by John Morrison


90: Small Beer

It's a blighted pub in a Northern town. A blighted pub in a Northern town, on a wet Monday afternoon, and the regulars are in subdued mood. Most of them only came in for a pint and a packet of of curry-flavoured condoms, but the prospect of pissing the day away in gloomy introspection proves too big a temptation. As the landlord wipes a greasy cloth across the bar-top, time seems to be standing still. Nothing is happening; maybe nothing ever will. He checks his watch; the older guys check their pulses. The landlord gives his watch a shake, then shakes his head.

In a sad parody of more upmarket establishments, the pub walls are lined with signed, faded photographs of celebrity failures who have interrupted their journeys into shame or oblivion with a visit to the Grievous Bodily Arms. The sharp-eyed may recognise a few faces. There's William Hague, the leader of the Tory party, apparently. Others are less familiar, like Michael Foot's tailor, Bob Geldorf's barber and Shane McGowan's dentist. There's the guy who turned down the Beatles ("Guitar bands are dead", he had concluded, with the prescience of the doomed). As he straightens up the latest addition to the rogue's gallery (a bewildered Glenn Hoddle) the landlord wonders what he can possibly have done in a past life to end up here: in a blighted pub, on a wet Monday afternoon, in a small Pennine milltown. At moments like this, a career in the licenced trade has all the appeal of open-heart surgery.

God knows he's tried to give his customers what they want. Badger baiting. Dolphin flavoured crisps. Vinnie Jones look-alike competitions. But there's just no pleasing some people. The fact that the Grievous Bodily Arms is patronised by people whose hopes have gone, whose dreams have faded, for whom solace is to found at the bottom of a bottle.

In the good old days - or maybe it was just in Hollywood movies - you could bend the barman's ear with your problems. "Set 'em up, Joe". "Something on your mind, sir?" "Yeah, she's gone and left me". "Life's a bitch, sir, and no mistake. Here, have this one on the house". But there's nothing very cinematic about the Grievous Bodily Arms, unless you were thinking of shooting a remake of 'Nightmare on Cheetham Street'. And sharing his troubles with a sympathetic landlord isn't a viable option for any customer who actually wants to finish his pint. The landlord just isn't the kind of guy in whom you'd confide anything more personal than your collar size.

The TV in the corner flickers in the gloom. The landlord flicks mechanically through the dozens of channels that cable can offer. It's as depressing an activity as a long afternoon can offer, at least for those who don't own any Phil Collins albums. There's snooker, featuring a couple of whey-faced lads who could use some fresh air. There's the choreographed violence of the Jerry Springer Show ("I Butchered My Entire Family... And I'm Not Sorry At All"). Even topless darts fails to rouse his jaded customers from their mid-winter torpor.

The Grievous Bodily Arms is a haven for the workshy. It's where you'll find the self-employed, the unemployed, the unemployable and - something of a Milltown speciality, this - the self-unemployed. All united in a brooding silence broken only by the sound of the landlord cracking his knuckles. If you hear anyone suggesting that "hard work never killed anyone", then you're probably exchanging pleasantries with a Mafia hit-man.

Even our local undertaker, perched like a frock-coated vulture on his bar-stool, has time unexpectedly on his hands. As callous as it may seem to those outside the profession, he's worried that the mild winters aren't killing off old people in the accustomed numbers. He'd only gone into the funeral business on the understanding that he'd never be short of work. God knows there aren't too many other perks: none that he'll admit to, anyway. Business is bad: unless we get a decent fall of snow, or at least a hard frost, he'll be forced to lay staff off.

He's only trying to make an honest living, but not everyone shares his idiosyncratic views. He wrote a letter to the Milltown Times, suggesting that our senior citizens could give the local economy a much-needed boost simply by turning down their heating thermostats by a few degrees. It didn't seem much to ask, yet he's been getting hate-mail ever since. He's had a warning, polite but firm, from PC Rasher: no more phoned bomb-threats to local nursing homes. He even tried to recruit the local milkmen to his cause, as they're often the first people to notice that old folk may be in trouble. But they were unimpressed by his suggestion that they should wait until the pile of unclaimed milk bottles reached double figures, before breaking a pensioner's door down.

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