The Publican

Fresh off the train to Charing Cross, around lunchtime, a thought pressed itself into the mind of Gavin Pellegrino. Or maybe it had been there all along but was now awakened. That thought was: a pint at the Harp. 

He’d met a young woman on the train and they’d struck up a long conversation. It had invigorated him and he was in the mood for celebrating. What was it she had said when they parted? “I really enjoyed talking with you. You’re lovely.”

He rolled the words around in his head. Perhaps he should have invited her along for a drink. Mind you, she must have been half his age. If he’d been thirty years younger they’d have probably eloped, he consoled himself.

He crossed Strand in a lull in the traffic and did a little skip up onto the pavement on the other side. He was, despite his age, still sprightly. Anyone looking would have seen a dapper, handsome man with grey in his hair but joy in his step. His jaunty lope radiated optimism. His wife used to say it was his optimism that kept him youthful.

He turned into Adelaide Street and the Harp came into view, its large front window open to the street where a few customers leant on the brass counter. Oh my, what a sight. Here, perhaps, was another reason he hadn’t asked the young woman to accompany him. He loved to savour this moment, this pub. Somehow it wasn’t the place for small talk. Not at first anyway, not until you had drunk in the people and the surroundings, not to mention the ale. Back in the day, he’d often arrive twenty minutes early to meet friends, just so he could have a little time alone in lamp-lit pub glory.

His own pub, the Alley Cats, lay some five miles south east, in New Cross. He was on his way there but it wouldn’t be open for a couple of hours or so. It wasn’t a busy city pub like the Harp. Indeed, you might say the two had little in common. Good beer, of course. Conversation, perhaps, if the mood took you. But on the wall at the Cats he’d hung a little picture of the Harp. A tribute, in his own way, to what the Harp had achieved, and achieved every day. 

He ordered, as he always did, a pint of Hophead and took the last stool at the open window. It was warm. Very warm for October. Passers-by, intent on personal quests, wore T-shirts and summer dresses. Get it while you can, he thought, as he removed his jacket. It won’t last forever. The day, like Gavin the man you could say, seemed to foretell a rich, warm autumn.

“Lovely day,” said the man next to him in a pin-striped suit and Michael Caine spectacles.

“Well, we’re in the pub,” said Gavin, genially.

“A lovely day to be in the pub,” agreed the man, and they raised their glasses.

Another idea came to him, as they often did with a glass in his hand. Perhaps he could, in a way, stay in the pub. Instead of getting the train straight to New Cross, he might walk. Walk, bask in the day and take in some of his favourite watering holes along the way. Why not? He was in no hurry and this was precisely the sort of mock-heroic escapade that people would expect from Gavin Pellegrino, good old GP, doctor at large. No one could say he wasn’t fun, maverick even.  

He began mapping out a route in his head; a trail through south London studded with favourite pubs. He could see how they were getting on at the Waterloo Tap. Stop off for one at that little place at the Elephant, the Yak. There was the Hermits Cave at Camberwell, of course. Maybe the East Dulwich Tavern? He couldn’t leave out the Blythe Hill Tavern, that would be madness. Perhaps he could incorporate it by getting the bus there from East Dulwich, and then heading back on himself via The Ivy House and Skehans. 

What was that, seven pubs? Eight if you included the Alley Cats. Well, he couldn’t have a pint in each, not if he was going to be of any use helping Aidan behind the bar later. Aidan was a very capable manager but Friday nights were always busy, what with the open mic crowd in. But maybe a half? Yes, that would do it. A half in each. Perfect. It was set. 

He looked around at his fellow drinkers. They seemed happy enough. Some might have to return to the office shortly. Some might be going shopping or to the theatre. But not one of them, he was certain, was going to drink their way across town to their own pub. He must have been smiling because a passer-by gave him a thumbs up from the pavement. 

“Right,” he said, after he had drained his drink. “I’m going to more pubs.”

“Amen,” said Michael Caine. 

Gavin was a fast walker. Some years ago a doctor had said to him, in the context of maintaining good health, if you’re going to walk somewhere, why not walk a little faster? And it had stayed with him. But on Hungerford Bridge he slowed to a saunter to admire the views down the Thames. The tide was fully in and at that point when the water was almost still. You could see your reflection in that, he thought. Or go for a swim. A cool breeze blew along the exposed river channel; a reminder of the precariousness of this Indian summer. But Gavin hardly noticed. His day’s new purpose had made him almost light-headed with happiness. What a treat. He was reminded of something another doctor had said to him, more recently: be kind to yourself.

