Pub Life: The Ropes

A pint of beer against pink.

The Trainee looks the part with a fine quiff and a crisp cotton shirt, but hovers over the Manager’s shoulder like a scared child.

Spotting customers waiting at the bar the Manager urges him forward.

“Uh, hi. What can I get you?”

The Manager, under his breath: “Good. Yes.”

“Hello. A pint of Best, please, and a bottle of cider.”

A panicked glance at the Manager.

“Middle pump.”

“This one?”

The first flicker of impatience. “Yes. The middle pump.”

The Trainee finds a suitable glass and checks it with the Manager who nods, pleased — now we’re getting somewhere. The Trainee puts the glass beneath the tap and yanks the handle as if trying to inflate a football.

“Whoah! Stop! Now, gently. Two or three long, smooth pulls.”

Second try: too gentle; the handle barely moves.

“Long, smooth pulls. Be firm. Yes, that’s it — good. You’re getting it. Perf– Oh, no, a bit more vigorous at the end or you’ll get no head. And you have to fill it to the top.”

The Trainee looks baffled and a look of despair passes over the manager’s face. Has the boy ever drunk, or even seen, a pint of beer? The Manager masters himself.

“It’s OK, I’ll sort the pint. You get the cider.”

The Trainee finds the bottle in the fridge and stands dumbly, unsure what to do next and afraid to ask the Manager for help. The Manager notices and says, “Opener, back shelf.” The Trainee finds it, a straightforward blade-style gadget, and places it against the lid of the bottle in various different ways, hoping that the trick will make itself known.

The Manager places the improved pint on the bar, turns and takes the opener, apparently now resigned to the fact that the youth knows nothing. “Like this.” Pop, psst, and the chime of metal as the cap flies into a bin.

The Manager finishes Customer One’s business and directs the Trainee to someone new at the bar, who says:

“Hi — could I have a taster of the golden ale, please?”

Trainee checks; manager nods; Trainee, suddenly over-confident, grabs a pint glass and fills it halfway with one long, smooth pull.

The Manager turns pale at the sight of his margin evaporating.

“Whoah! Use a little glass for tasters. A tiny glass. The smallest glass. Like this.”

The Manager presents something about the size of a thimble.

The Trainee stands with the half-full pint glass and lets his shoulders slump.

Just six more hours to go on this shift, and then the whole summer ahead.

Pub Life: A Glass of Water

Low resolution image of a glass of water.

He enters the pub hesitant and blinking, muttering to himself, and completes a circuit scouting for empty seats.

When he finally approaches the bar he moves sideways, one nervous step at a time, apologising with his body language before he says a word. “A glass of water, please,” he barely whispers.

He is served without question, and in fact with a smile.

He circles again, gauging threat levels, before deciding to sit next to us, with a half-voiced, “Sorry, can I…” With a faint rustle of anorak he folds into the space and closes in on himself.

A sip of water first, then to business: on to the table from his old army bag he tips a pile of small change, which he carefully sorts by denomination, and then counts. Job done, he puts the coins back in his bag.

He sips more water, rises, and tiptoes away to use the toilet.

On his way out of the pub he pauses to look at a bowl on the bar. It is full of cubes of cheese. His eyes dart — could he…? Would it be OK if…? He takes one piece, and gets away with it; then a second. With a quick jerk of his hand he throws them into his mouth and blinks furiously — an expression of pleasure, perhaps.

Finally, he slides through a mere crack in the door, not wanting to trouble anyone with a draught, and is gone, leaving no trace but a half-empty glass.

Pub Life: Pork Pie

Illustration: pork pie.

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.

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.