The Pub Problem
News happens infrequently on Happy Island. Excitement is an occasional visitor. As for ‘new, exciting things’, these are simply unheard of. Or so I thought.
“They’ve opened a pub, Jed,” Alun called up the stairs one morning. “There’s a pub on the island.”
“A pub?” I said, surprised, as I hurried downstairs to meet him. It seemed highly unlikely that anyone would open a pub on an island inhabited by just two people. “Where is it?”
“The empty house, Jed. The lease was bought by a brewery and the new landlord arrived on the morning boat. We should go down there this evening to check the place out.”
“Okay,” I said, “I don’t have anything else on. What’s the pub called?”
“The Empty House, Jed. It’s been bought by a chain that name their pubs after the building’s previous use. They’ve some really popular pubs on the mainland, there’s the Grotty Toilets, the Olde Porn Shop and the Abandoned Bike Factory.”
Later that evening we went down to the Empty House. Although the empty house was a two-storey stately mansion that had previously been used as a church, a museum, a school, a mortuary, a Nazi military outpost and a gangsters’ hide-out, the brewery had decorated the building to look exactly like a normal mainland pub.
The landlord was a middle-aged man we’d never seen before. We introduced ourselves as his only locals.
“Nice to meet you, hopefully I’ll be seeing a lot of you,” he said.
“You’ll need to,” Alun said, “there’s nobody else here.” The pub was indeed completely empty.
“Well this is our first night, word hasn’t got around yet. What you having gents?”
“What’s this beer, Happy Ale?”
“It’s brewed especially for this pub. The mainland brewery carefully selected specific hops and barley that would best meet the demands of the residents of Happy Island.”
“Nonsense,” said Alun, “the brewery know nothing about us, they’ve just churned out their usual tub-wash and given it different name.”
However, once we’d taken a sip of our pints we found it impossible to complain further. The ale was superb, refreshing, light, hoppy, exactly what you need to relax after a hard day being the sole residents of a prestigious off-mainland isle like ours.
We took our beer to some plush leather seats with a view overlooking the sea.
“I’ve never been to a pub before,” I confessed to Alun, “I was expecting something a bit more exciting.” On TV and the movies pubs are always full of people having arguments, there are always birthday parties, leaving parties, coming home parties, you never see a pub with just two people in it supping their pints like two men on a budget.
“Every mainland pub’s like this on a weekday,” Alun said, tapping in to his widely-travelled wisdom. “People don’t go out mid-week any more, mainland people work-pub balance is all out of sync now. It’s only at weekends pubs fill up.”
“Do you think this will fill up?” I said surprised. We’re the only people that live here.”
“Well, it’s the only pub on the archipelago, Jed, it’s bound to attract people from other islands. Plus it’s high-summer, we’ll probably get tourists from the mainland now we have facilities on the island.”
“Tourists from the mainland? We don’t want them here, surely.”
“Well, there won’t be huge numbers, Jed, even at peak-summer we’ll probably only see a handful, but there might be women amongst them. You know, women in search of a holiday romance on an exotic off-mainland island.”
“Women?” I said. “Coming to a pub here?” It seemed unlikely.
“It happens now Jed, women come into pubs on their own. Take my word for it, this pub is going to be the best thing that ever happened to our love life. Come the weekend we’ll both have a girl on each arm.”
However, in spite of Alun’s prediction that trade would pick up, when we visited the pub that Saturday we were still the only people there.
“Usual?” asked the barman.
“Yes please,” I said, “two points of the usual.” I felt a thrill as this was the first time I’d ever had a usual. However, after a few hours sitting there drinking with Alun there were still no other visitors and it was time to go home.
We continued to go to the pub every night. Not that we were drinking to excess, both of us were making a couple of pints last the evening, it’s just that there’s very little else to do on an island like ours, so we enjoyed the opportunity for company, and a relaxing drink at the end of a hard day.
However, a couple of weeks later, during which time there hadn’t been a single visitor to the pub except for me and Alun, the barman confided in us. “It’s looking bleak,” he said.
I immediately looked outside at the clouds, for as an island, we are especially vulnerable to every whim of the climate gods, but for once he wasn’t talking about the weather.
“No, no, not the weather, the future.”
“The future?” Had the barman suddenly gotten all philosophical? It seemed unlikely.
“The future of the pub,” he said. The mainland brewery has told me in no uncertain terms that if trade doesn’t pick up they’ll have to close us down. They said that sales of four pints a night aren’t enough to make the pub profitable in the long term.”
I was determined to help. “And a bag of crisps with the beers please,” I said. I knew from researching crisp-sale margins in the licensing trade for one of my New York murder mysteries that crisps were the most profitable item on sale, so this was a healthy 50 mainland pence towards saving our local. However, I was equally aware that this was just a small step towards generating the level of profit necessary to meet running costs and I feared that the pub would close long before we ever encountered the mythical women Alun had predicted.
One morning, a few days later, I was woken at 6.30 a.m. by Alun, hammering on my back door. He was in excited mood.
“It’s the new Off-Mainlander, Jed,” he said, “it arrived on the early morning boat.”
After a few minutes of reading our favourite sections ‘Why we hate the mainland’ and ‘the latest stupid mainland ideas’ we both came to the article at the same time.
