The places that produce you 
Greetings from Warwickshire...
I’ve borrowed a window with a view in a house on a hill. A writing retreat for the last few days. It’s been good to get away and focus on things. I’m now getting to see the true scale of the project ahead.
I’ll just pop for a beer in one of my old haunts I thought. But it’s not ‘just a beer’ when two decades ago that same pub was as much my church. One of a few places we’d visit religiously on the weekly pilgrimage. The Firkin, to the Merchants, to the Squirrel. You’d pause on entering. Scan the congregation. And then pay your respects at the alter.
After all this time I wasn’t sure what I expected when I walked into the Merchants Inn. Perhaps a surprised smile from an old friend. An old friend in the truest sense of the word as they would have to be 20 years older than when I last saw them. I did get a smile. But it wasn't of recognition. It was asking "What'll it be?"
The dark haired barmaid in black, with a small diamond in her tooth wasn't born when I last bought a pint in this pub. When I was a regular nobody in this pub looked young. The boy learning to pull a pint next to her looked like the Milky Bar Kid. I would have ID'd him if he was on the other side of the taps.
I singled out an ale I'd never had and scanned the area behind the bar. I didn’t know what I was looking for. Familiarity perhaps. It was certainly there. Little had changed other than the brands of snacks and drinks. It smelled exactly the same and was as friendly and welcoming as I remember. Sinage, pump clips and old bottles of long gone beers adorned the walls and ceilings.
Some bars display photos of regulars. Perhaps I was expecting to find my name on a plaque or something. 'Christian Payne drank hundreds of pints in this pub and was never aggressive or told to leave’.
There would be no plaque in The Courthouse down the road. Back when it was called the Saracens Head, me and a friend got barred for life for hanging our empty whisky bottle off the blinds and reenacting scenes from the recently released movie ‘The Doors’. The week after we were caught climbing in over the garden wall and barred by the same bouncer for three weeks. I was offended he didn't remember me. As with most pubs after a refit, many of us excommunicated ourselfes and headed elsewhere.
The Merchants Inn was different. Live music, great ale and all the little things that kept you and your friends coming back. Till I left town of course. But I was back now.
I paid for my beer with a ten pound note and the barmaid stared at it pondering how to process physical money. Another opportunity for me to feel old.
"I can pay by card if you like? I also have Bitcoin, ETH and CRO." I said in an attempt to recoup a little street cred. If they still trade in that now. 'That's OK" she said with a hint of pity. "I'll see if we have change."
They did and I turned my back to the bar to take in the room. I realised that all the people I tried to recognise would be heavier, greyer and more saggy. So I attempted to apply a mental filter. Squinting at the older drinkers. Imagining what they would have looked like 20 years ago.
At no other time but right then, I wished Google Glass had actually worked. No doubt they'd have a plug-in, enabling me to de-aged the faces in the room. Dial in how many years you'd like to take off and familiar younger faces would appear. But they didn’t.
Rather than consider most folk had died, I reminded myself the odds were against me as it was Wednesday. The place was still packed though. Just with a new generation of regulars.
A guy approached the bar dressed in ripped jeans, t-shirt and a brown leather waistcoat. It could have been the younger me and I felt like the ghost of Christian’s future. It was too weird.
I wondered what he thought of me. I remember seeing lone men standing at those thin beer shelves that wrapped around the pillars. I’d wonder if they were grabbing a crafty pint before heading home. Or really were lonely and had no one to have a drink with. They rarely looked happy. Not unless you sparked up a conversation. If they were on their first pint you could be in for a treat. Stories and smiles. Hopes and dreams. Sometimes I’d get it all wrong and ‘billy'-no-mates’ would be met by a gang of late friends and the party started. Not lonely. He was just early.
I checked my watch to give the combined illusion that either someone was late, or I urgently had to be elsewhere. Then finishing my pint I left to continue my tour.
I entered the cold damp night and took a dark alleyway towards the Squirrel. For a young male youth the Rugby, alleyways never really felt dangerous. You would see the occasional street fight but give them a wide birth and you’d be ok. I was a little too close a few times but only hit the once. Once was enough.
For as long as I remember the dingy alleyway that ran alongside the Masonic Temple had ‘Secret Society' sprayed on the wall with a big arrow pointing up. I’d smile every time I saw it. It was there for ever. At least it was. This wonderful banksy-esque art piece is no more and the alleyway has lost it’s joy.
The Squirrel is Rugby's oldest operating pub. Another place from my youth. Live music and lockins. A haven for old buskers and young wannabe rock stars. It was a long shot but two of my favourite publicans Sue and Chris used to run it. They used to look after my band when we gigged in the town. Mostly at their previous pub the Fitchew and Firkin.
The Squirrel is small, a favourite with ale lovers and always friendly.
As I entered, I was once again a stranger in a town full of ghosts. The spaces were the same but the people had changed. As I watched a young band nervously prepare to play, I realised my part in it all. As if space and time folded under that roof, I could see through the eyes of the band. Looking at me walking in. I'd have pondered the same a couple of decades ago. I'd wonder if that old guy had come to see us, or was just there for the beer.
In this instance it was neither. I was here to check on some old friends and there at the bar were two familiar smiles. Not in the flesh, but on the wall. But it was a good sign.
I pointed to the photo of the happy publicans warning punters not to eff and Jeff and smiled. The young lady at the bar smiled back. "Are Sue and Chris around?" I asked.
Her expression changed to something far more serious. "I'm sorry" she said. "Chris died five years ago. "And Sue died last week. She was my Grandmother."
At that moment a kid who might have been alive at the time of Jonny Cash's death started playing guitar, singing...
"I hear the train a-comin', it's rolling 'round the bend, and I ain't seen the sunshine since I don't know when..."
I offered my condolences and was told the town had flown flags at half mast for Sue. Rightly so.
On the way out another kid with a guitar asked me if I was a musician. I told him some of the places I used to play in a band, and some things that happened right there in the Squirrel. Of waking up in the bar after a lock-in and being served breakfast. The kid grinned from ear to ear and offered a bikers handshake. I liked him. I'd made a friend. At the same time remembering how I'd also chat to the elders. If I hadn’t, I’d never have met Rowley Ford and Paddy (Elliot) the busker. Two wonderful humans no longer with us.
On the way back to my car I passed St Andrews Church. I took comfort in the fact it's stone tower has stood there for 24 generations. Think of all the cummings and goings in that time. Under that roof we used to climb on. I imagine some of its regulars have been around long enough to notice a small evolution in its own crowd. Their portion in the 600 years of people like me, wondering where the time has gone and how it was spent.
Considering it's only a construct, time does a great job of making its presence known and reminding us of how precious it is.
We are tourists. Part timers, passing through. It might feel like we have more ghosts than friends, but it's up to us to balance that out. To make new friends. To make the most of the moment.
What are we waiting for? All we have is now.
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