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“Clerkenwell,” Fergus says, “has a problem with lunchtime pricks.”
He puts an extra hard push on the ‘cks’; lets it click in his throat. I sit down next to him on the bench and unwrap my pulled pork bun. We are in St James’s Church Gardens. It is warm and sunny, the office workers of EC1 are gathered in twos and threes on the grass, resting on elbows or leant forward on folded, stiff legs. There are many pairs of indigo jeans and brogues, flannel shirts and brown jackets, pencil skirts and blue dresses with belts round them.
Fergus likes to people watch here. He says the lunchtime pricks are London’s disease. A canker on the bark of the city.
“Everyone’s got it wrong,” he likes to say, “it’s not the bankers who are screwing us, it’s the architects and digital entrepreneurs.”
Fergus works down the road at the Betsy Trotwood.
“I tried offices,” he says frequently, “they’re shit.”
He likes the quiet times in the pub, the four in the afternoon times when it’s just a few old boys and him doing the crossword or listening to some Neil Young. He spends his hour before opening the Betsy in this little park, watching stressed mid-weight designers and digital marketing executives eating food from Exmouth Market. It makes him feel better about his life choices.
“Why would you want to sit down all day staring at a screen?”
When it’s busy in the Betsy, Fergus is happiest. I’ve seen him at his best, spinning and sliding behind the bar, a fluid flurry of hands and legs grabbing glasses and bottles, flicking on taps, pulling on pumps. It’s a barman’s ballet.
“I lasted nine months inside one of those glass clinks. Got a bad back and a filthy temper.”
Fergus used to do social media for a high-class online retail site at an office on Brewery Square. He sent out ten Tweets, seven Pins, five Instagrams, four Facebook posts, and a Vine each day. Each post had to link back to a product, every sentence had to be keyworded and SEO checked. The Instagrams had to look off the cuff, the Tweets on trend. The Facebook had to sound personal, the Pins professional and the Vine quirky. He had to say the same thing twenty-seven times in twenty-seven different ways.
“It’s all the same junk. An endless repetition of the same message.”
Other than that, he’s been in pubs his whole adult life.
“I love them. People come into a pub and they know what they want. No one comes in to a pub thinking, I don’t want a drink.”
Fergus discovered he was good at social media when he was given control of the accounts at his last pub. He had time to think up funny jokes, quote the regulars and talk about football. He could tweet pictures of the new beers and post about forthcoming gigs in the upstairs room. He got so good, other pubs started copying his style. He originated the grumpy-but-funny-business account, the anti-how-can-I-help-customer-is-always-right message.
“Londoners are easy. They love someone who can speak their mind for them, cos they’re too busy keeping schtum in the office all day.”
Fergus was good when he was having fun. He was headhunted and offered the position without having to submit a CV or application. As soon as he had to start checking KPIs, trends and ‘content engagement’ he fell off. The word analytics makes him angry.
“The thing is, I’m better if I can just be me. Soon as I’ve got to be someone else I draw blank.”
Fergus points at a woman in sunglasses lying on a picnic rug, staring up at the sky. She is reading a copy of Icon Magazine.
“She’s got it right,” I say.
“Nah, that’s a lunchtime prick move. It makes you look like you’re being thoughtful, but you’re just showing off. She doesn’t need the picnic rug or the sunglasses. And she’s not reading that magazine. She hasn’t turned the page for ten minutes.”
Fergus is eating a chicken coronation baguette. Yellowed mayonnaise is splayed all around his mouth. A bit of it drips out the bottom of the bread as he bites into it.
“Sandwich Man innit?” he says, noticing me noticing. “Dunno why you spend a fiver on that poncey nonsense when you can get a beauty like this every day for £1.50”
“It tastes better.”
“Does it taste £3.50 more better?”
“You’re getting mugged, Amit.”
“Rather get mugged than eat that radioactive chicken you’ve got.”
“It’s coronation mate, it’s supposed to be this colour.”
“Only this country could celebrate its monarchy by mixing curry powder and mayonnaise.”
Fergus grins. I point at his mouth and make a wiping gesture. I reach for the napkin the girl from the MeatHead stall gave me to use. Fergus wipes his mouth with the shoulder of his white t-shirt. I look away in mock disgust. The bench arm has a tag on it in white marker: FLAVOUR. I imagine it to be an angry co-worker, furious with the state of her lunch from Freebird Burrito.
When Fergus and I used to do graff together we would tag anything; walls, shutters, trains, buses, statues. We scratched the windows on the Tube, marked up the adverts on bus stops, painted big pieces on crumbling walls round Stratford, Leyton and the canals. For five years I never left home without a marker. It was compulsive.
We stopped after TOX got sent down.
It’s funny what happens when you grow up, how you forget what mattered to you.
“I can’t believe you still put up with this?” Fergus says, leaning back on the bench and stretching his arms out.
