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Adrienne Seed – The Spider and the Fly – Chapter 5


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The Clog and Billycock

I

  was eighteen when my dad decided to leave the air force and drag us back up north to run a public house. The first pub we had was called ‘The Brunswick Hotel’ and it was on a cobbled street, next to a canal in the heart of a working class district called Audley Range, which doesn’t exist anymore. Well it does, but it’s all mosques and Indian restaurants now. I remember my poor old dad had driven us round and round the block before finally daring to tell us that the graffiti covered building, with its dingy peeling walls and faded red sign declaring ‘The Brunswick Hotel’ hanging over the door was about to become our new home.

My dad who’d been in the RAF for most of his working days was more used to frequenting the likes of the NAAFI or the Sergeant’s Mess and as for my mother, she had never been in a pub in her life, let alone run one. As far as pubs go, the Brunswick was very basic to say the least. There was a flag stoned vault that only the flat-capped, domino playing men were allowed to frequent;  a ladies room where the downtrodden wives wearing knotted headscarves over their curling pins or tightly permed hair, would sit and gossip while supping their glasses of stout or halves of mild. A long piano room with round formica-covered tables, each circled by a ring of wooden stools with a faded plush bench running the length of the walls, and an ancient upright piano, with worn nicotine yellow ivory keys. In pride of place over the tiled fireplace hung the dartboard, where the men and sometimes the women played their highly competitive games of “arrows”. There was also a tiny room called the snug, which was seldom used apart from the odd occasion when the local factory owner deigned to honour us with his presence, accompanied perhaps by a fellow business associate to down a few malt whiskeys and puff on fat cigars.

All in all, it was a very different way of life to the one we’d been accustomed to and one which my brother and I found very hard to adjust to. As did my mum who had to quickly learn the landlady’s esteemed art of pulling the perfect pint, along with my poor old dad who had to rapidly master the complicated act of changing a barrel when the beer ran out. The customers were an impatient lot who took exception to having to wait for their pints and would mutter comments like, “They think tut beer comes from out oft th’ air or from’t bloody sea.”

It was all a bit of a culture shock really, especially for me as I was not accustomed to having to work for a living. But suddenly there was no choice and I was immediately set to work as a waitress, my tin tray advertising ‘Thwaites finest Ales’, laden (pumps permitting) with pints of their best bitter and mild. We tended to call the customers by what they drank. For instance there was ‘Bad tempered pint of bitter’, ‘Old Dan’, ‘Green top’Big Ben’ and ‘Pint of mixed in a straight glass.’

These were typical working class northern males accustomed to being waited on hand and foot by their subservient wives and mothers and after a hard working day, a customary ten or twelve pints of Thwaites best bitter or mild was their reward. Always reluctant to interrupt their game of ‘arrows’ with a trip to the bar to get the next round in they would delight in constantly ringing the bell to summon me to ‘wait on’ them. After taking their orders, I would stagger back down the corridor to the piano room, weighted down by my tin tray, where ‘Bad tempered pint of bitter’ would invariably wait until I got all the way back to the bar before pressing the bell to summon me back again. “Oh,” he would smirk, his unlit pipe clenched between his teeth, “I forgot luv – and a box of Swan Vestas.”

On Friday nights someone would come in to play the piano and the place would be packed. If I got the chance, in between running up and down with my tin tray, I would sit with them and join in with the sing-a-longs. That’s how I got to know the words to so many old songs. We would sing to the discordant strains of the out of tune piano, sitting shoulder to shoulder on the tatty red velvet bench seats, the round tables covered in dirty glasses and empty beer bottles.

This was in the days before karaoke machines of course with only the accompaniment of an out of tune piano and not even the luxury of a microphone, which in the case of some of the more inebriated or vocally challenged soloists was probably a blessing. But this did nothing to deter the Friday night revellers from putting their hearts and souls into it and they all had their own particular party pieces. One old man called Ernie always sang the same sad tearjerker to Maude his wife of over forty years, about his lovely rose losing her crimson gown. 

 There were moving moments such as these and rousing nights where tales were told and jokes were cracked, which helped somewhat to alleviate the extreme culture shock of my new and unwanted, it has to be said, northern lifestyle.

