The Golden Flower – a tumbledown pub with limited charm – stood on a small patch of industrial space in a disregarded wedge along the Thames’ southern bank.
Consigned to the labouring trade in the winter months of late 1990, I spent many afternoons sunk in The Flower’s dusty cushions, drinking behind a series of newspapers, and trying to decide what was to be done with myself.
The Flower was a weekday pub for the weekday shift worker. It nursed the dregs of the workforce, hanging from the bar and growling over job prospects. In the corners older gentlemen hid beneath clouds of cigarette smoke, occasionally offering an opinion as they stole back to the bar. These were not my people, but they paid me no mind, letting me sink into the fabric of the place, and feel over those grey months as though comfort could be found amongst them.
I spent my time leafing through the papers for extra work and, on occasion, the random pages of university prospectuses. I'd been out of school for several years, sitting on qualifications that would see me into a passable college. Up to then, the decision to work while I decided on my vocation had been my proudest moment. But the pride had worn thin over a succession of part-time jobs followed by a hard winter of labouring; a job for which I was under-qualified and lucky to have been offered on the word of an acquaintance.
It's difficult to recall where I thought my life was heading at that point, with a grim reality edging its way into my consciousness. But it only took Bill Brownly one long afternoon to clear it.
It was on a particularly biting afternoon that I stole into The Flower for some relative warmth and comfort. I had resolved that morning to find a subject of some interest, to at least whet my education in some manner. I fell into a stained wingback and opened to the index of the prospectus that sat atop the pile. Anthropology kept my attention, and a rush of motivation, lent to a misunderstanding of the subject, handed me a steely confidence to prise myself from the chair and enter a conversation. I spoke for a brief time with the barman, a toothy sulk who muttered crossword clues to himself when the conversation began to lag. I must have mentioned my interest in understanding what would lead a man to a life serving pints or to cold winters laying bricks because the shift workers growling at the other end of the bar beckoned me over.
The heavy smell of unwashed mouths fed with dust, ale and egg sandwiches is what I vividly recall about those men. They were a surly pair, or so I had thought, but having called me over to join them, a gleam of wit made an appearance, as if the sight of any new face was enough to relight their presence in that place.
I turned my nose as they told me not to waste my time with the barman, nor even with themselves. No, I needed to speak with Bill Brownly. 'He'll tell you a tale,' they said.
They nodded in the direction of a corner darkened by smoke. I walked over and waded through the cloud to find Bill Brownly sitting over an empty pint glass and a full ashtray. ‘Pardon me,’ I said.
Bill lifted his head almost instantly, but not to meet my eyes. He shifted his gaze about the room towards his fellow drinkers, his eyes and face hidden beneath the brim of a faded grey argyle flat cap. ‘Take all the chairs if you want them,’ he said in a cracked voice.
‘Thanks, but it’s just, the blokes at the bar said you might be able to help me with some, er, research.’ My steely confidence was ebbing away.
He cleared his throat and looked up at me. The way I choose the remember it is that I kept an impassive face when I first saw the frightful disfigurement that spilled from beneath his cap and down his cheek. The right side of his face was a stubbly affair – unkempt but inoffensive, but where the daylight broke through the dusty windows and smoke clouds to reveal his left side, silver gleams of smooth skin cascaded down to his jaw in two unbroken and terrible scars.
‘Do what?’ he said firmly.
My eyes had darted to his left side for briefest moment, but with my back to the light I was sure he hadn’t noticed. ‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘They told me you might have a tale to tell… for my research.’
‘Research,’ he said, almost to himself. The clearing of his throat had softened his voice. He refocused his eyes. ‘What fucking research?’
He’d broken the awkwardness of the moment instantly. I shrugged and even smiled at the man.
He rattled his empty pint glass on the table, a gesture I took to mean he was ready for a refill. I took his glass to the barman, who didn’t bother looking for a clean one. I bought a fresh pint for myself too and sat down at Bill Brownly’s table.
‘Are you a big drinker?’ he said, lifting his beer and taking a lengthy draught.
‘Not really,’ I said.
‘What’s your research about?’ he asked.
‘Er, it’s not really research.’
‘So what is it?’
‘It’s not anything really,’ I said.
He looked at me, waiting for me to continue. I decided to be honest. ‘I’m looking for something to study. I thought it would help to get an idea of what’s led people to where they are now.’
The side of his mouth twitched. ‘And you decided this just now?’
‘Then you could’ve picked some place better than a workers’ pub on a weekday afternoon.’
I looked down at my pint.
‘Those fellas told you I had a story?’ he said.
‘They said you could tell me a tale.’
