"Four men in a Boat" story, by " Shipmate"

24 CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR Bedfordshire Clangers.      

Mike was a farmer in that he had married a farmer’s daughter and they had inherited her father’s farm.

Being also an ex Merchant Navy Officer his love of the sea was slightly stronger than his love of the land.  However, his love of his wife and family led him to change his profession from sailor to farmer although he was never to lose a hankering for the carefree life in the Merchant Navy. 

 He possessed a dry wit that became subtler as his intake of ale increased, although his favourite tipple was West Indian Rum.

As a young man he had not learnt about crop rotation or weed and pest control but had instead, been introduced to the delights of nautical matters such as navigation and seamanship.

  Of all his marine studies the one that he came to like the most was drinking.

Rather than being ashamed, he was proud, when returning for afternoon lectures in celestial navigation, to be met with a remark from the brilliant tutor who was engrossed in chalking up schematic diagrams with his back to the audience.  Although the lecture was due to start at Two p.m. precisely, Mike and his friend Mac hadn’t left the ‘Bunch of grapes until nearly five and twenty past.

Without turning round or even apparently noticing their furtive return, the lecturer said,

“Mr. Whitey, I would be eternally grateful if you could drink your lunch in one hour!” 

They genuinely appreciated this approach and were never late again.

Throughout his early career, he was attached to and sponsored by the largest U.K. oil tanker company and reached the zenith of his training by being enrolled on an extra Master Mariners course.  Having successful completed the course he returned to his tiny country village for the Christmas holidays and to await the examination results.

Someone once asked a lifelong sailor what he was going to do when he retired.

“I’m going to put a pair of oars over my shoulder and start walking,” he said,

“When the first person asks me what I’ve got on my shoulder, that’s where I’ll settle down.’ 

Sailors don’t expect there to be other kin in the middle of the country, so Mike was both suspicious and surprised when he overheard a conversation in the other bar of his local.

Because of background music and talking going on in his group, he didn’t quite hear all that was said but it was sufficient to catch his interest.

He couldn’t see who was speaking and although both bars were served from one long counter, a partition wall separated the saloon from the public bar.

Dick, the highly efficient young landlord and Paula his vivacious wife ran the Pub so well it made it, not only the most popular hostelry in the village, but a meeting place for farmworkers and townies alike.

The locals tended to be reticent in accepting newcomers so the different groups existed separately.  Occasionally exceptions were made and generally depended on status and the depth of the pocket.

Mike would have preferred the more raucous public bar but hitherto being a temporary resident, he hadn’t been fully accepted and knew more people in the saloon bar.

As in most real Pubs, the conversation was usually about current news items, the weather, local gossip and jokes but not necessarily in that order.  With one ear Mike was listening to the local odd job man regaling details of a suspected affair by the Vicar.  The odd job man was responsible for cutting the grass in the graveyard and surrounds and his best friend was the verger.  Mike wanted to hear more, as his wife was chief flower arranger and would be most interested when he recalled the story later and included a few extra details.  On the other hand his other ear had picked up certain words from behind the partition wall that caused him to concentrate on what was being said.

“…and I hit a patch of black ice and went aground on the triangle just after Marquis Hill,”

He knew the small island where High Road and Bury Road met at Marquis Hill.  What had caught his attention however, was the use of the word ‘aground’, which was uncommon amongst County folk who would have probably said, “I got stuck high and dry on.”

On the other hand, sailors commonly used the use of the adjective ‘aground’.

He turned to an accepted regular, who was a railway doctor but had lived in the village for several years and enquired if the doctor knew who was holding forth in the other bar.

“That’ll be John,” said the Doctor rather emphatically, “ Wears a suit, drives an old Bentley and lives in a wing up at the Bury.

“What’s he do?” enquired Mike.

“Not sure,” said Doc, “I think he used to be a sea Captain, but I don’t know what sort of boats because he seems a bit young.”

Mike determined to find out a bit more before revealing his chosen profession.

The third of January brought Mike good news by post.  He had passed.  It was also the first snow of the year and was to last until nearly Easter.

