So this guy walks into a bar…
Vic’s was probably last decorated in 1945 in that special paint colour that is guaranteed to look like Gentleman’s Club Brown after a hundred thousand smokers had drunk and smoked their fill. Somewhere under there I’d often imaged a nice ivory, or at worst, magnolia. No-one had dared clean the paint for fear of the stand-out clean spot.
It wasn’t even really Vic’s bar anymore – poisoned by the tobacco miasma, Vic had succumbed to some heart-lung thing in 1973, and his brother-in-law had inherited it all, from the brown-stained ceiling to the ancient oak floor and a bar that could have been a London pub émigré from the ’50s.
It was one of those quiet nights at the bar, a night for me to set to polishing glassware and organising the many bottles. I’d had my traditional quiet-evening double malt whisky when he came in, shaking rain from his coat. He was tall, I remember that too, with a face like a young George Sewell. He sat down, as many had done before him, and looked around, pondering on the dusty Stubbs pictures and the railway clock that Mike had stolen from the waiting room in Stamford the weekend of the 1978 cafe race from London to Edinburgh. Mike was full of such tales, but this man knew none of them yet.
Mike was behind the bar, a cube of a man. Ex-Army, ex-wrestler and professional Cockney. He waited patiently for the chap to complete his recce, then caught his eye and gave him an up-nod.
“What are you having?”, asked Mike, putting down his own double Scotch.
“Thank you, I believe I’ll have a Guinness.”
Mike have chatted with him as he poured a nice cream-headed pint. He chatted with everyone, whether voluble or taciturn. Barkeepers do this; it keeps them sane and helps to pass the time, and once in a while, earns one a free drink (tipping being almost unknown in English pubs). It failed on thisoccasion, for the trench-coated man merely gave Mike a curt nod of thanks, and his back.
“That’ll be sixty-nine pence, please”, said Mike.
The man turned, a frown of puzzlement framed by the collar of his raincoat. “Did I misunderstand you? I thought this was on the house.” He took another sip of his Guinness, and kept his dark eye on me, still at the back of the bar.
This rather took me aback, if not aghast. I wracked my brains, seeking a clue as to what he might have heard. I looked at Mike, who was, I suspected, about to become a humourless bar steward. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean”, he said, and leaned away from the bar top.
The man licked his lips through the half-smile of a jackal, and something in me started to worry about the outcome of this transaction.
Mike look at him, and I watched as the mild-mannered barkeep bristled like a pit bull.
“This is a bar, we make money by selling beer and spirits. Sixty-nine pence, please.”
The customer leaned forward.”Where I come from, ‘what will you have?’ is an offer to buy a drink”.
“Under different circumstances, I might agree”, said Mike, “but you might have noticed that I am on one side of this bar, and you, Sir, are on the other! I am not another customer, I own the place!”
Shit, I thought, he called him “sir”. Next would be “sirrah“, and then the shit would hit the fan. I watched carefully as the duellists observed one another with equal care.
“So what you are saying is that you are reneging on your offer? That saddens me; I’d heard this was an honourable establishment.”
“As indeed it is, and notice one thing – in this establishment, on this side of the bar is a cash register. That contains the money that I take from customers in exchange for beer and spirits. We are not a charity!” Arms were folded, and Mike settled some, having felt his point hit home.
Or so he thought. Trench Coat raised himself off the stool, to his full height. He towered a head and a half above Mike, though they probably weighed the same, Mike being built like a brick shithouse. The few regular customers raised their heads above their booze and business to take note of the interchange. There was a certain tension, one familiar and fearful to me.
Trench Coat smiled again, and turned to the scant but intent crowd. “Am I right? Does this phrase not imply a friendly offer of a drink?”
Mike drew himself up. It didn’t take long. “You speak of implication, sirrah. There is an implied contract when you walk into a bar, the same as when you walk into a shop. There’s a price list…” (here he waved at the stained list taped to the bar mirror behind him) “…and you are expected to pay that price. ‘Implied contract’ is, I believe, the correct term.”
Impasse. Trench Coat sipped at his beer, put it down, watched as one man detached himself from the tables and started to walk over. Mike was started to vibrate. As I said, tension was in the air.
As Mike was opening his mouth, the third man (a regular here; I knew him slightly), reached the duelling ground. “I say, Mike, why don’t I buy the gentleman’s drink? He may be the victim of, ah, cultrural mistakenness.” He carefully placed a small pile of change on the mahogany. Mike, equally carefully, scooped the money, counted it by feel and made the appropriate change. For the first time since the man had started his argument, Mike look away as he gave the diplomat his change, nodded thanks.
“Okay, here’s the thing. You may finish your drink. You may take a piss in the Gents’ if you need. You may then take yourself outside, and never come back. In other words, drink up and get out. You’re barred.” Immobile, immovable and incensed, steely gaze on Trench Coat. Who smiled, raised his glass to his benefactor, and drank slowly and with great satisfaction before nodding graciously to Mike and walking out.
Mike looked at me. “You fucking believe the cheek of that twat?” I made a moue and shook my head, slowly. He scurried off to do his mysterious things in his office, and the Sirrah Moment was passed.
And of course, in a normal life, that would have been it. But Mike was grumpy for days, which passed creakingly slowly into weeks before normal service ad good humour was restored.
It was about three months later. It was again, a quiet night. Mike was working his magic in the cellar, I was chatting to some random bar fly. It was late. The door opened, and in walked a tall, trench-coated man, who battered the drops from his coat before walking toward the bar. The familiar pocked face was to me, unmistakable. Unwilling to tackle this, I dived under and behind the bar, opened the cellar door and called to Mike. “I think it’s him again. Trench Coat”.
A frantic moment of wooden-cask movement later, and Mike stood next to me. I knew the look on his face, saw the two sets of eyes meet, felt the same atmosphere. Ignite blue touch paper and stand back – thus it was printed on every British firework, and having started the fire, I withdrew.
Mike made the opening thrust, as I knew he must. “You’re barred! I told you once before, and I do not expect to have to repeat myself!”
No half-smiles from Trench Coat, rather, surprise. “I’m sorry?”
“You. Are. Barred. Like I said, leave, and don’t come back. You are not welcome.”
Trench Coat placed his hands on the bar top. “I’m sorry, you must be mistaken. I’ve never been here before. In fact, I only arrived in Norwich for the first time, yesterday.” A gentle voice, again familiar, and surely there could be no mistaking this face. but now I was uncertain, and so, it seemed, was Mike. He leaned closer, scaned the visitor’s features. Maybe the hair colour? Maybe less facial scarring? Jaw line a little different?
“Although if you really want me to leave, I’d gladly do so. I’d hate to be the cause of any upset…” He began to button his coat and turn away.
Mike looked quickly at me. I shrugged a little; my memory is fallible. I made a gesture to Mike that I hoped said “I may be wrong, it’s a quiet night and God knows we could use the business; your call”.
Mike’s a tough nut, not to be messed with, but he does like a full till at the end of the night, and this fellow did appear to be well-heeled, looked tired and in need of several drinks. “I’m sorry”, he said, smiling, “but your face is familiar. I apologise, I didn’t mean to offend you.”
Trench Coat unbuttoned again, sat on a stool. “Thank you.”
“It’s uncanny”, said Mike, “You must have a double.”
“Very kind”, was Trench Coat’s response, “I believe I will have a whisky.”