God Bless Us, Every One (or, My English Christmas)

It was 1991, I was just out of college, and there were no jobs in America. We had recessions back then, too. My girlfriend and I had spent a semester in Manchester during our junior year, and we had found the big, grimy city exciting, with its bands and its clubs and its North England roughness. So after graduation, we procured six-month student visas to go back to the U.K. We had half-formed hopes of finding real jobs, work that would allow us to stay on longer, to maybe make a whole new transatlantic life.

What we found was The Grove. It was a pub at the north end of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, a big brooding rectangle of a building. It took up the fourth side of a three-way intersection in what you might call a transitional neighborhood, between British working-class and middle-class, immigrant and native, dodgy and less so. At first the jobs were until-we-found-something-else. Then they were just jobs. We pulled pints of Boddingtons (the Manchester brewery that owned the pub), or Guinness, or Holsten, whatever the regulars wanted.

And we learned quickly which regulars wanted what. Divvy Dave, the salesman who would be standing outside with shaky hands at 11 a.m. when we opened the doors, always asked for Carlsberg Special Brew, but he was allowed only one a day because it made him mean. Joe the undertaker, who bragged about the new teeth he'd been given by the National Health, drank his pilsner in half-pints that had to be filled as near as possible to the brim. "I want to see a meniscus on it," he would say. He was happy with himself for knowing the word meniscus. He did the crossword in the newspaper every day. Grandpa Boddingtons, whose proper name we never knew, had two teeth in his whole mouth and drank the house brew until he could barely walk. But he was unfailingly polite, the flatulence notwithstanding.

We started working there in the summer, when we could prop open the front doors to let in the long afternoon sun. There wasn't much bar traffic during the day, but the patrons were mostly pleasant and gregarious, apart from the father who stopped by a few times looking for his wayward daughter. (We knew she was working locally as a prostitute, but we weren't at liberty to say so. Her pimp was a regular, and regulars had their prerogatives.)

But after October, things changed. It got cold—not Northeast American cold, like we were used to, but damp English cold. There was no snow, and the temperature never fell much below freezing, but you could never really keep warm anywhere. A small island just can't disperse that much moisture, so it seeps into everything. Before we went to bed at night, we would use my girlfriend's hairdryer to warm up the sheets.

And when daylight-saving time ended, what they call British Summer Time, it got dark. Manchester is at 53 degrees north latitude, the approximate equivalent of northern Saskatchewan. In November the sun started setting around 3:30. Those days were black and strange. One of our workmates, maybe Edwina, who occasionally called in sick when her husband had given her a black eye or chipped tooth, strung Christmas lights along the bar. But their pink, green, and gold glimmers barely edged into the gloom of the big empty afternoons.

Our boss was a charming alcoholic named John, who lived upstairs on retainer from the brewery and spent each day in progressive stages of drunkenness. He was a fine, funny storyteller when he was at least 25 percent sober. Several women who worked at the bar had shared his bed. But his drinking, and the tabs he ran up on behalf of friends and employees, put the pub in a perpetual sea of deficits that he could disguise only by taking out emergency short-term loans from the bank across the street whenever the corporate auditors happened by. I helped hustle bags of cash across a busy road to store in the pub safe, only to haul the same bags back a few hours later.

John's incapacitation meant that his right-hand man, a Yank named Jerry, was in charge most of the time. Jerry was a big, sweet galoot, a former semi-pro football player from Baltimore, who was crippled by self-doubt and hobbled by a marriage to a pregnant and tempestuous woman from New Orleans. When I met Jerry, the first thing he said to me was, "I don't know where my wife is." She came back to him, but things were never very stable. One night, after a big fight, she stormed through the bar after hours and turned on all the taps. They ran until the kegs were empty, soaking the pub in beer.

A few evenings before Christmas, John asked me to come upstairs with him. He said, "I know you're close with Jerry." This was partly true. By that point, Jerry and my girlfriend and I were sort of running the place, by virtue of not being drunk (most of the time) and not actually stealing from the safe (unlike most of our coworkers). John was going to fire Jerry. He wanted me as a witness.

Apparently corporate had gotten wise that a lot of things were bad at The Grove. John's immediate instinct was to pin it all on his assistant. When John told him, Jerry slumped like a wounded walrus, his bushy mustache gray in the fluorescent office light. "You know this is not right," Jerry said. John shook his head. I started to say something, but John looked at me sympathetically and said, "You're not here to talk, just to watch." I was 22 years old, and I felt like I was learning something important, but I wasn't sure what.

On Christmas, my girlfriend and I went to work, because what else was there to do? We poured pints and drank toasts to anyone who happened in. Jerry came by. It was sort of a bold move on his part, but one cheered by most of the regulars, who knew the situation as well as we did. They bought him drinks. We bought him drinks. John watched warily from the end of the bar, but eventually he came over and put his hand on Jerry's shoulder. Jerry let him.

In the near future, lots of things were going to be different. John was going to lose his job anyway. Corporate was on to him. My girlfriend and I were going to fly back to the States, looking for whatever came next. Edwina was going to take out an order of protection against her husband, and he was going to break down her door and stab her four times in the chest. (She survived, but she was still recovering when we left.) And a year later, there would be a message on our answering machine in Rochester, N.Y., from Jerry's wife, telling us that Jerry was dead. We never found out the details.

But for a few hours on Christmas Day, as long as the sun was up and the booze was flowing and the flush was in everyone's cheeks, there was good will even at The Grove.