Copyright © Alby Stone 2020
Old Alf brushed against the Christmas tree on his way back from the bar. Only the slightest of touches, but it went flying, tinsel, baubles and fairy lights all over the place. A woman started at the noise and stepped back, crushing the little plaster angel underfoot. Miraculously, not a drop was spilled from the three pints Alf was carrying, tripod-style, to their table, seemingly oblivious to the chaos left in his wake.
‘Looks like some idiot’s knocked the tree over,’ he said, glancing over his shoulder. ‘There you go, lads. Three pints of Doom Bar.’
‘I asked for London Pride,’ said George.
‘Pride’s off,’ Alf replied.
‘And I wanted a Stella,’ said Joe, frowning.
‘They’ve stopped selling it. Something to do with Brexit and tariffs, Eric at the bar reckons. The brewery getting its retaliation in first.’
‘Bloody EU,’ Joe muttered.
‘This is because we’ve nearly left the EU,’ Alf pointed out. ‘There won’t actually be any tariffs on imported beer until the new year. Not that tariffs would apply to beers brewed in the UK anyway. And don’t you start moaning, Joe. You voted Leave, remember.’
‘I thought we were supposed to be taking back control,’ Joe sighed. ‘Seems like we didn’t.’
‘Daft sod. When they said we’ll take back control, they didn’t mean the likes of us. They meant toffs, hedge fund managers and currency speculators. And that posh twat who moved all his money to a bank in Dublin. Profiteers and spivs. Anyway, it’s Christmas. Shut up and drink up.’
The three old men drank in companionable silence for a few minutes. Then Joe cleared his throat. ‘You see that strip of cardboard behind the bar, the one with the packets of peanuts stuck on it? It looks just like an Advent calendar.’
Alf raised his eyebrows. ‘A peanut Advent calendar? Daft sod.’ He raised his glass, sipped, smacked his lips. ‘Lovely. You can’t beat a good pint.’
One of the bar staff and two customers were gathering scattered ornaments and reassembling the Christmas tree. Alf, George and Joe watched with interest. ‘Those lights are pathetic,’ said George. ‘You’d think they’d have splashed out on something decent. And I think that angel’s properly knackered now.’
Joe frowned. ‘I thought it was a fairy.’
‘No, that one’s got wings and a halo. It’s an angel. A pretty crap one, mind. As crap as the tree.’
‘Maybe they got a crap tree because they knew Alf would be knocking the bloody thing over,’ said George. ‘God, I hate Christmas.’
‘You would. Tight as Scrooge and as miserable as the Grinch.’
‘Fuck off, Joe.’
‘I didn’t touch that bloody tree,’ said Alf, a fraction too late for credibility.
Chilled air blasted through the bar as a gaggle of young women arrived, giggling and gaudy with Christmas hats and jumpers, micro-skirts and alarmingly high stiletto heels. Each had a sprig of mistletoe Sellotaped to her forehead. All had evidently imbibed a seasonal livener before setting out. They ordered a double round – Jaegerbombs and tequila shots – then set about snogging every man in the bar, taken or otherwise, though they studiously avoided the table where the three old men sat.
There was a ragged cheer when the tree lit up again. This signalled a rise in noise levels. The tipsy girls giggled more loudly, and a squabble erupted between one of them and a women who objected to her going back for a second snog with her husband. Then the music started.
Alf groaned. ‘I knew it. Bloody Slade. Everybody’s having fun, my arse. And this is only the beginning. It’ll be bloody Roy Wood next, mark my words.’
‘I like this stuff,’ said Joe. ‘Reminds me of when I was young.’
Alf snorted. ‘Daft sod. You must have been too old for this glam rock rubbish when it came out. I know I was and you’re a year older than me.’
‘Bollocks. I’m only seventy. Anyway, I’m youthful on the inside. You’re only as old as you feel, mate.’
‘Bugger me, in that case I must be due a telegram from the Queen. Victoria.’
‘Miserable bastard.’ George drained his glass. ‘My round, boys. Same again?’ His friends nodded so he went to the bar, steering a hopeful course among the Christmas girls. Roy Wood wished it could be Christmas every day.
At the bar, George was multitasking, ordering beer and exchanging words with one of the festive females. Alf shook his head. George was well out of his depth. As if any of those young things would snog a scruffy old man with a ratty comb-over and a personal miasma of Old Spice, mothballs and beer breath. He turned to Joe. ‘So what are you doing tomorrow? The usual?’
‘Yep. Round to my daughter’s place for an early dinner, open my Christmas socks, get ignored by the grandkids, then turfed out before it’s time to break out the serious booze and her bloke gets too pissed to drive me home. You?’