The main outside seating area at the Waterloo Tap lies beneath a railway viaduct. It had started with a couple of poser tables for smokers and had now grown into a fully fledged covered beer garden. What luck they had had with that space. Being allowed to spill into it must have doubled or tripled their capacity. At the Alley Cats they had just the tiniest sliver of “demised curtilage” – as the council planning department referred to its outside space – in the form of a side passage. But no matter, he had put out a coffee table, an armchair, stools and a standard lamp with an animal print shade and dubbed the alley the “Leopard Lounge”, which had gone down well on the pub socials.

“You’ve turned a bug into a feature!” Aidan had said when he’d seen it, giving him a slap on the back. And all of them, Sandie, Rhea and Archie had gathered there for a beer and a group photo on opening day. How he loved those guys. They were like a family to him. He was proud to give them a livelihood. Nice people to spend time with, to boot. A nice life. 

Gavin finished his half, a pale from Burning Sky, and headed past the station and down Waterloo Road, his jacket held by a finger and slung over his shoulder. It was a smart woollen blazer, hunter green, though if you looked closely you could see where moth larvae had been at it. 

He navigated his way across the confusing amalgam of busy roads, pedestrian precincts and new builds at the Elephant & Castle. He recalled his next destination, Feed the Yak!, had started life as the Tap In, housed in a shipping container next to the old Heygate Estate. There were a couple of wacky pub names, right there. Mind you, he could talk. “Alley Cats” wasn’t exactly traditional. And he understood how having an off-beat name could make you stand out from the big boys, the pub chains. And if you didn’t stand out from the big boys, well you didn’t have a chance.

On arrival, he ordered a half of Deya’s Steady Rolling Man, another favourite. Not unlike himself, he considered. Steady, solid and dependable. It wasn’t cheap though, and he wondered how people could afford a night out at those prices. In his pub he kept an inexpensive beer for those watching the pennies. Once he’d been poor himself, and thankful for pubs that did the same. 

He was pleased to see a few people standing in the bar, chatting, as it should be. Maybe they were from the new flats in the area, having knocked off work early. He was a proponent of the idea of a pub being a community hub, a nucleus. Like the Yak, the Cats was a small premise, which meant he had to keep it filled. If you can only fit in thirty people downstairs then you need to keep the party going.

Which was fine by him. He’d always loved a party. The partying had stopped as he’d got older – got married, had children – but in his heart he wanted it to go on and on. At the Cats, the party was alive, or at least a constant possibility. Embers could be fanned into life at any moment. Perhaps the music students from Goldsmiths would waft in, with their baggy togs and instrument cases. Or the lecturers, or the comedians, or the beer tickers… Even the book club had its moments.

Yes, he’d found a way to keep the party going. What must it be like, he wondered, as a proud man, a sensitive man, to lose what you love, to have pulled from beneath you the very ground that supports and nourishes you? He shivered. 

After the Yak, he could have caught countless buses down the Walworth Road but he was happy to walk. It’s by no means a beautiful road, with its once grand terraces altered by shopfront extensions, but it was familiar and led him down to Camberwell, his old patch, his old stamping ground. It was like striding into his past.

He cut across Camberwell Green and down Church Street to the Hermits Cave. He checked to see if the sign on the wall was still there: “Best Beer Around Here”. It was and it made him happy.

As he went to push the door it was pulled open by a familiar face, friend and old neighbour Ollie Fisher, and behind him his short and, Gavin thought, rather sour-faced wife. 

“Well! Look who it is! Hello, Doc.” Said Ollie, reaching out his hand. 

“Ollie!” said Gavin.

“Long time, no see. What’s going on? I mean… are you better?” At this Ollie’s wife struck her husband on the arm with the back of her hand, but she nevertheless looked expectantly at Gavin for his answer.

“I’m always getting better,” said Gavin with a wide grin. 

“Well, well…” said Ollie. “Who’d have thought it? Doctor in the house.”

“We don’t have any more money, if that’s what you’re wondering,” said his wife, whose name Gavin was pretty sure was… no, it had gone. It was Ollie’s turn to silence his spouse, which he did by putting his arm around her and almost pulling her through the door.

“We’d stay for a drink but we need to get back to the shop,” he said. Gavin watched them benignly as they walked away. Ollie Fisher turned to give Gavin one last look, as if he could scarcely believe what he’d seen. And then turned away again, shaking his head.

At the bar Gavin ordered a half of Verdant’s Penpol from a barman so silent and expressionless that Gavin thought for a moment he might be a cardboard cutout. How unlike the reception you’d get at the Cats. Personability, personality, they count for so much in the pub business. Some have it, some don’t. Gavin considered it as much his stock-in-trade as the beer. 

He was informed that the barrel was being changed and offered the choice of waiting or choosing something else. He elected to wait. He still had plenty of time. He glanced at his wrist but remembered he no longer wore a watch. It must be around three o’clock, he thought. Aidan, too, would be down in the cellar over at the Cats, turning on the gas and swapping out the spiles before opening up.

