In the middle of a long winter, in the middle of a long stretch of lockdown, a year into the pandemic, what could be better than a night out with good friends? Not much, I’d say. That’s why on Saturday night the readers of High Heels in the Wilderness dressed themselves in their cosiest knits, donned their scarves and boots, and set off for a convivial evening of good food, great conversation, and maybe some really bad singing. A pandemic pub night…. just for us ladies… was on order.
If you’re new to my blog, I should tell you that we do this every so often. Have a make-believe get together when we can’t get together for real. I mean there is a pandemic, and we do live all over the world. But there is nothing a little imagination and a small wave of my wand cannot overcome.
So around seven o-clock on Saturday evening, ladies from Yorkshire to Virginia, from California to British Columbia wrapped their scarves tightly, buttoned up their coats, and stepped out their back doors. Oddly enough, it was snowing lightly. Everywhere. And following my instructions they headed off on foot. Through garden gates, down driveways, and up village or city streets.
Soon, through the now heavily falling snow, they saw a small footbridge up ahead. And an old-fashioned sign pointing over the bridge: “This way to the pub, ladies.” They crossed the bridge with a little trepidation, admittedly. And on the other side, found a small but growing group of equally bemused women. What the heck?
Then, looming up out of the swirling snow they spied the open door of a white, half-timbered building. Light spilled invitingly out onto the snow. They heard music, and laughter. “Well… if it worked for Gene Kelly and Van Johnston in Brigadoon, I guess it can work for us,” someone chuckled.
“Welcome, welcome,” I cried as the ladies streamed through the door. “This is the Ashton Pub,” I explained. “World famous, at least in the Ottawa area.” My buddy Erica, who lives in Ashton, stood beside me grinning. “What a miracle we’ve wrought, eh?” I whispered to her.
“What the heck, Sue?” Frances exclaimed. “I know, eh?” I responded. “Guess I thought you might be tired of those first class flights, like the last couple of get-togethers. Besides, going to the local pub on foot is such a classic English thing, don’t you think? Not something many of us Canadians can do. And how cool to leave your house in SoCal or Glasgow and arrive in little old Ashton, Ontario after a five minute walk and a footbridge over the Jock River? Just like in Brigadoon. Ha.”
More ladies spilled through the door. My local friends Marina and Linsey showed people where to hang up coats. Wendy, Elaine, Liz B, and Rosie who’ve been to almost all our events, helped break the ice with newbies some of whom were gazing around with a “what the heck did I get myself into?” look on their faces. Soon everyone was moving off in search of drinks, chatting like old friends.
The door, caught by the wind, banged open again. New arrivals stamped snow off their boots, my high school friend Jeannie among them. They were all laughing. Jeannie was bent almost double laughing, and trying to catch her breath. When she straightened up, I saw she was holding a bright red dog’s leash. Oh my god, there was Doug, her new golden retriever puppy at her feet.
When she could talk, she explained. She’d set off for the pub, while her husband was preparing to take Doug for a walk. But Doug had other ideas. He pelted down the street, and across the bridge after her, trailing his leash, with Rob calling for him in the distance. She just had time to yell, “It’s okay, I’ve got him,” before Rob disappeared in a swirl of snow. Good thing the Ashton Pub is dog friendly.
As Jeannie and Doug and their new friends headed to the ladies room to freshen up, I went in search of a drink myself. The Ashton Pub is a brew pub serving their own craft beer. So even though I’m not really a beer drinker, I thought I should try one.
After a few minutes everyone had settled in with a pint, or a glass of wine or sparkling water. Trays of assorted appetizers were served, and the noise of conversation and laughter rose.
One corner held a group catching up on their news since they last saw each other in Paris in December. Another table was full of ladies congratulating Wendy on her guest post, and plying her with questions about her travels. Soon the group was sharing their own travel stories, of precarious roads driven in rental cars, stunning vistas at the end of a long day of hiking, or memorable meals enjoyed in tiny restaurants down back alleys in strange cities. A third group was talking books. What they’d been reading, consulting their phones for details, and explaining which books they’d recommend, and which ones they’d abandoned in frustration.
Some of us table-hopped. Talking books here, and travel there. I stopped for a while at a table talking about fashion. And about how great it was to be able to go somewhere to wear our good clothes. Or at least our better clothes, better than what we’d be wearing at home. How we’d been longing to plan an outfit to wear somewhere other than the grocery store.
At another table, I listened to a few of the still-working crowd tell of the unrelenting stress of working during the pandemic. Others who were retired nodded solemnly, and sympathetically. “You’ll get through this,” they said to women they barely knew, but with whom they’d felt an instant rapport. I saw a couple of the younger women gulping back tears at the kindness of those who had been strangers only a couple of hours ago. “Here, hold Doug,” Jeannie smiled as she passed him across the table to someone. “Always works a treat for me when I’m down.”
