Like many an undergrad to come before me and, no doubt, like many to follow, I worked in pubs to pay my way through university. I only lasted a few months in my first pub, but that proved to be more than enough time for it to embed itself deep in my subconscious – my memories of it populated my dreams for many years afterwards, like a bad deed I couldn’t forget.
I eventually got a job at another pub, but in the bottleshop out the back – the holy grail of pub jobs. The bottle-o was separated from the main bar by a carpark, which sheltered me both from most of the pub’s patrons, and management. Behind the counter was a camera that was there for security but that also doubled as a way to monitor staff. This wasn’t a secret, we all knew we were under surveillance, and, as if to bait us, a big TV linked to the main bar’s sports channels was positioned above the door (I still saw more Rugby League that year than at any other period in my life).
Weekend nights were where the action happened, so two of us manned the counter. We spent the shift wrapping bottles in paper bags and checking IDs and giving shoddy advice on what wine to drink with dinner – my default recommendation was a white from New Zealand I never thought it important to try (Cloudy Bay probably owe me commission). But most shifts were on quiet weekdays where I worked alone. I swept the floors, polished the bottles of Grange and parried the odd wine salesman.
I also got some good writing done.
At the back of the bottleshop was a wide storage area with towers of beer cartons and leftover promotional giveaways, as well as stuff for the pub – coasters, spare schooner glasses and boxes of TAB slips for betting on horseraces. The storage room wasn’t under surveillance like the front of the shop was, so it was out here that I made phone calls, attempted three-point turns on the standing forklift or, if I was working with someone else, played surreptitious games of late-night handball, relying on the buzzer at the door to let us know when someone came in.
There is something primal about a pub, I’ve decided now; pubs are dim, cavernous, raw – at least at 3am. There isn’t much in the world that’s weirder than a suburban pub at three o’clock in the morning. That said, unusual behaviour was pretty normal even during daylight hours. At the first pub I worked at, I’d once found a patron sitting in the betting room. Cap pulled low and unperturbed by the horses running and the race results flashing on the screens around him, he was instead scribbling on the back of a betting slip. I asked what he was doing. He explained that he’d broken up with his girlfriend and was writing her a poem that, when he recited what he had so far, I thought owed a greater debt to Eminem’s ‘Kim’ than to Keats’s ‘Bright Star’ (a line about his girlfriend opening up her legs for him has remained with me).
Maybe it was his spirit I was invoking when, during a particularly uneventful day shift, I went to the back of the bottleshop and took up a small TAB pencil, turned over a TAB betting slip and wrote down a line that I’d been working over in my head and didn’t want to lose. Another line followed, and another.
My old mate from the pub proved to be quite the innovator as I too found the slips handy. Like speech cards, they fit nicely in the pocket of my trousers, so I could tuck them away if somebody came in, and pull them out if I had an idea I wanted to get down – even if it came while I was in the cool room, and even if others were around.
The story I worked seriously on over that summer was about an industrial revolution-era town that flooded because the old man who lit the streetlamps at dusk was sick in bed – a couple of unwitting customers even became characters in it. I wish I could say that something came of the story, that sitting on a few cartons of beer and writing on betting slips was a sort of magic formula, but it didn’t. The story is still around here somewhere, maybe even on a betting slip or two
Tristan Foster is a writer from Sydney. He twitters here: https://twitter.com/tristan_foster