– The Wood Road North – Soundtrack –

Fancy a virtual pub crawl, in 1996?

Here are some tunes you might hear on one of those new-fangled CD jukeboxes.

Selected Top 20 hits from the year. Pub soundtrack to my novel.

01. DREADZONE – Little Britain
Britain today is a powerhouse of ideas, experiments, imagination.
02. LIGHTNING SEEDS – Ready or Not
I’ve got a million thoughts.
03. GARBAGE – Stupid Girl
A million lies to sell yourself.
04. SPACE – Female of the Species
She deals in witchcraft.
05. MANIC STREET PREACHERS – A Design for Life
We only want to get drunk.
06. THE PRODIGY – Firestarter
I’m the pain you tasted, well intoxicated.
07. JX – There’s Nothing I Won’t Do
Anything you want me to.
08. CAST – Walkaway
Now the words just slip away.
09. DAVID BOWIE – Hallo Spaceboy
You’re released but your custody calls.
10. ELECTRONIC – Forbidden City
Too much to drink, but not enough to lose.
11. LIVIN’ JOY – Don’t Stop Movin’
Mystical, magical, physically phenomenal.
12. KULA SHAKER – Tattva
The truth may come in strange disguises.
13. DUBSTAR – Stars
My vacant smile, and my laugh and lies.
14. RADIOHEAD – Street Spirit
Form a circle, before we all go under.
15. ROBERT MILES – Children
16. SUEDE – Trash
Our nowhere towns, our nothing places.
17. BABYLON ZOO – Spaceman
Beyond the black horizon, trying to take control.
18. SNEAKER PIMPS – 6 Underground
I’ve got a head full of drought.
19. FAITHLESS – Insomnia
Keep the Beast in my nature under ceaseless attack.
20. SHED SEVEN – Chasing Rainbows
I don’t keep my secrets there. I hide them everywhere.
TWRN 3
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Commentary: The Stoat

I nearly didn’t write this one. Had no intention of lowering myself with a ‘spooky tale’ for a competition, even at the suggestion of a friend and fellow writer. I was serious, literary and uncompromising, right? But then I finished work for the festive period in December 2013, relaxed a little, and early one morning woke before everyone else in the house with an idea, or the start of one.

The narrator of The Stoat has a little in common with me. We both enjoy pubs and beer, and I once had a girlfriend like Fiona. Like him, I moved to Beverley after a rural youth in another part of the country, but I have never owned a dog.

In what will no doubt become a recurring theme in these commentary postings, one of the pubs in The Stoat is no longer in existence. Soon after I wrote the story, the Oddfellows Arms became a residential development. The others are still there, although I haven’t been to the Sun Inn for a while – supposedly Beverley’s oldest pub, and my local for my first 15 years in Beverley.

But I have never been to the Stoat, because it isn’t real. Or at least it only existed in my imagination until the story was told. For years, my wife and I shared a standing joke about how we had moved to the town just too late to enjoy a warm welcome and foaming ales at a disused old property a mile or so outside the town centre, which we fancied would have made a great location for a pub. Its name didn’t come right away, and I’m not sure whether I can really remember how it became the Stoat, but that’s what we used to call it.

So there I was, downstairs in the kitchen before it was light, chain-drinking cups of tea and writing furiously on sheets from a narrow-ruled WH Smith A4 pad. I came down alone in the cold early morning with an idea about how our unreal pub might have got its name.

The end result differs from the rest of my work, but there are similarities, too. The pubs, the beer, the broken relationships and communications from the Beyond. Wherever that might be. By this time I had a second novel to write, and more short stories linked to both of the longer works. But the following year I wrote another seasonal tale based in Beverley, which I shall post here in December.

The Stoat

First published in the 2013 Spooky Tales anthology of competition winners from What The Dickens magazine.

Minster 1

On the morning of Christmas Eve, Fiona packed her things and left me. She’d done it before and come back, but with fewer things each time.  Given the date and her awareness of train times from Beverley to Hull and on to Leeds, some advance planning had been done.  So I didn’t plead with her like all the other times, just watched her fill two bags and a case, and then gave her a lift to the station.  There are only so many times someone can leave before you lose interest in whether they’re coming back.  I’d done that last time, in late summer, when she walked out for a fortnight.  She returned almost before I could feel the change, but it was done.  Fiona could feel it too, although she’s more bloody-minded than me and stayed on for four more months.  She couldn’t hurt me now, and that really got on her nerves.  We used to have grand pot-smashing rows, so now she had them on her own.  I couldn’t even be bothered to argue.  Perhaps she was frightened, because I was starting to hurt her with my indifference.  There was no option but for her to leave, and as I drove back alone I was happier than any time since the summer.  It was almost Christmas, I wasn’t back at work until the second of January, and there was snow on the ground.

