Carol’s Christmas

Happy Easter…. Issue #20 of PUSH is out this week; you must buy it from joe.england64@gmail.com as it is brilliant. I’ve got something in it, but this is a story I had in issue #19 last December -:

winter vomiting

Every cunt from work thought it was a daft idea. Said we were mental. Told us in no uncertain terms, when Carol announced our plans over a few post graft peeves at our leaving do, that we’d just be hoying  money down the drain. Me protesting it was Carol’s idea got nowhere either. Consensus being she was “a daft cow,” while I was “soft as shite” for going along with her. Most reckoned we’d be better off sticking the cash on a horse or even giving it to one of those pissed blokes you see pretending to busk in town. Did we listen to them? Did we fuck!

Life was sound for me and Carol as we coasted into our 40s. No kids to skint us. Graft a total fucking doss. The coin was canny now we were both top of the scale. I still had the long dark night of the soul every Sunday evening, but once you actually got to work and savoured that first cuppa on their time, it wasn’t so bad. Mind come Friday, I couldn’t wait to get out of the place. Every other fucker was the same. Car park like the starting grid at Brands Hatch come 3 o’clock and the bar of The Victoria six deep by quarter past. Once I’d cleaned the first couple of inches from the top of my first Friday pint, work was a distant memory.

The wife was different though. Soon as she logged off, the internal clock was ticking down the seconds until she was back there again. While I was content to daydream at a desk for 37 hours a week, reassured by the thought of money in the bank, she resented every second spent at work. Restless. Aspirational. Bohemian.  At first, her misery was a coping mechanism, but a creeping acknowledgement that the straitjacket of mortgage payments and  being a grown-up were keeping her glued to a computer terminal for the foreseeable, meant she began searching for an emotional escape route. Creative writing. Yoga. The gym. A women only steel band. Interior design. Nothing satisfied Carol, or held her interest for long.

She’d always been brilliant in the kitchen and, almost out of desperation, enrolled on a Cordon Bleu cookery night class. That first time she returned: gabbling, babbling, hyperventilating with excitement, marked the moment things started to change for me and her. She threw dinner parties. Made buffets for celebrations and community events. Donated cakes and pastries to bake sales at schools and churches I’d never heard of, revelling in the praise she got for her culinary skills. Fair dues. Nobody ever tells you that you’re such a wonderful and innovative Senior Clerical Officer you should be on the telly. Then the general email about the Voluntary Redundancy scheme came out in the Friday afternoon work briefing that most of us deleted without reading.

Our section was a ghost town when the email landed, as they’d all downed tools to down pints. I hung around for Carol, but she waved me away, saying she’d something she needed to finish. Strange. Normally she was one of the most serious after work boozers, getting the thick end of a bottle of Sauvignon down her neck before she could unclamp her jaw. Eventually she showed up well past 4, brandishing an email she’d got back from Human Resources. Illustrative figures of our joint projected pay-out. Frankly, I wasn’t that keen on bailing because I’d no fucking idea what I’d do with my days. Minutely examining the details of the time-constrained enhanced scheme, Carol pointed out “it’ll not be on offer forever,” urging me to “think what we could do with all that money.” I got sick of listening to her reciting a litany of reasons for us to take our bit that whole weekend. It was all she talked about. Eventually she wore down my resistance. Funny really. We’d met at work. Back in the days when having a public sector admin job meant you had fuck all to do most of the time. If you weren’t a crossword fiend, then all you did was chat. Stuck in the same section, we got on great. Impersonated flirtation by swapping our unrealistic dreams of escape. Twenty years later, she was still at it.

Monday first thing I forwarded the email she’d written for me, registering my interest in the scheme. From that point it was all systems go. Things ran away from me. I could hardly keep up. Wednesday we found out we’d both been accepted. Thursday we got our leaving date and emailed everyone invites to our forthcoming leaving do. Friday I discovered what she intended we would do with the rest of our lives. While we both agreed that paying off the mortgage was essential, what to do with the remainder was less clear. Compromise in mine and Carol’s relationship was another word for surrender on my part. She immediately put the block on my suggestions of a new car, or a long holiday abroad, or even a camper van to go touring in.  Her plan was to invest the last bit of our lumper, so she’d be able to cook and I’d be able to have a few pints, listen to some bands and watch a bit football.

