King of the Dole
Eleven o’clock opening. Davie wedged himself on his usual barstool with his back to the mosaic of square windows. He leaned across a bar still wet from the cloth that had been run along its surface and bought a half of whiskey and half pint of heavy. The traffic on the main road outside filtering past, marking time, was a hum that tickled the soles of his feet. He was on familiar ground. A cavernous room with little or no heating which stunk as if somebody had buried old nappies in the shiny seats that marked the perimeter of the pub and kept the lacquered tables with fag-burns company. George, another paying customer, stood near the serving- hatch and stared into his pint of lager as if it held all the answers. Davie knew that feeling. The girl behind the bar, Tracey, her name was, or perhaps it was Doris, sat and half-stood with one bum cheek on the shelf beneath the shine of the gantry. Long tangled hair, long legs and her nose stuck to her phone. She served them on sufferance and silence. Old farts. Nothing to offer. Beep or tweet, but do not speak thought Davie spilling his pint down his throat. Do whatever you’ve got to do to catch her attention. He wasn’t really up to all that game playing, but he liked to think he had his day. And he liked her. She was kinda gallus and not cruel the way other barmaids could be, and make older guys the butt of their jokes.
Other punters drifted in. Nodded in Davie’s direction. Shouted a ‘hi-ya’. Bookie slips in their hands, sat facing the bar, whetting their whistles and feeling their way into the day. Saturday was a good day. Always hope of getting a fitba coupon up on a Saturday. Davie knew the score. If a team called ‘if only’ paid out on that last team they’d all be millionaires living the life.
Davie wandered outside for a fag and some peace. Jukebox blaring and some of the younger guys had set up home near the poor table and were knocking the balls about. Like Davie, and their fathers before them, they had grown up near the pub and made it their gang hut.
The weather played funny buggers. One minute sunshine, the next rain, wind whipping it into his face. The smoking ban shuffled customers like a pack of cards. Different folk came out to stand near the entrance and blow their smoke out into the traffic and dash their butts into an overflowing bin filled with rainwater.
Bon Jovi and Living on a Prayer boomed from the jukebox and followed Lynne out to stand at the door. She was a shadowy presence at Davie’s elbow. Dressed in black pencil skirt and white blouse, her ginger hair proved more difficult to tame. Her current beau, on the go, was Albert. His uniform was more sombre denim shirt and jeans. His hip greyish hair spiked up and slit specs darkened in the light. His back was pressed against the railing. He smoked roll-ups nipped between thumb and forefinger in intense bursts as if somebody would steal it out of his hand and faced those venturing out of the pub.
‘How you been keepin’?’ Lynne asked Davie
‘No bad,’ he replied.
‘So whit’s the occasion? asked Albert.
‘Whit?’ Davie said.
‘You’re no’ usually oot till after dinner time.’ He turned his head to the left, and sucked on fag.
‘That’s true,’ Davie was noncommittal. They lived a few streets apart. Locals knew what team each other supported and each other’s habit. ‘I’m celebrating.’ He took a quick drag of his fag.
‘Whit you celebrating big Davie?’ Lynne pushed on his elbow like a piece of Play-doh to get his attention.
Davie twisted round to face her. ‘I’m celebrating no longer being a parasite.’
‘You’re no’ right in the heid,’ she said. ‘I told you that didn’t I? She drilled her finger to her forehead to indicate to Albert what she meant. But she smiled in bemusement, shaking her head to show the charade that was often played between them.
Albert ducked his head down and peered over the frame of his specs. ‘You were never a parasite Davie. You always bought your round.’ He glanced sideways through the window taking in man in a red skip hat and blue bubble jacket standing with his back to them at the bar. ‘Unlike some.’
