h’s bar

Here’s something I wrote a couple of days ago, in my pre-blog days. It all seems so distant now.

A funny thing happened on the way back from Woking yesterday…

It all started a few weeks ago when, once again, I was cruising the M4. A minivan passed me with all haste, but as it went I couldn’t help noticing the logo “h’s bar” on the side. I was instantly intrigued. Where was this bar? I had to find out. Foot to the floor, I was determined to catch up with this vehicle that was already half a mile away. Suffice it to say, good job the police weren’t patrolling that particular stretch of the motorway.

Finally, I drew parallel with the van. On its side was a Hungerford address, that was all I needed to know. Relieved, I withdrew to a more sensible speed and let it on its way. The plan was already formulated, to one day seek out the bar and – think of the excitement – pick up a beer mat or something. Who needs Everest.

And then it was yesterday. A meeting had finished early, I had a spare hour, I had some thinking to do and my stomach was in rebellion. h’s bar beckoned, so off I went down the slip road and into Hungerford. Can’t be that big a place, I thought, not much more than a main street. The bar was keeping its counsel as I drove up and down, so eventualy I parked up and asked a local. Indeed, I was that desperate. Not far at all, I was told, down that side road and past the fire station. Can I walk it? I asked. Oh yes, smiled Janice, still wearing her badge having finished a shift at the Co-op. So off I went, and there it was. h’s bar. Home of a warm welcome, cold beers and a cheese sandwich if I was lucky. I pushed the door open and went in.

Inside the decor was neo-pub, light and airy, but the atmosphere was most definitely not. Six pairs of eyes were staring at me, unusually all of them were from women, who made up the entire clientele. There was an old lady at one table, two mums with their daughters at another, and a lady at the bar. Time stood still for just a moment, until I blurted, “hello!” Well, what else was I supposed to say? I turned to the bar, but the manager was otherwise occupied, talking on the phone. Next to him was a teenager porting one of those fluorescent waistcoats usually worn by people who work on the railways. I glanced again at the lady at the bar, she gave me a pitiful, almost pleading look. This wasn’t what I expected at all. What was I to do?

I could think of nothing other than to wait.

Eventually the bar manager came off the phone, and exchanged some sharp words with the lad. Suddenly all hell broke loose. The youngster grabbed some keys, and looked like he was making a run for it before the bar manager grabbed him and, after a scuffle, wrestled the keys off him. “SIT DOWN OVER THERE!” he screamed. “YOU CAN STAY THERE ‘TIL THEY COME!” He pushed the boy into a chair, then returned to the bar. “Hello there,” he said, “sorry about that. Can I get you anything?” Petrified that I might ask for the same thing the boy had requested, I proffered, “I was wondering if I might get some food?”

“What would you like?” he asked.

“A sandwich,” I said nervously, “anything you like, maybe cheese.”

“Is that it?”

“Perhaps a bit of tomato?”

“Some onion?”

“Er – no, thanks.” I didn’t want to push my luck.

“No trouble,” he said, and the mood of the whole bar lightened considerably. He took the order to the kitchen, then returned to his post. “Anything to drink?”

“An orange juice,” I said, feeling cocky now. “With soda.” I took my drink and went to the table next to the old lady, as things returned to some semblance of order. “What happened?” I whispered over to her, and she explained that the lad had come in to use the loos and was still in there half an hour later, getting up to all sorts of no good by the tone in her voice. She confided that the police had been called, and sure enough as my sandwich arrived, a car drew up and two burly officers strode in. They went away into a back room with the barman and the lad, before leaving the premises in a southerly direction whilst escorting the wrongdoer to the vehicle. Well, that’s how they talk, isn’t it. All was well, so I thought, until the lady leaned over to me again. “I knew he was up to no good,” she confided, her eyes widening just enough to set my adrenal glands pumping again. “I can tell, you know. I always could…”

A quick glance down told me I still had two quarters of sandwich to go. I was sure I could get away with leaving the lettuce garnish, as long as I mucked it around a bit. “Humour her,” said the voice in side my head, “and munch with purpose. That way, you might get out of here alive.” So I asked her what on earth she was on about. Politely, of course.

It transpires (and this was the really weird bit), the lady – Jean – was matron at Holloway prison for over 20 years. I’ve seen the press clippings. I’ve also seen photos of all her grandparents, ancient pictures, compositions in sepia stuck on cardboard. I’ve had the stories – “nobody ever laid a finger on me, you know… I’d be there to mop their tears when they were in the docks… I don’t know why she confessed to me…” and so on, you get the picture. Other stories as well – one of her forebears was a hushed up bastard offspring from previous royalty, all hushed up of course, and a grandparent built the first London bridge. Or was it the second. No matter.

In the end, I didn’t want to leave, but my time was up. As I paid my bill, I conversed with the barman who by now was considerably less agitated than when I arrived. I explained to him what had drawn me to h’s bar (no, he wasn’t called h), and mentioned the irony about the song written all about Holloway. We agreed, I would send the words to the bar, and he would pass them to Jean for me. I said my goodbyes and left, through the same door, back past the firestation and to my car. Before long I was heading towards the familiarity of the motorway, towards home and the life that had, for a couple of hours, been put on hold. All I took with me was a couple of business cards, a receipt and a single thought that has been rattling around in my head ever since – what in heaven’s name was all that about?

Just thought I’d share that with you.

h’s bar

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