I couldn’t bear to look. Through the gently moving net curtains my life was walking away. The sun continued to shine, warming the glass and the air in the room but leaving me cold and chilled. I turned away from the window, turning away from my past into a future I couldn’t see. What now? I couldn’t stop the relentless march of time or the emptiness that was slowly filling my very soul.
Biting my lip to stop the tears and searching the room for something to focus on and prevent the screams building, I saw the photo. Picking it up, I studied the laughing faces and the joy it portrayed. I would never know that joy again. I know that now. There is nothing but darkness, even the sun has moved behind a cloud as if to confirm my diagnosis.
Twenty years I have nourished and tended this life making sacrifices and avoiding trouble. Happy memories are overtaken by dark thoughts of opportunities missed,, of sleepless nights and worry. In that time my hair has greyed and I have lost the sparkle of youth on my skin. Was it worth all the pain, all the money? Glancing again at the woman in the photo I barely recognise myself. That woman knew who she was and had a great sense of self, brimming with confidence she radiated happiness.
My phone vibrates in my pocket and I answer. My reason for living speaks firmly but with love:
“ Mum, stop moping, I’ll be back at the end of term. I love you”
Yes it was worth it. Every second.
“I’m going to tell you something that only my family know. As a painter you must have a keen eye. You probably already recognise that I bear a striking resemblance to the famous writer and polemicist, George Bernard Shaw. A few years ago I acted as his double at several grand events he did not wish to attend. He regarded it as a delicious joke that people at these gatherings would fawn over the great GBS, not realising they were being duped.
We were members of the same London Club and had become firm friends. One evening something happened which caused us to hatch the plan for me to impersonate him. One of the members approached me with a face like thunder. Towering over me as I was savouring my post-prandial brandy and cigar he fulminated in a stentorian voice about the unpatriotic nature of my support for Hitler and Mussolini. I did not disabuse him of the idea that he was addressing not the controversial GBS but a self-effacing retired Permanent Secretary at the Department of Ag and Fish. Hidden behind his newspaper across the room GBS had been observing this tirade with great delight.
After my assailant had stormed out without giving me the opportunity to correct this case of mistaken identity, GBS joined me. He quoted himself, which he often did and dismissively referred to the fellow who had accosted me, who happened to be an MP. ‘He knows nothing and thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career.’ We laughed heartily at this bizarre episode but then came up with the plan to replicate the charade at certain events of our choosing.
I am not a vain man but my double first at Oxford did equip me to hold my own in intellectual debate and mimic GBS’s often eccentric stance on issues. None of the distinguished people I hoodwinked suspected a thing. It was a delightful and uniquely uncharacteristic departure for me. To quote my doppelganger GBS, ‘We don’t stop playing games because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.’”
Would he be back, and did I care? He wasn’t, as they say, ‘my usual cup of tea’, but there had been something, just something, I couldn’t deny…
“That’ll be three and fourpence, please,” I said, handing him the small plate and a china cup. He fished his pocket for change, smiled, and held my gaze, a fraction too long, then tipped his hat and found his way to an empty table in a quiet corner of the room. It must have been about ten to five when I realised he was still there.
“Ooh! Should have asked me for a refill, sir. And the pie must have gone cold hours ago. Can I get you anything before we close?”
He fiddled with his cuff and cleared his throat, then smiled. “I expect you’ll think it strange,” he said “but I simply couldn’t eat. I work across the way, you see, and see you every morning as you arrive.” He added quickly, “Mine is the seat by the window, you understand, and I just can’t help seeing the comings and goings of the street.”
I smoothed my apron, flushed a bit I suppose, before answering - I will confess to feeling a little flustered.
“I don’t know about that, sir, I’m sure. There’s a dozen of us girls that work here and…”
That evening I let him walk me home. A proper gent he was, walked on the outside, next to the kerb, and held the umbrella so as I wouldn’t get wet.
“Perhaps I can see you again,” he ventured, as we reached my digs, “the cinema, or a walk in the park perhaps?”
I thought this was a little forward, but told him I would think about it. Then shut the door.