I enrolled at Blackburn Art College and on cold, dark winter mornings I would carefully make my way down Cicely Street, slipping on the black ice with my huge art folder tucked under my arm, past the old mills and Tommy Ball’s famous shoe factory where the shoes were tied together with pieces of string. From the greenhouse studio at the top of the old college building, we would draw the rooftops of the lines of terraced houses, black and shiny with rain, or cut out designs on bits of lino and make prints on the ancient machines and old printing presses.

Our living quarters in the pub were situated upstairs and I made myself a makeshift studio in one of the disused rooms called the ‘concert room’ which had bare floorboards and a row of long, dusty windows looking out at the factory across the road and over the slimy green canal. Whenever I could I would hide myself away up there and paint or write poetry in an attempt to elevate myself from the dreariness of my dingy surroundings. At the weekends, to escape from all this doom and gloom, I would go off on my own for long walks in the countryside, which in comparison to the area in which we lived was surprisingly beautiful. I would take Honey with me, our Labrador cross, who was equally grateful for the chance to escape the confines of the pub and it was on one of our excursions that I found what was to be our next home; ‘The Clog and Billycock’.

By chance, it was up for new tenancy and I persuaded my dad to take it on. It was a completely different kettle of fish to the scruffy old Brunswick with an allegedly ‘better’ class of clientele, and in no time at all, we’d turned the place around, doubled the takings and made it into one of the most popular and busiest pubs in Blackburn. The ‘Clog and Billycock’ was the starting point for many a budding teenage romance and still holds to this day a special place in some people’s hearts, mine included, as it turned out to be the setting for my own particular love story and where it all really began, but of course I wasn’t to know that at the time.

In our reign the ‘Clog and Billycock’ was very busy, especially on Friday nights. In fact, it had been busy every night since we’d taken it on. I had to help out most nights, partly because we were so busy and also to finance my way through my foundation course at art school. I stood there pulling pint after frothy pint for the rows of impatient northern men who stood six deep at the bar, waving their empty glasses at me. I don’t know what the customers made of me really. I know that some of them thought I was aloof because I was an artist and for that reason considered myself to be on a higher plane. But it wasn’t like that at all. I just had nothing in common with them and anyway, I had great plans to escape. I had no intention of staying behind a bar for the rest of my life, pulling pints. I was full of youthful dreams of going to London and becoming a great artist.

The ‘Clog and Billycock’ was a quaint little pub, nestling at the foot of Billinge woods where in late spring and early summer, the bluebells grew thick and juicy stalked. Behind the pub and beyond, lay the “Yellow Hills” so named because in a certain light, they emitted a curious golden glow. Not often I might add, because most of the time it was raining, that grey, dismal rain you only find in the north of England. A path led up behind the pub and over the hills, to what felt to me like the top of the world, and there I would sit for hours, back to back with Honey, staring out over the tall chimneys of the now redundant cotton mills, and along the sludgy green lines of the canals far below. On a clear day, I could count the tiny crosses that marked the graves of Pleasington cemetery and watch the smoke rising up from the crematorium. In the far distance, Darwen tower stood Victorian, austere and alone on the bleak moors. There was an old saying in the pub that if you could see Darwen Tower it was going to rain. If you couldn’t, it was already raining!

Sometimes I would linger up on ‘Yellow Hills’ until dusk fell and walking back I would see the lights of the pub below twinkling a merry welcome. My mum was obsessed with twinkly lights. She had them everywhere, and much to my dad’s dismay, she loved fairy lights best of all.

“Bloody hell,” he’d often be heard to curse from the top of a ladder, yards of green plastic wire and coloured glass bells entwined around his neck. “Most people only have to suffer this once a year at Christmas.”

But for all my dad’s moaning and groaning, the lights made the pub look cosy and welcoming: too cosy, in fact and almost too welcoming, because more often than not, the customers refused to go home.

