Derek stood alone by the bar while Colin went to relieve himself, appropriately, in the toilets at the rear of the pub.
It was really quite dark in the pub by now. The small windows to either side of the old iron shod wooden door were leaded, the panes had run with age, like wax, thicker towards the bottom, glass being after all a liquid, drawn down inexorably with the passing of time.
Time lurched in small fragmented moments as the setting sun, it’s graceful arc interrupted by the unevenness of the window panes, made slow progress towards the dusty sill.
Through the windows to the side of the pub, equally dusty and misshapen, it was already night. Not yet pitch but dark heraldic blue, cerulean with a promise of stars.
Dust hung in the air in shafts of skimpy light. The corners of the room were vague and cast in shadow and from behind the door, ajar, by the bar came the sounds of a soft continuing struggle.
With a sudden squeal of hinges a figure emerged into the quiet of the bar. Or at least, accompanied by an exhalation of dust and cobweb, a bottom appeared, a very large bottom clad in hairy britches bulging and gyrating under the strain of towing the rest of the figure with which it was connected into sight. What finally appeared could be loosely described as a man but appeared to Derek to be more likely a Narnian giant.
“That’s better” broke the spell as Colin came back in through the front door, “time for a refill”. And took two steps into the room, adjusting to the gloom, before standing rooted and transfixed like Derek who was still motionless at the counter.
“Fucking hell” he muttered.
“Evenin’” said the figure, “Oi’ll be with you in a tick”.
The man was huge. He moved at a crouch to avoid the beams on the low ceiling though from the various lumps and protrusions on his head he had not always done so. He hauled a keg, a very large keg, by sheer brawn backwards through a lifted section of the counter in forearms as thick as thighs. He wore a check shirt with the sleeves loosely rolled to the elbow under braces for his britches and huge shoulders worked mightily below it. Heaving and pulling he settled the barrel below the counter top and with great gnarled hands brought it to a halt and then turning, stood to face them.
“So, what can I get you?”
“Taxi?” suggested Colin in a whisper.
The boys plight was now revealed in all it’s Shelleyesque horror. Great tufts of ginger hair protruded from the open vee at the neck of the strangers shirt. He was almost as wide as he was tall and had it not been for the additional height of the ceiling behind the bar all above his shoulders would have disappeared in the gloom. Derek, just feet away on the other side of the bar rather wished it had. The man’s head was roughly the size and shape of a very large turnip, for which it bore some not inconsiderable similarity in terms of texture and colour. Except there was a flush of beetroot in the cheeks and a shiny polished pate be-smattered in liver spots or large, dark freckles.
This 'head' had obviously been completed by a child who’s crayons either could not or wilfilly would not stay within the lines. Nothing of proportion in the eyes or nose or mouth, or of colour, that bespoke anything that might suggest itself as a human characteristic but generously worked as a whole to complete a fascinating, ruddy face.
This already outlandish countenance was framed in dusty grey and wheat wisps of hair, (hair that also protruded from the ears and nostrils in bushy profundity and equally formed a bristly awning for surprisingly shallow wells wherein sat large rheumy eyes). Most remarkable of all were an enormous pair of bugger grips extending bushy and uncultivated from ear to jowl, pale and darkening towards their tip, like the poorly groomed ends of a donkey’s tail. They yelled “danger, yokel!” more fiercely than any flat cap or clay pipe.
(A note to the happily uninitiated; bugger grips are overgrown, thicket like sideburns so named because, as rumour has it, they provide leverage for an uphill gardener intent on entering the rear porch).
The turnip spoke again, “What’ll you ‘ave, this oint a bloody public urinal you know?”.
“Bitter” said Derek, “two pints of bitter” finding his voice and a crumb of comfort in something he knew how to do.
“Nope”, said the hairy apparition, “no beer”, rolling the vowel of the “beer” around the room as if it had wheels.
“erm, larger then”
“none of that either” Sasquatch replied, “not much call for it”.
A fact that neither of the boys had noticed before suddenly became apparent. There were no taps at the bar, no hand pumps of any kind, nothing at all to indicate that the place sold alcohol in any shape or form not even, in fact, a single bottle or optic.
“Well what do have a call for?” chimed in Colin from what he hoped was a relatively safe distance.
“Zoider”, “there’s a lot of call for zoider”.
“Two pints of that then please”.
“Oi think you’d be better with halfs, that is your motor outside” the hulk suggested in such a way that brooked no refusal and bent, doubling at the waist, behind the bar.
Derek took the opportunity to catch Colin’s eye and mouth “what the fuck?”. Colin just shrugged and made a small open armed gesture with his arms and nodded imperceptibly over Derek’s shoulder to indicate the re emergence of Big Foot from behind the counter. It held in it’s giant hairy hands two pots of pale, cloudy yellow broth that sufferers of sclerosis would recognise as urine but which they were obviously intended to drink.
