One of the main things that differed between life in Canada and life in England, for me, was the relationships I formed with the people at work. That is to say, I did in England, and I didn't in Canada.
Perhaps it is the pub culture that is so strong there, so going out for a pint after work with someone in the office isn't something that is fraught with hesitation and worry about colliding worlds, but rather just a part of an average day. Here, there is hesitation and worry; there, there is a pint and a laugh. Maybe it's just me.
The house I lived in was on Store Street; the company I worked for was on Tottenham Court Road. If I stuck my head out of my bedroom window, I could see my office. Thus, it wasn't unusual that my workmates and my housemates would meet in a pub of an evening.
One such Friday night, at about 9:30, I was part of the last of a group from the office that had been imbibing rather steadily since we'd decided to go for "just a quick one" at 5:15. My friend Andrea, and a new boy from the house, Eric, wandered in for a drink, and sort of fell in with us. I introduced them to guys I knew from smoke breaks and inter-office memos, and corridor flirtations. Married with children Gary had recently taken me under his protective wing, which I enjoyed because he was insanely hot and said things like 'innit' and called me 'darling'. Deeply silly, though basically harmless Anand was there too, and we were all getting along famously. (In the months to come, Anand and I would flirt mildly and sort of keep each other within arms reach for some vague, just-in-case, lusty moment in the future. He suspected I was easy, and I was certain that he was. Nothing ever happened between us, chiefly because on the night he finally attempted to ruin our pleasing little friendship, he did so by pulling me close in a crowded club, rubbing his hand up and down my side, and whispering in my then still functioning ear that he “liked his women big.”)
Anyway. There we all were, sitting in Ye Olde Surgeon until the maddeningly early last call, when Gary said that knew a spot that would be open for a while. It was some place in Brixton, a neighbourhood about which my tourist ears had only heard sinister stories, including one about a woman who went to go visit all four of her sons in jail every Sunday, because they’d each, independently, killed a few people. I could feel my eyes starting to pop out of my head, but the gin gave me the guts to say, “Sure, let’s go!” I grinned, and then held onto Gary for dear life because he was the only one standing between me and certain death, and because his wife wasn’t there.
So, we take the tube (“But I have money! We can take a cab!” I started to drunkenly yell, until Andrea hissed at me to shut up because we would most certainly need the dough to cab it back later) into East London, and walked for a while, listening to Gary point out his local chippie, and the alley wall against which he had his first kiss, and the window of the flat above the butcher shop, where he lost his virginity when he was 12. I had so much alcohol in me at this point, I practically sloshed when I walked, which is why I thought all this was just so English and charming.
Eventually, we show up at a pub, and go ‘round the back where Gary knocks twice, and then three times at a door, and waits until a giant man with a shaved head and suspenders opens up and greets him jovially. Baldy then looks us over through squinty eyes and blocks the door until Gary reassures him. “With me, mate, no worries.”
It was a pub like any other, except that there were hardly any women, and the air was heavy with pot smoke, a scent that has always made my stomach turn. The bar was still in working order though, and Gary quickly had round after round pressed on us, though he seemed to never have to pay for it. My head was starting to ache by that time, and I was exhausted, but he wouldn’t hear of my turning down a drink. The music was pounding, and all I wanted to do was go home, but I was too frightened to leave without Andrea and Eric, and they seemed to be having a good time. I hadn’t said anything in a while, concentrating on trying to get my sodden mind into some kind of working order, when Gary took my arm and said, “C’mon darling, I want you to meet Bubbles.”
I looked at him and blinked. I was clearly drunker than I thought I was. Could ‘bubbles’ be a euphemism for something dirty? My crush on him was only a few hours old – I wasn’t ready to get into euphemisms.
“C’mon. Follow me. I want to introduce you to someone important.” He motioned to Anand to keep an eye on my housemates, then took me by the arm and led me to a back room. Apparently, Bubbles was a Very Important Person that took over back rooms in pubs, where he broke quite a lot of billiard cues over insubordinate heads. Gary was His Mate from Way Back. I think I was instructed not to touch him or talk too much or look him in the eye for too long, and if I had been a smidge more sober, I would have asked if swearing fealty would be expected. Again, there was a special knock, and we were looked over before gaining admittance. Gary muttered to me that if I was going to make just one friend in this city, this was the friend to make. I silently said a prayer asking God that I please don’t end up in a bathtub full of ice, with my kidney the newest organ on the black market.
He wasn’t a big man, this Bubbles, this neighbourhood boss. A pair of jeans and an Adidas zip-up aren’t that scary when you’ve been raised on Godfather movies and family acquaintances that wore too many pin-striped suits and pinky rings. But boss man he was, clearly. He rose from his seat between two nubile women, and other men moved out of the way as he crossed the room toward us. He paused, and a lit cigarette was placed in his hand. Gary wasn’t kidding. Bubbles ruled the neighbourhood. He greeted my protector jovially, and they traded low words with each other. “Proper chuffed innit darlink kin nuffink Mutt ‘n ‘Jeff innit innit old Gaz, innit?” (I don’t know. Maybe he said that. God only knows the details.)
If I remember clearly, Bubbles had some much-loved relation who wore the same type of hearing aids that I did, and since I was Gary’s new little buddy, he saw fit to introduce us and highlight the common bond. I was looked over, kissed soundly on the forehead, and upon throwing in the detail that I was Canadian, asked to say the words “out and about” quite a lot. There was disappointment that I didn’t say, “oot and aboot” but it was quickly appeased when I protested that “we didn’t all sound like that, eh?” I grinned cheekily when they both let out loud shouts of laughter, and Bubbles threw his arm around me and told me to come to him if I ever needed a hand. Then he said something derogatory about Gary’s parentage, and politely excused himself. The whole meeting was 15 minutes, almost ten years ago, and I completely forgot about it until just recently.
I later heard that Anand got married and impregnated his uncle’s wife. Gary continued to be gorgeous, and he and his wife had a second child. Eric I never heard from again, and of course, Andrea still jumps into cabs with me when I’m over there, because I still have no patience for the tube.
And Bubbles? I don’t know about Bubbles. But if I’m ever in trouble in London, you know I’m going to look him up, and ask him if he remembers something aboot a deaf Canadian girl. Something tells me that the guy makes good on his promises.
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