OFF WITH THE KING’S HEAD
A Yank’s Foray into a London Pub
“What’ll it be mate?”
I hesitated, gun shy at my first attempt ordering a beer in a London pub. I eyed the two dozen taps sprouting up along his side of the bar. I was the only patron. His T-shirt was sleeveless and tattoos festooned both his enormous arms from wrist to shoulder. Muscle tone, however, had not seen those appendages for many, many years.
Most of the tap handles touted beers I’d never heard of. I didn’t want my first London brew to be bitter or awful, or worse yet, room temperature, which I had been warned about. But I also didn’t want my opening gambit to be some horrifying social faux pas, sparking an international incident and a hurried, back-street meandering, hooligan-eluding sprint to the American embassy for protective custody.
The bartender began to drum his fingers on the bar. He’d been reading the newspaper when I came in, so he wasn’t busy, but he apparently wasn’t patient either.
“Do you have Bud Light?”
His baleful stare made me shiver. One of his tattoos was a depiction of JFK just as his assassin’s bullet smashed into his skull. Maybe he wasn’t a big fan of Yanks. My accent would have immediately tipped him off. I made a mental note to avoid telling him I was from Boston.
He stood up from leaning on the bar and flung his arms out in both directions, taking in the 12 taps on each side, head swiveling back and forth.
“Does it look like we have Bud Light, you Yank wanker?”
“My name is William.”
He turned and hollered to his right through half-saloon doors that must have led to the kitchen. “Hey Nigel, this silly bloody sod wants a Bud Light! Says his name is ‘Willie’.”
From the kitchen I heard running water turn off and there was silence for a couple of seconds.
Then came a heavy cockney accent with a clear sarcastic tone. “I’ll go to the loo and be right back with one for him. Body temperature. From MY Willie.”
And with that, my London drinking experience had begun.
Two pints of Guinness later, me and Mickey, the tattoo-limbed bartender, were like old mates, laughing and roaring at some of the more insipid cultural differences between my Yanks and his Limeys.
Each ensuing patron that entered that morning foundMickey enthusiastically introducing me and endorsing my caustic, self-deprecating sense of humor. I soon became uncomfortably aware that a favorite activity in this London pub (and others, I would discover) was to bash all things American. Sure, we were allies when it counted; when some annoying country’s pulse point in their capital city needed strafing, or a far flung island needed reclaiming from loin-clothed terrorists, but apparently on the streets of London, us Yanks were barely tolerated on a day-to-day basis. And certainly fodder for the dry British humor.
So my willingness to poke fun at my homeland ingratiated me almost immediately with these grizzled old before-noon London drinkers. Mickey had retold a dozen times my Bud Light request, each time punctuating it with his Yank wanker punch line and Nigel’s subsequent kind offer to empty his bladder into a pint glass for me. Everyone had laughed uproariously.
Given their inherent skepticism about anyone from the west side of the Atlantic, their generosity that day was incongruous and touching. I did not pay for a beer the rest of the afternoon and I found Mickey gradually gravitating toward me, as I’d yet to build up the subtle grievances and annoying peccadillos that almost always crop up between bar regulars and bartenders.
When I staggered out of there at 5pm, the place was ¾ full and loud, but Mickey took the time to come around the bar and give me a big bear hug, wrapping me in inky images comprised of such a myriad of incongruous, horrifying depictions that those arms haunted my dreams that night: a crying naked Jesus with a Mohawk, nailed to the cross smoking a cigar; an fat bald Asian Hells Angel on a Harley with the Queen of Nefertiti seated behind him, grinning maniacally; a Bowie knife dripping drops of blood on a prone Queen Elizabeth, raised just about the Queens throat, guillotine-style; the aforementioned murdered 35th president of the United States; a topless, buxom woman sporting an enormous penis sprouting from under a kilt that Mickey claimed was his mother; and the most disconcerting of all his ink etchings, a vision of Sir Paul McCartney in a diaper, sitting Indian style, clothes pins clenching each nipple, eating a bowl of bangers and mash, with black framed go-to-hell wraparound mirror sunglasses staring challengingly straight out from Mickey’s featureless bicep into your eyes.
