“Hey, Captain Caveman is back!”
“…I’m sorry, what!?”
“We thought you was lost forever. We even took bets as to if we’d ever see you alive again.”
Jeremy Walpole stood in the doorway to his local pub. For the past two years, he had avoided all physical contact with the human race. The frightening Covid-19 pandemic resulted in an extreme reaction to cut himself off completely from society – relying solely on contactless home deliveries for survival. So, for him, a re-emergence into public life, was a monumental and brave return to civilisation.
“Hoy, fellahs! It’s alive!” The short-statured Robbo Lewis announced to those within earshot. “Who won the bet?”
A few claimant cheers filtered from the back of the pub, as the pub’s landlord counted out the kitty money.
“So, didja get it?” Robbo asked.
“The Covid. Didja?”
“No,” Jeremy sheepishly replied.
“He never got it!” Robbo proclaimed to the boisterous group of drinkers. “Who won that bet?”
Another few cheers laid claim to the winnings, prompting Brian to count out another stack of cash, before passing it to several men sitting in a corner.
“Divvy that up between ya,” Brian instructed. “I’d better see some of that coming back over the bar, tonight.”
Not finished with his doorman impression, Robbo continued to block Jeremy’s progress.
“I got it twice!” He announced, like he expected a medal to be pinned to his chest. “Everyone in ‘ere’s had it, as well. Some three times. Remember Roger, the bloke that worked part-time at the charity shop?”
Jeremy feigned a small uninterested measure of recollection.
“He got it, and then it got him.”
“Oh,” Jeremy sadly acknowledged.
“Only forty-three, he was. Left a wife, two kids, and his knocked-up girlfriend… Jacko’s gone too. You remember Jacko, don’t ya? Always hogged the microphone on karaoke night, yeah?”
“Oh… yes, I do. Sorry to hear that.”
“Ebony and Ivory was his fave. Always got people to sing the duet with him…”
Robbo started singing the lyrics to the song.
“Ebony and Ivory.”
Quickly joined by Derek, the domino king, an impromptu harmonic duet suddenly broke out between them.
“We’re together in perfect harmony,
side by side on my piano keyboard,
oh no, why don’t we…”
“Gotta keep his memory alive, Mr. Walpole sir, yeah?” Derek stated.
“No need for Mr. Walpole anymore, Derek. School is out. Ten years now, I believe.”
“Old habits, sir.”
“Robbo, Derek!” A frustrated yell emanated from behind the bar. “Let Mr. Walpole in before the draft comin’ through that door causes a flu outbreak.”
“Flu?” Jeremy repeated in a startled breath. “In here?”
“Nah, Brian’s just worried about the heating bill,” Robbo joked. “So, ya comin’ in or wot?”
Stepping aside, the dueting men allowed their old teacher entry to the warm pub. Having escaped the modernisation phase that most London pubs sadly succumbed to in the bid to attract younger and more upwardly mobile crowds, the Dog and Duck - on the fringes of London’s East End, still retained a traditional antiquated charm within its walls. A roaring fireplace in one corner, dimmed lighting, and bench tables, created an almost Dickensian atmosphere that people liked.
“Your stool awaits, sir,” Robbo presented, bowing.
Positioning himself at the bar, Jeremy nodded a few silent hellos to some familiar faces, before greeting the landlord - busy wiping glasses with a dish towel.
“The usual, Mr. Walpole?”
“Brandy, yes, thanks,” Jeremy replied. “Extra clean glass, if you don’t mind.”
“They’re all clean, mate. Machine sterilised,” Brian pointed out. “Not like the old days when a bit of spit and polish went a long way.”
The few drinkers listening in around the bar, saw the funny side of Brian’s joke, and a few shoulders demonstrated their inclusion to the quip by pleasingly vibrating at the statement.
“How long you been on lockdown?”
“Two years, almost to the month.”
“That’s a long time on yer own.”
“People weren’t taking Covid seriously, like me,” Jeremy explained. “So, I wasn’t going to subject myself to being exposed to something that scared me to my core.”
