HOW MANY MICE DOES IT TAKE TO PULL A TRAIN FROM GLASGOW TO EUSTON?
Copyright © 2004 All Rights Reserved
The Champion, Fitzrovia
The most pleasant barmaid in The Champion regarded me queerly, no doubt astounded that she could casually observe my arteries and intestinal workings in operation. Let me explain. I had been scuffing my shoes along the back roads of Fitzrovia, waving out to passing red postal trucks, when I'd decided to drop into that great corner pub that is The Champion. Inside I found much character, jovial patrons and a truly winning atmosphere.
The upstairs bar was packed with dining customers and extra seating, but it was the downstairs area that really made The Champion the institution it was and is. Large white and brown square tiles lined the floor around the bar, and seating was comprised of chocolate brown leather benches and many comfortable bar stools. There was a special little darts alley, and a brown tombstone shaped sign behind the bar read: 'Please Keep Clear for Glass Collection.' However, the real highlights of this great boozer, which made my eyes sparkle in myriads of kaleidoscopic spheres, were the beautiful stained glass windows featuring images of genuine British champions. David Livingstone the intrepid explorer was pictured carrying a rifle over his shoulder, a cane in hand, and his sideburns looked uncannily like the floor mats just inside the doors. William Renshaw was the winner of seven singles and seven doubles tennis cups. With his brother he made lawn tennis into a sport and apparently he was fond of wearing brown slippers.
I raised my glass to David, William, and to all the other great British champions preserved in glass around the bar, and I was surprised to find myself getting misty eyed at their accomplishments. But as I held aloft my cold beer, I was even more surprised to notice that my hand was actually misting up also. I wiped a clean circle of mist on my forearm, and I looked right through it to see my foot. I looked right through my foot and saw a brown tile. My entire body had turned to glass! I laughed out loud, but it wasn't my normal laugh. It sounded like the noise you make when you run a wet finger around the rim of a glass, and I guess it was the culmination of my saliva and glass larynx. My drinking vessel and the ashtray on my table suddenly seemed like brothers to me, and I gazed around the front of the bar at the established champions that welcomed me from their glass walls. There wasn't a spare window space ready for me, so I knew in the meantime I would have to tread very carefully in my clearly fragile body.
I walked with precise and calculated steps towards the bar, attracting the puzzled stares of others, who were no doubt drawn by the clinking sound of my feet resonating on the square tiled floor like a champagne flute being flicked. I was careful not to chip my toes on the golden tubular footrest that ran around the bottom of the serving area, and I sought out a clean bar towel and set about polishing myself until I gleamed like one of your gran's royal wedding souvenir goblets. My new falsetto voice sounded like a choirboy's as I ordered another drink, and the barmaid stared perhaps too long at my quivering heart that pumped blood around my delicate glass interior. After carefully making my way back to my seat, I made a start on my drink and amused myself for a while by watching it run down into my see-through stomach and slosh around. This was particularly funny when I twisted my hips a bit. I could have amused myself for hours with this of course, but looking around at the various glass champions that lined the windows, I felt an impatient longing to take my rightful place amongst them. So I stood on one of the dark chocolate leather bench seats and gently leaned against the cocoa wall, assuming a pose with raised drink in my right hand and chin rested atop the shiny knuckles of my left. You could say I was debonair and perhaps even rather dashing. "I'm shy really," I said with a bashful smile to the approaching barmaid, but my smile was somewhat lost on her, perhaps behind her apron, and she demanded that I get my filthy bowling shoes off the bar seating. I protested of course, resisting her outstretched hand, instead resuming a new pose that revolved around fingering a feathery quill.
Unfortunately, I kind of lost my balance at this point, falling sideways off the bench seat across a small round bar table with black wrought iron legs. The subsequent noise kind of sounded like a stolen truck being driven through a department store window, and I instantly smashed into one hundred thousand shards all across the white and brown square tiles. However, the quick thinking and attentive staff soon had me swept up into a plastic tray, and after pouring me into a newspaper and folding this into a rough ball, I was added to the cigarette butts and empty peanut packets in the large rubbish bin out back.
Prince George, Hackney
I was seated at the far end of a long wooden pew the day I visited the Prince George pub, and noticing two other wooden pews facing me from the opposite wall, I rather imagined I was sitting in a psychiatrist's waiting room. Most of the varnish had been scraped off the small table surface before me, and this, I deciphered, was undoubtedly the work of mad people. I was in the rear left hand section of the bar, and on the wall to my left was a large La Dolce Vita movie poster featuring an image of a woman holding up a cat. On the wall beside it was a framed black and white photograph of another woman who was also holding up a cat. I had been pinned to a few bar walls myself, but only for short periods of time, and I found myself wishing I could somehow become a permanent fixture on the walls of the Prince George.
I looked for cats on my way back to the bar, and after ordering a drink from the psychiatrist, I told her about the dream I'd had where I was being chased by giant hair-curlers through an abandoned fairground and my legs were made out of spicy sausage meat. She nodded sympathetically before turning to another patron with raised eyebrows, and I gave them both my funny cross-eyed _expression before making my way back across the wooden floorboards, as if wearing large clown shoes. On the curdled cream wall opposite my table was a gigantic map of the world titled 'The World,' and various squat-like wooden bar stools were scattered around the waiting room area waiting patiently, I imagined, for the bums and arseholes of the likes of me. To my immediate left was a small black cupboard, which would have been no higher than three feet tall and rather narrow in width. I couldn't open it at first because my wooden pew was hard up against its door, so I began shunting the long bench seat along in order to create some space outside it.