The Sistine Chapel of body art Mickey was not.
I almost went back the next day but decided to wait aday, mostly due to the vague fear that I might have imagined the degree of acceptance I’d received. Overnight I realized I had little to lose. There were probably 7000 pubs in London. One of them would accept me.
The following day at noon I strode through the oak framed glass door, pushing the long unpolished vertical brass handle and was greeted almost immediately by Mickey: “Hey, it’s the Yank Wank from San Francisco. How about a Bud Light, mate?”
And the four men standing at the bar burst into laughter. Mickey had apparently been regaling the local denizens about the new blonde interloper from California who asked for domestic American beer.
I grinned, thinking this might be a key juncture as to whether I got accepted in here. Striding up to the bar, I banged my fist halfheartedly on it, glared up at Mickey’s grinning mug and said, “Who’s a wanker gotta toss off around here to get some Irish beer?”
Mickey retreated a step from the bar, as if I’d struck him. His grin remained in place. He looked at the other four gents at the bar, all of whom I recognized from the other day, winked at them, then leaned in toward me and said, “You can start with me. I want a San Francisco special. Then Nigel would like a minute with you in the larder.”
“I bet he does,” I said. “In fact, if I didn’t have to wait in line behind these four sods with the calloused right palms and overworked elbows, I’d give it to you before my first Guinness.”
Mickey threw his head back and roared, more I believe, for my balls than for the humor value of my line.
He slid a pint of liquid Irish gold in front of me that sported a thick head of foam on top. As I raised the large glass, I eyed Mickey suspiciously and said, “This IS beer foam, right?”
“Nigel isn’t working today, so it probably is.”
And all five men laughed.
As the afternoon progressed, I enjoyed my first pub meal, an enormous piece of haddock fried in beer batter and a mound of chips, or what we Yanks call French Fries. Simple food, but hearty, filling and delicious.
Each time someone new came in that Mickey realized did not know me, he introduced me. I’d graduated from ‘Yank Wanker’ to bloke, and combined with the sarcasm-laced introduction Mickey gave each time, it was implied to the newcomer that they had better be good to me. I’d always been a believer in being close to your bartender, but never in the past had it paid off like this.
By the end of the evening, I’d been accepted into the first rung of their Dante-esque inner circle of alcoholic hell. I knew of the often subtle intricate web woven between longtime drinking buddies. I was satisfied even with only their initial rudimentary acceptance, and with Mickey’s support and a concerted effort on my part to keep my verbal gaffs to a minimum, I would likely be pulled deeper into the in-crowd, wanker status long forgotten.
‘Off With the King’s Head’ was located two blocks from Hyde Park in Central London. Housed in a converted church, a conversion that began in 1941 during the war, and was completed in 1943. OWKH, as it was known by regulars, was located on a corner of a busy thoroughfare. Parking was dubious, but it was the locals on foot that truly made up the base of patrons. The huge front doors rarely went more than five minutes without a thirsty Londoner pushing through.
During the war the pub had unwittingly become part of a fascinating tactic proposed by British Parliament.
Due to the prospect of a German invasion, the Parliament ordered all street signs removed from the city of London to create confusion for, and potentially thwart any German parachuting into the city proper. Therefore, Londoners were forced to use landmarks to direct people or navigate themselves around the city and, since most pubs in those days were situated on corners, they were used as the signposts with which to guide folks around London.
“Go three blocks to ‘The Bucket of Bile’, take a left and then at ‘Your Frog is Peeing on My Leg’, take a right, go another block past ‘Blokes Without Yokes’, cross the street and down the alley, just past ‘Irish Soccer Hooligans Welcome’, and you’ll find the supermarket.”
Though all street signs were re-erected shortly after the war, many longtime Londoners still used the war system of getting around their much-adored city. It was the closest a sprawling, cosmopolitan city like London would get to small-town status.
Women were not an uncommon sight in your typical London pub, though rarely unaccompanied. And the OWKH, though not a stereotypical pub, nonetheless welcomed people of all walks and colors and nationalities and genders. Hence my rather odd acceptance in such a short time. It was the right atmosphere to establish, if one was interested in not turning away potential quid based on phobias of any kind. It was sound business sense and though Mickey was merely an employee of the rarely seen owner, it was he, for the most part, who set that atmosphere. He more than earned his $75 quid a day.
