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The Old Spring

by Richard Francis

The Old Spring is a pub. It has a wooden bar, backed by polished bottles, optics, an advert for Guinness, a calendar provided by the brewery, and a clean quarry tiled floor. There is a public, a snug, and a back room. A fire burns in an iron grate. There is no juke box, music, vending machine or one-arm-bandit. A small door leads down to a cellar, lit by a single bulb: big humped barrels are cradled on a long wooden bench, intercepted by a Belfast sink. Boxes of wine, mixers, crisps, nuts, glasses, box upon box, are stacked against the wall opposite the barrels, and beer lines hang from the ceiling like tackle on a yacht. Poor Darren, who comes in to clean, keeps his mop and bucket down there and has seen a ghost.

Frank and Dawn run the pub. Frank spent his time in the navy dreaming of running a thatched pub with hollyhocks and a bit of a lake. When he described it to Dawn she gave him short shrift. 'You won't get me living in a tumbledown place like that in the middle of nowhere'. Dawn was born to the trade, in a flat above a pub. She keeps her eye on every penny and every customer: it is Frank's job to be popular. Dawn keeps her account books, receipts and invoices and notes to the till, and enters the day's takings meticulously. Which is just as well, what with no smoking, the credit crunch and Health & Safety. She is presently in the kitchen of their flat, hands scrubbed, hair tied back and covered with a scarf, as she slices and fills three dozen baps, wraps each separately in cling film and attaches their computer-printed labels: chicken and mayo, cheese and ham, cheese and chutney. Health and Safety would have plenty to say about that (what, food prepared on the premises?!!) but thirty six filled rolls from the baker would have cost 36 and sold for 72, profit 36. But thirty six unfilled baps delivered daily costs 12, filling bought from Morrisons twice weekly costs about 8, total 20, sold for 72, profit in the region of 52. So much for Health and Safety. Frank carries them in their shallow basket to the shelf behind the bar, then he lights the fire and unlocks the front door, letting in a few early customers, flips the hatch and goes behind the bar. The regulars are usually men, come in to have a pint, read the paper, grumble or laugh, gossip, joke and banter. Some drop in while they take the dog for a walk. There is always a bowl of fresh water for a dog.

Richard Francis is a fine writer with a good ear for dialect and its nuance and irony. His characters are crisply drawn: THE OLD SPRING is a character-driven novel, ambitious, dramatic, sharp-edged, funny, but touched with sadness. This is Francis's ninth novel, and perhaps his best. It is a joy to read.

Paula McMaster


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