Watchers

Spectral shoppers and vintage underwear, in Beverley.

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I got the keys for the shop two weeks before Christmas. The landlord trod out his cigarette on the frosty pavement and gave me the tour.  I’d already had a look round with the agent, and since the back room was still full of all the old fittings, I explained again that I’d need this space for stock, boxes and so on.  He said if I wanted any of those old units to let him know.   He’d get the rest taken away and stored.  Since my first visit I had hoped some of the cabinets and shelves might work for my jewellery and ornaments.  Most of my capital was tied up in stock, so I was sharp-eyed for potential savings.

Long ago this place had been a drapery and haberdashery.  The shop was L-shaped, originally having been two separate businesses owned by the same man.  The insurance broker on the corner of the Saturday Market was unconnected, but they had bought the frontage after that first owner sold up in the early 1970s.  Afterwards the place had sold dressmaking and knitting supplies, finally standing empty for over a year until I took over.  The landlord left me there and I stood a quiet moment, alone in the premises of my business – for now.  I needed customers, and fast.  There was a lot of hard work ahead, and I could have done with getting in a week earlier, but now I had to get open in time for Christmas.

On the Sunday night, after a weekend spent kitting out the shop with my fittings and half of the old ones, I met up for a pint with Bryan at the Moulders Arms.  Work was getting worse, he said, although he had to admit he was grateful enough still to be working at all.  I told him about the shape of the shop and my security concerns, how I was going to need a camera or two, even if they only looked the part.  He said he’d get his son to call round.  Jamie worked for a security firm.  Then Bryan remembered the story, or at least that there was one.

‘Fellow who owned those shops was obsessed with the woman from the smaller place.  Thought she was in love with him, although she was happily married.  It was a local scandal at the time, but I don’t know how it all came out.’  He finished his drink.  ‘I’ll ask my dad when he comes for Christmas dinner.’

I smiled, having in recent weeks become gently obsessed with a woman myself.  The house that backed onto mine had been to let for some time until one evening I noticed the lights on.  Over the following weeks I found the lady of the house to be fonder of lights than curtains or blinds.  I’m barely middle-aged, but I felt like a dirty old man as I let myself watch her, although it was more a case of taking an opportunity, being grateful for what was offered.  I didn’t even know her name, let alone whether she knew or cared that I was peering from the darkness of the spare room.  Maybe I wasn’t the only watcher.  I couldn’t see into the houses either side of me.  But it looked as though she lived alone, because I never saw a husband or lover, nothing to inspire envy.  She was a quick dresser, and quicker at undressing, as though the house was cold.  Maybe she should have spent more on heating than light, but I wasn’t complaining.  Her taste in clothing was what you might call retro, and I’m pleased to say she saw that through to the level of underwear.  This made me think perhaps she did it on purpose, was an exhibitionist or whatever it’s called.  Do modern women wear suspenders and stockings unselfconsciously, not with an eye on the attention they’ll attract?  Karen never had.  But this lady took them off as I watched, removing next the big white laceless bra and deep hip-hugging knickers, before bedtime or her bath.  Her hair was pinned up and unfussy, probably shoulder-length if she let it down.

She was of old-fashioned stature, with a proper bust and hips, not the boyish ideal of recent years.  There’s no glamour to skinny, no allure for me.  And yet that was how Karen had tried to make herself during the last years, running every night, even after the gym.  I could understand her wanting to be fit, but the more she did the more she hated how she looked, it was never enough.  And when I told her she was fine already she looked at me with contempt.  I wasn’t lying, but at some point her new life stopped involving me, so what I thought didn’t matter.  She left me for a man she met at the gym.  He was divorced and owned a business.  Well, now so did I.  Admittedly a lot smaller, but it was mine, and all that remained was to get ready and open.

With half my redundancy money standing idle around me I needed to get the stock out on show and the door open as quickly as possible.  Jamie had fixed me up with two empty cameras – he did a lot of those, apparently – and by the afternoon of the Friday before Christmas I was moving stock around to find the best place for everything, resisting the urge to overload the shelves.

‘I’m not open yet,’ I called to the man who appeared inside the door as I bent behind the counter.  ‘But if you see anything you like I can let you have it.’  He made no reply, so I rose to face him, catching a tweedy glimpse of suit and waistcoat before looking into his moustached face.  The dark of his pupils spread rapidly under my gaze, and he was gone, vanished into nothing.