I haven’t seen him for a while, now. There’s another face at the window opposite the tearooms. I sometimes hear a letter on the mat and run downstairs, but it’ll be a bill or a letter from mother.
And as I sit, I feel the sunshine on my shoulder; the stirrings of new life within me.
This is an authentic eighteenth century conversation using words and phrases which have fallen out of use. You may need to consult the glossary at the end to interpret the italicised text.
Jake “You know what ‘appened to me today lads?”
Jem “Did you have a spot of canoodlin’ in the House of Venus again? You’re a bugger for the apple-dumpling shop Jake.”
Jake “Thou’s a lewd bugger Jem. It’s thee not me that’s a lecher and got thyself frenchified by that laced mutton in Bristol.”
George “Aye, Jake’s right…Bring your arse to an anchor Jem and let’s hear Jake’s tale.”
Jem “Hang an arse...I know Jake’s a bagpipe so I think I’d better pump ship afore he starts.”
George “I wager he’s gone to flay the fox as he’s full as a goat.”
Jem “I’m back…I know I sometimes piss more than I drink but neither of you is my whither-go-yeso leave me be.”
George “Tha does talk like an apothecary Jem but we are all friends here so flash the gentleman and let Jake speak.”
Jake “This afternoon I went into St Mary’s to hide as I saw that big paddy-whack I owes money too fast approaching. I crouched down in the last pew just as that old crow of a parson climbed up to the cackle tub to practice his sermon. He looked like he was going up a ladder to bed and I had to lie low as he ranted and raved for a full hour about his depraved and ungodly flock. As he came to his mighty fire and brimstone ending I saw him milk the pigeon and invoke God almighty to strike down any of his parishioners who had transgressed. Do you know what then transpired?
George No, what happened Jake?
Jake “There was a loud clap of thunder and the black cattle fell down the steps of the cackle tub and cracked his pate on the stone flags below. I knew as soon as look at him that he’d hopped the twig so I left the gospel shop and went straight to the constable to report what I’d seen ….that the paddy-whack had killed the parson. So Fergus McKinley is now safely in irons and I can buy you two another mug of ale!
House of Venus – a brothel
Apple-dumpling shop – a woman’s bosom
Frenchified – infected with the pox
Laced mutton – a whore
Bring your arse to an anchor – sit down
Hang an arse – hold back
Bagpipe – long-winded
Pump ship – urinate
Flay the fox – vomit
Full as a goat – very drunk
Piss more than I drink – brag
Whither-go-ye – wife
Talk like an apothecary- talk nonsense
Flash the gentleman – pretend to be a gentleman
Paddy-whack – Irishman
Cackle tub – pulpit
Going up a ladder to bed - being hanged
Black cattle - parson
Milk the pigeon – attempt the impossible
Hopped the twig – died
Gospel shop - church
He’s tried hard to dismiss the demons his father created. Nightly he drowns in alcohol, but he cannot forget. Still his demons haunt him, taunt him with his failures, as a son, as a husband, as a father; as a human being. But he yearns to be free; for his own and his family’s sake.
And so, finally, he returns. Steeling himself, he breathes deeply and prepares to enter his long deserted childhood home, and the demons’ lair. Cobwebs and dust festoon the tattered wallpaper and he shudders as he imagines hordes of spiders and demons scuttling around.
He's been scared of spiders since his father locked him in that pitch darkness for some minor infant transgression. He stumbles down the hallway, edging carefully past the cellar door. The mirror still hangs there, in the hallway, although it's shattered now. His flawed reflection, a triple-eyed monster, stares back at him.
His 'portrait' glowers; cruel and angry. And it's also his father’s face. They say he resembles his father, in looks and in deeds. It would be so easy to continue like this, he thinks, to go on as usual, embittered, unrepentant, evil.
But another side waits patiently in the shadows, and it now emerges. A man with hope in his eyes and a heart to match. The man he should have been.
The man he will become. He relaxes, and a kindly smile hovers around his mouth, despite the demons he can still see lurking behind him. They are powerless now; he releases their hold and orders them to trouble him no more. They tremble in fear at this newly-made, unfamiliar man and scuttle with their spider allies into the deepest darkest corners they can find.
