The English Lager by Ronan O’Shea

Photo by Anders Nord on Unsplash

1.


Bar the regulars, I don’t remember many of the customers I served in The Horse & Hound. A large, hazy mass of middle-class people coming in off walks on the Heath, they drank ales, red wine or, when the weather was good, Aperol Spritz. There was an attractive Danish couple in their thirties who had two boys. The boys wore Liverpool shirts. 

One time, I joked that I couldn’t serve them after Liverpool had beaten Spurs. It was a big thing for me to joke with a customer. I was an efficient but not charismatic barman. As if sensing this, the man laughed politely and encouraged his son to talk to me. The boy smiled, burying his head in his father’s lap with a shyness I recognised in myself. 

There was Michael, who stood at the bar with his ale – in a jug, as men like him insist – telling dull stories and off-colour, outmoded jokes. I could tell he was desperately lonely and shied away from him, scared he might be the Ghost of Christmas Future.

There was Dennis, who teased unfamiliar punters, saying this was ‘his pub’; he was the landlord, the prices were a scandal and he was going to drop them, come one, come all. They’d smile, intimidated, and I’d tell him to shut up in front of them and we would both laugh. His skin was like rhino hide from manual labour and smoking, his hands dirty. 

He’d watery eyes which were most evident when he laughed. 

He had an iPhone he didn’t need; his only use of the thing to send texts, make the occasional call or, frequently, use the William Hill app. I liked Dennis a lot. 

I only worked at The Horse & Hound a few months but, looking back, they were important. I was coming out of one of my fugs. It was not like I’d regained my confidence – I have never been confident – but I was less afraid of life than before. As the shifts went by, I started talking to people with ease, remembering I was not the social alien I’d previously thought. 

I could serve a pint, recommend a dish, field a complaint, or paint on a smile when a customer was being an arse. 

All the same, I don’t really remember many customers at The Horse & Hound save for Dennis, Michael or the nice Danish couple and their kids. 

Except Tom, of course. He came in on a Monday. 

I remember him well

2.


The interview was in an office near London Bridge. It began in a public area near a communal kitchen. Now, a room had freed up and I walked inside with my prospective boss, noticing as I did a TV in the corner with a BBC News bulletin. 

I asked if it was alright for me to leave my phone on the desk, in case my mother rang to check that I was alright. Clearly, he had not seen the news and I later thought he must have considered me odd. 

The incident was terror-related, no doubt. The phone lines would already be jammed with concerned family members and friends, I thought, as the interviewer asked me about my disability, which was little known and mostly affected my handwriting. a little-known coordination problem that causes me to bump into things and jumble often important information. 

In the corner of my eye I could make out policemen sidle up and down the river in speedboats to our right, near the bridge I’d walked over less than an hour earlier. 

“Oh, you wouldn’t have to make huge accommodations,” I said. “I have a report from an assessment I got done a few months ago. I’m happy to forward that on.” 

“Great,” he said, as I looked out of the window, the Thames crawling with black boats flashing blue, like sperm whales caught in a set of Christmas lights. I looked out of the window, then back at him.

“Something serious is happening.”  

He looked out, paused, looked to me and smiled. “So much for an easy Friday commute.”

I smiled back. “The pubs will be busy.” 

The interview finished soon after and I rang my mother to tell her I was safe. She was glad to hear my voice, she said, and after we’d spoken I checked the news, learning that the situation was already under control.

Members of the public had intervened to overwhelm the attacker, who was presumed to have acted alone. He’d been shot on site. I walked towards Monument, away from London Bridge, watchful for members of the public who might be in a reactive mood. 

My phone vibrated. It was Daniel, my friend.

Michael, your interview’s in London Bridge isn’t it? 

It was, I replied. I wasn’t there at the time though. I’m fine, thanks for checking.

I added that I’d been on that bridge just half an hour earlier, as if it meant anything. I had not been on the bridge half an hour earlier, was safe and well and, as such, had no right to associate myself with whichever incident had occurred. 

Glad you’re safe, he wrote, to which I replied Indeedio, electing not to tell him that what I felt at having not been there thirty minutes earlier was not relief but jealousy.

And for some reason that made me think of Tom.

3.

Tom came into the pub on a Monday afternoon. He had a cap on; Newcastle Jets.

Mondays were quiet. I came in at eight to do the line clean and take the barrel delivery, after which the day dragged by.

You would find yourself irritated if a customer came in, it feeling better to be undisturbed and bored than busy a minute or two. 