Not much snow, just the weekend’s smattering, but late December had been cold and dry so the frosty fields around the town were white as I set out to buy myself a Christmas present.  I knew what I wanted, and how things were going to change.  One pair of Hunters later I walked home with a big cardboard box gift-wrapped in a bag under my arm.  The dog could wait until January.  I wouldn’t have trusted anyone who might sell me one on Christmas Eve.

Back at home I planned my Christmas.  No visits to Fiona’s shallow friends, none of whom she was going to miss back at her parents’ house.  No waiting up for her to return from an ostensibly work-related evening at three or four o’clock in the morning, and no rows.  I’d play music, drink wine, ring the friends I’d neglected for her, and maybe drive down to see my own family, between Christmas and New Year, having pretended all was as normal until then.  No point upsetting my mother, even though like most people she didn’t exactly get on with Fiona.  There was too much food for me to eat tomorrow, so I thought about cooking the lot and taking the excess to Brian and Cynthia across the road.  They struggled, but kept struggling, and reminded me of my grandparents.  Of course Fiona thought they were imbeciles and resented my helping them out, but – you know what? – I’d spent enough time thinking about that selfish young lady and right now, right now I fancied a beer.  It was six o’clock.  Dark, but still early.  I had a shower, took a second shave like I used to years ago, chose a shirt and some decent jeans.

I walked out onto Norwood and made my way into town.  Before leaving I had called Jamie to ask if everyone was going for the customary Christmas Eve drink.  I’d not been to the last three of these, and this year he hadn’t bothered inviting me.  Sounded a bit awkward at first, but said he’d be in Nellie’s with Phil and Steve at about half seven.  That gave me half an hour for a pint in the Durham Ox after which I’d meet them.  There were some regulars in the Ox and I ended up staying for another half, but if Jamie was running to form they’d be late anyhow and either way I’d catch them at Nellie’s.  Lots of people were out, dressed bright and colourful, tinsel in hair and laughter cracking across from the bus station as I crossed to Ladygate and entered the gaslit pub.  Should have mentioned that.  Everyone calls it Nellie’s although it’s really called the White Horse, which is another story.

Back in this one Nellie’s was jammed.  I wriggled through the rooms upstairs and down, in the back, out in the yard, by the real fires and under the gas mantles.  No sign of them.  I looked at my phone: ten to eight.  Maybe I’d missed them.  The battery was also under half way.  Too late now, should have charged that.  Stood outside in the crisp air and called Jamie.  He answered, distorted through pubchatter, saying full, gone to King’s Head, see you in the – I think he said the Angel, before it cut out.

No point buying a drink at Nellie’s, so I walked through the illuminated town to the Angel.  Rather less rooms here, but again no sign of the lads.  Never mind, I was having a drink.  They’d get here.  The guest ales were nothing special, but I was determined to have a decent time even alone, and ordered a pint of the Elven Ale.

‘You sure?’ asked the barman.  ‘Not selling much of this.  They say it’s fairy’s beer.’  Told him I’d have a pint anyhow.  Nearly five per cent, half an hour since my last drink.  Two blokes left and I took one of their stools, my coat on the other, telling the askers the truth: I was waiting for my mates.  Who didn’t turn up.  I was getting the message, but it was Christmas Eve and I knew plenty more people in Beverley, even if I hadn’t seen anyone familiar since the Durham Ox.  I nursed the drink, very nice for ‘fairy’s beer’ – tarry and warming.  I hoped I’d find something similar in the next pub, wherever my feet took me.

They took me to Wednesday Market, but a DJ yelled over the music in the Queen’s Head.  I stood at the roadside: Highgate and the Monks Walk, or Eastgate and the Oddfellows Arms?  Well, there was a name for me tonight.  The Oddfellows was half-full, and I was delighted to find the Elven Ale on offer again.  As I ordered a man standing nearby tapped my shoulder.