He took the opportunity to give the beer board the once-over. A tad more expensive than the Cats, which was to be expected, and a few too many multinational company beers on the taps for his taste, though the cask offering was as solid as ever. Best beer around here, indeed. 

On leaving the Hermits he turned up Grove Lane. It’s quite a hill, Champion Hill, or was it Denmark Hill? Herne Hill? But it held no fear for him. Open your legs and show your class, he thought, and smiled to himself. He was pleased to overtake several other pedestrians before he reached the summit. Another gold medal. 

The traffic pollution as he descended into East Dulwich was bad, as ever, caught in the windless valley, and he was pleased to remember a shortcut that took him off the main road and delivered him to the East Dulwich Tavern. Most of the outside tables were already taken – not bad for mid-afternoon – and he headed inside to check out the beer offering. 

He had ordered a half of Oakham’s Citra when he spotted an elegant woman around his age or a little younger, striding out from the back bar. It looked like Ellie Ribeiro. It was Ellie Ribeiro.

“Electra!” said Gavin. The woman stopped and looked at him. 

“Hello, Gavin,” she said. 

“Lovely to see you. You look fantastic,” he said, holding out his arms. “What’s your secret?” 

Electra shrugged. 

“Smoking, drinking and giving up men,” she said and Gavin laughed. 

“We’re not all bad.”

“Why are you here?” said Electra.

“I’m heading to my pub. Come with me! I’m going over to the Blythe next.”

“The Blythe?” she said, and frowned. “That’s where you finished it. Do you remember?” 

“Finished it?”

“Chucked me. Dumped me.”

“I was a fool.”

“Arranged to meet for drinks and then dumped me. I had to get ready for it and everything.” 

“Such a fool. Come with me now!”

“Oh no. You’re on your own now, Gavin Pellegrino.” 

“Well at least let me buy you a drink,” he said.

“Buy yourself one. From what I hear, you’re the one that needs it.” And she gestured with her lighter to let him know she was heading out for a cigarette.

Pubs, he reflected as he finished his drink, they hold such memories for people. What a wonderful gift these buildings are. Imbued with all of life. For better or for worse, of course, but life nonetheless.

Next, he jumped on a 185 bus. It was cheating, he acknowledged that, but the Blythe Hill Tavern was a little out of the way – though always worth a detour. The Blythe stands innocuously on the South Circular and if you didn’t know it was the best pub in the area you’d most likely miss it. Indeed Gavin had driven past it himself countless times before someone had tipped him off about it. Who had it been? Niamh, maybe? The Blythe, too, was honoured with a picture on the wall at the Cats. In the photograph was its general manager, Pat, giving a thumbs up. Gavin had taken the photo himself. 

As the bus climbed up towards Forest Hill, he noticed a bank of cloud had built to the west. It struck him as a menacing presence, like a giant spaceship from a sci-fi film. Someone behind him closed a window with a thunk. 

The Blythe was busy which gladdened his heart. If ever a pub deserved to thrive it was this one. Pat was there behind the bar in his white shirt and tie. That’s how they did it at the Blythe. The Irish way.

“Haven’t seen you in a while, GP,” he said, as Gavin approached the taps. 

“Eh? Are you losing your head, Pat?” said Gavin, “I was in the other week, for the St. Leger.” 

“That was a year ago.”

How odd. He tried to think back to last month but his mind was blank. 

“Listen, I heard about the pub, GP,” Pat went on. “That must be… I mean, we’re all feeling it. If it’s not the cost of living it’s the supermarkets, right? And the energy bills…”

“I’m on my way over there now,” said Gavin, and Pat shot him a glance. “And I’m travelling there by pubs!” 

“Well, that’s good news!” said Pat. “Hophead, is it?” 

“Of course. Just a half though,” said Gavin.

“No bother. This one’s on the house, my man, so you may as well make it a pint.” 

Gavin loved the mutual support publicans gave each other. Back when he’d opened the Cats, Pat had told him that he met with Declan, the landlord at the Dog & Bell, Michael from Skehans and a couple of others every Monday for beers and chats. He’d even been invited along. An honorary Irish pub man. It had been a very proud moment. 

He drank his pint and looked around at the clientele. A table of youngsters were living it up at the big table by the door. Students, maybe. Some old boys were watching the racing. Two women sat drinking white wine while their children laboured over colouring books. Such a mixed crowd; something he was proud to have emulated at the Cats. London pubs could be very tribal, but at his place the millennials and the boomers all rubbed along together just fine. 

“Well, nice to see you, GP,” said Pat when Gavin rose from his stool and put on his jacket. “Physician…”

“Heal thyself!” they said together and Gavin laughed. Jokes about his initials followed him around like, well, an illness. But it seemed to make people happy so he didn’t mind. He liked to make people happy.

