Wednesday, October 16, 2013



By: Daniel Diehl

If England”s weather is something of a topic for international humor, the local residents here in the village of No Place - located, as it is, only a few miles south of the Scottish border - often seem to miss the punch line.  With latitude roughly equivalent to that of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, a certain hatred for the local weather is hardly surprising.  For nearly nine months of the year the climate here is alternately, or far too often simultaneously, foggy, damp, windy, rainy and cold.  Not the searing knife-edged cold of the American North-East, but a gnawing, insinuating cold that seeps beneath the skin and chews away at both muscles and spirit.  Throughout these long, inhospitable months the residents of No Place either huddle behind drawn curtains to cluster around the warmth of their television sets or brave the chill long enough to make their way to the one local pub, The Slaughtered Lamb.
       Here at The Slaughtered Lamb, in the shared warmth and good cheer, offered up in pint glasses by the local landlord, they chat and discuss their plans for the few months ahead that are ubiquitously known as the English summer.  Strangely, the locals here, like almost all Englishmen, rarely stay around to enjoy these few gilded weeks of gloriously, enchantingly mild weather.  Instead, they pack their bags and head off to someplace as unwelcomingly hot as the rest of England’s year is cold.   
       One evening this past April - just as the first signs that winter might actually be something less than an eternal curse passed down by some small, angry god, had begun to evidence themselves in a slight greening of the foliage - a group of us were gathered at the Lamb, enjoying an evening’s drink and discussing plans for the upcoming summer holidays.  Not that such plans seemed to vary much from year to year, nor from person to person.  As usual, Ward Johnson, his wife and kids were planning a trip to one of the Greek islands where they would liberally baste themselves with sun-screen beneath a Mediterranean sun, while Sky and his brood were, yet again, off to Florida to enjoy temperatures in the mid-nineties and humidity approaching one hundred percent.  Stevie and his wife were off for another month in sweltering Spain.  Only Willy, who was going to visit his daughter in Ireland, had opted to stay in the planet’s temperate zone.
       As Bridges, the landlord, pushed a fresh pint of strong, dry cider across the bar, Sky asked him what he and his wife’s plans were.
       “Are you and Liz going anywhere this year, lad?”
       Bridges waved Sky’s ten pound note in the air and shot back “Not this year.  If you lot would spend more of your time in here drinking and less of it on useless palaver, maybe I could afford to go somewhere, but as it is...” With a shrug of his broad shoulders, he turned to the cash register.
       “Oh, come on, Bridges.  I’m serious.  Are you going off on holiday or not?”
       Leaning his elbows on the bar counter, Bridges dragged his beefy hands down across his round face, pulling his jowls well past the jaw line before answering.  “Actually, seriously, after last year’s trip I’m not sure if we want to go anywhere.  And I mean ever.”
       This odd statement was enough to get all of our attention.  One by one we pulled our bar stools into a tight knot and waited for the inevitable details that we knew Bridges would happily provide.  As any good actor would, the landlord drew out the suspense by turning away long enough to pull himself a frothy pint of his best bitter.  Finally, after taking a long pull on the foaming glass, he continued.
       “Last year, we decided, for reasons I can’t imagine in my wildest dreams, to stay in the country and do some touring down south.  We went to Stonehenge.  What a waste of time that was...bloody pile of rocks and a lot of foreign punters snapping their cameras.  Did take in a lovely beer festival near Bath, though.”  To this last comment he signaled his approval by rubbing his hands in great, sweeping circles across his more than ample waistline.  
       “Finally made our way down through Devon and along the Cornish coast and then we came home.”  With a nod and a self-satisfied smile, he apparently brought his mundane little story to a preemptory close.
       “That’s it?  Hardly sounds like a good enough reason not to go anywhere again.  "Ever".”
       “You really want to know, don’t you?”  By this time Bridges was obviously playing to his audience, making us beg him to finish the story.  Inevitably, we did and just as inevitably he succumbed to our pleas.
       “All right, all right.  On the way back we decided to take a spin around Dartmoor.  God, what a dreadful place.  Barren and bleak...we might as well have been in bloody Wales.”
       “Oh, come on.” I interjected, “Dartmoor can’t be that bad.  Stark, maybe, but so are the Pennine Hills and the Yorkshire Moors, but they all have their own sort of beauty.”
       Leaning forward across the bar, his face only inches from mine, Bridges intense, green eyes flashed.  “Lad, you ever been to Dartmoor?”  I admitted that I hadn’t.  “Well, let me tell you, Dartmoor makes the Yorkshire Moors look like the garden of bloody Eden.  Bogs and rocks, bracken and gorse...why, even the bloody sheep won’t go there.  Dreadful place.  Got so lost on a tangle of grotty little side roads we didn’t even find a village where we could stop for a bite to eat for an entire day.”
