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Joe Dunthorne: 'In an instant, the adult world became accessible and charmless'

Turning 18...

Before my 18th birthday, pubs always seemed exotic, dangerous places where grown men stood hypnotised by the swirl of the gambling machine.

The landlady of a crusty boozer near my house had a soft spot for my friend Joel and me and although she knew we were under age she let us sit quietly in a booth, drink one pint of Beamish, feel like outlaws, then go home. We’d run back up the hill to our street and lie in the road, laughing.

When I turned 18, in an instant the adult world became accessible and charmless. My first real job was working in an old-fashioned pub, the St George. I became aware of how little I knew of the culture, the terminology: “lager top”, “cider and black”, “’alf a mild”. The drip trays sloshed with my overspills.

At 7.30pm every weekday, I had to leave a pint of ale at the end of the bar to get warm. At 8pm, a middle-aged guy, Nathan, would come in and start drinking it – which was my cue to pour his next one. He would drink one warm Brains every half an hour until 10.30pm, then he’d go home. He spoke to no one, watched no television, read no newspapers. I asked the landlady his story and she told me that he’d been this way since his wife died. She warned me not to try to speak to him. Nothing could reach him, she said.

I came to admire the matter-of-fact way she treated Nathan, always saving his seat, pouring his beer, but never trying to cheer him up. Whatever grim processes occurred inside him, she let happen, just making sure to maintain the structure of his evenings, and to welcome him by name. To him, the pub was not exciting, or social, or exotic, or pleasurable – it was just necessary. Nathan knew that, at 7.30pm, when he was at home, eating his dinner after work, a clueless 18-year-old was in his local, struggling to pour him a drink.

I didn’t last long in the job. I wanted to go travelling. My six months abroad taught me that it is possible to have a bland, textureless inner life while outwardly having adventures. My body travelled but my mind did not. When I came back to Swansea, the pub was under new management. Nathan had either moved on, or died. I never found out which.