He climbed up the little road leading to Blythe Hill Fields. The cumulonimbus spacecraft was moving in, hanging overhead, threatening the good people of Honor Oak. And when he reached the top a wind was blowing that felt more January than October. A lazy wind, as he recalled Pat once describing the wind at Cheltenham racecourse: it doesn’t go round you, it goes straight through you. 

Beneath the cloud the sun was still gamely shining as it slunk towards the horizon. He gazed at it. He might make the Ivy House for a sundowner on their front terrace, he thought. He’d got into sunsets later in life, in his forties. Now he adored them. Once or twice recently they’d made him weep, which had surprised him. 

Now he found himself partially blinded. He’d looked at the sun too long. Wherever he looked things were whited out, as if beyond his purview. If he turned his head slightly, he was able to see the path ahead in his peripheral vision and he followed that. Just ignore the blank spots, he thought. He turned up the collar on his jacket and it was a relief to head down the hill, out of the wind and towards the railway crossing that would take him to the Ivy House. 

It was further than he had imagined, maybe two miles, and on arrival he treated himself to another full pint – Brockley Pale – and sat in the front bar for a little to re-energise. He remembered about sitting out at the front but when he stepped back outside he found the sun had now gone, obscured by clouds. The mothership had taken over the sky and turned it almost black. In the distance he heard thunder. He retreated inside. 

Through the pub, in the Tudor-style refectory room on the other side of the serving area, he saw a young woman sitting at the bar eating some food, as the staff often did on their breaks. It was Sandie. He caught her eye and she waved across at him, a little sheepishly.

“Come back to the Cats!” he called across to her.

“I’d love to,” she said with a smile. 

“So you’re poaching my staff now, Don,” said Gavin to the bar manager, more quietly. 

“She came to us, GP. Needed the work. They had to go somewhere.”

“I’m only kidding. They’re all beautiful free spirits, aren’t they? Let them roam!”

It had started to rain when he left the Ivy. Just spitting, but enough for him to quicken his pace as he turned on to Ivydale. He might have cut through the cemetery but the light was fading and he didn’t know what time the gates would be locked. There was another peal of thunder as he passed Nunhead Station, louder now, but the sanctuary of Skehans was just round the corner.

A band was sound checking when he arrived. That was something they did very well at Skehans, the music. And all sorts too. At the Cats they had their open mic night but maybe he should encourage Aidan to have other regular music nights. It was always fun and helped bring in new faces. He eyed the cask ale but he’d already decided he was going to have a Guinness. He stood at the bar and waited for a lad he half-recognised to come over.

“Half a Guinness, please. Actually, make it a pint,” he said.

“Sorry, GP. I’m afraid we’ve been told not to serve you,” said the young man.

“Not to serve me? Why?”

“I think… because of a time when you weren’t perhaps yourself.” 

What was he talking about? 

“What? When? Is Michael in? I’ll sort it with him.”

“It’s Michael that told us we weren’t to be serving you, GP. Sorry, like.”  

This was insane. What was it about? It must be a mistake. But maybe it was for the best, given timings. He looked at his watch that wasn’t there. He’d sort it out another time. 

“Well, I’ll be getting down the road then. But tell Michael I said ‘Hi’,” he said. “Can I use the Gents or am I barred from them too?”

“Of course,” said the lad.

Gavin looked at his reflection in the bathroom mirror, scouring his face for signs of a person who might be barred from a pub. But a kindly, if slightly bewildered-looking man stared back at him. He felt suddenly tired. He stood there for a moment, trying to remember something, until another customer came in and interrupted him. 

Outside it was raining more heavily. It wasn’t far to the Cats and, after the park, blessedly downhill, but he did wish he had a hat. He did up his blazer and cursed when a button came off in his hand. He slipped it into his pocket but in his heart he knew that probably signalled the end for the jacket. He thanked it for its service. 

As he crossed back over the railway a flash of lightning lit up the sky. A huge clap of thunder followed and now the rain became torrential. A passing car’s headlights caught him, a cowed and solitary figure, sheltering momentarily beneath a half-hearted tree. But the Cats was only a couple of minutes away now – he could hear the swish of cars on the main road at the end of the street – and he resolved to push on.

Once on Lewisham Way, through hair that was sticking to his face, he could see Aidan had forgotten to put on the trough light that illuminated the Cats’ pub sign. That was annoying. If he’d told him once… As he got closer he saw that graffiti had returned to the outside noticeboard. That would have to be painted over. He could do that over the weekend, maybe. 

He pushed on the door but it caught on a heavy chain with a padlock. Who’d done that? He went round to the alley window. He peered into it, through the gold decal that pointed to the Leopard Lounge and beyond a yellowing notice of repossession. The place was empty.

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Image credit: Adam Bruderer, Flickr, used under this licence.