       “Come on, Bridges, you’re not telling us everything.  What happened down there that was bad enough to put you off ever going on holiday again?”  Like the rest of us, Sky was now thoroughly sucked-in to the tale and wouldn’t rest till he had heard every last word of it.
       “Well...” Bridges continued to talk - and drag out the story - while he stepped to one side to refill his glass, “to make a long story short...”
       “Which you never do.”
       “Ahh, go on with ya.  As I was saying, to make a long story short...” he shot a playful, withering glance toward Sky “we could have been on the moon if you were judging by all the signs of life we saw.  By the time we came on the first hint of human life it was already pitch dark - and this was in June, so it was light till nearly ten o’clock.  Finally, we came on a high stonewall that followed along the side of the road.  It wasn’t one of those low, dry stonewalls they use to enclose a sheep meadow or anything; this was a proper wall, all well laid and mortared into place.  I slowed down and followed it till we came to an opening flanked by a pair of massive stone gate posts.  There wasn’t any gate like you might have expected, though, but mounted between the gateposts was an old, wrought iron arch with writing worked into the ironwork.  At least half of the words were covered by overgrown tree branches, creepers and vines and such, so I could only read the last bit, but the part I could see said "Rest".  I reckoned it must have been some sort of an inn or a B&B or something, you know, like maybe it said Travelers Rest.  So I pulled through the gate onto the gravel entry road.
       “I couldn’t see much of the front garden in the dark, but I could still tell it was all overgrown and it looked like the grassed area was full of tree stumps that had never been pulled out.  They stuck up a foot or two above the grass and there were dozens of them.  Bloody mess it was.  Still, there was a squat little one-story building at the end of the lane so I thought somebody must live there.   There weren’t any lights on in the place, but if the people were old, and went to bed early, that wouldn’t have been all that odd.  I hated to wake them up, but we needed a place to stay.  I was knackered and so was Liz.  Even if they didn’t have a room, at least they might ring around to someplace else and find us somewhere to stay the night.”
       “And...”  We were all urging him on now.
       “I was just getting there.  Don’t rush me.  And since you are all so interested in hearing me talk, why don’t you get yourselves another drink.  You have to pay for your entertainment around here, you know.”  Obediently, we pushed our glasses across the bar, fished through our pockets for money, and listened as he rambled on while pulling one pump handle after another.
       “I drove on down the road and up to the building.  I noticed there weren’t any cars parked there so I thought there would be a good chance that we could get a room right there at the something-or-other-rest.  Liz stayed in the car while I went up to the door.  It was one of those massive, plank things with huge, ornate iron hinges like you see on old churches.  I couldn’t find a bell or anything, so I knocked on the door.  I only had to rap two or three times till I heard somebody shuffling about inside and a few minutes later they pulled open the door.”
       “So here’s this old bloke, all done up in a fancy suit and tie.  It was almost as dark inside as it was out so I couldn’t see much, but here he was in a dark blue or black three-piece suit and one of those starched, wing-collars like butlers and solicitors used to wear.”
       “Everybody used to wear those, Bridges.”
       “Maybe, but everybody doesn’t wear them anymore, do they?  And certainly not at ten o’clock at night.”  Heads nodded as Bridges pushed fresh drinks across the bar and pressed on with his tale.  “So here he is, all done up like some old-timey footman, at this hour and he is old.  I mean ancient, like that Methuselah bloke in the Bible.  Must have been ninety if he was a day.   He smiles this dry, lipless little grin and asks if he could help me.  I explained that Liz and I had gotten lost out on the moors and we were looking for a place to stay and did he have a room we could have for the night.  No problems he said and invited us right in.  Told me he and his wife didn’t get many visitors way out there and they were always glad to be of help to lost souls whenever they could.  That’s the way he put it "lost souls".  Thought it was a bit of an odd thing to say.
       “So anyway, I went back out to the car to get Liz and the bags and by the time we got back the old geezer’s wife had joined him at the door.  God!  She must have been at least as old as he was, maybe older, but all done up to the nines in a fancy old dress, pearls, earrings, the whole lot.” 
       “When we went in, the place was seriously bleedin’ dark, I can tell you.  Just a few candles scattered around the room, here and there, so I couldn’t see any of the bits and bobs on the walls or anything, but the place looked like maybe it had been originally built to serve as the gate lodge for one of those old Great Houses from the seventeenth century, or something.  All flag stone floors, bare stone walls and even in June the place was cold and damp.  Clammy like, you know?  Chilled you to the marrow.”
