Taking Off My Boot

Joseph said he was going to give up the drinking with his boys. He said he’s giving up the drink. And you know it’s not for health reasons because the boy is fine.

Let me tell you something. Ever since our mate Gozzer got his new place, next door to the Two Pence pub that is, we’ve been coming to the pub every Saturday for 12 years. That’s 12 years of drinking, chatting, story sharing, banter, snooker, pub quizzes, darts and shots – and it’s always been the same crew: Gozzer, Bigsy, Paul, Joseph and myself. Not one of us has missed a night. Never. It’s what we do, it’s our tradition. There ain’t much else to do in this town of 200 people so we’re sure to be there every Saturday.

Joseph said he’s giving up drinking. Took some convincing but he still came out the week after. He drank less but he still came out.

Then, he says he wants to go to a different pub. Suggested the Horseman. Said it’s because he didn’t like the noise at the Two Pence. He says this after 12 years all of a sudden? And it’s because of the noise? As far as I know – and here’s a big, fancy word from me – but the words ‘pub’ and ‘noise’ are synonymous, no matter which pub you go to. We stayed at the Two Pence and went back the week after. Sure enough, Joseph still came out.

Then, he says this: “Why come out if I ain’t gonna sip the nectar, you know? It’s not fun being the sober one when everyone else is on merry lane.” That’s how he put it. ‘Sip the nectar’ and ‘merry lane.’ Funny boy, he comes out with some strange stuff.

None of that changed. We drank at the Two Pence, we all had beer and that’s how it was.

One Saturday, the 26th it was (I remember because Joseph is our sports man when it comes to the pub quiz questions), Joseph didn’t come out. Of course, we lost the quiz. Thought he might be ill or something so we let him off. Let him break the tradition because he was whingin’. Even Gozzer came out the morning after he had his operation those years ago and he had a pint.

But when he didn’t turn up for the second and third time, we thought there was something wrong. Couldn’t let him get away with not seeing his boys. Maybe he was ill and needed some comfort. So, we went to his house. All of us, including Paul’s girlfriend, Lara, who’s practically a conjoined twin to Paul considering how much time they spend together. We knock on his door, his wife answers. She’s lovely, she is. Lovely girl. She lets us in and says he’s in the living room.

And it’s right before we get to the room when I realise…

Shit. What if he IS ill? What if he’s got liver failure from drinking? What if he’s got leprosy or some shit? We can’t come storming in there expecting him to come out if his bloody leg’s falling off!

But it was too late. We were all walking to the living room and we couldn’t stop. Curiosity, probably.

We get in there and Joseph is sat in his dressing gown with a fucking book in his hand. I then think there’s still a chance he might be ill – you know, because he’s reading – but he’s got a whiskey tumbler on the little table next to him and he’s smoking a cigar! He was fucking living it up! We didn’t ask questions, shock got to us all. Gozzer was speechless, his big mouth hanging open. We poked a bit of fun at Joseph for his dressing gown because it was baby blue, as you do, and then we left.

Joseph came out with us the week after. He felt bad for not making the effort. Gave us a little apology. I bought him a beer from the far end of the bar – one of the expensive ones. Christ, even the handle for the tap was dusty when Frank poured it. Felt it needed to be done for our Joseph, you know. Give him something nice.

He thanked me for the drink and said he liked the taste, but he nursed that pint throughout the night. Bigsy had three and he’s a slow drinker. That showed something still wasn’t right.

What was odd about Joseph is that he showed no sign of, well, anything. Bigsy was talking again about the time he slept on that church roof after a drunken night out at the Foresters – wakes up with a pigeon on his head. We’re all cracking up. Nothing from Joseph.

Paul and Lara told us again about when Gozzer got in that fight with the barmaid’s husband. Funniest story there is. Nothing from Joseph.

Bigsy then told us again about how he chased that pig through the field – and then he got stuck with his pants down in the mud! Classic tale! But still, nothing from Joseph. I asked him what was wrong. He said, ‘I’ve heard it before.’

Now, I remember not long ago, him and I got in a little bit of a fight. No fists or anything, but a lot of insults, lots of nasty words and it ended with Joseph leaving the pub early, stumbling out the door whilst giving us the finger. I caught up to him outside, he was slumped over a fence throwing up. I tried to start with an apology, I hate fighting and we’re all mates. Sometimes the alcohol rings like a wrestling bell. Before I could say anything, he stopped me and said this:

“Habit is a great deadener.”

I didn’t know what it meant – especially with half a keg of beer in me. But I remembered what he said. Both of us went home, to sleep it off. In the morning, I searched what the phrase meant online. Came up with some play about two tramps or something. Waiting for something, can’t remember what it was called. But there was a little help box for phrases – you know, for kids, probably, or thicks like me. Clicked it and it said it means that if you do the same things, like, over and over, it kills it. It kills the enjoyment or fun.