I held on to the counter, thinking I must have stood up too quickly, been working too hard.  Skipped lunch, should have eaten.  And it couldn’t have been anyone, or I’d have heard the old bell when the door opened.  People passed the window and their pale winter shadows crossed the wall inside.  That must have been it, just someone looking in.  I told myself I’d do another hour, and then tomorrow I would open.

Back at home I ordered a pizza delivery and opened a beer.  Along with the old shop fittings in the back room I had found some old box files whose possibly interesting contents I would investigate this evening to the sound of the radio in the living room.  I would also keep a lookout for the cherished moment when the lights went on over the fence.  The first file contained several copies of the Hull Daily Mail from the 1960s which I put to one side, and a number of photographs taken inside the shop years ago.  I saw the glass-topped counter that now housed my jewellery, and behind it rows of little drawers for buttons and things.  I was using those for storage in the back.  The same balding man frowned from most of the photographs, but one showed a dark-haired woman in a crocheted dress standing in front of a different counter.  As I stared the pizza boy rang the doorbell, and I put the pictures in a little pile.  I’m a tidy sort of person.

As I ate, keeping my greasy fingers away from the old prints, I decided to buy a few frames, put up the pictures as talking points in the shop.  Then perhaps if someone was interested they’d tell others, who might stop by for a look and leave with a purchase.  As the beer and pizza went down I indulged in dreams of the shop’s success, allowing myself to become locally celebrated, but drawing the line at having Karen back.  I closed the empty box and with immaculate timing the lights came on opposite.  Another beer from the fridge, and I took myself upstairs to watch.

At nine in the morning I opened and saw brisk trade at the stalls on the Saturday Market for half an hour before my first customer came in.  He browsed without buying, avoiding my eye, and leaving as I attended to a cheery man who spent over a hundred pounds, testing my new card-machine skills whilst obliging me to keep an idiot grin off my face.  And it carried on in much the same way until half past four or so, when things slackened off.  But what a start!  I would have to order more stock on Monday, but had enough in the back and at home to keep trading until it arrived.  I hadn’t planned to open on Sunday, but revised this in the light of today’s takings and the season.  I’d get a couple of days off soon enough, and afterwards they’d all be looking for sale bargains.  I had anticipated this and bought in some pieces for the purpose.

On Saturday night I ordered a curry and looked through the rest of the box files, whose contents included empty bobbins, patterns, and a great many catalogues.  Catalogues for wool, for buttons, and – to my joy – a whole box full of fifties and sixties lingerie brochures.  These vintage items could fetch a pretty penny from the right sort of buyer, but I was going to have a good long look myself first, if I didn’t keep them.  I told you I was partial to the way women used to dress, and this whole experience stirred such childhood memories.  My mother would take me to shops like mine had been, and I breathed in the rich aroma of the places, saw the haughty elegance of the mannequins, then as now at odds with the shapes of real women.  Crouching in my shorts, I would touch the plate glass between little me and the contents of the cabinets.  Now I had the keys to some of those cabinets, but I still spent longing hours peering through glass at the object of my desire.

Christmas was on Thursday, so once I’d converted another few hundred pounds of stock into cash on Sunday I was optimistic for the short week ahead, and resolved to order even more stock tomorrow.  Outside in the dark afternoon I locked the door and was reaching up for the shutter when I saw a young woman standing inside the shop.  Like a fool, I had and shut the place up with a customer still browsing.  Hoping she’d see the funny side, I fumbled open the door and strode into the shop, making all sorts of apologies, to where she stood at the end of the counter.  She was short, petite and gloved. I couldn’t say how old, because her hat covered most of her hair and the shop was in darkness.  She said nothing, but raised her head, looked into my eyes, and disappeared, just like the man had done.  This wasn’t a shadow, unless it was my own, cast by the street lights outside.  But I didn’t believe that.  Nor did I believe that people could just fade away like that, or appear real if they weren’t.  The mind had greater depths than science had plumbed, I was sure, and so that’s what I told myself.  To everyone else I said nothing.

At home I had the comfort of my alluring neighbour opposite, now the one constant in my life.  How I might get onto friendly terms with her remained uncertain, yet I was increasingly sure that with our shared taste in ladieswear (mine stoked daily by the glossy-thick pages of those engrossing catalogues) we could share far more together.  First, I needed to get through three days of trading without being driven insane by vanishing figures.  They did their best.  I put down the telephone after placing my order on Monday morning and rushed to help an old woman reaching for a lead crystal vase on a high shelf.