The first time I tried to tip him, he looked at me like my dog had just left a steaming brown, semi-viscous gift on his new white suede shoes.
He sighed, backed away a step, which usually signified he was going to have his way with me in some fashion or another, and simply shook his head slowly.
“Mate. No tipping in London pubs. ESPECIALLY in this pub.”
“It’s the way we’ve always done it. Saves angst, is how I see it. If we allow it, then it becomes expected of everybody. And how much should it be? Is there a standard
“15% is standard back home. But you can tip more or less, depending on the quality of service and product.”
“15%? Fuck ME. Really? You see, that would be way too arbitrary a system for us Brits. We need uniformity. Anyway, no need to tip me, but thanks for the thought. Maybe a bottle of Bushmills at Christmas time, and we’ll be all square, mate, ok?”
“Irish whiskey? I thought you hated the Irish?”
He leaned forward and winked as he lowered his voice. “That’s the only way to keep the drunken bastards in line. If they think we like ‘em, which we mostly do, then they’ll be falling all over Trafalgar Square.”
“You know I’m Irish.”
“I do. It’s why I’ll always be breaking your cricket balls every chance I get. It’s an odd way of showing affection, but it’s the best you’ll get here on the island.”
I raised my mug. “I’ll take it.” He gently rested his closed fist against my glass in acknowledgment and wandered down toward a man who looked both Irish and at least 100 years old at the far end of the bar. I wondered how low HIS cricket balls were hanging after a century on this pebble.
No tipping. I’ll be goddamned.
The first week at OWKH went better than I could have dreamed, with only one small spat, an altercation at the loo’s door with a drunken youngster whose flash of anger at me was quickly doused by Mickey’s alert dart from behind the bar. The kid was encouraged to piss and then walk it off in the Hyde. Mickey rarely had to suggest things twice.
I’d been bought more rounds than I could count, and had tried often to equal up the tally, but rarely would anyone let this Yank buy him a beer. I talked with Mick about it.
“Is it control, Mick? Do they think they’ll relinquish some control if they let me pay?”
“Let go of…lose.”
“I know what it means, you tosser. Although they might not. You ever have guests over to your house, mate?”
I nodded. “Sure.”
“Don’t you pay for their drink?”
“There you have it.”
“This isn’t anyone’s house.”
He just stared at me. A light went on. He saw it and grinned. “Some of these guys spend more time here than home. It IS home.”
Simple British wisdom. And generosity.
A couple of weeks later, Mickey and Nigel were languishing behind the bar mulling over soccer scores in the Guardian, waiting for the lunch crowd to arrive, when a large bald black man entered and perched on a stool, hands clasped on the bar in front of him. He was wearing a tan canvas outdoorsman’s jacket and black jeans. He brought a satchel and an umbrella in with him and stowed them under his seat.
Mickey approached him as Nigel and I watched.
“What can I get ya?”
“Are you in charge here?”
“In a manner of speaking, mate, yes I am.”
“I’m Essex Bloxley. I drive a taxi.” He extended his hand to Mickey who hesitated, but shook it.
Mickey didn’t say anything.
“I’ll take a Watneys.”
Mickey eyed him warily as he poured the rich amber-hued beer. He finished, topping it off expertly with two inches of mattress-like foam, and slid it gently in front of Essex.
Essex took a long pull on the mug and placed it carefully back, centered, on the coaster Mickey had laid in front of him.
He had a slight British accent with a hint of a Caribbean lilt in the background. “Actually, yes. I represent the black cabbie’s union here in London. We’re about to go on strike. I’m trolling for support.”
The pitch sounded rehearsed. I saw Nigel raise his eye brows and lean forward a bit to hear better. I tilted my torso slightly to my left as well.
Mickey watched as Essex took another long sip.
“Don’t know many black cabbies, myself. In fact, you’re it.”
Essex laughed. “I’ve heard that three times already today. Let’s just say there are enough of us to make it rough for some folks if we don’t show up to work tomorrow.”
