I'm well aware that featuring your own work in your own magazine is pushing it. But twice? I can imagine that some of you are shaking your heads right now. The thing is, I've had this hanging around for years and I don't know what else to do with it. See what you think.
All I Want for Christmas
Walking from the cellar into the bar could feel like stepping out of a plane. First there was silence and contemplation but then there was a buffeting; a rocking, almost. Cellar work was hermetic. Physical, too, but even that had a satisfying kind of precision.
Each empty barrel was a reliable pleasure. No matter how many times you did it, there remained the assumption that barrels, even empty ones, were going to be heavy. Lifting one with ease and even with élan felt like a dream experience. The full barrels were trickier. They tapered at both ends and you had to use the middle as a fulcrum, rocking it (but not too much) until you had it resting on a rack. There was always a moment that teetered, suspensefully, before you tapped the seal with a metal spike and rapidly pressed in a wooden bung. This was supposed to help it breathe. The beer came fuming upwards, like champagne. There were hops in it, horrible-looking things, like flies, and it was this that always led, intuitively, to a brisk, obsessive clean-up. The mop had a hose attached and scrubbing with it was a relief. In so far as a cellar could, it ended up looking spotless. Nick kept checking it. Not checking it, exactly. Identifying with it.
He changed. Literally: he showered and put on clean clothes. But there was more to it than that. The vivid glaze of the bar; the drone (a delicate “om”) of all the early evening drinkers; the Christmas songs – Nick felt this on his skin and in his stomach. He opened his arms and welcomed it in. But he was also, subtly, on guard. He had no family. This was his family. It made demands on him he couldn't quantify. He rubbed his hands together in what was also a mime of somebody rubbing his hands together. He said,
This was more to himself than anyone else. It was as though he had to act out his own enthusiasm before it existed for him. Unwilling to let it go, he jiggled up and down, even as he was pouring himself a half of lager. Bob said,
"I'll have whatever it is you're having."
Bob, it seemed, liked to act out the part of a regular in much the same way that Nick was being a barman. Bob was… what? Fifty? Sixty? He had a Ho Chi Minh beard and a face that was as glazed, in its own way, as the bar was. He was an academic, a professor of something or other, but clichés seemed to comfort him. His terrified eyes peered out at you. Nick said,
"It's joie de vivre."
"Quite right. Not beer at all."
Nick drank half and then filled it up again. He liked Bob but he functioned like the first act on a bill; you had to force yourself to pay attention to him. Nick asked him about Christmas Day. It was the kind of thing he almost never did. Bob placed both hands beside his belly. The belly was generous; pseudo-Christmassy. He said,
"I will, of course, get drunk. There will be poetry. I will recite 'The Green Eye Of The Little Yellow God' to a reluctant audience then fall asleep. At some point, my son-in-law will hoist me in a fireman's lift and take me up to bed."
He puffed, with evident satisfaction, on the soggy nub of a cigar.
"And your good self?"
"My good self?"
But it didn't do to draw attention to Bob's turn of phrase. Nick looked over his head, out at the green. The circles, like the bottoms of bottles, in the windows warped the view, making it look smaller and more distant. The V-shape of the roads around the green, itself a tiny postage stamp; the spacious road beyond; the broad sky and the Georgian houses – all served, in miniature, to highlight where you were: inside. The Highwayman was an old coaching inn, with wooden beams. There was a fireplace, a two-way chimney breast, that formed part of the archway from the short bar, where Bob was, into the long. Beyond that was the restaurant. Nick barely ventured into it. The bar was as much his home as anywhere else had ever been. He shrugged.
"Pub food", he said.
He took another sip.
"Oh: sleep. I don't care where. Here will do."
He patted the bar. A patch of stickiness had blurred the surface so he took a cloth and rubbed it clean. The pub was filling up. Here were the bar staff: Bob, Melinda, Angel, Sam, Claude, Caroline and Serge. They all wore crisp shirts and clip-on bow ties. Angel, who had three razor marks, like sergeant's stripes, cut into his Larry Blackmon flattop, wore his collar up. He had a swaggery roll, like a sailor's walk, and flicked his fingers, two or three of them, like castanets. Caroline's bob was bright white, like a wig. Apart from that, there was a pleasing uniformity about them all; the way they moved around each other felt, sometimes, almost precise. Nick marshalled them. Not obviously. He joked. Sometimes he sang. He yelled non-sequiturs. Sometimes they yelled them back. It was a performance; a distance that was supposed to feel like intimacy.
