A shaken, bewildered Lunsford is taken to a pub he’s never heard of in the village where he’d always lived. A man called Thomas Sarson-Taylor leads him there. It’s time for Lunsford to meet some people who will be very important to him. Of course, he doesn’t know this yet.
Instead of turning left off Church Lane and into St Eades, Sarson-Taylor marched through a narrow, chalk-floored snicket to the right, a path that Lunsford vaguely remembered but used.
“Hare Lane”, said Sarson-Taylor looking over his shoulder, “I think the family owns it”. He sped up.
There were high, dark hawthorn hedges on both sides of Hare Lane as it wound on and on before it finally and shockingly opened out onto a wide village green with no village surrounding it. In the centre of the green was a sizeable pond.
Around the green were twelve small, grey stones, roughly shaped with a single, sturdy metal chain passing through a hole in each, linking them together.
The only building that Lunsford could perceive was a two-storied, jettied pub, its hanging sign declaring it to be “The Phoenix”. It looked warm, welcoming, it was as familiar as a taste or a smell from many years ago. It had a gabled door, with leaded windows each side, each of which had a wide, gloss black sills, perfect for holding drinks, smoking harsh tobacco, watching cricket and chatting during the summer.
There was a patch of gravelled ground with a wooden bench and some old wooden chairs edging the green. The roof of The Phoenix was tiled with heavily mottled and lichened limestone. The scene was familiar and utterly alien. The disconnection was not abstract, it was the only reality.
While Lunsford was trying to understand this entirely new part of his village, Sarson-Taylor had already opened the door to The Phoenix, and was ushering him in.
“Come on! Come on! You must meet everybody!” yelled Sarson-Taylor, heading to the bar, fist in the air waving a ten pound note. “The usual! The usual! And make it a large one, and a pint of Elder’s Darkest for this gentleman.”
“I don’t, I mean I haven’t eaten” Lunsford was standing beside Sarson-Taylor at the bar, and he was being given a once over by a tall, thin lady in her sixties or twenties.
Her hair was grey and outrageously glamorous. She wore a white blouse, or possibly a man’s shirt, over which was a light green linen suit. She moved like Katherine Hepburn. Beside her was a small man who was pulling a pint, having already handed Sarson-Taylor an enormous, heavy crystal glass of dark, caramel and heather–smelling whisky.
“A hot beef sandwich for you,” he told Lunsford, “and another of the usual for me, thank you very much Robert”.
The diminutive barman took down the bottle of scotch, refilled Sarson-Taylor’s glass and handed it back to him. He placed Sarson-Taylor’s change on the bar top without saying a word. He looked at Lunsford and explained in a salt-flecked, copper voice, “I’ll bring your sandwich over to your table, sir.”
“Over here, over here”, Sarson-Taylor had taken a seat at a battered, oak table by the window. He pulled out a seat to Lunsford who sat down. still feeling a little bewildered.
“We didn’t ask about the dog” he said, looking into the pint glass and the almost black liquid that sat staring back.
“Oh, the dog! Yes, my fault, my fault entirely. I’ll ask Robert when he brings your sandwich over. Wonderful beef, local herd I believe. My family probably owns it.”
“Drink up, drink up!”, he took a packet of greasy, bent playing cards out of one of his numerous pockets and began to shuffle them.
Lunsford examined the pub. The low ceiling had intricate, yellowed plasterwork images depicting hunting with dogs, a ring of stones, what must have been Hunters Wood, the church of St Eades and a series of knights or kings with their feet pointing down and their arms crossed over their chests, looking pissed off at the sheer tedium of it all.
The half-wooded walls of the pub were covered with paintings of all sizes depicting Shalford village and Crosschester: familiar places in both peopled by unfamiliar figures. Lunsford noticed that over the fireplace was a large street scene. It showed the Guild Hall with Kings Gate Row running in front of it as it reached out towards the King Egbert roundabout.
It was snowing. There were street lights, they seemed to flicker. A man was standing in front of the guildhall, he was bent over slightly lighting a cigarette in cupped hands.
“Here’s your sandwich, sir”, the tiny barman presented the sandwich on a solid, thick white china plate before placing it on the table. It smelled delicious. He put a large glass of whisky in front of Sarson-Taylor without a word.
“Welcome to The Phoenix, sir”, he said to Lunsford. “Myself, Robert Gum, and Mrs Werldinham our lady of cheer, hope all is well with you and that you will enjoy your visit. Please do try the beer, you will find it hard going at first you will grow into it. Is there anything else I can get for you?”
Lunsford nodded, said thank you and couldn’t think of anything else he wanted. Robert Gum waited patiently.
Ask about Adelaide.
Eat your sandwich.
“No thank you, Mr Gum”, Lunsford said.
