veryone knew that Tim was absent-minded, but he had never previously lost a pub. He was forever losing other things: phone, keys, gloves, scarves, woolly hats. Particularly the woolly hats. His grandmother always said that knitting was therapeutic, so more knitting could only be more therapeutic. His mother maintained that it was his head that was woolly, not the headgear. Summer, even a British summer, certainly offered fewer items to mislay. Tim was tall, thin, and his mop of hair (uncontrollable) was the colour of a raven’s wing. In later years, it would fade to spun silver. Under the uncontrollable hair, his brain was usually occupied with theoretical physics, or birds, or sometimes the intricate mathematics of Bach fugues. But he kept forgetting things, and his grandmother kept knitting him hats.
Tim was not yet twenty, and he didn’t tie knots in a pocket handkerchief, which had been an unfashionable reminder long before the Covid pandemic. Tim had discovered that the best solution for absent-mindedness was to set himself alarms on his mobile phone. Although this strategy too could end in embarrassment. Once, in a first term lecture, the phone had chimed to remind him of his lunchtime dental appointment, and two hundred heads had swivelled in his direction. No one in his year had ever paid him this much attention before. Now he had evinced such curiosity that he felt he had no choice but to leave the lecture theatre immediately. A check-up was definitely required, but he would have preferred it without his physics lecturer scowling at him quite so severely. He resolved to send her a note of apology afterwards, although perhaps he would take the precaution of forging his handwriting. At least it was now the era of anonymous marking. And the Portuguese oral hygienist had been rather insistent.
But at lunchtime on March 12th, the road to which he had found his way back was publess. The other houses were just as he’d left them the night before. He’d read that property prices in Norwich were rocketing nearly to London heights. Farrow and Ball paint was popular throughout the Golden Triangle of middle-class Norwich and beyond. But here there was no obvious Leap in the Dark signboard creaking in the breeze. One Georgian terraced house was connected to another, with no gaps, and definitely no pubs. Perhaps it was it was just the wrong street, thought Tim. Obviously, he had been more tired than he remembered the night before. He knew he hadn’t been drunk. He’d had one coffee and one J2O all evening.
Wondering where he had taken the wrong turn, he tried the next road. The Leap wasn’t there either. With increasing anxiety, he searched the neighbourhood. It wasn’t a district of Norwich that he knew very well, and the streets were higgledy-piggledy. A nearby church chimed the half hour. He felt like a fool, as if he was letting his people down. Failing to find your own place of work looked much like incompetence, even for someone as absent-minded as him.
After an hour of shamefaced searching, he gave up, and slowly walked back to the flat he shared off Earlham Road. He had to admit that he couldn’t, for the life of him, find The Leap in the Dark. No Joe, no Griet, no Hedwig. He felt mortified. He had liked them! Over the previous ten days or so it felt like they had become his friends. And now it was as if they were gone from his life. But now he had coursework to do.
Aside from his flat mates, Tim did not have a lot of friends. The birding crowd were not unfriendly, but they weren’t exactly mates, most of them. And the physics students, four fifths of them males in shapeless hoodies and jeans, seemed to have inherited the grunting gene, but not the one that coded for conversation, let alone companionship.
Within a day or two, his flat-mates stopped taking the piss. And after a month he’d almost forgotten it himself. He’d been paid for his few weeks work. He discovered that the money was going further than he thought, and then the rest of the Lent term went in a whirl. Busy with assignments, he didn’t often think back to his capers in The Leap in the Dark. Now and then a fragment of a folk-tune, some Irish air or Scotch gig came to him as he was falling asleep or walking home, an elegy for a time where he was beginning to feel that he belonged. He still wanted to find his way back there, if only to say sorry for going astray. And then there was the matter of the hearing aid, and his promise.
An English person’s home is their pub, or at least at one time it was, and for good reason. A pub, also variously known as an alehouses, tavern or inn, is a subdued welcome in an atmosphere suffused with congenial alcohol. A place where you can be with friends, to sit at a table and have a convivial evening of chat and laughter. A place you can go with your best mate, to sit in a corner and glower about the foolishness of the world. Somewhere you can sit with the person of your dreams, and gaze into their eyes, and feel completely insulated from all around you.
Most importantly, a place where you can go on your own and be left to your own devices, where nobody thinks worse of you for having no companions, where it is entirely acceptable to read a book, or even gaze into space while you slowly sip your pint of whatever also is local by way of alcoholic beverage. A pub is everything you want it to be, and nothing forced down your neck, where you remember how closely related brand is to brandishing, where the only acceptable marketing is the little mat under your glass which you slowly tear into shreds as you set everything to rights. A pub is somewhere that has been doing its job for several centuries, and has got rather good at it. Almost by definition, a pub that looks old, is new: too shiny-old, too samey-old, to carpentered and decorated. A pub that looks new, with bits of linoleum and peeling 1970s wallpaper, is un-restored, has not changed, is reassuringly familiarly shabby. And the toilets will always be freezing cold, and there will be a gutter urinal for the gents.
