Last updated on January 6, 2018
“‘Excuse me, gents, uh, I, uh, hope you don’t mind me askin’, but what’s that there that you’re drinkin’?”
Glen held up his chalice as if it contained pure liquid gold. “This is Bengali Tiger beer, and it’s good! Two for a fiver!”
“Oh right, and, uh, what is it then?”
“It’s an American beer, a sort of IPA – very hoppy!” I explained.
The man looked at me with concealed vagueness. But as he studied us, with one hand tucked under his armpit and the other stroking his clean-shaven chin, I realised that it was not vagueness, but curiosity.
“You mind if I, uh, you mind if…”
“Not at all,” I said, leaning over to pass him the empty beer can.
He wore a thick, grey woolly jumper with a big duffle button on the chest that he left undone. It was a bitterly cold and windy day but he had nothing on underneath the jumper. Only a patch of silver chest hair was visible, protruding abruptly from the point he had decided there was no need to shave beyond. I imagined that if he didn’t shave at all, those chest hairs would join up with his beard to create a sort of platinum, full-bodied hair suit.
“Brooklyn craft ale,” he said in disbelief whilst looking up at me over his red-rimmed reading glasses. “Brewed in Manchester! Ahhh Haaaa! And it’s 6.4%!”
His drinking partner turned to me with a gaping, toothless smile, his long grey hair slicked back over a bald, shiny cranium. He stared straight at me but, even through inch-thick lenses, his eyes were still almost impossible to see, like slits in a white sheet. “How much is that then? Serve it in a can do they?” he said.
Glen replied, “Oh, it’s like two cans for £5; they’d be £4.50 each anywhere else!”
“Two’fa’foiver, are they? For a can? ‘ah much is that a pint then?” he said with flailing lips.
His younger drinking partner jumped in, embarrassed by the old man. “That’s the sorta beer what bring’s you in ‘ere then, is it?” His eyes were a piercing blue colour, like an arctic sea, and added an element of mystique to his otherwise average appearance.
I smiled blankly, waiting for the meaning behind his words to make sense to me. I thought perhaps he was asking if I’d smuggled them in. “Not sure I understand what you mean…”
“What I mean is, well, would you to be in ‘ere drinkin’ if they didn’t serve that sorta beer?”
Glen and I laughed nervously, suddenly feeling very much like City-chap-wusses. Basilden is only a twenty-five minute train ride out of London, but talking to these two men made it feel like a million miles away. “No, no, it’s just that they’re on offer; it’s a bit of a treat, see. But we’ll drink whatever, really. You should try one of these, though,” I said.
“Oh, a’will, yeah, but not today. It’s a bit strong. Gawd, 6.4%!”
“Yeah, you’ve gotta be careful with it – it’s rocket fuel, this!”
The old toothless fella rocked forward in his chair as a big grin pushed his eyes even deeper into his face. “It’s alright,” he said, lifting his pint up to his mouth, “I’ve been in training for quite a while now!”
We all fell back into our chairs, laughing at the old man’s impeccable sense of timing.
He took a tiny sip from his glass and said, “No, Abbot’s is my favourite beer in ‘ere. Five percent it is, strong enough for me.”
Glen and I turned away and tried to carry on talking about the meeting we’d just had. We weren’t quite deep enough in conversation with the two men that it seemed rude, but we’d talked to them enough that we now felt self-conscious and slightly uncomfortable about excluding them.
The loud sound of a pint glass smashing suddenly shot through the pub, followed by a few milliseconds of silence before the entire pub erupted into excited cheer: “Waaaa heyyyyyyy! Oooooo! Ha ha ha!” It was clearly the highlight of the day so far. Glen joined in for a moment, adding, “Oh man, I love this place.”
A few minutes later, the younger of the two men returned from the bar with two chalices of Bengali Tiger beer. The old man didn’t even flinch. He just sat there silently, now with two glasses of beer to stare at.
“Cheers!” I said, raising a glass to them. Glen did the same.
“Yeah, I thought I’d give it a go!” the younger man said. “So is this what you drink when you’re at ‘ome then, is it?” he said, looking at Glen.
“Well my home is in London, so I guess you could say that,” said Glen in his thick American accent. “But, yeah, back in the States there are so many micro-breweries. They say there’s an independent brewery for every three thousand people where I’m from in Colorado. I mean, I wouldn’t necessarily drink this, but I’d drink something similar.”
“Yeah, well I’ve been to America three times. Twice we was in Florida and once we went to…well, it’s not really in America, Porto Rico. We was goin’ on a cruise, see. Yeah, me and me wife, well, me ex-wife, we was flyin’ over New York and she was takin’ pictures out the wind’ar. She’s got photos of the Twin Towers. Yeah, she tells everyone about that, reckons it’s her claim to fame.”
The older man had been staring gormlessly at his beers for a while now, but he sprang to life with surprising vigour. “So what’s your team then? I like the Redskins,” he said before slapping a hand over his mouth. “Whoops, sorry for swearing!” He chuckled to himself for a moment before taking another tiny sip of beer.
Glen replied, “Missouri Tigers.” But the old man had zoned out again, staring blankly at his beer.
“Here on business then, is it?” said the younger man.
“Yeah, we went to meet a client over in one of the industrial estates around here.”
“Oh right, Southfields Estate was it?”
“No,” I said, “something similar, but I can’t quite remember.”
“No, it was….”
“Oh, Scimitar Park?”
“Yep, that was it.”
“I work over there, see. Yeah, in a factory. Did you see they’re building the new sewage works over by there?”
I looked at Glen for some kind of reassurance, “Did you, uh, notice any building works?” But he hadn’t seen it either. We took a few final swigs on our beers and sat in awkward silence for what felt like an eternity.
“Well it was nice to meet you gents,” I said whilst shaking the old man’s hand. “I’m Ben, by the way.”
His hand was silky soft and he held on for a little longer than I was comfortable with, his toothless grin taking over his entire face. “I’m Jeff,” he said, “Jeff with a J.”
The other man stood up and shook my hand, clasping my hand between both of his in a most sincere way. “Me name’s Pete, nice to meetcha both. It’s nice to hear a few different accents around these parts. If you’re ever in the area again…”
“Yes,” I said, “we’ll know where to come next time!”
I turned around and saw Glen trying to escape Jeff’s grasp.
“I won’t be here, but old Jeff’ll be here; you can count on that!”
Outside, Glen turned to me and said, “Wow, the people in Basildon are really nice! Or is it just because the people in London aren’t?”