Voting nine to one in favour of, the members of the annual general meeting of the Mill Dam Seamen’s Mission deemed that the sale of alcohol and bar food would be more advantageous to both the charity’s future coffers and present patrons than the traditional offerings of hope, faith and charity, and so, later that year, a licence was granted by the town council and the basement chapel became The Angel bar. Though there were several applicants for the job of running the bar, a bald man, James Blades, recent of London, came highly recommended (from whom?) and it was this name that was subsequently painted above the bar door, beneath the benevolent and beautiful cherub’s golden feet: Mr. J. Blades. Landlord.
The drinking den became popular, through reputation, with port authority workers – dockers, pilots, the lower echelons of the customs & excise, the river police department, dredger, freight and tugboat crews – and mariners from as far away as Reykjavik, Rotterdam and Rimini. Night fishermen would leave their rods at the riverside railings and cross the cobbles for regular snifters: the hand-painted floats, weighted, and the arc lights on the greased water; the cranes, dipping, the moon smeared on its slick surface.
As with any bar there was a quiet hierarchy at play. The Angel being no different. The closer to the bar the stool, the higher the status of the sitter. The loyal stayed close to the teak jump. They were the long friends. Among their sweated number ranked petty and chief officers, a blackened stoker from Toulouse, a Danish captain, a cook with no teeth, a clutch of dockers and the retired pilot; absentmindedly, the old pilot fingered the crushed stubs in the busy ashtray into some order that seemed to please him.
The Dane, Christiann Oosterburg, was a tall, windblown pine man with a silver hoop piercing his right lobe. He skippered The Princess of Portland every Monday between Copenhagen and Mill Dam and was popular among the front row drinkers; his humour and his charming, singsong way with a tale endearing him further to the regulars. When ashore, the Dane would claim the stool at the far end of the bar and drink vodka with plenty of ice until closing and, when invited, which was often, stay after-hours with the long friends, and Blades, pulling the shades and making something of a show of illuminating the room with many nub candles set in beer bottles, would turn off the cherubic sign at the locked door and, returning to his place behind the bar, cut the lights by some hidden means. He dressed this pantomime hackneyed, “Voila.”
The cold wax and the hot wax rivered the coloured glass.
One Monday night the Dane arrived to find a crane man slouched over the bar on his usual stool. An argument evolved and wild blows thrown. Splinters of glass and bone were still being tweezed from the crane man’s chin some days later. It took four river cops to bring the Dane in and, beyond his silver earring – found decades later beneath the floorboards, twisted into a disfigured eight shape – he was never seen again.
His name, however, lived on and the back of his stool received a tin plaque etched roughly with The Dane. It was allowed to be sat on by others and within months of his going had been commandeered by a bearded and barrel faced welder called Ruddle, whose party pieces included long, rambling, non sequiturs and the extraction of coins from behind unsuspecting ears. It was a simple trick, a cuff trick, but often such magic is made more so after some drinks have been taken. He had a canny way of dressing the act with showy shakes of his broad face and by making his coal-black eyes dance dementedly around in his head as if they were being juggled from side to side. The landlord pulled him up one afternoon for bringing, once-too-often, shop whisky to the Angel. He poured, with a sly grin, under the table, quite casually, the quarter bottle straight into his nursed beer. The welder, quite red of face, went into the toilet. When he came out, he reckoned the landlord a bald bastard and left.
The water slowly edged beneath the door, over the threshold, from the pissoir to the bar and the landlord, upon seeing this, extricated himself from behind the jump, crossed the empty room with three strides, opened the door to the street and seeing the welder there on the cobbles, called out, “Bastard!”
“Bollocks,” said the welder.
The welder awoke in the hospital later, a nasty lump on his forehead, two black eyes and no knowledge of how his eyebrows had disappeared.
By the mid sixties The Angel had fallen on hard times again. The once low areas of the town were on the uppers, the riverside becoming tired and on its knees. Many of the long friends had sailed or passed away and the few that remained had taken on tones of yellow and red and grey. They were now deaf squinters with faded vision: their eyes burned only when they drank and spoke of the past – a past, which, by now, they had each constructed into things of intricate wonder; ships, bottled.