“Me sister had it three times,” Robbo chimed in. “But then again, she’s little Miss Social. Get’s bored staying home. First one nearly killed her, didn’t it. All that weight she carries worked against her. The other two times she caught it were just, well… nuisances, weren’t they.”
“Tell that to the dead,” Jeremy derisively implanted into the conversation, before reeling in his mismanners. “Sorry, in my detachment from the general populace, I seem to have misplaced my social skills.”
“That’s alright, Mr. Walpole. You was always good at putting us in our place when we was at school.”
The innocent truth had a sobering effect on Jeremy.
“Was I that rude?”
“Thought your shit did’nae stink,” bellowed the Scottish man sitting at the opposite corner of the bar.
Unsuccessfully recognising the outspoken man, Jeremy queried him on his identity.
“Sorry, did you attend my classes?”
“That’s Jock Taverner,” Robbo explained “He’s from north of the border. We’ve talked about you so much that when he gets drunk, he thinks he grew up with all of us.”
“Goodness. I never thought I merited a passing thought.”
“Don’t you put yourself down, sir. You was a big influence on all our lives. Most in here, was taught by you at one time or another.”
“Aye,” Jock added. “Ne’er a canny lad within a stone’s throw of this pub can say they didnae know ya.”
Indeed, the sparsely filled pub was awash with familiar faces from varying schooldays past, and Jeremy recognised most of them.
“Here you go, Mr. Walpole. Your brandy.”
Leaning forward without touching the glass, Jeremy breathed in a deep snifter of its aroma.
“It’s a clean glass,” Brian indignantly announced.
“Oh, no.” Jeremy replied, attempting to ease the growing tension. “I’m just taking it all in. There’s something welcoming in a filled pub glass. Drinking at home is a private affair. But drinking in a pub in a shared setting, adds ambience, atmosphere, and a different aroma to the glass. I’ve always thought that socialised drinking has the immersive quality of being part of a collective like an open forum, where ideas, opinions, and gossip can be objectively shared.”
“It’s just a pub,” Brian replied. “People drink, people talk, people argue, people enjoy themselves.”
To Jeremy, the pub held a more meaningful position in life than just a place to drink. The pandemic and subsequent lockdown had turned him into a self-induced agoraphobic, imprisoning his sanity to the point that even ordering food from Uber Eats, ended with him disinfecting his smartphone.
“Unfortunately, my self-isolation lost me my wife. Like most, she couldn’t stand her own company – let alone mine - in a confined space. So, she told me that she was going to stay with her parents. Two months later, I received an email asking for a divorce. Attached to it, were several photographs of her presumably in Corfu sharing drinks with a very tanned man, who turned out to be our local postman.”
“Ya poor wee man,” Jock wailed. “The postie? Och, if there ever was a man who knew when ye were home or when ye were not, it’s the postie.”
“Indeed. I failed to realise the real reason my wife was constantly waiting for the post to be delivered. I thought the new clothes, negligees, and beauty products she bought online were an attempt at remaining normal in the most abnormal of times. Instead, she was stocking up her suitcases for a clandestine rendezvous on a Greek island with a…”
“A bazzer postman,” Jock’s outrage finished Jeremy’s sentence. “Throw him in the Loch on a dark moonlicht nicht, is what we would do up north. Let Nessie take care of him. Hoots mon! It’s enough to stop ye buying stamps, so it is.”
Amused by the Scot’s forthright opinion, Jeremy settled in for more of Jock’s Scottish sympathy.
“What a tale of woe, to be left high and dry on ye’s own - with only the four grey walls surrounding the sad and painful memories of your loved one’s cruel and callous actions. Aye, that alone would have sent me down the pub, too.”
“Indeed,” Jeremy agreed. “However, I was determined to not get sick. I couldn’t stop my wife’s urge to escape. However, the one thing that I could control was my access to other people. To me, contagion couldn’t get through a locked door, and while other people were demonstrating a careless and carefree lifestyle by not distancing, I considered my continued exclusion from society, a necessary sacrifice. Eventually, I decided it was my time to venture out without masking up, so this is the first port of call on my journey to a regenerated life.”