“The Empty House, Jed, there’s an article about the Empty House.”
“Yes, it says ‘the Empty House is simply the perfect pub if you want to escape mainland life, with a generous selection of drinks, comfy seating, great views and friendly locals.”
“That’s fantastic news Jed. It’s bound to generate enormous interest in the Empty House.”
“Well it certainly needs the publicity,” I said, “there hasn’t been a mainlander visit us for months.”
“That’s true, Jed,” Alun said, pulling his thinking face. “In fact, there hasn’t been anyone else here since the pub opened.”
“No, we’ve been the only customers.”
“Exactly Jed. So who wrote the review if there hasn’t been anyone here to review it?”
“Well it wasn’t me.”
“It wasn’t me either Jed. Do you see what this is? The article was made up by the mainland brewery. It’s exactly the sort of tricks they get up to in mainland advertising. All this nonsense about friendly locals is purely marketing gimmickry.”
“Oh well, at least it will help to keep the pub open. The occasional mainland visitor is good for trade, and I won’t have to be so extravagant with the crisps in future.”
“I don’t like it, Jed. Lies beget nothing but trouble.”
Later that night we went down to the Empty House to find a middle aged stranger, sitting at the bar, drinking Happy Ale.
“Did you read about this place in the Off-Mainlander?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, “I like to try out all the off-mainland pubs. I don’t like drinking with mainlanders. You’re not mainlanders are you?”
“Oh no, we’re from here.”
“Ah, the friendly locals I’ve heard so much about. Well, let me get your drinks in, I always like to keep the right side of the locals.”
“This is amazing,” I said to Alun when we eventually retreated to our snug. “A complete stranger bought us drinks, just because the article said nice things about us. So much for lies begetting nothing but trouble.”
The following evening the man was absent, but there were five other people in the pub, including a woman. However, she was with her friends and we didn’t get a chance to speak to her all evening, hence there was no holiday romance, but it was a positive sign none the less.
“Looks like more people have been reading the Off-Mainlander,” I said.
“Yes Jed, and there’s someone in our seats.”
It was true. Our favourite seats, the comfy sofa under the window with the view of ocean, was taken, by tourists from the mainland.
“Oh well, we’ll just have to sit elsewhere tonight.” The evening passed pleasantly enough, though the tourists from the mainland didn’t speak to us all evening and, we noticed, were rather rude about the island’s lack of facilities and hardy, rustic nature. We were, frankly, glad they never came back.
The pub continued to grow in popularity, and on that first weekend after the Off-Mainlander article we walked down to the Empty House to find it positively heaving with people. We weren’t only unable to get our usual seats, there wasn’t a single free chair in the house.
“Two pints of Happy Ale, please bartender.” Alun said.
“Happy Ale’s off, I’m afraid. Been a bit of a run on it this evening. We’ve only got Mainland Lager, wine or spirits.
This was an unwanted development. We tried to enjoy a pint of lager, but it simply lacked the taste and flavour of Happy Ale. With the place crowded we had to crawl into a corner and shout at each other over the noise of the pub.
There were dozens of women in the pub, doubtless many of them single and desperate for holiday romance, but again they showed no interest in talking to the ‘friendly locals’ they must have read about. Indeed, other than a quick chat to the barman about how trade was picking up, we didn’t talk to anyone else all evening.
That night the pub stayed open way beyond its licensed hours and I could still hear the shouts and laughter of drunken mainlanders making their way home well into the early hours of the morning. That sort of behaviour may suit mainlanders and their irresponsible lifestyles, but some of us have to get up at 6.30 every morning to answer the door.
We had hoped that Sunday would be quieter, with mainlanders preparing for a busy week of work, but instead the pub was filled with a crowd of lunchtime drinkers, many of whom continued drinking late into the evening.
The boatman shared our concerns, with many of the passengers unused to a sea voyage after consuming vast quantities of lager.
“Most of my time is spent mopping up vomit now,” he grumbled. “Mainland vomit at that.”
Though the boatman lived on the mainland, he was in all other ways an off-mainlander like ourselves.
The troubles continued into the week. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, every day we went down to the pub to find it crowded, noisy, lacking in decent beer, with nobody wanting to talk to us, let alone get involved in a holiday romance. Indeed the only kiss I received was from a drunken wretch who insisted on giving everyone in the pub a new year’s kiss, even though it was the middle of August.
On Thursday night we decided to give the pub a miss, though we were still kept awake by the noise.
Then one morning, a few weeks later, I was woken at the early hour of 6.30, by a hammering on my back door. It was Alun.
“They’ve closed the pub,” he said.
“Closed the pub?” I said, surprised. But they’re doing excellent trade now, the brewery must be making a profit.”
“The council Jed, the council have closed down our local.”
“What on earth for?”
“Someone’s been complaining about the noise, Jed. Apparently the pub’s customers are disturbing the residents of the island.”
“That council and its regulations, they never leave us alone, do they?” I said. “thanks to them we’ve lost our local pub, the hub of the community.” Strangely though Alun didn’t passionately agree with me, as I’d expected, rather he changed the subject. Indeed, the Empty House was never spoken of again.