The Chemic Tavern, a refuge for the thoughtful and conversational on a side-street in Woodhouse, Leeds, is generally quiet during the day. It’s when the management does its books, the house cats do their exploring and the staff practise their juggling while experimenting with random customer greetings.
I go to enjoy the smell of Brasso, which the more conscientious bar staff rub into the brass rails around the bar at quiet times so that their work can be deconstructed by a thousand dirty fingerprints when things get busy. Those staff who share my Brasso dependency also rub up, in the right way, the Booze Angel; a bell for ringing time made in the form of a beautiful brass angel with a look of freshness and innocence and substantial designer breasts.
It was apparently erected about 50 years ago on the site of a much earlier Booze Angel and it’s said by locals, who tend to believe a lot of improbable things, that should it fall, the Chemic will meet a terrible fate, such as being taken over by Harvester Inns.
I like the early, Brasso-buffing hours in a pub – the temporary order and cleanliness, the silence, the sense of a prelude; the thought, although this applies more to the Chemic than to All Bar One or Wetherspoon’s, that something unlikely might be about to happen.
The clean smells of an early-afternoon pub are due to the smoking ban, which was put in place partly to safeguard the health of bar staff. The bar staff at the Chemic have responded by spending much of their time nipping out for a smoke and if things are really quiet, and there’s absolutely nobody else in the building, they will sometimes trust me to keep an eye on things while they knock a few more seconds off their life-spans.
Once, when I was doing my custodian duty and staring fiercely at all the bottles and beer pumps in case they tried to get away, I felt a gentle prod in my back-ribs and turned round to see a most beautiful young woman dressed, although I’m not much of a fashion buff, in what I took to be a mysteriously revived vestal-virgin look involving flowing white robes and elaborate blonde hair-dos.
She was about the same size as an elfin child (4ft 6in max) but built like the young Dame Barbara Windsor. She was also smoking a pink Balkan Sobranie cigarette, which surprised me because Sobranies, with coloured outsides and gold tips, were all the rage amongst the cocktail set in the 1960s but I hadn’t seen one since. Also, I thought it part of my responsibilities to tell her gently, in case I upset her so much that she evaporated, that she shouldn’t really be smoking.
‘What - even Balkan Sobranies?’ she said, looking puzzled and disappointed. ‘It’s not like they’re Woodbines, or clay pipes. There’s nothing lower class about them at all’. I felt bound to explain, as if to an Easter Islander, that this wasn’t the issue; that there had been some laws passed on the subject. ‘Not to worry,’ she said, taking a huge drag on her Sobranie before eating it whole, burping in the most charming manner and smiling as if nothing had happened.
This left me with no choice but to try and restore what passes as normality in the Chemic by asking her if she wanted a drink, because I’ve found that even the most ethereal sprite-girls don’t generally turn down half a pint of cider or a Jagermeister if asked.
This brought another hurt and puzzled look to her wide, clear, blinkless blue eyes. ‘No, I don’t drink,’ she said. ‘Well, what about a glass of water or a herbal tea?’ ‘They’re both drinks aren’t they?’, she said, ever so slightly exasperated, ‘and I’ve already told you I don’t drink.’
‘Err, ever?’, I said. ‘No never.’ ‘What about eating then, you must eat?’ ‘Oh, of course I eat...only not food.’
I pondered this a little and fixed on three possible explanations: one, I was having an hallucination, possibly brought on by the all-enveloping whiff of Brasso; two, that the strange girl was in fact an embodiment of the spirit of the Booze Angel, which would explain her vintage clothing, extravagant bosom and ability to survive without any sustenance other than retro cigarettes; three, that she was doing some sort of method acting exercise, either because she was following a drama course at one of the universities and colleges which surround Woodhouse or because, like many people who frequent the Chemic Tavern, she couldn’t resist being dramatic.
So I put the three alternatives to her, suggesting that the acting scenario was the only one which made any sense. ‘Well’, she said most sweetly, ‘who will ever know?’ Then she ate, as if suddenly peckish and in no time at all, the ice-bucket on the bar before disappearing like a snowflake in the sun.
When, soon afterwards, the barman returned from his nicotine-break and asked whether anybody had been in, I told him, more-or-less truthfully: ‘Well, not to speak of.’