Many years ago, before we had eCommerce or iPhones, when we still occasionally referred to women as ‘girls’, in short in about the year 1990, I found myself in a small bar in the city of Cork with my then friend B. The bar had literary pretensions and by a fire in a corner of the room, seated on a chesterfield of venerable age, two poets – tweeded, chain-smoking Majors, nursing pints of Murphy’s – were giving each other a tongue lashing. The only other person there was the proprietor, who was called Brian; he pronounced it the English way.
‘You’re from London,’ he said.
I admitted this.
‘Are you familiar with a landlord in London by the name of Norman Balon: his pub The Coach and Horses?’
‘I am, to be sure,’ I said. ‘Do you know him?’
‘I have not met him,’ said Brian. ‘But I am told that he is the rudest landlord in London.’
‘He has that reputation,’ I said, ‘but he’s never been rude to me. In fact on one occasion he showed a degree of kindness. I’ve known many ruder.’
Brian ignored this.
‘I’ve had a card made,’ he said, and he presented it. Under his name and that of his pub it read: ‘The rudest landlord in Cork’.
‘You don’t seem particularly rude to me either.’
‘Aha,’ said Brian.
In those days I had a small house on the west coast, about a hundred miles away.
‘You’ll be going into the west, after?’ Brian said. ‘I wish I were going to the west. I’ve not been out of Cork City for twenty years.’
‘Come too,’ we said.
‘Ah, I couldn’t.’
‘Throw those two deadbeats out, close the bar, put up a sign and head for the coast with us.’
‘I think I will,’ Brian said, eventually. ‘There’s the landlady of a certain pub, who’s been in my thoughts these many years.’
‘Pack a bag then and we’ll be off.’
Brian shuffled away and returned with a small sports bag. It appeared to be entirely full of cassettes (this was 1990) of opera.
‘Tooth brush? Spare pants?’
‘Ah,’ said Brian, and shuffled off again.
‘You’ll need stout shoes,’ we said, eyeing his slippers, ‘for the country.’
But he had none so we set off anyway. We stopped at a number of pubs on the way. Brian appraised them proprietorially and looked down with distaste on the tarmacked car parks as he shuffled across them in his slippers. Eventually we got to my house. He looked out of the car window as we came to a stop.
‘Mud,’ he said. ‘I won’t walk on that.’
But it was not tarmac either.
‘You’ll have to carry me in.’
So I did, like a bride.
He paid court to his landlady, plying her with Tosca and fine words, and when he got fed up with the silliness with the slippers he bought a pair of loafers at Wiseman’s in the High Street. Soon he disappeared altogether, although I believe that his suit was not ultimately successful. With her, suits rarely were.
Musing when I returned to London on the footwear required in the far west, I went to a shop where they sell gear for mountaineers and explorers and bought a pair of stout mountaineering boots made of Gore-Tex. They may even have offered a facility for attaching crampons, but if they did I went without. I became extravagantly fond of them and when I went to Ireland I wore them everywhere. I was even surprised to find them the most comfortable shoes to drive in.
Time went by and I lost my house in the west of Ireland. The boots however hung around, as footwear does. They were of little use when I lived in Clerkenwell and less now that I am in Plaistow. The geography of the London Borough of Newham never falls below the picturesque and frequently aspires to the sublime, but mountains are few and far between here, and mountaineering boots are rarely needed. I had thought little of them for some long time when one day last week I went out leaving Bella, the dog, alone in the house. When I got back she had done little damage but she had found and chewed the boots. The Gore-Tex, even after all these years, had proved dog-resistant but she had removed the insoles and demolished one. She was starting on the second when I returned but it was still usable.
I was unable to summon the rage that I would have felt all those years ago. My Irish adventure was long over: the boots a sentimental relic. I replaced them in the shoe and coat cupboard, a feature of the new house on which the better half had wisely insisted. Bella received from me nothing worse than a complementary pet product. After all, she wasn’t to know.
Curiously enough they emerged again shortly afterwards. My parents-in-law, who live in St. Petersburg, are staying with us, and at the weekend daughter three and her husband Alex were here too. My father-in-law has a Brian-like attitude to outdoors. If he goes there he dresses appropriately but while indoors he dresses for comfort. I suppose that in Russia the difference between indoors and outdoors, particularly in the winter, is that much more marked: thirty degrees below in the streets and indoors sweaty with subsidised heating. Anyway, the better half was reorganising the garden and he kindly helped. The rich Plaistow loam precluded his venturing out in his socks, and the better half had given him my Gore-Tex boots to wear. There he was manfully struggling with unwanted branches with his pyjama bottoms tucked into them.
‘OMG,’ I said to Alex. ‘Bella has eaten one of the insoles. One of the boots has no insole.’
Alex, who has a capability in Physics, considered this.
‘Grandfather will inevitably walk round in circles,’ he said, ‘but the garden is not so large as to make that a practical problem.’