The pubs reopened in England on the 4th July and Birmingham’s gay scene took its first tentative steps back to normality.
Ruru (See ‘The Boy with Hearts in His Eyes’ – 7th June 2020) had reserved a table for the reopening afternoon at Missing within minutes of their online booking system going live. I suspect Ru was like an excited child on Christmas morning (well, Eid in his case) when that Saturday arrived. I imagine him up at the crack of dawn, washed, dressed, sprayed with far too much cologne, man-bag packed and sat on the bottom step of the stairs, impatiently counting down the minutes until his pre-booked Uber arrived to take him to our 4 o’clock slot at his beloved home from home.
My partner and I went into the city centre early ourselves, but only so we could experience a sense of normality by reviving our semi-regular weekend routine of shopping in the Bullring markets and Chinatown. We were reassured to see that everything was as we had left it, although quieter, and all the familiar faces were where they should be. We were served with characteristic severity by the women at the Polish supermarket, our favourite Romanian fruit & veg seller (See ‘The Art of the Flirt’ – 5th July 2020) greeted us with an enthusiastic handshake, which morphed into a more reserved fist-bump as he remembered current etiquette (We got free tomatoes btw.) and chatted amiably with the stout woman with the deadpan demeanour at the cheese stall. Our world was back in business!
At the indoor market, my partner rushed off to check that the handsome lad with the caramel eyes was back where he should be, while I stopped for a favourite snack.
I was asked, “Are you eating these in?”
“Erm… Yeeeees,” I replied hesitantly, thinking, Does being stood at a flimsy shelf, two foot from the counter, constitute ‘eating in’?
“Then I will have to take your contact details.”
“Really?” I grinned, “Just for a pot of whelks?”
She smiled back. “I know! Welcome to the new normal.”
We finished our shopping over an hour earlier than expected, so headed to Missing to see if it we could possibly gain entry ahead of schedule, only to find that Ruru had beaten us to it! He was sat on display at a table set up on the redundant stage. Although he claimed to feel self-conscious, being so prominently in the spotlight (literally, as some of the stage lighting was turned on), I suspect that he loved the attention it guaranteed.
Customers at Missing were now greeted at the door and their details taken. A one-way system was in place around the bar and you were politely, but firmly stopped in your tracks if you absentmindedly went against the flow. You were assigned a table and table service was recommended, although you could still order at the bar, as long as you did not linger.
“The staff aren’t smiling much,” Ruru remarked.
“This is all new to them too,” I replied. “They are scared of getting something wrong, I think they are too nervous to smile.”
This went for the customers as well. Initially, you felt like you daren’t even look at the people on the next table, let alone speak to them and certainly not leave your seat, but it didn’t take long for people to loosen up. Smiles and laughter soon returned, and banter began to bounce between the various bubbles sat in their assigned spots.
“I feel like I’m in a retirement village,” I commented, “where everyone is too infirm to move.”
A guy on the next table overheard me and, indicating someone he knew on the opposite side of the room, bellowed, “The gentleman on table twelve needs his bag changing.”
Friends and acquaintances began to drift in.
I spotted Dave and popped over for a brief, socially distanced, chat. He is an amiable regular on the scene, who speaks with a hypnotically soft Brummie drawl, peppered with long pregnant pauses as he considers every phrase. I had last seen him on that long-ago evening when the bars had closed for Lockdown.
“You said we would be back in a couple of weeks,” I reminded him.
“Hmmmm…,” he pondered, lips pursed. “Did I… saaaaaay… that?” He paused for another eternity. “It did… last… a… little bit… looooonger… than I… expec-ted.”
His sentences can be so protracted that it is possible that he had only just come to the end of the previous thing he was saying on that closing night, mere moments before the pubs re-opened.
Meanwhile, at our spot-lit table, Ruru was proudly showing off his meticulously groomed beard.
Knowing that Ruru has a technique for getting the line so fastidiously sharp, I asked, “Did you use Sellotape?”
“No, I used masculine tape,” he told me.
“What is masculine tape?”
“You know, masculine tape! That white tape you can rip.”
“That’s ‘masking tape’ you muppet!”
“I knew that really,” he unconvincingly replied, looking sheepish.
It makes his beard look more masculine. Love it!
I excused myself and went upstairs to use the toilet. Only one person was admitted to the toilets at any time. Where is the fun in that?
On the way back down, I stuck my head around the door of the function room, where additional seating had been laid out. I spotted my mate Joe sat on his own, so automatically invited him to join us at our table.
“I don’t think I’m allowed to, am I?” Joe asked, all a fluster.
“Oh, good point,” I conceded, “but surely you count as my ‘social bubble’?”
“Best not. I don’t want to get barred in the first hour of being let back in.”
Fair enough, I thought, especially as he’d only just been allowed back into Missing, a few days before lockdown commenced, following a previous barring for an incident that he doesn’t even remember.
It turns out that Joe was right, the new guidelines meant that he couldn’t join us.
“You could all go outside, rebook and then come back in as a group,” I was informed.
“Thanks,” I replied, “but that’s too much bother. He can stay upstairs.”
It was good to see Missing in action once again.
We moved on to Sidewalk, with its pavement seating now extended down the street, then the last port of call for the day was Eden, a popular pub that faces Hurst Street with cocky independence.
We were greeted at the entrance by Eden’s joint owner and silver fox, a guy who is universally fancied by every man, straight woman and twink on the scene. We were escorted to a table in the corner with designated areas and pathways through the bar clearly marked out in that black and yellow hazard tape you see at crime scenes (Now, that is ‘masculine tape’).
Because of the pitstop at Sidewalk, the first thing I did in Eden was dash for the toilets. Every other urinal basin was sealed off to ensure social distancing. As I took up position and unzipped, I asked the guy one urinal along from me, “Would you say that this is a meter?” I quickly added, “I mean the distance between us, I’m not bragging.”
The whole of our day out had been about reassuring ourselves that the world we knew was on its way back after its four month hiatus, that things hadn’t changed beyond all recognition and that we would indeed all meet again, so we were delighted to see the final piece in the puzzle stood in her rightful place behind Eden’s bar. This cherished matriarch, force to reckoned with, Brum’s answer to Corrie’s Betty Turpin and runner up in last year’s Best Bar Staff category in the Zone Magazine poll, was where she should be, pulling pints and maintaining order with stolid expertise.
“Maura,” I called out, “I want to give you a hug, but I can’t.”
“I don’t think that she’s the hugging type,” my partner cautioned me.
I suspect that he is right, but in different circumstances I would have given it a damn good go, I was so pleased to see her.
It was good to be back. This ‘new normal’ would take a little getting used to, but the new systems and restrictions were enforced and adhered to with good humour. It was as easy as buying a pot of whelks.