For Whom the Bells Toll

It was the first week of May when I had my first proper drinking session with Barry. My life was chaos. I had just completed on my first house and I was renovating it, but I was still living in my flat as it still had a month’s rent paid on it. This meant each day I would go to work, then cut across town to the house, spend the evening ripping the guts out of it, and then travel all the way back home in the late hours. It was hard to call it home anymore, though. Everything had been packed away into boxes ready for the move, apart from a cup, a plate, a fork, two pairs of black shirts, two pairs of black trousers, socks, jacket, burial money… somehow I had turned myself into a Space Monkey from Fight Club, living out my days in my own personal Paper Street House.

When you buy a house and renovate it there’s suddenly no end of builders, sparkies, chippies, plumbers and plasterers who need to speak with you, along with a whole shower of lawyers, agents and looters who want to speak at you. Everyone wants their pound of flesh when houses change hands. Fortunately, Barry wasn’t after my flesh.

“Come for a drink,” he said the moment I answered my phone. It was not a question.

“Who’s this?” I asked, trying to guess if he was the sparkie or the plasterer.

“It’s Barry, you berk. We had a drink in Tap in February.” It already sounded as if he was in the pub.

“Right, yeah. Bit busy right now, mate. I’m renovating my house.” My own voice echoed around the hollow shell of the living room as if to stress the point.

“You sound knackered. A break’ll do you good. Come for a drink.”

“I can’t…”

“Afford it? I get you. Pricey business doin’ up a house. I’m buying. Come for a drink.”

The house was empty in every sense. I was sat on a stack of plaster bags, staring at the destruction I had caused in an effort to make the place look better. It was all suddenly very depressing and right then there was nowhere I needed to be more than snug in the warm embrace of the pub. “Sure, Barry. Meet me in the City Arms in an hour.”

I found him hunched in the dark corner at the back and he bellowed my name as I entered. As if I could ever miss him. The Gruffalo would have been less conspicuous. He downed the remains of a pint as I approached him and then handed me a tenner. “You pick, I’ll pay. Nothing that tastes like feet though.”

It was a sort of trick of Barry’s. He shoves past the awkward introductions and talks to you as if you were an old friend. He does it to everyone. Strangers, bar staff, whoever he bumps into.

“It’s everywhere now, this fancy beer,” he said as I returned with two beers. He took one and sniffed it suspiciously.

“I guess. I don’t even notice it anymore. Well, cheers,” I raised my glass to clink a toast. Barry gave me a dour look and just drank a mouthful of his beer, leaving my arm extended in mid-air. I silently pulled it back and sipped my beer.

Barry was making his customary faces of disgust. He sniffed it again, and held it up to the dim light. “It looks like someone stirred their fish fingers in it.”

To this day I have no idea if ‘fish fingers’ was slang for something, or if he was being literal. There was a slight haze to the beer but nothing out of the ordinary. I had expected him to say worse. Instead he took another mouthful. “It tastes funny.”

“Funny how?”

“I dunno. Just funny. Not like feet, though.”

“I’ll count that as a win.”

“Hold on, I’m not done yet,” he glugged a third of the pint and swished it round his mouth. Then he became distracted by the pump clips that decorated the walls of the City Arms. “What is it? I need to write this down.” He took out a dirty notebook from his sheepskin coat pocket and produced a bookie’s biro from somewhere else.

“It’s Camden Helles,” I said cautiously.

“Camden,” he repeated as he wrote in small, neat lettering, “Bells. Got it.”

“Helles,” I corrected.

“Hell’s Bells?” Barry gave me a puzzled look and pocketed the notebook without making the correction. I decided to let it go. There was a pause. “What?”

“Nothing. It’s just… never mind.” I smiled. For a long time, Camden Helles had been the gateway drug I used to lure people into craft beer – it had never failed me so far, and I was glad to sit back and enjoy it with someone who knew nothing and cared nothing for whatever reputation it now had in the beer world. We were just two men relaxing with a refreshing beer in the pub after a hard day’s graft.

They went down quickly. Hammering the black mortar off a brick wall for several hours gives you a powerful thirst. Money changed hands again and this time I was back with two pints of Northern Monk Brew Co, their True North or another easy pale.

“It’s from your neck of the woods, this,” I said as I laid down the two pints.

“I only work out of Leeds, I don’t live in Leeds. I’m not city furk,” he reproached me as he wrapped a massive hand around his sleeve glass.

“Well, you can see the trees at least. What do you reckon?”

Barry shrugged and sipped. I was working with what I had on tap. For some reason a lot of the beers were dark, maybe something to do with CAMRA’s Month of Mild, and I didn’t want to move to dark beers so soon.

“So what’s in it?” he held it up to the light again.

“I honestly don’t know. Hops?” I replied with weak humour.

“’Ops?” Barry glared at me suspiciously.

“Yeah, you know? Hops?” Barry shook his head slowly and scowled. The warm, convivial atmosphere had started to crackle with the threat of ultra-violence. I cleared my throat and started gesturing wildly. “Okay. Meat, veg and potatoes, right?”

“What?” he sat back, confused, and started to look around for a menu. They didn’t do food in the City Arms and that wasn’t what I was getting at.

“You need yeast, malt and water to make beer. Meat, veg and potatoes is like your yeast, malt and water. You also need….”

“Which is which?”

I paused, momentarily stunned. This was all off the cuff stuff. “Well… so your water is the vegetables, because they’re boring but you need them both; the malt is the potatoes, as they give the fullness you need, and your yeast is the meat. You can’t make a beer without yeast, and there’s no point having a meal without meat.”

Barry nodded in agreement. “Right. So your ‘ops is your gravy.”

“Yes. Exactly. Hops are the flavouring, the herbs and seasoning. Without the hops you’re left with an utterly bland, tasteless beer.”

Barry nodded and glugged his Northern Monk. “S’alright this.”

My luck ran out on the next pint. After hitting two for two I was drunk on my success and became cocky. I bought in a dark beer. Barry nearly had a fit when I brought it over. “I don’t drink dark beer. Send it back.”

“Just try it,” I said, wielding the pint at him like a mother trying to spoon feed a baby. Barry squirmed and held up his hands defensively. I set it down. I was tempted to try the mother’s trick of drinking a mouthful and going, ‘mmm… it’s lovely.’

We glared at each other sullenly. I supped my pint generously as if to make a point.

“So I guess you think you’re an expert at all this beer stuff then?” he said scornfully. We stared at the untouched pint between us.

“Not really…” I began.

“I don’t like experts. Last time I went to see an expert was the doctor, about my weight. He says I should run five miles every day for a hundred days to shake off about three stone,” Barry jiggled his paunch for emphasis. “So I does, an’ after a hundred days I call him up.

“Have you lost the weight?” he says.

“I ‘ave, but I’m not fuckin’ ‘appy,” I replied.

“Why not, Barry?”

“Cus I’m now five hundred fuckin’ miles from home.”

I paused, caught in the headlights of uncertainty. A sly grin crept across Barry’s face. I laughed, the tension suddenly fizzing away. “Interesting if true, Barry.”

“Aye, course it were fuckin’ true. You have mine an’ get me another beer, lad,” he said, sliding me his dark beer and the money. “An’ make it Camden Bells.”

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2 thoughts on “For Whom the Bells Toll”

  1. The Gruffalo lives at St Fagans actually, behind the big wooden doors and walled area. That’s what I tell my kids anyway. We heard it snoring once.

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