We did a lot of after hours drinking in those days. On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, my dad would lock the doors and we would carry straight on through to the evening session. Most of the customers were down to earth, self-made men, who worked hard all week and liked to let go at the weekends. In those days there was no breathalyser so they knocked back pint after pint with reckless abandon, sang their hearts out, chatted up my glamorous mother and listened to the long-winded stories of my dad, who was a natural raconteur. They slowly grew to accept me, even though they thought I was a bit peculiar and not your ‘typical’ barmaid. But I was used to being considered strange. Even my own family thought I was odd. My mum had been known to hide my paintings behind the settee saying they were too ‘way out’ for the likes of her and my dad was just as bad. “Why can’t you paint something normal?” he’d complain, “Nobody is going to buy those weird bloody things you do.”

I think my surreal artistic renderings caused me to be a bit of an embarrassment to them both, although eventually my mum came to be my greatest fan. However, it took time.

I had a boyfriend, although he wasn’t really my type and it was more to please my mum and dad really, and to stop the other young men chatting me up. He was called Carysforth and I met him on one of the afternoon drinking sessions. He came swaggering in with John Duggan ‘The Coin Man.’

“He’s driving a bloody great Bentley,” my dad quickly pointed out, giving me a hefty nudge. He always noticed people’s cars and watches and, like any dad I suppose, lived in hope of marrying me off to a rich man. That way I would maybe give up ‘this silly art business’ once and for all and become a respectable married lady. A rich one preferably!

“Same again old chap?” he asked Carysforth, “It’s on me.”

So when Carysforth finally plucked up courage to ask me out for dinner, after several large gin and tonics, compliments of the Landlord, I said yes – mainly to please my dad, but also because I’d never been taken out to dinner before. I sat next to him in the Bentley feeling vaguely ridiculous, hoping that I wouldn’t be spotted by any of my art school cronies which would have totally ruined my ‘street cred.’ From then on, we slipped into a relationship of habit, which held no surprises but was easy and uncomplicated. Twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, he would take me out for a pub-crawl in the Bentley and on Saturday afternoons, I would serve drinks in the bar and watch him get drunk with his mates.

I’d managed to persuade my dad, against his better judgement naturally, to let me and my fellow art students stage an exhibition in the pub. He wasn’t a bit happy about seeing his walls, which were usually adorned with hunting scenes or big bellied monks sitting around tables clutching tankards, suddenly draped with huge canvases of starving Biafrans, a topical subject at the time. Not to mention his daughter’s surreal and often erotic fantasies. But the ring of the cash register as the word got round and the art-loving throngs flocked in, cheered him up no end.  Some of the locals however, who were creatures of habit and despised change in any shape or form, took exception. “Bloody hell Landlord, I thought you were running a pub, not tut’Tate bloody gallery. I’ve got no time for this modern art malarkey but I know what I like.” etc.

Carysforth was equally unimpressed, especially with my artwork. He was an antique dealer and dealt in old masters, or young mistresses, as he liked to joke. His lack of appreciation of my artistic talent did nothing to endear him to me and we had our first serious argument. My dad of course, immediately joined forces with him, saying it was about time I stopped messing around with art and found myself a decent job. The post office was mentioned.

I immediately retreated into my artistic shell in high dudgeon and ignored them both. Little did I know that day, that fate was about to step in and rescue me. 

It was Saturday afternoon and all the hardened drinkers were out in full force and propping up the bar, including the butcher and the ‘Egg Bird’ who were having an illicit affair and always came in after their rounds to canoodle in the corner. John Duggan ‘The Coin Man,’ had already bought his usual dozen eggs from the ‘Egg Bird’ and a scraggy looking chicken from the butcher, to take home to appease ‘the wife.’ That’s if he ever made it back home in time for dinner, as he was usually the last to leave!  

As the afternoon wore on and the punters became more inebriated and out of control, the poor chicken found itself being tossed around the pub in some sort of bizarre rugby match, until the self-appointed referee declared “Half Time” and “Get ‘em in Landlord. Same again all round.”

