Portsmouth Hard: Wikipedia commons
THE CREW'S NEST: RUTH'S STORY
I'm THE CREW'S NEST, a public house, though I've also been described as an inn, a hostelry and a pub. I've been here since 1793, on The Hard overlooking Portsmouth Harbour, and have seen and heard much of interest over the years. Until recently a pub was a meeting-place, where locals would congregate and swap stories about their work and home lives, where they would sing and laugh and be entertained by characters and musicians, where loves blossomed and, sadly, sometimes died. In the days before plastic and television.
Now there is talk of pulling me down to make way for some tall edifice; an office block, or a multi-storey car-park: these places do not possess souls. Always they - the faceless 'they' - seem intent on pulling down the old, discarding the substantial that is redolent with memories to replace it with the plastic and the 'new'. I have heard this plaint often enough to believe there is truth in it.
Modern builders generally don't use the right materials - they are artificial; even the wood isn't real! I've seen the buildings all around me razed to the ground and in their stead pristine offices rise, gleaming and bright, full of empty promise until, in no time at all, they quickly tarnish and look thoroughly woebegone: they entirely lack character.
These new places are constructed using manufactured stuff where in the old days the materials were hand-created, with the touch of man and woman in the straw, in the carving, in the feel of the very fabric of the building. That human contact imbued us with a life of our own.
I know they are talking about pulling me down because I listen. Every fibre of my being can absorb thoughts and feelings and over time I have even learned a number of languages, though the modern vernacular is the most difficult as there seem to be new words to comprehend almost every day.
Before I go the way of most old buildings, I would like to tell you about some of the people I have known. I shall begin with the present and my current owner, Ruth Gibson.
Ruth Gibson raised her tired blue eyes and looked out the small panes of the bow-window of her pub, THE CREW'S NEST. Swathes of mist meandered from the Solent, the griseous curtains obscuring the Gosport side. Already, the Isle of Wight ferries had stopped running and stranded travellers milled along The Hard. Custom might perk up a bit, she thought.
Portsmouth had never been the same since the Navy reduced the manpower and ships. The town suffered. Especially the pubs, she reflected.
Not like the old days! Business had been brisk in 1950 when Mr Atkins had taken her on as a new barmaid at the age of eighteen.
Now, she owned the place. Mr Atkins had left it to her when he died twenty years gone... They'd had some good times. She wiped the stained bar-top, as if rubbing away the memories of the more painful moments in her past, and smiled gently at Old Tom, one of her regulars.
Despite herself, she wondered if Old Tom still recalled Jack Palmer...
The other four regulars and their cheerful wives had also been great friends of Jack. Poor Jack. He got on well with all of them. So infectiously humorous.
Second time in Pompey he'd taken her out on her night off. Within a couple of weeks they were in love. The post-war years were like that, it seemed, the ever-present Communist threat not allowing time for long courtship.
Ruth recalled the night she heard about the terrible storm that seriously damaged Jack's ship off Korea... She was very happy, his latest letter tucked next to her heart, with a promise of marriage when he returned. Tom was playing on the piano. Frank Phillips on the wireless announced the incident - "five hands washed overboard, lost at sea two days ago..."
At first she didn't believe it and for many weeks she never slept properly, restive with sorrow.
Mr Atkins and the regulars were sympathetic, but it didn't help. Her world had shattered.
From that moment on she knew she would never marry.
Over the years, she'd endeavoured to keep the place as it was when Jack used to come in –apart from an occasional lick of paint.
Still the same, she thought, heart heavy with remembering.
The original dark wooden beams in the ceiling; cracked and peeling green walls adorned withoak-framed pictures of Dreadnoughts and Torpedo-boats; a few dusty picture-post-cards
pinned alongside them.
Many of the old brand-names had disappeared, but she'd retained the bottles and lined the shelf
above the bar, harbouring dust and memories.
"Same again, Ruth, please," Tom croaked. "Thinking about Jack?"
Returning to the present, she poured his stout. "Yes, it's nearly the anniversary of - of the storm..."
Tom sighed, cragged features crinkling. "By, how time flies..."
"I'm going to miss this place - and all of you..."
Leaning his short fragile frame on the bar, he supped through cracked lips.
"Aye, that compulsory purchase thing..."
"To make way for a multi-storey car-park!"
Tom grimaced. "Cars! Damned nuisances! Nothing's the same with their new motorways, overflies an' an' things! We're left to cower through disgusting tunnels - subways? More like sub-human, if you ask me!"
Ruth trilled the till. "I suppose the Nest is a trifle old nowadays," she allowed. Tom seemed ready to protest, but she went on, "I mean, we don't get the younger generation in, and the sailors seem to prefer the modern bars. Without you and my other regulars, Tom, I'd have had to close down long before..."
Gnarled veined fingers rolling a slim cigarette, he nodded. "Old or not, this has been my local for I don't know how long - since I started drinking... I'll hate to see it go - " He lit the cigarette, lips trembling, eyes squinting against the smoke, as if viewing his past self through the mists of years. He coughed, wheezing in air. "
Still, you should get a few in tonight." He thumbed outside. "Look at it - a real pea-souper!"
The door creaked open and two young lads sauntered in, dressed in the latest gang-fashion. The taller one whistled. "Hey, Pete, looks like we stepped out of Dr Who's time machine!"
"Two Scotches," Pete ordered gruffly, leaning against the bar and studying the room. Then he sniggered, nudging his friend. "Ron - see old grandad's hands shakin' with his pint!" He hooted wildly, disconcertingly. "Want a hand, Pop?" Their speech was peppered with expletives in lieu of punctuation. In lieu of intelligence, Ruth amended, tight-lipped.
"Up to his neck in muck and bullets..." mumbled Ron in a mock croaking voice. He grinned. "Should be put down when they're that old!" They laughed then gulped down their drinks - without paying.