He barked a laugh and raised his glass to the flies at the bar. He looked at me while he took another drink. He wiped his mouth on the back of his sleeve and worked a cigarette from the pack on the table. ‘I’ll tell you a tale,’ he said. ‘But it’ll cost you lunch.’
I looked over to the bar, certain they didn’t serve food in The Golden Flower.
‘Not here,’ he said. ‘Finish your drink.’
Outside the bite of the cold hadn’t abated. I pulled a wooly hat over my ears, and as Bill stepped out into the afternoon he wrapped a scarf tightly around his neck and lifted his collar so that his face was hidden from the wind.
He led me out of the industrial area, through housing estates and away from the river. He took me to a place called The Old Tea Warehouse, a somewhat classier hideaway, protected from the elements where it stood nestled in a courtyard, surrounded by the warming features of a newly built factory. We walked into the courtyard, out of the wind and into the smell of burnt cocoa, bitter in the nose but not unpleasant. I felt for the thickness of my wallet and wondered whether this tale would be worth the expense.
The place couldn’t have been further from The Golden Flower. The light was warm, the carpet seemed freshly laid and the tabletops gleamed. Bill sat down at the table in the furthest corner. I hovered over my chair, waiting to take his order to the bar. Noticing my indecision he pointed behind me, where a young waitress was heading in our direction.
Bill was lighting a cigarette as he ordered a stout and a plate of gammon. I asked for the same, and watched Bill as he looked towards the pictures on the walls. He pointed towards one; a large black and white photograph. It showed wide expanses of flat plains coloured in deep greys, leading towards a beautiful snow-capped mountain rising from the centre of the image.
When the waitress returned with our drinks Bill removed his hat. She faltered momentary before promising to return in twenty minutes with our food.
Bill laid his hat on the table and stared across at me. It was uncomfortable again, though I was willing it not to be.
‘It’s okay,’ he said. ‘You can look. This is what the story is about.'
I must have smiled awkwardly or glanced upward reluctantly because Bill lowered his head for my benefit. In the warm light of The Old Tea Warehouse Bill’s scarring shone almost pink against his elsewise pallid skin. His hair, thinning anyway, was completely removed around the sunken shape of his skull where one of the two scars ran deep all the way from his crown. On the left side of his face hair grew sporadically, and his ear had an unnatural appearance.
Bill lifted his head and took a drink. ‘This story normally lasts two or three,’ he said matter-of-factly.
I was taken aback, and he noticed.
‘People in The Flower often want the story after a few,’ he said. ‘I can squeeze some pints out of them if I tell them the long version.’
‘And the food?’ I asked.
‘Because you look like you really want to know,’ he said.
Of course, he was right. I’d become all too aware that I’d been spending my afternoons wasting away the hours, repressing my anxieties and resolving that life would begin soon, and in earnest. And it was at that moment that I realised that I'd been waiting for something to lift me out of the furrow into which I’d lowered myself; for Bill to tell me that I needn’t suffer the fear of achieving nothing, nor live a life too afraid to attempt my hand at anything.
I raised my glass to Bill Brownly, and his voice was thick as it bore me into his story, to a place where he was young and unburdened and unbroken.
Bill found Carol at a pub in Bethnal Green during the winter of 1978. She was visiting from Canada for several weeks and staying with family friends in Islington. Bill's introduction was by way of exposing himself to be the fool he so typically played at that age; he tried to start a fight with Carol’s companion over the latter’s refusal to lend him a handkerchief. The fight was over as quickly as it had begun, but Bill had consoled himself with the knowledge that he’d won the handkerchief, if only to stem the flow of blood from his boxed nose. Bill shared several drinks with the man and in the process, though entirely by accident, he’d managed to win the affections of the young, scruffy Canadian girl sitting at the table.
With unerring clarity, Bill could recall the five weeks they'd spent together that winter. He was introduced to Carol’s friends at a house party in Angel. Far grander and intimidating than his usual carousal, the house wore its festive decorations with department store-ease, the hosts fussed over their guests and the bubbles flowed in every room. Bill’s warmth to Carol grew immeasurably that evening, with her clung to his arm as they skirted from room to room. She introduced him as ‘Bill from Bethnal Green’ and encouraged him to taste every drink in the house, before demanding he take a taxi home and call her first thing in the morning.
