The five horseshoes, p.1
The Five Horseshoes, p.1
The Five Horseshoes
By David McDine
Copyright 2016 David McDine
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This book is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Imagine a time when beer was two shillings – ten pence – a pint and you could buy a house for three thousand pounds. There were no mobile phones and there was nothing personal about computers. The few that existed were the size of the average bungalow. The pace of life was slower. Stress had not been discovered, at least, not in Nether Snuffingham. And nothing much happened to the people who lived there. Most of the time...
Nothing much happened at the Five Horseshoes. Nothing much had ever happened there, if you discount times when the beer was off or there was an outbreak of food poisoning attributed by some to the landlady’s homemade pies.
The Romans had bypassed the village, literally. They chose to build their long, straight road a few miles to the north.
Anglo-Saxon warrior tribes had left little mark, apart from inserting some pretty fierce Brünnhilde types into the local female gene pool. The landlady, Gladys, was a case in point.
One of the few significant events was back in 1085 when a Norman surveyor turned up to check out what to record in the Domesday Book. He didn’t find much and the village rated merely a brief mention as being worth forty shillings, inhabited by a few peasants, serfs and a handful of cattle and swine, and to be taxed at one yoke, whatever that meant.
And, as late as the early 1960s, those peasants and serfs were still pretty much in evidence. Witness the public bar of an evening. Even now few of them bother about paying taxes. Most prefer cash in hand.
The village had pretty much slumbered through the centuries. Unfortunately its inhabitants did not hear about the Peasants’ Revolt until it was all over, otherwise some would almost certainly have had a go.
A couple of local farmhands had set off to join the Parliamentarian forces during the Civil War, but couldn’t find them, so returned to the village unscathed – if a little sheepish.
There was a brief flurry of excitement back in 1943 when a shot-down German airman who had parachuted into the churchyard was captured by two pitchfork-toting landgirls and brought into the public bar. ‘For you, sunshine,’ the village bobby was alleged to have told the startled prisoner, ‘the war is over. Fancy a pint?’
The swinging sixties had not even begun to swing locally. There were regulars there who knew little of life outside and had not yet heard of the Beatles, never seen a miniskirt, and thought drainpipes were the things rainwater ran down.
One of the few exceptions was Norman Butcher, who occasionally dropped in for a pint on his way home from work. He had seen or heard of all of the above through commuting by train from the nearby market town to his civil service job in London. But he didn’t rabbit on about it – or anything else, come to that.
Of course there was the local newspaper reporter, Des Crow, from the Mercury, who usually popped in once a week. He claimed to know just about everything. But he was more interested in extracting information from the locals than educating them about the fashions and fads of the day.
The pub, known to its regulars as the Shoes, stood at one end of the small green overlooking the village pond, its Virginia creeper-clad walls and olde-worlde charm marred only by signs of neglect such as peeling paintwork and loose peg tiles.
Inside, it was cosy if scruffy. There was no plastic or chrome anywhere to be seen and its main features were its aged wood-wormed oak beams and the handsome inglenook fireplace decorated with a few genuine horse brasses in the snug.
At first glance you would think the ceilings were painted yellowy-brown, but they had once been white and were now stained with nicotine from generations of smokers, whose lungs were probably the same colour.
Gladys, known as Glad – a misnomer if ever there was one – and her husband Horace had run the pub for many a year.
She was a ginger-haired gin-swilling bossy-boots, whose interrogation techniques would have been the envy of the Gestapo.
No customer could ever stay tight-lipped when she was in cross-examination mode. And as a result she knew everything about everybody who ventured into the Shoes. Apart, perhaps, from Norman the commuter, as he was known, being the only local who ventured far away from the village to work. Norman never volunteered any information about himself – not even number, rank, name.
Although he was nominally the landlord, with his name above the entrance, Horace, a multi-chinned roly-poly, and otherwise matey sort of chap, knew his place. It was Glad who ran the pub with an iron fist, dealt with the brewery, made out the orders for peanuts, crisps and the like, controlled the till, served up doorstep sandwiches – and cooked her infamous pies.
Horace was a bit of a comedian, always ready with a quip, but he was ever careful of overstepping the mark when Glad was in one of her moods, which was pretty much most of the time.
The large, brick-floored public bar was inhabited during opening hours by a small band of regulars. There was old Frank and his Penguin-eating terrier – chocolate biscuits, that is, not real penguins.
There was the major, who had spent far more time selling insurance than he had in harm’s way, and a First World War veteran from somewhere to the far north known only as Yorky.
Then there were two other old codgers, Will and George, who had spent all of their working lives together labouring on local farms, and now in retirement spent more time together playing cribbage, draughts and darts in the Shoes than they did at home with their wives.
Old Mabel, who knitted, drank stout, and cackled a lot, and a few nondescripts made up the rest of the regular clientele. Little Jimmy, a former merchant navy man who had fallen on hard times after swallowing the anchor and now lived in a hut he had made himself in the nearby woods, was often to be found in the public bar, leaving his precious First World War medals with Horace as security for beer when he was out of funds.