Glasses replenished, they then started on the eggs, setting out to prove who could and who couldn’t eat an egg in its shell. Finally, tiring of that, they resorted to simply hurling the remaining eggs around the room at random. Eggs finished, they moved on to the ever-popular Jacob’s Cream Cracker Challenge – i.e. how many dry crackers it was possible to stuff in the human mouth without taking a drink. This, more often than not, involved money changing hands, so it was a very serious business. A respectful hush fell over the bar as I passed a brand new packet of Jacob’s Cream Crackers to Jack, the up to now, undisputed champion. He slowly stuffed them in his mouth one by one, until cheeks puffed out like a hamster and on the verge of retaining his title, someone patted him on the back in premature congratulation. A veritable snowstorm of cream cracker flakes gusted out of his mouth and slowly settled on the top of everyone’s pints. At that precise moment, the front door opened and everyone froze. 

“I thought you’d locked the door,” Jack spat at my dad, brushing cracker flakes off his moustache.

“So did I,” my dad replied, then turning to the intruders, “Can I help you gentlemen?” Three very tall, distinguished men in dark suits and long black overcoats stood in the vestibule. I recognised one of them immediately. It was the man in the mist. I could never forget that face.

“You know who that IS?” my dad whispered excitedly in my ear “It’s himself. Brian Mercer. He owns half of bloody Blackburn. What can I do you gentlemen for?” he asked them, rubbing his hands together in glee. But the man in the mist totally ignored him. He was staring fixedly at one of my paintings, his dark eyes boring holes through the thin canvas of one of my erotic dreams. All eyes upon him, he slowly strolled around the room, the punters reverentially standing aside and making way for him as he briefly studied the rest of the paintings. Then he came back and stood directly in front of mine. The room had gone deathly quiet by this time. A stray cracker flake slowly spiralled down and landed on his black overcoat. He flicked it off impatiently with his long fingers.

“Landlord,” he boomed in a deep sonorous tone, “I would like to enquire the name of the artist responsible for this particular canvas?”

One of his companions handed him a large glass of whiskey on the rocks and I noticed that his hands were shaking as he took a drink.

“Oh, that’s just one of my daughter’s,” my dad apologised, gesturing towards me, “But there are some better ones in the other room if you’d care to take a look.”

My dad could be very disloyal at times. 

The man in the mist gave my dad a disgusted scowl and making no further comment, led his henchmen off into what we called the ‘Juke Box’ room and sat down at one of the red Formica tables, the other two sitting protectively each side of him like pair of bookends. 

Conversation resumed at the bar but the party games were definitely over for that day. Reluctantly, John Duggan went home to face ‘the wife’ with no eggs and the decidedly worse for wear chicken tucked limply under his arm. The butcher and the ‘Egg bird’ had their last, lingering embrace then slunk back to their respective spouses. Carysforth had passed out and was draped over the bar, a fake daisy from one of my mum’s flower arrangements nodding sadly behind his ear.

And I was summoned to the Juke Box room for a conference with “Himself.”

I sat on the stool opposite him as directed and we all stared at each other in silence. They reminded me of the Three Wise Monkeys ‘Hear no evil’ ‘Speak no evil’ and ‘See no evil.’

“This is my lawyer, Ted Hodgkinson,” the man in the mist stood up and introduced one of his henchmen, an enormous fat man, with a bulbous nose, huge belly and lecherous, watery eyes, “And this is Tony Wilsonholme, my closest friend.”

A distinguished looking man with shiny, silver hair, softly curling over his collar, and bright blue eyes offered me his hand. For once, I found myself longing to be back behind the safety of the bar serving pints.

The man in the mist cleared his throat then looked at me intently. “Can I ask you something?” He waited, his eyes burning through me. I nodded.

“What do you need to REALLY paint?”

Really paint? What did he mean? I was a bit offended to tell the truth. Was he inferring that I wasn’t ‘really’ painting now?

“Well, lots of things,” I stuttered, “But I suppose money mainly.” It just slipped out before I could help myself. But it was true wasn’t it? All artists needed money, didn’t they?

He stared at me for what seemed like forever then intoned in his deep, sombre baritone, “Would you, in that case young lady, permit me to speak to your father?” Why on earth did he need to speak to my father I wondered. Was he intending to ask for my hand? Wouldn’t my dad just love that!

“I believe you have great artistic talent,” he proclaimed pompously, “And as you may or may not be aware, (I wasn’t) I have successfully sponsored artists in the past. I would therefore like to fund your art materials and expenses for one whole year.”