Mick nodded. Two men pushed through the door, nodded at Nigel and me, noticed the large black man, and came over and sat to my right. Nigel poured them beers and took their bangers and mash orders for lunch and disappeared behind the small swinging saloon doors.
Both the men knew me and we exchanged pleasantries, while I tried to hear out of my left ear any more dialogue from my left.
Mickey finally sighed and answered. “I don’t see what support we can give you, mate. Not many people who come in here take taxis. We got no stake in this kind of dispute.”
“Do you have many black customers, or regulars even?”
“A handful. Not many. Probably not enough, you ask me.”
“This might help that. I could spread the word.”
“I still don’t see what we could do to help. What are you looking for? Money is out of the question. In fact, I don’t even know what your beef is.”
“The white drivers make, on average, 30% more than we do.”
Mickey’s eyes got big. “No shit? In 2012? London?”
“No shit.” Essex finished his Watneys, slid the mug toward Mick and nodded. Mick dutifully refilled the glass.
“Ok,” Mick said, leaning back on the cash register and folding his ham-hock arms across his huge chest. “Now I get it. That’s a legitimate gripe. But I still don’t see what a pub can do for you.”
Essex looked to his right directly at me. “You’ve been listening. You’re a Yank. What do you think a place like this can do to show support that won’t cost a dime? This stuff happens all the time in America.”
“I don’t know about ‘all the time’, but there are a couple of simple things. Like solicit signatures on a petition demanding equal pay. Put a brief, concise sign up behind the bar, maybe one outside near the doors, informing people that this is going on.”
“Concise?” It was Mick.
“Yeah, ‘to the point’; ‘direct’; ‘no hyperbole’.”
“I know what it means, you imperialist sod. And then you’re gonna dump on me ‘hyperbole’?”
I grinned. Mickey and I had this type of exchange at least twice a day. He played dumb, but dumb like a PhD carrying fox.
“I’ll get you a dictionary. We’ll start slowly.”
“Yeah, but you’ll finish in a wheelchair,” and even Essex laughed at that.
Mickey turned to the taxi driver. “What Willie suggests here is probably doable. And in return, you’ll recommend our little pub to your, ah, brothers?”
He nodded. “I will. In fact, I have just such a sign here with me, AND a petition. Willie is more versed in this stuff than I thought.” He produced two neatly hand-printed signs displaying a brief message outlining the issue of unfair pay, and a long piece of paper affixed to a clipboard, with a pencil dangling from a string attached to the loophole in the silver clip at the top. It had three sentences on top and underneath dozens of lines on both sides for signatures. Mick took them hesitantly. He wondered if he should unilaterally agree to this before checking with the owner. Essex was halfway through his second Watneys.
“I want to thank you. I, and we, won’t forget it. He drained the last half of his mug, returned it to the gnarled cardboard coaster adorned with the pub’s logo, and patted me on the back as he walked out, satchel over his shoulder, wooden point of his umbrella clicking lightly on the stone floor.
Mickey propped up one of the signs to the right of the register, peeled two pieces of tape out of a dispenser and came around the bar through the cutout lift-up ledge and went outside. He returned in a moment.
When back behind the bar, he turned to me and said, “Thanks Willie….I think.”
“Hope I didn’t overstep my bounds.”
“Not at all. I just don’t really know how the sod who owns this place feels about black people. He could be a bloody racist for all I know.”
“You said he hardly comes around. If he does, you’ll at the very least find out if he’s a bloody racist.”
“There’s that, I suppose.”
I slid the clipboard over and signed it at the top. Mick followed suit.
The next day, hunched over a lunch consisting of a bacon cheeseburger, two hardboiled eggs and chips, I watched incredulously as five black men walked into OWKH, all dressed in their taxi uniforms. I didn’t even know there were uniforms for the cabbies. I’d yet to take one in London.
They came in single file and found a high pub table with four stools, slid one over from another table and the largest of the men, enormous, really, waddled over to the bar and ordered five Watneys.
Mickey eyed me with a wink and small grin and began filling the 20 oz. mugs. The portly black gentleman also requested five menus as well and with his head, Mick nodded down the bar to where they were housed in a wooden shelf on the wall. The man took five menus and brought them to the table and returned with some help for carrying the beers, a diminutive bearded man who looked like a pencil next to the larger man.
