It was a groggy start to the day, and I remember getting frosty feet about going over for my catch-up with Daisy.
There was still a burning desire to do so but I’ve never really been one for grabbing life by the balls and anyway, what was I going to say? If I even tried to play it cool, my words would trip over themselves like an infant trying to tie their shoelaces for the first time. Basically, I just knew I’d make myself look like one giant cockhead.
My aunt was graced with a bit more cheek colour when I was tending to my duties late that morning, and I could see a breath of life had returned to that wry old cakehole of hers. That piercing smirk she owned was never intended as a look of judgement, she’s not the type. But, all my life I have been able to see how others have got the wrong end of the stick when she dished out one of those looks. Before her decline, she was certainly feisty but much more mischievous than she ever was judgemental. My aunt Mags is just one of those people you have to get to know and once you do, the rewards are endless. At least I used to think so.
Anyhow, she seemed chipper so I left her propped up straight with the telly on. Just as my hand brushed against the door frame, I heard her say,
“Sam, I’m worried about you, you know?”
“I’m just fine, old girl, don’t worry about me, you’re the one who’s bedridden.”
“You need to get outside and meet people Sammy, get a life or the demons will consume you,” she croaked back like a human cigarette.
“Leave off aunt. I didn’t know you were religious, anyway.” It wasn’t much of a retort, I’ll give you that.
Anyhow, I didn’t stick around to hear the rest of the lecture but as I stomped down the hallway I felt ill at ease. She’d often give me stick about my appearance, language, drinking and general bone idleness, but on that occasion, it seemed so very random. Maybe it was because, since the start of her illness, she had been serene and submissive, so at that moment, her comment was way out of context. Those words did serve to ruffle my feathers, but I knew it wasn’t anything a bit of bedroom window peeping couldn’t fix.
I shot my eyes towards Daisy’s childhood bedroom but there was nothing happening at all.
When you’re suspended at a death-defying height, people always tell you not to look down, at which point you do, and it’s terrifying. After glancing into my front garden, that age-old phrase definitely applied as to my shock, amazement, dismay, fright and pleasure, Daisy was knocking on my door. My door! My guts became tight and I began pulling my toes across the carpet in fits of adolescent fear. I didn’t want to answer that door under any circumstances but at the same time, there wasn’t a thing in the world that I wanted to do more. My hands were tied. Was I a teenager again? It definitely felt like it.
Before I had a chance to decide what to do she saw me in the window and began gesturing to me to open up the door with one of those cheesy breakfast presenter grins. I went into a temporary state of shock, so those next few moments were a complete blur (I’ve remembered more after drinking a bottle of scotch to myself down The Crown), but before I knew it, I found myself standing in front of her.
“Hi Sam, it’s been a while, do you remember?”
“Yeah, err?” My words tripped over themselves in little excitable bursts, “r, remember what?”
“Me silly. The school days, the bike sheds. You know, the time I let you see my pants for a dare…”
She was still as cheeky as ever and talked as if nothing had changed, as if we’d been living in each other’s pockets for all of those lost years and she hadn’t just evaporated into thin air. I didn’t know whether to be elated or royally fucked off, but as I gazed at her like some sort of hopeless goon, I finally noticed what she was wearing.
Daisy stood there hand-on-hip, waiting for me to say something, donning a figure-hugging nurses outfit— it certainly made my new hanging baskets look a bit lacklustre. In my stupor, I thought for a moment that she might have found a fresh and exciting career as one of those nocturnal naked dancing ladies, but fortunately, I came to the realisation that perhaps she was actually a nurse before I said anything stupid.
“Well, are you going to say something? I can’t stand here all day, Sam.”
“Come on. Are you coming? Do you want to—?” I couldn’t believe what I was saying.
“That’s a bit forward Sam, seeing as I haven’t seen you in ages. You’ve gone a bit rouge in the cheeks.”
“Sorry, I meant come in, if you like? Do you want to come in for some tea or something?”
“I thought you’d never ask,” she said.
“Come on through to the kitchen.”
“Actually, I’m here to see Mags.”
“Your aunt, silly. I’m here to help out here once a week. You know, give her meds, carry out health checks, and the rest. So, my friend, it looks like we’ll be seeing quite a lot of each other from now on. We’ve got a fair bit to catch up on, wouldn’t you agree?”
