“Let’s just go in,” says Natasha. “It’s cold out here.” I yank the door open and it yelps, and Lee falls from behind it. “Nat!” he says, as he struggles to regain his balance. Nobody calls Natasha ‘Gnat’, except Lee. “Nat, did you get my text?”
“Which one?” she replies. “Has he been texting you again?” I say. “So glad you could make it!” he says, “Are you coming again on Saturday?”
“We haven’t even got in tonight yet, Lee,” I say. His hands scramble desperately for a hold – the door handle, the panelling on the wall, Natasha’s legs. “Do you need a hand getting up?” I ask.
“No, it’s fine,” says Lee, crashing backwards through the door into the bar. “Come and have a drink!”
I have pleaded with Natasha that our Tuesday night ‘tradition’ should cease. I don’t know what such mundane routines say about our marriage; or maybe I do, and I just don’t want to admit it. We’ve always lived round here since we came home from honeymoon. We’ve come together to the same pub every Tuesday since (barring summer holidays). We’ve seen landlords come and landlords go, we’ve see the regulars change. I’ve never seen it as bad as this.
“Not many in tonight,” I say to Natasha. “We’ll still have fun, though,” she says. Right.
“The lovely Natasha! And your husband. What’ll it be? The usual for you both?”
Before I can say anything Colin, the landlord, is pouring Stones into a pint glass for me from the kind of electrically operated drink dispenser I thought was banned since the eighties. I haven’t known anywhere with Stones on draught since about 1989 either, but Colin insists that I like it and that it’s my usual. The lovely Natasha gets a vodka tonic.
“I’ll tell you what,” says Colin, as if answering a question we hadn’t asked, “There’s not many in tonight, but you just wait until later on. The lads are coming down later, you know they’re a great bunch, really liven the place up, oh, they’re brilliant lads, they really are. When they’re down here later we’re really gonna have some fun, y’know, it’s always great.”
“Sounds like fun,” says Natasha.
“I was surprised to see you still here actually, Colin,” I say, earning a kick from Natasha.
“Well you know the new brewery have been smashing so far, they really have, they’ve run some super promotions since they’ve taken over, it’s really been fantastic. But they might have some ideas that I’m not so keen on, you know, we all agree on everything so far and it’s great but I might not be so keen on one or two things behind the scenes. And of course Sharon’s got our place picked out in Cornwall and it’s nearly barbecue season which is always fantastic.”
“So you’ll not be sticking around then?” Natasha kicks me again. Colin glares at me.
“You don’t mind me joining you, do you?” asks Lee, the moment we’ve sat down. “Not at all!” trills ‘Gnat.’ “Pull up a stool.”
Lee’s eyes fill with panic. “Er, Tom’s not here, and normally he would…”
I grab a stool and place it behind Lee, holding his arm as he lowers himself carefully on to it. “Ah, cheers,” he says. “I’m so glad to see you both here tonight.”
“We always come on a Tuesday night,” I tell him. “It’s our routine.”
“Yes, but Nat hasn’t been replying to my texts so I was worried you might have gone to a different pub. And listen, it’s really important that you come down here on Saturday. I know last Saturday wasn’t much fun – “
(Last Saturday had been fairly quiet, until Habib had turned up late covered in blood, mud and feathers, charging around blind drunk and causing uproar with the Vegetarian Society’s meeting in the function room.)
“ – and tonight might be kind of quiet so far – although I’ve been ringing round everybody to get them to come down! – but really, Saturday is going to be so important, and it would really mean a lot if you would be here, Nat. Oh, and your husband, of course. The more the merrier!”
“What actually is happening on Saturday that’s so important, Lee?” I ask.
“It’s Saturday night,” he says. “You know, Saturday. So, the pub. This pub. Whether it’s fun or not. We have to keep coming, don’t we? Always, every week. Putting the effort in. Otherwise there’s no chance of having any fun, is there? And what would Saturday night be without the chance of some fun in the pub?”
“The ‘chance’ of some fun?” I ask.