To be back in the familiar company of those sat around him, Jeremy felt a kind of rebirth cleansing his soul. The previous two years had instilled a morbid sense of penalised internment. He felt like he had been a wilted and closed flower waiting for the sanitising rays of the sun to help him open up to life again. That came in the form of combining inoculation with the lowering of his mental refusals to socialise. The result was a re-emergence to help count the survivors and to see what was on the other side of a world dealing with the aftereffects of a deadly pandemic. A drink at his local pub was the logical first step toward his re-assimilation into life.
Catching himself in a momentary cerebral flashback, Jeremy was pulled back into the present by Robbo, eager to please.
“Watch out, Mr. Walpole,” Robbo warned. “I think Rosie has spotted you. Remember Rosie? She was voted the girl most likely to…”
Stopping Robbo in mid-sentence had the desired effect of cancelling out a potential derogatory remark that could easily turn incendiary.
“Yeah,” Robbo corrected himself. “She certainly did that. Four kids with three fathers of varying backgrounds.”
“A mighty accomplishment,” Jeremy complimented.
“Mistah Walpole!” A delighted Rosie screamed, wrapping her arms around his shoulders in a warm hug. “Lovely to see you back, mon.”
“Rosie,” Jeremy happily replied. “I hope you’ve been well.”
“Am now,” she answered. “Wasn’t so much a year ago, but I’s a tough-un, you know. I’m like the Jamaican unsinkable Molly Brown of Covid.”
“I remember you as the most popular and enthusiastic student, always willing to go the extra mile for a revised B-plus. We all had high hopes for you.”
“And to tink,” Rosie continued - emphasising her regional accent to its finest.
“I almost didn’t make it true my last few months of beauty school. However, I now own my own salon, catering to all hair and skin types. I came out the other end of that tunnel, Mr. Walpole, but I wouldn’t want to go through it again. That ventilator business is a scary thing. Had me doubts, let me tell you, man. But here I am now - talking to the kind man that provided my school that lovely letter of recommendation. I’m back, you’re back, we all in here are back amongst the living. The way the world has moved on would make you think it had all been a bad dream. People have forgotten the fear and anguish that nasty virus caused us all.”
“Maybe it’s just a case of everyone ignorantly pretending Covid has gone away,” Jeremy added.
“If that’s the case, then I blame those that control the narrative. I just don’t know what to believe on the news anymore. Anyway, Mon. It’s great to see you still amongst us, intit, boys.”
Raised glasses and agreeable mumblings affirmed Rosie’s proclamation.
“Once a teacher, now a friend, always welcome, Mr. Walpole… Right! Me new fellah just bought me a glass of sparkling Prosecco and I don’t want either to go flat. You gonna be up for some Karaoke?”
“I can’t sing in public,” Jeremy replied.
“It ain’t the X-Factor, Mr. Walpole, mon. Karaoke means you don’t have to be good, just heard.”
Rosie retrieved a karaoke song book from the bar, then gently placed it in front of Jeremy.
“There you go. ‘Have a read of that, then announce your glorious return in a musical way. Mr. Walpole is gonna sing. Praise Jesus!”
A loud electronic squelching sound heralded the start of karaoke hour. Robbo had been deputised to operate the karaoke machine – albeit a little lacking with experience on volume control and foldback adjustments. However, he managed to muddle through the set-up, grabbed a microphone, then tapped on it to see if it was working.
“Three-Four!” Replied a shout from the back of the pub to the chorus of several laughs.
“See, Mr. Walpole?” Robbo said into the microphone. “That’s the special education section at the back. You remember them, don’t-cha? They’re the ones you kept back another year for failing to put their names at the top of their exam papers. Either they forgot their names, or sitting in your class you had…”
Robbo mimicked counting the number of people in the far corner.
“…Four people with the last name of Pass.”
Outspoken and one-upped, the group at the back jeered at the put down.
“Thank you, Under-Pass, Over-Pass, Back-Pass, and Pass-Stover, for lack of brains.”