If I’d thought the process of leaving work was quick, it was nowt compared to our next move. In The Victoria there were all these posters advertising “the chance to run your own pub” with a number to text. Carol had sent a message and they got back to her to arrange a chat the next Friday. While the rest of our section piled into the bar and started chaining pints, we got ushered into the small back room to talk to this sixth former in a suit. The regional manager. Trying to look professional, Carol insisted we drank coffee. We needn’t have bothered.  The interview consisted of a quick check that we weren’t bankrupt nonces, then being asked when we’d like to start. While the answer could have been immediately, Carol slowed the whole thing down by talking through this PowerPoint presentation on her lap top she’d obviously knocked up on work time, outlining her “vision” for the place. Real ales. Craft beers. Bistro dining in the lounge. Gastropub experience. Live music in the mothballed, moribund function room that hosted depressing works Xmas dos and reeked of damp. Minimalist décor. No Sky Sports. Sounded great to me and to the bairn from the brewery, who stressed their “hands-off” management style, that “bestowed autonomy” on landlords, providing we coughed up a “bond” for the lease, returnable subject to certain “performance targets being met” at the end of a six month probationary period. Writing that cheque cleaned us out, which panicked me a bit as this place was dying on its arse.

The Victoria only got our custom out of necessity, since it was the only bar in the immediate area. One of those big art deco 1930s suburban roadhouses, surrounded on 3 sides by acres of semi-detached houses and facing our offices on the fourth. Go two miles in every direction and you’d find another pub like it; only open until the developers tore it down for flats or a Tesco Express.  The brewery never bothered investing in this place. Sky Sports on permanently and £2 pints on a Monday, that was all. No soul. No atmosphere. No continuity of staff. The shower of useless relief managers. A half full bar of sullen drinkers, swallowing gallons of unhelpfully flat lager and affecting an interest in Brighton against Huddersfield, while their women crouched over iPhones, updating social media and glugging iced bottles of bubblegum flavoured Rose.

I suppose the place was fairly clean and generally didn’t have jakeys and skag heads spilling out on the pavement, sucking on badly rolled single skinners. Mind the choice of beer was crap. A fundamental problem with a pub. I drank Stella, the only safe option from all the fizzy keg shite on offer. Worse than the drink was the food. Inedible microwaved stodge, which is why Carol went to the bother of preparing a last supper at our leaving do, when we announced that the brewery had been “excited” by Carol’s plan for the place and we’d be taking over, once the pub reopened after a cosmetic upgrade. Needless to say, the news got fucked off from up a height by every twat who’d showed their face. Despite the fact all those sly, ungrateful Doubting Thomas cunts were digging into second and third helpings of the free bait. I knew these brickbats weren’t personal. Maybe there was an element of jealousy that we’d got out the door with a decent wedge and had an idea of where we were going next, but most folk seemed genuinely concerned that we didn’t blow the lot on an unrealistic pipedream.

There was no way of hiding the fact The Victoria was a dreary shithole. Carol wasn’t having that explanation though.  At closing time, she drained a half pint of Sauvignon Blanc. As I waited by the door to essay weak smiles of farewell to the remnants of the party, she trumped me by hollering; “I’ll prove you bastards wrong. Just watch. The future starts now.” It didn’t really, as the place was shut for the thick end of a month while we mucked in. Carol worked the kitchen and I sorted the bar. The posters came down and the walls had a coat of this watery, reddish brown emulsion drizzled across them. A load of carpets got thrown out and the big tellies disappeared. In their place came a Wi-Fi jukebox, blackboards for food and beer menus, as well as 4 pumps for hand pull, and another couple for an upmarket craft cider and this Czech lager I couldn’t pronounce. Finally, the bit I liked best; a great big sign by the entrance announcing WE DO NOT SERVE FOSTERS, CARLING, JOHN SMITHS OR ALCOPOPS. REFRESH YOUR TASTEBUDS & EDUCATE YOUR PALATE AT THE VICTORIA.