‘The same. Why do they always give us bloody socks? I wouldn’t mind an Amazon voucher. Maybe a bottle of rum.’
Joe shrugged. ‘They don’t know what to get old boys like us. They think all we do is sit around thinking about the old days, like Clive bloody Dunn. No interest in anything else. Hence the socks. Practical, and they know we’ll wear them. Saves them having to use their brains. Anyway, we’re lucky. Poor old George doesn’t have anyone.’
‘True. Mind you, he says he’s happy on his own. Netflix and that project he’s working on.’
‘Yeah, whatever that is.’
‘His memoirs, he reckons,’ said Alf. ‘Told me in the White Horse last week. What he got up to in the Sixties.’
‘Well, if he reckons he can remember them you can be sure it’ll be a work of fiction.’
Alf’s face softened. ‘Christ, the Sixties. A brilliant time, especially the second half. Great music. Woodstock and Monterey, the Stones in Hyde Park. The World Cup.’
‘It had its dark side, Alf. Vietnam and Enoch Powell. Aberfan and Prague. As much war and hate and fear as there was peace and love and happiness. Just like any other time in history.’
‘You always were a bit of a philosopher,’ said Alf affectionately. ‘Daft sod.’
‘That’s “daft sod, man” to you,’ Joe quipped. They chuckled quietly.
George returned gripping a tripod of pints. ‘Old Speckled Hen,’ he informed them. ‘Doom Bar’s off.’
Alf glared suspiciously at his beer before having a taste. ‘Lovely,’ he pronounced. ‘So what have you got planned for Christmas Day, George?’
‘A lie-in, big roast with all the trimmings, a few beers, Netflix, off to bed with a full belly and a fuzzy head. Might work on the you-know-what. Just like any other day, only with mince pies and a turkey crown. I’ll share that with the cat.’
Alf raised his eyebrows. ‘I didn’t know you had a cat.’
‘I don’t. It lives next door but it always kips at mine when they have their grandkids round. Can’t say I blame it. That place is like a sociopaths’ convention when those brats are there. I’d do the same if I was in its shoes.’
‘Cats don’t wear shoes,’ Joe pointed out.
‘They’re metaphorical shoes, Joe. Like the cat’s whiskers. Or the dog’s bollocks.’
‘But cats have got whiskers,’ Joe objected. ‘And dogs definitely have bollocks, unless they’re female or they’ve had the old chop.’
They collectively winced at the thought.
Another cheer went up as a pint of lager hit the floor and shattered. ‘That was your bloody fault,’ the owner of the former pint complained to one of one of the young women, whose only response was to extend her middle finger. The barman who had been involved in putting the Christmas tree back together emerged from behind the bar with a dustpan and brush in one hand, a mop and bucket in the other, and set about cleaning up the mess. Then a woman in a Salvation Army uniform entered the pub and commenced the annual ritual of attempting to shame a bunch of drinkers into buying The War Cry. ‘Geronimo!’ someone dutifully shouted above the increasing din. Mud took up the musical slack, Les Gray announcing it would be lonely this Christmas.
George mimed sticking his fingers down his throat. ‘Christ alive, I wish they’d play something decent. The Small Faces or the Kinks. The Beatles or the Stones. Even the Who. Anything but this horrible festive shite. Oh well, there’s always beer. My shout, lads. Same again?’
‘We can but hope,’ sighed Alf as Joe left the table.
‘Poor old George,’ said Joe. ‘He’s never been the same since his missus died.’
‘Eh? She didn’t die, you daft sod. She ran off with her toy boy. Mind you, she might be dead by now. Nearly thirty years ago, that was.’
‘Are you sure?’ Joe frowned. ‘I distinctly remember the funeral.’
‘No, that was just George making a big production out of it. Must admit, it seemed like a bloody funeral. If I’d been married to that sour-faced ratbag I’d have put the bunting up and hired a band.’
‘I don’t remember her having a toy boy.’
It was the bloke who ran that plumbing business in the high street. Bill something, with the tattoos and the quiff. Quite sad really. They found out George was firing blanks so she took up with someone who had live rounds in his magazine. And a bigger weapon, by all accounts. Not so much with the old brain cells, though, or he’d never have taken up with her.’
‘Women,’ said Joe bitterly.
‘That’s no way to talk, Joey boy. Sexist, that’s what it is. I don’t want to hear that kind of misogynistic claptrap. Get with the feminism, mate. My missus was a fine woman, rest her soul. Kept our house sparkling and always had my dinner ready on the table when I got home from work.’