Over the years, many notable things have been started in pubs. Plans for the Boston Tea Party (1773), the world’s first steam railway (1825) and the rules of soccer (1832) were all drawn up in pubs, as were the words to Rule Britannia (1740). General George Washington (1783) and Horatio Nelson (1793) said their farewells in pubs. On February 28th, 1953, Francis Crick and James Watson went for lunch in The Eagle on Bene’t Street, Cambridge and announced to anyone listening that they had just discovered the secret of life, having worked out the structure of DNA at the Cavendish laboratory just up the street. On June 28th, 1969, the riots that kicked off gay liberation began in The Stonewall Inn, New York.
Ignorant of the cultural history, barely cognizant of the well-known merits of the public house over, say, the student bar, Tim’s main ambition that late February morning was just not to freeze. The sky over Norwich was clear and the sun was shining. Although there was barely warmth to the sun beams, the early frost had gone. Dawn came earlier each day, and with it the chorus of songbirds reminding Tim of life continuing and the eternal cycle beginning again. If only the easterly wind were to let up for a bit, you could imagine that the worst of winter was over. What he needed now was a source of radiant heat, rapidly followed by lunch.
Tim was broke, and he required a job. He had never planned to do a temporary job for long. It was impossible to fit in paid work and do a physics degree anyway. Physics tended to be the sort of course you had to be dedicated to. Those who had other interests – girls, politics, beer – tended to be weeded out, and ended up doing easier courses or more applied subjects, like engineering. It was bad enough that Tim played the French horn and was interested in birds. It would have been much better to have been solely motivated by the very early Universe or the Higgs bosun or black holes. The ones who did really well in Physics didn’t have outside interests. They thought, ate and slept Physics. Often, even eating and sleeping were optional. These students were almost always male, and a polite observer might have described them as ‘on the spectrum’. If they talked at all, it was about where they would go to do their Phds, or a comparison of the available facilities – not the nightlife - in Chicago, Paris and Geneva. People like this did not tend to be good at life, thought Tim, because they shut almost all of it out, not just the nightlife. The nerds weren’t even very good at explaining the tough bits of physics. When something comes naturally to you, you don’t really understand what is hard about it, which means you cannot easily explain it to someone else.
Tim wanted to be the sort of physicist who knew about things other than physics – like birds, say, or Bach fugues. He harboured the ambition to be able to do more than maintain basic hygiene. He thought cooking for people sounded an attainable goal. More than that, he aspired to talk to the opposite sex in an engaging way, rather than with a muttered “Excuse me,” or “Pass the sauce”. He wasn’t exactly sure that any of these objectives were compatible with being a proper physicist. He had heard of successful physics couples, when two like-minded researchers formed a covalent bond, which meant when attraction and repulsion were equally balanced. He thought he could aspire to achieving that. He had some idea about the chemistry. So far, he hadn’t managed more than a flustered “hello”, but by the third year, he hoped to have worked his way up to a conversation, after which, who knew what might happen.
Physics was a full-time job in itself. Most mornings he had lectures, and several times each week there was also a practical class in the afternoon. The lecture courses had user-friendly titles such as “An introduction to relativity” and “Astrophysics for beginners”, but after the first lecture, the talks became more and more complex and deeply mathematical. Soon, Tim had been told about almost as many fundamental constants as he had fingers and toes: G, the gravitational constant; c, the speed of light, h, the Plank constant; the fine structure constant; the mass of an electron; the Josephson constant; the Rydberg constant… on nights when he could not get to sleep, it was easier to list and define constants than to count sheep, which were far less interesting.
The afternoon practical classes were where, week by week he and the others set out to take measurements of physical phenomena, under the direction of a graduate student. Put together, these measurements enabled them to see basic laws of physics in operation. In a way, they were simply recapitulating the history of physics in the twentieth century: the speed of light, relativity. They weren’t discovering anything new, that was left to the postgraduates and principal investigators whom they hoped to tag along with.
Tim was very impressed that one of their classes was taken by a female postgrad. It was proof that women could progress in his discipline. He wondered whether she had a boyfriend. Perhaps it was someone in the same lab as her. Maybe she was better than him. He thought he’d like to do postgrad work. But in the meantime, he would have to fit everything in. Juggling a part-time job and the physics course was almost impossible. But as previously observed, Tim needed the money.
