lager with piggy: my life as a barmaid

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Indy Lifestyle Online
As a teenager, I eloped with an alcoholic, so when we ran out of money after two weeks, it seemed quite logical to go and find work in a pub. We were homeless, too, having realised that living in a van under Liverpool Street Station wasn't necessarily going to be a forever thing. (It was impossible to sleep after 6am, for a start.) So we ended up in a vast, gloomy barn of a place in north London; a brick Ark marooned on the Mount Ararat of a sloping, Tarmac car park. For a 10-hour day and a salary which amounted to my sixth-form pocket money with a nought on the end, we got a large, bare bedroom, a plate of lunchtime slop and one and a half days off a week.

I took care of the shadowy saloon bar with its dark, encrusted carpets and heavy furniture, and he worked the public bar, which resembled a factory canteen: peeling walls, flimsy wooden chairs, wipe-clean, phlegm- coloured table-tops, blank light tumbling through the dusty windows and falling exhausted among the fag-ends on the brown linoleum. At opening time, the public bar punters milled on the steps like Jarrow marchers. In the saloon, the customers would wait five minutes then creep in with a sort of oh-I-just-happened-to-be-passing diffidence. I loved those last peaceful moments, when I mopped and wiped, turned on the juke-box and dealt out fresh beer-mats. Then, regretfully, I'd pull back the bolts and wait for all the bastards to come prancing in.

Those early customers were dog-walkers or pensioners - shuffling creatures who counted out pence with palsied fingers before slumping over a pint of mild. At midday, the students would saunter in, and I loathed them. Where did these kids come from with their shiny clothes, loud voices and plump purses, demanding strange mixtures like black-and-tan or Barley wine and bitter. Have you ever had an uneasy suspicion that waiters, barmaids, shop assistants all hate you? It's not paranoia: they do.

When it got boring in the saloon, I'd make my way to the public bar where the warmth and roar were more congenial. One of the regulars was a hard-faced, middle-aged woman from Belfast who introduced herself as "Piggy". Fair enough, I thought, greeting her thereafter with a cheery: "Hi, Piggy, the usual?" "Horrible weather, eh Piggy?" "Been shopping, Piggy?" I noticed that her eyes tended to bulge horribly before she answered but figured this was inebriation. Then one of the other regulars whispered that her name was actually Peggy. Why hadn't she said? Why hadn't she hit me? Then I realised that many people would never achieve any greater social success than to be on first-name terms with a barmaid: even a stupid barmaid.

Three o'clock chucking-out was a time of vindictive glee, of snatching glasses off old geezers and scaring people away from their half-drunk pints. This was when the guvnor made his appearance. He not only returned the contents of the drip-trays to the barrel but also collected the leftover lager and bitter in two buckets ("light" and "dark"). Not surprisingly, there were many complaints about the beer. I slept between shifts, then came down at 6.30pm to start all over again.

The first week we didn't have any money and I helped myself to cigarettes, bags of crisps and bottles of Britvic orange for sustenance. My friend simply guzzled his way steadily through the optics from 11am onwards, with the imperturbable stoicism of the heroic drunk.

The evening shift was much wilder, with the saloon an uneasy mix of local bikers and the landlord's sinister friends, squinting evilly through nicotine-stained white hair the texture and colour of shredded wheat. The bikers were nice, apart from a propensity to holler "Come 'ere, wench", then dissolve into giggles and to put "Born to Run" on the juke-box 15 times a night. At chucking out time, the bikers trooped off like lambs, and the sinister friends stayed put. "Oh, don't go to bed, help yourself to a drink," said the guvnor, closing the curtains and bolting the door. But I slung the mats over the pumps and staggered off to bed with legs that felt as though they were being slowly inflated with boiling water.

Days off were spent on a busman's honeymoon of epic West End pub-crawling, albeit now with a new professional eye. Now I had my friend's clearly worsening mental state to worry about. One night in the tube station, he suddenly jumped, laughed and said: "Stop doing that." Then a few minutes later: "You're doing it again." "What?" An enigmatic look. "You know. Stop it!" I began to have nightmares about drowning in gallons of filthy brown liquid pouring from the taps, and totted up the price of complicated rounds ("eight pints ... a Whisky Mac ... a packet of pork scratchings") in my sleep. One weekend, we told the guvnor to stuff it and he observed charitably that we were rubbish anyway, and docked half our salary. We'd had it in fags already. I wish I'd seen his face when he did his stock- taking.

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