‘That’s no’ the point Albert.’ Overhead gulls swooped and dived onto the road, their raucous cries echoing away as they fought over a bit of dried up roll. ‘I’m a pensioner. Backbone of the country. The kind of person that put the great in Great Britain. The country’s indebted to the likes of me. But yesterday I was a drain on the economy, a welfare scrounger. Programmes were made about the likes of me showing that I committed terrible crimes such as smoking.’ Davie held up the lit fag in acknowledgement. ‘People frothed at the mouth because unemployed folk were shown drinking cans of beer and smoking dope.’ He turned and gawked at Lynne and his voice dropped. ‘Imagine that.’
Albert scrunched his neck up in a half shrug. ‘Aye, but you’ve always worked.’
‘No I havenae. And anyway that’s no’ the point. These programmes are scripted in the same way as Coronation Street. Just before the break they’re edited down to show something dramatic. Some mug going shoplifting. Somebody smoking dope. A pit bull straining at the collar, barking and trying to attack somebody’s legs.’ Davie took a quick drag. ‘Somewhere in the world a smarrry and sneering Jeremy Kyle is playing on a loop and selling the same vision of a broken society inhabited with subnormal that don’t want to work and need an iron fist, or Jeremy Kyle to sort them out. That needs more police with stun guns to keep them all under control. David Cameron can go on the telly and moan about people being on benefits and being fat. And behind him all the hurrah Henry’s, half of them fat bastards, are giving it “Here! “Here!” If they put a weighing-machine in the House of Lords nine-five percent would get turned away at the door and wouldn’t get their allowance. Not that they need to turn up, of course.’
‘I watch Jeremy Kyle,’ said Lynne.
Davie shook his head, but had to grin. ‘That figures.’
‘Cheeky beggar,’ said Lynne.
‘The problem is there are too many Poles, Romanians and Pakis here.’ Albert scrunched his face up. ‘It stands to reason if we sent them all back there would be more jobs.’
Davie pointed across the road at a corner shop. ‘That wee guy works in there from seven in the morning until about ten at night. Seven days a week. He sells milk, rolls, a few papers, and some fags. He’ll be lucky if he makes twenty quid a day. Would you work for that?’
‘I go to him,’ said Lynne, ‘he’s alright’.
‘Look,’ Davie said. ‘I volunteer at the Citizen’s Advice and help people fill out their forms. This guy come in and starts moaning about how he’s never signed on, never asked for nothin’. Now he cannae get anything, but the alkys and drug addicts get everything. He said he worked his whole life. I asked him his date of birth. He was twenty-three.’
‘At least he’s worked,’ said Lynne, stabbing her fag out. ‘My Bobby can’t get anything.’
‘I know that,’ Davie said. ‘We’ve always had a hatred of people that are down on their luck. It’s a national pastime. In the old days when they weren’t off searching for King Arthur’s grave, the myth of the sturdy beggar that didn’t want to work grew horns. Poor people were whipped to teach them a lesson. In my father’s time the poor house offered a bed for the night, a bit of bread and cup of tea and a ten mile trek to the next charity institution. The Poor Law kept you poor, hungry and on the move. When I first started working there were stories in the press about the King of the Dole Queue, a guy routinely making £10 000 a year and smoking £25 Havana cigars and lighting them with £5 notes. When it was investigated and discovered that he was a half-wit with psychy problems and half the identities and addresses he claimed he stayed at didn’t exist, it didn’t matter. It was a fact. There were stories about unnamed black men screwing legs onto colour tellys so they could claim from the DSS as an essential piece of household furniture that could be used as a cabinet. What bothers me now is we could laugh it off. Not anymore. The poor are no longer whipped, but everything else is encouraged. People think Shameless is a documentary. And Vicky Pollard is a typical working class female. It makes me sick to the stomach. Osborne blaming the countries’ debts on poor folk is up there with Goebbels blaming Jews for Kristllenacht— ’
Lynne stood on her tiptoes and kissed Davie on the cheek. ‘Happy Birthday, ya old killjoy. If you’re the backbone of the country God help us.’