The only good thing about The Oak is that it’s close to the office and its open. Its open at 3am because of a medieval quirk of London’s licensing by-laws. The Oak is next to Smithfield meat market and for reasons known only to the long-dead Guilds that ran the City, it was deemed essential that butchers should be allowed to drink before the market opened its doors. Quite why you’d want a pissed man hacking at carcasses with cleavers and bone saws at 4 in the morning with a belly full of beer is open to debate.
Four hundred years old and it smells like it. Not hard to imagine centuries of entrails and blood scuffed into the oak floorboards from the butchers boots as they return to slake their thrist and take a break from their hacking. Loose bits of meat and flesh festering in the floorboard gaps, the soil of death, all ready to give up its pungency when the landlord switches on the heating.
At 3am, the atmosphere is pretty gamey. There are still butchers, traders and costermongers coming in for a quick bit of beer and buttered toast, but not everyone up at 3am in London are the necessary cogs in the machine. The butcher lads are joined by nurses from the nearby children’s hospital, junior doctors fucked up on 120 hour weeks, post-clubber pissheads and pre-clubber hardcore speeders, jibber-jabber coke heads, unlicensed mini-cab-rapists unctuously soliciting the most pissed women, alkies, a few pros,.. And the likes of me, hacks. I see a couple of subs from Sport already glassy-eyed and reminiscing. I dodge their beery gazes, it always ends up me paying, and head for the snug. I’m going to get wasted, leer at the impossibly young girls and bore anyone who will listen how I used to be a good reporter. How I once broke a big story.
The Oak is one of the few London pubs I know that sell mild, an incorrectly monikered stout-bitter. Rarely seen down south amidst the wife-beater lagers and for good reason. If you mixed Guinness with a pint of Tetley’s you’d get close. It’s what used to be called a ‘session beer’, too weak to do any damage to the Northern factory workers after their 12 hours at the loom losing their hearing, fingers and will to live. Mill owners favoured it in the pubs surrounding their factories during the Industrial Revolution. As a galley slave chained to the wordface losing my sight to the eyemelting VDU and my digits to RSI I know I’ve got to do it all over again in only a few hours.
I squeeze in next to an impossibly huge and impossibly black West African, all eyes and teeth and knocking back a TVR, tequila vodka Red Bull, one of the taxi drivers. He catches my eye, “Minicab?”, his voice is so deep my ribcage vibrates.
“No, mate. I’m busy.” I say, indicating my pint. And I get my standard issue Blackberry out of my jacket. Some of the other night editors knock up the overnight news llead list and production reports – or excuses – at the desk while its still fresh. But sitting in the newsroom, empty of news except for the wires and the telly man addressing the serried ranks of forlorn desks, their keyboards covered in junk press releases, reports, freebies, and papers, lots of newspapers, most missing pages, stories and leads, ripped at what appears to be random depending on whose desk they’re couched; too forlorn for me. Besides you have to keep waving you’re arms around like an albatross every five minutes to keep the auto-lights on.
No, I like to add a bit of perspective to my lists in the company of strangers, the comfort of strangers, holed up next to them but separate, carefully listing the topics that I think have legs and make it onto the news agenda for the day, trying to justify why we’ve dragged a minister out of bed at 1am for a quote (in the mire, first chance to respond), why we tore up careful hard fought turf war plans that took 9 hours of argument and toil in the blink of an eye (superseded, out of date), and all of it meaningless if tellyman continues to gurn his way through more wire copy and flashing graphics.
I bash out a few ego-soothing emails to some of the worst-affected by my changes, knowing that it will do little to stem a slagging in my absence.
“Perhaps, later. You’ll need me. Ask for Ibrahim.”
“Sure,” I lie.
The snug was good for people watching. It was slow tonight. But then it was a Sunday, or rather Monday even. Apart from me and minicab Ibrahim, there was teen girl grinding some lechey 30-something clubber, alternating sniffs from a bottle of poppers, and getting phreaky; two meat mart lads the size of heifers reading the first edition of the paper, their big meat heads incongruous in hairnets, aprons and overalls crisp, clean and lineney fresh, shaming our end-of-day grime and sedentary office sweat. Not a care on their faces as they tucked into their baps, two huge fat-knuckled angels..
Next to the fireplace-cum-wastebin was your classic auld fella. Irish or Scottish usually. Suit, open necked shirt, grey hair slicked, or sweated, back off his forehead, liver-spotted hands clutching a half-pint glass. His face was bobbled with grey stubble, the result of shaving with the DT shakes, no doubt. I made a mental bet with myself: singer or no? Singer, I thought. If he sings, I’ll get a shot of something. If not, I’ll stick to mild and leering at the girl. It was all getting a bit webcam over there.
