Monday, 2 September 2013

A poem by Neil Fulwood

(for Alex)

We lost our jobs at the same time. Drew our dole
the same day, you at the benefit office near
the station – an ugly, utilitarian building, cold
enough to twin Nottingham with East Berlin circa
John le CarrĂ© – and me at Sovereign House
in Bulwell, its “job centre” sign more joke than
promise. Grandly named but equally insalubrious.
We signed on early. Cashed our giros. By noon
we’d got the first pint in at the Arboretum Manor.
This was back in the day, before mortgages, loan
repayments and car tax put our finances on the skids.
Food and a couple of pints for under a fiver –
plenty of shrapnel for the pool table; back when
it was twenty pence a game and not a quid.
A couple of hours at the Arbo (as we called it –
we truncated the names of our favourite boozers)
and a few frames was how we started it,
the fortnightly ritual of wasted money: the all-dayer.
We’d walk out onto Arboretum Street and whichever
direction we chose, we kept going in that direction,
one pint in every pub we passed, however
dilapidated it looked, however uninviting.
Fag-burned seats, wallpaper peeling, tables scarred
with knife-etched initials? Bad reputation, a shitty
dive? That was fine by us: broadened the appeal.
It was better than frequenting a wine bar
or theme pub. We channelled inverted snobbery
and sneered at such places. We kept it real.

Out of the city centre, on foot, past allotments
and lock-ups, through the outlying districts
and industrial areas. There, our establishments
of choice: rough, unpretentious, basic.
Landlords with sleeves rolled over beefy arms,
regulars who were part of the furniture.
One-armed bandits. Darts. The so-called charms,
in one place, of a topless barmaid. Unsure
(it was lunchtime; the place was empty) we
stuck around. Ten minutes later, on the hour,
they piled in en masse: the dirty mac brigade.
The woman emerged to wolf-whistles. She
was lifeless, eyes glazed. The beer tasted sour.
The wages of self-disgust were ours. We paid.

One afternoon in the Vernon, discussing
a TV documentary on Kathleen Ferrier,
we heard a phlegmy, “Classical music? Fuckin’
ponces!” from a corner table. An old codger,
swigging cheap lager from a can to supplement
the barely-touched half pint that sat before
him. You were up and marching over like a shot.
You grabbed him by the neck. I held the door.
He spiralled as you threw him out. A howl
of protest, then a whiny, “I had a bag, you fuckers.”
It was under the table, contained two cans he’d not
drunk yet. You threw it after him, a fast bowl,
real power behind it, only just missing the luckless
sod. The cans exploded in a wash of froth.

But most of the old boys were good company,
stories worth listening to for the price of a pint.
Tall tales, poetic licence? Didn’t matter. One guy,
Merchant Navy, reminisced about the Orient
and the opium dens, talked up the proverbial
girl in every port (albeit paid for). A world
tour of vice. The closest we came to his lifestyle
was when two working girls on Forest Road
asked if we were looking for business. They
must have been desperate to drum up trade:
anyone could have seen we were wrecked,
barely able to walk a straight line. Your reply:
“Do you give discounts for the unemployed?”
The answer was no – or words to that effect.

The evenings: that’s where memory gets foggier:
last orders, last handful of coins, last bus home –
stumble-drunk finales reduced to a blur
or swallowed by those patches of lost time
that didn’t worry me enough back then to ease
off the hard stuff, but would scare the hell
out of me now: hastily checking for wallet, keys
and the roll call of personal effects. All was well
if you hadn’t lost anything and there was no blood.
Waking up in your own bed, rather than one
with drip-tubes and an on-call button for a nurse:
result. You could pop two Alka Seltzer, stay in bed,
avoid daylight till the hangover was gone.
No job to get up for. It could have been worse.

Neil Fulwood's poetry has been published in Obsessed With Pipework, Nib, Stride Magazine, The Writers' Hub, Full of Crow Poetry and Ink, Sweat & Tears. He lives in Nottingham, where he divides his time between the pub and the cinema. Neil's a member of the Alan Sillitoe Committee, a group dedicated to raising funds towards a permanent memorial to Alan to be sited in Nottingham. Neil co-designed their website

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