We opened on the Thursday teatime before the Whit weekend. The days leading up to it were mental. 2,000 leaflets printed and delivered through all the doors roundabout, every one offering a quid off a pint. Last minute hiring of bar staff and stocking the shelves, cellar and kitchen. Fine tuning the menu. I was fucked before I’d pulled my first pint.  Basically we had no time to ourselves. Instead of going back home, Carol had taken to crashing out upstairs. The last refurb had seen the manager’s flat turned into a few ropey, en suite guest rooms, to try and ride the pre-recession Travelodge wave. No fucker ever stayed here. Too far from town.  Ideal for us though.

That first week was a blur. Saturday was the Cup Final. We were stowed out with chancers using up as many vouchers as they got their hands on. I had to turf half a dozen radgies out the bogs for doing beak. Sparked one of the cunts when he waved a bottle. Didn’t bother with the poliss. No need for the hassle and a reputation so early. Had to call an ambulance when some fat lass fell off her heels after a session on the 6% scrumpy. These things happen.

The honeymoon lasted the whole summer. Sun bleaching down most days. Free to air sport from the World Cup and Wimbledon meaning we didn’t miss the Sky trade. Barbecues and buskers’ afternoons in the beer garden each Sunday, run by Tone Deaf Dave, a shaggy haired layabout mature student and our hopeless head barman with a Neil Young fixation. Carol was buzzing. Never seen her so happy. Whether it was gourmet venison burgers or fine dining takes on Sunday lunch, the kitchen was her domain and the food was glorious. We were selling swimming pools full of hoppy hand pulls, crisp continental lagers and zesty high class perry. The word was out there. The Victoria was the place to be. 5,000 followers on Twitter. Taxis parking up outside on the off chance. Articles in the paper. Namechecks on local radio. Sat out in the beer garden, relaxing over a late one, following a manic August Bank Holiday, life seemed perfect. We never went back to ours as we were too busy here. We lost contact with friends unless they dropped by. Even then we were generally too busy to chat properly. We were more tired, but more happy than ever before.

Autumn killed us though. Over the years, I’d noticed that just about every Friday from September to Christmas somebody had booked the function room for engagements, silver weddings, landmark birthdays or some other do. Trays of curly cheese sandwiches and Hi Ho Silver Lining at last orders. Prole art threat. We’d fucked that side of the business off. The decision had been made that our function room was strictly for live music only, so we’d turned away all booking inquiries, other than our old work’s Xmas do of course.

Initially, the music policy was rigidly inflexible. No tribute bands, only original artists. The Sunday buskers sessions, seemed to tell us we’d got a market already, but it didn’t work out like that. All those amateur Bob Dylans were happy enough to play their self-penned dull shite and listen to 50 other shades of depressing cack when there was no cover charge, but as soon as you put someone on the door, they weren’t interested. Problems with promoters. Because they’d never heard of us, they didn’t trust us, so we didn’t get enough bookings. Because we didn’t have enough bookings, bands weren’t keen to risk playing here as there wasn’t an established audience. Tone Deaf Dave offered his services. Put the feelers out. Started hosting a gig on the last Saturday of the month. I gave the bands, all up and coming locals devoid of talent, wit or originality, a drink. We asked for donations on the door but never made enough to cover the staff.

The situation wasn’t grim, but it was concerning. I mean we were steady enough Thursday, for the quiz, through to Sunday mid-afternoon, but the lack of Sky games cost us a load of floating boozers. A subtle 4.3% Pale Ale and a sumptuous helping of locally sourced duck breast with champ mash, chorizo spiced savoy cabbage, accompanied by cider and mustard gravy for £15 didn’t appeal to shaven headed dicks in snide Stone Island jackets who wanted Carling and chicken nuggets while they watched Stoke against Villa.

I’d done away with the £2 Monday pints, as it used to attract all the local deadbeats. The Chlamydia Club. Pissed pensioners shagging in the bogs and selling knock off batteries, meat and aftershave. Blokes in their 60s swapping 200 tabs for a blow job. I wasn’t having that shite in my bar. Trouble was, without their harsh patronage it was pointless opening Monday to Wednesday. Carol started getting on my case. The probationary review loomed. Worries about the bond. Me and Tone Deaf Dave put our heads together and came up the brainwave of a special celebration party for our six month anniversary.