“Funny Cunt,” was the spontaneous retort from the fourth name.
“Good one,” Robbo threw back at him. “If you’re singing tonight, can you please find someone willing to read the words for you.”
The banter spurred on a warm round of applause from those listening to it. Robbo took a beat, then continued his introduction.
“Welcome to Jacko’s karaoke hour at the Dog and Duck, ladies and whatever else you are. I say karaoke hour, but we all know it’s gonna be a long night of moon howls and musical challenges.”
A few wolf whistles and cheers supported the welcomed announcement.
“You will find song books in front of you on your table or bar stool. I expect a good turnout tonight. You know the drill, pick a song, write it down with your name on the song request sheet, then hand it over to me. But before we kick off the proceedings, please give a quiet thought and raised glass for Jacko and the lovely equipment he donated to us in his will. Taken too soon, but always remembered… To Jacko!”
“Jacko,” came the collective response from the pub’s patrons.
“Ok,” Robbo continued. “First up is Cathy singing, an Ariana Grande number. Come on up, love.”
“Got a song in you, Mr. Walpole?” Brian asked, as he poured another brandy for him.
“I’ll take a look and see.”
Thumbing through the song book, Jeremy paused at several numbers, before stopping at one, and with a grunt of glee, he grabbed a pen and song request sheet. Suddenly, the sound of someone having a coughing fit, brought the whole pub to a standstill, including Jeremy. He turned around to see everyone staring at Cathy standing on the stage, holding the microphone at a distance from her mouth, in the middle of demonstrating an angry hacking cough. As the music played on without vocals, Cathy’s torso heaved to and fro, resembling some form of modern dance expressionism, which eventually, was followed by a phlegm-filled clearing of her clogged lungs and raspy throat. Several moments passed before she managed to regain her composure. Noticing the stillness of the pub, she brought the microphone back to her lips, attempting to calm everyone’s panicked state.
“What!? It’s not fucking Covid, you wankers. I just need to quit smoking!”
The passive-aggressive reassurance placated the concerned, allowing all to return to what their respective conversations.
Convinced by Cathy’s expletive declaration, Jeremy relaxed, completed his form entry, then tore the small square strip of paper from its pad, and handed it to Robbo.
“Brilliant!” He exclaimed after reading the song title. “I’ll bring it down a key for you. Looks like Cathy’s buggered off before finishing the song, so you’re up next Mr. Walpole.”
“My goodness,” Jeremy exclaimed. “So soon?”
“Well, not until after an introduction. Hang tight.”
Addressing the audience, Robbo displayed a growing confidence as karaoke host.
“Due to the unfortunate interruption of that old hack,” Robbo announced. “Shit, sorry Cath. Didn’t mean you.”
Looking around the room, Robbo struggled to locate her.
“Where’s she gone?”
“Outside for a smoke,” a lone voice yelled back.
“Warming up for her next song, no doubt… and that ain’t the band’s name.”
The joke clearly flew over everyone’s heads, so Robbo quickly glossed it over by introducing the next act.
“Well, he’s back ladies and all. Singing for you tonight, please welcome to the stage, Mr. Jeremy Walpole – better known to most of you as, Sir. Up you come, sir.”
Handing the microphone to over to Jeremy, Robbo fussed with the song selector, then gave a quick nod to him. A hush permeated the room, awaiting the retired teacher’s performance. Two quick notes from a piano rang out, followed by a progression of chords up and down its keyboard, cueing Jeremy’s entry into Gloria Gaynor’s song, I will survive.
“At first I was afraid,
I was petrified,
Kept thinking I could never live without you by my side,
But then I spent so many nights thinking how you did me wrong
And I grew strong, and I learned how to get along.
And so I’m back, from outer space…”
At this very moment of expressive release, Jeremy relaxed into the song, and as he entered the chorus, he grinned widely as he heard his inner voice say loudly and clear,
“She can have the fucking divorce. No matter what she throws at me, I will overcome it, and I will indeed, survive… hey hey hey, yeah!”