Max Dunbar

Ash

It was seven in the evening on the second weekend of July. For thousands in the city, their work was done. Daniel Ash’s was just beginning.

He had always hated this part of town. Oxford Road was home to both Manchester’s universities. Ash had left school at sixteen and had been working as a council administrator while the undergraduate scum had been sitting around taking drugs at the expense of the state. Now he felt gratified at the number of overeducated losers who were scraping a living as barmen or council temps. Writing their unpublishable novels and flogging their pathetic arts magazines and playing in their going-nowhere bands.

‘They should close the fucking universities down,’ Ash said. ‘Literally, the only thing you can do with a degree is to teach people how to get degrees.’  

They were walking from their debrief in the Town Hall Extension and into the mouth of Oxford Road. Indicating the Cornerhouse, Ash said, ‘That’ll be the first pub we do.’ The Cornerhouse was full of intellectuals, and Ash had a hatred of intellectuals that would rival Stalin or Mao Zedong.

Ash and Kellett were dressed smart casual; tan jackets and designer shirts tucked into black trousers. It was still a bit too formal for Oxford Road, and Ash felt oddly out of place as they walked through tables of the flambouyant and the dissolute. The café bar was packed, and Ash’s nose went on alert.

Kellett ordered two cokes in tall glasses. The bar girl was blonde and stacked with tanned, creamy skin. The cokes were Ash’s idea. It looked like you were drinking alcohol, and was good camouflage.

Ash led them to a table in the centre of the room. He was scanning the drinkers when Kellett interrupted him.

‘Fancy having another one here? I wouldn’t mind getting a phone number off that piece of fanny behind the bar.’

‘Chris, we are at work here,’ Ash told him. ‘I don’t think council taxpayers would appreciate you chatting up women literally on their time.’

For all Ash’s grandstanding, he had been harbouring similar fantasies about the blonde girl. They knocked off at midnight. Then he would go to One Central Street and playtime would begin.

Regarding the woman now, Ash was vindicated when he saw her take advantage of a quiet period to step out from behind the bar and light a cigarette. At once he was out of his chair and over, Kellett at his heels.

He flashed his council pass. ‘Excuse me, miss, but we are environmental health officers and we have just witnessed you smoking in a public place, in violation of the Health Bill 2006. Can I take your name?’

‘Elina Schpeigel,’ the girl said, looking flustered. ‘I’m sorry – it’s been so busy -‘

‘Well, I’m going to have to issue a fixed penalty notice,’ Ash said, taking the relevant paperwork from his white jacket. ‘The fine is fifty pounds. If the council do not receive payment within five working days then a warrant will be issued for your arrest. Now I need to take some details from you.’

Later, Elina Schpeigel went into the kitchen and cried. She was twenty-four, and from rural Germany. Because she was an international student, Schpeigel was not eligible for a loan, and had to work nights behind the bar just to pay the rent. She was and thought of herself as a tough girl, but the fifty-pound fine sent Schpeigel’s precarious finances over the edge and her with it; it was just one more thing to deal with, always one more thing.

Daniel Ash knew none of this, of course, and wouldn’t have cared if he had.

In the 2000s the hatred of the political class for smokers and smoking bordered on the pathological. Ash, however, felt that the hate was justified. He hated the smell of smoke on his clothes; the grey mess and burn marks on bar tables; the stupid conspiratorial attitude that smokers had towards their habit. The problem was symbolic rather than physical: the irresponsible pursuit of pleasure in the short term.

So Ash was pleased when he was seconded to Environment and Operations to enforce the week-old law. He and Kellett were one of a team of fifty undercover officers whose role it was to patrol pubs on Friday and Saturday nights to dispense penalty notices to drinkers who didn’t comply with the ban.

Not only was it a good cause, but it would be very good in terms of personal development. Ash was an ambitious young man, and he wanted to join the senior regeneration managers who were making the city into new and interesting shapes.

Kellett was saying, ‘Was it right to hit that girl with the fine straight up, Daniel? Cause I read in the government guidelines that we were to take a softly-softly approach.’

‘Chris, what that girl was doing was endangering her fellow workers as well as customers. It was, literally, the equivalent of taking a shit in everyone’s drink.’

Kellett shut up, and they walked down below the arches. There were a couple of pubs here, and Ash didn’t expect much trouble from them. The Thirsty Scholar had a large outdoor seating area that the railway bridge protected from the rain. Sure enough, the large picnic tables were full. Flues and traces of smoke rose up into the early evening air.

In the Salisbury Ash fined an eighty-year-old man smoking a pipe over a game of chess.