Gum nodded and smiled, then frowning at Sarson-Taylor, Gum returned to his station behind the bar.
“Oh for god’s sake, man, have a drink! It won’t kill you”, Sarson-Taylor sipped his whisky and placed his cards on the table.
Lunsford took a speculative mouthful of Elder’s Darkest. Robert Gum was right, the first sip verged on self-harm.
The beer was bitter with a deeply unsettling flavour that was a mix of the inside of a very sour old man’s briefcase and a damp early evening at the football in winter. He winced and wanted to spit it directly into the fire but he feared an explosion or the summoning of a demon beast.
The Elder’s sat in his mouth, the bitterness subsided and the flavours changed into oranges roasted with almonds, of dark chocolate and apples fried in rich butter. He swallowed. It went down like it was already part of him. He had never tasted anything like it, he took another mouthful. More flavours, less desire for death.
“My god this is good”, he felt his body warming from the inside, and for the first time in quite a while he thought he could feel a grin. He finished his pint and then remembered something.
“You didn’t ask about Adelaide” despite the pleasure he was taking in his pint, Lunsford was slightly annoyed.
“Adelaide? Oh god, yes, that dog. So sorry. Look when you go to the bar, you can ask Bob Gum, he’ll know what I’m having”.
Sarson-Taylor leant over and collected one half of the sandwich. He bit into it, and gravy dribbled down his chin and onto his tie.
With his mouthful, he waggled his glass at Lunsford and winked. Lunsford, leaving his unfinished pint, walked over to the bar.
Robert Gum had the whisky ready, “What’s it to be for you sir?”
“I’ll have a half of that lovely beer please Mr Gum.
You haven’t seem a shaggy brown dog, about yay high, no collar recently have you?” Gum thought for a second or two, pulling the pint using a mahogany pump handle that looked as if it had been cleaned and polished tens of thousands of times.
“I’m afraid I’ve not, sir. How was your sandwich?”
“I’ve not started it yet, but it looks beautiful. A local herd I hear”, Lunsford handed over the money. “If anybody mentions the dog, you will let me know, keep the change.”
“I most certainly will, and the beef is from Scotland I’m afraid. It’s all dairy around here”, replied Robert Gum casting is eye over the fresh clientele who were slowly filling the room. They were, for the most part, men, of unaccountable ages between eighteen and eighty, all of whom looked as if they inhabited The Phoenix rather than just drank there, none of whom Lunsford had ever seen before. Cards and cribbage boards, newspapers and packets of fags, dominoes and darts were withdrawn from pockets and placed on tables. The bar was lined with calm ranks of drinkers waiting there turns before peeling away like bombers after a successful drop.
Gum handled every request and transaction seamlessly, chatting with each patron, nodding to the next in line, less a barman and more a machine of the public house trade. Dressed in black canvas trousers and sixteen-eye, cherry red Dr Marten boots, he wore a u-necked, short sleeved, white cotton shirt. He was not a tall man, five foot four, maybe a hint more but he exuded incredible strength. He was sturdy and there wasn’t a single piece of fat on him, he was all muscle.
A very great deal of Robert Gum was made of tattoos. There were two swallows in flight holding an anchor and chain, a compass with North, South, East and West replaced with “Margot”,“Elaine”, “Tatsuo” and “Chuck”. Black and white Tally bands with “HMS Goliath”, “HMS Vanguard”, “HMS Swiftsure” and “HMS Theseus” flecked both arms. Two signal flags, a blue cross on a white background stacked on another of three horizontal stripes of blue, white and red stood out on his thick, heavily veined neck.
There was an androgynous mermaid sitting on a rock, there was a five pointed, two toned star. Several highly decorated ship’s wheels jostled with a drunken girl in a red dress laying in a champagne saucer shouting, “Sailor Beware” on his left forearm. The words “Eric and England” stood large on his right hand next to a punctured, red heart. Lunsford was surprised that Gum’s bald head wasn’t also covered but there it was weathered like a boulder. His blue eyes were the least interesting part of his face, which was completely hairless. His nose had been broken and badly reset, his mouth was full and sensual, with incredibly white teeth that appeared every time he smiled, which was often.
A low hum of conversation and cursing smoked around Lunsford as he walked back to the table where Sarson-Taylor had finished off the sandwich and was eagerly awaiting his drink. Sitting next to him was the grey haired lady and astonishingly glamorous Mrs Werldinham. Lunsford sat down, handed Sarson-Taylor his drink, poured the half pint into his pint glass and took a long draught and said, “Good evening, Mrs Wer…” he tailed off, unable to pronounce her name.
“Mrs Werldinham”, she laughed gently because this was a problem she’d faced a hundred thousand times before.