God I felt shit when I realised.

Joseph had heard these stupid stories, from Gozzer, from Bigsy, from Paul, from me, a thousand times. He’s heard them every weekend every time we’ve been here. That’s all we talk about, that’s all we’ve ever talked about. Just reliving our old days every Saturday. We don’t talk about the present or the future. Maybe because we’re all scared of it. Couldn’t tell you where Paul works now, couldn’t tell you how old Bigsy’s kid is. I had no idea who Gozzer was married to now, if anyone. Joseph had put up with it this whole time and the excuses he made were just to get away from it all for a bit. He tried to not hurt our feelings, you know. Kind kid and we gave him stick for it. Felt awful for him, we fucked up really bad there, for the pressure and all.

All Joseph wanted was to see what was over the hill. He wasn’t wearing these blinkers like the rest of us were, who were happy and content with routine. He wanted something different, even if it was spending his one night off reading Moby Dick or Waiting for Whatever. I stuck up for him when he didn’t show up on Saturday. Bigsy and Paul both gave him banter in the texts they sent but I stuck up for him. I don’t think they’ll understand.

Good thing, though, was that Joseph was a lot happier after.

Saw him buying skimmed milk – of course only Joseph would buy skimmed milk – down in Mahed’s last weekend. He was really happy. Non-stop talking, you know. I was jealous, I gotta say. It’s like he’d had sex for the first time all over again, just from a bit of variation to his life, reading instead of drinking. He wasn’t smug about it neither – he even apologised, though it wasn’t necessary, for not being with us and for breaking the tradition. He said he would join us again soon.

Couldn’t get that image out of my head. His fat, podgy face buying milk, smiling and content.

There’s a coaster nailed to the ceiling at the Two Pence. On it, it says ‘Variety is the spice of life.’ Makes sense now. I was never smart in understanding what stuff like that means, but now I do. Just had to follow Joseph in his footsteps.

So, I started reading.

So, I Started Reading

Joseph said he was going to give up the drinking with his boys. Says he’s giving up the drink. And you know it’s not for health reasons because the boy is fine.

Let me tell you something. Ever since our mate Gozzer got his new place, next door to the Two Pence pub that is, we’ve been coming to the pub every Saturday for 12 years. That’s 12 years of drinking, chatting, story sharing, banter, snooker, pub quizzes, darts and shots. By ‘we’, I mean Gozzer, Bigsy, Paul, Joseph and myself. Not one of us has missed a night. Never. It’s what we do. It’s our tradition. There ain’t much else to do in this town of 200 people so we’re sure to be there every Saturday.

Joseph said he’s giving up drinking. Took some convincing but he still came out the week after. He drank less but he still came out.

Then, he says he wants to go to a different pub. Suggested the Horseman. Said it’s because he didn’t like the noise at the Two Pence. He says this after 12 years all of a sudden? And it’s because of the noise? As far as I know – and here’s a big, fancy word from me – but the words ‘pub’ and ‘noise’ are synonymous, especially in Mickleton. No matter which pub you go to. We stayed at the Two Pence and went back the week after. Sure enough, Joseph still came out.

Then, he says this: “Why come out if I ain’t gonna sip the nectar, you know, it’s not fun being the sober one when everyone else is on Merry lane.” That’s how he put it. ‘Sip the nectar’ and ‘Merry lane.’ Funny boy, he comes out with some strange stuff.

None of that changed. We drank at the Two Pence and we all had beer and that’s how it was.

One Saturday, the 26th it was (I remember because Joseph is our sports man when it comes to the pub quiz questions), Joseph didn’t come out. Thought he might be ill or something so we let him off. Let him break the tradition because he was whingin’. Even Harry came out the morning after he had his operation those years ago and he had a pint.

But when he didn’t turn up for the second or third time, we thought there was something wrong. Couldn’t let him get away with not seeing his boys. Or maybe he was ill and needed some comfort. So, we head to his house. It’s all of us, including Paul’s girlfriend, Lara, who’s practically a conjoined twin to Paul considering how much time they spend together. We knock on his door, his wife answers. She’s lovely, she is. Lovely girl. Let’s us in and says he’s in the living room.

And it’s right before we get to the room when I realise…

Shit. What if he IS ill? What if he’s got liver failure from drinking? What if he’s got leprosy or some shit? We can’t come storming in here expecting him to come out if his bloody leg’s falling off!

But it’s too late. We’re all walking to the living room and we can’t stop. Curiosity, probably.

