It's been a while since a story came along wanting to get written. This one started innocently enough with a question to my old friend Alan Wrigley: "Where was that pub we used to visit as teenagers -where we used to play bar-billiards?" That question ended up in a debate amongst a few people on the Coulsdon History page ending in a somewhat unsatisfactory conclusion ... and a short story.
2k words, ten-minute read:
The William IV
It was supposed to be a trip down memory lane. Now, fast approaching 7 pm, it had turned into a trip down a couple of dozen lanes. We were lost. Well, perhaps ‘lost’ is a bit of an overstatement when you have a GPS, but, we couldn’t find the pub we wanted … ok, the pub I wanted.
"Let's just call it quits," Jill said.
It would, of course, have been better if I had taken heed of the weariness in her voice, typed our next hotel into the GPS, and moved on. But, like a dog with a bone, I wasn't ready to call it a day. I really wanted to find this pub.
The pub in question was a part of my history. It was where, late in my teens, I had come with my mate each week to play bar-billiards and enjoy the company of some down to earth country folk, including old Jack. Jack wouldn't be there now of course. If he was, he’d have to be about 120 years old, I reckon.
I learned everything about bar-billiards from Jack. He was the champ of the bar and everyone knew it. I watched plenty of people try to take his crown, only to end up walking away shaking their heads or muttering cuss words under their breath. Jack never attempted to teach me how to play, but was never so high and mighty that he wouldn't give us newbies a game, or even partner with a skilless lost-cause - usually carrying the game all by himself. I learned how to play just by watching and attempting to copy Jack’s shots. No, Jack would be many years gone and, if we didn't get lucky soon, the pub would have to remain a distant memory too.
"We'll quit soon, honey. Just a couple more roads to check and we'll head for the hotel."
"Ok." Two syllables expressed with a completely different meaning. Only I wasn't listening; I still had a grip on that bone.
We drove the length of another fruitless road and then a second. Pulling over, I looked across at my wife and received a wordless shrug. So, I typed the hotel address into the GPS and gave up on finding the pub.
Back-tracking our way towards the M23, we rounded a bend to see a pub, all lit up and with an empty car-park. "That's it!" I exclaimed excitedly, as I brought the car to a halt. Even Jill seemed roused enough to lean forward in her seat and stare keenly at the pub in the growing gloom.
"William IV,” she mused. “Are you sure? We drove this road earlier this afternoon and you didn't recognise it when we came the other way."
She was right, of course. We had passed this way earlier, but I must have been distracted and missed it, or it looked different with the lights on, but this was it; there was no mistaking, even after more than fifty years. "Do you mind if we go in?" I asked, hopefully.
"Well, we've come this far; it'll be silly to carry on without at least looking. Anyway, I'm more than a bit thirsty, so let’s go." We locked the car and headed into the pub.
Some things never change in a country pub, conversations fell quiet as the door opened and heads turned to inspect the new-comers. It was that old, unvoiced, question - "friend or foe?" I glanced around the room with my friendliest smile and the conversational chatter gradually resumed. I probably looked like a harmless idiot with that big grin, but at least I wasn’t carrying a pitchfork or burning torch.
The pub had changed though. Not too much, but the bar-billiards table had gone - no surprises there, and the barstools had been changed. What hadn't changed, was the old 'L' shaped wooden bar, lined with the old pull-lever taps and an array of bottles on the shelves behind. The tables and chairs had been updated too but, obstinately, occupied the same positions that I recalled from the 1960s. We headed to a vacant spot at the bar.
"Evenin'," said the barman. "What can I get you tonight?" I looked at Jill questioningly.
"A G&T please"
"And, I'll just have a half of your best bitter, please. I'm driving."
"Not from around here, are you?" the barman said as he set about the G&T.
"Not recently," I replied. "But I used to come here regularly when I was younger."
"Oh, when would that have been?"
"Back in the mid-1960s," I said.
"We're from New Zealand, now," Jill added.
"Way before my time," said the barman. "But old Jack at the table over there", he nodded to a table in the corner, "he goes back a long way and might remember something. He slid the G&T towards Jill and started pulling my drink. "Local brew," he said, indicating the label on the pump.
"Sounds good to me," I replied, wondering how Jill would feel about talking to 'old Jack'.
"Mind if we go and talk to the old fella?" I whispered in her ear.
"No, go for it," she said, "worse that can happen is he tells us to bugger off." She smiled.
I took my drink from the barman and handed over enough cash to be able to say "keep the change" without it being a joke. Then we headed over to old Jack's table.
