They always say
the same thing. Youre a very lucky man, George. Lucky to
be alive. Someone watching out for you. They always say it now.
Im a bit of a local celebrity around here, and Id never
thought Id ever say that about myself. Its 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 dont 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 cant see how theres anything
else to thank.
Well, you know what Ashtonhams 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.
Its nice to see them flirt. Ive even had a smile from a
couple of them myself. Thats even nicer to see, but anyway, Im
too old for anything like that. But it is nice to see.
Id only been in twenty minutes that afternoon but already I was
on my second pint. Not really like me, that. Im one of those old
lads who likes to take his time over his first of the day: you know,
really savour it. Its 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 theyre
about, those boys. They dont like the taste of it. Im always
having a laugh with Vic about it. Those boys dont 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. Thats not being fair to Vic, of course. His
beers 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 dont 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 isnt so bad,
and he looks up at me and squints his eyes, his face like an crumpled
up bit of rag. Poor old Johns eyes are going now - he must be
seventy-five if hes a day. He used to have great eyesight - hes
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 dont think he really
thought it was funny. I remember how he looked, and his eyes werent
Johnll have to get glasses some time soon, I reckon. Be
the day I die, he says. Of course, if he doesnt get them
soon, it will be the day he dies. Hell 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, dont
you? Id forgotten.
Well, I suppose I do, John, I says. I cant really
explain as to why. These big old souwesters, reminds me of the
I dont know why youd like a storm, Tom chimes
in now. Out at sea, that would be the last place youd like
a storm. Toms a landlubber, at least he has been since the
one time in nearly forty years Ive known him to be on a boat.
That was where I first met him, on a boat. Actually it was my dads
boat, and he was coming off the beach at Dunkirk onto my dads
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; hed 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 dont get me wrong, theyre bloody heroes all of them,
but they dont, 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. Weve been friends ever since.
I think Tom got a bit of respect for us civvies that day. I think thats
why we became friends, because I know most army lads didnt 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 didnt
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 hadnt
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 wasnt
anything wrong with me, was there? No outward visible signs, anyway.
They didnt see me as a cripple or anything, just as someone who
didnt seem to be pulling his weight. Not playing the game, I suppose
they thought. I remember the doctor telling me that Id 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. Theres doctors
for you. But Tommy respected me. I didnt have to go out to Dunkirk,
did I? But I did. I did my bit.
Ashtonhams always had its thing about the Services. Well,
theres Portsmouth not twenty miles away, Aldershots just
up the road, and then weve got a few RAF stations around here
too. The closest ones probably the US base up at Willston Common.
Some of our lads work up there too though. I know some of our lads dont
get on with the Yanks, but Ive 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. Its a beautiful pint, is Pattersons.
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.
Ill just run down and change the barrel, he says,
and puts the glass into the glass-cleaning machine.
All right then Vic, I say. Ill 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.
Its a sudden storm, this one, not like the usual drizzly affair.
Old John wanders across to take a look out. Dont 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 hes right,
we dont see rain like that down here in these parts. Its
like a tropical downpour, or so Ive been led to believe, water
against the windows like a breaking wave over a yachts bow. I
can hear Vic cursing from down in the cellar. The waters 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 Im 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 isnt particularly
nice for me, but its just how its turned out. Im about
to open the door, tucking myself in. Then theres 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 its only a few seconds. Then there is nothing
to hear except for what sounds like wind chimes, but thats 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 doesnt really seem to be
there very much any more.
And thats 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 Pattersons, in case you havent 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 Whittakers still in hospital, lost
both his legs and use of his eyes. But hell live, or so Ive
been told. And you know who they are, so dont expect me to give
them the dignity of a name. They claimed responsibility within an hour,
God bless em.
So, now Im the man whos bladder saved his life - thats
how Im known around here. I suppose its true, so I cant
complain about it. And am I lucky? I dont know, I dont think
so. I miss old John, and Vic, and Tom and the other two as well, though
I didnt know them as well. I dont really know why it happened
either. These events are too complicated for the likes of me to follow,
and Im too old to get involved. But it doesnt seem right,
somehow, for old men to have to go like that, especially men whove
tried to do their best by their country. I suppose thats the point
though, its all about countries, isnt it? Anyway, I dont
want to get maudlin here. Theyre rebuilding the pub now, and Ive
found that I still enjoy the taste of a pint of Pattersons, and
perhaps, now that Im a celebrity, the pretty girls will smile
at me more often than they used to. But it wont be the same.
© OLIVER MOOR 2001