What on earth was I doing here?
I was sitting quietly on a banquette opposite a long, implacably solid wooden bar counter behind which an elegantly carved, equally imposing wooden bar-back glistened with shelves of whisky bottles. Welcome to the Grill, a solid-looking boozer slotted into a granite-faced terrace on Aberdeen’s Union Street.
I recall my last visit where I was standing at the bar when the chap next to me said, ‘I’ll have a glass of whisky’ to the smartly attired bar man (white shirt, black trousers). As one does, whilst standing at the bar counter, I was tuning in and out of the conversations around me: office gossip and the general chaff of pub talk. I took a sip of American Pale Ale from Windswept, a brewery whose name suggested wild Scottish shores. The golden beer burst with citrus and bittersweet notes and went down smoothly. A dram was poured and handed over. ‘That’ll be £35.40.’ My reverie was interrupted and I turned to ask if he had really just paid that much for a dram. He nodded and told me it was a 1938 Speyside from a long-closed distillery. ‘Worth every penny.’
Now though it had been a quiet Burns Night until a group of noisy men had entered and what had been a quiet, reflective, hiding-from-the-cold-winds-of-January kind of pub had suddenly turned into a raucous cloud of voices, somewhat akin to the sort you hear in a kitchen when a house party suddenly goes up a gear. Along with the newcomers I saw two men, who didn’t seem to fit. They both looked charity-shop handout scruffy, which immediately to my mind suggested they were homeless. The one with the dark hair looked downcast and was carrying a full JD Sports bag, which I suspect held his worldly goods. The other was hyper and occasionally slapped his open palm on his companion’s forehead, whilst snarling and swearing like a pantomime drunk, and I noticed how his thinning and unruly flannel of hair plastered itself on his head, like a beached flounder.
The man with the bag didn’t react to the slaps and just looked sad and even slightly embarrassed. My initial thought – that the couple were with the noisy drinkers, who were asking about which whiskies to drink as some of them flung out their knowledge with words such as peaty and smoke and orange – vanished and I realised they had drifted in with the crowd in the same way a peculiar woman had done when I was in a bar called Monk in Brussels in early December. She had sat at my table and in broken English asked if she could have my beer. When I said no she called me a bad man in a mixture of English and French and said God would punish me.
Maybe I have that sort of face that attracts certain people, but the slapping man then sat next to me and said something which I could only catch was that his daughter had died. I said I was sorry and then he asked if he could have a drink from my beer. ‘No mate,’ I laughed and he slapped his fist against his hand and I could not understand his words. He was aggressive but for some reason I didn’t feel too threatened, feeling that it was all show.
‘What the fuck is that,’ he said pointing at my Kindle and then walked up to the bar and started talking to a group of three men in casual outdoor wear. He was right in the face of one guy, who didn’t flinch and I just knew he could handle himself. Then finally a muscular bartender came over and stood over them telling them they should leave. The slapping man’s mood changed and I heard the words ‘you know we’ll behave’ almost slurred as a plea, but she was adamant and walked them outside.
I ordered another pint of Jarl and realised that the slapping man had walked off with my neck warmer. Oh well he probably needed it more than me and I realised that I was in the Grill at this particular time so that a homeless man could have something, however small, to help keep him warm that night.