As we approached, I could see that Jack was indeed old; in his nineties by the look of the crevasses on his face. But, despite the facial etching, it was a welcoming and almost familiar face that looked up as we stopped at the table.
"Excuse me, it’s Jack isn’t it? The barman gave us your name and told us that you had lived around here for a while. I'm Sam and this is my wife Jill, we're from New Zealand but I used to come here back in the 1960s."
His eyes seemed to linger on each of us for an age, taking everything in. I began to think that we were about to get Jill’s ‘worst that can happen’. But then he finally spoke, "1960s eh? Long time ago, that. Have a seat."
"We don't want to bother you if it's inconvenient," Jill chimed in.
"No. Not a bother. If you don't sit down, I'll only spend the evening kissing this glass." He raised a barely touched pint and set it down again without a sip.
We drew up a couple of chairs and sat down. "It's a weird coincidence," I started, "but in the sixties, I used to play bar-billiards in here with a man called Jack: You remind me of him but he'd have to be at least 120 by now."
The old fella smiled, "bar-billiards, you say. Pretty sure that would have to have been Jack Snr., my father. Used to play anyone who wanted a game - and whip the lot of them by all accounts." He chuckled. "I would have been in the army at the time, didn't get out until 71, otherwise you'd have seen me around here too. We lived in the cottage about half-a-mile down the lane. I Still do."
"Wow, that's amazing", said Jill. "You've lived here your whole life?"
"Apart, from those nine years in the army. Saw enough in those years to last a lifetime, so I came home. Here's where I was born. Here's where I'll die."
She leaned forward, elbows on the table, and I realised that the writer in my previously-tired wife could smell the scent of a story. "Tell me, what was it like growing up around here in, what, the 1940s, Jack?" I knew immediately that this was no longer my conversation; it was an interview, with my writer-wife hot on the trail of a tale. I may as well sit back and enjoy the ride as she plundered Jack's memories for anything of value.
In all honesty, I don't remember much about the conversation from that point, they talked about growing up on a farm, army experiences and coming home afterwards. I sat, half-listening, half lost in my own memories of the place, and the strange familiarity of Jack Jnr.
At some point, I think Jill decided she needed to bring me back into the conversation, and she asked Jack about bar-billiards, why it wasn't there anymore and, anyway, what on earth was it?
"You never seen bar-billiards?" said Jack. "Best pub game ever. Fell out of favour 'cause it took up too much room and slowed people down from the drinkin' and spendin’. There be more people, buying more drinks, without it - that was the thinkin'."
"Yes, profit always wins out, doesn’t it. But, how was it played?" insisted Jill.
"It was a table with holes in and skittles. You hit a ball down the table with a cue and tried to get the balls down the holes without knocking over the skittles. Hard to explain really. Look, it don't work no more, but table's still in the old barn out-back, part-way up the hill. Want to see it?"
"Oh, yes please," said Jill. I just nodded, somewhat wearily, and smiled.
Jack eased himself out of his chair. "Follow me," he said, presenting his arm, which Jill eagerly took hold of as they headed towards the back door. I followed behind, curious, but lacking Jill’s flirtatious excitement.
Jack opened the door and they went through while I followed behind. I think I must have tripped as I went down the step. I remember falling and the next thing I recall is lying on my face in the middle of a field. It was day-time and I had a very sore head. I felt sick and dizzy but managed to get to my feet and see our car parked by the road about fifty meters away. I stumbled over to the car and was leaning on the bonnet getting my breath back when the police officer came along.
He asked if I was feeling ok, I said, "not really". I asked him where the William IV pub was. He asked if I had been drinking. I said, "just a little." Then he insisted I come here, the paramedic bandaged my head and you lot started asking questions. Look, this is the third time I've been through all of this, I really need to go and find my wife. Can I leave now?
"The thing is, Mr Jones. Your story just doesn't add up. We have verified that you and your wife left the Golden Dumpling restaurant yesterday lunch-time and that you failed to turn up at your hotel last night. You were found, alone and injured, on the road where the William IV pub used to stand. I say, "used to" because it burned to the ground in 1975 and four people died, a couple of locals, a father and son, and a couple of townies. Those that got out say there was an argument over a game, it turned unpleasant, and an old oil heater got knocked over.
"Now, what you are telling me is that last night, you had been drinking with your wife in that same pub and that a man named Jack and your wife, named Jill went up the hill to look in a barn and that you fell down and broke your crown and now you don't know where your wife is. Can you see how this looks, Mr Jones? Your wife is missing, she was last seen with you, and you insist that she has gone off with a ghost from a ghost pub. So, no, you can’t leave now; but it would be a good time for you to call a solicitor...