“I’ll go up and say hello to Mags, do my bits and pieces, then I’ll come back downstairs so we can have a proper chat. Put the kettle on and wait for me down here.”
“Don’t thank me, Sam, thank the NHS.”
Daisy Pegg: back in my life for all of two minutes and she was already calling the shots. Still, I didn’t care, I was buzzing on adrenaline and this was literally the most exciting thing to happen to me since I was interviewed by the Stunston Gazette regarding my opinions on the town’s hardware store being turned into a gentlemen’s club. I won’t go into detail, but as you might imagine, my answer didn’t go down well with the local geriatrics and churchgoers.
Not wanting to disobey my orders, I stayed downstairs, placed a few tea bags into Mag’s finest china pot and added boiling water. I was finding it difficult to contain my excitement and needed a distraction, so I flicked on the radio box and slumped down on the breakfast chair with my elbows resting on the table. STUNT FM’s Rob Robust was on, my favourite…
“It’s a mid-morning Monday and as if you didn’t already know, you are listening to Rob Robust’s ‘Red Hot Rock ‘n’ Roll Hour’, something to add some spicy seasoning to your 11 o’clock snack, mmm…
I’m here to offer you a little musical news, words of wisdom and some straight talking rock and roll classics, laced with a few young upstarts that the other radio stations usually cast aside like an old pair of pants. If you’re not a real music fan, then it’s time to turn over, I don’t want you clogging up my ‘fair waves’, but if you’re here for the long haul, hold on to your cereal bar, because we’re going for a wild ride to the dark side. To kick things off, here’s a brand new song by a young local four-piece for your listening pleasure. Sit back, enjoy and the details will follow…”
I love Rob Robust. His deep, disgustingly sexual, Americanised-cockney-slathered tone is almost laughable, but you find yourself clasping to every word that comes out of his mouth. I thought of him as a musical hypnotist who just happened to play the best records in town, someone close to my heart. He felt like he was an extension of me.
He speaks his mind, which often gets him into trouble, but it’s a breath of fresh air from all of those plastic corporate DJs who are afraid to say anything real in case it jeopardises their ten-hour-a-week, yoga-going lifestyles.
Anyhow, as I sat there and listened to the hard-edged, yet melancholic tones of Rob’s first choice of the week, she strolled in.
“Mags is sorted, it was lovely to see her, although I do wish she wasn’t so sick. I hope you don’t mind, but she said you hadn’t been out and about for some time. You need to get out there and shake things up a bit or you’ll end up going mental,” she said while arranging the instruments in her work bag in a careless fashion.
“Well, she should keep her nose out, the ungrateful…”
“There’s no need to be like that, she’s been singing your praises you know.”
“Your tea’s getting cold.”
“Oh, Sod the tea Sam, I’ve officially knocked off for the day, let’s go and get a proper drink. Your aunt says she’ll cope for a few hours.”
I couldn’t believe it. “YES. I mean, yeah okay then,” I snatched my coat, pulled on my shoes, threw a bunch of Tic Tacs into my food hole and darted to the front door.
“Where are we going by the way?” I asked.
“The Old Lamb at the back of town.
The Old Lamb is an absolute shit pit. Ever since I was a young lad, I was ordered to stay away from there at all costs. I was told that if I drank in that pub and mixed with those people, I’d be forever tainted. I was frightened but I didn’t want her to know that and anyway, I thought perhaps if we got a wee bit tipsy, I might have a shot of rekindling old memories.
The walk there was quiet and with an atmosphere as cold as the autumnal breeze that kept whistling up my nose. She swayed sensually, I followed behind like a mutt on an invisible leash. But I didn’t care; I was still processing the situation. Usually, at that time I’d be trying to identify the creaky floorboards in the kitchen while making Mags her pea soup, or pretending to write.
When we arrived, she ushered me to the front door and as I wiped my watery, wind struck peepers there it stood in all of its ramshackle, piss-soaked glory: The Old Lamb.
The Old Lamb, The Old Lamb. The inn that time forgot. So odd in stature, and the fact that it’s nestled underneath one of the town’s more reputable hotels makes it even stranger. Essentially, it’s one of the filthy cockroaches that attempts to thrive under the cashmere carpet of an affluent family home. And somehow, as all cockroaches do, it has, against all odds.
