Much has been written about The Golden Heart and its irrepressible landlady Sandra Esquilant. Both are solid foundation stones in the jumbled melee of Spitalfields, emanating molten amber together; quite literally in the golden lager eased into fingerprinted glasses and also figuratively, in the warmth that emanates from the candle-lit back bar and from Sandra’s own soul.
Many are inspired by Sandra’s ravenous appetite for life, yet few are given a behind the scenes pass to witness the true influence she has over the wide-ranging scope of her local menagerie. The heady sweat of the Brick Lane curry houses mingled with the cries of the old East End market sellers flogging colourful knits to creative types creates the opportunity for many unlikely friendships to blossom, and from my exclusive vantage point behind the bar in The Golden Heart, I have an exclusive ticket to the show. From here I watch a myriad of lives fall through my fingers like quicksilver, characters imprinting themselves forever on my mind until they disappear forever through the door and back onto the relentless streets of London Town.
The pub itself boasts a certain timeless quality. The dust speckled rows of coloured glass bottles boasting mysterious intoxicants are somehow reminiscent of jars in a Victorian sweet shop, boasting sugar-coated delicacies. The old ale pumps splutter and groan at the touch with the grumble of forty years’ worth of late nights and early mornings coughing up liquid gold to thirsty punters. The only clues as to the passing of time are the fresh vases of flowers blooming across the windowsills and the changing of the artwork displayed proudly on the walls.
When one pushes open the worn wooden door of The Heart, it is always a surprise as to what scene is unfolding inside. In the bleak throes of winter, one will often find groups of friends in woollen jumpers nursing whiskeys and cold fingers in the velvet glow of the open fire. On summer days, the pavements outside of the pub pulsate with throngs of revellers drunk on sunshine, letting their cigarette smoke curl through the long days and into the balmy nights. Whatever the holiday season; albeit Christmas, St. Valentine’s Day, Easter or Halloween, one will find an appropriate glistering cluster of coloured lights, or a delicately crafted floral garland or hanging pumpkin marking the occasion. Sunday afternoons are prone to digressing into frantic evenings of Irish jigging or ballroom dancing, the well-informed jukebox turned up full, Sandra twirling across the floor with a hula-hoop in hand and laughter in her eyes.
My duties at The Heart can be somewhat unconventional; occasionally I have to lure the resident dog, Rascal down the street with a couple of chips after he has made a mad bid for freedom. I have been known to scour Brick Lane for disposable cameras dressed up as a skeleton, and was once left on the doorstep of Gilbert and George’s house armed with an enormous bouquet of pink roses, while Sandra hid, giggling around the corner. I take telephone messages from probing journalists and kindly church-goers, and ensure safe delivery of an abundance of gifts for Sandra from her well-wishers. I locate lost keys and lipsticks and tell Sandra she looks fabulous when off to art parties and dinners at the House of Lords. I once taught Tracey Emin how to pour a pint of Guinness and have often grabbed falling glasses as Sandra dances on top of the bar wielding a picture of David Bowie or the pope.
My favourite part of the job, however, is absorbing the lives of the regulars who are drawn to the scarlet flicker of the Truman’s Brewery sign that hangs above the door; lost moths floundering for a flame, all whom feel that there is a home here for them under the curious eyes of this watchful shepherd.
There is the lawyer, who casually sups Carlsberg as she rolls off the day’s murder cases with a weary wave of her wrist, coming here to rinse her hands of blood thirst and to nourish herself in the unchanging glow of the orange lamps. There is the market seller, with wanderlust in his eyes and a gold earring in his left ear lobe, who has a penchant for Morrissey and sleeps on shop floors and cleans houses on the side, in order to be able to pay to send his son to university.
There are the tattoo artists, who lean against the bar with tendrils of flowers and cryptic hieroglyphs snaking across their skin, ingrained inky memories and the beautiful bruises of life. There are the chefs from the restaurant across the road, who down pints late at night with tired eyes, bringing me gifts of fresh Chelsea buns in crinkled silver foil, pistachio nuts hidden in the pastry. There is the singer, who skitters brightly across the wooden floor in her stilettos, nursing a merlot to soothe her throat after a night playing her voice, and the lady always adorned with glittering jewels and a glass of rose, gushing compliments across the bar.
There are the bespectacled German hairdressers who smoke on the step outside, enveloped in each other, and the man who makes neon lights for a living, his fingers blistered and eyes dulled from a lifetime spent illuminating the worlds of others. There are the architects, who assemble miniature model castles on the drink-stained tables, and the bearded French cyclists who dress like beatniks and address me as ‘Madame’. There is a man who designs artificial snowmen and a couple of kindly stockbrokers dreaming of escape, a glazed local who calls everybody ‘Darling!’ and sings in a high falsetto after one too many Kronenbergs. A favourite of mine is the man who stands in the centre of the bar and never speaks, smiling with kind eyes when he would like another drink, the exact change clutched in his weather-worn hand. I like to invent different stories for him and enjoy the gentle, mutual silence that we share.
Here drink the poets and the plumbers, those who run up large bar tabs and those who scrounge pennies from empty pockets. There are those bubbling with the promise of their future and those weary with a thousand long evenings such as these. My occupation is a careful one; I have to be able to judge with a glance who needs to talk, who prefers quiet anonymity, who is thirsty for a friend and who should be politely told that they should go home to sleep. I say little and smile often, delighting in such an unrestricted view through the open windows of stranger’s lives. And I too, at the end of the night, unlocking my bicycle and aching to fall into dreams, turn and glance at that bright Truman’s sign, and feel that I have a home in The Golden Heart.