Ginger Nuts of Horror
My Life In Horror
Every month, I will write about a film, album, book or event that I consider horror, and that had a warping effect on my young mind. You will discover my definition of what constitutes horror is both eclectic and elastic. Don’t write in. Also, of necessity, much of this will be bullshit – as in, my best recollection of things that happened anywhere from 15 – 40 years ago.
This is not history. This is not journalism. This is not a review.
This is my life in horror.
“We Will Bury You” Part 1
Between December 1998 and December 1999, I worked in a pub in the east end of London, as a barman. It was my first ‘real’ job - I’d done short term leafleting for a second hand book shop back in Devon, but otherwise, paid employment was alien to me - and given my (lack of) educational qualifications, this kind of work was as high as I felt I could safely set my sights.
I can still remember the rush of excitement I felt after being told I’d secured the position straight at the end of my 10 minute interview for the job. It kind of hurts my heart to remember.
I learned a lot that year. Having fled to London based on an understanding that to stay in Devon was to begin, at the at of 20, the business of dying (aided and abetted, as always, by music, in reaching this realisation), this was, initially, where I landed.
And, you know, initially I was excited. I thought bar work could be fun, and would help fund the stand up comedy career I fondly imagined I’d be able to start any day now, just by turning up at an open mic night, opening my mouth and being funny. Not that I was doing anything as grand as working on material, you understand - or for that matter, finding out the location of a single open mic night in the city. What was the hurry? I was 20, and I was out of Devon. All things were possible, and there was no rush. Anyway, probably the bar work would help provide material.
On that last point, I was certainly correct in general terms, though the genre would not end up being comedy. Suffice it to say that The Debt, short story Valentine’s Day, and the protagonist from Lifeline would not exist in anything like the form they do now if it hadn’t been for the experiences I had working this job. It was a year of my life I’ll never get back, mostly spent in boredom, with occasional side forays into despair and the odd shot of fear for my physical safety (and on one occasion, for my life) - but I’m also not sure I’d trade it. Like so many of the artistic traumas I’ve documented in this series, I learned so much, for good and ill, about myself and my fellow man, about the hells that people construct for themselves, partly through circumstances and partly through outlook - and most of all, perhaps, just how dark and bleak and joyless ‘normal’ can get.
It started with the staff, actually. The Landlord was an oddly charmless man - a Tory who smoked Marlboro Reds and was a big fan of Peter Hitchens (then writing in The Express, copies of which the pub carried for free, as part of a deal with the chain). His marriage seemed permanently strained, with sniping and often mean spirited sarcasm the order of the day, and yet neither seemed to show any signs of actually rethinking the arrangement. To me, they seemed more like squabbling siblings than a husband and wife, and I found their mutual antagonism mystifying.
He was also a man who would look for marginal edges wherever he could. Realising I didn’t understand the difference between being on a salary or an hourly rate, he put me on salary for Christmas, and then proceeded to load me up with 6 day weeks, all for a flat rate weekly wage. Then, come January, he informed me by phone that he was unhappy with my performance and might need to let me go, before pushing me onto an hourly rate and reducing my hours (which he could do easily, January being a very quiet month in the trade). He similarly wasn’t below purchasing stolen goods - specifically, food items stolen by a white van driver (from his employer) who drank regularly in the public bar - and selling them as special menu items in the restaurant attached to the pub. He’d also occasionally throw temper tantrums, when someone was late or off sick - sudden rage filled outbursts that would come and pass like summer lightning. I remember describing him to a friend as having a ‘hands off’ approach to management - to which she responded ‘sounds more like the ‘fuck off’ school, to me’.
But he was a walk in the park compared to Loz.
Loz came from Brighton, worked the bar, and lived in the pub. I never got a 100% clear story on his background, but he’d apparently left under a cloud involving drugs and possibly owed money. He was a bit older than me - I’d guess mid to late 20’s - and he’d treated me with laughing contempt and hostility from our first encounter - literally, as he’d laughed and turned his head when we first shook hands, having been introduced. He proceeded to order me about, giving me cleaning jobs he didn’t want to do under the guide of ‘training’, and then not actually explaining how they were to be done, meaning I ended up getting grief for not doing them ‘properly’. That particular hazing didn’t last long - once I’d actually had the tasks explained to me, doing them was easy enough - but there was an underlying low level hostility through my time there, which bubbled under for months before, inevitably, exploding.
It came to a head when he started stealing. By this point, we’d both been banished to the ‘Public Bar’ area of the pub, which was mainly frequented by the hardcore drinkers who lived on the local council estate - Loz, for his general incompetence and frequently hostility to other staff, me as punishment, I suppose. Traffic in the bar was light enough that there was never more than one member of staff required, so we worked lone shifts. I can’t speak to Loz, but it suited me just fine - I got a lot of reading and smoking done.
