The more I saw it, the more I saw through it, or maybe behind it. Big Northern blokes, strutting with their elbows out like they had sunburned armpits. Thousand yard stare, no one talks to me like that. Barking their orders for their pints, looking through you, because you were a skinny eighteen year-old barman.
Some were frightening but deeply pathetic: one of the doormen from a pub up the street was the biggest twat I’ve ever met: on and on about badger-baiting, winding up the barmaids, fighting with his lass, unfunny, every joke about him throwing his weight around. Kathryn, a barmaid I liked a lot, didn’t handle him well. She couldn’t let his bullshit slide, so he would work himself up into a fury, stamping round saying ‘I am a respectable man!’. I think he thought it meant that people should respect and fear him, rather than the image I got which was of him wearing a top hat. Once I heard him moaning “I wish I was back in Amsterdam. I was happy there.”
Others were hard in packs, but you could deal with that, before the tables started flying. If the right music was on, they’d be happy: we had the male half of a whole pit village in once, singing along to Bohemian Like You, they all hooted the woo-hoo bit in unison. It was funny and nice, they all said goodbye when they left, brought their glasses up to the bar. That’s a gesture that counts for a lot.
Some became my friends. One would talk about fighting, but it was his mate Paul who was really good at it. He never had to that I ever saw. His fists were likes socks full of ball-bearings, his head was shaved and round like a pool ball: he was good at pool. We’d play it, he’d thrash me, then we’d spend an hour on the quiz machines, where I would earn us money. Paul only answered about sport, or any question about birds. He knew everything about birds, and it took me a long time to notice that.
He hated people who weren’t white I won’t use the words, you already know them. It was genuine too. His Dad wasn’t like that, also called Paul, he taught him ‘all men are the same’, but his Grandad, who had served on a battleship in WW2, hated ‘them’. Paul loved his kids, especially his first son Samuel, who he wanted to shelter from the world. Samuel had had to be circumcised when he was a little boy, and Paul was scared, really anxious, that other kids at school would pick on him for being different. He taught him how to fight, by nine the kid was lethal. When I was ever round at his house, he played on his computer games like no one else I had ever seen, a bright young boy.
I couldn’t help crying in the pub one night. My dad had just been diagnosed with cancer and was about to start a six-week power-slide into a painful and undignified death. Paul put his arm around me, it was like being hugged by a plank, and stared at anyone who dared to glance over. People were looking anywhere but at me and him, they could smell the threat. He leaned into me: “Don’t let them see, son. Don’t let them see.”