Wednesday, 6 July 2016

The Elephant and Castle

A few years back I wrote a series of semi-fictional stories about the six years I spent in the curious west Wales town of Carmarthen.

This particular one seemed to strike a chord with a few people so I thought I'd share it. As I have nothing else coming to mind to fill my 100 days of happiness attempt!

The names and streets were changed to reflect the alternate vision of Carmarthen I had, a kind of narcotic theme park, a Shangri-La. The Elephant and Castle was a real pub, and was a home from home for me and several others like me. I miss it still.

Last Night An Elephant Died or Why I Can’t Bring Myself To Watch Terminator 2.

The Spirit gazed upon him mildly. Its gentle touch, though it had been light and instantaneous, appeared still present to the old man’s sense of feeling. He was conscious of a thousand odours floating in the air, each one connected with a thousand thoughts, and hopes , and joys, and cares long, long forgotten.
   ``Your lip is trembling,'' said the Ghost. ``And what is that upon your cheek?”
   Scrooge muttered, with an unusual catching in his voice, that it was a pimple; and begged the Ghost to lead him where he would.
   ``You recollect the way?'' inquired the Spirit.
   ``Strange to have forgotten it for so many years!'' observed the Ghost. ``Let us go on.”
   ``Remember it!'' cried Scrooge with fervour; ``I could walk it blindfold.”

                                                                                    Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.

The Elephant is a strange pub. I say is, though it hasn’t opened its doors since 1992. It doesn’t exist anymore, it’s a block of offices now which, considering its previous incarnation as a shelter for those hiding from the worlds of effort and responsibility, seems a cruel joke.
            Walk through the town centre, up past the Town Hall, left into George Street. Ignore the nicer pubs, the wine bar, the cinema and the theatre – greater entertainment lies beyond. Keep going to the end, there’s a grim little side street called The Calling, like something out of an Expressionist film – crazed diagonal walls leaning into a path designed for drunks to automatically straighten themselves. At the end of this path lies The Elephant.
            The Elephant has a thick door made of oak and reinforced with the kind of metal you’d see on a medieval castle. It’s open most hours though. Step inside and you’re greeted with a dimly lit paradise, a glaucomic Heaven. The bar is U-shaped. It is a place that could not survive in today’s age of ubiquitous chain-pubs with the disgusting aroma of microwaved food. The Elephant doesn’t serve food; it’s here to get men pissed. No women drink here. It’s not a rule; it’s just something you don’t see.
            The landlord, Graham, looks like Jimmy White. That’s if Jimmy got bored of snooker and snazzy waistcoats and had decided that a day spent behind a bar reading The Sun and shouting at invisible snappy dogs was a better life.
            Nobody under the age of 50 drank here. This was a pub for the vocational drinker. Men who had seen their best years slip away in a long drawn-out haze of divorces, sackings and enormous bar tabs. Guys like Hywel, a man who you could see must have been handsome once but now, in his autumn years has the red jowls of a bloodhound stood too close to a sunset. Or Johnny Horses, a man who I presumed had a thing about the nags or connections to some of the successful stables on the outskirts of town, but who merely turned out to have the coolest name ever.
            Me and my mates drink here. We should, of course, be at college. Or doing something constructive with our youth but we’re here. I should introduce them really. Garry’s wiry, whippet-thin with a permanent rollie hanging from his lips. He’s only 21 and already he has smoker’s fingers, permanently stained with the same faded gold you get in old books. The Monk’s carved from wider wood than Garry. He’s a year older than me and Garry; this is enough for us to call him Dad sometimes. That, and the fact that he dresses like a Dad. He’s always got a cardigan on or a nice shirt from Marks and Spencer. Proper shoes, no trainers.
            Whenever we enter the Elephant, we respect the unwritten rules of the establishment. We don’t sit at the bar; we sit round the far side by the jukebox and the pool table. The scruffy end. The tables are giant pennies. We sit on old milking stools. The pool table has bright blue baize which is Graham’s idea of decorating. The jukebox is old school. Vinyl. The most recent record on here is ten years old, Going Underground by the Jam. The rest is classic Sixties pop and rock – Beach Boys, Rolling Stones, Otis Redding, Kinks. We feed the jukebox with fifty pences and he nourishes you in return with seven songs. Crackling through the speakers like a transmission from sometime before you were born, the music helps to give you the impression that the Elephant is a time machine.
            Not just travelling to the past, mind. To go to the bar is to stare into your future, ordering your fourth pint of the afternoon you’d sometimes find yourself staring across at Johnny Horses or Bill or Jock or Dai – guys sat in the darkness, silently contemplating their mortality through the muddied reflection of their stouts. They look back at you – you are the ghosts of Christmas past.  But the pints come, Graham gives you your change, asks you to pick a number for the Christmas raffle game he’s pinned above the till, and you think about Christmas and your mates and it’s all good again – Marley’s ghost has gone back to the spirit row.
            Years pass in this fashion, endless games of pool, drunken conversations about everything from the films of Arnold Schwarzenegger to the pointlessness of owning a kite. When you found out you were going to become a Dad, you came in here. When your son was three weeks old, this was the first pub he entered (don’t tell his Mum). All manner of celebrations, consolations and consultations took place in this church.
            Gradually, the regulars accepted you. Accepted a pint from you if you were buying. Offered them back. Nodded by means of greeting as you stumbled in, and by means of farewell as you staggered out.
            You invented your own games here. Such as Cross-Country Darts. The rules of Cross-Country darts were not dissimilar to the traditional game. Three arrows. One dartboard. It was the distance they had to be thrown from. That and the run-up from outside the pub, around the bar and at the exact moment the ancient dartboard came into view; the darts must be released at once, not individually.
            The best score was an astonishing 73 from the Monk, involving a triple 20 that brought tears to the eyes of all who witnessed it. A 13 proved an unlucky omen and the third dart smashed the little light bulb above the scoreboard.
            In the Elephant we were accepted.

A typical Carmarthen summer morning. Me and the Monk are standing underneath his enormous umbrella outside Smiths when Graham runs up to us.
            “You coming tonight lads?”
            “Not tonight, Graham. Bit skint this week,” I say.
            “Try and come, it’s invite only. Special occasion.”

The Elephant doesn’t do weddings. Or birthdays. It’d be hard to tell if there was a wake taking place there. Special occasion? Poverty be damned. It’s a date.

Later that evening, the three of us are making our way down the Calling in single file. As we finally turn the corner onto Catchpole Street we notice the Elephant’s lights are off and the curtains are shut. The medieval style fortress door is closed too.
            I knock.
            The little window at eye height opens, and then shuts. The door is opened and we are ushered in. The door clangs behind us.
            Before us, the Elephant – always dingy is now positively subterranean. Candles are lit across the bar. This isn’t a pub, this is a séance.
            The big telly has been taken down from the corner and placed upon a table opposite the bar. They don’t show football or rugby here as that might attract the wrong sort of crowd. People. The only thing that’s ever on that telly is old Westerns or American daytime dramas like Quincy and the Rockford Files. They had Strike It Lucky on one night and a lot of money changed hands with Johnny Horses leading the betting.
            All the old boys are here tonight. Graham’s laid on a spread. Homemade cawl, fresh rolls and, it transpires, free beer. The telly is showing a video of Terminator 2. The old fellas like a bit of nuclear holocaust with their soup.
            “What’s all this in aid of then?” the Monk asks.
            The old fellas turn for a moment and, on realising that it’s us, go back to watching children evaporating on the telly.
            “I’m doing a bunk, lads.”
            “This is the last night. I’ve got a taxi coming at midnight and I’m off..”
            “Have a few pints on me, lads. You’re good guys. Have a drink.”

We drink like condemned men, I feel like something terrible has happened. The scruffy end of the room is in darkness, the dartboard and the big pennies already falling into memory. Doesn’t seem right sat here without music. All we can hear is gunfire and the slurping of soup.
            When Graham lets us out, we say goodbye like we’re going to see him in the morning. No one says anything as we trudge our way back up the hill through town. It’s dark, it’s wet and it’s late. Everyone goes to bed without saying anything.

The local paper the next week mentions the closure of the Elephant. There’s rumours of hundreds of thousands of pounds owed to the brewery. Talk of drug dealers, gambling debts and vengeful ex-wives. Taxis to Heathrow, flights to Brazil.
            The letters are taken off the pub and a for sale sign drilled to the wall. Occasionally we saw Johnny Horses in the street and would exchange cursory nods.
            I failed my degree and the Monk failed his.