The Cross Keys is in a maze of alleyways so confusing I want to be running a ball of twine to find our way out again. It’s an ancient, tucked-away drinking hole, stone arched windows of gilded glass, a stone step smoothed flat as a pat of butter, the timbers low and black. Even I have to duck for the door beam, but once we’re inside the place opens out. The snugs and parlours and tap rooms have all been removed to create one big drinking hall, with a long, curving bar radiant with bottles and chrome and glass, and a brass pipe running along the bottom.
Jack is in one of the window seats with one of the bar staff standing next to him, a hand resting on his shoulder.
‘Jack’s one of our regulars,’ she says, giving him an encouraging squeeze. ‘He’s been coming in since forever.’
To be fair to Jack, the light through the window’s not all that flattering, giving everyone a slightly jaundiced complexion. But the glass isn’t responsible for the tideline of dirt on Jack’s scalp, his tattered, unwashed clothes, and a yeasty fug of neglect about him as rich as the golden patina of nicotine on his fingers.
‘In fact I think when Jack started coming in the landlord was still technically a pirate,’ she says.
Jack gives her a sorry little nod, but he’s not in the mood for banter. He’s stuck in the chair with pains in his right and left flank, no doubt a recurrence of the kidney infections he says he’s prone to. He says he doesn’t want pain relief. The girl tidies the table, putting his newspaper, glasses and huge mobile phone into a carrier bag whilst we help him into our carry chair.
She holds the doors.
We wheel him through.‘That’s a shame,’ says someone outside, one of two passers-by who stand aside as we come out. I think he means us, carrying a man out of a pub, but as I wheel Jack away along the bumpy flags, I suppose there’s a chance he was actually commenting on the fact that the little boutique shop opposite had a sign in the window: Closing Down. Final Reductions.