Out of habit, I stomp my feet on the stoop of the Gangplank, though no snow or other detritus is in evidence on my boots. The large wooden door, its handle polished from frequent use, invites, nay, challenges me to enter. I look around to see a warm flickering glow from the stained glass windows and an hear a muffled din from within. I turn the handle and the door opens with a pleasant squeak.
Far from my usual fear of the entire population turning to stare at me, no one seems to notice my entrance. Perfect. I close the door and walk purposefully towards the bar. The place is packed to almost bursting. It appears Mr. Lighthouse and Miss Ginsburg have done well since their grand re-opening.
True to its form, the Gangplank attracts a complete cross-section of society. I see gentleman resplendent in fine attire enjoying a brandy with their cigars, workmen in their dusty and work-worn tweed – plumes of blue smoke emanating from their pipes cradled in one hand and a solid pint glass in the other, ladies in bright-patterned frocks and outlandish hats, and many other specimens of humanity – some defying categorization. The noise is immense and I feel joy at being lost in such a warm bustle.
I pass the fireplace, roaring bright even though the evening is quite warm. Very much like being wrapped in a warm blanket, I relax and feel the tension wash away, a glow filling me along with feelings of comfort and mirth banishing any trace of sourness in my mood.
Approaching the busy bar, I can see there is quite a queue, to put it generously. More of a thirsty rabble mobbing up to grab a quick one and some leaving with awkward armloads of drinks for their companions. One gentleman, smoking a cheroot notices me with a start and hops down off of his barstool, politely insisting that I not only bypass the aforementioned queue, but make myself welcome to his seat. After a few polite refusals, and his kind insistence, I thank him graciously for his generosity and attempt to mount the bar-stool.
The origin of such a ridiculous chair is somewhat of a mystery to me. Difficult to get up upon, easy to fall off of, and impossible to dismount gracefully, I wonder why they are so popular in public houses. Their use is made doubly difficult with the interference of my skirts and this same cheery chap kindly lends his hand to ensure I am properly seated. Once secure, he bows with a flourish and melts into the crowd.
I spy at the opposite end of the bar Brother Malus, whom I had met briefly on Front Street the other day, an arm on the bar, seeming quite engaged in conversation with a young lady. No chance of him hearing me from this distance anyway. A rather short and slender bartender approaches me, drying a pint glass with a once-white towel.
“Your pleasure Miss?” he enquires with a smile.
“Ironess if you please” dropping a few choice coins on the bar-top.
With a smile for reply and a flourish of his skinny arms, he draws me a pint of the black stuff and sets in front of my quite obviously drooling gob. As he mops up a couple of loose drops with his towel, I proceed to devour half the pint in a few seconds. That is GRAND. My shoulders relax and I exhale contentedly.
“Will you be wanting a bit of sup’ Miss? Best get your order in before the next shift gets off…” he shouts over the din.
“Oh yes indeed.” perfect for my empty stomach, the recent recipient of half a pint of raw ale. “Fish and Chips?” I enquire hopefully.
“Oh certainly, I’ll just let the cook know”
“Wait… er, it’s not wiggyfish is it?”
At this mention, he looks horribly hurt and shocked.
“Certainly not! We are a respectable establishment…”
A raise a hand cutting off his objection, “dear sir, I meant nothing by it, just bad memories you see…” I make a week smile and motion with my free hand to my stomach.
“I entirely understand, and share those memories…” a serious knowing look of horror with a slight greenish tinge occupies his face for a moment before brightening up again. “As a point of fact, we are serving haddock tonight, caught fresh from the Vernian this very morning. Also, I am quite sure that dreaded cannery closed down some time ago, I even heard a rumour that the Militia has stopped using it for rations.”
“Welcome news! a cause for celebration, if belated” I exclaim. He laughs heartily, all forgiven.
“Surely! Soliders have a hard time marching with dysentery.” With a wink he’s off to the kitchen.
I sip my pint slowly now, savouring its creamy, irony bitterness and feeling all of my worries subside like the tide. It wouldn’t do to lose my composure so early in the evening, my logical half reminds me. I check my balance on my precarious stool and find myself secure at present.