She spent most of her visit at his arm, lost to an East End charm that he dressed up for her benefit. He took her hand beneath London's Christmas lights, and they saw in the New Year wrapped in a blanket atop Primrose Hill, and walked the six miles back to Bill's through the revelers and party smoke. For his part, Bill adored how she loved to laugh but never sought it, and when she laughed uncontrollably she snorted. He was charmed by her demeanour, and how she always appeared awkwardly attired as though each of her clothes were over or under-sized to some extent. She would call him ‘my boy’ and it made him feel warm and loved. But as the winds slowly crept down from the north and cast a chill over the city, Bill knew their time together was at an end, and in late January 1979 Carol returned to Canada.
It was here that Bill gave a practiced pause. He sat back and rubbed his cracked thumbs over his glass. The waitress appeared at our table carrying two loaded plates of steaming food. I ordered two more pints and she left us to our lunch. Bill smiled crookedly and nodded towards my plate, asking me to begin so he could. I did, and he followed. Between mouthfuls of egg and gammon, and long guzzling draughts of beer, he continued his story.
It seemed Bill hadn't been at all ready to say goodbye to Carol. During the months after her departure he found extra work and saved every spare penny for a trip to Canada. Similarly, Carol needed to stretch everything she had to live the adventurous life she aspired to. In the spring of ‘79, while Bill was scraping together a small purse, Carol was planning to trek the Donoho Glacier in Alaska. But in June of that year she arrived on Bill’s doorstep having postponed her trip so that she could spend two weeks in London. And in the middle of that summer it was as though she'd never been away. For those two weeks she planned her adventures, how she could save to ride the trans-Siberian railway, safari in Africa and visit the great lakes in North America. And she wanted Bill with her for every trip.
It was remarkable hearing these words delivered so unashamedly by such a worn man. He would seem without value to anyone who didn't know him, but memories of my initial perceptions are difficult to trace now, and even then. He seemed to have no fear of judgment at all, something that I, nor my younger self, could ever claim and will forever envy.
Carol stopped over along her way to a three-city European trip in early 1980, and again on her return. Despite their relationship, she hadn't relented in her pursuit of adventure. It was this passion that Bill came to love first, and then admire most of all. Though he didn't share it, he encouraged her adventurous side because it's what drove her in life, never wondering if she'd ever settle into a more conventional pattern.
She asked Bill to accompany her on her long-postponed Alaskan trek, and in the autumn of 1980 they journeyed to Canada where they joined a charter group flying out to Anchorage, and then boarded a smaller plane flying north to Denali National Park. In two days Bill’s world had expanded further than he’d ever imagined. Before Carol he’d lived a city life, weighing his weeks in measures of work and drink and cigarettes – but in October 1980, as Carol brewed a pot of tea over a pit fire by the camp, Bill Brownly stood looking across a great green plain stretching far beyond the creek to the base of Mount McKinley – a white shard of the earth, jutting out of the horizon.
That evening, Bill sat by the crackling campfire listening to the guides discuss the trip's itinerary. As the night grew colder and the whiskey began to loosen their reticence, the other members of the group began to share tales of their past adventures. An old physician called Arbour told of his encounter with a mountain lion while hiking the West Mesa Trail. Greying on top and with a little paunch around his midriff, Arbour lifted his shirt to show off where the cat had clawed at his side, and bore the scars with pride until his wife giggled endlessly and asked him to ‘put it away’. For Carol’s part, she sat open-mouthed listening to the story of how Jonah and Wendy, a couple from Oklahoma, had safaried in Kenya, and how the two Canadian guides had summited McKinley five times between them. Listening to the others speak, Bill had begun to understand the desire to travel far and wide, to see new sites and experience things that most will not have even imagined to exist. He looked down towards the creek at the resting canoes and felt a rush of excitement that warmed him. He turned to Carol and grinned, and he continued to smile as he watched her glow in the firelight.
That night they slept together in Carol's one-man tent. With hardly any room to move they were locked beneath the canvas, so close that Bill felt the damp of his breath as it warmed Carol's neck. Laying with her, he had wondered whether such a place existed for others – the warmth of another, the rhythmic sound of passing water from the creek below, and the feet of the wind running across the plains.
The bear came early next morning. Bill and Carol were by the water’s edge preparing their packs and setting their canoe for the day's first leg when a gruff bark sounded over the brow of the hill beyond the tents. Somewhere out of site someone was shouting. The brown mass lumbered over the hill and past the tents. It paused briefly and groaned, and then it advanced. Though his mouth was dry, Bill began to yell. At twenty feet away his knees started to shake at the sheer size of the animal; at ten feet the bear’s black eyes met his and his voice faltered. The animal moaned with a deafening voice, and Bill lowered himself behind the overturned boat. The power of the animal splintered the hull and tore through the canvas with a force that knocked Bill to the floor and cracked three of his ribs. He rolled over to turn away and felt the weight of the bear pushing his shoulder into the mud and stones. The pressure alone was enough to break his jaw, and when it pulled him over all he heard was the sound of teeth on bone and all he saw was the blackness of the animal’s throat.
