Secretarial: When it rains, pour some pints

The Temp
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The Independent Culture
THE CITIZEN'S Advice Bureau (I managed to find one that wasn't closed down by the last government) says that it's true. Martin's got me over a barrel and that, without written corroboration, my supposed verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's written on. The fact that it's morally wrong doesn't, it seems, count in a court of law. So here I am, another month older, the best part of a grand in debt, and the rent not paid. Thank God I live with friends. As it is, I'll be another pounds 350 in debt in 12 days' time.

Fortunately, Tracey at my old agency sees the funny side and, instead of inflicting the usual six-weeks'-filing punishment, puts me immediately into a PA fill-in job at an oil company, which means six weeks' straight work. But I need money. The bank won't let me have any more.

I'm gloomily surveying my prospects when Ben says, "Come on, I'll buy you a drink," and we go out into the dark Stockwell night. It's cold and smoggy, and I can't think of any light conversation to keep my landlord amused. All I can think of is the fact that I owe him pounds 350 and that that's going to double in less than two weeks. The queue outside the chip shop goes half-way down the block, a grim line of tattie-fed no-hopers looking forward to their weekly treat of saturated fat and carbonated sugar drinks. Three old drunks quarrel on the bench by the bus stop over a bottle of VP sherry. And I'm thinking, "This is how I'll end up. Sharing a cardboard box and a bottle of Thunderbird".

Ben goes, "Cheer up, love, it could be worse," and I go "How, exactly?" and, as if on cue, the heavens open. The bar we were going to, all abstract art and tubular chairs, is still 300 yards away. Ben suddenly grabs my hand and pulls me through a door. We're in a pub we never go near, because it looks so frightening. It's called The Cedars, but everyone refers to it as The Seedy.

That Old Pub smell hits us as I take in our surroundings: Axminster on the floor, worn "tapestry" on the settles, ancient pinball machine in one corner and dozens and dozens of faded towelling beer mats nailed to the walls. And around the bar, a crowd, all male, mostly silent, some offering advice, all oblivious to us.

The focus of attention is a woman behind the bar whose hand is wrapped in a glass cloth. She catches my eye. "Are you okay?" I say. She grimaces. "I was cutting a lemon and the knife slipped," she says. "Hah, lemon," says one of the blokes in the crowd helpfully. "Shut up, Mike," she says. "I've called John and an ambulance. You'll get your drink in 20 minutes." "What?" says Mike. "I've got an empty glass here." "Well, I can't do anything about it," she says, and a lightbulb goes off in my head. "I used to work in a bar," I say. "Would you like me to take over?" She looks astonished, then relieved. "Would you?" "Go on," says another voice.

Mike wants a pint of lager. The first pint comes out all froth. Then I remember the tipping trick, and it all starts flooding back. By the time John arrives, just after the ambulance, I'm running around with my big barmaid smile on, Ben propped on a stool with a free drink and a packet of pork scratchings, and everyone else saying "Give us our usual, love" as though I've been there all my life.