It is a setting where we can unravel as people — where we can laugh and where we can cry without judgement. And it can, on some occasions, nurse our hearts and minds back to health.
I didn’t know my real father. He was Indian-Malay and I only met him a handful of times. Even though my mum had a court order to keep him away, if he showed up on our doorstep he’d be welcomed in. Sometimes, he would bring stories. Other times, new siblings.
By the time I was a teenager, the man with the leather trousers who I had seen approximately five times in my life had completely disappeared.
When I was 20 and the internet was just getting going, a friend and I tracked down my old surname and found an uncle of mine living in Germany. He’d been the best man at my parents’ wedding. He didn’t know where my father was either, but he asked me to visit. It was the first time I had ever been in an aeroplane and flying out to meet him and his son, a cousin of mine, I felt a deep surge of hopefulness. I was going to discover a family I had never known.
Two days later, after running barefoot down the streets of Dortmund at night, flagging down a car and spending time in a police station, I was flown back to the UK chaperoned, for safety reasons, by the British Consulate. My uncle, after telling me rather a lot about his brother, “the person whom everyone liked,” took away my naivety and replaced it with a fear I had never known.
My university pals, who had helped in my escape, took me to the pub and, within the walls of the Mash Tun and the Black Boy in Winchester, they nursed me back to life with love and beer and the unspoken familiarity of friendship that bound us like a family of our own.
At age 26, to my bewilderment I became a parent myself. So when an out-of-the-blue phone call led to information on my real father’s whereabouts, I was wary. I greeted the event not as the animated optimist, but as a protective, yet numb sage. I suggested meeting on neutral territory – a pub.
I knew I had mere hours with a man I didn’t know. But with a hundred questions in my head none of which could be answered by someone intent on impressing me, I would need to put my questions aside and make him feel at ease enough to remove his veneer. But how would I do that? Strangely enough, I did know. I needed just two simple props: a pub table and some beer.
I recognised him immediately. Not because the crumpled wedding photograph of the smiling man I’d been carrying around for years resembled the homeless man in front of me, but because we shared the same eyes. Two deep dark pools of despair looked back at me like a foreboding reflection. His carrier bag of possessions was at his feet and he was wearing a suit at least three sizes too big for his frame and a red baseball cap. He told me he had taken the day off of work especially to meet me and that he was “a business consultant”. I smiled and bought him a pint, saying I hoped he wasn’t going to be missed at the office that day.
That evening, he introduced me to his friends and I bought the rounds. His friends, who also had their work bags or kitbags stowed beneath the table, regaled me with proud stories of my father’s cheekiness, his humour and willingness to help others. Traits I’d never personally been privy to, but nor could I dismiss as non-existent. The man had nothing, but he clearly still had mates.
When I took the train back home that evening, I thought about the dimly-lit pub and the things I had learnt on the premises. It had only taken an hour to deduce that the man before me was, quite possibly, the worst man I had ever met in my entire life. He wanted to be admired, only the version of himself he had conjured didn’t really exist. He was the Moon Under Water, personified. He was not the father of which anyone might dream. Yet, in his presence, while my heart silently moved from my throat to the pit of my stomach, hopefulness was replaced by avid fascination. He was a performer and the pub was his stage. I didn’t need to like him; I didn’t need to know him. He was the jester in his court and I was simply his audience for the night.
And there is no remorse. Because we are all kinds of people, drifting through life and some of us are better at getting things right than others – these hostelries we have in Britain taught me that. They strip us down to the bare souls of the people we are and they bind friendships and relationships. They make us people of mirth and they remind us that being ourselves is enough. They are there for the good days and the bad, because life does that – it just keeps throwing things our way.
And even when things don’t go our way, there’s something we can do about it. We can reset our perspective and, within mine, there’s always a pub table and a beer.
R.I.P. The man who gave me my eyes.