Bill drained the rest of his glass and looked at me expectantly. Numbly I went to the bar, and when I sat back down he was running his fingers over his scars. ‘I'd never been less terrified of death than when my skull was cracking between those jaws,’ he said, taking the drink with a nod of thanks.
He admitted it was hard to recall the events immediately after the animal had withdrawn, but he vaguely remembered the whimpering of some of the group as they hovered nearby. The bear had mauled his face and torn his skull, shredding his skin right down to his broken jaw. Everything tasted of blood and his nose filled with the stench of oily fish. Arbour and his wife tended to him as they waited for the helicopter to arrive to carry him to Fairbanks. All he could recall with any clarity from the time he spent laying there was the sound of the water and the running wind. And overhead, he'd watched the shapes of the clouds as they drifted in inches, far above in the bluest sky.
It wasn’t for two days that they told him of Carol’s death.
He instructed the doctors to do what was needed. Though, without insurance, almost everything he had saved ended up being spent on his care. He paid to have Carol’s parents fly up to formally identify her body, and he didn’t protest when they asked to fly her back to Moncton. It was the only time he’d ever meet them, and he wasn’t surprised when they wrote to him to say that they’d buried Carol in her local cemetery. He sat up on the hard mattress holding the postcard, staring at the freshly painted white hospital walls, smelling the chemicals used to mop the floor and wipe down the furniture. The card said he had a place to stay should he ever wish to visit, but he never did, and he never spoke with them again. For Bill, his final memories of Carol would forever be his mouth against the back of her neck, and how her face had glowed that night in the warm firelight.
Bill remained in Fairbanks for two months before he was transferred to Seattle. His recovery was slow, but eventually most of his senses returned intact. With little money remaining, he travelled across the country via railroad before returning to England on a ship leaving New York. He could recall almost nothing from his time in America except the monotonous rumble of the train tracks and dreary grey of the harbour air. And then London welcomed him home with the chilling blackness of a February winter.
And that was that, according to Bill.
Except it wasn't that. There was more I wanted from him, but several pints of heavy beer will always cloud the mind and lean heavily on the bladder, so I excused myself to the bathroom.
I held myself over an immaculate urinal. I washed my hands in front of the mirror and looked at the boy staring back at me with a dusty brow, a flushed complexion and bloodshot eyes. I imagined a scar running down my face and what that would mean for me, and I flinched at the thought. When I went back to the table Bill had disappeared. I looked appealingly at the waitress who said he'd grumbled something about work then shuffled out. I paid the bill and left.
The following day I returned to The Golden Flower in hope of seeing him. When he didn't show up the day after I asked the flies at the bar whether we’d missed one another. Reassuringly they suggested he might have gotten lucky with a few shifts at work, though they couldn't tell me where that could have been. Quite why I was so desperate to see him again I didn't know, but I knew I wasn't comfortable with my parting words being 'I need the loo’.
In 2008 I happened to be over that way one evening with friends, crawling the river on a city workers' Friday binge. Much had changed in that little wedge of London, but The Golden Flower still stood, detached from its surroundings though perhaps a little more inviting with a polished face and new owners intent on its assimilation. Much had changed for myself too in the nearly two decades since I’d last been in the area. Gone was the curiosity of my youth and the fear of a future I may never have, replaced by a family, a mortgage and a future I'd be terrified to lose.
As I stepped through the door I became very conscious of a sickly sensation that grew at the possibility of seeing Bill Brownly. Just why I would wish him to be there I didn't know; perhaps so I could say hello, or to mark him out to my friends and say 'look at that man. He once told me a story about how he got those scars'. But quite clearly I can recall the feeling in my gut when I looked to his corner and saw him there. The smoke was gone, the electric light far more favourable to the room's updated decor, but even after so long the man in the corner still looked as though he was masked with a shadow. In that moment I knew that Bill Brownly represented realities I had been trying to evade for eighteen years; of apathy and uncertainty and of futures so brittle that they can fall apart in an instant. To me, the Bill I’d met so many years ago would forever be a reflection of the man in his story, the scarred remnants of a battle-weary warrior with nothing left but a handful of stories about what it is to have something invaluable and what it is to have it taken away. So I didn't go over to his corner and speak with him, I didn't let the memories of my younger self to surface, and I didn't tell my friends about the man with the scars, and how he had once told me about the life he'd lived some thirty years ago.
James has been writing short fiction for a few years, his writing most recently being published in the Open Pen Anthology.