I try not to make it too obvious by raising my blackberry to eye line, using the dim lighting as some hapless excuse for getting it up. The girl is getting into it, poor kid. They’ll grind away here, popper headaches and all, then statutory rapist will drag the kid back to his lair in Ibrahim’s cab and pass on an STD cocktail. Who knows, maybe she’ll be lucky, miss out on chlamidiya’s infertile grip tonight, and just leave the kidult’s lair with a hangover and a bogus phone number.
For decorum’s sake a do a random room sweep before getting back to the action. Auld fella has clocked me. I start. He only has one eye. And I cannot help but look directly at it, him. It’s the most pale blue. Like the sheen on an icicle as it melts. He keeps his gaze on me, his mouth almost expressionless, but his eye, I cannot help but yield to it. I take more of him in. His hair is not grey but white, thick and without the yellow minge of age or smoky late night pub smoke; youthful, even. Except for his skin, which appears semi-translucent, impossibly thin, papery, old. I realise the suit is not cheap, nor is it stained or dirty in any way, but clean, sheeny from too many visit to the chemicals of the dry-cleaners and the fabric still looks, well, classy, really classy. The shirt requires cufflink, and the lustre of gold peeps from the cave of his sleeve as he raises his glass – to me!
I give him one of those non-comittal social smile-grimaces hoping to move back to my world but the beer means that I have forgotten to switch my half-smile off when I land it back on the gyrating couple and I land my grimace-grin and, worse, eye-contact on the guy grinding his crotch into the young girl.
“Oi! Fat cunt!” he pauses, eyes too wide for my liking, “Get yer own!” He contemptuously nods towards one of the old working girls smearing cheap lipstick onto the neck of a Bacardi Breezer ovewr at the bar. Bollocks, I think. Now its going to be awkward. Too snug in the snug. Now he thinks I’m a dogger. The butcher angels laugh into their butties.
I bury my head into non-existent emails on the blackberry hoping to let the moment fade. It’s too late, too early, for any aggro. But he doesn’t let it lie. And then I realise he’s next to me, how did he get her off his lap so quick, and sticking his whitey-white eyes up to mine. His lips are blue. Way too much amyl for this tweaker.
“I said: “Fat Cunt! Get your own”. I visibly sag. This is going to be one of those cliché pub brawls. I’m going to have to bring my glass up into the underside of his chin before he nuts me with his eye bulging sweaty forehead which, I note, is perfectly levelled ready for a strike to my nose. But he knows I’m not going to do that. I’m in a sweaty blue suit, I’ve got gadgets, fancy media specs, a reputation, however faded, to maintain, laws to fear, mortgage and loans to pay none of which survives a charge for wounding with intent.
And he knows it. He can see I’m not up for it. His eyes bulge some more, the lips tighten. I’m going to get clobbered anyway, it appears.
It’s the sharpest sound you’ll ever hear. Like a controlled soaring wail perfectly working its way up the scale, level, steady, the volume remaining identical as it moves up in pitch, and as it does it feels as if frost has gripped your soul. My skin feels like I’ve put on a wet bathing suit on a windy beach. I’m staring at the psycho, our eyes barely two or three inches apart and where raw drug-fuelled fight was there now resides terror. The muscles on his face quickly rework their positions and his sex sweat has cooled into fear. And he’s paralysed, still looking at me, pleading. I smell urine and orange piss is leeching out of jeans, some trickling onto the floor.
“Woah, my friend? Ibrahim roars, breaking the spell of the wail with his coal mine deep voice, as he leaps up and moves the guy away from the pair of us, concerned for his Gucci loafers.
I finally break eye contact and the girl is weeping makeup down her face, the years rolling away, her true age emerging, the butcher lads are mid-chew and my ears jerk my head toward the corner, towards the old man. His head is tilted to one side, the one eye closed, as if straining to listen, to replicate something only he can hear, and out of his little leathery mouth is coming the impossible Wail.
Uncomfortable as it is for the rest of us in the Snug it appears the most dramatically affected is the former psycho with the aggression management problem, like he’s getting a whole different repertoire from the wail, a dog getting blasted with a dog whistle. He’s gone foetal position in his own juices, weeping uncontrollably.
And just as abruptly the old man stops. He’s breathing hard. Getting his own breath back. Still the one eye closed, head tilted like a quizzical raven.
“Me glass is empty,” he finally speaks, looking at me, smiling.
Irish, I knew it.
Categories: The Last Seanachie