She gripped my little finger with her right hand, it was icy and soft. Then, without any hesitation, she pulled me through The Lamb’s flaky oak doors and took me to the front bar. Blimey, what a sight it was…
Grim. Just grim, nothing else. The lingering odour of stale existence was faintly masked by the haze of roll-up smoke, and the two flickering lamps on the wall were the only things that cushioned my eyes from the horrors of the place. The ceiling had a creeping damp in each corner of the almost perfectly square room, which seemed to stop at the cheap wooden wall panels, and the battered Chesterfields strewn around its perimeter were all wounded, showing their stained, spongy flesh. The carpet was sticky and its geometric shapes seemed to be alive, swimming with filth. But, the most disturbing thing about the floor (apart from the rats) was that it was attached to the locals.
It looked like this small handful of people, mainly malnourished looking middle-aged men, hadn’t seen the light of day in decades, let alone a hot shower and it didn’t look like they gave a shit, either. There were two lank-haired, bony old men hunched at the small bar on the left, spitting all over the place as they slugged their pissy pints and screeched at the horse racing results that were bellowing from an FM radio that was way past its prime. Directly to their right were two horrific looking women whose makeup had migrated from their wrinkled faces to somewhere in between the bottom of their chins and the top of their tits. As I shuffled towards the bar in a sheepish fashion, they cackled and spat the phrase ‘do you want some of this, boy?’ in my direction, while the rounder of the two lifted up the hem of her mini skirt, exposing an unkempt pubis and the tops of her cottage cheese thighs. I was nearly sick and very afraid. I just couldn’t understand why Daisy had taken me there.
She asked what I wanted to drink, bluntly. Anything but fermented ammonia I thought, but not wanting to complain, I gestured towards the lager pump as I was afraid of how long the so-called guest ales had been festering there – for all I knew, they could’ve been sitting in the pub for longer than the punters.
I recall feeling nervous and sipping my pint in short, sharp intervals between looking at either my trainers or the back of Daisy’s head. I really didn’t want to get involved in a conversation with the local scumbags, but apart the odd stare from the hog-faced women, all attention was focused on Daisy as she shamelessly flirted with the dirty old men that were both old enough to be her grandad, twice over (I say that to punctuate the point, but I think you get the message that these guys were basically geriatrics). I couldn’t get my head around it: had she brought me there to make me feel uncomfortable? At that point, I recall developing feelings of hatred toward her. Suddenly the words magical and person were replaced with stupid and bitch. But of course, that was only temporary.
She got me another pint, then nodded towards the back door with her finger and led me away from the bar to the croaky jeers of the dirty old men. As we went through the door she whispered in my ear:
“I only flirt with those filthy old blokes to distract them from violence.”
I didn’t quite get what she meant but my feelings of hatred immediately evaporated into the smoky air, which by that point was getting fainter by the second.
With her hand in mine, she led me through a low lit stock room that looked like some kind of beer barrel graveyard and explained how she was taking me to meet someone who was going to help me. I felt ill at ease, worried, angry and grief-stricken, but all I could muster was a polite nod of acknowledgement—I was at her mercy and at that point and prepared to do anything she told me to do.
“We call him The Honch” she explained.
“Why?” I said.
“Well, because he’s the head honcho, silly.”
Christ, she never gave me any straight answers. I still to this day can’t decide whether it’s a trait that I like or not, but anyhow…
She stopped us in our tracks at a door that was hidden by the back of the barrel graveyard and went on to explain how The Honch, as she called him, was a great and noble man: a charismatic philanthropist with a genuine passion for real ale. He sounded like an anus to me. As soon as she told me he ran The Old Lamb I pulled her up on it.
“How could this bloke possibly be noble and good if he runs this wasteland?”
“The pub is just a front, Samuel; he’s got his fingers in lots of sweet pies. Come in, you’ll understand all of this when you meet him.”
I didn’t like the way she jumped to his defence so quickly, was it her sweet pie she was talking about?
We entered the room and it was immaculate. The walls were a brilliant white, the furniture exquisite and a decorative oak bar lined the back wall, it was hard to believe the room had anything to do with The Old Lamb. The second thing I noticed was The Honch in all his mundane glory. He was standing on a beer crate in the centre of the room, talking proudly with his chest puffed out and a half-pint handle of golden ale in his right hand. He didn’t look very bloody noble to me, he wore a plain shirt, a pair of chinos, cheap brogues, had bright red stubble and the early manifestations of a beer belly. And he was short. He just looked like your average, unattractive middle-aged bloke, nothing special at all. But that all changed when I actually listened to him and what he had to say, in fact, I regret ever thinking of him as an ordinary man, I really do, sort of.