“Afternoon,” he said, as he sat at the bar. “What do you have on tap?”

“What do you like?” I said. “Ale, lager, cider, stout?” 

“I like cider.” 

“Don’t drink the cider here, Sir,” I said. “It’s shite.”

He laughed. “An honest barman.”

I walked over to one of the pumps. “My boss is at the bank,” I said, pointing at the Amstel. “Stay away from this lager too.” 

“You don’t drink that?”

“Only when it’s the best of a bad bunch. We’ve better beers though.” 

“Is it English?” 

“No, we only have the one English beer here.”

“Which is that?” 

“Frontier,” I said. “It belongs to the brewery that owns this chain of pubs.”

Tom looked around. The pub had thick wooden beams running across a white ceiling; a fireplace to one side, a snug, and several small tables. It had a traditional look and was over three-hundred years old. 

I decided not to tell him it was part of a large chain.

He asked me what I recommended. I suggested the Frontier if he liked lager, the Courtown IPA if he liked ale. He asked about the Guinness and I recommended an Irish pub not far away that did a much better pint of plain. He asked me if Frontier was English. I told him it was. He said he’d have a pint of that.  

but, I explained, that didn’t mean it wasn’t owned by big money.

“This is a chain? It doesn’t look like it.”

“That’s the way in England now,” I said. “The big boys buy up pubs like this, spend millions making it look like they’re independent, and then put the independents out of business.” I pointed at the Frontier. “It is a good beer though.”

Tom laughed. I walked towards the ales. “I don’t drink ale, but it’s gotten popular over the last decade or so. We sell it by the bucket load.”

“It’s like Guinness?” 

“More like Newcastle Brown,” I said, hoping he’d know it. “They’re not cold, kind of nice for a winter’s night.”

“But you don’t drink it?”

“I don’t dislike it,” I said. “But I usually stick to lager. Like Frontier. Or Heineken. Which, unfortunately, we don’t have.” 

He nodded. “What about the Guinness?”

I told him that I loved Guinness and that my family was Irish, something I could never help but do, projecting a citizenship legally entitled to me as if it were a trait of personality, akin to quick-wittedness or loyalty. “Don’t get the Guinness here.” 

“Why not?”

“It’s bad most places in London, here included. You have to go to an Irish pub to get a good pint.” 

I wondered – and wonder – if this was really true, or if I’d just made it true in order to have something to me, to be unique and interesting in some small way. “The Faltering in Finsbury Park is the best now,” I said. “Used to be Quinn’s, though that closed not long back.”

Tom nodded, thought for a moment, and pointed at the Frontier pump. “I’ll take that one, he said. “The English lager.” 

I poured his pint and, with the silence hanging like dust motes in the air, made a stab at being friendly. “Are you on holiday?” 

We got a lot of tourists. Nestled away in an idyllic Hampstead lane, the pub was three-hundred years old and dripping with homey cliché. On Sundays walking tours walked around, marvelling at the hefty oak arches, the traditional fireplace and the snugs.

“No, not a holiday,” said Tom, pointing towards the fire exit and the street that lay beyond. “My daughter lived up the road.” 

“That’s a nice street,” I remarked, regretting it immediately, as I cottoned on to what he had said. In fairness, he smiled as I put the pint down in front of him. 

“Oh yeah. She was a smart cookie.”

4.

“She worked in Canary Wharf,” said Tom, pointing towards the door. “Lived just up there. Colliers Road, with her fella. An English guy.” 

He sipped his Frontier, and sighed. “And then she was on the bridge when those lunatics ran around with knives.” 

Tom was in England, he said, for an inquest into the deaths of those on the bridge that night, in 2017; his daughter, the other victims, the attackers too. 

She had died of a knife wound, he said. He spoke calmly, without obvious emotion, but with heavy breaths between words. He looked like a man who knew how to cry yet didn’t do it much, or only in private, even away from family. 

Part of me wished that he might lose it then, that he was an alcoholic years off the sauce now whose first sip in thirty-odd years would have him trash the place, a roiling mess of emotion and man as he grieved for her in that toxic, masculine, satisfying way. 

I wished he would knock over a table or two, shout at me, smash a glass safe in the knowledge that I would likely argue his cause; his daughter died, Matt. Let’s leave it at that. I wished it because I wished it for me. The right to unfettered anger. Naturally, Tom didn’t do any of those things; trash or cry. Instead, he sat there, telling me about her. 

