I wished a million things as she answered the door. That I was three stone lighter. That I could still bench ninety kilos. That my hair was sun streaked blond, not Just For Men grey. That my face was more Beckham than Bagpuss.
And I wished the last twenty years had brought us together, not pulled us apart.
Middle Aged Man In Lycra – “The MAMIL”: the country’s full of them. Blokes in their forties, paunches straining against hundreds of pounds of garish lycra, sat astride bikes that would split them in two given half the chance. Some ride in packs, others alone; all of them hated. They block the streets and slow the traffic, demanding everyone follow the highway code until it suits them not to. Collective distaste means they’re ignored, and sunglasses and helmets make them anonymous.
Which, in my line of work, is a perfect combination.
It had become a litany of little selfishnesses that I just couldn’t take any more
I was the kind of fucked that holds it together in polite company because polite company doesn’t understand quite how fucked fucked can be.
The barman was a taciturn fucker. His face was all features, crammed in, bunched up. If you caught him out of the corner of your eye it looked like his eyebrows and chin met at the tip of his nose. I’d be a taciturn fucker if I looked like that I guess, but then I wouldn’t have gone for a job in customer service.
I scanned the pumps on the bar. Nice piece of wood in that counter. Nicely planed. I liked the way it curved. And I liked what it held too. Grumpy he might be, but the selection of beers was good and it looked like someone gave a shit. I ordered a pint of something refreshing and pale and turned down the offer of a cheese sandwich.
I woke up on the bus, my head snapping upright, drool at the corner of my mouth. A dull headache was already forming as the world swam in front of me and I tried to work out where the hell I was.
I’d started the evening knowing a drink would end up like this, and yet here I was anyway. On the night bus with a crick in my neck, a mouth like an ashtray and busting for a piss.
There were mercifully few people with me, and we were spread evenly throughout the bus; a mathematical study in keeping one’s distance.
Pissing in public; a mathematical study in keeping one’s distance.
London. There’s always someone more messed up, more outrageous, more boring, just… more… than you, whatever the measure, whatever the time of day or night. You can stare down any street at any time and be average, normal, inconspicuous, as the chaos of the city passes you by. Except – every once in a while – along comes the day when it’s your turn to let your freak flag fly. The day when everyone looks to you and says “ah, London, you beautiful fucking lunatic”.
On a Saturday afternoon The Ship comes into its own.
This is not a pub that shows sport on the big screen. It’s not a pub that offers lunch, two courses for twelve pounds. There is no espresso machine behind the bar, and no trained barista. There is no menu of speciality tea. The garden is not a sun trap in the heart of the city. It is not a garden. It’s a yard; somewhere to stand and smoke before heading back inside. And inside is as gloomy on the brightest day of summer as it is on the darkest day of winter. The wood panelled walls and low ceilings designed to soak up the light, leaving enough to see your drink, but not the faces of other drinkers.
It offers nothing but the promise of a drink.
During the week that’s enough. During the week it’s a pub of convenience. The Ship is that place just round the corner, a bit grim, but there’s only time for a swift one, so it may as well be there.
On a Saturday afternoon it’s convenient for no one.
There are no couples surrounded by shopping bags, her with a well deserved gin and slimline, him a well deserved pint. There are no families with teenagers lost in their phones sipping full fat coke as their parents despair of ever reaching them again. No retirees taking a frugal lunch, discussing the quality of the pasta bake and the latest on his angina. No groups of lads on their way to the football, full to overflowing with banter and lager.
On a Saturday afternoon no one just pops in.
On a Saturday afternoon The Ship belongs to those for whom the promise of a drink is more than enough.