The only problem was, we shared a till, and around the same time that Loz started showing up for his shift cataclysmicly stoned, money started going missing from that till. He was canny enough to make sure it only happened when he and I shared a shift. The first time, it got written up as a mistake, but the second time, we were both called in by the covering manager (the landlord was on holiday). I knew that for the shift in question I’d had at most half a dozen till interactions - the bar was dead from 12 - 6pm, when the workers would come in on their way home for a swift pint or six - and I knew damn well I’d not made any mistakes, let alone a £10 one. Loz, on the other hand, clearly still high, admitted he had made a £10 mistake, and so we were asked to pay back half the missing £20 each, to cover the till shortfall.
In other words, I had just put £10 - the best part of three hours wages, in these pre-minimum wage days - into Loz’s pocket.
I was raging. I remember - oh to be 20 again - putting together a mix tape made up mainly of tracks from Metallica’s Load and Reload albums (with a smattering of the more aggressive Garage Inc. punk covers) which I listened to on the way to work every day, keying myself up for a confrontation. We’d moved to separate tills following the last incident, and we only saw each other at shift swap over, but I knew that it was only a matter of time before some confrontation happened - not least because I’d categorically decided I was done taking his shit, and I knew he wouldn't be able to resist dishing more out, sooner or later.
It was only a week or two later that it happened. Some guy had come around calling for Loz (the later gossip was it was someone Loz owed money to, but I never got that 100% confirmed) and I’d knocked on his door, as requested, to no response. Later he came at me raging, threatening violence if I ever went to his room again. I made it clear I was not going to pass on any more messages (the phrase ‘not your fucking errand boy’ may have been used) and also made it clear I wanted nothing more to do with him. This in front of a small handful of customers in the early afternoon - the lunchtime drinkers, I seem to recall.
That evening, as we had the 6pm handover, I was heading towards the urinal, when Loz called to me from the bar from under a dark glower ‘See you later’.
I paused, at the toilet door, just like in a bad western. Then I turned and said, with a shit eating grin, and my heart pounding so hard in my ears that I could barely hear my own voice ‘Take care of yourself, Loz!’
I said it loud.
With just a little extra swagger, feeling the eyes of the dozen or so regulars on me, I walked into the toilet. I can recall the adrenaline, but also an odd kind of ultra high, elevated calm. I felt ready for whatever was going to happen, and sure I was better prepared than Loz was capable of being.
I heard the door bang open just as I was starting to piss. He was yelling about what I’d said, and how I’d been off with him, and when he grabbed my shoulder to turn me around, I was calm enough to consider carefully whether or not to keep urinating and piss on his shoes or not. I opted for not, and tucked myself away as he continued shouting, flushed and angry.
I was calm, arms loosely by my side, Not listening to his words, focussed only on his eyes, and his shoulders, waiting for movement. I had set then what seems to me now a suicidal code of conduct when it came to violence, and the first rule was to never throw the first punch. It was partly about moral high ground, and partly because I believed it wasn’t possible to swing a blow without also making yourself vulnerable to a counter strike, and indeed, I had in the past had some success with just such a move.
So I waited, calmly, not backing down but not hitting his go button either, and eventually he made his move.
He was lethally quick. If he’d actually swung a fist with any kind of power, I’d likely still be out cold. But my confusing solid-but-not-aggressive stance had made him unsure, so instead he grabbed me around the waist - to push me back into the trough urinal, maybe. I was standing is a good, stable stance, so his efforts didn’t have much result.
We grappled for a second or two, my arm around his neck, his around my waist. I remember that the initial shock of his sheer speed had worn off, and I was just wondering if I could allow one of his pushes to bring his head into contact with the hand dryer behind me, when a regular who’d clearly realised what was going on came in and separated us.
I’ll never forget that moment. The man held us apart, and I looked into Loz’s flush face and furious eyes. I looked at him, and he looked at me. Into my eyes. And his expression dropped from fury into something else… and he just said, very quietly, ‘Oh!’.
It went to the replacement manager, and the regulars denied seeing anything - one word against another, nothing further to be done. Loz got a telling off, and after that, he really did leave me alone. I came out of the experience with a little more self respect, and a feeling like I could handle myself okay, if I had to - at least against a bully like Loz.
That was the first lesson in confrontation that I learned in that job. The second would come not from a member of staff, but a customer. The only real negative result of my confrontation with Loz was an aversion to Fahrenheit - the aftershave he wore, which was all over my hands after the fight, and the smell of which to this day sours my stomach.
The next one would teach me a little of what it feels like to face mortal terror at the hands of another.
To be continued…