WELL HOUSE LETTERS
I can't remember it, but know
that you once told me the phrase
for not having enough time
to listen to records or read books,
do all the thing we want to do
before we die. Happy pub talk,
but it does seem to matter, though
we hardly rush to fill every moment,
do we? Preferring instead the sludge
of time seen through a pint glass,
the lingering smoke of conversation
in the early evening, as the cathedral
turns to spotlights and shadows
and the afternoon regulars go home.
Who's that guy you're scared of
making eye contact with? Some kind
of writer you said, who gets talking
and won't stop. I know the type,
poets are all the same: bitchy, nervous
and with a tendency to drink. No-one reads
our books, even fewer people buy them.
When the bookshops do it's months before
we get to see a cheque. You can't say
I've oversold the writing life to you,
but I'd still encourage you to get your poems
out into the world. They're good, and that's
what it's about; not fame or cash or crit.
How is it that no matter how early
we arrive, we always stay too late?
Sometimes we skulk in the corner,
sometimes stand up at the bar
and listen to Ian's jokes and plans
for his next trip. Where can you go
for so little cash? How come he always
has such a good time? The only things
I know about Eastern Europe are from
you. Will we ever make it to Prague?
I'd like to, and I've got the cash.
I'm glad you liked the French books
I rescued from the college discard pile.
Like me,their size, design, and smell
soon had you entranced; unlike me,
however, you can probably read them.
I'm glad, too, you showed me that book
of wartime Sarajevo poems; I ordered it
the same day. And I'm glad you
enjoyed Blackburn and Berrigan,
found their New York similar to ours.
Sometimes I feel we live in a world
somebody else has written. How else
to explain the awkward paragraph breaks
or long gaps between pages
that interrupt our lives?
It's often in the pub that I get
first sight of what you've been writing.
Like packets of photos, you proffer
a bunch. I'm never sure if you want
critical advice or just a friendly grunt.
Your notebooks are full of things
you've seen, people you've met
and places you've been. How to make
them more than snapshots? How to
mix them up and still be real? Is it
mood or memory you're after? Your
sense of pattern's not the same
as mine; you don't tend to set up
projects or write in a set form.
But then we both like the laconic
verbals of pub talk, the drift and
discontinuity, interruptions and
asides of people we only know
as faces in the bar. Here, regulars'
stories are changed upon retelling,
often within the hour, as Mike or
Malcolm, sometimes Ian, turn up
and the joke's retold. Then the
punchline changes and someone new
becomes the butt or star of the tale.
And so it goes, with a life of its own,
drifting from table to table, bar to
bar, out of the door, across the city
travelling to wherever gossip goes.
You're the only other person I know
who is happy reading in the pub.
A book, a beer, pack of cigars,
and you're a contented man. Perhaps
a nice thick paper and a sandwich too?
You read more than I do, I reckon,
and that's going some... And sometimes
what you read is even more obscure:
East European editions of unknown novels,
fiction that The Guardian recommends but
Waterstones don't stock, or something
with a good cover that you bought
on impulse. A cover says it all. I know
we share that opinion too. On that subject,
if I haven't said it before, I'm grateful
for the designs you do Ð you know,
people really like them. I'm amazed
that we ever manage to get books out.
We've published loads by now. I wonder
whose shelves they're on, and if somewhere
else a stranger is reading one in a pub...
I see Tracey's doing the crossword tonight,
and is ignoring us again. We get an initial
grunt and then a nice view of his back.
Have we fallen out or is it just the need
to fill the blanks? Sometimes, I think Ian
has got the right idea: sit tight in the corner,
the best vantage and service point, and drink
steadily through the night, letting people
come to him. They all know where to find him.
Never make house calls and when the going
gets too tough, bugger off abroad. Don't
leave any clues; turn your back on the world
and bury your nose in your beer. We'll sit
at a table by ourselves then; it's a good job
we're thick-skinned. And why can't Mike
keep his lustful stares more subtle?
Mid-conversation, his gaze is drawn
somewhere else. The discussion falters,
stops, and longing replaces any talk.
Arm outstretched, he points her out.
You know she must have noticed
know she doesn't care or want attention.
It's a good job he's thick-skinned
and got us for drinking mates.
How I hate it when the singing crowd
are in from the cathedral. You'd think
they'd be sedate and sip an orange
juice or two, but no, they swill beer
down at high volume and wobble off
to do their concert. Quiet returns
to the place as they go. The regulars
sigh, fidget and smile. That spate of
travellers coming in was strange, too,
the nightly ritual of counting coins
and arguing, even the occasional fight.
I quickly learnt not to look too much;
once or twice I made myself leave,
could see trouble brewing. Next day,
you'd tell of headbutts, blood and
broken noses, evictions from the pub.
It's not our bar of course, I'm sure
others feel more claim, but it's
the only one we've got in this town
of rich students, pubs full of lager fizz.
All we want is a bit of quiet
along with some real ale. But
the weirdest thing about this place,
apart from the skeleton in the cellar,
is the smell in the gents loo. Really.
I don't know if it's bleached-out tiles,
or baked emulsion on the heating pipes,
but it's the very same smell as the
swimming baths in London I went to
every week as a kid. Each time I visit,
it's instant recall. It's the only place
that's ever smelt the same.
I like your woollen coat! I wanted
to buy the same one at the market,
but Sue said no. I was jealous as hell
when you turned up in it next day.
I won't tell my mum just in case
she tries to knit me one. Trying
to unravel what we need or want's
the trick, isn't it? Holidays or books?
Conversation or just another pint?
No contest sometimes. You can only
go away so many times, need
somewhere when you get back.
© Rupert M Loydell