After a bit, waitresses appeared with menus and we ordered dinner. I don’t know about you, but I never pass up a chance for pub-style fish and chips. Especially with homemade tartar sauce. We tucked into our meals and the room grew quieter. For a while. Eventually just like every time we get together, once our plates were removed, many of us refilled our glasses and moved around the room. Trying to talk to as many people as possible.
Then, at nine o’clock the band took their seats and picked up their instruments. They began to play softly, and as the talking died down, they launched into a Beatles set. Oh my, they were playing our songs. We clapped and sang along.
Then it was Carole King. I know every word to every song on the Tapestry album. And so did most of us. “You just call out my name/ And you know wherever I am/ I’ll come running, to see you again/ Winter, spring, summer or fall/ All you have to do is call/ And I’ll be there, yes, I will/ You’ve got a friend.” We sang, and swayed back and forth, shoulder to shoulder, smiling, and then laughing. And finally clapping and stamping and whistling when the song was over.
I’m guessing those musicians had never seen such a rowdy crowd of middle-aged women. “I’ll bet they thought we were little old ladies,” I yelled across to Joanne. “You can’t be a little old lady in black leather pants,” she hooted back. Ha. “You’ve got that one right, kiddo,” I grinned.
Between sets, the musicians wandered among the tables, taking requests. “If we know it, we’ll play it,” they said. “Do you know any Irish pub songs?” I asked. You can’t have a pub night without a few Irish songs. I called over to Jeannie. “Remember that song they used to play at the Riverview Arms when we were in university?” I asked. “The one about the seven old ladies who were locked in the lavatory?” she called back. That was the one. Ha. Turned out that the band knew it, and so did most of the ladies. Oh my. What a blast from the past that was. So many years since we’d sung that song. So much water under the bridge since then.
I began to think of all the old songs sung with old friends. And now with new friends as well. And felt a bit teary. Gad. If I wasn’t careful, I’d have to go and get Doug for a cuddle.
After a few more songs, the musicians packed up and called goodnight to us. They were followed closely by the waitresses, who waved on their way out, snow swirling in before the door closed behind them. They had to drive home, and the snow had been falling steadily since we’d arrived. The roads would be treacherous. Erica who, as I said, lives in Ashton, disappeared into the kitchen when the pub owner motioned to her.
She came out smiling, a set of keys in her hand. There were thermos jugs of coffee and tea and hot chocolate set out in the kitchen. Along with plates of sweets: butter tarts, sticky toffee pudding all ready to be warmed in the microwave, a jug of sauce, and apple crisp. Ice cream was in the freezer. The owner was heading home too. We could help ourselves to dessert and hot drinks when we were ready, stay as long as we liked, and Erica would lock up. He’d built up the fire, uncorked a couple more bottles of wine, and left them breathing on the bar. What a kind man.
How oddly wonderful it felt to have the run of a pub late at night, to have the place all to ourselves. We topped up our glasses of wine, as Frances moved to the old piano in the corner. “Anyone for a little Cat Stevens?” she called, as she began to pick out the notes of “Moonshadow.” We gathered around the piano, searching for lyrics on our phones, “Leaping and hopping on a moonshadow/ Moonshadow, moonshadow.”
When it was very, very late. After we’d sung, and laughed and talked, and laughed some more. After we’d scarfed down butter tarts and sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream. And sipped hot tea or coffee, cupping the mugs in our hands as we smiled at something someone said, some joke cracked, or funny story told. After we’d stacked our glasses and plates and mugs in the kitchen. And written a letter of thanks to everyone at Ashton Pub and all signed it. We reluctantly found our coats and hats and gloves, and were ready to go.
“Wait, where’s Doug?” Jeannie said. There followed a feverish search, until Wendy found him curled up, asleep on a bench by the dying fire. “I was sorely tempted to just slip him into my coat pocket and take him home with me,” she confessed. We all laughed and headed out into the snow. Erica locked the door, and arm in arm we tramped off to the footbridge.
But before we crossed the bridge, we hugged, and promised to do this again. Soon. Then we filed across the bridge over the River Jock, and each of us disappeared into the still falling snow, back the way we had come so many hours before. Then after a few minutes, the bridge itself disappeared. And Brigadoon on the Jock was no more.
I know the whole idea of Brigadoon on the Jock is corny in the extreme. Of course there’s no magic footbridge across the Jock River, but I can see it in my mind’s eye. I can, really. Just as I can see each of your smiling faces as you magically appeared through the swirl of snow. And as weird as it sounds, I kind of feel nourished by friendship after having written this. As if I’ve actually been on a pub night. As if I’ve actually sat around with you guys, and shared a glass of wine, and talked books and travel and clothes. Listened to old stories and sang old songs with you. And walked home arm in arm through the snow.
Now how weird is that?
P.S. There actually is a real Ashton Pub, and it actually sits on the banks of the Jock River. And I’ve been there for lunch with my friend Erica who does actually live in Ashton. Not sure how the owner would feel about letting a rowdy crowd of middle-aged ladies have free run of his pub after hours though.
P.P.S. Thanks to everyone who played along, and sent photos for our pub night. Much appreciated. 🙂