REMIX. REMODEL. REFILL.

Adult life, played out in pubs, is not always a neat and complete album. Sometimes it’s a surprising remix. By Jessica Mason. Illustration by Adam McNaught-Davis

I met him in the pub. I didn’t know if it would be weird to kiss him hello. After all, I didn’t know him. And I was a mess. I mean, just five days before Christmas I’d heard those brutal words: ‘It’s over. You need to leave.’

Head down, I wondered how and when I had become so disposable. My son was about to turn three. I had split from his father when he was nearly two. And, together, we had moved to the seaside to start again.

I was at the beginning of a new relationship. My boyfriend had bought a house nearby. And a puppy. And we moved in. But that was all gone now. Out of the blue, he’d asked us to leave and things just sort of stopped.

I looked at my little boy curled up asleep. He didn’t know he’d never be going home again. Or that he’d never see his dog again. I couldn’t stop hugging him, apologetically.

I took him to the park. While we were there he fell off the roundabout and broke his leg.
On Christmas Eve we left the hospital with his leg in plaster. And my heart in pieces.

On New Year’s Day, I officially registered my son and I as homeless.

The realisation that my boyfriend had begun seeing a married woman had knocked the life out of me. I looked up her husband and we agreed to meet at the pub — to cry into our beer and to compare stories.

The next time we met, he helped us find somewhere to live. He was fast becoming my friend and his consideration was real. I began to get butterflies when he sent me messages. My sister and friends told me not to confuse empathy with affection. They told me to be careful. They told me I had baggage and so had he.

But I didn’t listen.

Instead, we went from pub to pub, talking and drinking. I guess, our lives had just dissolved behind us and the future was an empty page. We discussed everything. In pubs you can do that. You can retell your story while your palm embraces a pint and feel truly relaxed. Pubs have a unique quality that can put people at ease — it’s their informality.

Plus, you can laugh. Really belly laugh. You can throw your head back and roar with laughter or dissolve into giggles. And we did that too — one pub after the other. We laughed in them all.

Homelessness had forced into focus how important shelter and warmth were to wellbeing. Pubs afforded me a place to exist when I belonged nowhere. A place where I could feel at home, despite the absence of one. And, while hearing life stories unravel at each table, pubs made me feel less alone. They made me aware that we are all just a fusion of happenstance — a blend of everything that has occurred in our lives to bring us to that point, muddled with apprehension for a future that will almost certainly contain more plot twists than the hyperbolic indoctrination of a Happily Ever After.

Pubs made sense of life.

The insides of those walls knew more about my deepest desires and misgivings than any storybook or manual could explain. I grew to believe that real life was sculpted by both circumstance and how we dealt with it all. Friendships were borne just like that. And closeness too.

In the pub, we talked about it all. First dates, worst dates, graduations, growing up, bad jobs, dashed hopes and unfulfilled dreams.

He’d had cancer and the chemotherapy and radiotherapy meant that he couldn’t have children. I held his gaze and squeezed his hand. Then I got a round in. We can’t fix everything. Sometimes, we just need more beer and crisps though.

Is there anything you can’t talk about in the pub? I don’t think there is. The atmosphere of a welcoming boozer makes us braver at opening up. It makes us feel no shame. There is no dress code and there are no parameters for discussion.

We covered all topics, back then. We sat across from one another in pubs and we emptied our hearts as regularly as we did our glasses. But then we refilled them.

And I’m so glad we did.

His name is Toby and he’s my best friend. I married him five years ago. He became stepfather to my eldest son Spencer and who now, incidentally, also has a younger brother, Felix — who was an IVF baby. We live together in the North Laine in Brighton where we visit the pub as a family (rather a lot). And where we keep refilling our glasses.