‘Good choice!’ he boomed, bearded and stout.  ‘It’s on capital form!’  Pleased to find I wasn’t the only fan, I paid and turned but he was gone.  Moved faster than he looked, I chuckled to myself, settling into an easy conversation about overspending, waste, debt and the rest.  Of course we all knew better, us strangers talking in a pub on Christmas Eve.  I left when they suggested a game of pool.  The beer was nice, but I wanted to try the Sun Inn, which was my local when I first moved to Beverley.  Since then I’d been promoted, bought a house, done everything except settle down properly.  But now I would settle down into myself, and if the lady came along so be it.  If not, just me and the dog.  I held open the door of the Sun for two leavers and worked my way inside.  Waited at the bar long enough for one of the barrels to be changed.  Folk musicians played and people were singing along.  Served at last, I asked what they had that was dark and strong.

‘Hang on,’ said the barman, labelling the new pump with Elven Ale.

‘Pint of that please,’ I said, and watched him pull it.  Beside the window I spotted the large bluff chap from the Oddfellows, waving from his table.  He pointed to the seat opposite and I joined him, buying him a pint of the Elven on the way.

‘Very kind,’ he said.  ‘An acquired taste perhaps, but once you’ve had two or three of these nothing else measures up.’

‘Where’s it from?’  I asked, not having noticed the name of the brewery.

‘Not sure,’ he admitted, ‘but they have it all the time out at the Stoat.  I’d never heard of a pub called the Stoat at all, let alone in Beverley.  ‘It’s on Long Lane,’ he said, pointing past the Minster.  I thought my way along the country road and shook my head.  ‘It’s easily missed,’ he confided, ‘like a lot of sweet things.  But away from the town there’s still a warm welcome, for those who enjoy one.’  He described the place in such detail that I was resolved to go there even before he stood to take his leave at the end of the pint.

‘Bound for the Stoat?’ I asked.

‘Perhaps,’ he said, ‘but in case I don’t see you I’ll leave you the price of another drink.  Don’t want to be in your debt.’  I protested, he insisted, he left.  I finished another half and set off on Long Lane, which was well-named.  A few coy corners, and then one stretch of gently veering unlit narrow countryside that had me singing to myself for company as I approached the light ahead, half a mile past the last house – or what I would call half a mile, being a country lad.  More like a mile to a townsman.  This must be the Stoat.  The cold bit my face, numbed within from the Elven Ale, and I hoped there’d be a seat close to the open fire my new friend had described.  I wasn’t afraid of the dark, but jumped as the white shree of a barn owl sounded nearby.  I looked but couldn’t see the bird.  What I could see ahead was the Stoat, clearly visible now as I came the last two hundred yards.  Outside and in, it was more like a farmhouse than a pub, but as described: a great log fire with benches around it, figures seated and standing, and warmth in the flagstones underfoot.  Voices welcomed as I stamped my feet inside the door, and a rich, familiar speaker sounded from the fireside.

‘Evenella!  Drink for our young friend.’  There sat the bearded man last seen in the Sun, beaming in the firelight.  I sat opposite him and Evenella brought me beer in a straight-sided glass.  I tasted and stared.  She was a strange, regally beautiful woman.  Hard to guess her age, but not more than thirty and probably younger.  White blonde to the eyebrows and lashes, face narrowing under her mouth.  Lips a little thin perhaps, but –

Oh yes, I was still staring.  She smiled, eyes and teeth bright in the flamelight, and took my coat.

‘She’s a special lady,’ said my stout companion, ‘and I see you’re quite taken.’  Before I could deny it he called out ‘A toast to the Stoat!  The one becomes the other!’

‘The Stoat!’ answered the others, and we drank.

We drank.  Soon I could take no more beer, although I felt anything but drunk.

‘Is there anything else?’ I asked.  ‘Spirits maybe, or something to eat?’  There was laughter in the room and Evenella touched my shoulder at the neck, fingers gently squeezing.

‘Would you like something warmer?’ she asked, and I rose to follow her through the door at the back of the room.  The men cheered behind us.