“Ain’t seen you in here before, mate,” Mickey said neutrally, as he finished pouring the fifth beer.
“Our boss came in this morning and recommended it. Never turn down a suggestion from the boss, is how I always operate.”
Mickey noticed that both men, hands now full with mugs of beer, had observed the sign behind the bar next to the register, and had also eyed the clipboard casually laid out on the bar next to the taps. There were already almost 25 signatures.
“Might that be Essex?”
“It might indeed,” he replied, winking at Mickey and returning to the table.
Mickey looked at me and just shrugged.
My daily stroll from my flat to the pub was a lovely, peaceful, reflective jaunt in and of itself. The few blocks down a rather steep hill, which always seemed to build the requisite thirst for that first pint, was along a residential road lined with houses looking almost, but not exactly, alike. The red brick facings were, especially when passed in a car, very similar, but when on foot, the subtle and clever architectural differences were more evident, and often brought a smile to my face. There was quirkiness to the design of these homes that I found hard to put into words, but it didn’t matter. In fact, quirkiness was a word that surfaced through the Guinness haze often when observing all things British. It made for a whimsical outlook that I enjoyed, like an afternoon nap under a sunny window on a comfortable couch. I could actually feel the yoke of cynicism and American skepticism fall from my shoulders. London had begun to, literally, lighten my load.
The OWKH was not unlike most pubs I’d been to in at least one respect. When perusing its inner décor, there was an odd amalgamam of detritus and bric a brac and knick knacks on the walls, behind the bar, everywhere really, that spoke both of centuries ago, and yesterday. Though startling at first, I realized it was a balance that Brits strived for in most things. An acknowledgment, and even reverence, of their incredible history, and a sign that, though grudgingly, they were moving into the 21st Century at their own pace.
Though I felt the effort often fell short, it was pleasant to see that London didn’t subsist, culturally or otherwise, mired solely in its vast history. The pub atmosphere may not replicate the more modern, shiny, loud, glossy ambience of a typical New York City bar but that, I am almost certain, was intentional.
Though, in his own right and by almost any standard or country custom, Mickey would be considered a true ‘character’, that did not separate him from American bartenders. In fact, in London there appeared to be an equal mix of female (called bar maids) and male bartenders, like in the states. Mickey’s uniqueness was in his combination of gruff street demeanor and a tendency to be a soft-hearted cuddly bear, often exhibited in the same ten minutes. American bartenders ran the gamut of human behavior and presentation as well. I imagine serving drinkers is a skill when done well that becomes at least in part, uniform throughout the world. Patience, conviviality, and the ability to display warmth when none resides behind the eyes. It can be a very political profession, and when done well, is an art to behold.
A good bartender can, in theory, perform anywhere in the world. The basic tenets of the job never change. And though in London tipping is at least discouraged, elsewhere in the world, how the bartender extends beyond those baseline requirements, how he spreads his personality and sets the atmosphere of the establishment, is what separates him from others, and in tipping environments, lines his pockets quite handsomely as well.
A good looking female bartender in America with even a modicum of flirtatious instincts can make a financial killing at a bar that gets decent traffic. Simply put, more men frequent drinking establishments, zip code be damned, than women. And we love to ogle pretty women. Combine that with these same women serving us alcohol…well, that is definitely an under-reported male fantasy. Needless to say, we unhesitatingly, and shamelessly, over-tip.
I’ve yet to figure out if the barmaids in London have any inherent advantage over their male counter parts, but it appears not, at least financially. In America, bar owners are constantly on the lookout for a sexy female bartender with talent. They are considered the gold standard and more than worth their weight in gold.
About two weeks after Mickey had left the petition for the black cabbies on the bar, the dispute was settled and the men got their equal pay. There was even an article about it in the Times.
One of our fringe regulars, a man who Mickey saw as half sod and half ok bloke, came wandering in around lunch hour on a Tuesday. He paused as the big door swung closed behind him and surveyed the dining area of the pub. There were three tables in the center that had been pushed together and were currently occupied by approximately a dozen black men, presumably cabbies, though they were not in uniform. This had become an increasingly regular sight, and had caused little or no stir amongst OWKH’s regulars. So far.
