went past my local the other day as I walked my dog as part of the lockdown exercise allowance. The Hermits Cave sits on a street corner with a curved glass façade from which, if you sit in the right place, you can see the action outside like a fishbowl.
Not today. The glass is shuttered, the bar silent and dark. I stop to peer through a gap, wondering if, as some on the neighbourhood WhatsApp group have suggested, that the licensee Brendan has been staging lockdown lock-ins with some of the liquor-hardened locals.
Nope. No sign of activity in the front bar where the stuffed wildebeest head stares down amid the array of weird displays that sit gathering a little more dust. I peer hard and confirm that the Knob Creek whiskey bottle, half full or half empty depending on your mood, hasn’t been touched.
No sign of Brendan either although it’s clear that someone is living upstairs because a window is open and the curtain flapping, as if dismissing the smells of human isolation. Imagine being trapped in a pub for six weeks. Sounds great but if you have no-one to share the cellar with then it must be dreary.
Technology has served a great purpose but human contact adds a dimension that is irreplaceable
I wonder how the friends I’ve made here are doing. After all, their routines have been taken away from them. Not just alcohol, which, let’s face it, is be a good thing for all of us in this period, but their social existence and habits that make them feel safe and relevant.
I text old Bob, the retired butcher who has the impressive achievement of having twice won an award in the annual best sausage in England competition and twice been the world oyster eating champion. He managed the latter feat in the mid 1980s, jamming dozens of shellfish down his craw washed down with litres of Guinness. You’d think he was the size of the house but the bloke is so skinny he has to run around the shower to get wet.
Bob leans on the bar five days a week from 4pm until 7pm, then takes the bus back home about a mile up the road. He works part-time at a city provedore and eats just one meal a day – lunch – which he discusses in detail and with relish when he buys your first drink. Bob answers my text by sending a video, a send-up of a Hitler being told that lockdown restrictions are being lifted but he won’t be able to go to the pub for a pint until August. He (Hitler) explodes in fury.
A couple of days later I meet little Nicky in the street as I am on my walk. Nicky could have been a jockey, wears a bandana beneath his cap and took care of his ageing father until he died last year. He goes to the pub a few times a week, first for a quiet pint – invariably Fosters – while he does the crossword. After this he looks for a political discussion, the more heated the better. He’s doing okay, he says, but the crosswords at home bore him stupid and there’s no-one to argue with now his Dad’s gone.
Pubs are not merely drinking holes but community hubs in a world that’s increasingly isolating
There are two sisters, Marie and Jenny, who stand at the other end of the bar. Jenny works locally and on the nights they meet, is usually in her spot just after 6. Marie comes a little later, after a bus ride from the city where she works in publishing. They chat and laugh for another hour or so and then head their separate ways.
The sisters haven’t seen each other for six weeks and it’s becoming a strain; their Zoom drinks a novelty that’s wearing thin. Technology has served a great purpose but human contact adds a dimension that is irreplaceable.
That’s the thing about pubs. They are not merely drinking holes but community hubs; places of conversation and understanding where you can be recognised and welcomed in a world that has become increasingly isolating.
Brendan is outside having a smoke. The late afternoon light is beautiful and normally the footpath outside his door is crammed with drinkers meeting friends or on their way to a nearby restaurant. But today it is empty as Brendan sucks on the stub and glances right and left as if waiting for customers to magically appear.
“How’s it going?” My question is stupid. Of course it’s not going well.
His response is kind: “I can manage. It’s the people who live alone and have nowhere else to go that I worry about.”