A bright girl, she had worked in finance, and used to bring him to The Horse & Hound when he visited England. “Her and Robert.” 

I had grown used to tuning in and out of people depending on my levels of interest; Dennis, with his tall-tales, Michael his dull stories. 

But Tom was different. He didn’t seem desperate to talk to me. I was a body in the space of the old pub, someone he could speak at, not to. I was perfectly suited to this role.

She had been praised for her bravery, he said, running towards one of the attackers to fatal effect. I could only stand there, listening, and the indescribable horror of the pregnant pauses between his words was hard on us, no, on me, much worse than what was said. Later, I felt guilty for the things I said because in truth, they were for me not him, filling the silence as they did. 

I was grieving myself, at the time. But grief, I’d say, has hierarchy; children top, pets way down below. 

Mine was the friend and it was bad enough alright, only I don’t want to make it out worse than it was. It punctuated my days but did not illuminate each waking moment the way I gathered it did for Tom. 

At The Horse & Hound, I filled pockets of time to stave off boredom; cleaned the oak surfaces, rearranged bar mats, cleaned the outsides of ketchup bottles again and again. But what could I do there, with Tom, save listen? He took another sip of his Frontier. “She was a good girl.”

I nodded.

Another customer walked in. I wanted to tell him we were busy. I could not, of course. He said good afternoon and I realised he was one of two builders doing work at a house up the road, the pair of them regulars the past week or two now who knocked off around one thirty in the afternoon to have a few rounds.

He ordered his usual, counting out shrapnel on the bar like a child organising his Panini stickers. 

“That’s it,” I said, helping him, scooping up enough coins to cover his round. 

Tom smiled at him. 

“G’day,” he said, like a stereotype on demand.

The builder said good morning and went back outside, leaving us to it. 

But with the interruption, it was like a spell had been broken. 

“How long are you in London for?” I asked.

“Two more days,” said Tom. “Then back to Australia.” 

I tried to come up with ideas as to what he could do with his time; the parks, the museums, the Palace even, all suggestions which seemed borderline offensive to a grieving man. 

But, as if sensing this, it was Tom who spoke, revealing the absurdity of my thought, as if he’d no right to a life still; to enjoyment, distraction, minor pleasure or even joy.

“Shame the footy season’s over, right?” 

“Yeah,” I said. “Would have been good if you’d caught a game.” 

“Next time,” he said, unconvincingly. 

Finishing off his Frontier, he stuck out his hand. “It’s been really nice talking to you. I’m Tom.” 

I shook his hand, told him my name and wished him well, offering ham-fisted condolences once again which had felt necessary until said, at which point they felt the worse thing to have said at all. 

He smiled, asking me for directions to the station, the pair of us relieved, I think, that I could help him on his way, rather than stew on talk of his daughter and inquests and inexplicable murders and death.

Down the hill, I told him, pointing; left, straight on. the

Tom left, the second of the builders came in, said ‘Hi, mate’ and ordered another round of pints.

5.

I sat in the O’Neill’s between Kings Cross and Euston, watching the news roll in. It was less than three hours since the event, yet a video was already circulating; the attacker had been alone. He was confronted by brave members of the public who circled and overpowered him. The police had shot him dead while he was on the floor. Later, it would turn out they thought he had a bomb resulting, typically, in the usual tennis-style rallies in the press. Was it right or wrong to shoot a man like that, even if he were a terrorist? Had the police acted rashly, dutifully, with restraint or haste? 

Some questioned the legality of the act. It was said that there would be an inquest, at which point it was noted that there were always inquests into deaths caused by police. The media latched onto it for a week or so and then other things came up.

At the time, however, sipping my beer after finally getting north of the river, I thought only about Tom, the needling emptiness that had had me wish I was there to wrestle the man to the ground, when I had always been better static; watching, listening.  

It was a childish, male need to be a someone or thing, when in or out of London there were already parents, four at a guess, grieving lost children, who to the best of their knowledge had been fine and well earlier that day. 

I thought of Tom; how he’d wake up to this in Australia, the memories flooding back – as if they ever went awaeay. ea

He’d likely have friends text him, or friends who would hold off out of sympathy, or both.

I finished my pint and went home.

About The Author

Ronan O’Shea’s short fiction has appeared on sites including New Critique and Literary Yard. In 2018, he published the novel Bad Bread, Good Blues. His journalism has featured in The Guardian and Medium, among others, and he is now a mental health care worker in London. 

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