‘Allow me,’ I said, and startled, she looked at me.  I heard her draw breath, I swear, but she was gone.  I placed the vase on a lower shelf and put the kettle on.  Trade was slower that day, but picked up on Tuesday when I supposed more people were off work.  My delivery arrived mid-morning by which time things were so busy that only with difficulty could I restock the empty shelves, between customers.  Lots of cash, for some reason – I had to shut for ten minutes in the afternoon, to visit the bank.  When I returned, to a shop of whose emptiness I had assured myself before leaving, a middle aged man in an apron was sitting behind the counter in my place.  This time I didn’t look in his eyes, glanced around him, watched his balding head turn to follow me into the shop and back again past him, saw the big fabric scissors in his right hand and there in his left a Gossard catalogue from 1965, exactly the same as the one back at home in the box.  I looked at his face and he left me, his lost mirror image, the keys in my left hand, the paying-in book in my right.

At about ten on Wednesday morning, Christmas Eve, just as I was closing the till, a policeman put his gloves on the counter – I saw them clearly – only to dematerialise when I looked up.  This time it was different, because I wasn’t alone.  There were two customers in the shop, a mother and daughter by the look of them, and as the solid dependable copper atomised into nothing before me I saw them behind him, through the space where he had been, and the daughter was looking at me as though nothing had happened.  Possibly I stared back too hard, as she expressed a desire to leave, but happily not before her mother had spent sixty pounds on her card.

After work I called in at the packed Cornerhouse for a standing drink with Bryan, who told me what his wife Sandra had remembered about the story of my shop.

‘The woman went missing,’ he said, ‘after complaining to her husband about unwanted attentions from the shop owner.  The police had him in for questioning, but there was never a body and he denied everything, so they had to let him go.  It broke him though, and he died soon afterwards.’  My face must have saddened at this, because Bryan asked what I was doing tomorrow, said if I was on my own I could come to theirs.

‘Looking forward to a rest,’ I told him.  ‘Been working hard.’  He didn’t know how hard.  Today had proved that I alone could see the vanishing figures, but at least I saw them only at the shop.  After Bryan went home I stayed and had another.  Thus encouraged I went via Tesco, having decided to introduce myself with a bottle of wine.  No idea what I was getting, hardly drank wine myself, but I tried to get something nice, spent ages thinking.  Women like white wine, don’t they?  But white needs to be cold, and there was no time to put it in the fridge.  Red, then.  Paid nearly ten quid, it must be love.  Happy, I sang to myself as I walked home.

As soon as the lights went on I set off round to her house.  Only took a couple of minutes, even though I had to go back for the wine.  There was no answer when I knocked on the front door, and from this side all was dark.  I noticed the To Let board was still up, an oversight presumably.  Never really came down this road.  Between the houses I could see the light escaping around the blind in my kitchen as I walked down the side passageway to the back garden.  Untended for months, this was a bit of a state, but the lawn was lit through the open curtains and I strode, taking my moment.

The living room was empty – literally empty apart from the carpet, curtains wide at the patio doors.  Nobody there.  Next along was the kitchen, with a door half-windowed in frosted glass, and the window.  I saw her standing there in a green mini-dress, reaching to open and close a cupboard door, taking out nothing, putting nothing back.  The white kitchen surfaces were bare under the glare of the bulb.  As I raised my hand to knock she walked through to the living room and I moved back that way to see her cross the carpet and touch something that wasn’t there against the far wall.  It was feeling very cold out here now.  She turned again, walked the length of the opposite wall and smiled against the window, looking past me.  I stepped out, holding up the wine bottle and grinning back, but still she stared, clearly seeing something I couldn’t.  Every inch real, with a shadow and everything, not like those others, the watchers, the things I’d imagined, believed.  I could see the shape of her underwear through her skirt, and a place where the paint on her toenails had chipped.  She was there before me, just glass in between.  I could have watched her forever, but that wasn’t enough.

I got right in front of her before she straightened and put her head on one side, all mute.  I could hear no sound from inside, and very little out here, until I tapped the glass and she jumped like a waking sleeper.  With a look of horror she stared into my eyes, then the blackness spread, the lights went off, and I was alone in the dark.

Pond Life

My short story Pond Life is featured as a guest post on Helen Day’s fascinating Old Ladybird Books blog.  Helen has made great use of the illustrations from the Ladybird book of the same title, but I will confine myself below to the cover, after which you can read the full text of the story.