In the back of his mind, Mike was reviewing his options.  Now he had an extra Masters he could teach which would mean he could come ashore to be with his family.  Most of the land on the farm had been rented to other farmers while Mike was at sea, so income was not a serious problem.  On the downside, the village was almost a far as anyone could get from the coast so either he would have to live away in the week or commute and he didn’t relish either alternative.  In the event, his Certificate proved to be insurance and provided him with the confidence to make a living on the farm without farming the land. 

It was time to celebrate his good news.

Opening and closing regulations, strictly governed the hours of all Pubs, though sometimes in the deep countryside, this was ignored.  However, Mike was quite surprised to find his local open before 10.30 a.m. in the morning.

In the saloon bar, Dick the landlord was busy pulling off the ‘ullage’ from the pumps before the day’s customers started to arrive.  Otherwise the bar was empty but nevertheless Mike ordered a pint of ‘the black stuff.’

The main reason why the draft Guinness was so good apart from Dick’s careful attention was that it was also his regular drink.  There were no cars in the car park and yet Mike could hear stunted conversation from the public bar.

The elderly locals spoke in heavily accented English, which, unless you were used to it, was difficult to understand.  For example the word roof was pronounced and rhymed with a small dog’s bark, ‘woof’.  They also had many weird expressions such as referring to a young person as an ‘old boy’.

He idly listened as he downed his pint and ordered another.  An elderly person was reciting some incident and punctuated at intervals by a younger male voice agreeing and encouraging.  Dick disappeared into the other bar carrying two buckets brimming with ‘ullage’.

A short while later a most remarkable event occurred.  Apparently it was a daily ritual.

A large donkey appeared from the garden and, as though he owned the place, pushed his way into the small cosy public bar and Dick, the landlord placed the first bucket on a chair.  The conversation ceased as the two customers became engrossed in watching the buckets swiftly drained of their contents by the donkey engaged in non-stop slurping.  There were two buckets from the saloon and one from the public bar.  A loud and deep rumbling belch broke the silence and Joby, an ancient local said,

“I wish I could do that.”

His companion said,

“Why would you want to belch so loudly?”

“I mean drink a bucket of beer so quickly”, came the reply.

The donkey was so big it was unable to turn round and fearing the intervention of nature the younger man opened the door and the donkey backed out.

Mike upon hearing the encore and seeing the donkey retreating decided to investigate.

Two pieces of driftwood bumped into one and other but remained unaware of the extent of their mutual interest for many years. 

Mike returned to the saloon bar that had started to fill and spotted his neighbour, the Doctor.  Both men had several things in common.  They were neighbours, professional people, neither was born nearby or attended local schools and above all they shared a love of drinking.

Comfortable in each other’s company, they started to chat.

“Big event for the village,” said the Doctor,

“What’s that?” asked Mike

“The wedding.  The policeman’s daughter is getting married today.”

“Ah, that accounts for the Pub’s opening time!  What time is it?’ asked Mike.

“I take it you mean the wedding and not now,” said the Doctor and continued without waiting for an answer.

“Twelve o’clock.  Reception’s in the village hall.”

“We’ll need to be careful,” offered Mike, “There’s sure to be plenty of police about.”

His friend replied,

“They won’t be bothering the locals and anyway they will of had a few themselves!”

Around lunchtime both bars were packed.  The ever-smiling Paula and her young daughter passed round plates of surprisingly delicate sandwiches and hot sausage rolls that had just come out of the oven.

The landlord Dick, calmly dispensed drinks ensuring that nobody was kept waiting.  He was truly a professional barman and would catch the eye of a newcomer at the back of the crowd.  He would tip them a wink and shortly after drinks would be passed over and paid for later.  He knew what all his regulars drank so they were never left with an empty glass.

Three o’clock was the normal closing time on a Saturday and most people sticking to their routines, drifted home and soon the car park became empty.

The Public bar was still occupied by the original customers and the old shotgun hanging on the far wall had been primed and clicked many times.

Joby’s companion had a habit of leaning over the old church pew and supporting himself on the wall by the gun.  At indeterminate intervals he would prime the empty gun by cocking the hammer and a satisfying ‘click’ could be heard when somewhat later he would pull the trigger.

