ye, olde rose

new fiction written for e17 storywalk

i recently wrote a story for e17 storywalk, part of the words over waltham forest literary festival. the brainchild of my arch nemesis, coronation street‘s ken barlow, e17 storywalk offered a rare opportunity to read a story to an audience in the location it’s set in. it also gave me an excuse to write something else instead of my bloody novel for once.

ken sums up the concept of e17 storywalk best:

“Six top writers. Six Walthamstow locations. One unique event…The E17 Storywalk will be an exciting, utterly compelling and one-off experiment in immersive storytelling. Beginning at Walthamstow Library, ending at the William Morris Gallery, taking in both local landmarks and hidden gems, storywalkers will be treated to spoken word performances of six site-specific stories over the course of a two-hour ramble.”

the writers – me, emily benet, simon munk, sonia porter, gabriella apicella and ken – each chose a location to base their story on / in, from a list of six places in walthamwstow. these stories had to fulfil only three criteria: 1) to be set in the location we’d chosen. 2) to take less than 15 minutes to read. 3) to incorporate the theme of ‘change’.

being a relative stranger to walthamstow, i went for the easy option, and chose as my setting the glorious ye olde rose & crown theatre pub.

the day went well, the stories were all excellent and the various locations added a sense of atmosphere and, er, place that regular readings can rarely match. we’ll hopefully do it again. coming to a town near you soon…

so here’s my story. the views expressed within it are not my own; ye olde rose & crown is a fine pub now, and only my characters can vouch for its past.

ye, olde rose

You hate Ye Olde Rose & Crown Theatre Pub, as the place advertises itself in many chalky colours on the board above the bar. The olde-worlde language strikes a false note, a stamp of authenticity that emphasises the pub’s superficiality. You know there’s nothing old-with-an-‘e’ about the place now, hasn’t been for a while.

You, unlike most, know what it used to be like here before the change, what’s befallen it since.

You’ve tolerated this for five years. Sometimes, when you wake up in the morning, you’re gifted those few seconds before your brain engages, and you’re momentarily happy. Then it all comes flooding back.

Five years now, since they renovated Ye Olde Rose & Crown. Took what wasn’t broken and fixed it up beyond recognition. A too-white bathroom that disgusts you with its cleanliness. A dedication to real ale to tempt in the beard-strokers. Friendly staff. Beer mats on the wall, to advertise the pub’s inclusivity, so far from the three or four pumps that were once your idea of choice. A relaxed, open atmosphere, where writing groups and committees of every hue can meet on a Wednesday night; strictly business-focused to begin with, then collapsing past the three-pint mark into amplified nonsense.

You should have seen it coming; the word ‘boozer’ had grown filthy. A new breed wanted somewhere warm to eat their vegetable-smothered pizzas and artisan breads. Now, even the pork scratchings behind the bar compete with the sweet dispenser plonked mere steps from the tables. You once bought a tub, drunk and desperate. One pound for seven disinfectant-flavoured jellybeans.

But, beyond all these things, you hate Ye Olde Rose & Crown for its stab at cultural significance, for the fact that, when it re-opened, it re-invented itself as a theatre pub. A board near the bar advertises forthcoming attractions upstairs, and you end many nights amazed that the pub you used to love is about to host another Walthamstow folk club night or adaptation of a Terrence bloody Rattigan play.

Ye Olde Rose & Crown used to have a reputation. They say it was filled every night with hooligans, junkies and trouble. But no one ever bothered you. No one made you feel as exposed as you feel these days. Now, the promise of culture draws the type of crowd that Ye real Olde Rose & Crown couldn’t and wouldn’t have wanted to attract. Earnest students offer unwanted synopses of what they’ve just witnessed at the table next to yours after the show. Mousy loners enquire about lattes rather than lagers during the interval. Men in ill-matching blazers and ties tap programmes to their cheeks and women hitch up their dresses, as they ascend stairs for the latest comedy or tragedy.

Tragedy. If they stayed downstairs with you, bought you a drink, you’d tell them a real story, one to break their hearts.