Here, meanwhile, in the corner, squeezed between the fireplace and the door, were what was called "The Corner", painters and decorators who came here, most of them, every night. They had a chant – "Oi-oi!" – and a confident, an almost aristocratic, way of summoning you; a nod or a wink that signified that they knew just how important they all were. When one of them said "When you're ready" it was essentially meaningless. A catchphrase, almost. They had brought their wives tonight, and their wives' friends. Ann, one of the friends, was tapping her fingers on the bar. Bob looked at Nick looking at her. He said, recited rather,
"She upbraided poor Carew in the way that women do,
Though both her eyes were strangely hot and wet."
Distasteful? Yes. But Bob was fading. His time was almost up. Nick's language, his delivery, had undergone a transformation. His deliveries. Down in the longer bar, he preened and tap-danced; clattering steps that served no useful purpose, not even to entertain. He had a gesture, more of a tic, in which he checked his hair repeatedly in the mirror, tucking and then untucking his fringe. Elsewhere, he played up to The Corner. With Ann, he mimed – he lightly, and as it were accidentally, touched one of her fingers; he shook his head briefly, no, when she tried to pay him – as though it were really eloquence. Caroline disapproved. She bristled, seeming to thicken, slightly, in the neck and shoulders. But Caroline was altogether too three-dimensional. Ann was a face, that's all, and slender legs. It was more her expression, the way that she continued to look at him. She was a particular type of thought made manifest. Nick was aware of having been lifted, like a balloon; of feeling, somehow, lighter and heavier at once. The songs, the same old Christmas songs, had an erotic charge; a blundering but insistent rhythm. Ann stayed put. She watched him. Caroline looked at him. Pertly aggressive, she flicked his forehead, hard, with an index finger, saying,
Swiftly, she stepped around him. The bar was four deep now. Nick turned the volume up. Once, passing glasses back to Serge, smoking a cigarette, he leant a leg against Ann's leg. He said,
She leaned against him; placed a hand, ostensibly to help him, on his hand. He said,
He was lowing into her ear. You had to trust that, in the middle of all this noise, you could communicate. The tone itself, its murmurous throb, would serve. But then The Corner heaved from side to side; he ended up, beached, at the corner of the hatch. Now, though, he couldn't concentrate. He totted up what Ann had drunk; three double vodkas. He had had four pints. The gap had narrowed between thought and deed. (What would his "good" self have done? Pointless to wonder now.) He gave her a drink; she hadn't asked. He lit her cigarette. She continued to look at him; to stare levelly at his face and, afterwards, at his profile. Her nails danced idly around her glass. They fascinated Nick; they glittered, like trinkets, in the flushed pink of the lamps. It wasn't that she didn't speak to people but she did it, mostly, sideways, continuing to stare at him.
She turned a pump off with what looked like a karate chop.
Angel looked at him doubtfully. But Nick had already made up his mind. At twelve o'clock they closed the bar. They counted down until there was, it seemed, an entire fiesta: whoops and the sharp crack, like rifle fire, of party poppers. Nick edged into the space between the fireplace and the corner, staring at Ann until she turned her face to look at him. Still staring, he edged around The Corner, through the door. The streets were sleek; they fizzed with rain. The wind threw gusts of it, like pellets, into your face. Ann's face, when she emerged, looked studious and resigned. He took her hand and led her round the back, into the car park, where he placed her, like a plant pot, under a tree. What happened then felt oddly second-hand. His wheedling tone; whatever his hands were doing; his tenderness – he'd learned it all by rote. She didn't talk. He didn't want her to.
Afterwards, he found himself miming anxiety about the pub. He ran, almost, inside. He picked five glasses up, one-handed, but Caroline wasn't fooled; she wouldn't talk to him. When Ann came in, he couldn't, or wouldn't, look at her. Where, before, he and the pub had seemed to express each other, he now saw everything with a terrible clarity: the Corner's slack, distorted mouths; their bodies radically out of true. Ann left. She had the look of someone who had found a spider in her pocket. They all left, back to their homes and families. Once they were gone, the bar staff huddled at the short end of the bar. He stood and poured himself a drink. Caroline was saying – almost singing – something. The Christmas songs were fainter now; a collective memory. When he looked into the mirror it was like looking at someone else. He smiled, slowly. He tucked and untucked his fringe. He saluted himself.
"Happy Christmas", he said.
Alan Humm is the editor of One Hand Clapping.