Monday, 6 August 2012

A character study - a night at an English pub (vignette from the late '70s)

Our local pub is full of interesting characters. No doubt everyone has a local pub full of interesting characters but time and many pints of bitter have perhaps given me more insight into, and certainly more familiarity with, the type of people that frequent my local rather than any other locale.

My wife D and her family – mother, father and sister Z all drink in the bar and always in the same corner, naturally right against the bar, rotating between this and an infernal fruit machine. Blind John Bedford is always placed in the corner space between the bar and the fruit machine but he remains a silent witness to the comings and goings; he never acts as referee. I think of him as a beer-bellied Buddha, calm in his contemplation of his disability, cheerfully accepting the blows that fate have dealt him; and he enjoys the coarse repartee far more heartily than I ever could.

The Chillies (that is, my in-laws and my wife) enjoy a symbiotic relationship with the fruit machine. They give to it freely and it gives a show and the occasional token gesture, a spin of the fruits cascading into finality keeping its worshippers in suspense- just that little bit more and we might hit the jackpot. The machine is a big tease- always about to give them everything but –no – it holds out and in the end takes all that they gave in the first place. So the machine is a character; a god with its worshippers, a mother that takes all but never gives, a dream machine and at the end of the rainbow of lemons, oranges, bells, grapes, plums is a mythical jackpot: a stealer of souls? A jackanapes? A villain in armour: tarot-marked pennants luring the gullible? No more of this hateful machine, on with the cavalcade of characters…

There’s Bill who could be mistaken for Picasso, and Des looking lean and permed, and Manuel who is how you imagine a Manuel but best of all there’s Jim the Miller, and easily my favourite character.

Jim is an ageless figure, over sixty but youthful looking with his trim figure and face which is handsomely etched and tanned like a Punch with his fleshy nose.

Jim comes in, looking dapper in his blazer and with his ageless smile says ‘hello, me ducky’ and puts his hand on your cheek to illustrate how cold it is outside tonight. ‘A bit nippy’ he usually says as he rubs his hands vigorously together.

‘All right, Jim?’ we ask jovially.

‘Still breathing, me ducky; still breathing’ he laughs as he pulls out his pipe, a dark piece of gnarled wood with a bent mouthpiece, the bowl of the pipe as handsomely etched as Jim’s own mahogany features.

Jim uses his hands in the most natural God-given daily task – gardening. He retains a freshness, a love of life itself because he holds an unsullied view of all living things; an old man but youthful, un-withered by the canker of cynicism that attacks the least and most among us. Jim saying ‘the older you get the faster the years fly by! You know, it goes like lightning’ without rancour.

I reply ‘frightening really’ but I could see he was unperturbed. To him the escalating passage of time was a natural thing, as natural as the seasons that fly by in their cycles of death and rebirth, as natural as the growth of a plant from a seed given the care of his hands, sunshine and rain; as natural as the clouds scudding across the sky.

But me – I was frightened by the image of a carousel accelerating so fast it flung you wild and fast away, away to be brought short and smashed like a limp doll. I felt time knotting up in my stomach, and I was going to say to Jim ‘with the days slipping by like that as fast as greased lightning don’t you ever think of the time you’ve wasted; because I do. My God, I do.’ But I recognised the question was superfluous to him and he could read the question in my eyes, and I could see his answer. I felt humbled for that moment.

‘Ooh yes, the Fridays come and go just like that. You don’t notice the other days, boy. Oh, no.’

‘Did you see the film last night, Jim?’ He cocks his head, sucks his pipe. You go on ‘the one with Cary Grant in.’

‘Ooh yes, that was a good ‘un. I like a good film, you know.’ Jim laughs often and his Adam’s apple bobbles as if sharing the joke. ‘Of course – the old stars, boy. There’s nobody around to beat them nowadays. Your new stars, boy- rubbish, ooh yes. A good plot and a bit of entertainment, that’s what we used to get. None of this sex and violence rubbish, me ducky. Oh no.’

You don’t argue because, corny as they were, the old films do still retain a certain ‘magic’ with their sugary naivety.

When we go home from the pub the stars are hard and bright in the night sky, our alcohol and hops-tinged exhalations plumes of luminous steam.

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