By Alan Russell
Peter was one of the very first customers I ever pulled a pint for on my first day working in a local pub. For that I shall always remember him. There is also another reason the memory of Peter is permanent.
That first day working in a pub called The Wheel of Fortune was a bright summers’ one. Bright sunshine flooded in glancing off the freshly polished tables scattered about the lounge bar. The stage was set, the sun provided the spotlight and all that was needed were the customers who all had walk on parts.
The doors swung open and a middle-aged couple came in. The man stayed by the door while the lady came over to the bar. Both of them were smartly dressed even for a Saturday in the early 1970’s. She was wearing a smart suit and the man had a suit on with a white shirt and tie. Soon the next walk on actor would appear but not before he spoke.
‘I may be on crutches but I can still open doors for myself’ could be heard.
By now the lady had taken her place on a bar stool and looked at me with a smile.
‘Peter, he can be so awkward sometimes. Gin and tonic for me with ice and lemon and two pints please?’.
Trevor, my mentor, watched me as I started to get the order made up. This was my first performance behind a proper bar. I was sweating internally and externally while I got the drinks ready and added up the prices. I was concentrating so hard on what I was doing I didn’t see Peter come through the doorway.
When I looked up there he was, just far enough away from the bar I could see all of him, at least what was left of him including his crutches as he stood on one leg. Where his other leg had been the redundant length of his trousers had been sewn up half down where is thigh used to be. It hung loose and flapped as he made the last few steps to a bar stool.
This was the first time ever in my life that I had had such close contact with someone who was an amputee. This was at a time just before the revolution in the attitudes towards people with physical disabilities. It was still almost taboo to see someone like Peter out and about doing normal things. No matter how hard I tried to be normal I must have shown some reaction to what he looked like.
Peter must have seen this sort of thing countless times. He humped himself on to the bar stool, put his crutches against the wall, smiled and stretched his hand out to me.
‘I’m Peter’ and shook my hand ‘you pour a good pint young man. Alcohol and painkillers, not a good mix but what harm can a couple do now and then?’
My internal and external sweating ceased and it may have helped that Peter’s body from the waist down was hidden by the bar.
If you had been lucky enough to meet Peter you would have been struck immediately by his looks and undiluted class. Not in the sense of someone born into the aristocracy but of someone who knew how to behave under any circumstances and out those around him immediately at ease. A true gent if ever there was one.
That first Saturday was a busy one so I wasn’t able to talk to Peter too much. By now his two friends had taken their drinks and had migrated over to the dart board. Every time I did notice him he was always smiling, holding his glass and whoever came to the bar next to him always got a kind word from him while they waited for their drinks.
The lady who came in with him called across from the dart board.
‘Shall I put your name up for a game Peter?’
‘Very funny, how am I meant to throw darts like this. You’re just saying that because you know it would be the only time you could beat me. Pick on a man when he’s down.’ Peter replied in good humour.
Things got quiet after two and I was able to chat to Peter a bit more at the end of that first session. I asked him how he had lost his leg.
‘Taking a tree down, used to be a tree surgeon, and a big branch landed on me. Had all sorts of things done to save the leg but gangrene set in and that was it. Bloody painful Alan and I’ll tell you now, even though its gone I still get pain from it. Phantom pains they call it.’
By closing time at two thirty Peter’s ‘one or two’ had become four which were then topped off with a whisky.
He looked at me as he sipped his whisky.
‘Can’t drive any more so don’t have to worry. See you next weekend’.
And with that he and his two friends who had been first to arrive were last to leave.
Peter came back with his friends several times over the next few weeks.
One Saturday morning it was particularly quiet when Peter and his friends came in. As usual they left him at the bar while they went off to play darts.
While I was talking to Peter he told me that he had been away to Stoke Mandeville Hospital for some rehabilitation. Stoke Mandeville, for those of you who do not know much about the place, is a hospital that was the catalyst for the change in social attitudes to physical disabilities started in the UK. Driven by the visionary Sir Ludwig “Pappa” Guttman the site hosted the first Paralympics and became a centre of excellence renowned across the world for its methods.
Peter told me he had had a marvellous time there going swimming, getting used to using a wheelchair and even getting involved in sports like table tennis. He accepted that the wheelchair was inevitable as he knew that he was going to lose his remaining leg at some stage. That was a certainty. The uncertainty was ‘when’. At least once he had his wheelchair he could play darts again.
‘Do you know what Alan?’ he asked.
‘Not sure Peter, what?’ I replied.
‘That stay at Stoke Mandeville. My doctor sent me there to get me sorted out even though I am a bit of a lost cause. But the thing is, that first morning in the pool I felt a bit sorry for myself and then….. you look around and, well, there are blokes in there with both legs gone or an arm and a leg. I know this is a bit selfish but I looked at them and felt better……they were a lot worse off than me. I swear that is some of the treatment’.
That was probably the last time I saw Peter with his two friends and that is the second reason I shall never forget Peter.
There is always someone worse off than me.