Heart hammering too fast, Ruth wanted to silence their inane chatter, to stifle their rudeness. It was hooligans like these who gave the younger generation a bad name... Her whole body seemed to shake with tension. She had to speak, to say something. She wouldn't stand for their nonsense and foul language. She wouldn't!
"That's one pound ninety, please," she whispered quickly.
Wide-eyed, Ron and Pete swivelled round, licking their moistened lips. "You want money, Ma?" Pete asked.
She swallowed thickly, but kept her eyes on his. Those eyes held no mirth, no compassion, they seemed soulless... "Yes." He was about Jack's age, she thought; no more than twenty... It didn't seem right, Jack dying while the old values were trampled upon...
"Okay, get us another short each and we'll pay for the lot."
By now the whole room was listening, eyeing them furtively. There was no-one really young enough or fit enough to face up to them. In a sense, the atmosphere was as thick as outside. Slowly, she nodded, fearing that if she didn't get them another drink they would start smashing things... She had read of such goings-on.
Shakily, holding the measured glasses out of their reach, she said with a firmness she didn't feel, "£3.80, please."
Wiping the back of his hand across his sneering mouth, Pete said in an aside to Ron, "She's a crafty old biddy!"
Ruth had never heard such a mirthless laugh before. It chilled her.
At that moment a tanned, tall powerfully built man with brown hair entered. He looked in his mid-thirties. Fog swirled round his feet. Ruth placed the drinks down. "I'll be back for the money in a moment," she told them, turning to serve the newcomer.
But Pete leaned over, upsetting the drinks, and grabbed her wrist before she could back off. "No you don't, Ma! We want servin', first!" Indicating the spilled drinks, he wheedled, "Now look what you've done!" "You're hurting me!" she gasped.
His cold, heartless eyes alarmed her. She heard Tom bravely protesting.
Then the old regular was silenced by Ron's threatening growl.
Everything was going wrong! Her vision went hazy - she was going to faint, she was sure...
Suddenly, Pete's grip slackened.
Legs wobbling, Ruth saw the stranger clasping their collars. Their chins hung unhappily, eyes full of hang-dog pleas.
"I believe you both have a bill to settle," the stranger said, his voice with an antipodean inflection. He shook them both roughly for added emphasis.
Fingers fumbling, the pair dropped their money on the bar-top and Ruth subtracted the amount owed. Reaction made her fingers shake as she manipulated the till.
She managed a smile, relief flowing through her. "I think you can let them go now."
"Sure, Ma'am." He released them.
Collecting their change, the youths dashed out without even a backward glance, ushered on their way with raucous laughter.
Ruth sighed and held onto the bar-top, reassured by its age and solidity. Her legs still felt weak. "That was very kind of you. Let me buy you a drink."
"No, it's all right," he said with an easy, strangely haunting smile. "I'm with my father - and he's paying. I think you knew him - Jack Palmer..."
Save for Jack's son, not one person in the bar moved a muscle, so dumbfounded were they by Jack's resurrection. At first their gazes reflected disbelief. Then it seemed realisation came. This fellow was Jack's son, so he was married now, so why should he return to break poor Ruth's heart? The past was best left alone...
But perhaps their thoughts were very much akin to Ruth's. Jack had returned to see her. Married or not, he'd thought of seeing her after forty-two years.
Grey flecks in the hazel, just like Jack's eyes; and, even with the accent, his voice was mellifluous, his touch gentle as he held her hands on the counter. It was as though some of his youthful strength flowed from him, preparing her.
"I'm Alan - Dad said you both wanted a son called Alan..." he explained. "He'd been washed up on the Japanese coast, three-quarters drowned. Suffering from advanced exposure, sunburned and starving, he was as near as anything to death, Ruth. "A girl found him, got her father - an Australian diplomat - to rush him to hospital. She saved his life. He married her..." he ended in a whisper.
"But - ?" she managed to croak.
"Why are we here?" He shrugged his enormous shoulders. "Dad asked me to come in first. Afraid you wouldn't be here after all these years." His eyes lowered. "You see, Ma died two years back. Even though he loved us, he's always wanted to return. We thought he was just homesick..." He looked up, into her eyes. "But now that I've met you, I can see why - "
The door swung open.
It was like viewing an apparition. Jack stood in the narrow doorway, wisps of fog eerily meandering around him.
Brown hair thinning, cheeks slightly hollow, the corners of his eyes creased with years, yet he was still instantly recognisable.
Ruth's heart pounded and she sensed herself reddening. She wanted to say his name but her mouth was dry.
Jack's son gently squeezed her trembling hands. Compulsory purchase, multi-storey car-park, inflation, bills - all paled to insignificance. The pub had been a substitute, a surrogate for her affection. But no longer. Jack smiled. The same old smile; laughter-lines more pronounced, that's all. As he walked up to the bar, smiling awkwardly, she discerned moisture other than fog on his lids.
And she wondered about her own damp downy cheeks. Nervously drying them, she whispered, "The usual, Jack?"
She was already drawing his mild and bitter as he nodded. "Yes, please, Ruth." Seeming to force his eyes away from her, he peered around the room, apparently marvelling at the immutability of the place. "It's just like it used to be, Ruth - it hasn't changed." Then he looked at her. "Nor have you..."
*****At that moment I was pleased for both Ruth and Jack and I even forgot about my uncertain future too! But it still looms large... I may have a long memory stretching back two centuries, but like all the people who have trodden on my boards I have no inkling of the future, which is probably just as well.
If there is a next time I might then relate an incident in Mr Atkins's life? A strange, contrary man, was Joseph Atkins...
* * *
Previously published in The Portsmouth Post, 2005.
Copyright Nik Morton, 2014.