Various others popped in on a regular basis. They included the man whose company owned the bar billiards table and shared the takings from it with the landlord. The bar billiards man had not yet twigged that Glad had found a way of extracting some of the sixpences before his weekly visits.
Regular as clockwork, every lunch-time, the village baker would appear. He was a tiny, chipper man, never seen without his cloth cap, who brought his newly-baked loaves in a large basket and stayed only long enough to resupply Glad’s sandwich-making operation and consume his usual half pint, never more.
The Shoes did better trade at the weekends, but there were days during the week, especially if the weather was bad, when even the regulars stayed away. At times like that the pub resembled those scenes in the film Whisky Galore when there was no whisky.
This state of affairs usually brought on one of Glad’s moods, and Horace would find tasks that kept him down in the cellar. He would stay there among the crates, barrels, cobwebs and a notice left over from wartime that urged soldiers ‘Please do not bring your rifles into the bar!’ for as long as possible.
When a call of nature or hunger forced him to surface like some tubby depth-charged submariner, Glad was there waiting to pound his ears with alarming statistics of falling takings and rising bills.
‘I don’t know why I bother, really I don’t!’ she would moan. ‘Work, work, work and nothing to show for it! At this rate we’ll never get that package holiday you promised me on the Costa Brava.’ And she would fix Horace with a baleful stare and tell him acidly, ‘It’s about time you came up with something to attract more customers.’ As Horace had often reflected, it was never us when things weren’t going well, but you...
Horace would wince and put on his thinking cap. But, sadly, no great brainwave had struck him so far.
Nothing short of war, famine, fire, flood or pestilence would prevent Des Crow, the cocky, porky-faced, pot-bellied reporter from the nearby market town, from making his weekly call at the Shoes seeking village news for the Mercury.
Crow had long since recognised that village pubs were goldmines for news and gossip and, anyway, he enjoyed a glass of beer or three and yarning with the yokels.
He particularly sought quirky paragraphs, known in the trade as overnights, that he could phone through to the London evening papers, reversing the charges of course. But there was never much to tell him.
When his calls around all the neighbouring villages did bear fruit, he would phone the evening paper copytakers, announce himself, ‘Des Crow here, old man, with a couple of overnights,’ and dictate pithy paragraphs such as:
Allotment holders at Little Snuffingham are complaining to the council about a plague of slugs from the nearby municipal tip that are attacking their vegetables.
Snuffingham-cum-Upham’s fourteenth century parish church of St Barnabas is infested with deathwatch beetles as well as having dry rot, a Diocesan survey has revealed.
Nether Snuffingham Women’s Institute branch is planning to produce a charity calendar with different members each month posing as famous characters from history.
Predictably, Glad had been selected to portray Boudicca. Typecasting, Horace called it. Fortunately, Crow had discovered, the well-upholstered lady playing Lady Godiva would be wearing a pink body suit. Little was he to know that this was an early forerunner of a more famous, some might say notorious, calendar, featuring WI members up north wearing substantially less, that would take the world by storm.
If these overnight paragraphs made it into the editions that came down from London by train the following afternoon, Crow would stand to make twelve and sixpence a time. He could times that by three if the News, Standard and Star all used them.
It was one of those wet, doom-ridden no Whisky Galore kind of days during a long spell of bad weather and poor trade when Crow arrived at the Shoes for his weekly call and noted Horace’s uncharacteristically gloomy look.
‘What’s up, old chap? Been at Glad’s pies again?’ Even he would not have dared to make such a quip if Glad had not been safely out of range in the back parlour.
Horace paused midway through pulling the reporter a pint. ‘No, no. Try not to touch ’em myself. It’s just that business is slow, dead slow. And Glad keeps moaning that we’ll never get that package holiday on the Costa Brava that she’s been going on about for ages. Wants me to think of something to attract more trade, but, I ask you, I can’t change the weather, can I? I can’t conjure customers up from nowhere, can I?’
He banged the full pint glass down on the bar counter. ‘That’ll be two bob.’
Crow put down a florin, took a slurp, and surveyed the public bar. Only the old crone Mabel, knitting furiously in her chair beside the front window, and old Frank on his corner barstool muttering quietly to his terrier, were to be seen. It certainly was another slow beer day at the Shoes.
‘See what you mean, old man. Not exactly buzzing in here, is it?’
Horace shook his head sorrowfully. ‘You can say that again. We’ve only taken a few quid all week. To say we’re keeping a pub is about right. This one’s not keeping us at the moment, that’s for sure.’
‘I would’ve expected little Jimmy to be here. Hardly ever known him not to be.’
‘No, haven’t seen him since that storm the other night. It was chucking it down at closing time and I was worried about him getting back to his hut in the woods. It’s a good two miles, you see, and the old boy could have caught his death staggering back there after a few pints...’
‘You didn’t fancy putting him up for the night?’