Around five John left to meet his wife who was due to return from a trip to London and they both had to get ready for a dinner invitation.

The Pub opened at a little before noon the next day being a Sunday and John was one of the first customers, as he needed a livener.  A smattering of farmworkers and farmers appeared for their weekly outing that was usually restricted to two pints.  Their timing was as good as, if not better than the Church clock. 

Sunday lunchtimes were the one time in the week that the saloon bar came into it’s own.  The raffles attracted people but the main reason for the crowds was due to the attendance of the ‘townies’.  Commuters in the week at weekends they donned their corduroy trousers and check shirts and some even sported a shooting hat.  None wore a tie and yet many of the farmers felt undressed without one on a Sunday and the townies shiny Range Rovers in the car park reflected their smart attire.

Joby’s old bike trundled into the car park at five past twelve and was propped up in its usual place against the hen house.

Dick saw him crossing the car park and commented to John as he carried two empty crates of bottled Guinness out to the storage shed.

“Thirty Guinness’s yesterday and I think he paid for six!”

John chuckled, “ Cheap entertainment.”

As it turned out the story he was about to hear was worth every penny of his previous day’s generosity.

Joby entered the tiny Public bar.  Although it had less than a dozen customers it seemed crowded but everyone knew the newcomer and before he reached his regular chair he already had two drinks in the pump and one on its way.

At weekends, Joby was seldom without a plastic bag on his carrier behind the seat of his prewar bicycle.  He kindly brought freshly picked vegetables for his benefactors to encourage their continued generosity.

John, who he saw as a kind of kindred spirit, was the only person he confided in.  The plot behind Joby’s house remained unsullied which is more than could be said for the allotments near the Church that Joby passed on his way to the Pub.

Taking a satisfying pull on his drink, Joby recalled the events on leaving the Pub the previous evening.

“ It were getting dark when I left and the steering on that old bike of mine is none to good and causes me to wobble a bit.

Passing the village hall I could hear all the frivolity a going on and just as I decided to investigate, a police car stopped me.  Quite put me off.  So I went home instead.”

‘What did they say?”  Asked John. 

“The tall one said, ‘ you haven’t got any lights.’  I said, “ I’ve lived in this village for eighty-four years and if I don’t know my way home by now, even in the dark, I never will.”

“Seemed like he couldn’t think of anything to say so I went on home especially as I was looking forward to a tot of whisky before going to bed.”

The following Monday was a Bank holiday so the regular early evening crowd had slightly increased.  The usual imbibers propped up the bar in the tiny public bar but unusually for early on a Monday evening; the saloon bar was quite busy.

Unbeknown to John, a couple of his local friends had decided to play a trick on him so when John adopted his normal position adjacent to the shotgun hanging on the wall a slightly unnoticed hush descended but probably was only recognised by those in the know.

Dick, the barman, wisely retreated to the back room on the pretext of 

‘Tapping a new barrel’.

A little while slowly passed as John, following his unconscious habit, cocked the shotgun on the wall.

 Two of his friends had loaded the gun with a cartridge having removed the shot.

Immersed in a conversation with Joby and unaware of what was going on, John fiddled with the trigger for quite some before the punch line of one of Joby’s jokes, simultaneously made him laugh and pull the trigger.  This time it was unfortunately not just a click that followed but a deafening bang causing the gun to fly from the wall and end up in the garden having broken the glass window.

Pandemonium broke out in the bar as people ran in all directions.  Dick emerged from the back grinning all over his face and brandishing a fire extinguisher.  The Doctor went into emergency mode and ‘Bracky” used the confusion to top up his glass without anyone noticing.

The donkey stampeded down the road and ran straight through Modge’s greenhouse.

John nonchalantly retrieved the gun and hung it back on the wall.  It was no longer straight as the brackets had become bent.

He motioned to Dick who came over with a Guinness for Joby and a pint for John.  John gave the landlord a Twenty Pound note and calmly said,

“You’d better take one for the window as well.’

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