Colin, as he was known, frowned and moved to the bar. Mickey wore a similar frown, but for a different reason.
Mickey poured a beer and silently slid it to him. Colin nodded and asked “What’s with all the dark faces, mate?”
I turned and eyed him. He’d flipped around, resting his elbows on the bar, and faced the tableful of men. After a pause and no response from Mick, he turned his head and repeated the question.
Mick set his newspaper down and replied softly, “Hey, get off of my cloud.”
Colin turned to face him. “Sorry. What was that?”
“Sir Mick, no kin, wrote it years ago about sods like you. Get off of my cloud, mate.”
Colin still wasn’t grasping the disapproval, often a fatal mistake when dealing with Mickey.
Mick stood up, stepped to the bar and leaned close to Colin’s face, placing his meaty paw around the man’s beer mug. His stare was menacing. His voice remained steady, almost sinister.
“I said, ‘get the fuck out my bar, now.”
And with a flourish, he took Colin’s beer and poured it into the sink.
Colin glanced nervously over his shoulder at the black men, hesitated, and then retreated out the door so fast he was gone before anybody could say anything else.
With a gesture I’d taught him to appreciate and employ often, Mick extended a clenched fist to me and we bumped.
“I hate racists,” he muttered, returning to his stool and picking up his newspaper.
I casually commented, “Yeah, me too. Almost as much as I hate Arabs.” And we shared a laugh. A liberal’s laugh. An Irishman and a Limey finding common ground in England. Beautiful.
Incongruous? Sure. This made it all the sweeter.
One of the odd, yet charming characteristics I discovered about London pubs was the refreshing lack of overt competition between them. Often some bloke would come in and ask Mick for directions to a nearby pub. Mick almost always cheerfully complied. In fact, on the way to OWKH on my first trip, I stopped in two different pubs seeking direction. Both were more than helpful. Maybe it was an acknowledgment that there are enough London drinkers to go around, or it might simply have been basic courtesy, which seems ingrained in most Londoners.
Whatever the reason, it was a pleasant change from the often acerbic relationships competing establishments in the states seemed to develop. Civility, I was discovering, was a priority in this city.
Being forced to watch soccer, which they call football, almost continuously, began to wear thin for me after my first week. I missed American baseball; I longed for REAL football; I began to dream about my favorite NBA players.
Every so often, a golf tournament being held somewhere in Europe or in the middle east or far east, would turn up on the screen and I’d get a glimpse of Tiger Woods, which immediately took me back home, if but for a moment. Tennis remained very popular on this side of the pond and occasionally found its way on the television. Anything but soccer was a step up.
That was as much acknowledgment that sports even existed in the US I was going to get in a London pub. It wasn’t snobbishness, or even imperialism. They just didn’t find other sports that compelling. Exactly like most American sports fans feel about soccer. Nobody here seemed to see that irony, as my requests for alternative anything other than soccer were unanimously hooted down, without exception. So I watched the damn soccer. And found myself starting to like it. Who knew?
And the gambling scene in a London pub can be intriguing. The gambling didn’t exactly occur IN the pub, but right next door to the OWKH was a betting shop where a bookmaker would take a bet on almost anything you could imagine. I wandered over there one afternoon and because it was slow, got ten minutes with the owner. He said sports only made up about 60% of his betting revenue. Politics was popular, he said. And bets could be placed on potential foibles and gaffs by members of the royal family as well. He was a fatuous Brit named Bob who hinted that his business had grown quite lucrative since Tony Blair had left office. He’d taken many bets on the next prime minister being the current London mayor Boris Johnson, aka BoJo. BoJo vehemently denied any such aspirations, but Bob said not a day goes by someone doesn’t come in and put 100 quid or so on BoJo to be running things after the next election. Coming off his hugely successful hosting of the Summer Olympics, BoJo seemed hesitant to strike while his iron was hot, thus confusing some people who assumed he was a natural to defeat current PM David Cameron in the next election.
I asked him if the crash in 2008 had cut into his business and he simply shook his head, a grin spreading across his face.
