Chapter Two – Bad Penny
The first time I walked through the door at the top of the bar and into The Head, the place wasn’t yet called The Head. At least not officially. It was still a traditional market boozer with a traditional English Pub name. The Queens Head.
I’d been cajoled along by Magic Alex and his girl Motorcycle Mary. It was a rare night off from serving guests at The Majesty Hotel where all three of us worked. Mary ran the kitchens, Magic was a Sous Chef and I worked the bar. While not my first choice, Magic and Mary wanted to try the place out. They’d heard this particular dive bar (previously reputed to be ‘a bit of a rough old joint’) was under new management. The story went that they were putting in a beer crate stage and a killer PA for live music. This was of course of interest to all of us. I was a walking rock and roll cliche with my long hair and old leather jacket. Magic was a guy with designs of being a promoter, a mogul, a mover and a shaker while Mary had been blessed with the voice of Janis Joplin. Handy really, seeing as she wasn’t going to be using it anymore.
Under it’s previous management this place was clearly marked as ‘One To Avoid’ in all the guide books. I’d taken some coaxing in lending my attendance as I believed the rumours held weight. I may have looked like I came to pillage a village but I’m a peace loving guy. Just your average long haired, leather jacketed, torn jeans kind of 6.5 giant in a White Zombie T-Shirt. I knew full well not to wander into a well documented flying bottle with a space cadet and his tom boy girlfriend without good cause. Magic had given me all sorts of assurances. He had got talking to a guy called Uncle Vernon in a leather bar a couple of night previously. Vernon had told him all sorts of cool stuff.
The venue was going to have live music most nights. Students and artists from the crafty end of town could display their works on the walls and in the quad out the back. It had a big old pigeon loft which was being converted to a rehearsal space for bands. The plan was to try and become essential for the gathering of tribes. A beacon in Green light for all the girls and boys and broken toys of the area to come together. Right up our alley. We should get in early and get our feet under the table Magic said. Mary kept hinting that there was someone there she knew too. Someone I’d get on with who she’d love me to meet.
So, reluctantly I took my one night of the week off with them and we walked up from my shit-hole digs above the shops on Palisades Parade to pay our respects to The Queen. As we approached I could see the chalk boards were artlessly advertising the next weeks events.
Monday Night : Northern Soul Revival
Tuesday Night: Student Night. £1 Per drink and Guest DJ
Wednesday Night: Blues Jam
Thursday Night: Pub Quiz
Friday Night: Kaiser Keller – A Tribute To The Beatles
Saturday Night: TV Smith and his Band
Sunday Lunch: Jazz Club
I checked with Alex. “Hey, Magic. It’s definitely Monday right?” He nodded. “You’re taking me to a Northern Soul night?” He sucked on his teeth “Dude, that’s hours away. It’s six o’clock! That stuff wont even kick in until eight or later. We’re cool, trust me.” He pushed on the door of the Saloon. I admired the leaded glass panes and original ceramic signage advertising long gone breweries that adorned the Victorian era frontage of the bar. I hoped he was right. I did not understand Northern Soul at all. Inside the place opened up like a TARDIS. Two steps below the street level the Saloon bar was surprisingly spacious. The decor was tired and yellow as if the colouring of those shop window displays that are supposed to stop old fashioned tailors from ruining the stock in their displays had been shrink wrapped to the walls. Up this end there were several nooks and alcoves with tables, chairs and stalls in them. The stained glass threw pretty colours over the filth in a way that sort of gave it charm, yet also made you suspect it was a low key fluorescent light highlighting bodily fluids all round the room.
Magic headed for the nook. Classic Magic. Get into a pub and head away from the bar. Squirrel yourself in a tiny little corner somewhere and do not make buying a round look anything like a priority. I looked around the almost entirely empty venue for a moment. It was here that my troubles began. “Motorcycle Mary as I live and breathe” a confident womanly voice boomed out from just behind the kitchen door. Out stepped Sarah Bellum dressed in flowing white as if Stevie Nicks had been transported to The Rovers Return. Mary spread her feet like she was about to scrum down and did a power grab at the air “Hoooooo!” The two of them laughed and hugged at the hatch of the bar. Sarah and Magic acknowledged one another from afar. I surveyed the posters of upcoming acts soon to grace the stage. At the far end of the bar to where we’d pitched up I could see a group of half a dozen people sat at one table. There were football shirts and baseball caps a plenty on all four of the guys there. Something I’ve never considered a good sign in a pub I’m unfamiliar with. I’d hazard a guess from 60 feet away they had a decade on us if not two. One person in the group was telling a story which involved a lot of vowels and “Fukken Fucks”. “Jer Know Wot I Mean?”