       “So you didn’t stay?”
       “I didn’t say that?  Didn’t have much choice, after all.  Here we were out there in the middle of nowhere.  Where were we going to go?  I wasn’t about to sleep in the car, now was I?  Besides, we hardly got sat down in the living room and the old dear asks us if we would like some refreshment.  Couldn’t very well say no, so I had a jaw with the old gent and he tells me their name is Twyckenham and they had been out there on the moors for donkey’s years and tells me how they never have anyone stop by and see them and how nice it is to see young people once in a while.   All this time the old gal has been off somewhere, rattling around and finally she comes back with some tea in those old-fashioned Chinese teacups with no handle.  Personally I had been hoping for something a bit more substantial...”
       “Of course, beer.”  A general snickering and snorting crept around the bar making Bridges put on an indignant look.  “Oy!  Beers as substantial as you can get, now ain’t it?  But, still, I didn’t want to be rude, so what can you do, right?  Anyway, while we were sipping our tea, the old lady apologizes for their not having any double beds and asks us if we minded sleeping in singles.  Not that we had a whole lot of options, but we told her that singles would be just great and I asked how much the room would be.  You wouldn’t believe it, she told us that since we were the first people they”d had in there all summer there wouldn’t be any charge!”
       “Obviously they weren’t running the Slaughtered Lamb.”  Stevie’s sly dig brought on another round of chuckles followed by a silently accusing finger pointed across the bar by Bridges.  “Hey, maybe they just didn’t have the mortgage to pay that I do.  Did you think of that?”
       “So get on with it.”
       “Right, then.  Well, when they showed us to the room I could well understand why they didn’t charge us.  The beds were narrow, cramped, little things with high sides like some berth off of an oldie time sailing ship.  Hard, thin mattresses, dreadful awful little things they were.  Couldn’t get a wink of sleep, neither of us.  Finally, must have been five o’clock in the morning - the sun wasn’t even over the horizon yet - we gave up.  We got up, packed our bags, chucked them in the car and left.  I tried to find the landlord to get some directions, but they must have still been in bed - wish I’d a been in bed, too.”
       “It does sound like you had a pretty bad experience, what with no beer and hard beds and all” said Sky with a sly grin “but that’s hardly enough to put you off ever going on holiday again.”
       “Oh, now just you wait.  That wasn’t the half of it.  It must have been about ten in the morning, when I’m already a hundred miles down the road, and Liz remembers she left one of her brooch pins back at the place and tells me that we have to go back.  Seems it was one her Mum gave her and she was all sentimental about it.  Didn’t have a lot of choice did I, I have to live with the woman.”  Murmurs of agreement and sympathy rumbled around the little crowd.
       “So back I went, not having a clue in the world where the lousy place had been.  Took me most of another day just to get back to this God forsaken spot I don’t know how I got to in the first place.”
       “Did you find it?”
       “Oh, yeah.  Eventually.  It was near teatime when we finally got there and by this time I had worked up a raging thirst, but I did find it.  And you would not believe...”
       When Bridges paused for dramatic affect Willie pushed him with a sharp “What?”
       “Where was it?” Shouted someone else down the bar.
       “Not where was it, lad.  What was it.  That’s the question.”
       “Ok.  So "what" was it.”
       “That sign.  The one that said the something-rest.  What it really said was Eternal Rest. The place was a bloody cemetery and those stumps I thought I saw in the garden - well they weren’t stumps at all, they were the tops of tombstones sticking up out of the tall grass!”
       “You mean this old geezer and his wife had turned an unused country church in to a bed and breakfast place?”
       “No, ya silly twit.  It wasn’t a proper churchyard it was a town cemetery.  Stuck way out there on Dartmoor, it was, and there wasn’t a church for miles around.”
       “Well, what was the place you stayed in, then?”
       “It was a bloody mausoleum, that’s what it was.”
       “Oh-ho, no.” said Willy, wrinkling up his nose. “Who’d turn an old mausoleum into a guest house?”
       “It hadn’t been turned into bloody anything.  Don’t you see?  When I went up to the door - or at least where that massive old door had been the night before - there wasn’t anything there but a big iron grate across the doorway.  Above the entrance, carved up there in the stone lintel, as big as life, it said "Twyckenham Family Crypt".  And on an old brass plaque by the door post it said "John Twyckenham, beloved husband, 1832 to 1921" and below that was ‘Edith Twyckenham, beloved wife, 1836 to 1929’.  And that’s why I’m not ever going on bloody holiday again.”

No comments:

Post a Comment