“Quite the opposite, mate. Even the number of sods playing the bloody Lotto went up. The crash brought out in Brits the instinct to strike it rich quick. I figure I’m in a recession-proof business. Used to be the pubs would remain busy during downtimes, but now even they are closing to the tune of about one a day, from what I hear.”
“What about next door? You hear anything?”
“Don’t hear much, but unless they get that Nigel to change his frying grease more than once a millennium, they could be in for rough patch. That bloke is lazy. Used to be some of the best fish ’n chips in the city, but no longer. I walk three blocks out of the way now to get them elsewhere.”
I nodded noncommittally, feeling oddly warm about the sharp jolt of loyalty I felt when he criticized Nigel. The emotion cemented my sense of belonging, and I thanked Bob for his time and went back to the pub and ordered a Guinness and Nigel’s fish ’n chips. The oil tasted just fine.
The next day as I sat at the bar with my laptop open, writing emails, a man walked in, dressed neutrally. He sported a black felt fedora speckled with raindrops, an umbrella with a gnarled wood stem that remained unopened, a black and white hounds tooth jacket, pressed black jeans and cordovan loafers.
At least I saw it as neutral. I heard Mick mutter under his breath,”Wanker”, as he rose to greet the gentleman, who had approached the bar. He spoke with a strong Boston accent. Mick looked at me and smiled.
“What is it,” Mick began, looking straight at me. “Boston doing some housecleaning? Getting rid of its flotsam and jetsam?”
“Beg your pahdon,” came the gray haired, mustachioed man’s response. He looked to be about 60.
Mick was pouring the man a Guinness as he spoke. “I’m just sayin’. My mate here,” and he gestured toward me, “he’s from Bean Town as well. You make two in one month. Just beats the odds, is all.”
“Oh, I see. My accent gives it away, does it?”
Mick laughed. “As does mine, I suppose.”
The man turned toward me, hand extended.
“Jeremy Gladstone, Dorchester.”
I shook his hand. “William Scott, originally from Boston, but went to school in California. Left the accent in the Golden State, with most of my liver and a good chunk of my heart.”
He laughed. “Stanford?”
“How’d you know?”
“If you leave the Boston area for an education, there are very few places that move you vertically. Just a guess.”
“Loved school on The Farm. Best four years of my life. I live here now, for about a month. You visiting London?”
He took a long pull on his Guinness. Mickey was behind his paper, but I knew he was listening.
“I, uh, I have moved here rather suddenly, actually. To meet a woman. An internet thing, you know.”
I nodded. “Doesn’t quite raise the eyebrows that it used to, does it?”
“Indeed, but it is quite the novelty for this lady and myself, given our age. Not exactly the courting process we followed in our younger days.”
“How far did you go, electronically? Did you Skype?”
“We did. And we both are proficient with the written word. We covered as many bases as one can shy of touching one another. So there were few if any surprises when I deplaned at Heathrow, other than the fact the rolling electronic sidewalks were all under repair. This was three days ago. Today is my initial foray out alone; wanted to check out the neighborhood on foot, if you will. The chap at the newsstand recommended this place.”
“Yes, I do believe that was his name. Brazilian fellow, I believe. Rather swarthy type.”
“Yes. That’s our South American soccer fanatic.”
“Its football, you wanker,” Mick automatically corrected.
Our beers were empty. I looked toward Mickey, who had risen quietly and was already pouring us two more.
“You come permanent, Jerome?” Mick asked, sliding our beers in front of us. “Or to retrieve her?”
He took a long swallow and hesitated. Mick winked at me.
“I’m not certain, to be honest. I think she wants to go to Boston, but I think I’d like to stay here. It may be our first dilemma.”
“Rather significant one, “I said.
“Indeed,” he said, nodding, adding “how long have you been here, William? Was it a month I heard?”
“Just over a month. Feels like longer though. This place right here has been a wonderful welcome committee.”
“This is my first trip to London, and hence, my first London pub. I do fancy the atmosphere.”
“Mickey here is responsible for most of it. Everyone is welcome, until they prove otherwise.”
Jerome nodded. “Like most places, I suppose.”
Nigel swung through the saloon doors with
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