Although the novelty of working at a traditional English boozer hadn’t yet worn off, it was still nice to spruce things up a little for the holiday season.
Nothing about the pub but the staff had changed according to one octogenarian, for at least the forty years since he’d last stopped in for a cheeky pint, and I’m sure that’s true. The woodwork is dark and sturdy, the floor is staggeringly uneven, and the regulars are as eternally linked to the premises as its ghosts.
The bi-worldly clientele is dictated by virtue of location – on top of a ‘plague pit’, built on bubonic bones, and in the heart of London’s financial district, built a little less literally on capitalism’s collateral damage.
Perhaps it’s knowledge of this that prevents English locals from signing on as staff, leaving it to be manned by the more adventurous, albeit itinerant members of the Commonwealth – South Africans, Australians and Canadians – but more likely it’s the pay. Even in my three-month career in bar-wenching, I’ve seen a lot of turnover, and I suspect even a ghost or two.
The allure of minimum wage in a city where tipping is considered an American folly – and getting to and from work with a coffee’ll set you back a third of a Monday’s earnings – rapidly wears thinner than the charm of a stock broker on coke. If not for the rare, but much appreciated exceptions to this rule – and lunch on the house – it’d have been a Dickensian Christmas indeed.
Thankfully, if any stereotype about Australians is true – because I’ve been divulged a key secret of the inner circle, that much of the blonde is bottled – it’s their ability to make fun happen in even the most hostile of environments, and so my co-wenches broke out the Christmas decorations. It’s in this sort of resilience and resourcefulness that, as a rural Canadian, I feel a kinship with Australians; though if anything’s to set us apart, it’s the details of our experiences.
Amid strings of lights, shiny balls and stockings tagged with names matching those surreptitiously scribbled by staff on the walls behind the bar alongside dates of service, were clumps of green fir boughs. I imagined the boughs atop the old wooden mantle over the defunct fireplace, like my mother’s always done on the mantles at our old seaside home in Nova Scotia.
Wanting to pitch in, and give my biceps a break from pumping flat pints of tea-coloured ale, I began untangling boughs from the clumps I’d found them in, but found it a nearly impossible task – they all seemed to be fused together, each clump slightly bigger than the last.
“Ugh!” I complained to my Australian friend on staff, grabbing another stubborn tangle of boughs for emphasis, “Why are there three big clumps of these things?”
She stared me down, long enough to establish that I was completely serious, and then said in a tone suggesting both pity and mockery, something that made me realize just how far from home we both were in that old English pub.
“You don’t have artificial trees in Canada, do you?”