Sarah and Mary were catching up on quite a period of radio silence between themselves. “You both still at The Majesty?” Mary nodded “That’s how we know this one.” She pointed to me. “There could be something in the kitchens here for you Mary if you want to swap club sandwiches for chilli and burritos.” Mary nodded. “You know I’d love that. If you’ve got 30 hours a week organising a kitchen and paying a decent wage I’ll be here like a shot.” Sarah considered Mary’s terms. “When the time comes I’ll let you know. We’re not there yet.”
Sarah took my money for three pints and I took a beer over to Magic leaving her and Mary chatting. Magic took the pint without a momentary wonder as to its funding. “This place could be a goldmine Steve, look at that patio out the back. There’s a brick built barbecue out there and space for 200 people.”I looked out into a dull concrete yard “Yeah, neato. Where’s the khasi?” I inquired hoping it wasn’t down the end with the peaked cap courtesans. I knew from surveying this end of the horseshoe shaped location it had to be. Magic just shrugged so I turned to Mary and Sarah to ask. That’s when Magic decided he could address Sarah directly for the first time. “Man wants the toilet!” He yelled at the top of his voice. Pointing at me like he’s just done me a favour. Without breaking conversation Sarah and Mary point to the far end of the bar where the Fukken Story is gettin’ Fukken Told. I plodded down to the other end of the venue assessing the various music related trappings pasted and placed over the old pub ephemera. What was once an alcove for a vase now had a pile of Melody Maker magazines in its place. Where paintings once hung, now there were posters for shows past and future. As I passed ‘The Fukken Cap Crew’ I saw the stage.
A foot off the ground with a row of power outlets above a carpet tile surface. In front of it a bar of coloured spot lights. There was space between the tables and the stage to stand maybe 80 to a 100 people. With the bar full the venue could hold maybe 300. To one side of the stage was the toilet door clearly marked in the gold rectangle italic Helvetica of house signage bought at a local hardware store.
Through that door was a long corridor that ran the length of the venue. Gents at this end, Ladies all the way down the other end. I went through into the classic run down pub toilet scenario. Corporation tiling on the walls. A long ceramic urinal running along the outside wall with your little blue smelly piss pucks strategically placed. There were only two traps at the end of the gloomy yellowed room. They looked like the type of closed spaces that any regular chap would only drop his trousers in if urgent medical attention were his next best option. One in twenty tiles was cracked. The original colour of the lino floor was open to debate and the light bulbs appeared to be filled with urine.
As I stood on the tile riser to pee I began to read a framed gig review for a band playing in this very venue. It had been cut out from a fanzine and lovingly placed here with a colour photo of the band in an A4 clip frame at eye level. There was a similar frame at every vantage point for a piddler to read while taking care of business. The review was for an Oi band called The Spalshbakks and it was favourable. They’d launched their new EP ‘Bring the Ois!’ At the gig and apparently had catchy tunes, good humour and a sense of community in bucket loads. I never got to finish reading because I was interrupted quite rudely. I hadn’t noticed anyone enter the toilet behind me when I heard someone speak. “Don’t play dumb with me”. I didn’t have time to look around to see who was speaking to who before my head hit the picture frame smashing the glass into my forehead.
I staggered back and felt a fist hit me from behind into the small of my back. Then fingers tightened in the hair over my scalp and my face was beaten down into the metal pipes of the plumbing. Then another ram, this time into the ceramics of the urinal. That’s when my legs gave way. I crashed down into the filth. It might not be the obvious first reaction, but I was hyper aware that my cock was still out and still pissing. I was also suddenly aware that I was now sprawling around in the gutter of a filthy gents toilets with an unknown assailant only just getting started in (what I assumed was to be) the beating of a lifetime. I tucked my dick in just in time to receive a kick to the guts. It may well have still been pissing though. I put my hands up to protest or protect myself as he left one was stamped into the floor. With my un-stamped hand I cleared my now wet hair from my eyes to see who I was fighting. (I laughed a tiny laugh inside at the fact I considered this fighting. Not just taking a beating) As if I was anything other than the receiver for this violence. Looking up I saw a baseball cap (shock horror), a football top (say it ain’t so), an angry thick set middle aged bloke and an incoming Tassel loafer.
This one I dodged. I rolled to one side trying to find my feet. Before I could get up of my own accord my assailant kindly assisted. Lifting me by a fist clenched in my hair again, he hurled my head at the sink. It might seem like an understatement to say this, but it really fucking hurt. The sharp metal fittings on the taps caused the fastest pain. They also splashed the room with copious amounts of my blood. The un-moving dull thud of the basin was an echo of all encompassing pain. It repeated itself the entire way into unconsciousness.
