Sunday, 1 May 2011

Life goes on

This is my entry into the Oxford Brookes and Wells&Young’s Beer Writing Competition. I started writing three different stories but the submission date coincided with my first week at a new job and so I barely spent any time on them, sending this in on the cusp of the deadline. I’m not especially happy with it and it could be improved, but this is the version I sent in for judging. Zak and Adrian have both posted their entries. The winning entry by Milton Crawford (you should read his Hungover Cookbook – it’s excellent) is now online and it's very good.

Image from here
He finishes his tea, cleans the plate, knife and fork under the hot running tap and checks his watch: 5.45pm. A nod to himself – he’s right on time – and he takes his coat, fixes his cap to his head, picks a small pile of coins from a row of other identical piles, takes the keys off the hook by the door and leaves.

George spends the day in his workshop working on a few projects or passing time, or he’s fetching some items from the town. He’ll normally take a nap in the afternoon following a sandwich and reading the paper, then later he eats his tea and leaves at 5.45pm for a drink. Walking down his street, the hanging sign is like a star in the sky; the pub on the corner like his second home. 

George had his wedding reception in this pub. That was 53 years ago. He wet the head of his three children and six grandchildren here. His wife worked here behind the bar and cleaning some mornings, until she couldn’t work any longer, and then they held her wake here. He’s seen the owners change and while he might not like the latest couple’s curry nights during the week and loud music on Saturday nights, they kept his beer on so he won’t complain.

“Alright George!” the barman calls as he collects himself from the cold and enters the cosy comfort of the pub, his pub.

He nods before taking off his cap. He doesn’t need to call his order as a pint is poured for him. He stands at the bar and looks around to see who’s in tonight. It’s quiet. The landlord and his pretty young barmaid, a couple on the way back from work, some young lads making a noise in the corner, a chap at the bar minding his own business.  

“George, how’s that rocking horse coming along?” A voice asks from behind as the door closes. George turns to see the familiar face of Michael. “Make that two, Gary.”

“Oh, you know, it’s getting there,” he nods to himself.

Michael sides up to George at the bar, leans back against a stool and then leans forward to speak softly.

“Say, George, did you hear about Mrs Randall?”

George hadn’t; Mrs Randall runs the Post Office and has for as long as George’s memory will recalls. He’d always had a soft spot for her.

“She’s not good. Doctors haven’t given her long.”

George drops his head.

“It gets us all, you know, that’s one thing to be sure of.”

Two pints stand full on the bar. A glowing amber with a crown of creamy foam.

George takes the exact change from his pocket, without looking, and hands it to Gary.

“Thanking you, sir!” says Gary.

George has the pint to his lips and takes a long, slow gulp before moving across the pub and taking his seat opposite the bar. This is where George sits every night. Every night. Before the last owner left, in gratitude, he built a plaque for above George’s seat. “Here sits George”. Michael joins him on the next table over.

From here, George just sits. A man comfortable doing nothing more with his time than sitting, watching and listening. Passing time. Drinking his beer.

Another slow gulp on his pint. The news is starting on the TV hanging in the corner. Bad news, sad news, unwelcome news, money, governments, death and taxes. He listens but he heard the stories on the radio earlier.

The group in the corner finish a round and start another, calling their order from across the pub.

“Four more, mate!”

“Coming up, lads.” Gary returns while clearing plates from a table of diners.

Another couple have arrived and they order their drinks before sitting silently.

The group of guys have had a few already. They laugh and talk too loud, talking about things they shouldn’t say at that volume. Young lads.

Michael has opened an old address book, tatty and dog-eared, and he flicks through it. George watches and his stare alerts Michael, who speaks without looking up.

“Half of these names aren’t here anymore.”

“Life goes on.”

The barmaid leans back against the bar, typing fast into a phone. The lads stare, dreaming. She looks up embarrassed, hearing them talking about her. Flattered, blush cheeks.

The noise lulls, backed only by the TV reporter and the chatter coming from the corners of the pub.

The silence is pierced by the tinny, high-pitched beeping of a mobile phone. George only notices when he realises that it’s coming from his pocket.

“Bloody phone,” he says, fumbling for the shiny black thing his son bought him last year. Retrieving it he looks over the top of his glasses at the glowing screen. One new message.

He pushes a few buttons but nothing happens.

“Bloody...” Michael looks up.

“I’ve got one of those things, too. I can use the internet on it and check emails.” He takes a phone from his pocket. “Apparently.” He shakes it like an old brick.

George’s large, wood-worked fingers press heavily, inaccurately, on the keys as he tries to press the right combination to unlock the thing. On the fourth attempt it works.

“‘Hi grandad, I played rugby today and scored a try. See you soon.’ Ah, wouldn’t you know. He’s a good little sportsman that one.” Michael looks up, eyebrows raised. “My grandson – little George.”

He attempts to lock the keys but it doesn’t work, instead opening up another menu. He eventually gives up and puts the phone back in his jacket pocket.

He sits back, a proud smile creeps across his face as he takes a mouthful of the beer.

Time passes. People come and go. Some have food, some settle back with beers, bottles of wine, orange juice. The news is still on in the corner. Michael finishes his beer and leaves – “See you, George”. George runs a list in his head of the things to do tomorrow. It doesn’t take long. He remembers to get the old news stories of his rugby playing days to show to little George next time he sees him.

Another couple arrive to be greeted by the barman. Two chaps perch at the bar silently sipping pints. Another guy reads the paper in the corner obsessively checking his phone every few seconds. The barmaid flirts with the rowdy group. They invite her out after work. She might, she says.

Just as George is finishing his beer and looking at the lacing of foam down the glass, the door whooshes in cold air from outside and a familiar voice orders a pint while looking around.

“Dad, there you are!” George looks up. “Make that two pints,” David, George’s eldest son, says to the girl who is now back behind the bar.

“I just came to see you,” he says to George.

George gets nervous at unannounced visits. It usually means bad news. He shuffles on his short wooden stool and plays with some bar mats on the table as David places the glasses down, sits back, sighs and takes three long gulps of beer.

“That’s better,” he says. “How’s things, Dad?”

“Oh, you know, still going.”

“I went to the house but you weren’t there so I figured you’d be here. Anyway, we’ve got some news...” He takes another gulp of beer through a barely-stifled smile. “I’m going to be a grandad. And you’re going to be a great-grandad!” George looks up, relieved, shocked, delighted. “Ali and Joe are expecting.”

“Wonderful. Wonderful.” George’s face awakens, stretches wide with a smile. “Wonderful news.”

They talk, they drink their pints slowly, sipping between stories and news, catching up on the grandchildren, the family. Around them the TV still plays, the barman still serves, the lads in the corner order more pints, the girl plays on her phone, a couple order dessert, people come and go, life goes on.

When David’s phone rings he answers it quickly: “Just in the Moon Under Water with Dad. Yep, I’ve told him the news, he’s delighted. Ok, see you later.” He hangs up, finishes his beer.

“Right, do you want another pint?”


  1. You have a nice way of writing though with this being an English story, I was expecting the rowdy group to end up beating George at the end of it rather than everything going so smoothly. But I suppose that wouldn't be the kind of thing to write in to a competition entry like that.

  2. Or George comes back in the next evening and finds it's been converted to a car showroom.