Joe nodded. ‘Mine was the same. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.’
‘The Hen’s off,’ said George, returning with another tripod. ‘This is Greene King IPA.’
Alf took a sip, nodded approvingly. ‘Lovely.’
‘Pricey,’ said George gloomily. ‘Nearly a fiver a pint. Our pensions don’t go far nowadays, eh? Not that they ever did.’
‘George, you’ve got mistletoe taped to your forehead,’ Alf observed.
‘Really? No idea how that got there.’ George glanced shiftily at the giggling girls, now on their fourth double round and getting louder and more unsteady by the minute. One of them looked over and blew George a kiss.
Alf exhaled noisily. ‘You bloody did, didn’t you? You got them drinks in exchange for a snog. That must have cost a bloody fortune. Daft sod. I hope you’ve got enough money for your next shout.’
‘Not an opportunity you turn down at our age, Alf.’
‘Sexual harassment, that is. You could get nicked for that.’
It’s none of your business. Anyway, it was her idea. And for your information I’ve got plenty of cash on me. Be prepared, and all that.’
‘Be prepared for what?’
Alf laughed. ‘Bugger me, you only live a hundred yards up the road. What’s likely to happen to you between here and there?’
‘Well, I might get mugged.’
‘So you’ve laid in some cash for the muggers? A Christmas box for some low-life?’ Joe sneered. ‘Now that’s what I call a random act of kindness. You need your head examined.’
‘That’s not what I mean. I read somewhere that if you get mugged you’re less likely to get hurt if you have money on you. Give them what they want and they’ll leave you alone.’
‘If they left you alone in the first place you wouldn’t need to have any money to give them.’
Alf drained his glass. ‘JMy thoughts exactly, Joe. Almost. Anyway, you’re on the way to our places so you never go home on your own. Nobody’s going to try it on with the three of us, even if we could give Methuselah a run for his shekels. Same again? If at all possible?’
George and Joe nodded. Alf headed to the bar while Greg Lake informed the merrymakers that he believed in Father Christmas.
‘I think Alf’s in a bad mood this evening,’ said Joe.
‘No worse than usual,’ George replied. ‘He’s always a cantankerous, opinionated old git. He’s the Groucho to my Chico and your Dumbo.’
‘You mean Harpo.’
‘I know what I meant, Joe. No, you’re right. He is a bit down in the dumps this evening. Let’s face it, so are we. I’ll be alone tomorrow and you and Alf will be unwanted guests. Like Harpo’s ghost.’
‘You mean Banquo.’
‘No, I mean your voices will not be heard. You’ll be there but not-there, because you’re not really wanted and you both know it. They’ll be gladder when you leave than when you arrive. Only relief follows tolerance.’
‘But you haven’t got kids. What do you know about it?’
‘I listen to you and Alf moaning every bloody year.’
Joe thought about that. George had a point. All those family conversations that had gone on around him but rarely included him. The Christmas Days planned without his views being sought. The expectation that he would go along with whatever they wanted, without objection or argument. Being all but ignored by the in-laws, forgotten by the kids as better distractions beckoned. The booze strictly rationed. The fucking socks. His daughter invited him out of duty, not because his participation was desired, his presence cherished. He guessed it was much the same for Alf.
Alf chose that moment to return with the evening’s fourth tripod. ‘IPA’s off. This is called Proper Job. Cornish. Never had it before.’ He sat and took a cautious sip, smiled crookedly. ‘Lovely. So what were you two talking about while I was away?’
‘Harpo’s ghost,’ said Joe gloomily.
‘Is that one of those doom metal bands George likes?’
‘No, it’s what we are at our family Christmases, Alf. Fifth wheels. Gooseberries in the nuclear family relationships. Propped up in a corner to vegetate while the fun goes on around us. If we died they wouldn’t notice until we refused to leave.’
‘Well, you speak for yourself,’ said Alf. ‘But yeah, it is pretty shite. They know I hate sprouts and Christmas pudding but I get them every bloody year. Not to mention cranberry bloody sauce. Never get to see what I’d like on the telly. Always get driven home at six because at my age I need my rest. They’re pretty firm about that. And as for the fucking socks…’
George nodded sagely. ‘Socks come under the category “things you give people when you can’t be arsed to think what to get them”. You can bet your life they’re the very last presents they buy. Afterthoughts. I don’t know how you put up with it.’
‘Well, it’s family. That’s important.’