I woke, painfully cold and on hard ground in the coming light. There was sky above me, clouded slate-grey, and damp brickwork at my side.  Stiff to the joints, I tried to stand, and hessian sacking fell away.  I was fully dressed, coat, boots, hat and gloves.  Surely now the hangover would stoop from above and finish me, but nothing came.  Only cold, crystal cold in my face, feet and hands and a damper cold beyond shuddering deeper inside.  I stood swaying in what must have been a stable or something.  Ahead the main building was a ruin, with Dangerous Structure – Keep Out signs and corrugated iron to discourage the unwary.  I walked around the house, surely never a pub, and got out through a gap in the fencing, snagging my jeans.  On Long Lane I could see the Minster rise from the mist and started my aching way for home, looking back only once at the Stoat.  Clear head notwithstanding, I must have drunk far more than I remembered, given all the other things I thought had happened.  Was I still drunk, or was there something in the Elven Ale?

The town was deserted, curtains still closed and only a few lights showing.  At the end of Walkergate I passed a rough sleeper in his waking stupor on the bench.  Feeling his pain, I reached for my wallet to give him something.  I had spent nothing at the Stoat, but the memories ran over me.  I handed him a tenner, then another.  He stared at the notes, smelled them and I walked away, sensing now, and more strongly back at home, that I stank.  An animal scent, pungent as fox or cat, but neither.  Everything I wore ended up in the bin.

The bath was very hot, but I needed it and lay remembering.  The fireside, the nuttysweet beer and the bed in the back room with Evenella.  Her voice, high and cool as we undressed, and I noticed she was not entirely blonde.  Quite black, that little tuft.  I lay in the steaming water, exhausted, bewildered and grateful.  The bells of St. Mary’s were ringing and in the bedroom I could hear my charging mobile pulling down missed messages as I fought the urge to sink through my dreams into sleep.

I haven’t seen the bearded man since then, or been offered Elven Ale, but I walk past the house on Long Lane with Ellie, my spaniel. Someone bought the house and started doing it up, yet until recently I never saw anyone as we passed.  Then one clear October morning there was a woman with short red hair and a baby girl at her shoulder in the doorway.  I looked where she stood, and there were the old worn flagstones.

‘It’s a lot of work,’ she said, smiling as the infant settled, ‘but it’ll be worth it.’

‘Yes,’ I nodded, wondering if she meant the house or the baby, probably both.  ‘Are you by yourselves?’  I asked.  She was.

‘My father helps when he can, but he’s very busy,’ she told me.  ‘We’ll get there.’

‘Well,’ I found myself saying, ‘if you need any help just ask.  I walk past here often.’

‘I know,’ she said, and we left it at that, although since then I’ve looked for her each time and seen her often, speaking sometimes.  The work is almost finished, but thus far she has resisted my invitations to visit my home, much as I have resisted asking more about her situation.

This morning, a year after the story started, there was a card through the door, handwritten and unstamped, with no postcode.  A woman’s hand, wilful and spirited.  Inside a winter landscape blank of festive message, but with an invitation.

See you again this year?

E x

 

The Nailmasters: Bill Smothers

The Nailmasters are one of the two folk bands which appear in my novel The Wood Road North, and this performance is one of the few artefacts documenting their existence outside the text.  Here we find singer Bill Smothers accompanying himself on the song with which he shares a name.  This was recorded at the band’s secret studio in 2001, and tells the story of a hopeless drinker in the grip of forces greater than himself.

Bill Smothers: guitar and vocals.  Solar winds summoned by Yuri Gaga.

I’m having a crisis!  This face isn’t mine.  So you’ve seen me drink lager?  I used to drink wine.  The stars of my future shone down over me until I couldn’t say what the future might be.  Now the black clouds gather round here.  It’s blowing like rain and it will do, I fear.  But the rain and the pain fall again and again around here.  This rotten pub was a filthy old hole when I first started drinking, a decade ago.  I’d never considered I’d ever come in, but I still wasn’t trying so hard to fit in.  Now the black clouds gather round here.  I’m crying my troubles out into my beer, but the ale is available late, if you’re regular here.  This is the house where my grandparents lay, and where I’ll more than likely be laid out one day.  Bill’s poor old mother lives under a cloud, and although it’s a dark one, she’s stubbornly proud.  Now the black clouds gather round here.  I’m living in Belper and living in fear of the shadows that follow me, waiting to swallow me here.

Commentary: Belper’s Many Taverns

Belper’s Many Taverns was my first short story, or rather my first for what its narrator would call a lot o’ years. The Belper Arts Festival competition was announced in the autumn of 2012, just as I was completing the second draft of my novel The Wood Road North. After five years on this project I was ready for something shorter, but wanted to write stories which fed into, or flowed out from, the novel and its counterpart, i.e. the one I’m writing at the moment.

