In winter, when you stand outside the pub looking in through the window, it looks as though it’s raining on the inside. Beads of condensation run down the panes; a sign of inner life. A mist obscures the volume of people inside – but the acoustics betray it.
Gone is the phenomenon of the beer garden. Only those perched on the edge of the wood pulling on a roll-up populate it. Even the flesh of the gluteus maximus can’t quite commit to contact with the bench. It hovers in a semi-squat, avoiding getting burned.
A puffed-up magpie chatters but keeps its eye on me. What was white in its plumage is now pink because the light at this time of year has been dreamt.
I consider the looming poplars. The ridges in the bark are like the red-tinged dunes of the Gobi. The branches are now skeletal and reach up nakedly. A barren winter canopy is like bare arteries and capillaries stencilled against the sky which succeeds in being both orange and blue simultaneously. The trees’ shadows stretch out past and beyond you like spilt pitch.
In Britain in December, you walk swiftly along the glittering pavement without ever making full footfall – focussed toe touches only. Your skin’s too tight. You recede into the neck of your coat and sweater. Folk walking in gatherings walk tighter together.
Clouds of vapour issued from the nostrils as you protect the throat are like the smoke following a double-barrel shoot-out.
Night comes early. Streetlights hover and throb like ufos.
Nothing commands respect like a squad on a girls’ night out. The heels of stilettos are sharpened, blood red lipstick applied and cleavages thrust in defiance of the elements. I humbly skirt around the company. Points glow from the drawing of Silk Cut. Even the bouncers look cowed, longing for the relative safety of football fans throwing their weight around. As far as they’re concerned, a group of ladies on cocktail night might as well be a phalanx of heavily-armed Amazons.
The squad’s body language proclaims “don’t fuck with us!” Their eyes size up each pedestrian. Fort Knox is less well protected.
Pub interiors change by becoming at the same time gloomy, yet bright and gaudy. Bar staff become increasingly inebriated. Hand pulls don little red santa hats. Tinsel, reindeer and flashing LED lights on the pump clips considerately advise you which beers along the engines to avoid; it’s a diligent public service.
Something comes back to life in winter and it’s the most elemental part of the public house – the thing that makes us aware of the weight of our own DNA: a lit hearth.
A real fire is unsubtle and untamed. It’s something you need to keep in your periphery at all times. Too far it can’t compensate for the chill, too close and you’ll cook. Unlike modern heating, it still carries the risk of what it actually is. It curses and spits – a warning not to take its restraint for granted. Even to look straight into its core is a dangerous seduction as it chars you.
Things come back to the surface when we’re in the company of a real fire. Subliminally, we acknowledge the struggles of our forebears who took the wrath from the wilderness to domesticate it in our own caves; mankind’s triumph over nature and the gods. The dogs sprawled out before the dancing light have been our companions since we sharpened our spears for the hunt; it’s still reflected in the imagery on hand pulls.
The crepital scrape of flint on bone. The glow of the hearth couchant is a red glowing imprint on the retina; a dying star. We beat the odds and made it through the winters of the past and we can reflect in that glory now.
Especially with a pint of luscious rich stout.
In the darkness, veterans in their eighth decade are hypnotised by the light cast from the glow of their smart phones. The nebula blue picks out all the creases of time in their features, but also highlights the eternal childhood wonder as they attempt to “like” a blurred snapshot of their grandchild’s breakfast.