A short story about the fragility of life.
Monday night is darts night in the Duke. I play darts for The Dukes Head Public House. Wow, that sounds a bit formal. From now on it’s called, “The Duke”. So when I say I was “ in the Duke last night”. I don’t mean I’m having relations with a lord, but that I’m drinking lager in my local. Right, I’m glad that’s been cleared up.
The dart season starts sometime in October. Last year we got relegated from the first division to the lowly depths of division two. As a result we were supposed to spend the off season using Monday nights practicing. Alas, I was obviously wrong on that matter. Last night there were just three of us in attendance at our first “dart practice night”. This was to be the beginning of our long trail back to the old glory days in division one. Oh well, never mind, we’ll start all that next week.
The pub is usually quite busy early evening, people come in straight from work, have a few and then head on home. As they drift off, it’s the turn of the evening crowd to start filtering in.
Last night seemed slightly different. I’m usually safely ensconced at the bar by about eight. Practice is scheduled for nine, giving people plenty of time to get home from work. After all, if you can’t get off work and to the pub by nine, then you probably wouldn’t have signed on in the first place.
So nine comes and goes and even Jim who’s the landlord and lives on the premises wasn’t there. Anyway, ten past nine and in walks Big Geoff. Geoff Isn’t known as “Big Geoff” ironically, he’s a giant of a man, six foot four and about twenty odd stone. That’s 300 plus lbs, for those friends west of the Irish sea. He always has a cheery smile and a friendly word for everyone. I suppose he’s the archetypal “gentle giant”.
Anyway, that omnipresent smile has been absent over these past few weeks. Geoff’s partner Pauline has most suddenly and unexpectedly passed away. She hadn’t had her fiftieth birthday and was gone.
She was taken ill, went into hospital, and died, all in the space of a couple of days. She was my friend, We met when we became neighbours. She lived a couple of doors down from me, and occasionally we would walk to the station together in the mornings. We both moved at roughly the same time and I was quite surprised when she came into the pub one evening with Geoff and he was even more surprised to learn that we already knew each other. So, eventually they moved in together and big Geoff converted her to darts, and she joined the team. And I couldn’t begin to imagine what pain he must be going through now.
Pauline was a fellow smoker, Geoff is really anti smoking, so she would join me. As a result we had many a conversation shivering in the freezing night air. Moaning about the injustice of it all. (Having to smoke outside, not her dying.)
So anyway, Jim turns up five minutes later, and we make the long journey to the other end of the bar where the dartboard hangs. In the old days this area was known as the public bar and our end was the saloon, but it has all been knocked into one since drinking in class divisions became frowned upon.
So, after five minutes of throwing up,(that’s practicing darts, not being sick,) we throw nearest the bull to see who chalks. Jim loses, puts his darts down, picks up a stick of chalk and writes the number 401 at the top of the board. I’ve no idea why we practice from 401 and play matched from 501. It annoys the fuck out of me, but for whatever reason I never bother to question this thing. I just get on with it, secretly berating the ridiculousness of it.
It seems to me that letting things go, things that when said out loud may appear trivial but when bottled up take on a new kind of life, is my way. When I’m annoyed a little voice in my head always says, “let it go, don’t worry about it”. And when the moment has passed, and it’s too late to bring up the said issue, another little voice in my head starts on. “I told you, you should have said something, Don’t bother now it’s far too late.” So 401 it is then.
After a few uneventful games I decided to go for a smoke. A disgusting habit I’m well aware, but for some years now the smokers of this fair country have been relegated to the outer limits of any public building, i.e. the garden or street pavement. People huddled in corners braving the cold winds and rain that forsake these isles for 90% of any year. So, I can’t bring myself to stand on the pavement in full view of the passing judges.
Well bollocks to you my friends, I don’t stand in the street waiting to be ridiculed by the sainted passing, but drinking beer and playing darts on Monday night’s to me is a sure sign that I’m still alive and kicking. Anyway, I prefer to walk through the bar and out the back to the garden, where the smoking hut can be found, and the genuine camaraderie of my fellow addicts.
I had all but reached the back door when it suddenly dawned on me, the whole pub was empty. The after work crowd had drifted off for a warmed up dinner and another riveting night snoozing in front of the TV. And the evening lot appeared to have abandoned the place. So, apart from the girl behind the bar fiddling with her phone, two spear throwers, one of which didn’t count, because of his status as employee, and me, were the only sign that life still existed between these four walls.
Four people, of which two were in the pay of the company. This must be the beginning of the end, everything has its day. It takes people a while to realise this fact, but eventually it dawns on us all. How long can the place carry on if people don’t use the facilities? The outrageously prohibitive cost of a pint of beer forces people to drink supermarket priced ale, in the comfort of their own homes. The price of alcohol in supermarkets is unbelievably and unequivocally cheaper than that of pubs and restaurants. Only young single adults still living with mum and dad and middle aged men whose child support orders have expired, can afford the luxury of a week night in the pub.
So I light my Benson and ponder the future. It won’t be long before this place has gone. It’s been an ale house perched halfway up the hill for the past two hundred years. I’m sure it’s seen tough times in the past, but this is different. More friends are going with every passing year.
I sit in the smoking hut at the end of the garden. It’s the only bit of shelter we’re allowed. A wooden post at each corner with a roof and some trellising on two sides, is all the law permits, any more and it’s classed as “inside”. So, I sit on the damp bench watching the rain dripping from the roof and bouncing off my boots that are not fully under the shelter, and I ponder.
I worked my way through two dart teams worth of people that used to play, but are no longer alive. The immortality of youth has most certainly given way to the inevitability of middle age. Pauline’s passing has made me dwell on my own life and the seemingly total futility of it all.
Playing darts isn’t really what it’s about. Two weeks ago she was sitting beside me puffing away on one of those long menthol cigarettes, and moaning about why the trains were always late on Monday mornings, or some other equally mundane topic. Fourteen short days later, she didn’t have to worry about how late she was for work this morning. She didn’t have to moan about sitting out here freezing her tits off. She was gone, and I was alone out here and Big Geoff was all alone inside.
I stubbed out my cigarette in the overflowing ashtray, It felt like the Mary Celeste out there, even the ashtray looked neglected, with old butts piled up. I crossed the rain lashed patio and walked back into the bar. As I pushed the door to, the sound of the jukebox assaulted my ears. The bar had miraculously sprung back to life. The evening crowd had slipped in while my back was turned. Round at the dartboard Big Geoff and Jim the landlord were still trying to finish the same game of 401 they had begun before I left them. Perhaps there is hope after all.