‘Of course it is, Alf. But so is your dignity and independence – and your status as a person. Me and Joe were just talking about this. The older you get, the less you’re seen as a human being. You become something to be endured, until you pop your clogs and they get to breathe a huge sigh of relief, grab your savings, put your house on the market while rigor mortis is still setting in, and go in search of the life insurance paperwork. You’re a totem with no inner life they can imagine, a symbol they can manipulate to suit themselves. It’s always at their convenience, isn’t it? Always what they want, when they want, how they want. After feeding and clothing them and wiping their arses for years, your kids still expect you to build your lives around them. Sure, they might believe it’s their duty, but really it’s just an excuse to play the martyr with the least possible effort. Virtue signalling that gets more pronounced as the years go by. Christmas is just the tip of the iceberg.’
‘Bugger me,’ said Alf, unusually impressed. ‘That’s bloody deep. And here I was thinking Joe was the philosopher.’
‘You only have to stop and think for a moment. Isn’t it more fun to get pissed and have a laugh with your mates than spend a day with people who can’t spare you a minute because they’ve got too much else on? Why, just once, don’t you have a Christmas built around what you want? ‘
Alf pulled a face. ‘There’s no way my daughter would agree to that.’
‘Nor mine,’ Joe agreed.
‘It isn’t their decision, lads. Just stay at home and do whatever you want.’ George’s face lit up. ‘Or you could come round to my place, make a day of it. I’m cooking anyway, so it’s no hardship to make a few more roast potatoes or whatever. I’ve got plenty of beer in, including a dozen bottles of Shepherd Neame Christmas Ale. Very nice beer. We could have a sprout-free dinner, a good drink, listen to some decent sounds, and watch something on Netflix when we’re pissed enough. You can stay as long as you like. All you have to do is phone your daughters in the morning and tell them you have new plans. They won’t care. Sure, they’ll pretend to be disappointed but really they’ll be bloody relieved.’
There was a scream as one of the giggling girls – the one George had snogged – caught a stiletto heel in the carpet and lost her balance. As she toppled toward the Christmas tree, she flung her shot glass into the air to free both hands to cushion the fall. The glass hit the ceiling, dislodging a paper chain that dropped gracefully down to hang in front of the bar like a liana. A flailing leg knocked over a table laden with full glasses and empties. Then she fell bodily onto the tree, destroying it completely and sending baubles, lights and pine needles in all directions. An object arced across the bar and plopped into Alf’s Proper Job. More drinks were spilled as people jostled to keep clear of the carnage. There was a second of utter silence, and the bar erupted into laughter, jeers, screeches, complaints and angry shouts as two fights broke out, while John and Yoko advised the participants that war was over. The barman shook his head and reached for the dustpan and brush.
The three friends reverently surveyed the chaos. Alf gazed down at the broken-winged and now halo-free angel as it slowly sank into his beer. ‘That’s got to be better than burial at sea.’
‘Amen to that,’ said George. ‘Gentlemen, we should take this as an omen. Our cue to leave the premises before the pub collapses around us?’
‘And we’ve got to get to our beds early because we’re old,’ added Joe bitterly.
Alf shrugged. ‘Yeah, might as well clear off before they’re down to Foster’s.’
They drank up, picked their way through the wreckage and arguments, visited the toilet, and left the pub. Outside, snow was falling.
‘Nice,’ said George, extending both hands to catch a few flakes. ‘Just like the ones we used to know but never really happened.’
‘It’s pretty heavy. Probably going to settle. It’ll be much too dangerous for old men like me and Joe to go anywhere. I reckon it’d probably be best if we phoned our daughters and told them we’ll be staying put tomorrow.’
‘Or not going too far, Alf.’ Joe breathed a misty plume into the night air. ‘We could make it as far as George’s place, though.’
‘That’s that, then. A sock-free and sproutless Christmas at mine.’ George smiled happily. ‘With lots of beer. We can let our hair down.’
‘You don’t have any.’
‘Fuck off, Alf.’
‘I think me and Joe should bring a few bottles along tomorrow. You can never have too much beer in the house. Hey, did you really buy those girls a round just so you could get a snog?’
‘It was their idea. And fair exchange is no robbery, my son. Anyway, these days you mustn’t call women girls. It’s sexist and patronising.’
Alf snorted. ‘Bugger me, at our age most women under seventy look like girls.’
Leaving three wavy lines of footprints in the thickening snow, they walked toward their homes, with George’s bungalow the first port of call. As they reached his gate, Joe pointed to a light dead ahead on the horizon. ‘That’s a really bright star. Or is it Venus?’
‘Nah,’ said George. ‘It’s a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn or something. I read about it on the internet.’
Alf rolled his eyes. ‘It’s a bloody police helicopter, you daft sods.’ He belched contentedly. ‘Christ, I love beer.’