My eyes nearly dropped out of my head and my mouth fell open in surprise.

“If that is amenable to you of course?” he continued.

Amenable? Was he joking? It was a bloody miracle. I smiled.  He didn’t. 

 “No strings attached” he looked at me meaningfully, “I only want you to paint.” I was subsequently dismissed and after a brief word with my father, the Three Wise Monkeys left.

My dad, it has to be said, was beside him self with joy. A rich and respected art collector expressing an interest in his daughter’s art and what’s more, offering to subsidise her? Suddenly, art didn’t seem such a ‘daft bloody business’ after all, and when my new patron arrived the next night and solemnly presented me with the cheque, I could hardly believe my eyes. It seemed like a fortune. After thanking him profusely and promising him faithfully that I wouldn’t let him down, I went straight to the art shop where I bought two of everything, including easels, and while I was at it, a new dress from the boutique next door, because I was only human after all, dedicated artist or not.

I found that thanks to my wealthy new patron, I suddenly rocketed up in everyone’s estimation, especially Carysforth’s who took to ‘popping’ in to see me every night, instead of only Tuesdays and Thursdays on the off chance that Brian would be there and he could try to sell him some of his more expensive antiques. He’d stroll nonchalantly into the bar with the odd Rodin bust tucked under his arm, or let it be known that he just happened to have a rather nice Ming vase in the boot of the Bentley. But Brian, if he deigned to come in at all that is, made it clear that he was interested in one thing and one thing only. Although he’d said there would be no strings attached, it soon became obvious to everyone, everyone but me that is, that the chase was on. He was the ‘Spider’ and I was the ‘Fly’ and nothing would stop him until he had got me well and truly ensnared in his web.

I started to paint like a madwoman. My bedroom-come studio was filled with canvases and the stench of turpentine invaded my very being. I felt driven to paint something wonderful to impress my new benefactor and justify the faith (not to mention the cash) that he’d invested in me. True to his word, at the beginning he left me alone most of the time. He knew that all he had to do was wait and in the meantime, unbeknown to me, he was weaving his web tighter and tighter around me. But he could afford to take his time, couldn’t he? After all, didn’t he always get what he wanted? Why should I be the exception?

Christmas came and went without a visit from him and I started to get a bit worried. Apart from the fact that by this time the funds were getting a bit low, I also realised to my consternation that I was actually missing him. 

It was New Year’s Eve and Carysforth and I were having a terrible row in the bar.  Brian had finally shown his face but had left suddenly without saying goodbye. After he’d gone, Carysforth (who was slightly tiddled) started having a go at me for upsetting him. 

“I can’t help speaking my mind, can I?” I defended myself, “Anyway, who gives a damn about him,” I swore, losing patience, “I’m going upstairs to get on with my work.”

At twelve o’clock I could hear everyone downstairs in the pub bringing in the New Year. I was glad I was safely upstairs and not in danger of having to kiss any of the customers under the mistletoe. My feelings of security were short lived however, because suddenly my studio door was flung open and there stood Brian in his long, black overcoat, looking like the Grim Reaper.

“Happy New Year,” he droned in his voice of doom, not sounding happy at all. He moved a sheaf of drawings off the bed and slumped down wearily.

“I can’t stand other people” he sighed deeply, “Can you?”

He stared at the painting on the easel for a long time, without making any comment then beckoned me with his long white hand to sit on the bed beside him. We sat there in silence, side by side, listening to the sounds of revelry rising up from the bar.

Two big tears slowly rolled down his face and plopped onto the drawing he was holding in his shaky hand.

“How are you?” he asked miserably, “I mean how are you really? Are you happy?”

I was considering how to answer this complicated question and at the same time trying to resist the urge to mop his tearstains off my drawing, when taking me completely by surprise, he suddenly leant over and sank his teeth in my bare arm.

I sat there stunned, immune to the pain as though he was injecting me with some kind of drug. Then without saying a word, he stood up and walked out of the door. After he’d gone, I looked in trepidation at the neat ring of teeth marks on my bare flesh and feared for my New Year.

If not the rest of my life!

2 Comments»

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