Mr. Barrass makes a very brief appearance in The Wood Road North, but as Paul Linford correctly spotted in his comments on Belper’s Many Taverns, Barrass is drinking in the Queen’s Head on Chesterfield Road. This pub is the setting for numerous episodes in the novel, as are many more of Belper’s taverns. The novel takes place in 1996, and so some of these hostelries are no longer open. I was particularly sad, given its key role in both the writing of the novel and the text itself, to see the closure of the Lord Nelson on Bridge Street. There was a lot of me in that pub. Hopefully a fair exchange was made, so that the Nelson can live on through me, and my writing.

Barrass mentions two other minor figures from The Wood Road North, and alludes to one of its central characters, as well as businesses and locations of significance in the longer works. Some of the people he knows also appear in other stories from this collection; the stories have a narrative of their own, distinct from either novel.

Like Barrass, I remember first reading the phrase Belper’s Many Taverns during a lesson at school. The popular assertion (no doubt baseless) concerning the relative number of pubs in the town must have kept the idea in my mind, because its first creative use came as the title for a mooted spoken-word piece forming part of the Belper song cycle I composed during the 1990s. This project was never recorded properly, but the songs are complete and one of them appears in The Wood Road North. Possible titles for the record included She Was Only a Nailmaker’s Daughter, and another song from the lost Belper album gives an account of a relationship doomed by class, much like that between Barrass and Sam.

If I was writing this one again I might make rather less of the local accent and dialect. Having written and rewritten numerous Belper drinkers as characters I now think too much focus on the manner of speech gets in the way of the speech itself, and is an obstacle for the reader. Not that obstacles are a bad thing, in the right places. These stories in the main are less poetic, less modernistic than The Wood Road North, but they’re carved from the same trees, like the wide warping bar in the Queen’s Head.

Belper’s Many Taverns

Written for the Belper Arts Festival Short Story Competition in 2013. Placed as runner-up and published in the printed Anthology.

Back door, Queen's Head, Belper

It’s lovely beer, this. Proper nutty. Goin’ down a treat. Might be rainin’ outside, but I’m fine in ’ere wi’ me paper an’ the fire lit. Me name’s Mark, an’ this is Bess asleep by me stool, wore her out this mornin’ walkin’. We went along the river bank then right down Wyver Lane to the end an’ back, past the pond. Likes a walk, bless ’er, but she’s none as young as she used to be. It were nice early on, on’y started to rain as we were walkin’ up ’ere. I don’t mind a drop o’ rain. It’s got to rain, an’t it? Rather ’ave a drop of ale, mind.

I used to work at Dyer’s. This were a lot o’ years ago. Got sack for turning up drunk, on’y I wan’t drunk, nowhere near. Just ’cause you smell o’ beer dun’t mean you’re drunk, does it? Anyhow, they got rid o’ me, and I an’t worked since. Do the odd job for cash, but mostly it’s helpin’ out some o’ the ode ladies wi’ their gardens an’ that. Nothin’ regular. Wish I could o’ looked after me own mother before she went, but I din’t, an’ it’s too late to do oat about it now. It’s all right for them as earn a lot an’ ponce about in suits, they can drink all they like. Fine wines, single malts, nobody’s checkin’ on them. What they don’t understand is how hard it is to stop drinking. Once you start, I mean, not for good. But they don’t really like the stuff, not like me. I’m none alcoholic, though, ’cause I never have a drink in the mornin’. On’y after twelve, sometimes not till after tea. Roger, the landlord here, he says that’s how you know if you are – you’d have a drink in the morning, not just at night. Toplis says so an’ all, but I’m not sure he dun’t start earlier than me, some days. I don’t get hangovers, not like I used to. Not had a proper one since I were in me twenties. Just feel a bit tired and roll over for another sleep. It’s all right, livin’ on me own. I don’t miss having a woman in the house, I can clean up after meself if I have to. Not saying it’s always tidy, mind. Just as I could, if I needed.