You see two men – boys, really – sitting where you once sat. They’ve been here for a while now, leaning back in creaky seats as they laugh at each other’s tales. They seem drunk, but the four empties on their table reveal them to be amateurs. One has too much hair, obscuring his chin; one has too little, his dome pricked with blonde stubble. They have no idea that they’re sitting at a cursed table. You used to sit there every night, but haven’t dared to for five years now. In more recent times, there’s been another drawn to that corner; away from the crowds and closest to the left-side exit, to the horned creature perched on the ridge above the doors like a sentinel. But you haven’t even seen him in a while.

The two men may be drunk, but so are you. You’ve sat at the table next to theirs all evening, only leaving your post to refill your pint, answering that pretty barmaid politely without being drawn into a conversation. You don’t know how many you’ve had, but you know as you stand that you’ve had a few.

You slide over to warn them about the cursed table, but realise as you clock the cruel amusement in their eyes that you’ve become the one thing you promised you’d never become. Spittle flips from your mouth onto the hairy one’s jumper as you talk. You want to stop but you can’t.

“If you hate this place so much, then why’re you still here, Grandad?”

Instead of responding, you lean over and pick up the shaven-haired man’s pint, fuller and darker than the bearded man’s, and drain it. It tastes better than the pint that you finished seconds before you got to your feet and decided what to do.

You miss Ye Olde Rose & Crown.

She chose this pub as your pub when you first moved to Walthamstow. You were both new to London, and happy to be guided by the tiniest signs. And a pub with your wife’s name within its own was enough to guarantee your loyalty, from that first day and for decades afterwards.

You found yourselves there most evenings, because it was where you wanted to be. It didn’t hurt that your social destination of choice offered alcohol – bitter, always, for you; gin and tonic, always, for Rose – but that wasn’t the whole story. The flat was cold, and even when you did succumb and buy a TV, Rose chatted over every programme you sank into the world-weary sofa to watch. There was nothing for either of you back there. No children despite years of trying, no atmosphere and no space.

Whereas, at Ye Olde Rose & Crown, it was warm. You grew as close to the staff over the years as any of the regulars. Even when landlords changed, you remained local celebrities; the couple always to be found in the corner, empties at one edge of the table, hallowed copy of The Racing Post at the other.

Your love affair with the pub went on for more years than the two men now staring you down have lived, your marriage even longer. For the majority of your life together, Ye Olde Rose & Crown was the third person in your relationship, the lover you were happy to share. Unlike now, when a different barmaid serves you every time you order a drink, back then they all knew: bitter and G & T, corner table. When friends didn’t join you, when you both simply wanted to forget about the day you’d just escaped, the two of you teamed up, snug and happy, and let the hours lap by.

The place saved you both, night after night, from returning to the flat and confronting how fragile a home you really had.

Ye Olde Rose & Crown was your pub. Not long after you discovered the place, you started calling your wife ‘Ye Olde Rose’, but with a comma after the ‘Ye’. The first time you called her that, she laughed long and hard. She was an old soul, and delighted in admitting so.

“So, if I’m ‘Olde Rose’,” she said that night, “I suppose that makes you the ‘Crown’.”

“Of course,” you told her.

“How’d you work that one out then, smartarse?”

You paused, but not for long.

“Because you make me feel like a king, and this is my kingdom.”

You remember the look on Rose’s face as you said that. Her eyes shone, her lips quivered. She leant forward but, instead of the kiss you expected, gentle gin sprays hit your face.

“You soppy bugger,” she said, and she was right.

You were. You always will be.

She was the Rose and you were the Crown. You were more a part of the pub than the pumps, than the tables and chairs.

One night, not so very long ago, Rose drank more gin than usual, took less tonic, and barely smiled all night.

“When I fall,” she said, shortly before you guided her back to the flat, “this place will fall with me.”

You presumed she’d just been talking about the pub.

After her funeral, you led your group of fifteen or so to the very place most of them had first met Rose. You’d kept it together throughout the day, but when you realised the doors weren’t going to budge, you broke down. In the few days since you’d last enjoyed a drink with your wife, Ye Olde Rose & Crown had closed its doors.