“Ta” said Derek and sipped on his. It was warm, tangy and quite sharp, it was still and not at all sweet and despite the suspension of soft apply curds was all in all quite pleasant. He downed half of it and smiled brightly at his hairy host who looked back at him from the advantage of considerable height with a knowing look and rueful shake of the head. “Oi ‘ope your droivin” he said to Colin.
Three glasses of cider later they sat on a bench seat by the fire. By the fourth, Colin sat on the bench while Derek occupied the dusty space under it.
They had discovered that their host answered to the surprisingly unprepossessing name of “Stanley”, and he in turn, had discovered who they were and most of what they were about. Stanley turned out to be quite affable in a gruff sort of way, not talkative but not indisposed to answering questions and adding a little humour. When Colin had asked the name of the pub he had told them straight faced “The signs in the cellar”. “Yes but what does it say” asked Derek. And he had explained how, in 1958, there had been a tremendous storm which had ripped, bodily, a limb from a giant oak standing in the green opposite the pub. “It’s still there” he assured them although it was far too dark outside to see it now. That limb had carried the pub sign, ‘The Oak Tree’, and in deference to the venerable and injured giant the sign had been removed to the cellar and never replaced.
At which point Derek said “Ahh” softly and slid slowly down and off the bench like a pint of treacle as the cider closed circuits in his head.
Stanley left him there for some time content that he had, for once, a little company. “Two more please” said Colin.
“Oi think he’s all done”
“You’d be surprised”
“All roit but he can’t stay there” said Stanley bowing to the barrel behind the bar, “Oim goin to loit the fire”.
Colin delicately tapped Derek in the groin with his foot, enough to stir him, and Derek slowly uncrumpled. Looking vague at first and then, in fact, refreshed for his short stupor he struggled across the table to reach his glass and looked very disappointed to find it empty. “It’s on the way” Colin reassured him.
Stanley retuned with two half pint pots in one hand and his very favourite thing in the whole world in the other; a gas poker. It was Stanley’s toy. He loved to light the fire with it, in fact he would light the fire simply because of it whether it was warm or cold. He’d lit bonfires outside, made toast, tried to set fire to a cabbage and on one occasion made a particularly nauseating cup of tea by immersing it, dangerously, in the kettle.
The poker was attached to a gas bottle and when lit Stanley adjusted the flame by means of a little knob from a rosy glow to a cold blue flame which he then plunged into a gap between the logs settled on an old iron pig in the grate.
Sparks crackled off the bark and they all watched in admiration as the first red tongues of flame licked the sides of the sappy, seasoned wood.
The smell was delicious, adding flavour and tang to the musky stone scent of the room. And the fire, as it rose and gathered and warmed them became a relentless, unavoidable soporific.
They next awoke to the sound of two full glasses thudding into the wooden table by their faces.
“Bert’s bought you a drink” said Stanley gesturing towards a shadowy form in the corner. On inspection, and adjustment helped by the light of the fire, Bert revealed himself to be clad in a dun woollen suit and be made up almost entirely of creased leather, an octogenarian weir lizard sporting a bulbous, pitted nose.
“He wants to know if you play dominos?”
And so they sat for hours in front of the fire, playing rubber on rubber of dominos for glasses of cider and losing every single game. They lost with good humour, beaten soundly by Stanley and Bert who was obviously a savant. With a flourish he would reveal exactly the right domino to stump them or win the rubber and gurn at them with a smile which appeared to be made of two uneven rows pickled peanuts.
Eventually his constitution could afford to win no more. His cup, or at least the pewter jug that the boys had kept replenishing, spilled over and he pushed himself slowly back from the table.
Laboriously he rose and leaning on the tables edge spluttered “arglebarglemorblewhoosh” by way of a well natured parting speech and slowly and deliberately staggered out into the night via, it seemed, every piece of furniture in the room.
They sat for a little while, silently except for the crackling of the fire and the chink clink of the dominos as Stanley replaced them in the box.
“Car” said Derek.
“Have to” agreed Colin, who knew that Derek was thinking exactly the same, it was time to lie down for the night and they’d sleep in the car as they often had in the past.
As if he knew what they were thinking, before they had chance to issue thank yous and farewells, Stanley interrupted this groggy exchange:
“O’course you won’t be droivin anywheres tonoit, and Oi doubt you’ll be pitchin that tent o yorn either”
“Still", he said, "thee’ll not be sleepin’ in the cold….”
And he bent closer and almost conspiratorially told them his plan;
“…..there’s a caravan out the back”