He turns and strides out of the house; he will not return. His wife, clasping tightly onto their young son, waits anxiously outside. She glances up at his face; her eyes silently voicing her fear.
‘It’s over now,’ he says, 'I have dismissed my demons.' He takes them gently into his arms and they huddle together, as the fear disappears. And love returns.
A Gentleman of Class – that’s me. Moustache trimmed, eyebrows raised, just in the correct position to demonstrate my class.
So, you can imagine my upset when I was told to appear for the ‘sitting’ wearing protective clothing due to the current situation.
I was not happy.
But I did not want to miss the opportunity, so I went along, complete with a white protective collar, which almost strangled me, I can tell you.
I took out one of the ‘compulsory protective garments’ and held it in front of me by way of a protest, in a slightly effete manner, I have to admit, as if to say, ‘You have your rules, but I have my dignity.’
Then he had the cheek to comment, ‘You look as though you’ve got a bit of a sulk on.’
‘Sulk on’, me? I was so angry I wanted to slap him, but then I realised that it would be breaking his ridiculous distancing rules.
So I told him what I thought of him. Unfortunately, that made him so angry that he threw one of his paintbrushes at me, so hard that it stuck in the wall above my head. If I didn’t know any better, I would say that it looks as though I am being hanged by an invisible rope, causing my eyebrows to stand on end.
But he refused to take the offending brush out of the picture, saying that it symbolised his superiority.
So I asked him, ‘Why me?’
‘Because’ he replied in that officious tone of his, ‘It’s lockdown and we all have to take precautions, even privileged people like you.’
When it was all over, I was expecting, of course, to be situated next to other pictures which would provide a contrast to my glorious self. I wondered if I would be beside Dead Game or, better still, Kippers on a Newspaper. But who does he put me next to? A painting of the glorious Cassiobury House and two pictures of the beautiful Lady Jane Hyde!
So I stand here, poor little put-upon me.
A gentleman with a glove.
Rather than simply reading the poem, try singing it to the tune of We'll Meet Again.
We'll eat out again
Don't know where
Don't know when
But we’ll eat out again
Some sunny day
We'll go to theatres too
Just like we used to do
Once we're allowed
back on the motorway
Please say hello
To the hairdresser I know
Tell her my hair’s quite long
And if you should see
Anyone that knows me
You can sing them this song
We’ll hug again
Don’t know where
Don’t know when
But I know we’ll hug again
Some sunny day
We’ll shake hands too
And I’ll stand right next to you
When the blue skies
Chase these dark clouds far away
And when our loved ones die
We'll be there to say goodbye
Just like we used to do
We'll meet again
Don't know where
Don't know when
But I know we’ll meet again
Some sunny day
Maybe some day next year
We’ll gather without fear
Although that day
may be very far away
Although it's hard for me and you
With loved ones dying too
But we know this thing
will one day go away
When our grandchildren have grown
And have children of their own
You can sing them this song
So will you please hug hello
To the family we know
Tell them we miss them so
Tell them it won’t be long
Till we meet again
Don’t know where
Don’t know when
But I know we’ll meet again
Some sunny day
What a wonderful evening it had been.
I could still smell her perfume. If I slowly ran my tongue over my lips, I could still taste her. Deep red is my favourite colour, she didn’t disappoint. Leaning back in the upholstered armchair, I let out a sigh, perfection. Carefully taking the tobacco from the tin, I laid it into the bulb of my pipe, like a thrush lining its nest.
The match struck against the box and the flame burst into life, I gently drew on the pipe, pouring myself a brandy. With the fire crackling in the hearth and the green drapes drawn tightly against the hard January frost, I waited for the tobacco and alcohol hit. The heat of the brandy caught the back of my throat and I coughed. This was no Courvoisier, disappointing, it needed an accompaniment, a strong expresso maybe? In the cold kitchen, I stroked the delicate china cup, as smooth as skin, bought as one of a pair in an antique shop, the perfect size for a few mouthfuls of the syrupy hot liquid. I brewed the coffee, trying to ignore the mess after the leisurely meal. I would clear up in the morning.