We get in there and Joseph is sat in his dressing gown with a fucking book in his hand. I then think there’s still a chance he might be ill – you know, because he’s reading – but he’s got a whiskey tumbler on the little table next to him and he’s smoking a cigar! He was fucking living it up! We didn’t ask questions. Shock got to us all. Gozzer was speechless, his big mouth hanging open. We poked a bit of fun at Joseph for his dressing gown because it was baby blue, as you do, and then left.

Joseph came out with us the week after. He felt bad for us for not making the effort. Gave us a little apology. I bought him a beer from the far end of the bar – the expensive ones. Christ, even the handle for the tap was dusty when Frank poured it. Felt it needed to be done for our Joseph, you know. Give him something nice.

He thanked me for the drink and said he liked the taste, but he nursed that pint throughout the night. Bigsy had three and he’s a slow drinker. That shows something wasn’t right.

What was odd about Joseph is that he showed no sign of, well, anything. Bigsy was talking about the time he slept on that church roof after a drunken night out at the Foresters – wakes up with a pigeon on his head. Nothing from Joseph.

Paul and Lara told us again about when Gozzer got in that fight with the barmaid’s husband. Funniest story there is – nothing from Joseph.

Bigsy then told us again about how he chased that pig through the field – and then he got stuck with his pants down in the mud! Classic tale. But nothing from Joseph. I asked him what was wrong. He said, ‘I’ve heard it before.’

I understand it now. Joseph had heard these stories a thousand times. He’s heard them every weekend every time we’ve been here. That’s all we talk about, that’s all we’ve ever talked about. Just reliving our old days every Saturday. And he’s right. Couldn’t tell you where Paul works now, couldn’t tell you how old Bigsy’s kid is. I had no idea who Gozzer was married to now, if not anyone. We don’t talk about the present or the future. Maybe because we’re all scared of it. Joseph had put up with it this whole time and the excuses he had were just to get away from it all for a bit. He tried to not hurt our feelings, you know. Kind kid and we gave him stick for it. Felt awful for him, we fucked up really bad there, for the pressure and all.

I remember not long ago, me and him got in a little bit of a fight. No fists or anything, but a lot of insults, lot of nasty words and it ended with Joseph leaving the pub early, stumbling out the door whilst giving us the finger. I caught up to him outside, he was slumped over a fence throwing up. I tried to start with an apology, I hate fighting and we’re all mates. Sometimes the alcohol rings like a wrestling bell. He stopped me and said this:

‘habit is a great deadener.’

I didn’t know what it meant – especially with half a keg of beer in me. But I remembered that. Both of us went home, to sleep it off. In the morning, I searched what he said online. Came up with some play about two tramps or something. Waiting for something, can’t remember what it was called. But there was a little help box for phrases – you know, for kids, probably, or thicks like me. Clicked it and said it means that if you do the same things, like over and over, it kills it. It kills the enjoyment or fun.

God I felt shit.

All Joseph wanted was to see what was over the hill. He wasn’t wearing these blinkers like the rest of us were, who were happy and content with routine. He wanted something different, even if it was spending his one night off reading Moby Dick or Waiting for Whatever. I stuck up for him when he didn’t show up on Friday. Bigsy and Harry both gave him banter in the texts they sent but I stuck up for him. I don’t think they’ll understand, and I didn’t think I would either.

Good thing, though, was that Joseph was a lot happier.

Saw him buying his skimmed milk – of course only Joseph would buy skimmed milk – down in Mahed’s last weekend. He was really happy. Non-stop talking, you know. I was jealous, I gotta say. It’s like he’d had sex for the first time all over again. Just from a bit of variation to his life, reading instead of drinking. He wasn’t smug about it neither – he even apologised, though it wasn’t necessary, for not being with us and for breaking the tradition, but he said he join us again soon.

Couldn’t get that image out of my head. His fat, podgy face buying milk, smiling and content.

There’s a coaster nailed to the ceiling at the Two Pence. On it, it says ‘Variety is the spice of life.’ Makes sense now. I was never smart in understanding what stuff like that means, but now I do. Just had to follow Joseph in his footsteps.

So, I started reading.

I’m 83

I’m 83 – Technology isn’t for everyone.

“I’ll put it bluntly: I can’t keep up with technology. I want to take the pin out between the carriages.”

“I’ll admit, when those first televisions came out, we got one and we loved it. My old man shot down to Jerry’s Electronics and spent our holiday cash on it. Loved every minute of it. It may sound quite sad or grey but I ended up having better memories of watching television in that summer than I would have done exploring the ruins of Athens.”

“Now. My grandkids come over with their new phones – they’ve got these phones and they’re six years old – and they show me all their games. They show me their tablets where you can touch the screen, they show me how they can watch videos and films. It’s all very interesting but I don’t like it. Thom – he lives two doors down – he thinks it’s a new thing.

