Amid the cacophony of drink-fuelled laughter, shouting, conversation and occasional singing, there is you, an eye in the middle of the Saturday-night hurricane, surrounded by customers and colleagues as you attack the dwindling supply in the ice bucket, slosh full pints forward, patiently wait as the man who was in the middle of telling you the order for the rowdy table in the back runs off from the crammed bar for them to bark drink names at him again.
Two vodka tonics.
Pint of Camden.
Large white wine.
Two fizzy ciders. Pints.
Two pints of pale ale. Any is fine.
Sorry, forgot to tell you one of them wants slimline tonic in their vodka tonic.
The roar from the pub gets louder. Drinkers don’t know what they want, but they want it now, they want the reassurance of a glass in their hand, the weight of the beverage suppressing all they wish to ignore while in the confines of the pub. You know it because you’ve been there, in another pub elsewhere or even in that very same pub, counting out your money, getting out your card, placing orders for something that will tip you along the road to inebriation.
Bottles are swiftly opened. Beer is poured. Those days on the other side of the bar seem distant as, feet sticking to the floor, you squeeze past customers to collect the diaspora of empty glassware to be returned to the bar, to be baptized in the hot water of the glass washer and to be reborn again as a vessel for ale, lager, wine or rudimentary cocktail. You think about when you can be reborn. You think about when you can have a shower to wash off whatever the hell is black and sticky on your arm.
Would you like a drink?
(The kindest words in all of humanity.)
Thank you, yes, I’ll have a half.
The night wears on. More glasses are collected. Fewer orders are made. Well, orders for alcohol. You fill pint glasses full of water for some sensible souls. It’s for their friend. Actually, they want one, too. It’s the tipping point in the evening, where more people are drifting out into the night. Some head to the next place, a club in Dalston, a bar that stays open later in Islington, a warehouse party in Manor House, the notorious Hackney pub with a late licence. Others accept that the end has come. They settle up their tabs, give you a wave and a shout, and move off towards home, either alone or in the company of their lovers, their friends, their housemates, their new acquaintances who have become fast comrades in this evening.
The lights flash.
Last orders at the bar, please. Last orders.
There are always stragglers you try to be gentle with, even though you’re aware of the rough tactics in other pubs, having been subjected to them. You take to passive-aggression: the lights are put all the way up, the music stops. You take their empty glasses away, leaving them nothing but their conversation and each other, and they’re not ready to let go of that yet. Not yet. You wipe the tables around them down, you put the chairs up.
Guys, it’s time.
Okay, sorry, we’re going.
Some ask you what other places are still open nearby, where else they can go to make the night last longer. You give them options. Leaving you and your workmates they move on, clinging onto the promise of more. More drinks, more fun, more laughs.
You continue to blow out candles and wipe up tables in an exhausted peace. The only sounds in the pub are the sounds of bins being dragged out from behind the bar, the rumble of the glass washer, the squeak that your shoes have somehow acquired in the evening that will be lost on the dingy pavement on the way to the bus stop later. But that is later.
The pub has been cleaned, the money has been counted, bottles of wine and beer restocked for the next day’s trade and your half has been poured. The beer you wanted ran out, so you’re left with a second-best option that’s still pretty damn good. For the first time in six hours you sit, and it’s glorious. Your colleagues sit next to you along the bar, equally exhausted with their own halves and pints. One rolls up a cigarette.
When are you in next?
Tomorrow. I’m in at two. You?
I’ve got to be back here at three. Want another drink?
Yeah, go on.
You get a fresh pint from your friend. For now, you’ve won the battle. All of you. Until the next shift. But, before then, you’ll take the bus home and collapse into bed, too tired to shower. You’ll wake up, a little late, have that shower and then you’ll get ready for the next shift, hopefully with some time for coffee and breakfast.
The glasses are rinsed out and placed near the glass washer, the lights are turned off and the alarm turned on. The pub is locked up and you say your goodbyes.
See you tomorrow.
Yeah. See you then.