Returning to the warmth of the lounge, I poured another brandy, and settled back into the armchair. As I inhaled the Golden Harvest tobacco, the smoke clouds rose up to the ceiling and a rolling grey mist collected in the corners of the room. I must have fallen asleep.
I awoke to the shrill ring of the telephone, I shuddered at the sight of the dead fire, grey and cold, like the winter morning creeping through the curtains, the empty Chianti and brandy bottles staring accusingly at me.
As I walked past the kitchen door I caught sight of Sally’s copper hair, lying in a puddle on the kitchen floor. Deep red is my favourite colour.
Lifting the receiver, I cleared my throat, “Hello.”
“Hello, Dr Lecter, it’s Joe from the police department, we have another missing person, Ms Sally Moncrieff, a red head again.”
Jenny and I always play “Spot our ancestors” in portrait galleries. We focus on noses. They run in families. I have a squashed nose, so did my father and grandfather. Jenny’s is more retroussé, her term, I never comment on her beak. She calls it her family’s badge.
In most galleries, we find a family nose or two and laugh about our possible lost inheritance but normally it ends there. Today, I am shaking in front of a picture of a woman in white in the Watford Museum.
I find Jenny and drag her to the picture.
“Look, it’s you from nose to toes.”
“I suppose there’s some resemblance. I’d love to have that white dress though.”
“Resemblance! If the picture wasn’t dated 1892, I’d think you were keeping secrets.”
“Who is it, anyway?”
“Adele Capel, she’s local aristocracy. Her family owned Cassiobury and lots more. She’s the best match to you I’ve ever seen. We’ve got to follow this up, find your family link.”
“This is only a game, David. Don’t get all Richard the Third serious. Next thing you’ll be suggesting DNA tests and tracing living relatives.”
“Not yet. We can do something easier first. Stand by the portrait; I want to take a picture of you both.”
“I’ve downloaded the Find Your Family app which uses AI to match people. We can ask for DNA tests later.”
Jenny’s turning up, yes, her nose.
“Smile, Jenny. I am sure the museum will love our story and help us find your rich living relatives.”
As I guessed, the app rates Jenny and Adele a 90% match. I’m shaking and can hardly get my words out when I speak to the museum archivist and show her my phone screen.
“Can you give us more information about Adele Capel and her descendents?”
The archivist laughs. “I see you have that new phone app. You’re the fifth person this week claiming facial matching with the Capels. It’s either chance or the family were more active in Watford than we thought. But the good news is so are we.”
The waiting was the problem, for the telephone to ring
She promised not to rock the boat, she promised not to cling
He told her she was different, she was funny she was kind
He loved her willing body, he loved her lively mind
He told her he was married, but said he’d tell his wife
And then they’d be together and start a brand new life
But days and weeks and months went by, he said he had to choose
The perfect day, the perfect time to break this special news
He took her out to dinner when his work brought him to town
He sometimes had to cancel, he sometimes let her down
She tried hard not to mind too much although it grieved her heart
For the time they spent together was worth the time apart
He sometimes sent her huge bouquets then he’d be round that night
Full of smiles and promises that filled her with delight
This was the way things had to be until he could be free
She knew and understood this and waited patiently
Then one day at breakfast time, she started to feel sick
She chose to think of something else, that usually did the trick
But when she went and did the test and saw the thin blue line
She knew that he’d be overjoyed, she knew that it was fine
He hardly touched the meal she’d cooked, he said “This can’t be true.
Whatever made you think that I would have a child with you?”
The blood within her veins turned cold, he left her there and then
She knew that she would never see or hear from him again
She made a call and packed a bag, arrangements put in place
She did her best with make-up to hide her tear-stained face
The waiting’s nearly over now, the taxi’s on its way
To take her to the clinic and end her dream today
“Good day Tom,” Jack hailed his friend. “Fare you well?”
