A pub fight doesn’t start in a pub. It begins that afternoon when you’re laid off at the yards. It starts a month back when you look in the mirror and see your old man gazing back at you, and this revelation of mortality starts eating at your balls. It begins a year ago when you come home from the war flashing your medals – and find the wife has left you for one of those fellas with feet just flat enough to keep him out of khaki but swift enough to be a bookie’s runner. Something sours the day or the year or your life and you bring it into the pub like a rat in your belly. All it takes is a clumsy shoulder, a spilled drink, a guy with a small brain and a big mouth, and the first punch gets thrown.
You would think it was the big blokes you had to be careful of, but big guys usually have nothing to prove. It’s the pipsqueak you need to sidestep, the little man who feels shat on all his life for having to look up at folk all the time. There seems to be an inverse law operating: the smaller the man the bigger the chip.
Normally – unless I’m the cause of it, or it’s to help a mate – I quietly pick up my pint and move to the lounge bar till they get it out their system. If it’s really bad, and there are tables and bottles flying, I find another pub. I should have stuck to my rule this evening.
I’d had time to kill, so I walked down Albany Road, crossed the Old Kent Road and headed into Bermondsey. It had taken a pasting. Incendiaries had gutted whole streets and you could take short cuts through rows of houses following the paths taken by Jerry’s visits. I took back streets and footpaths, twisting and turning until I connected with Jamaica Road. Then into the warren, past gaps like old women’s gums among the warehouses and tenements. I emerged by the Thames and leaned on the wall to watch the darkness settle on the water and the mists swirl and flow like a ghost stream above it. I dropped my second cigarette into the current and headed east, along the spine of Rotherhithe, following the curve of the river.
The Angel sat by itself, poised over the water. It was the latest incarnation of a hostelry that had stood on the site since Captain Kidd sailed upriver in chains on his way to a good hanging. The bombs that fell the night the East End was aflame had taken out a row of houses opposite and half the buildings alongside. A church had been flattened just a hundred yards away. But the Angel was untouched, proving to the wittier locals the power of prayer.
The wind whipped up the Thames like a banshee. I clamped my hat harder to my head and pulled my mac tighter against the flurries of rain. Flaming June indeed. There was hardly a street light for miles, but the occasional gap in the clouds let the full moon pour on the rippled surface of the water. My shadow stretched out behind me.