Tony, the landlord, was the undisputed king of the Trafalgar Pub. Every day he could be found leaning on the bar of the ‘Traff’, issuing edicts in an Irish accent unadulterated by 20 years of living in Birmingham. There was always a time delay between him speaking to me and getting a reaction, as I tried to work out what he had just said
‘Collect the ash-trays,’ he would say at the end of the night. I would stare at him for a moment, then go and turn off the fruit machines, hoping that that was what he had told me to do. This infuriated him. He just couldn’t understand how somebody like me; a student at a university, getting the education that he had never had, could be so thick.
Tony had a peg leg, a wooden thing which dragged behind him a little when he walked, although he could move quickly between the interconnecting bars. Behind this wooden strip which was all that seperated us from the customers, we could move from one part of the pub to another. Tony preferred to stay in the front bar, talking to the older Irish men who congregated there.
Christy Moore was the soundtrack to this bar. These men were all born in Ireland, but would now never return, most of their wives and families were long gone, and for me the undertone pervading that bar was one of unbearable loss and longing.
The side bar was dark and small, with a pool table in the middle and chairs grouped around small tables at the edges. It led out into the small corridor where the toilets were, where people would meet sometimes to smoke powders on little pieces of tin foil. A strange mix of people congregated in this bar, away from Tony’s watchful eye; anyone who had the nerve to go in there would be welcomed and included in the soundtrack to this room, which was the sound of conversation and the clunk of heavy balls on velvet. In this room I felt fear, bravado, and the aching loneliness which infused every interaction with every stranger – which might not have existed at all outside of my own mind, but I saw and felt it everywhere.
When there were fightsTony would limp right to the centre of the fight and put a hand on the shoulder of the men, warning or calming:
‘Alright, Paddy,’ he would say if they were an Irish compatriot ‘You’re alright.’
If they were one of the drug dealers in the side bar, he would kick them out and bar them. He had no time for drug dealers.
‘I’m not one of them,’ he said ‘I don’t sell misery.’
Nobody ever challenged Tony. Only once did I see him look worried, and that was when a furious-looking man was chasing another around the pool table with a bicycle chain; everyone else was ducking or running. That was the only time he asked us to press the red button under the bar, which would summon the police.
The back bar was entered from a side street, we accesssed it via the small kitchen where the glasses were washed.This was the soundtrack to this bar. The PHD students who lived in this area, the ‘educated poor’ as my tutor called them, gathered here every Sunday while one of them DJ’d; indie music, ‘ironic’ 70s tunes, music that pleased the students and the long-haired hippies.
These people were largely ignored and tolerated. The atmosphere in this room was a patchouli-scented nostalgia, with shades of regret, and a wary confidence born of the ability to recognise and stay out of trouble. An educated confidence.
‘Ed-u-ma-cation,’ said Tony ‘I’ll give you an ed-u-ma-cation.’
I didn’t belong in any of those rooms, but I was there for a reason. I was there because I felt broken. Something had happened to me which had neatly divided my life into Before and After, and I couldn’t bear to be anywhere that I had been Before.
Tony saw this one day.
‘You know,’ he said, as I swept the floor ‘you’ve got your education. But you’ve got nothing.’
I felt his words seep coldly into the marrow of my bones.
‘If you want to talk about it…’ he said, but this time I failed to understand him again until it was too late to reply. Even if I had, I would not have known what to say.
I carried on sweeping the floor.
He rolled his eyes and continued cashing up the till.