Before I left school I started goin’ out with a girl called Sam. Her family weren’t from Belper, they’d lived somewhere near London before. She were pretty, too nice to be knockin’ round wi’ me. I remember her finishin’ wi’ me up on Crich Lane after I’d been moonin’ about lookin’ at clouds an’ she were tryin’ to talk at me, but I wan’t interested. Never were, if I’m honest. Missed her afterwards, when it were too late. Never learn. It hurt most when I saw her come out as I were going in to the Fisherman’s Rest one Sunday night. I were wi’ Shaun an’ little Nick from Ambergate, we’d been kicked out o’ the White House half hour before. Anyroad, she come out wi’ two or three dressy women an’ some blokes behind, an’ I could smell their perfume an’ aftershave. But when I waved an’ said hello, how you doin’, she looked at me like I were beggin’ in the gutter. Made me feel like a right waste o’ space, she did. I’ve felt like one ever since.

A bit after that I met Becky down the Rifleman’s and we was married inside a year. Had us reception at the Talbot. Her dad worked in the accounts at Glow Worm, wore a suit every day, the poor sod. He were all right, but her mother were a right stuck-up cow. Looked down her nose at that many folk for that many years I’m on’y surprised it weren’t even longer. I suppose Becky would have turned out same way, if she’d stopped long enough, and if I’d bin earnin’ enough. She were a nice Belper girl herself, but she had to listen to her mother and her nonsense all the time – this in’t good enough, that’s not how she likes it. We’d have got on fine without her. I wan’t really glad when she got cancer and died, but I said I was. I’d been drinking. You know how it is. We never had children, that’s one good thing. It were bad enough hurtin’ Becky, ’cause she’s a lovely woman really. Least I din’t have to ’urt me own flesh an’ blood.

I used to walk past where I live now, on the way to school in the mornin’, when I were at Strutt’s. I’d pass the Talbot, come over the bridge and stop to throw stones in the river off Belper Beach. It’s not a real beach, but I still stop there, we did this mornin’. Then over an’ under past the mills an’ Long Row school where I used to go, along Bridge Street by the Post Office what’s gone now, then the George, the Nelson, the Rifleman’s. I heard me dad an’ me brother an’ the older lads talkin’ about these places, made ’em sound brilliant. I couldn’t wait to grow up an’ go in pubs. That were what it meant to be a man, so far as I could tell. Used to walk past an’ pretend I were goin’ inside, specially if I went past when they were open an’ you could smell the beer an’ smoke an’ hear the voices. Course, I were like a virgin lookin’ at porn. I din’t know how many lies it were tellin’ me. At Strutt’s, the Herbert Strutt Middle School, we learned about everythin’, but mainly the Industrial Revolution and how most of it went off in Belper. No wonder we’re all so thirsty. That’s where I saw it, in a local history book they gave out in ENS – never did know what that stood for – “Belper’s many taverns,” it said. Belper’s many taverns. It were history, callin’ to me. So I answered, an’ I’ve been answerin’ ever since. Had me first pint in the George when I were about thirteen. It used to be that dark in there they din’t know how ode you was, couldn’t hardly see you. It were me as went up to the bar, ’cause I were taller than Shaun. We used to do everythin’ together. Sometimes at the High School a few of us’d slip out for a pint at lunch on the last day o’ term and not go back after. Went to the Grapes, usually. The Greyhound were nearer, but some of the teachers used to go there, an’ not just to check on us, neither. All right for them an’ all, wan’t it?

I liked art best at school. Din’t dare hope to make anything of it, but I fancied meself as best at drawin’ in the Upper Year, never mind me class, an’ that’s includin’ the teacher. He were nothin’ special, an’ he knew it. Used to call me Barrass instead o’ Mark. I din’t like that. Nobody ever showed me how you could earn at drawin’, so I never tried, an’ I still couldn’t tell you. I’ve never drawn oat for years, except me dole. By the time I left school I were spendin’ more time walkin’ about the streets twaggin’ it than I did in lessons. ‘Hot Pukka Pies,’ it said, on the chip shop sign opposite the end o’ John O’Gaunt’s Way, where the High School is. Was. Nobody said pukka in Belper, not then. ‘Hot Puke-a Pies,’ we used to shout, more baffled than oat else. We all went there. It were opposite school. Wan’t my favourite chippy though, that were on Nottingham Road, near the top of Stanton Avenue. You could on’y just get there and back at dinner time, but if you din’t want to go anywhere else it were all right. That chippy on Green Lane used to be good an’ all. Gone now. Little Nick from Ambergate were always sayin’ their chippy near the White House were the best in the world, but that were prob’ly just ’cause they an’t got nowhere else to go in Ambergate, on’y two pubs an’ all, poor bastards. Belper’s full o’ pubs though, in’t it? Lovely town, really. I’d not want to live anywhere else.