“I like the money.” I reply.
“Money ain’t enough. You wouldn’t get me in another office even if I had debts to Cass Pennant.”
“I don’t mind it.”
“Yeah but you’re one of them now.”
“What of what?”
“The lunchtime pricks.”
“Shut up. Who buys all the drinks in the Betsy? It’s not other barmen is it?”
“Nah, it’s all this lot. Apart from the old boys, obviously.”
“I don’t eat lunch here every day.”
“A lunchtime prick is just a prick who eats lunch between 1pm and 2pm, Amit. You’re a twenty-four hour prick.”
“How can you do that job though? I mean look at you, you’re indoors, under them fluorescent lights so much you’re practically white.”
“Maybe that would help me these days.”
Fergus makes a face like – don’t be like that.
“Do you lot still use that weird pad you draw on with a fake pen?”
“A Waccom Tablet.”
“Yeah, that’s the one.”
“When’s the last time you used a piece of paper?”
A shout comes from the trench on the side of the church we are facing. The church has this moat around it but without the water. It’s deep and wide. A man in Lycra puts down a wireless Bose speaker, scrolls through his phone and selects a deep house song. The thump thump thump draws people’s attention. Two jogging women appear in Lycra shorts and vests, running trainers and hair tied back with headbands. The man shouts at them.
They drop down to their hands and knees, push their legs out straight behind them and pull them back in.
Fergus laughs loudly.
The two women jump up into a star shape after each squat thrust. They are glistening with sweat. The man has a vein wobbling along the side of his bald head, it casts a slight shadow on his skin.
The women drop back down to the floor in unison.
Fergus shakes his head.
“It’s all a performance these days innit? Every single space in this city is a broadcast set for channel you.”
Fergus likes declarations. The brutal exercise scene makes me eat my pulled pork more slowly, chewing on the meat until it’s definitely ready to go down.
“Lunchtime, exercise, talking. It’s all about being seen. Nothing is about the act of living itself anymore. Even here, on this bench, we are on our own little stage. The bench is our studio, the sun our 4k lights, and these people are our audience.”
Fergus stands up on the bench and holds his arms out.
“Listen lunchtime pricks! Liberate yourselves from the drudgery of performance by eating your street food indoors!”
No one turns their head. One voice from the right side of the park mutters, ‘wanker’. Fergus stays standing, surveying the crowd. I tug on his combat trousers.
Fergus stays standing. The instructor picks up the Bose speaker by the handle and shouts, “Running with high knees!”
He jogs up the side of the moat and weaves through the clusters of workers on the grass to the gate at the far end that takes you onto Clerkenwell Close. His victims follow the same path. The thumps fade and the people return to chatting about bleeds, bad breaks and branding.
I finish my bun with a big last bite. Fergus jumps off the bench and falls into a press up. He waits for someone to turn and look at him. No one does so he sits back next to me. We both watch a man struggle with a box of Marks and Spencer’s sushi on the bench next to us. He squirts the soy sauce on his trousers. As he goes to take a napkin out of his mustard Fjällräven bag, he knocks the box onto the floor. I make to get up and help him. Fergus puts a hand on me.
“He needs to learn, Amit. You can’t teach him.”
The man scrabbles the sushi back into the box and looks around to see if anyone witnessed his clumsiness.
I check my phone.
“Nah, you ain’t leaving yet.”
“I’ve got to.”
“I’ve got a deadline.”
“It’s only one-thirty mate.”
“Yeah but I only get half an hour for lunch anyway.”
“Still? How long have you been working there?”
“We all get half an hour, Ferg. It’s a tech company.”
“I get an hour at the Betsy mate. You should come work with me.”
“Not for £7.80 an hour I won’t.”
“You get a free dinner. That’s saves someone like you £20 a night.”
I stand up and put my bun wrapper in the bin next to the bench. Inside there is a bottle of Brewdog beer, three copies of the Standard and a few plastic boxes that look like they came from the Thai stall.
“You staying here, or do you want to walk me to the office?”
“What do you think I’m doing?”
“Sometimes it’s nice to change things up.”
“You run along mate, make sure you make your boss a nice cuppa just in case though, yeah?”
“See you at six then.”
“Bring Jas this time. She could do with a drink.”
“Has to put up with your miserable face every day.”
We fist bump.
I walk out of the park and back to the office on St John’s Street.
I text Jas on the way:
Betsy at six? Fergus is working tonight so we won’t have to pay for anything.
Fergus will stay in the park until two o’clock, when everyone has left and it’s just him and the grass. He enjoys watching this slow exodus. When there is no one left in the park he will sit and convince himself he made the right decision last year. Then he’ll go to the Betsy, connect the beers up, put out the menus, fill up the ice tray, cut the limes and open the doors to the old boys who are already waiting for him to arrive.