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Local Celebrity
Oliver Moor

They always say the same thing. “You’re a very lucky man, George. Lucky to be alive. Someone watching out for you.” They always say it now. I’m a bit of a local celebrity around here, and I’d never thought I’d ever say that about myself. It’s nice being a bit of a celebrity. People treat you different. They ask how you are and seem to really want to know, they remember you at Christmas, you get the odd free pint in the local. But lucky? I don’t know about that. I suppose I was fortunate enough, in a way, and so were the lads coming down to the village for a Friday evening pint. I suppose we have the storm to thank for that. I can’t see how there’s anything else to thank.

Well, you know what Ashtonham’s like: your usual quiet Hampshire village, a couple of pubs, a church, people living their lives. Old boys like me, I suppose, and a few young families. A few pretty girls in the pubs that smile and flirt with the young squaddies from the bases. It’s nice to see them flirt. I’ve even had a smile from a couple of them myself. That’s even nicer to see, but anyway, I’m too old for anything like that. But it is nice to see.

I’d only been in twenty minutes that afternoon but already I was on my second pint. Not really like me, that. I’m one of those old lads who likes to take his time over his first of the day: you know, really savour it. It’s funny, I know - a lot of the regulars give me a bit of stick for that - the younger lads especially. They always like to get that first one down quickly. But I know what they’re about, those boys. They don’t like the taste of it. I’m always having a laugh with Vic about it. “Those boys don’t want a pint, Vic,” I say. “Get ‘em a sweet sherry.” But there were only us old lads in the bar that afternoon. There was Vic, of course, old John Warminster, and Tom Edwards, of course. Jim Samfire was in too, gazing into his beer as usual, and Bill Whittaker, hoping to persuade Jim for a game of dominos, no doubt.

“Not much of a day,” John says.

“Looks like rain,” says Tom.

It did look a bit like rain too. The whole sky was about the same color as my pint of ale. That’s not being fair to Vic, of course. His beer’s beautifully clear: he keeps it well. Knows how to look after a cask of beer, does Vic. The sky was, well, muddy. But it was that same brown color, the kind you get before a really big storm, a really big old blow. Me, I don’t mind that sort of thing myself. In fact, no word of a lie, I like it. Nothing like a storm to blow away the cobwebs and get the blood surging. Reminds me of the old days.

“I dunno, John,” I says to him, “it isn’t so bad,” and he looks up at me and squints his eyes, his face like an crumpled up bit of rag. Poor old John’s eyes are going now - he must be seventy-five if he’s a day. He used to have great eyesight - he’s told me enough times what his crew on his Lancaster used to call him in the War. John was the bomb aimer and according to him, if you believe him, he never missed a target. “‘Bang-on’ John” they called him then, and he seems proud enough of it. Actually sounds a bit silly to me, and some of the young crowd we get in here thought it was pretty funny too. I remember one of them, when John was telling him about the War, started laughing and reached across to John and rapped him on the head with his knuckles, shouting “bang on John! bang on John!” John laughed it off, but I don’t think he really thought it was funny. I remember how he looked, and his eyes weren’t laughing.

John’ll have to get glasses some time soon, I reckon. “Be the day I die,” he says. Of course, if he doesn’t get them soon, it will be the day he dies. He’ll probably walk into a combine harvester or fall down the well or something.

He looks up at me now. “You like these August storms, George, don’t you? I’d forgotten.”

“Well, I suppose I do, John,” I says. “I can’t really explain as to why. These big old sou’westers, reminds me of the old days.”

“I don’t know why you’d like a storm,” Tom chimes in now. “Out at sea, that would be the last place you’d like a storm.” Tom’s a landlubber, at least he has been since the one time in nearly forty years I’ve known him to be on a boat. That was where I first met him, on a boat. Actually it was my dad’s boat, and he was coming off the beach at Dunkirk onto my dad’s old twenty-eight footer with fifteen other blokes. He looks in better shape now than he did then, in spite of his age. Well I mean, he was all shot up then; he’d been hit by a couple of 20mm rounds from an ME109 and he was turning green and leaning over the side of the boat, being sick with the others. Say what you like about those army blokes, and don’t get me wrong, they’re bloody heroes all of them, but they don’t, as a rule, know how to cope with being at sea. Only lost one of them that day though, on my boat. I had a few words with Tom that day and you could have knocked me down with a feather when I found he was from the next village. Hampshire man, born and bred, just like me. We’ve been friends ever since.