Any fucker with an ounce of common sense would have spotted Halloween or Guy Fawkes as ideal times to host a bash. Unfortunately, these momentous boozing milestones had slipped by without us noticing and, almost out of desperation, we decided on a St. Andrew’s Day bash at the end of November. Now ask anyone and they’ll tell you when Paddy’s Night is and St. George’s Day. They probably know the Jocks go big on Burns Night in January. Truth was there wouldn’t be a bar from Ullapool to Stranraer that was holding a St Andrew’s Day party, never mind south of Hadrian’s Wall. We were though.

We adopted a policy of fiscal rectitude for the event. Entry would be free, but a donation to cover costs was requested. Carol promised her take on “contemporary Caledonian nibbles.” I got a load of this bottled Crofters Craft Ale that was past its sell by date, punting them for a couple of quid. Tone Deaf Dave sorted out a band. Him and his mates doing crowd pleasing covers of Scottish classics. He insisted they would provide a memorable evening’s entertainment.

Come the day itself, nerves were getting the better of me. Took the afternoon off. Kept out of Carol’s way. Went to the football. First time all season. Nil nil. Shite. At least it took my mind off stuff. I got back around six and Carol was up a height making curried haggis ragout, herring and Drambuie tart and miniature Irn Bru scones. Meanwhile the band had set up. Usual shower of 50 something pony tails. Flight cases all over the floor. Anecdotes about supporting Wishbone Ash in the 80s. No singer though. Tone Deaf Dave was apparently getting ready, which meant he’d either be outside skinning up or persuading the other bar staff his drink was on the house. Cunt.

Half 8 we opened the room and the punters poured in. Festooned in Saltires and posters of Nicola Sturgeon, Sean Connery, Kenny Dalglish and Ken Stott, it looked brilliant. Tone Deaf Dave had sorted out a playlist of smash hits from Rod Stewart to Glasvegas as background music. The Crofters Craft, despite an unpleasant peach and banana after taste, was going down well and Carol’s buffet soon looked like it had been ramraided by the local support group for Prader-Willi syndrome sufferers. The evening was building up nicely when Tone Deaf Dave’s intro tape kicked in.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, please put your hands together for a legendary performer. For one night only, the Jimmy Shand Experience present their tribute to Scotland; Caledonia Dreaming!!” Rapturous applause gave way to screeching feedback, clouds of dry ice and blinding strobe lights. The backing band, uniformly attired in black clothes and dark glasses, started grinding out a churning drone of major chords and a ponderous, insistent rhythm. Out of the mist emerged Tone Deaf Dave, denuded of trademark out of tune 12 string. Carrying a decrepit button accordion, he’d assumed the role of front man. Kilt, Scotland rugby jersey, Tam O’Shanter with ginger wig. Russ Abbott fronting The Velvet Underground.

The audience, amused at first, roared on their approval as it became clear the opening number was a version of “Donald Where’s Your Troosers?” Emboldened by the reaction, Kelly Marie’s “Feels Like I’m In Love” was up next, though it had more in common with Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop” than the original.  It still went down well, but you could sense the joke wearing thin already. By the time the medley of Kenneth McKellar’s “You Take the High Road” and Harry Lauder’s “I Know a Lassie,” augmented by an atonal accordion solo had finished, the first jeers and rancorous cat calls were audible. Things got ugly when they did “The Skye Boat Song” in the manner of The Mary Chain. The apocalypse dawned when Tone Deaf Dave swapped the accordion for a set of bag pipes and they approached “Flower of Scotland” like Hendrix at Woodstock. The last few bits of the buffet rained down on the band. When this student lass scored a direct hit on Tone Deaf Dave’s bollocks with an Irn Bru scone, he reacted by pouring a full bottle of Crofters Craft over her head.