In Revolution he fined a couple of goth girls. 

In Kro² Kellett fined a thirtysomething businessman who had casually lit up at the bar.

In the Sandbar Ash fined a young man reading a Michel Onfray book. The man immediately began a debate with Ash over the rights and wrongs of the ban. Ash considered that he triumphed in this argument by leaning into the man’s face and shouting, ‘You are literally poisoning bar staff for your own selfish indulgence!’

‘Literally?’ the guy said, confused. ‘I’m literally poisoning people?’

‘Poison,’ Ash said. ‘Quite literally.’

The sun went down, and the conduct of their charges grew ragged and incoherent. Outside the bars Ash was gratified to see knots and clusters of people on the pavements. He looked at them – talking, laughing, flirting – and imagined the cancerous cells developing in their bodies. Chronic obstructive lung disease, aortic aneuryism, Crohn’s Disease, impotence, depression. Bring it on. Survival of the fittest!

That was the key: making people socially excluded. If you don’t do what we say, we’ll cut you off from your friends, cut you off from your girlfriend or from the possibility of finding one this weekend. The success of this legislation would rest on the fear of being alone.

The shift was nearly over, but Ash still felt as he had at seven o’clock; that the work had only just begun.

Kellett looked tired and drawn. ‘Fancy a pint at One Central, Dan?’ he said.

They were under the bridge, it was pitch black and the rain was coming down, but Ash couldn’t care less. He pointed to a light over the road. ‘Come on. There’s a place over there.’

‘Daniel, it’s pissing it down, and I need a drink,’ Kellett protested.

‘Come on. It won’t take a moment.’

They walked across the traffic islands and down a sidestreet. Laughter and song drifted from the bar, and something about it bothered Ash. It wasn’t just his contempt for human indulgence and pleasure. It was a sense that the place was waiting for him.

Walking towards the bar, Ash felt everything take on a sharpness and fearful clarity. The place was built like a detached house. A neon sign above the double doors said REGULAR ALES. Although he saw light and motion at the tiny windows, there were no smokers outside.

Kellett felt it too. ‘Daniel, let’s just leave it.’

He was annoyed at Kellett for acknowledging the mood, and making it real for both of them. ‘Just this pub, then we’re done.’

‘Regular Ales… it’s not on our list, Dan.’ Ash heard the rustle of paper. ‘We drew up a whole list of licensed premises and this place ain’t on it.’

‘Oh, well, it can’t really be here, then, can it?’ Ash swept his hand to take in the building.

‘Daniel, I’m going. I really don’t like this.’

Ash’s head whipped round, and his face glowed with the rain like a vampire’s. ‘Chris. You go and I’m telling Tristain that you left before your shift was due to end.’

‘I don’t care. This secondment isn’t worth it. I’m fucking scared, Dan.’ 

‘Chris, you leave now and I’ll see to it that you won’t even be able to get a job as a temporary administrator. Literally. Come on.’

Ash led him up to the wooden double doors of Regular Ales and pushed their way inside.

It hit him before he knew what it was, because it was the last thing he was expecting. Ash almost physically (or literally) recoiled at this smell; it was like running full pelt into a brick wall.

‘Christ, this is gonner be a lot of paperwork,’ he heard Kellett say.

The crowd was the most diverse he’d seen on this night, and on Oxford Road that said something. Men in dandyish suits and collarless shirts sat at the small circular tables, slamming down cards and shots. Beautiful women in stockings and feather boas with rich voices and laughter that could cut glass. Several younger women with Romany features weave through the throngs with glasses and dips.

And every single person was smoking. The air was heavy with a dozen different plants and brands.

Daniel Ash regarded all this like Sayyid Qutb at the edge of the dance. He recognised the young guy who’d argued with him at the Sandbar – another fucking intellectual! – and he too was smoking. The man saw him looking and raised his glass in ironic salute.

Kellett, who had been to the uni, pointed at someone and said, ‘That’s -‘

Ash did not recognise the name. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘But… but he’s dead, Dan! He died of a drugs overdose, years ago!’

They had to shout over the music, which was a fast, raucous beat of guitar and electronica augmented by conversation. A blonde woman in a tight red dress was on a stage at the far end of the room. She was doing a slow, languorous dance against a metal pole. The music was good, so good that he had to stop himself from tapping his feet… but there was another deeper and more fundamental beat below the music. He couldn’t hear it but could sense it.

And, on the cusp of his perceptions, the pounding of machinery.

There were hints of marijuana in the air, and people taking cocaine at the tables. These people were going down… and shutting down an illegal den of such magnitude could only be good for Ash’s personal development.