Horace shook his head. ‘Oh no, Glad wouldn’t have allowed that. Thin end of the wedge, do you follow? It wouldn’t do to set what they call a precedent, else we’d have to put up every drunk who couldn’t make it home.’
‘So what happened to Jimmy?’
‘Well, old Bert the garage bloke had dropped in for a nightcap on his way home from town. He lives over near the woods so I asked him if he’d give Jimmy a lift in his car. “Oh no,” he says, “he’s too smelly to come in the car, but I don’t mind giving him a lift in the boot.” So that’s what they did. We popped little Jimmy into the boot of his car and off they went. Haven’t seen either of them since, so I just hope Bert remembered to let him out when he passed Jimmy’s hut.’
Crow considered for a moment whether or not he could turn this into a story for the Mercury, or even an overnight, but dismissed the idea. No, it wouldn’t fly – not unless Jimmy’s mummified body was discovered in the boot when the car was eventually traded in...
A sudden crash from the back of the bar accompanied by the tinkling of breaking glass made them both jump.
‘Strewth!’ exclaimed the reporter. ‘What the heck was that?’
Horace spun on his heel more like a startled ballet dancer than a heavyweight. His first thought was that Glad had run amok in the kitchen, a situation that did occur from time to time when her pies got burnt or a mouse appeared from the holes in the skirting board. But then his foot scrunched on broken glass. ‘Thank Gawd,’ he said. ‘Just a bottle that’s fallen off the shelf. Now what made that happen?’
Sure enough, the label among the shards and the remains of the beer rapidly disappearing into the gaps between the floor bricks revealed it to have been a small bottle of the strong ale that some reckoned you could get drunk on for a few shillings.
Crow suggested, ‘Perhaps it was vibration from Glad in the kitchen, still chuntering on about the Costa Brava.’
Horace pursed his lips. ‘Could be, but more’n likely that bottle was poised, on the edge like, waiting to dive off and hit our takings. Even the soddin’ beer’s turned against me.’
He fetched a dustpan and brush and knelt to sweep up the broken glass, muttering, ‘Just one darned thing after another. Only last week the local bobby came in on his high horse and laying down the law just because someone had left the cellar hatches open.’
‘What, those trap doors in the paving outside the front of the pub where the draymen roll the barrels down into the cellar?’
‘That’s right. Must have been them 'as left them open, but Alf, the copper, went on and on about it being the landlord’s responsibility to check that they’re closed, how someone could have fallen in and broken their neck or whatever.’
‘Wouldn’t mind falling into a cellar full of free beer myself,’ Crow observed.
‘That’s just it,’ Horace complained. ‘I had to give the bobby a free pint just to shut him up. Still, trade’s so poor I might just as well give the beer away.’
Crow chuckled. ‘Never mind, old chap, I’ll have another pint, just to boost your profits, mind.’
While Horace was pouring it, the reporter indicated the poster pinned to the pub noticeboard alongside last year’s list of inter-village darts match fixtures. ‘Anyway, no doubt you’ll make a killing at next week’s sale.’
The notice announced:
Situated behind the Five Horseshoes
56 STORE CATTLE
Thursday 11th September
Sale to commence at 11 a.m.
Horace nodded grudgingly. ‘Shouldn’t do too badly, but it’ll be what they call an exception to the rule. Be alright if every day was a sale day, what with all those thirsty farmers and hangers-on. Trouble is, trade’ll be back to square one the following day...’
Crow knew how it felt because he was suffering his own news drought. Draining his pint, he announced, ‘I’d best be on my way, Horace,’ and added sympathetically, ‘but I’ll be back to report on the sale on Thursday and I’m sure you’ll make a killing.’
The pub’s cash register would indeed be busy on sale day, and the reason was simple. One of its great attractions was that, in those days of strict licensing laws, the Shoes was granted special dispensation to stay open all day, catering for the great thirsts sellers, buyers and idle gawpers are prone to at such gatherings.
It was well known that in the past some had imbibed so freely that they had bid for the wrong lots. And one seller was said to have enjoyed the relaxed drinking regime to such excess that he had bought his own sheep back.
Certainly it was an event that gave a twice-yearly boost to the diminished coffers of the licensees at the Five Horseshoes. But not enough to make Glad’s dream of a package holiday on the Costa Brava come true.
On the morning of the sale the Shoes was soon busy as vendors, potential purchasers, and some who were only there for the beer, crowded the public bar.
Horace had made sure there were spare barrels on tap in the cellar and Glad was bustling around the kitchen baking an extra batch of her pies.
Having made his routine morning calls to police, fire brigade and ambulance, picking up a few paragraphs about stolen bicycles, a chimney fire, a call-out to a collapse in the street and the like, Des Crow drove out to the Shoes in time to get one in before the sale started.
If anyone had bothered to ask, he would have replied, truthfully, that he was one of those really only there for the beer. He was there to write up the sale, of course, but he wouldn’t have to do anything, work-wise, until it was over.
The Five Horseshoes by David McDine / Humor / Horror have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on20 votes