One year ago, I can recall coming off of the steamer – the Sprat – luggage in tow and absolutely famished. A street seller was evidently in wait, like a predator for the disembarking passengers. An odious ginger-haired baboon, the man, with a seeming monopoly of the pier, loudly proclaimed his bounty of a special New Babbage delicacy. I shudder at the memory of that revolting Ceolecanth – such a flavour was never meant for the human tongue, surely. I couldn’t help but feel I had been the butt of the type of joke typically played on visiting foreigners, with some rather extreme results.
Thankfully breaking me from my nightmare, the bartender returns and deposits a plate in front of me laden with steaming fish and fried potatoes. I even spot the glorious bright green of minty mushy peas and my innate manners are all that prevent me from devouring the plate like starving jackal. I thank him with a bright, grateful smile and proceed to systematically consume my supper.
As promised, the fish was fresh and succulent, and it was not long before my plate was clean. Seeming to guess my intention, the bartender reappears, clears my plate and deposits a fresh pint in front of me. I tip him outrageously and he deftly flips the coin in the air and catches it. With a spring in his step, he shuffles off to serve his mob of thirsty customers.
Entrenched as I am between a large man in a nice tweed and a rather fidgety young woman who seems to laugh continuously at everything, I’m not able to fully turn ’round when I hear the ringing of a spoon on glass.
“Gentlemen!” Says a booming voice, whose source is obscured in the crowd. “We are veritable GODS of industry!”
He pauses for dramatic effect and the inevitable applause. Fists bang on tables and somewhere a pint breaks on the floor. The booming baritone continues:
“Therefore I say, down with your pints, and BACK TO CREATION!” His orator’s voice thoroughly rolling that “r”.
This was met with a loud cheer and sudden silence as half the bar noisly quaffs the remains of their pints – with some of it getting in their mouths surely. A final cheer from the mob and a large group leaves, funnelling through the door and out into the street. I suspect they will work long into the night, the festival culminating tomorrow.
I feel a hand on my arm. I look at the hand, lace-gloved with rather too many bracelets and look up at its owner.”
“C’mon kitten, let’s grab the cushy seats ‘fore someone else does!” A smile with a missing tooth emphasizes that sentence. I squeal in delight, knowing when a race is afoot and dismount the barstool with rather less grace than I intended, but thankfully without mishap or spilled ale.
Skirts clutched in one hand, pints in the other we scream and run though the crowded maze of patrons towards our quarry – the comfortable sofa at the end. We collapse laughing into its generous cushions, sighing at the comfort to our poor sore bottoms.
“Always good to ‘ave a race, keeps ye bottom flat, I’m ‘Liza …” squawks my companion, with an accent like a sawblade, and to top it off, her last name obscured by a rather unladlylike belch.
“I’m Erica Fairywren, er… charmed” I shake her hand, her grip a bit more rough than I had expected.
Good heavens! Back home this woman would have been run out of town quick as mustard. Somehow, here, I’m not sure. Babbage seems to take all types and handle all comers. Also, there’s something intriguing about her….. I find her, oh what’s the word … FUN.
We babble and we laugh and we drink. Quickly the evening degenerates into a mirthful blur. Pint after pint is consumed until the table is precariously full of teetering dead soldiers. She laughs like a banshee, yet its infectious. She welcomes anyone and everyone regardless of status or manner, and everyone seems to be familiar with, and quite enjoy the warm aura that pervades her presence.
My attention is engaged and I fall into her mirthful trap – laughing, joking, singing off-key oh what fun! A seemingly never-ending column of punters seem eager to sit down next to us or across from us. Each trying out our company and their luck. They’re no match for us. We are wild, witty and enjoying ourselves thoroughly. The men come and go, joke and laugh, but we are constant. I am thoroughly enjoying this!
Though by this time quite in her cups, she has a way of skilfully deflecting any serious questions I put to her. To her profession I was told merely “customer service”. Only the question of her marital status seemed to touch a nerve.