In mid-speech, he flung us both a welcoming smile and gestured towards the only empty couch in the room: an Oxblood Chesterfield that looked like it had a far more privileged upbringing than its relatives in the front bar. Once I settled into the couch and tuned into his wavelength, I became another happy member of his captive audience.
Right there and then, his voice became a soothing throat lozenge for the ears and as he spoke, he delivered every single syllable with an unmistakable gusto and sincerity. I can’t remember his whole speech word for word, but he talked about the intricacies of the beer brewing process and how, if treated with respect, real ale could actually serve to enrich people’s lives in so many ways, and I agreed with his every word. I remember his sign off as clear as day:
“I won’t keep you here all afternoon, although I could ramble on. But, I can see Marge’s eyelids going south over there, so, let me say this: the next time you sip a pint of microbrew, stop and take a moment to think about the raw ingredients and the people who nurtured it to provide you with such a delicious drop. Just by buying the stuff, you’ve put a penny in their pot, so by enjoying that, I’m sure, well-earned beer, you’re actually doing a charitable deed. See you all next week, and don’t forget your tote bags.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself. I really couldn’t. You know, those greedy, grubby handed city boys who trade in other people’s dreams wouldn’t give one crap about the working man who brewed the beer, nor would they drink the stuff. They might buy a few of his shares if he made a few bob though.
Daisy squeezed my forearm and ushered me over to the beer crate to introduce me to the man. I stood a good four inches taller than him but I felt like a school kid.
What was said exactly, I don’t remember, all I really can muster is feeling starstruck like I’d just shaken hands with a Hollywood A-lister, but the conversation did kick off with Sam, it’s good to meet you, my son, I’ve heard interesting things…
I bumbled through that particular exchange of words awkwardly barely managing to introduce myself and offer a few details about my background. You know what I mean, small talk. He said that he’d like me to become a member of his Secret Ale Society and that my induction would take place by the end of the week. He also offered me some bar work and told me that as I was receiving a carer’s package from the state, he couldn’t pay me in cash, but could provide currency in support, advice, ale, beer brewing lessons and other things that he didn’t disclose.
To be honest, at that point, he could’ve said he’d pay me in arse-wiped potato peel, I was just so elated that I could be a part of something secret and exclusive. It was like I belonged—something I’ve always yearned for but didn’t quite know it.
Then just like that, he mysteriously disappeared from the room (looking back, I suppose it wasn’t that mysterious, he just sort of slithered out the back door). There were still a few trusted senior members of the club milling around the room, a couple of them did cast me a nod of approval. I wanted to go over and say hello but Daisy reminded me that until I was officially inducted, not to approach anyone. I understood this as club etiquette so didn’t feel the need to question it in any way and before I knew it, we were walking back through the barrel graveyard. As we left the front bar, rather than fearing the down and out locals, I felt pity for them. They were glued to the bottom rung of society’s slippery ladder and although they put all of their Job Seeker’s into the bar, they’d never be privy to the amazing things going on down the hall. They were just plebs. I understood their plight.
Once again, we faced the cool autumn breeze and by then, I was pretty wobbly from the piss-water, but with my newfound status, I felt the urge to party hard through the evening and into the dawn, but there was a resistance. Daisy told me that she was going home as she had to do her rounds in the morning, then afterwards, she’d pick me up and take me to see The Honch again. She did suggest that I go home and get some rest, but something inside me was defiant, I mean, all of a sudden, the thought of going back home to my sick aunt seemed like a prison, and who wants to go to prison, willingly?
So my friend, with a little white lie, I trotted into the town centre for the first time in a long time and hit a cheesy sports bar called Denver’s with a sticky floor and slippery clientele to match, and let me tell you something, that’s all I really remember about Monday night.
There’s a hazy tapestry of wayward conversations, shots, falling from bar stools, kebabs, dry roasted peanuts, scrapping, vomiting, shouting in the street about the rising rate of inflation, a possible lap dance and him, The Honch. I don’t know if he was following me or out in town on some sort of covert errand, but he was definitely present at one point or another, as the next morning, I woke up on the Chesterfield back at The Old Lamb to two very stony faces.