I think Tom got a bit of respect for us civvies that day. I think that’s why we became friends, because I know most army lads didn’t have much time for us then. Not that it was anything I could have helped, mind you. I wanted to go as much as the next man; in other words I didn’t really want to go at all. I was scared out of my wits, truth be told. But I was prepared to go and I would have gone willingly if I hadn’t had the dodgy ticker. Not my fault. But it made it more difficult with the army lads. Well, as far as they were concerned there wasn’t anything wrong with me, was there? No outward visible signs, anyway. They didn’t see me as a cripple or anything, just as someone who didn’t seem to be pulling his weight. Not playing the game, I suppose they thought. I remember the doctor telling me that I’d be lucky to live another ten years with my heart in the condition it was. Silly bugger died of a heart attack twenty years ago. There’s doctors for you. But Tommy respected me. I didn’t have to go out to Dunkirk, did I? But I did. I did my bit.

Ashtonham’s always had it’s thing about the Services. Well, there’s Portsmouth not twenty miles away, Aldershot’s just up the road, and then we’ve got a few RAF stations around here too. The closest one’s probably the US base up at Willston Common. Some of our lads work up there too though. I know some of our lads don’t get on with the Yanks, but I’ve always had time for them. Seem a friendly enough lot, if you ask me. Yanks are all right. And they did right by us when we needed them to. Anyway, we probably seem just as odd to them as they do to us.

“Another one for you, George?” says Vic, and I nod, and Vic picks up my glass. It’s a beautiful pint, is Patterson’s. Vic pulls on the handle and the beer starts to flow but the tap gives a cough and a hiss and beer froth spatters the inside of the glass. Vic pushes the handle forward and pulls it back a couple of times and puts down the glass.

“I’ll just run down and change the barrel,” he says, and puts the glass into the glass-cleaning machine.

“All right then Vic,” I say. “I’ll still be here when you get back.”

Vic grins. “As ever, George, eh?”

The sky is as dark as a North Sea swell and now it does begins to rain. It’s a sudden storm, this one, not like the usual drizzly affair. Old John wanders across to take a look out. “Don’t see rain like this often,” he says, sticking his jaw out. From the side he looks a bit like Churchill when he does that. And he’s right, we don’t see rain like that down here in these parts. It’s like a tropical downpour, or so I’ve been led to believe, water against the windows like a breaking wave over a yacht’s bow. I can hear Vic cursing from down in the cellar. The water’s probably got in and is flooding him out again. All this thinking about water is making me think about you know what. Well, you know what a couple of pints will do, too. The gents is out the back around the other side of the bar.

John is looking up at the sky, leaning on one of the tables. Tom is standing at the bar, elbows resting either side of his pint, hands clasped, like he wants to embrace it.

I suppose I was lucky, really, in a way. I was just finishing tucking in my shirt. For a man of my age I suppose I’m even luckier to have got away with just some bruising; nothing broken, not even a cut, no concussion. I remember nearly all of it, which isn’t particularly nice for me, but it’s just how it’s turned out. I’m about to open the door, tucking myself in. Then there’s a sudden jolt, a very bright flash and then just a crashing rumbling sound and I find myself outside on the ground, face down, looking up the street towards the church. It does seem a very long time before I can hear anything at all, but I suppose it’s only a few seconds. Then there is nothing to hear except for what sounds like wind chimes, but that’s just the glass falling out of all the shop windows onto the pavement, and then of course there is the sound of sirens and blue lights and I turn around to look back at the pub which doesn’t really seem to be there very much any more.

And that’s about it really. You know the rest, how they got the bomb in (delivered it the day before, in a barrel, along with a consignment of Patterson’s, in case you haven’t heard), and what the police think happened (Vic moved the barrel to try and see where the water leak was coming from, or else water got into the bomb and made it go off prematurely.) Either way the young lads coming into the village missed it by an hour or so. A lot of the Friday regulars had decided not to come anyway because of the rain, so even if it had gone off when it had been meant to it the pub would only have been half full. As it was the only people hurt were five old men - John, Vic and Tom were killed instantly, as was old Jim Samfire, as he was leaving the pub to go home to his wife. Bill Whittaker’s still in hospital, lost both his legs and use of his eyes. But he’ll live, or so I’ve been told. And you know who they are, so don’t expect me to give them the dignity of a name. They claimed responsibility within an hour, God bless ‘em.

So, now I’m the man who’s bladder saved his life - that’s how I’m known around here. I suppose it’s true, so I can’t complain about it. And am I lucky? I don’t know, I don’t think so. I miss old John, and Vic, and Tom and the other two as well, though I didn’t know them as well. I don’t really know why it happened either. These events are too complicated for the likes of me to follow, and I’m too old to get involved. But it doesn’t seem right, somehow, for old men to have to go like that, especially men who’ve tried to do their best by their country. I suppose that’s the point though, it’s all about countries, isn’t it? Anyway, I don’t want to get maudlin here. They’re rebuilding the pub now, and I’ve found that I still enjoy the taste of a pint of Patterson’s, and perhaps, now that I’m a celebrity, the pretty girls will smile at me more often than they used to. But it won’t be the same. 


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