“A good day to you,” Tom leaned closer to the table, tapping the brim of his hat with the long stem of his clay pipe in salute. “Naught ails me that a bit of ‘baccy and ale would not cure.”
Jack pointed to the opened screw of tobacco in front of Matthias. “I daresay, Matty will oblige when he stops daydreaming of a pair of enchanting brown eyes.”
Tom winked, lowering his voice to a growling whisper. “Mebbe, a gift of fancy French lace will give our Matty more than a face to dream on.”
“God’s Blood! Tom have you no sense?” Matthias growled embarrassed and angry. “Here! Fill your pipe if it will keep your mouth shut. Our business is not for strangers’ ears”. Matthias nodded at the table where two travellers were being served by the innkeeper. “The Preventives drink here as oft as we, on the hunt for information.” Jack caught the innkeeper’s attention and signalled for a jug of ale and another tankard which arrived quickly. The jug placed, handle towards Jack in the ‘safe’ signal.
“Tonight there is no moon and high tide’s at 2 o’clock. Will you all be ready? It’s a bigger cargo this time, brandy, lace, tea and tobacco.”
“Thirty ponies and as many landsmen. We’ll be there just after high tide at the marsh edge.” Tom said rubbing his hands together as if the coins were already in his grasp. “Matty?”
“The Tithe Barn, Farmer Astley’s barn and the tunnel between the church and the manor house are cleared and ready.”
Tom raised a toast, “Food for the babbies’ bellies.”
Jack drained his tankard in one go, then he and Tom left for the fields.
Matthias sighed, What the hell did the country expect with the duties so high. Dear God he did not blame them, food for the children it was, but the information and guineas the smugglers supplied to Napoleon’s France could destroy them all.
With a heavy heart Captain Ellesmere left to make his report.
“Darling; I’m sorry.”
“Mum, New York is a world away.”
Doretha put her hands into her apron pockets. Her face contorted by her tongue pushing out her cheek.
“Come on Ellie, grab your coat.”
Doretha dragged her youngest daughter down through Rotherhithe to the public pier by the Mayflower Pub.
She accosted the boy in the hut.
“The Gravesend ferry?”
“Lucky you, it’s running against the tide, a half-hour late.”
Doretha rummaged in her purse and payed the fare in tarnished coppers. She looked over to the punters drinking in the pub and winced. “There goes this week’s housekeeping.”
The ferry arrived and they wobbled across the gangplank and found a couple of spare seats. At the stern, a wedding breakfast of delinquent EastEnders were demolishing a case of Young’s beer and bottles of London Gin; knocking the bones out of their drab dockland’s lives.
They sailed past Silvertown where the guano streaked South-American traders and banana boats were moored.
“Can’t we go quicker?” Ellie quietly whispered into her Mum’s ear. Her shallow breaths chasing the salt air on the incoming tide. Her lungs matching the steamers fight for every inch of headway.
Eventually Tilbury arrived; all the ocean liners queued up awaiting their passengers and their Royal Mail.
“Mum, which one?”
Doretha’s search was blurred by the forest of funnels.
The ferry span in mid-stream, its counterturning screws churned up a maelstrom.
“Gravesend stage. End of the line.” Cried a boatman.
Doretha and Ellie stayed glued to the rail.
“Not alighting?” asked the boatman.
“No thanks, we’re looking for a ship.”
“Ah, single blue funnel.”
As the ferry tooted and left the Gravesend stage hugging the Kent station, the clouds closed in. Weather turning with the tide. Her toot was answered by a deeper hoot from a departing liner, cutting through the mocha water.
“Mum, a single blue funnel.”
They checked every porthole of the Anchises as the boats passed in the narrows.
“There, the red coat at the stern. Maisy!”
Ellie waved madly, until her weary arms fell like an anchor.
“Godspeed sister, Godspeed.”
The Old Mill House stood as it had always done since the Glorious Revolution, creaking with the seasons and providing nesting boxes in its eaves. High up on gable end facing the millpond was a small window where many a rambler recalled seeing the ghostly image of Mavis the Witch who was believed to have cast spells in the house.
