quite strong.”

“OK, we’ll have one of these, too.”

The tourist points at the lager tap from which the other barman is in the process of pouring eight 25cl glasses, slicing at the foam with a knife so that it surges up smoother behind the cut.

“That? Uh… that’s just a normal pils. Let me give you this with two glasses and if you want something else, no sweat — order it when you’re ready.”

The tourists are now sharing three beers between them, swigging and laughing, getting louder as time passes. Both barmen avoid their gaze, slide past the spokesman’s upraised hand, and ignore his ever more insistent calls: “Bruv! Sir! Mate! Hello! HELLO?” Eventually the boss barks and the other barman reluctantly attends.

“What would you recommend? Something mad. Something different.”

“Okay, how about…” He presents a bottle of gueuze.

“Yeah, two of them.”

“Uh… It’s a little bit… This one is a special beer, quite sour. Why don’t you share? I’ll give you two wine glasses.”

The tourist presents his wallet, waving a wad of cash.

“I can pay, bruv! Just give me two. Oh, no — tell you what, give me a big bottle! You got that in a big bottle?”

“Yeah but, I mean… It’s like, fifteen euro. Seriously, have this small one and if you don’t like it, you haven’t–”

“But if we do like it, can we part exchange for a big bottle?”

The barman considers, and shrugs.

“OK, sure.”

They do not like it.

But by this point, it doesn’t matter, because they are giggling, their stools involuntarily rotating beneath them, feet slipping from the rests. They are slapping their thighs, crying, weeping with laughter. Draining glasses, draining bottles, slurping down yeasty dregs. Having fun… for now.

Neither the elderly woman with her newspaper and espresso, nor the middle-aged couple holding hands as they consult a tool catalogue alongside two perfect chalices of blonde beer, seem to notice or care.

When we leave, the spokesman has his hand in the air again: “Bruv, bruv — what you got with fruit in it?”

The barmen pretend they can’t hear as they urgently restock the fridges, urgently clean some glasses, urgently disappear into the darkest corners they can find.

Pub Life: For the Slugs

A slug approaching a pint of beer.

A warm evening in late summer, the smell of weed on the air, and blackberry stains on the pathway to the pub door.

Ahead of us in the queue a middle-aged woman in sensible shoes and a sensible but bramble-bothered jumper, with black mud beneath her nails.

“Oh, hello — I wonder if you can help me… Do you, by any chance, have any beer dregs I might take away with me?”

She waves a large margarine tub hopefully.

“Dregs?”

“Waste beer. For the slugs. On my allotment.”

“For the slugs?”

“For the slug traps. Slugs love beer. Keeps ’em off my plants! They drown in it.”

The young woman behind the bar eyes the gardener with suspicion. How can she be sure this strange stranger won’t just guzzle down the slops straight from the plastic the minute she gets outside? Desperate people will do all sorts of weird things for a freebie. She decides on a delaying tactic, a test of commitment.

“I can’t give you any now because we’re in the middle of service but if you come back at closing time when we’re cleaning out the drip trays I might be able to help. Once I’ve asked my manager, obviously.”

“Closing time? Oh, no, I’m afraid I shall be in bed by then. You couldn’t…?”

She waves the tub seductively.

A shake of the head.

And so the slugs, or perhaps the gardener, went thirsty that night.

Pub Life: Vapeman Against Humanity

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.

Pub Life: Hit & Run

Stink-eye bar-fly.

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 nick-nacks, constructing a nest.

‘Half a San Mig.’

The barman pours the lager and places it on the bar.

‘That’ll be–’

‘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?’

‘White.’

The barman pours the sambuca into a thimble-like shot glass.

‘That’ll be–’

‘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 that 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.