“Now look ‘ere lovey” she tries to look serious with only one eye focused on me and a mouth looking ready to giggle at the drop of a hat. “I ‘aint’nt wife to no man, though a friend to all of ’em” waving her arms expansively. At this, she finally loses any composure and brings forth great peals of squealing laughter. Watching her rock back in forth in a grotesque display of glee, her skirts and hair absolutely dissheveled, and noting the bashfully embarrassed expressions of our current male companions, I cannot help it. Defences thoroughly routed, I collapse back in a hearty display of full-bellied outlandish laughter.
Seemingly caught in a laughing fit, we continue to laugh until we are red faced, crying and our pints spill over the brim.
Out of nowhere, I acquire the hiccups.
“There there lovey” the man with the florid face, currently seated next to me says, consoling me with a firm pats on the back. Its no use, I continue hiccup, bouncing in my seat, and am forced to set my pint down on the ruin of a table in front of me. Various bystanders suggest their mother’s – or grandmother’s, or second-cousin’s – sure-fire remedies. Unable to respond with anything other than a squeaky “hic”, I now seem to have attracted the attention of all within a two metre radius. They try to scare me, offer to suspend me upside down, deliver pints of various foul smelling liquids, to no avail. Finally, I am given a jug of water and down it all in one go.
Then, silence. The onlookers watch and await my next hiccup. I see coins and notes pass from hand to hand in wagering.
“Buuuuuuuuuuuurrrrrrrrrp” I gasp. The entire immediate vicinity collapses in laughter.
Palm on my chest, outraged at my monstrous outburst. I never… hang on… I am no longer hiccuping! Rather than my usual shy apologies, I smile and proclaim as loud as I can “I am cured!”
This is greeted by a great number of “hoorays” and “well dones”. ‘Liza pats my hand, her eyes filled with pride in me.
“Well done kitten! you passed the first test! wee cup of ol’ ‘vino collapso’ to celebrate?” as if ready for me, she is handed a large bottle of cheap wine, which we proceed to pour carelessly into our empty pints and drink like water.
The next several hours are hard to qualify and will be even harder to remember I warrant. All I have are vague flashes of images and conversation from our numerous revolving suitors, who seem to be in a contest to impress us with tall tales, which we reward with shameless flirtation.
“…and she was all right, after I squeezed the water out of ‘er…”
“The first thing one should do when confronted by a wiggyfish….”
“Swear! honest! I didn’t nick her bustle!..”
“..furious with anger, I took off me belt, and by thunder me trousers fell down!”
All delightful bawdy nonsense that made me giggle and laugh and shoot wine out of my nose. I can scarce remember having so much FUN. The background audio was a delightful squeaky fiddle from one off-his-rocker fiddler sawing out sprightly celtic tunes to claps and cheers and stomping feet. Candles guttered on the table, spilling wax everywhere and our supply of ‘vino collapso’ seemed to be drying up fast yet continually replaced and paid for I know not how.
Finally ‘Liza, arm around one gent thrice her size, places an unsteady hand on my shoulder for balance.
“Now THAT was a night out kitten, and din’t you ferget…” her eyes go crossed for a moment and I laugh uproariously. “…din’t ferget me! will we will do this ‘gain, perhaps ‘non. For tonight, me an ‘arry ‘ere are going to take a little stroll, if you will. So we must say g’night”. At that last exclamation, I see her heave a bit, but swallow and recover her composure as she leans back and thankfully out of aim of my person.
“bye bye” she says in an impish voice. Giggling, and one eye trained on me, “‘arry” or whomever proceeds to drag her out the door, bodily.
“Cheerrrrrrrio!” I say with a flourish as I begin to stand. Terrible idea. My first attempt must have been unsuccessful, as I ended up firmly back in the sofa. The second attempt was much better than the first, as I ended up somewhat upright, arms swinging like a windmill to maintain my balance.
I approach the bar with coin purse in hand, and motion for my kind bartender. He waves his hands in refusal.
“Oh no need Miss, its all been taken care of”.
“Oh? by whom?” I teeter precariously.
“A gentleman Miss”
“Which one?” I look about the bar, head swinging comically.
He simply shrugs and waves a polite goodbye to me. I mirror his shrug and respond in kind, and make for the door – via the scenic route.
Hand finally grasped firmly about the comforting brass of the door knob, which I had located with some small difficulty, I open the squeaky door and leave the warm taproom for the refreshing night air.