“I can’t guarantee it,” says Lee. “But like I said in one of the texts to Nat, if you’re not here and some fun happens, and you miss it, then – “
“Look Lee, about these texts you’re sending to Natasha – “
“Drinks.” Natasha takes my pointing finger out of Lee’s face, returns it to my lap, and pats it gently. “More drinks now, darling,” she says. I get the message. Calm down, go to the bar. “And get one for Lee.”
Colin looks flustered as he comes from the side door to serve me. “Bloody little Sam trying to get in again. I’m fed up of having to clear him and his mates out of here.”
“They’re old enough now, aren’t they?” Colin scowls at me.
“You must be joking,” he says. “Haven’t you seen the signs for the scheme? ‘Check 25’ it says, ‘Check 25.’ If they’re 25 I’d hate to see a 15 year old these days.”
“That’s just a guide though, isn’t it? If they look under 25, you make sure they’re over 18?”
“‘Check 25’ is what it says, and ‘Check 25’ is what it is,” says Colin. He pauses before putting the cherry into Lee’s Slippery Nipple and instead waves it at me. “Listen, I’m not having my respectable pub filling up with bloody kids. Sam, Chris, Dominic – they can bloody come back when they’re bloody 25. I mean it’s unbelievable, some people think just because they’re 18 they’re old enough to drink in my pub, well, they can bloody think again, if they can think at all that is. I won’t have children messing about in here.”
“What about Tom? He’s pretty grown up for his age.”
“Tom’s barred. Black-balled. ‘Check 25’? He could be 75 and he’s not getting in here. Not after what happened in Ipswich.” Colin slams my change on the counter. “Besides,” he says, “That face on him puts Sharon off her gin.”
Something has been going on while I was away. Natasha grabs her drink and gulps half of it down. An ice cube catapults out of the glass and on to the floor; I crush it under a Hush Puppy before Lee can slip on it.
“I’ve just seen Ross,” she says.
“Oh christ. Where is he?”
“Back room. On his own, as usual. Well, almost on his own. I spotted him when I went to the ladies and I thought I’d say hello. He was just sitting in there, surrounded by empty glasses, staring into space. God, I feel sorry for the bastard. All his mates have gone, and since Lucy left him, he just sits there drinking himself into oblivion. So I thought I’d say hi, but he just yelled something at me, with a lot of effs and blinds. I was about to give him a piece of my mind but then I spotted Rudy. And he’s just sat on the other side of the room, opposite Ross, just staring at him. No drink, no nothing, just staring at Ross. And he says to me, “You’d better go back in the saloon,” like that, ordering me about. So I tells him I want to speak to Ross. And he says to me that Ross doesn’t want to speak to me, and this is Ross’s room, and I’d better get out of Ross’s room. How do you like that!”
“Not much, but he has been having a tough time.”
“It’s like Rudy’s his minder now or something. He gets Ross’s drinks from the bar now because Colin won’t serve him, but won’t bar him either. Anyway, then Ross started shouting again and throwing beer mats at me, and Rudy pretty much shoved me out of the room and slammed the door behind me.”
“Do you think we should get in touch with Rob? He always used to look after him.”
“Only if Rob’s going to hose him down. That’s the other thing; he fucking stinks. It’s sad.”
We contemplated our drinks for a while. I was remembering them all: Jermaine, Andy, Bradley, Neil, Max, Jonny, Rob, Lucy. It had been a happy pub, this, when they were all here. I suspect Natasha was mostly just remembering Bradley. She sighed deeply, and swallowed another dose of her V&T.
“You’re still both coming on Saturday though, right?” said Lee.
“Get this fucking dog off me!” I yell.
“Ah, he’s only playing with you,” says Mikey, while Paddy and Luke fall about laughing. The lads. The lads have got here.
“I don’t care, get the thing off me!”
“Oh, all right then,” says Mikey. “Browny! Browny, come here boy!”
The dog – some sort of mongrel, I don’t know what – returns to its owner and his mates at the corner of the bar, where they’re lining up another round of Jagerbombs.
“Browny? You named it after yourself?”