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Pond Life

I couldn’t say how many childhood hours I spent on my stretch of the Cromford Canal in Ambergate. Probably fewer than I remember, but as time passes the important experiences seem to choose themselves, and they’re hardly ever the ones that took the longest. According to my memory, most afternoons I could be found under one of the two bridges nearest to Chase Road where my parents lived, or somewhere between the far one and the end of the canal, messing with nets and jars, looking for water snails and caddis fly larvae or fascinated with a ram’s horn snail. The Ladybird Book of Pond Life was my guide in this important work, and with the willow tree’s shade on my bedroom window I would study the text and illustrations, checking off the plants and animals I had seen, staring into the pictures of those I hadn’t. Oh, to have found a hydra, that spindly green freshwater anemone near the back of the book! I thought I could find anything in the canal, it being just a long narrow pond, bigger than any other. Everything ought to be in there somewhere, surely. There were lots of dragonflies, but although they must have been there I never found a dragonfly nymph down in the water, such a scary thing it looked in the book. There were innumerable frogs and toads, plenty of spawn in spring, a few newts, whirligig beetles and hover flies, as well as some good-sized beetles in the pastures along the banks, but they were in a different book from Series 536. Those were my favourites.

Some of the local boys went fishing, but I didn’t like the dark Amber water or the eddies where it joined the Derwent. I suppose I was younger than my years, as well as shorter. When I started to go there on the bus, the lads at school in Belper were interested in music, in clothes and girls and football more than all the dreamy pleasures I would take in my surroundings, the beautiful valley. I couldn’t see it then, that I was different and rural, but now it’s all over my memories of Belper and school. So instead I think of the countryside, the holidays, the sunshine and the herby smell of hay from the fields around our house. After the Chase Road bridge over the canal you can walk for a little way along the towpath, looking over the broken walls and fields to the River Amber and the viaduct. Then you reach the place where the water just pours away, or at least what overflows does, the canal itself isn’t flowing at all. You can walk around it, the path carries on but the canal’s gone. They cut it all away for the gas plant, my dad said. That was where they used to put the smell in the stuff. Nobody ever believes me when I tell them that. Halfway there a black metal bridge over the water carries a great thick pipe from which a big drip would fall every few seconds, washing the towpath back to its pebbled stone. As a lad I ran under it, or waited for the drip and timed my walk. I think the pipe takes water from the underground reservoir up beside the woods.

The other way, northwards, the dry gritstone walls run low, waist-high to me now, between the towpath and the farm, with the railway embankment behind it. Then on the right, over the canal, the woods begin, looming over the water most of the way to Whatstandwell, the next station up the line. At the same time the wall becomes taller and mortared with the big house hidden behind, ivy curling around the ever-closed door set into the stonework, so that here, before the next bridge which marked the extent of my young towpath, the water had its own dark valley, sheltered and quiet. Like me. We haven’t had so many restoration attempts on this bottom end of the Cromford Canal. You might call it a backwater, if canals have those. I’ve always been concerned about the effect on the wildlife of dredging out all the mud and reeds and habitat, just so people could chug their way down here and back in boats. I needn’t have worried. Every few years we hear it’s all going to be opened again, dredged and made ready for the tourists. That’s what I like about this place: nothing ever changes very much, or at least not very quickly.

Two men would walk past along the canal some afternoons. They parked near the substation on Chase Road and came up by the bridge under which I would lie on the towpath, chin over the stones of the canal’s edge, the arch shading the water from the sky, skimming the light from its surface, letting me see to the bottom where no plants grew. The surface still worked, I learned. It was still gathered tense against the air above, glid across by waterskaters, and water boatmen clung at the underside. Crickets sounded from the parched grass by the drystone walls behind me. All this insect life! Those two men knew about wildlife and the countryside, especially the older one. They would stop to ask what I had found, what I was looking for, then they went walking in the woods. I was afraid to go up there alone, and scared to ask if I might go with them. I wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers.