In the years before the war, the house had only one occupant, an old woodman called Richard Wren. Wren was a loner, but every Guy Fawkes night, would provide generous amounts of dead tree wood for our village bonfire and for a few hours would tell haunting tales of Mavis to us children. Wren also gave us carved animals as a gift; I still have a squirrel that sits on my desk in my study. As soon as the hot soup and bread had been eaten, Wren would bid us all farewell and another year would pass before we saw him again.
One Guy Fawkes evening in 1938, Wren did not appear. Having checked the house, father led a search in nearby woods. After an hour or so, father stumbled across a small cemetery and there covered in ivy was a stone tablet saying, ‘Here lies Richard Wren, died 5 November 1702, with his beloved wife Mavis, died 7 February 1695.’
The tractors pulled up short of the house from a makeshift track leading from Hempstead Road. Within minutes a wrecking ball on a pulley swung and beams split screaming to the ground. Birds fled with their infants and song from their once secured nests.
A funeral pyre was assembled from the debris and lit unceremoniously. No readings, no singing, no congregation. This was the saddest day of my life. As fire raged, so did my emotions.
A few days later, I strolled to the site of the Old Mill House for a final time. The burnt embers had cooled. As light snow flurries descended this early morning, there laying in the charred remains was an old chisel. I removed my scarf and wrapped up the tool. The chisel now sits alongside the squirrel.
The Glorious Revolution took place in England between November 1688 and May 1689. It involved the disposing and abdication of the Catholic King, James II, and the restoration of Protestant monarchy in form of Mary II (daughter of James II) and her husband William of Orange (also a nephew of James II).
We crept stealthily away from behind the marketplace’s waste container., my Mother proudly clutching her ‘prize’ wrapped in newspaper.
"Lay the table Lucy"
I dragged the wooden packing crate from its home under the kitchen window and set it in its daily resting place in the middle of the floor.
My three-year-old hands struggled to open the stiff wooden drawer, but finally I managed to yank it open to begin the search for the bone handled knives and forks.
"What's for tea Mother?" It was a freezing cold, dark winter's night, and we hadn't eaten the day before, so I was particularly looking forward to having a hot meal inside my rumbling belly.
"We have a real feast today, the very best salmon from the fresh fish stall."
My mouth was watering in anticipation. I tried desperately to watch how my mother was preparing our evening meal, but as usual she pushed me away snapping, "Get out from under my feet."
I carefully placed the cutlery into position, making sure that it was straight in line with the edge of the table, and that both sets were directly opposite each other. I scuttled into the living room for the dining chairs which resided in their normal home, beside the huge shiny brown radiogram. I struggled to drag them through to the kitchen each evening, but it was a challenge I cherished. Moving chairs was something I could normally manage without being scolded for being clumsy.
"Right, wash your hands, I'm dishing up."
I couldn't use the kitchen sink, I would have been reprimanded for being in my mother’s way, so I fearfully ventured out to the back yard, to face the place I hated; the dark, damp, spider infested toilet.
I sat down in anticipation as my mother ceremoniously placed the 'salmon' meal onto the table.
A slice of bread and a strange, smelly flat piece of fish.
I took my first mouthful and coughed as I felt something scratching the back of my throat. "Stop making such a fuss, they are only bones."
I don’t remember my Nan’s tinned salmon sandwiches ever tasting like that!
Adela Capel sat on the great-staircase; her fingers tracing the pineapple finials as she carried out a mental arithmetic. “Ninety-four; I’ve counted them all. After all, what’s a girl to do; it’s lashing down outside.”
Ravenhill her once Nanny, promoted ladies-maid, looked over her embroidery and shook her head.
“It’s alright Ravenhill, I’ve got a plan,” Adela took a sideways glance at the portrait hung on the stairs, “Grandmama always said there were ninety-five rooms. But for the life of me; I’ve been round the house three times and every time, come up one short.”
“Ma’am, you’re not thinking of hide-and-seek. Remember the kitchen pantry?”