“Fuck’s wrong with that then?” says Luke, spinning to face me. “Can call his dog what he likes. His dog. Mikey’s the funniest guy I know. You buying our drinks for us?”
“What? Why would I be buying your drinks?” Paddy appears on the other side of me, and pushes my pint on to the floor. “Well, you’re getting yourself another,” he says, “Might as well buy ours. Or do you want us to set Browny on you again?”
Mikey and Luke find this hilarious. I can see behind them that Paul and either David or Michael – I can’t tell them apart – have stopped playing pool to watch. “Yeah! Yeah! Hahaha!” they all shout, egging Paddy on. I mumble to Colin that I’m buying their drinks.
“Great stuff, great,” says Colin. “They’re a smashing bunch of lads aren’t they? Really liven the place up.”
Mikey’s prised the cashbox off the jukebox again, and is running the same 50p through it over and over. “Put Oasis on again!” yells Luke, from inside an inflated condom. There’s a crash at the bar. “Oops, butterfingers!” yells Paddy. He was drinking Malibu from a bottle, but now he’s smashed it on the floor. “Giz another here, Col, I ain’t had enough yet.” Browny – the dog – is barking and scratching at the door behind which Ross and Rudy are holed up.
“About this ‘fun’ we’re having, Nat,” I say.
“Don’t fucking call me ‘Nat’,” she says, wiping vodka and lipstick across her cheek. “You know I fucking hate it.”
“How come Lee can call you Nat, then?”
“Lee’s nice. Lee invites me to places.”
“And I bring you to them! And then they’re shit!”
“Yeah, you take me to shit places. But Lee makes them sound nice before we get here, so if they’re shit it must be your fault, not his. So he,” shaking her glass for emphasis, “Can call me what he fucking likes.”
At the bar, Luke is pulling notes out of the cash register. “Bit short tonight Colin,” he’s saying. “And Paddy’s having a party, and we need to get some – well, you know – “
“I’ve had enough fun for one night,” I say to Natasha. “Come on.”
“I haven’t and I’m having another drink,” she says, “Get me and Lee another – “
The back room door opens. Ross appears, swaying in the doorway. Rudy’s behind him, his hand under Ross’s armpit, holding him straight. Ross is surveying the scene. He sees Mikey using a hatstand as a guitar, playing along to Northern Uproar. He sees Paddy juggling bottles then smashing them on the ground. He sees Luke pointing and laughing, first at Mikey, then at Paddy, cheering them on. He sees Colin letting it all go on around him, flicking through holiday magazines at the end of the bar. And he sees the dog – little Browny – yapping at his heels.
Ross pulls back his foot, and Ross kicks the dog, square. The room falls silent.
“Okay,” says Natasha. “Take me home.”
The streets outside are quiet, apart from somewhere music is playing – Paddy’s house. They must have started the party before they came over to the pub, and left the stereo on. It’ll be a long night on their street, again.
“See what I mean?” I say to Natasha. “Don’t go on about it,” she says. “But it used to be such a lovely little pub, that,” I say. “I know, don’t go on about it.” “But it’s ruined now. Since Colin took it over, and he got that rabble in.” “I know. Don’t go on about it.” “But every Tuesday we go there – “
“I know,” says Natasha, “Don’t go on about it. Look. Colin won’t be there for ever. But while he is there, we have to make the best of it. Here. I had to wait until we’re round the corner, but look. I nicked this bottle of Smirnoff while Mikey was giving Colin a piggy-back around the bar. Little Sam texted me before to say him, Tom, Aidy and Dom are at the bus stop outside the Asda. Come on. Let’s live a little. Fuck Colin and fuck his pub.”
Resourcefulness and decisiveness. Two of Natasha’s great qualities. I pause and admire my life’s beloved as she strides off, silhoutted by streetlights, a round-bottomed bottle of vodka swinging by her side. I jog to catch her up, before I’m struck by a thought.
“Hang on a minute,” I ask her. “How come little Sam has got your number?”
From The Square Ball magazine 2012/13 issue nine.