Occasionally, blow-ins came through the door. They stayed for a pint, speaking little, stayed for a swift other, speaking less so, but with some urgency. They were young strangers, seamen, mostly, wanting beer and girls and rock music. And so, after docking, they ventured first to the bar that they had heard some tell of, sat at one of the quiet, shadowed tables away from the old folk’s curved backs at the jump, the occasional eyes in the mirror and then, they blew out… over the cobbles toward the bright lights lining Coast Road; the newer, continental, clubs found on the strip there, more to their liking.
One quiet afternoon, a man came in pumping an umbrella. The landlord viewed him through a stem of port. “Swim here?” The man had conch ears and his skin was the colour of low tide sand. He said, “Swam, aye. Brolly’s useless.” Blades made a laughing sound and the man sat at the first stool and, considering the bottles rising from the optics, looked into the landlord’s eyes, briefly, and said, “Large house whisky, please. Care for one yourself?”
“Very kind. I’ll try another port I reckon.”
Each listened in the correct spaces and spoke only in an increasingly worldly wise and measured manner. Before long, the man brought up a subject that he thought might be of interest to the landlord. There was a former navy patrol boat going for a song. “A song and a steal.” The plan was to refit her and sail her between Amsterdam and Newcastle running, well, whatever wanted running. He produced a folded up page from his duffle and carefully smoothed out the photograph of a grey coloured vessel on the teak. She was, sir, he politely suggested, (“… Aye, reet. Blades, I mean.”), a little worn out (“Rather like yee and me in that respect, like.”) and in need of some repair. Alas, he said, folding up the photograph with a neat and careful dance of fingers, that is where the plan fell short. He patted the pockets of his coat and said, “Of course, I got my drinking money, but a sea pension is not the same as sunken treasure, Blades.”
Blades had little knowledge of sailing (being, in his time before the bar trade, a barber and before that an unsuccessful small time thief) but was always greatly roused by the easy and friendly use of his nickname by strangers. The sobriquet leant him, he felt, some gravitas and was nearly always a point of conversation upon meeting inquisitive strangers. He also, of course, enjoyed, not a little, the subtle, flashing, suggestion of violence that could be adhered to the name with a wink of the eye or a twisting on the lip of the word. Blades.
He had served a short stretch in Brixton for housebreaking in his thirties and there had become H-wing barber, in part because of his name and in part, initially, because he had such luscious jet greased locks piled into an impressive duck’s arse… despite it being a toupee. The trouble with rugs is that only a lot of money will cover any bald patch effectively. Cheap rugs are two a penny. You can spot them a mile off. The rug skinflint is going to have to learn the hard way if that is the route taken. Hardened criminals, by their very nature, are a cruel breed (lifers, less so. There is something monastic about a lifer; a quiet servitude is what I’ve heard it called). The common hard man’s urge is to break things.
Blades’ hairpiece was slung around the canteen by the end of the first week. “Welcome to bang up, baldy.” It went from head to head to head to floor to foot to ‘on me head, mate’ and eventually ended up perched, cavalier, atop of the hairless skull of Barry Devine, the smiling child murderer and Brixton’s most notorious lifer at the time. Blades was also, due to a clerical error, Devine’s cellmate for the foreseeable. And that is where that suspect syrup stayed, on top of the quietly grinning killer’s head. The child murderer had been a barber by day (and kid killer of an evening) before getting banged up. The other H-wingers didn’t really like the idea of being trimmed by those soft, evil hands. He was good (by all accounts), but mostly his clients in that south London establishment couldn’t really relax when they were in the chair, knowing what they knew of the man in the mirror before them. It was enough to give the hardest man the shivers, pondering where those fingers had been. “Going anywhere nice on your holidays,” would joke Barry Devine, smiling (and always the tip of his tongue just-so). Well, it got one to wondering. And wondering leads to pondering and pondering sometimes leads to…
One day (coincidentally, shortly after Blades’ arrival on the wing), Devine was found in the prison barbershop with rather a severe haircut of his own that started at one ear and ended at the other.
The clipper guards, the clippers, the oils, the combs, the cut-throat razor, the badger’s hair brush and the long scissors (with the curved rest for the little finger) went in due course to Blades as recompense for the earlier toupee joke. It was, the prisoners told him, an initiation, but, being bald and not singing to the screws of the killer’s demise somehow entitled him to the tools of his cellmate.