That morning, his flat-mate Jesse had bounced out of his room rather exuberantly, and well before 10am. Tim looked at him suspiciously through a cloud of smoke, clutching the jam jar of instant coffee that would serve as his cup until someone had done the washing up.
“Burnt the toast again?” asked Jesse, shutting the kitchen door and opening the back door. Their fire alarm was as over-sensitive as a narcissist on Twitter, and the neighbours had already complained twice that week.
It was possible that Frank, third member of the household, was still sleeping upstairs. Nobody would know, or dared look. He might be there, he might not. That’s why Tim though to him as Schrödinger’s Flat Mate. On a good day, he slept until the afternoon. Often, he wasn’t there at all, because he was sleeping over somewhere. Possibly with a girlfriend after a heavy night at the LCR. Equally likely, in a ditch. Frank had an extraordinary talent for unconsciousness. It was his superpower. Sleeping through a fire alarm was child’s play to him. Offering a logical challenge to a flat-mate came as second nature.
Tim took a long slurp from his cup/jar. Just as well he liked it black, he thought morosely. They’d run out of milk again, and he was certain it wasn’t his turn to go out and buy it. He stared moodily at the garden. Their back yard only loosely merited the word ‘garden’. Its main feature was mud. A tree-stump offered some relief to the eye; chunks of bacon rind, and breadcrumbs, and bird food were sprinkled on and around it. Was that a jay? wondered Tim. He peered more closely. Perhaps it was a just a particularly perky crisp packet in the breeze. He definitely needed his glasses.
“It’s my birthday!” announced Jesse, putting the kettle on. This explained the exuberance.
“FFS!” said Tim, turning away from the window. “You could have warned us earlier!”
“Why?” asked Jesse, curiously. “Would you have bought me a present?”
“Possibly a card” admitted Tim. There was a Tesco at the service station at the end of the road.
“Not breakfast in bed?” asked Jesse, as he poured boiling water into the mug he’d previously rinsed under a tap.
“Highly unlikely” said Tim, firmly. “But you can have this piece of marmite toast”. He held it out. Jesse inspected it. It was extremely charred.
“I’ll give it a miss, thanks all the same”
“How old are you, in fact?” asked Tim, after a moment of reflective munching. He knew his flat mate was older than he was. Perhaps philosophy required maturity. Although Jesse was barely more mature in terms of wisdom, and seemed to spend more time on the history of science than philosophy.
“Chronologically, 20” said Jesse, throwing a tea bag in the general direction of the black bag that served as their bin. “Although literally speaking, five”
“How so?” asked Tim, bemused. Five sounded extremely immature.
“Don’t you know what day it is?” enquired his flat mate.
“Umm, 27th? 28th?” Tim floundered. It definitely wasn’t bin day.
“No, clutz! It’s February 29th 2024. Leap Year Day! I was born twenty years ago this very day, which makes me a Leapling”
“Someone born on Leap Year Day is a Leapling.”
“Never heard of it…”
“Which means,” continued Jesse, “given that twenty is divisible by four, that because I have only had five actual birthdays, then I must be five!”
“As Niels Bohr once said,” said Tim, not to be outdone, “’you are not thinking. You are just being logical’. Anyway, if you’re only five, I should definitely have bought you a Very Hungry Caterpillar cake!”
“You still can” said Jesse, triumphantly.
It was the only birthday cake they stocked in Tesco. They both knew this to be true because they’d bought one at midnight after a freshers’ party the previous autumn. The sugar rush had kept them up arguing about Brexit until 2am, and they were sure it was the only explanation for why they each had had a hangover the next day.
Half an hour later, dressed and ready, broadly speaking, for whatever challenges the day might bring, Tim wandered along streets that were almost empty, with his head down, contemplating his physics assignments. He had several problem-based worksheets to complete. Looking up, he was surprised to find himself in an unfamiliar area of town. He knew the town centre should be somewhere ahead of him, if he headed eastwards. Today was the deadline he had set himself for finding a job, which is why he had originally embarked in this direction.
He had started his first year as a student with a reassuringly healthy bank balance. He even bought another pair of jeans (black), and a physics department hoodie (also black). His student loan felt like a windfall from a conveniently deceased relative, and he was briefly generous with himself. He was in the black (fiscally, as well as literally). Still, after the first semester, his rent, the shopping and his course books, he was now almost overdrawn. He’d either have to live on lentils until June, or somehow fit in a job alongside his coursework.