He marched up to the bar, and caught the attention of an older-looking guy with silvery hair.

‘Yes, my good friend?’ the man said. ‘What brings you to our fine establishment?’

Ash said, ‘Are you the proprietor?’

‘Been running this joint since time out of mind.’

‘I’m a council inspector,’ Ash shouted, waving his ID in the man’s face. ‘You’re breaking the terms of the Health Bill, and I’m going to have to issue a fine of £2,500. In addition, due to the illegal gaming and drug-taking I’ve seen here tonight I’m going to request a review of your licence.’

‘Why, there’s no need for that,’ the man said, fingering a silk purple scarf. ‘We’re all having a good time here. Why not have a free drink courtesy of the house?’

He indicated the bottles behind him. Ash didn’t recognise any of the brands.

‘Might as well.’ Kellett’s voice from beside him. ‘It’s midnight now.’

Ash ignored him. ‘You’ve just attempted to bribe a council officer, sir. You’re in very serious trouble.’

‘That is a slander, friend. Regular Ales offers free drinks to our fine servants at the City Council as a matter of policy.’

He looked perfectly sincere, and there was a part of Ash that wanted to accept the drink. Part of him that was in syncopation with the music

(backbeat)

and thinking it would be a good idea to take a drink off this fine fellow and sit down

(sit down with some girl)

(enjoy the music)

(enjoy the conversation)

because there was something about this place, a certain

(sensuality)

(you love it)

 (so sit down talk a little drink a little live a little)

(mmmmmm)

He snapped out of it. He was a professional. He demanded the man’s details.

‘My name is Legion, for we are many,’ the landlord laughed.

‘Listen, don’t fuck about with me.’

‘Sir, it’s a sad thing that you won’t join our little party, but that choice is your right. I suggest you leave, for the reason that I don’t want you to spoil the enjoyment of other patrons. Perhaps you can visit us again sometime.’

‘Good plan,’ Kellett said. He headed for the door and was lost.

‘See you, Mr Kellett,’ the landlord shouted after him.

Did Kellett show him his pass?

It didn’t matter. Ash was betrayed but still standing. ‘I’m going to have this place closed down.’

The music had stopped, but it took a few seconds for Ash to become aware of it. The only sound was the dim whirr of that subterranean machinery. He wondered what he’d see if he turned round.

He could feel a vibration under his shoes.

‘Oh, I don’t think that’s going to happen, Mr Ash. See, we’re the last bastion of resistance and hedonism. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, as good Mr Jefferson would have it. A curse on any government that would remove a source of pleasure from this vale of tears!’

‘Stop messing around and give me your details,’ Ash said. The other regulars had shifted away from him, and he stood in a radius of isolation.

‘I’m sorry we haven’t been able to persuade you,’ said the landlord. ‘Goodbye, Mr Ash.’

A grinding noise from below him. He knew he should keep eye contact with the landlord, but he looked down.

There was a dark circle expanding under his feet. Eddies of air and wind played with his trouser legs. The floor was swallowing him up.

Literally.

He sidestepped to avoid the hole and missed his grip. Still thinking it was some trick or joke, he fell into the opening maw. The bar was gone, the drinks and the women were gone: there was just the darkness, the rush of air and the pounding of machinery. The fall was long enough to leave him time to think. And as he saw the slicing rotors looming below him, Daniel Ash thought for the first time that there were worse things than secondary smoke.

The next night Regular Ales opened for business at seven o’clock. The proprietor began the evening by setting himself up with a pint.

A few minutes later the first regular came in. He was a handsome fellow in his late thirties and a lounge suit. He ordered a beer and made for his cigarettes.

‘Here, have one of mine,’ said the proprietor, offering him a rollup.

‘I don’t really smoke rollups,’ the regular said.

‘This is good stuff. I added a little extra something myself.’

The regular lit up and took a deep draught. It was good enough tobacco, with an intriguing brackish hint that he couldn’t quite identify. ‘So how was last night?’

‘Busy one. Had one a those undercover inspectors in, check that we’re all fit for purpose.’

The regular laughed. ‘Well, I’m sure he gave you a clean bill of health.’

‘Well, he won’t be back, tell you that for nothing.’

They had a good laugh. The regular wrestled his Guardian to the comment page, and took another toke on the rollup. It really was an interesting flavour.

The regular didn’t know what exactly he was smoking, of course… and wouldn’t have cared if he had.

Advertisements

One Response

  1. Excellent!!
    What a twist to this.. Now I feel left out as a non smoker!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: