I push open the heavy oak door to The Rose, and I’m instantly hit with the roar of Friday-night conversation. The air rushing out to greet me smells of good wine gravy and old pub, and I pause for a moment, blinking at the crowd.
I haven’t been here for perhaps five years – the old gang have all grown-up, moved away. The last time I remember, we’d been the only ones here, our voices carelessly loud in a mid-week hush.
Now though, it’s Friday night and it’s packed – so many people that it’s hard to squeeze in the door. My black-rimmed spectacles steam up and I snatch them from my face, suddenly terribly nervous of walking into a newly-strange place.
‘Carles!’ It’s The Ferg, a local farmer I’ve not properly seen for years, and who has a terrible reputation for havoc-making. It’s The Ferg’s brother and his wife that I’m to have a quick drink with, and I barely say hello before I demand if he’s seen MinanRuss. I run the names together, as if they’re a trusted brand I can rely on.
‘No,’ he tells me. ‘Are they coming here? Do you want a drink?’
I’m flustered by the crowd and the sense of no longer being cool, and I shake my head, start sliding away through the checked-elbows towards the bar. I forget that I prefer spirits with mixers, and I order a Pinot Grigio; tonight, Matthew, I shall be – God, I’ve no idea.
Discomforted, I take my wine glass to the last table in the tiny bar dining area. It’s a table for four, and I put down my wine, phone and car keys in a semi-circle in front of me; earthworks of technology, fending off invaders. I can’t remember the last time I drank alone in a pub (the Red Lion doesn’t count), and I feel so self-conscious on my table that my shoulders are up near my ears, my hair over my face.
I pick up my phone, pretending I’ve got a signal and have an important message I must send immediately. I want, more than anything, to ring Stevie, tell him I’m coming home. Weed, I hiss to myself. I try not to bolt my wine, and instead force myself to look around me, although I make sure I don’t catch any curious eyes. Every table is crammed with people; laughing, sharing tales of their week gone, planning the weekend ahead.
A woman behind me keeps saying ‘clearly’. Clearly the situation in Crimea is volatile. Clearly the Kremlin must not be allowed – her voice drops, confidingly – clearly the woman in the grey cashmere has been stood up by her date. I put my hand out and my wedding rings catch the light. Clearly you can get stuffed.
The bar is mostly covered in farmers, unmistakeable with their capable, red-chapped hands and sensible Country Wide shirts. They all know each other and talk in half sentences, agreeing with each other in ascending chorus. There is a woman laughing, over and over, and I resent her easy belonging. I hate not belonging – the inevitable by-product of not knowing who to be. I feel awkward.
I turn my glass, thinking how I should stand up, smile, go and hang on the bar and get chatting.
I slug at the dregs of the Pinot for courage. I stand up just as a man behind me speaks into a microphone, and I end up jumping, clutching my heart. I laugh with him as he introduces the evening’s singer, then I catch the eye of a woman in a black cardigan watching me, speculatively. She’s wondering what I’ll do next.
Put on my coat, run away. Or fling myself at the bar, chat up farmers. The woman’s watching from her busy table, her half-eaten supper ignored.
I decide to go for the farmers.
I make my way towards The Ferg, who is rocking with laughter at a neat-looking blonde man who’s describing something with his hands.
‘Carles!’ says The Ferg again, when he spots me. ‘Drink with us! Come on! Say yes this time!’
For a moment I freeze, but then my smile unsticks itself.
‘I can’t,’ I tell him. ‘I’m too shy.’
‘Rubbish,’ says The Ferg. He comes and collects me, sweeping me up in his arm. He introduces me to the farmers he’s standing with, and I instantly forget their names, but am charmed by their smiles.
I launch into a dreadful have-you-come-far conversation with the blonde. He has naughty twinkling eyes and his girlfriend is the one in the red skirt over by the piano. We stutter through another few stock-phrases (he farms at Avon Dassett. A few sheep, but mostly arable. No, no, he’s not been pleased with the weather either). But then he mentions returning from skiing, and we’re off – ‘It’s my most favourite thing in the world to do,’ I tell him. ‘I just never really have anyone to do it with.’
He tells me all about a deliciously scandalous holiday a few years ago, and we compare resorts.
We’re deep in the merits of Austria versus France when the pub door opens, and two familiar heads appear, pushing through the crowd.
‘Minanruss!’ I cry, waving. ‘That’s who I’m meeting-‘ But suddenly I’m torn. I want to stay with this nice man, and talk about snow, and really, we should wear helmets, but we don’t.
‘Go,’ he says. ‘Go say hello-‘
‘Thank you for chatting to me,’ I say. ‘And being so nice.’
Min is trying to take off her gilet, creating space by wagging her elbows.
‘Good God,’ she bellows. ‘It’s like a Range Rover convention out there! Who the bloody hell is it? Where’ve they come from?’
There’s a cheer from beside the piano.
‘Drink?’ I say, squeezing through, kissing them both hello. ‘So brilliant to see you! Let me get you a drink-‘
It’s past ten when Min and I manage to snaffle a table, and the singer has got into his stride. We’re chattering non-stop, catching up on gossip, who’s doing who, and oh-my-life, I can’t believe that. Are you sure? Outrageous.
I don’t tell Min how nervous I was before, how I nearly went home.
A tall, dark vaguely-familiar brunette comes to say hello. ‘You have such a lovely voice,’ I shout against the music. ‘All deep and raspy.’
‘Oh no,’ she says. ‘I’ve had this ever since that night.’ She and Min exchange significant looks. ‘Let me buy you a drink,’ she says. ‘And I’ll come and join you.’
‘She’s with The Ferg,’ says Min, in my ear. I look at The Ferg with new respect. He really does pull some crackers.
Min introduces us, and I tell Max we might have met before, at the Red Lion. ‘Probably my sister,’ says Max. ‘She’s way more beautiful than me.’ She says the words flatly, with no intention of prompting denials and fluttery compliments.
Min and I raise an eyebrow each. ‘You’re hardly fugly,’ we tell her. I like this girl. We then indulge in premium-rate gossip, the sort of stories friends always start with ‘Carles, don’t blog this, but-‘. God it was exciting.
The singer was really belting out his tunes now, the bar staff were still smiling and smiling.
Something rockabilly-like came on and Min was whooping, shouting I should dance with The Ferg, who once literally swept me off my feet for several minutes years ago, for which the old gang used to tease me mercilessly.
‘I’ve not had enough wine,’ I say, shaking my head, protesting. But then I’m up anyway, being towed down the bar towards the singer; there’s cheering and applause. No one else is dancing, but that doesn’t deter The Ferg. He flings me into a spin, narrowly missing a table of eight. Then he scoops me up, rocking out, and I’m laughing so hard I’ve got a searing stitch, and my hair’s come loose, and I’m not wearing my glasses, so everything’s a warm blur full of music and noise and steps that were out-of-time but exhuberant. The Ferg whizzes me around, still astonishingly strong.
As a finale, he bends me backwards, so I can see the room upside down. I feel like all of the glittery-glee has gone to the top of my head, shaken free from the boring grey silt of the every-day. I’m grinning as we take a bow to the applause, and I catch the eye of the woman in the black cardi.
She’s clapping, smiling, nodding at me as if she knows me. As if I belong.