“Look Ravenhill, every room… apart from the pantry, faces outwards; we are going to put one of those golden pineapple cut-outs; left over from the floricultural show in the park, into every widow. Then we’ll circumnavigate the house to see which window lacks. Al shazam, we’ll conjure up Grandmama’s missing room.”
Clenching umbrellas, Adela and Ravenhill were chased round the house by the rain as they spotted the tropical sunshine that emanated from each casement.
“Look Ravenhill; no pineapple.” Adela pointed up, to under the battlements and counted along.
Damp footprints trailed up the grand-staircase, in search of more important pineapples.
Adela tallied and expended windowpanes, ending in the state bedroom.
“Are you sure Ma’am? Queen Victoria’s staying here next month. Miss Adela, the sooner we get you married off the better, this is no engagement for a lady.”
Adela held up her hand, then pushed, prodded and poked around the oak panelling behind the four-poster bed. “It has to be here somewhere, Grandmama’s secret chamber. Maybe a forgotten Turner?”
With a click, then a dusty cough, a hidden door magically opened.
“Look, it’s Grandmama’s dressing room. All her brushes, lotions and her wardrobe.”
On the far wall, a picture of a young girl caught Adela’s attention. Her beauty stark even in the gloom and dust.
“Goodness; that’s you Ma’am.” Ravenhill sneezed.
“Gesundheit. There is a family likeness, but no, it’s a young Grandmama. Alas no Turner, but Ravenhill… all these taffeta dresses.”
Bill: “Ay, up, lads, you been in here long?”
Sam: “No, Bill. Just a few minutes. We woz waitin’ for you, wasn’t we, Jim?”
Jim: “That’s right. Waitin’ for you, Bill.”
Bill: “Don’t give me that. You’ve already got a half empty jug, Jim.”
Sam: “That’s your problem, Bill. Your jugs are always half empty, never half full. That’s negative thinkin’, Bill. You need to think positive, like.”
Bill: “I’ll think more positive when one of yous gets off your backside and gets me an ale in.”
Jim: “Alright, What you ‘aving then?”
Bill: “You mean they’ve got a choice in for us. That’d be a change.”
Sam: “No, don’t be daft. Only the same old gut rot they always serve. Oh, Betsy did say they’ve got a cider in. She said it’s good. Put a sheep’s leg in the cask and it’ll strip it to the bone in two days.”
Jim: “You must be joking. If you get that Betsy into your bed, you’ll be stripped to the bone in less time than that.”
Sam: “Betsy! Two more Jugs of gut rot over here please.”
Bill: “Did you hear what that posh bloke in the saloon bar was sayin’?”
Sam: “I never listen to posh blokes, they talk a load of old tosh.”
Bill: “It may be tosh but it was worryin’.”
Sam: “What could possibly worry you? When you’ve had five pints your only worry is if you’re goin’ to stand up ever again.”
Jim: “What was he sayin’ then, Bill?”
Bill: “He was tellin’ anyone who would listen that there is some sort of plague going to get us all.”
Sam: “A plague? They only have those in the Bible. Was he carrying one of those boards saying; ‘THE END IS NIGH’”
Bill: “No, he was serious. Said we’d all be told to stay in our rooms for six months.”
Jim: “Did this toff say who he was?”
Bill: “No, but someone called him Boris.”
Jim: “He’ll be lucky to live through the night talking like that in here.”
The final throes of a desperate man…
“My god I have done all I can!”
He howled at the moon,
through tears of frustration.
“A man’s job is to provide for his family
If you cannot do that, you flee!”
So, he left with no destination in mind
blindly going as far as the eye could see,
Knocking on doors, sleeping in sheds;
labouring at whatever work he could find.
At first, he was a victim, easy prey
for every vagabond and ne’er-do-well who came his way.
But as time went by, he stiffened his spine and narrowed his eyes
Became a master of deception, adept at telling lies.
He went from village to village working for a meal or some grain
His head bowed and expression blank to hide his pain.
He grew tired and weary tormented with thoughts
of the children he would never know.
Who would only hear of the father who left them,
he would never see them grow.
