Twenty-odd years ago in the midst of Class War, U.K.
So this is England.
My legs are far from brittle these days, but it feels like they could snap at any time. My head is far from soaked in alcohol, but it feels just as foggy as it once was in the depths of mid winter evenings of years past when the clouds hung close around the eaves and the emptied whisky bottles clattered in the grate. No fires in those times, just the Friday bottle of Jack Daniels resting within the black metal and some sweet sad sound on the stereo.
So visiting those feelings, strangely, naturally inescapably and unfathomably in June. Walking the afternoon streets of Bristol in weak fragmented sunlight and feeling detached from the world completely, as though I were vaporous shroud flitting through the moment before ascending to the sky to disperse into the blue. If only.
Feeling the pull of the world too much, perhaps, and being eternally disappointed as so many things fail to pull themselves up to any kind of interesting level. Despondent looking at the multitude of discarded gum blotches that pockmark the sidewalk, hopelessly let down by the lateness of trains and nauseated by the sometimes vague but often overpowering stench of stale cigarettes and the piss that seems to fester everywhere I go. So this is England.
Now pulling in the corners once more and softening the blows, deep down within the jade of the false imaginary glade, hearing a guitar reverberating echo drip like silver mercury drops of moisture kissing my lips. Just so. If only.
If only there was only nothing else but the magic. If only the aches, the aches which hurt so magnificently, the aches which pain me so acutely deliciously; if only these aches were more tangible, had some kind of handle to grab a hold of and pull until something might give and shower me with meaning; and all the what-ifs came out sparkling of platinum beads threaded through jet black hair. If only the rain would hold off for a day, would stop falling on my drooping head and would stop reminding me of 1985 and how that summer fell into historical depths of despair the colour of silver grey Nike jackets.
Scott used to work in the kitchens of the Bruce Inn. He worked there during the summer of 1983 when we were both seventeen and I would walk up the dusty lane from my house to the pub to meet him after his shift finished around two in the afternoon. We spent the afternoons playing pool and drinking sweet cider. The pool table at the Bruce was in a tiny room that was always filled with smoke and the walls were so close to the table on the long sides that you had to use special small cues. In one corner of the room stood a jukebox and a Donkey Kong video machine. In another was a dartboard. There were two small round tables and maybe six little stools but mostly people stood, smoking their cigarettes and drinking their beer. There was only one door to the outside in that summer and two thin windows that opened only a crack. It was always hot.
Scott was a good pool player. He had learnt from his dad, who would sit and watch the snooker on the telly at home, and also on occasion drop by the pub for a quick game. Originally from Larkhall, Scott told me his dad used to play in the rough bars of Lanarkshire, quietly dispatching the flashy young players who fancied themselves as sharks with a smile, a handshake of iron and a polite "good game." Scott inherited the same quiet intense game, and if he occasionally injected a bit of flamboyance, well that was only the impetuosity of youth after all.
The Bruce Inn was a strange pub, and although I came to call it my regular haunt, my clothes becoming ingrained with that peculiar pub smell that mixes beer and fried food with cigarette smoke, I never felt like a regular. Maybe it was my inbuilt paranoia. Maybe it was the fact that the bar was largely the haunt of characters from the other side of the invisible but violently real wall which existed between the sprawling private housing estate on which I lived, and the council housing scheme. Of course this being 1983, Class War was very much still in vogue. So despite the fact that I was on the dole, and met several of the same characters in the signing-on line, I was treated with mistrust, tolerated only because I was with Scott and his dad.
Of course, my insistence on playing Jesus and Mary Chain B-sides on the jukebox, chalking up poems and drawing odd characters on the blackboard didn’t help.
The blackboard was the most important piece of furniture in the pool room. Hardly anyone ever used it to score dart games, instead marking up their initials for a turn on the pool table because naturally, the Bruce ran a "winner stays on" policy.
There were some strange characters that played in the Bruce in those days, and most of them would have slit your throat in the blink of an eye for no reason other than to watch the blood flow. There were many tattoos.
Wee Jackie was an odd character, decorated in Glasgow Rangers tattoos and in the habit of playing sneaky shots that placed his pool balls strategically over the pockets rather than potting them immediately. It was usually a hard slog of a game against Jackie. He swore like a trooper, although that was hardly unusual of course because every other word you would hear in the pool room of the Bruce would be "fuck" or some variation. Jackie was a bad winner and a worse loser. When he won his little round face would smirk smugly whilst his stubby body strutted around the table. When he lost, that same face would turn to thunder and he would storm from the room, muttering many "fucks" under his breath. It was hilarious but of course no-one ever laughed or even smiled, and after five minutes he would return and place his initials ‘JJ’ on the board for a rematch.
There was big Billy Bowie, who had been in my class at school and who had visually aged considerably in the year since we had left, me to flunk out of university, and him to deliver the mail. Billy had gone bald quickly. His eyes were heavy and his face sagging already at eighteen. It was a strange sight. But he still had a smile and a calmness that you couldn’t help liking, and his accurate, methodical game of pool was formidable.
Less methodical and accurate was the game of Hammy. Hammy also delivered the mail, and always looked nervous, taking quick gulps from his beer and darting his head around like a startled rabbit whenever anyone spoke. His game was flashy, full of deep screws and spins that looked fantastic when they worked, but more often left him out of position and led to more games gloriously lost than victories flamboyantly won.
Then there was the strange young bloke who worked in the kitchen with Scott whose name, if I ever even knew it, I certainly can’t recall now. He had a solid game of pool, and I suppose more than anyone else I modelled my own game on his. He used more of a snooker player’s stance; chin on the cue, back bent parallel to the floor, a long fluid stroke in stark contrast to the upright stances and stabbing cue jabs of Wee Jackie or Hammy. It worked well. There were few hard strikes, only the occasional, smoothly executed "double," and always a careful consideration of where the cue ball was going next. He was also an expert at Donkey Kong, which of course was the best arcade game ever.
Scott and I would play Donkey Kong between visits to the pool table, which meant that with my regular defeats on the baize I at least became quite adept at leaping barrels and rescuing maidens. Slowly, though, my own pool game developed and by the time autumn started to ease into winter, and our afternoon sessions became night after work and art school visits, I could at last count on occasionally staying on the table for more than one perfunctory game. Not that I was ever a great player: my lack of competitive spirit made sure of that, but on a good night when the beer hit the right spot and focused everything just so, well I could take on the world, or at least the contents of the Bruce Inn pool room. And win.
Later of course Scott moved away to join the RAF and we only occasionally played pool in the Bruce after that, when he was back on leave, and of course it was never the same because it never is. Wee Jackie stopped coming in and the word was that he and Hammy and Billy had joined the team from a pub in town and played there all the time. They closed up the outside door, took away Donkey Kong, and replaced it with a puggy machine. Naturally too they took the Jesus and Mary Chain off the jukebox. They even replaced the green baize with blue, and eventually too my clothes lost their pub smell.
Even later again Scott died in a car crash in Germany and my friend Jon and I went to the Bruce after the funeral and played a last game of pool together, but the ghosts were too visible and we played badly and got too drunk.
I never went back again.
Alistair Fitchett edits the celebrated British online journal Tangents.