Not sure where I first heard this, but anyone’ll tell you, an’ I’ve heard it since about other towns. It’s just somethin’ people say. But back when I didn’t know any different, I thought it were real. They said Belper had more pubs per head of population, or per square mile or somethin’, than any other town in England. In Britain, or the world, for all I knew about it. So that was my inheritance, my – what do you call it? – my heritage, to drink. That’s why I’m here, what I were born for. Why resist it? Belper itself’s not historic, not unless you’re into mills and that. Feller as drinks in here sometimes – weekends mainly, I think he’s from University – he says everywhere’s historic, but it in’t, is it? Not Parks Estate, not White’ouse Rise. If he’d grown up at our ’ouse he’d not talk like that. Likes a drink, mind. As I say, you’re on’y ever scum if you drink an’ you’ve got nowt. Drink wi’ money, or an education, an’ you’re well away. Sociable. Garrulous. Raconteur. Dun’t sound right out o’ my mouth, does it?

Nobody were more surprised than me when I got the job at Dyer’s. Me mother had given up on me before I left school, an’ me dad never cared as long as his tea were on the table an’ there were sport on telly. I used to go there on the old Trent bus to Ripley. Never bothered learnin’ to drive. I could get where I wanted without drivin’. Course, it’s not helped me. Easier to walk up ’ere than the job centre, in’t it? More worth it an’ all – I come ’ere to get pissed, an’ I never leave disappointed, not like that useless place on King Street. I were just the fetch an’ carry lad really, but after a bit they set me on properly an’ I were doin’ all right. Never would’ve made me rich, but I liked it, an’ the others were a good laugh. If on’y there’d not bin two pubs on the road outside. I can wait for a drink, always could. It’s just once you start, like I said.

Sometimes, when I’ve had a skinful and I’m walking home, or before I go to bed if I’ve had a few tins in the house, that’s when I’m happiest. I feel as though everything’s goin’ to be all right, like I’ll get a job an’ start seeing a woman, or even meet one that likes a drink herself but in’t sixty. I feel like I can do anything if I try, that it’s all still there in front o’ me. Then in the morning I can see clear again and I know there’s no point trying to be somethin’ I’m not. It wouldn’t work. Bess here, she’s my best friend. I’d not be without ’er. Never argues, always pleased to see me, an’ we both want the same thing. I like a walk in the mornin’ – freshens you up, dun’t it? – an’ she likes a quiet afternoon an’ evenin’. We suit each another perfect. If she were a woman I’d change me mind about gettin’ married again. I’m none miserable. A lot o’ people think I must be, but I’m ’appy really. I can’t think what else I’d like to do, ’cept get up, go for a walk wi’ Bess an’ come out for a drink. Not like there’s oat decent on telly, is there?

To Belper’s Many Taverns, then! Each one of ’em’s got memories for me. Every one I’ve been to when I shouldn’t, or with someone I shouldn’t, or later than I should, or for longer. Some of ’em I’ll never go in again, nobody will. I did this tattoo on me hand meself, after me mate Shaun died. He shun’t o’ bin takin’ that stuff, an’ I shun’t o’ done it meself, but I wanted to mark it, to keep him here, where he should o’ bin, for as long as I was. So here’s to the lost uns! Them as din’t make it. Mates I’ve lost, an’ the pubs we used to drink in. The White Lion. The Imperial Vaults. The Spread Eagle. The Horse and Jockey. The Royal Oak. All them names, they’ll never sound excitin’ to young lads now, not in Belper.

They serve a good pint in here, I’ll say that for ’em. At a lot o’ places they don’t know how to keep their customers, let alone their ale. I’m not sayin’ I’ve not been chucked out of ’ere a time or two, but I knew when I were out of order. You just hope you won’t have to go ’ome on yer own just yet, you know how it is. You don’t want it to stop, to be over. I never did like havin’ to stop. So that’s my story, that’s what I’m doing ’ere at this time on a wet Tuesday afternoon. You can tell me yours in a minute, when you’ve filled these up for us.