As I got older, I would go up the path through the woods with other village kids at the weekend or on holidays, took a picnic lunch up there sometimes and ate it in one of the fields between the trees. That must sound like something from another world, long gone, now. That’s how it sounds to me. But it’s all still there, and not very different. It just took a while for me to see how unchanged it remained, after I went there with Shaun and Mark. They came on the bus from Belper and we set off from my house along the towpath to the second bridge, up onto the road and over it, through the field to the stile at the top end and into the woods, up the long steep path. I loved the woods, the smell and sound and sight of them. It was like stepping into another of my Ladybird books, or something by Enid Blyton; at least that’s how they were to me, not to those two. The way they spoke made me think they would have preferred to be alone, so I felt I was tagging along, an inconvenient younger brother, despite being their age. Clearly they knew it too, because we had barely reached the top of the woods when they left me, and I had to go back home on my own. I was hurt and ashamed. They hid, or just walked off when I was looking at something. There was a lot more to see in the woods, especially if you could be quiet and watch. They wouldn’t do that, had to be breaking sticks and throwing stones. It was the wrong way to behave in the countryside. I would have been fine, but after looking for them and before I set off down the sandy path again I shouted, ‘Shaun! Mark!’ and listened for them, called again, listened. Nothing, just the sound of the woods in the wind, pressing close around me. It was worse than being alone. I felt cold danger poisoning the air. By the time I got back down to my canal I had been running most of the way, all sweaty wet, hot and bothered. I should have stayed under the bridge to look for fish instead. There were pike in there, pencil-thin ones. I waited, my breathing slower shaded in the cool, until I heard the other two coming down the field, not laughing at me, nor careless, but concerned I was still up there, that I’d been following them. Above the bridge I heard Mark say ‘He might have seen!’ I thought they’d find me there, come down onto the towpath, but instead they took the road and when their stonekicking steps had gone there was just me in the shade under the bridge, sitting with my head against the stone and my bottom in the dust, level with the water. ‘I might have seen,’ I said to myself, a little later, and my words buzzed round in the arch of space. The stirring water rippled in reflection on the stone. I hadn’t seen. But I thought about it for a long time, although I never asked, and nor did they.

We grew apart as we got older, but we still saw one another at school and I used to have the odd drink with them for a few years afterwards. They didn’t stay on in the Sixth Form. I don’t even think they took any ‘O’ Levels. Living in the town they could get to pubs easier than me and their parents didn’t ask so many questions, weren’t as protective as mine. I used to resent that, but now I’m here again in their old house I know it was better for me. If only Mark’s parents had been the same, or Shaun’s. It was terrible, what happened to him. He always had an unhappy look about him as a boy, but the last time I saw him, stumbling across King Street from the old laundrette, he didn’t recognise me, his face was just…nothing. No expression, no feelings. He was already gone.

I went out with them one final time before I went off to the Poly. They came on the bus to Ambergate and we went in the Hurt Arms, then the White House where they started an argument over a game of pool and got us thrown out. I didn’t even play pool myself, I liked to sit in the other side of the pub. So we walked to the Fisherman’s Rest and Mark saw someone he used to go out with, which put him in a terrible mood and started him drinking really hard, as hard as Shaun. I was a long way out of my depth with those two, and I didn’t want to learn how to stay afloat in that much drink.

I met Suzanne at the Poly, where she was doing Art. She lived in Nottingham and seemed impossibly worldly to me. I couldn’t believe she wanted anything to do with me, but I’m very happy that she did. Those days seem a long time ago now, but they made a difference, made me confident enough to get through life pretty well, and I’ve been working at County Offices for twenty years now. Sometimes I let myself imagine what retirement might be like. I’m nowhere near wanting to stop work yet, I just like to know it’s all in order.

Living back here feels right, although I waited until Mum was on her last legs before suggesting it to Suzanne. But it was what she wanted too. The picture I’d painted of growing up in this countryside, by the canal, had been so fond and rich that she’d started to feel as I did, missing something she’d never had. Now she paints it herself and sells a lot of her work. It’s better than I ever dreamed, and I only wish our children had been able to grow up here. I’m happy that Andrew and Rebecca didn’t resent us being the same with them as my parents were, keeping them in at night, making sure they did their homework, giving them hopes and aspirations. They should do a lot better than either of us now, both got good jobs and opportunities ahead of them. One of the Directors at Dyer’s seems to have taken Andrew under his wing. You need to work hard to achieve your aims in life, but at the same time you can’t underestimate the value of luck.

Rebecca and her husband Martin live in Sheffield and we see them often. Martin likes to walk, always wants to set off on one when they’re here. I’m glad to go, but he’s not like me, which is presumably what Rebecca sees in him. He’s not so interested in the details, more in landscape as a spectacle. He goes rock-climbing, canoeing, sees the countryside as a thing to be overcome, not something of which he’s a part. I bet he never leaned over the stones at the edge of a towpath to look for water snails. But I’d happily spend the afternoon doing just that, even more so now. I’m here again, the canal’s still here, and we’ll both be waiting for any grandchildren who might come along. Perhaps one of them will be like me, a quiet little thing interested in the margins and what goes on away from the crash and clatter. Between us, we might even find that hydra.

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.