I was the only one sitting in that area of the bar at the time, and no one noticed as I proceeded to pry the little door ajar before squatting down, climbing inside and pulling it shut again behind me. I sat hunched in the dark with my pint waiting for people to sit at the table outside, and I was cramped, of course, but there was a lovely musty smell from the encroaching walls, and it felt like night time even though it was the middle of the afternoon. I started making loud sucking noises to entertain myself, some of which were really, really funny, and at one point I laughed so much I coughed up some beer through my nose. While I was waiting, I heard the crash of pool balls coming from the toilets out back, and this noise intermingled with the echoing sounds of my own joints cracking. Eventually, after a couple of hours or so, I heard some footsteps and voices right outside the cupboard door announcing the arrival of some patrons at my table. They were talking about some interesting topic of the moment and they weren't scraping the varnish off the table surface or sounding particularly mad, so I knew I was pretty safe hiding inside a tiny cupboard right next to them. Wetting my lips, I began to play a few quiet chords from the harmonica I had managed to retrieve from my rear trouser pocket. I've never pretended to be a particularly accomplished harmonica player, and in fact all I really do is run my lips back and forth really fast and blow. A few strange sounds emerged, granted, and perhaps I wasn't as quiet as I had hoped to be either, but I think I pulled off a fairly convincing interpretation of 'Rhythm is a Dancer.'
A subsequent hush had emerged from the people immediately outside my tiny enclosed cupboard space, and when the little door was suddenly whisked back, I was temporarily blinded by the bright daylight that flooded the interior of the Prince George pub. After passing the interesting brown wall-mounted jukebox to the right of the entranceway, I was escorted out the main doors, meowing desperately in a last ditch attempt to find a cat I could be photographed with.
Surprise in Chelsea, Chelsea
This pub is in a very nice and pretty neighbourhood area and as I made my way along the pleasant streets a couple of dogs barked sharply at me. My nerves aren't what they used to be, but I managed to smile faintly and whisper back, 'Hey friends, you smell good too!' A collection of elderly people was sitting outside under umbrellas when I arrived at the Surprise, and I smiled warmly at them, politely tipping my imaginary peaked cap. Rather than joining them outside for some very fast drinking however, I decided to explore the lovely bar interior and soak in the warm atmosphere. I took my beer from the most pleasant barman with a knowing nod and opted for a rather large armchair in a red-carpeted back-room area to the right of the bar.
In front of my seat was a very small wooden table with a large round black ashtray centrally positioned, and on the walls were various works of art and their associated tags with explanatory titles, sizes and prices. Although my table was wooden and small, my armchair was in fact soft and huge, and it was upholstered in a flower-patterned light green. As soon as I sat down, I felt like I was drowning in the chair and my small arse disappeared somewhere below and my arms started flailing around like a person attempting to direct a large aeroplane to its parking grid. I tried to reach for my beer, but I simply sunk further into the light green, flower-pattered upholstery, and it dawned on me that I was, perhaps, in dire danger. Fortunately, just then a very sweet older woman on her way to the Ladies heard my cries and whimpers and my loud sucking noises, and lent me a frail old arm to assist in my recovery. Well, I should tell you that I'm not a large or strong man, and in fact I'm very much neither of these things, but despite this and despite the dear old madam's best intentions, well I quite simply yanked her right off her ruby red heels and onto the waves of light green, patterned flower cushioned upholstery. She squealed in an old fashioned way as the two of us rocked and swayed and buckled in the huge old chair, and I looked desperately across to the small table and my unattainable glass of beer, which was slowly dripping condensation like my red and furrowed brow. A bony elbow struck me in the face and for a minute the rustic red walls became a blur as my saviour of sorts floundered around above me, crying and screaming and cursing, while above us a very small chandelier type light-fitting flickered electrical flashes in all of its five droplet-shaped bulbs. Things were becoming desperate.
I needed to drink fluids, while my bucking, talcum-smelling passenger clearly needed to dispense with them. Another old woman clearly needed to also, as she too fortunately passed us on her path for the Ladies, stopping aghast with a vein laden hand across her mouth at the sight of myself and the first good lady floundering in the huge armchair. 'Help me!' cried my bony-elbowed old woman of good intention, thrusting her hand out to the other woman who was only slightly in less need of a pee than her good self. Well, wouldn't you know it? This second good Samaritan was thus hoisted afloat the turbulent waves of back room upholstery, with me pinned, punctured and drowning beneath the pair of them, and now well in need of a bladder deposit myself. With three of us now riding the perilous spring cushioned waves, there was clearly a commotion ensuing that would reach the ears of those patrons out front. Sure enough, a small army of people, comprising regular customers, bar staff and large husbands and sons quickly emerged to find two exceptionally well-respected old women of the community being tossed and turned above a churning tide of young, small drunken man and light green flower-patterned upholstered springy sofa chair.
In retrospect, I should have sat near the front of this great pub, where the lower windowpanes are stained in lovely green shades, the Gents are closer to hand, a Bar Billiards table is nearby, and the seats are sturdy wooden chairs with tables at a sensible height. Anyway, strong, hairy hands replaced the frail, bony arms of my two lovely old shipwreck companions, and these roughly scooped me out of the cushioned waves and thrust me out of the bar onto the clean hard street, where snarling, drooling dogs wet my jeans slightly before I could.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Paul Ewen was born in New Zealand in 1972. In 1995, he moved to Asia where he lived and worked for six years, including four years in Saigon. Now residing in Tufnell Park, London, he has had work appear in Tank magazine, and has two stories accepted for publication in the British Council's New Writing 13 anthology to be published in March 2005. He is in the process of putting together his first book, which is a handy guide to London pubs.