Tuesday, November 6, 2007

In loving memory

When she laughs she tilts her head back, reminding me of a photograph of one of Jack the Ripper’s victims I saw in a book once. It’s six thirty on a Saturday morning and I’m watching Liz, the landlady of The Old Crown pour me a whiskey, no ice; that melted hours ago, like a polar bear’s worst nightmare. I’m thinking that for a single woman living on her own, Liz’s dressing gown and nightie are not what you’d expect. There’s nothing practical or comfortable about them. She's still buying clothes with a second party in mind, the game old bird. It’s all a bit Carry On Up The Old Crown. Me perched there like Sid James Junior. Liz puts my drink in front of me and seats herself opposite. I start talking. I use a catch phrase from a new comedy on telly. Liz’s face hardens briefly. She doesn’t get the reference and winds a stray thread from the hem of the curtains round her finger and yanks it off. Doesn’t have the time to watch a lot of telly she says. She did have a TV in the bar for a time, but the old boys only used to argue about what channel they wanted on. It’s a public house not a television room in an old folks home she told them. Liz’s laugh ended life as a sigh. I start telling her about my brother Warren. She must have seen me about with him, I tell her. Big lad. I get onto how when our mum died it knocked Warren for six. The both of us really, but especially Warren. Mum really looked after him. Warren needed looking after. But when she died he withdrew into himself, I was left to organise everything. Warren didn’t speak for a week after the funeral. I tried talking to him, but in the end I left him to it, figured he’d work it all out in his own time. Which he did, to his credit. He came bounding up to me in The Wheatsheaf, big grin on his face, saying he’s had an idea and wants to apologise for being a useless so-and-so. Never swears, Warren. Good like that. He’s tripping over his words, about how he went for a walk in the park, because mum always loved it there. That’s where he got his idea. He’d noticed that all the benches had little brass plaques on them in memory of people. You know, like ‘In Loving Memory of Mary Hedger, who spent many a happy hour in this park.’ Warren wants to get one made up for mum, which is a terrific idea because mum really did love that park and all the flowers. So, I buy Warren a Pepsi and tell him that I’ll leave it all up to him. He can choose the words, the lot. The big lump’s made up, he wants to do it so bad he doesn’t even finish his drink. I’m telling Liz all this and she’s nodding her head, squinting her eyes now and then, in that kind of sympathetic way some people have. Then, I say to her, you’ll never guess what, a week later Warren comes and finds me again. This time I’m in The Coach & Horses. Warren’s eyes are all red and his top lip is all snotty. I sit him down and tell him to take his time. He dutifully ignores me and blurts out this story about how he’d been up the park to take a look at mum’s plaque. He liked to go up there and read it. He was that pleased with himself. He’d done something for mum and he was proud as punch. But this time when he got up the park mum’s plaque had gone. It wasn’t on the bench any more. Someone had only gone and unscrewed it and stuck it onto a nearby litter bin. It broke Warren’s heart, and I wasn’t best pleased either. Who’d do that? Why? No respect some people. I finish my pint and we head up the park to see if we can’t sort this mess out. Warren takes me to the litter bin and sure enough there’s mum’s plaque firmly fixed to it. They’d done a nice job I had to admit. Next Warren leads me over to mum’s bench and things start to become a bit clearer. There are four vacant screw holes where mum’s plaque had been, but next to those four holes is another, older plaque for someone else. Warren had only bloody gone and fixed mum’s plaque to someone else’s bench. The dipstick hadn’t realised you had to have your own bench. You can’t just go and stick your plaque on someone else’s and hope they don’t mind hotching up, I told him. My guess is the family of the old dear had been passing their mum’s bench only to discover she’d got company. A lodger. Our mum. And they must have been the ones who stuck mum’s plaque on the bin. I couldn’t laugh because Warren was upset by it all. I took him into a nice little pub I know nearby and had a bit of a chat with him. Told him that maybe mum’s spirit had been up the park and moved the plaque to the litter bin. He quite took to that idea because mum had always been tidy. Never one to drop litter. She always had a handbag full of sweet wrappers did mum. Cheered Warren up no end as it goes and he soon lost himself in a bag of peanuts. Now, every year if you go up the park on the 5th April you’ll see a big, lanky lad placing a bouquet of flowers carefully and respectfully into a litter bin. And that is my brother, Warren. Liz smiles and I drain my glass. I launch into another story. The words keep tumbling out, whilst behind my eyes, deep in the back of my mind there’s a little voice fighting to be heard above the torrent of half truths and lies…what sort of person opens their pub up at six in the morning for someone they barely know? Who wakes up the landlady of a pub at six in the morning for a drink? And since when did I have a brother called Warren?

I do miss pubs and the people that populate them. This story is dedicated to a certain breed of man common to the great British boozer. He may not tell you the truth, but he will tell you a tale or two.