Everything kicked off. Fists. Glasses. Bottles. The lights were on and teeth were going out.  Half the crowd fucked off and the rest got stuck in. Tone Deaf Dave unconscious on the deck as half a dozen lads gave him a shoeing. Repeated shouts of “No fucking Cops! No fucking Cops!” By the time things cleared, it was like Glastonbury after the festival. Tone Deaf Dave off to A&E. A carpet of broken glass. Lakes of lager. Bait up the walls. Carol weeping uncontrollably in the corner, holding a napkin over her bleeding sneck after some fucker panelled her right in the dial. I called last orders early.

Frankly, I was expecting to have to pack up and move out, but a call from the brewery announced we’d one last chance. Probably because there wasn’t another pair of twats daft enough to take the place on. We had a month then they’d decide whether they’d shut us down or not. December. The one time when every pub is guaranteed to be rammed. Except us. Word got around about the mass pagger and locals gave us a swerve. The students cleared off at the end of term and pretty soon I had to let half the staff go. Tone Deaf Dave on the payroll and on the sick. Post-Traumatic Stress, apparently. Most afternoons it was me and a few punters reading papers. Watching the dark closing in.

Carol had given up. Her heart wasn’t in it. The familiar restless malaise was creeping back into her soul. She’d mentally accepted her P45. I was keen to give it another shot, but she’d chucked her hand in. Went back home and hid. It was up to me to keep the kitchen going, but with no feeding customers, the stuff wasn’t selling, so I got into a defrost then freeze routine. The same dishes went in the microwave each morning, then back in cold storage at night. Lasagne toasties. My speciality.

The last hurrah was our old work’s do the day the place shut for Christmas. Black Eye Friday we’d always called it. In the old days you’d start bevvying at your desk from morning tea break onwards, but Health and Safety regs knocked that on the head. Instead, folk got a half day flexi to get leathered on work time and at work’s expense.  We’d made a pact that we’d put on a brave face and if this was our final fling, so be it.  There were no other events in the diary and the Christmas Lunch had about a dozen bookings, which was 10 more than we’d taken for New Year’s Eve. So fuck if we were on Jobseekers by Twelfth Night, I wanted to go down fighting.

Carol emptied the freezers and banned me from the kitchen. Our former colleagues were getting plenty to eat. I scouted every dusty bottle and short dated can in the place and pretended it was a craft ale festival. These cunts weren’t paying for it, so they’d drink any old shite. Just like in the old days the idea was get slaughtered in The Victoria then head off to town around 7, before ending the night puking in a kebab shop, crying over some bloke at last orders or battling in the taxi rank. The real Christmas spirit.

The afternoon was going like clockwork. Bait and beer disappearing. No complaints from the half cut hedonists.  I noticed the bogs were mad busy though, but put this down to festive bugle usage. Then one of the Admin Assistants from Pensions told us there was a problem with a couple of the ladies’ cubicles. Fuck me; it was like Bobby Sands’ bedroom. Runny shite everywhere, mixed with sinks full of hoy. This was worse than last year. Soon the function room was like a typhoid ward. People spontaneously shat and puked where they sat, stood or fell. Dry heaves. They howled in agony. Even the designated drivers were at it, so at least I knew it wasn’t the peeve that had cattled them. The only ones unaffected were the 4 vegans from Repro. When the penny dropped, Carol went into meltdown.

“You’ve fucking poisoned them. You’ve killed the bastards,” she screamed. Nobody told me, but thawing and refreezing Pork Chevice and Mackerel Diane half a dozen times could have a deleterious effect. The taxis intended for town were forced to detour to A&E, joining the queue with the innocent and guilty victims of drink related violence, perpetrated in memory of Jesus Christ’s birth. Luckily, there were no fatalities on our watch, but the legacy of that afternoon’s catering holocaust was Christmas in an isolation ward on saline drips for half a dozen former colleagues, not to mention an immediate closure notice served on us by the Council’s Food Hygiene Officer. The brewery were very fair though. Stuck us on a month’s gardening leave and refunded 70% of our coin. Carol went downhill. Had to get the doctor out on Christmas Eve. Ended up on tablets. Bad with her nerves. She’s pulling round a bit though. Good job we paid the house off, as she never leaves the fucker these days.

Me? I’m doing this Access course with Tone Deaf Dave, so I can go to Uni come September. Thinking about Psychology or maybe Counselling. Reckon I’d be canny at it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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