Every Friday The Bogcragston and District Gazette published restaurant reviews on page thirty-five. People needed to be told what they liked thought the editor, it'd be a pretty dangerous world if not. This week The Elf and Firkin hogged the limelight. A small public house with a newly converted room at the back and poor lighting that Rick, the landlord, referred to as 'ambience.' Oh, and it had a chef who happened to have a very good friend on the staff of The Bogcragston and District Gazette.
There were a number of ways you could sample the gastronomic delights of Hammelhampton's only eatery. You could, for example, book up a couple of months in advance, just turn up unannounced on any given day, or win the local rag's latest competition.
The Elf and Firkin was a proper pub; dim, grimy and dank. Billiard balls loudly cracked against each other as darts dangerously ricocheted from almost every surface. Beer-stained clientele blended seamlessly with woodworm eaten barstools and dart-marked objet d'art. And a crooner's muffled voice battled for pride of place from the radiogram in the corner of the room.
The donation of the said radiogram ensured a table for George Smart and his family.
Wars and ration books were so deeply ingrained into George's psyche that he found himself pottering around the house, and not just his own either, twiddling with thermostats and then wondering why he felt cold.
And then there was saving fuel. Walking to Hammelhampton seemed the only sensible way of getting there. It would save petrol he insisted. A quick bimble past Pobblestrum's Latin Quarter and the age-old ironmonger's shop on the way out of the village, then just across a few fields. Probably no more than three or four miles across country.
"And how the hell are you going to get Donald's pram over the stiles?" His long-suffering wife Mary was as thrifty as the next villager but there were limits. "The only thing it saves on, my darling, is common sense! Good grief, George, life's too short."
"Yes," George mumbled to himself, "but the days are too long." Trying to
accept defeat cheerfully, but still emanating his usual mishmash of greys, he picked up his car
keys, "OK, darling, we'll drive shall we?"
Alf had already made up his mind to drive; it helped him think. Not that that always a good thing.
He had managed to name all three beverages traditionally drunk by the natives of Bogcragston Valley on Saint Ivy's Day. And as a result, ended up winning the Bogcragston and District Gazette's latest competition.
Most everyday things foxed Alf, but the extraordinary was commonplace. He had hand-fed creatures as yet undiscovered by the rest of humanity, and even a few thought to be extinct. And it certainly didn't pay to get him started on aliens. But, when it came to liquid refreshments he was very much in touch with reality.
With the anticipation of hurtling along the cobbled motorway he clenched his pipe between his teeth, pulled on his driving gloves and started his car. Was that what cobblers did, he wondered, make roads?
He gave himself a shake to prevent the onslaught of yet more mental acrobatics and started
his car again. This time the battered, well-worn engine spluttered a bit and worked itself up
into that familiar rattling noise that Alf had come to know and love.
The Elf and Firkin's kitchen door was kept firmly closed, hiding the hodge-podge of soggy leftovers that blocked the plughole and dirty crockery that haphazardly bobbed up and down in the murky water that filled the sink. The kitchen door also kept Doug, the chef, out of sight. He wore his white hat with a slight tilt and his crinkled, hand-rolled cigarette with a slight limp as he put his feet up on the kitchen counter and waited for his first order.
Rick's ill-fitting skin hung from his bones like hand-me-down clothes, highlighted impressively by his sagging chins and drooping jowls which wobbled hypnotically as he flinched and twitched. Fortunately he was aware of his appearance and a shrewd enough businessman to stay out of sight while the punters were eating. "The masses are beginning to surge in," he excitedly announced to his chef, "just as I knew they would!"
"Isn't surge too strong a word?" Doug asked. His words left his mouth accompanied by wafts of smoke, "we do only have two tables after all."
"Yes, but they're both booked tonight, aren't they?" Rick said proudly, "A full house!"
"Neither are paying customers though . . ." As far as Doug was concerned he had given quite enough encouragement for one day, and besides there was work to be done.
Rick didn't notice that he'd lost Doug's attention and waffled away enthusiastically. It was
unclear how long he had lived in these parts, but he spoke authentic gibberish and that was more than good
enough for the folk out here in the sticks.
The Smarts and the Mathesons arrived at The Elf and Firkin at the same time. George and Alf both scrambled to hold the door open for one another, each demanding, "After you!" If Alf's upbringing had taught him nothing else, he had learned that the early worm gets eaten. And for George, it was merely hedonism for the humble.
The ploughboys lowered their tankards of warm ale and watched the two families make their way through the saloon bar and into the dining area. A elderly domino-playing gentleman paused to lift his cloth cap and scratch his head. He looked at his opponent and asked, "If they're 'ungry, why don't they just get a packet of pork scratchings?"
"The young'uns all go through this palaver, mate. Don't you remember when we
were their age?" They both shrugged and resumed their game.
The diners were eventually seated. Astonishingly even the babies were catered for and highchairs provided. Alf was convinced this was the start of a slippery slope towards child-friendly pubs everywhere. A disturbing thought for one so passionate about preserving the degradation of the pubs of the time. "They'll be no-smoking areas one day too, you mark my words!"
This seemed a little far-fetched, even for Alf, but who said sages couldn't have their off days? Some more than others maybe.
Questionable stains on the table cloths could have told their own stories, but neither they nor the frantic goings-on behind closed doors were of any interest. Alf scoured the menu for sandwiches. Anne and Mary found pleasure in all the culinary delights on the menu. But George, less so. To him there were fewer delights than you could shake a stick at.
Donald and Judith, however, were suddenly unaware of their surroundings. Seated opposite each other they immediately became fixated, even to the extent that they stopped gurgling. They recognized each other. This was their big chance to finish their conversation and resolve once and for all. This was it!
Except of course that neither could talk just yet.
Bodies are like puppets to the souls that inhabit them, and worked from the inside. In these cases though, not very expertly. There again they didn't come with instruction books.
Their thrill at seeing each other again was such that they literally couldn't contain themselves. And their souls extended farther than their under-developed physical counterparts, floating ever closer, hovering unseen above the table.
You know when you've been putting oil in your blocked-up ears? A day or two later they start to burble a bit, and following the burbling there are a few isolated pockets of lucidity. They don't last long, but they're such a relief when they do fleetingly occur. Well, in spiritual terms this was a similar moment of clarity.
When their mothers strapped them into their high chairs, they had no idea how inadequately they would hold them. Not only had the babies become free of from the straps, but also from the very confines of their own bodies. Unfortunately for them they didn't have complete independence and were still attached by some sort of spiritual rubberiness. Something that Donald discovered to his peril. Having stretched himself just that little bit too far, with a jolt he suddenly pinged back into his startled little body.
From this age onwards bodies mature and solidify, and their locked-in souls become largely ignored. But they usually survive. Life continues and hangs on like grim death.