He thought of his steadfast wife Josie with gratitude and pride
Although relentless poverty had forced them apart
Childbirth and drudgery had soured his once beautiful bride
Her lips had thinned as her hips grew wide.
It was easier to forget his family in the bustling market towns
When he could drown out his thoughts with ale or mead
Shamefully bought with his meagre earnings
And hastily gulped down with greed
He took comfort in faceless women who kept him warm at night
Barely noticing as they crept away at the morning’s first light.
More than five years passed
Before he returned to his home
Not a rich man but with more wealth than he had ever known.
But the path was unwelcoming
The hedges overgrown
No wife and kin ran out to meet him
Only the empty house mocked him in greeting.
Howling though no one could hear
he scattered precious seeds which had cost him dear
“My God I have done all I can
to prove I am not a worthless man!”
I held my jug in my hand as I waited for Mr Bumpy to finish his tale.
Mr Bumpy was regaling me with his trip to town today and his encounter with a fiery young woman selling smoking pipes. “I tell ya, she was shouting something and she was spinning around.“
Mr Bumpy continued his tale and it transpired that this young woman had a voice like a fog horn and an attitude to match. He watched the young boyos try their luck and they got a slap for their efforts.
“Mr Smith, I tell ya, sure ya can’t blame them young uns for trying! With a gob like that and the spinning and moving like a mad woman; sure, we could see her petticoats!”
“So, what was she shouting?”
“I never got to hear as she ran into me, mumbled something and ran off, as did the young boyos.”
“Erm, so how do you know she is unruly?”
“Well, what well-bred woman shouts and moves like that in the market place. I didn’t stay long, but there was some laughter in the crowd and sure I know young John who ran after her; he is the doctor’s son and a fine young man!”
Mr Smells had appeared behind me “I wonder Mr Smith, could it be that this young woman was being insulted and she was trying to defend herself? Maybe, just maybe she was shouting for help? Since she was distressed, seeing her petticoats was possible by the level of distress she was suffering. Maybe she was spinning around searching for a sympathetic stranger to come to her aid!”
“You weren’t there Sir” shouted Mr Bumpy.
“Oh, but I was, Sir!
“The doctors lad was the worst of them. He’s nothing but a spoilt, lecherous, bad mouthed little bully! The young lady escaped into my shop.”
Mr Smells leaned in beside me and asked me how I was enjoying my new pipe. I introduced Mr Bumpy to Mr Smells, explaining that Mr Smells makes the best pipes this side of Wolverhampton at Smells and daughter.
“Cheers Mr Smells!”
1810 – Bristol: Within a small, smoke filled tavern near the harbour wall, I was seated at a meagre and heavily scraped wooden table. I was weighing up the three men in front of me, whilst doing so I was also happily enjoying a surprisingly good ale.
The slim-built man seated at my table was called Clem. He had a natty hat set at a jaunty angle and had tried very badly to mimic a dandy cravat but with his confident air he was managing to pull-off the affect somewhat. His fellow seated companion was a more robust and angular featured man called Jed who was displaying a languid demeanour and sporting a large hat and prominent nose to match. Their third companion, who Clem was taking great joy in the fact that there were no more chairs left for the fellow to sit on, shrugged, gave me a stare with a sly grin and started to methodically refill his common clay pipe, the same of which Jed also had and who started speaking to me first in a low deep voice.
“Well let’s get down to business then squire. Tom here said you were a posh cove looking for some kegs. How many?” Jed had nodded over his shoulder to the standing companion to acknowledge Tom. I leaned in nearer and confidently replied. “I want half your stock, but I want to try the nectar first.” He gave me a steady stare, but it was Clem who got up and then whispered in Tom’s ear.
Tom scurried off to the door at the side of the tavern and quickly returned with a small metal cup and passed it eagerly to me. The French brandy ‘nectar’ warmed the inside of my chest like a mother’s hug. They saw my enjoyment and stood up.
We all shook hands and as we were walking to the side door. I knew I would never taste that nectar again and suddenly felt an urge to tell them of the 20 custom and excise officers currently surrounding the tavern. .