Quarks up and quarks down, quarks strange and quarks charmed, squeezed his job search out of his mind. Fundamental particles were spinning away at the heart of the matter, bound with strange forces, like Tolkien’s rings. He mentally admonished himself. He should have been on his way to the temping agency, not dawdling through Norwich’s medieval byways while pondering fermions, let alone hypothetical super-partners (his own super partner was certainly entirely hypothetical).
He passed a wall sign recording that one Will Kemp, apparently one of Shakespeare’s acting troupe, had Morris-danced all the way from London to Norwich in nine days in 1599. It was that sort of a city. Quirky. Or did he mean quarky?
It was the loud groan that made him look up. It might have been the sigh of someone who had seen everything many times before. Or perhaps a large dog waiting for his breakfast. Only, there was no one there. It could have been the air brakes of an articulated lorry. Only, there wasn’t one of those either. Probably just a benign example of East Anglia’s many variants on a gale, thought Tim. Around him, the street was empty. There was only a row of higgledy-piggledy houses, and the occasional faded shop-front where, in better days, locals had bought groceries. At the end of the street was a pub, yet another of his adopted city’s many hostelries.
At UEA Freshers’ Fayre, he had been assured that there were three hundred and sixty-five pubs in Norwich. According to the local saying, a pub for every day of the year was leavened by a church for every Sunday. Tim felt this only proved that the good burghers and laboring people of Norwich had been historically rather keener on things of the malt than things of the spirit. It was still the case. Tim had visited a few of the city’s hostelries, sampling the fine East Anglian ales of Mr Greene and Mr King and Mr Woodforde and the Adnams brothers on the notorious theoretical physics undergrad pub crawls. But this tavern was new to him.
He took a few steps towards it. An old, brick building that matched its neighbours, probably Georgian, he imagined, with only the faded sign swinging in the breeze that showed that it was still a pub. It must have been the creak of the pintles which he’d just heard. He looked up at the faded and peeling pub sign, which showed two people holding hands and jumping over a crescent moon, and saw it also bore a name: The Leap In the Dark.
As he gazed at the signboard, trying to understand what it could be depicting,, a cellar hatch opened, first with a creak, and then with a crash. A head popped through at pavement level and looked up and down the street, as if he were a character making his entrance upon Shakespearea’s Globe, to which his parents had taken Tim. Despite bushy, wiry hair at the back and sides, the top of the head was quite bald. It could have been a clown’s head, had it not been for the rather magnificent beard, above which two beady brown eyes were squinting in the February sunshine. All very Falstaffian, not least the warm and richly honied voice that now issued from a mouth that presumably lurked behind the beard:
“Seen a dray?”
It took Timothy a moment to realize that the man was asking him. And a moment longer to remember that a dray was the old name for a brewery lorry.
“No. Sorry,” he said, “Only just turned the corner myself”
There was a nod from the foot-level Falstaff.
“Probably got lost.”
The head was now followed by broad shoulders, as two big hands hauled out the rest of the body, so that in a second or two, a man sat perched on the edge of the opening. The usual complement of legs and arms and head, a man barely out of breath, and now drawing a tobacco pouch from the pocket of his leather apron. He rolled himself a cigarette in one practiced movement, and eyed Timothy up and down.
“You need a job”
Tim started, looked round to check there was no one else there. The man from the pub was talking to him. It was as if he had read his mind…
“I do, yes…”
“Got one here, if you like. If it’s temporary you’re looking for…”
“…End of the academic year coming up, last of the student loan and, well, my parents aren’t really…I need something temporary. Oh sorry?”
Tim had been too busy talking to notice that the bearded man had interjected.
“Done bar work before?” The man with the nut-brown face, now puffing away happily on his cigarette, winked at Timothy in a rather disconcerting way.
“Yes. I’ve been a waiter, glass collector, cinema usher,” Tim replied. “Been behind the bar too. All temporary.”
Tim did not feel it sensible to disclose that this last assignment had been rather briefer than he had hoped, owing to misunderstandings over operating the cash register. Mental arithmetic was a doddle, compared to managing the intricacies of modern machinery.
“Start at midday, finish going on midnight,” said the publican. “Twelve hours a day with breaks. One hundred pound, cash in your hand. Does that suit? Is that enough these days?”
“Oh! Yes. That sounds great. One hundred would be ideal,.. If you can.”
“Fine”. The man thrust out a brawny arm, the blue of fading tattoos disappearing under his rolled-up shirtsleeves.
“Joe,” he announced.
Timothy leaned down and grasped the proffered hand.
“Timothy. Usually known as Tim”.
“If I can call Time, I can call Tim” said Joe. “Now come on in.”
Tom Shakespeare is a British academic, writer and broadcaster. His first novel, The Ha-ha, will be published by Farrago in 2024.