‘Kids are always glued to a screen with their heads down. They’re missing out on the great outdoors. They’ll be on a car journey or plane and they’re missing out on the scenery and the world passing by because they’ve got their noses down, their faces gazing at a screen!’

“I disagree, you know. With that. I spent most of my life with my nose in a book or a newspaper. I bet Thom did, too. It’s just something different you’re holding in your hand, for a different generation. Doesn’t matter. We’ve had dinner tables of silent guests who just read the paper or did the crossword. That’ll always be around and you still see the world go by.”

“But what I don’t like – what I feel is that this whole technology thing is a like a train. It’s 20 or 40 carriages long, doesn’t matter, but I’m at the back – I’m sat in the last carriage with my books and my pipe and my watch that just tells the time. People at the front are on their big screen phones, wireless ear pieces; they’re the technology masters and they’re at the front of the train.”

“There’s this pressure from my family, my friends and the younger people I work with that I have to move up the carriages, that I have to join them at the front. So, to get onto first carriage, I have to own a television. That’s okay, I enjoy that. The second carriage is a mobile phone, I can handle that. But this pressure to move onto the next carriage and have a laptop, and then the next one and have the more advanced gizmo, it gets to me. I don’t want to. It’s too much.”

“All I want to do is to take the pin out between the carriages. They carry on ahead with their pieces, their gadgets, their technological lives and I’ll just sit back, let my carriage come to a stop and I’ll carry on with my paper that tells me the news, my book that tells me a story and my watch that tells me the time.”

“I bet it’s all brilliant. Having this new world of interaction and virtual realities and that. I bet it’s great. But I’m okay missing out on it. I’ve had my time. I’m 83.”

The Drought

“I said goodbye to my Father today. Never got on with the man, to be honest. I probably did, once, when I was younger. Never considered him family. But for raising me up, for the shelter and food, and for my first car, I felt it was necessary to see him and thank him before he signed off.”

“I’m sorry to hear.”

“Left me with some last words.”

“What did he say?”

“You remember where we used to sit under that bridge? We took down big crates of Hollor’s and drank them all, lit up a big fire and tossed the empty bottles into the river? We tried to smash ’em on the far bank? We – we never reached it. Every single one sank. I think we went there every Sunday for seven months. Never missed a single Sunday, not until you had Joey, we stopped doing it after that. You being a dad and all.”

“I remember drinking with you every Sunday, of course.”

“One day, Father told me he could drop me off at the station. I was going up to visit Parker, this was before he got cancer. I agreed, you know, my car was still busted from Marcus slamming his bat into it. On the way, he took me to the bridge instead. Now, this was in ’82, back during the drought. And I knew I was in trouble when I saw the bottom of the river. The mud. The sand. There was a mountain of beer bottles that never got caught in the current. Instead, they were piled against a thick, concrete ridge on the river bed. There were hundreds of them, hundreds. And he knew half, if not more, were finished by myself and then tossed into the river.”

“He parked the car and told me to get out. He took me to the edge, right onto the black spot where our barrel fires scorched the earth, and he spoke to me in a very calm voice. “Remember kid, when I was never home? You were always angry at me. I was paying bills, you know. Paying for your tuition with Mr. Ronald, paying for your piano lessons, paying for you to be social. I paid for you to have occupation in your life so that in your life, you could get an occupation. I gave you the chance to be someone. But all I see now is a river bed. No water, nothing flowing, no current. Just dirt. Don’t come back until this river is full as are you, with talent and prosperity. I’m don’t expect you to.”

“Jesus, that’s quite dramatic. Just for drinking on a Sunday?”

“Every Sunday. He was a hard man. Strict, disciplined type. I still have the scars from sneaking sweets after dinner. ”

“How’d he know we’d been down there?”

“I guess he followed me one night. Probably thought nothing of it at first, kids being kids, underage drinking isn’t the worst thing he could find me doing. But seeing how often we’d done it when the drought kicked in, polluting the river and all, not a happy man afterwards. He probably knew as well we’d pissed into the river whilst drinking them. No respect for nature, as he called it. Anyway, didn’t see him for a week. Then a month. Then 25 years. I knew I’d see him again. I wanted to show him.”

“Show him?”

“That someday I would get an occupation, you know? I would get a job. Get a wife. Have kids. Get bonuses. Get a promotion. Wear a suit, wear a tie, shine my shoes, sit on a fat wallet in my office chair in my skyscraper, go to meetings, pitch ideas, talk business and make jokes by the water cooler. I would get what he prepared me for. I would have the water flowing in that river again.”

“So what did he say when you saw him? His last words?”

“He said, ‘I can still see the riverbed.’ I hate him for it.”

“Why?”

“Because he was right.”