I remembered a comic book or was it some old Sci-Fi show? It ended on a cliff hanger. The hero, or an astronaut (or was it David Bowie?) just a white figure falling away into the blackness of space. He holds out his hand in the direction of the ship but his figure just gets smaller and smaller until he disappears into a completely black frame. I’m sure in the next episode or issue or whatever a passing space freighter or Vogons or The Watcher or a Flying Spaghetti Monster carrying a bed shaped rescue pod came along and rescued… Dan Dare or Arthur Dent or Tom Baker or Buzz Aldrin or whoever it was… Look I’m a bit fuzzy on details right now. I just got the shit kicked out of me… Or the piss at least. The point is, I never got the next installment of that story. I saw this figure drift off into black and I left it there.
Maybe The Twilight Zone theme kicked in or maybe the newspaper boy just didn’t bring that Marvel Comic Spectacular the following week. Any hoot, here I was. Falling into a black hole. Kicked into the underworld. I didn’t expect anything more and that made sense. This is how it ends. In a pub toilet beaten up and covered in filth. Killed by some random prick for some meaningless reason. OK. Sure. Massive events in your life get distorted by the retelling. The truth and the story seldom look identical. This is why Hollywood always casts better looking than the subject matter. Jim Morrison was handsome. Val Kilmer. Forget about it. As for Steve the Barman from the Majesty… He’s fucked.
The retelling of this particular episode is usually picked up at this juncture by Penny Black. Penny says she found me face down in one of those toilet cubicles with my bloody hand prints on the walls and my wet clothes a stinking mix of filth. She says I was out cold. She says she thought I was dead.
Penny’s version of The Night They Stomped Big Stevie Down starts when she comes up from the cellar in The Queens Head to find the table full of customers she’d been serving have all disappeared leaving their half drunk drinks behind. Penny had recently joined the staff at Sarah’s personal request. She was as excited about working in a music venue as she was finding a stage where her emerging band Sister Pain could play.
To collect the empty glasses a bartender in The Queens Head had to walk all the way to the top of the room to the serving hatch. When she got there she saw Sarah was chatting with their mutual friend Motorcycle Mary and her boyfriend Magic Alex. She squeezed past Sarah then gave Mary a hug. They chatted for a minute or two about bad cars, high rents, the new Pearl Jam album and the last time they’d seen each other. Penny then walked the length of the bar to collect the glasses and wipe down the table. When she brought them back up to the hatch Sarah asked if the other punters had left. “Yep, all six of them disappeared while I was changing the lager.” Magic gestured towards the untouched third drink on the table with him in the nook. “They didn’t happen to take a massive long haired Dude with them did they?” Not really getting the joke (why would she?) Penny poured the dregs into the service sink and said “Well, I didn’t see them leave”. Something then lit a dull headlight of a thought process in the back of her mind though.
“Did you guys have someone else with you?” Magic nodded “Yep. My mate Steve. He’s been in the loo for ages.” Penny suddenly smelled a rat. Her logic train went like this. Arthur and his bunch of coke heads were never a welcome presence in The Queens Head. They were a menacing group and not the emerging music venues target demographic. Their brash braggadocio braying was considered bad for business and their intimidating behaviour around town was legendary. Petty criminals who all had a stretch or two in their past or future they were however, mostly recognised as day drinkers. The venue took next to no money in the afternoon slump. Especially since switching to focus on music and the student population. The tricky part of any Coke Bloke visit came around the time of gig set up. They’d object to sound checks and take the piss out of anyone who’s dress code did not fit their narrow world view of acceptable attire. Despite their objections at this almost nightly occurrence they were usually hard to get rid of until the place was half full and they could no longer be the center of attention.
The idea of them just upping and leaving an empty pub with unfinished drinks left on the tables didn’t fit. Something was up. And a hippy was missing. On this hunch alone Penny made her way behind the stage to the toilet door and knocked firmly on the Gents. When there was no answer she called out “Is there anybody in there?”. A moment passed. No response. Penny figured it was safe to peek inside. She took a deep breath and pushed the door open. Penny Black the 20 year old goth girl barmaid of The Queens Head and lead singer and guitarist in the band Sister Pain was immediately confronted with a blood splattered scene of carnage that bore witness to a very recent and considerably huge scrap. There was broken glass. Bloody smears and cracked porcelain. At the far end of the ravaged room in the face down position a pair of legs in torn jeans and Dr. Martens boots were lifelessly trailing out of a cubicle.