You felt betrayed, and you punched Eddy on the nose when he suggested trying The Nag’s Head nearby, then picked him up and led him and your crew back to the flat for a drink. But it wasn’t the same, and you barely felt her presence at all.

The pub stayed closed for weeks, as if also mourning the loss of Rose. But you resented its lack of support. When you needed it most, it wasn’t there for you.

You should have walked away from it, like Eddy did, like everyone else you’d once known there did. But nowhere else belonged to you both.

When the pub reopened, you returned to remember Rose, to celebrate her. To look to your left and see her in the chair next to yours. But someone else was in your place, and you realised you weren’t in quite the same pub.

And yet you returned every day, tried to ignore the theatre crowd, the spotless toilets, the smell of new paint and varnish, aching for things to return to the way they were.

You’ve been aching for years now.

You’re so near to and so far from what used to make you happy that it’s driven you insane.

You were the Crown. You ruled your kingdom. You lost it all.

You love Ye Olde Rose.

The two men are standing now.

“You love me?” the bearded one laughs. He turns to his mate. “He said he loves me!”

“Oh, who knows what the silly old fucker’s mumbling on about,” sneers the other one, still sore about losing his pint.

You came over to warn them: about the cursed table, about what this pub has become, but you’ve failed to articulate what you want to say. This happens every night now.

“Dry your eyes, mate,” the shaven-haired one says.

You clear your throat. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you both to leave now,” you say, puffing out your chest and sounding as authoritative as you can.

The two men laugh, the hairy one clutching his belly as if in pain.

“Oh, I love it,” he says. “Own the fucking place, do you?”

The shaven-haired one stops laughing and draws closer. “How’s about you leave?”

You tense up, your right hand curling into a fist as the left closes harder around the empty pint glass.

“Nothing for you here, mate,” he continues. “Not anymore.”

You swing your right fist for the first time in years. But you don’t realise how tightly you’ve been gripping that pint glass, and it shatters in your left hand. The man dodges your fist, but doesn’t retaliate. Both he and his friend look queasy as they watch blood pour from your hand to the patterned carpet, dancing on shards of broken glass.

“That is it,” a voice behind you says. You feel a hand grip your shoulder, but don’t try to escape it. You’re led to the doors next to the cursed table by the manager, a man whose name you’ve never bothered learning because he’ll be gone within the year.

“And stay out!” he says as he pushes you through the door.

You sink to the ground, lean against the door and stare at your hand for a long time. There’s a lot of blood but you feel nothing. A group of women approach you, then reconsider and enter the pub through the main doors instead.

Someone pushes the door from inside and you slide along enough to let them through. One of the barmaids – Jenny, Laura, Mary, Nell, you find it so difficult to keep up – crouches down beside you, brushes thin long hair from your eyes.

“You okay, love?” she asks, the warmest voice you’ve heard in a while.

You nod.

“You can’t keep doing that, y’know.” She gestures towards the pub. “He wants to bar you for good.”

You laugh so quietly she doesn’t hear you.

The barmaid looks at your red hand. “You need to get that seen to.” She stands. “Let me get some towels, see what’s in the first aid kit.”

But you say, “I don’t need anything else from this place” firmly enough to stop her, and she crouches again.

“Have you got somewhere to go?” she asks.

And you smile and say, “Ye Olde Rose.”

The barmaid shakes her head, flashes that look you’re used to seeing. “No, love,” she says. “You’re at Ye Olde Rose. You’ve been chucked out, remember?”

You laugh, louder now. You look past the barmaid, don’t move. “I’m off to see Ye, Olde Rose.”

And you are.

You see her now, faint but ever clearer. She’s standing there, pint in one hand, gin and tonic in the other. She’s waiting for you to lead her to your table in the corner. She’s been waiting for some time.

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3 Responses to “ye, olde rose”

  1. EastEndLass 07/11/2013 at 18:55 #

    Love love love it! But then you knew that already 😉

    • Dan Lewis 07/11/2013 at 19:24 #

      cheers sonia! hope to see your fine story posted sometime soon x

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