“See these hands?” said the elderly man who’d introduced himself as George, holding up his fingers to show me. “These are killing weapons. The army made me sign a form to say that I’ll never get into a casual fight, because I couldn’t be responsible for the consequences. If I hit you I’d kill you, see?” He lunged towards me, hands aloft, waving the deadly digits in my face.
This was the first time I had gone into the pub called The Undeniable Truth, in the village of Foggy Bottom, where me and my wife Barbara had just moved to. My company had offered me promotion if I agreed to move out of London to the West Country, and so far village life seemed lively and interesting. I was enjoying my new job, had nice colleagues to work with, but so far we had no social life in the evenings, hence my sojourn to the nearest village pub. Everyone had been friendly and welcoming, but the conversation was taking a distinctly strange turn. . .
“You can kill with your hands, you say George?” a bespectacled gent with a walking stick and a large white moustache joined in our conversation. “That’s nothing. In the Ultra Green Beret Special Para Boat Squadron I was in they trained us to kill with our feet.” He leaned closer to me, lifting a Wellington-boot clad foot. “Get my big toe in your throat and you’d go down like a sack of spuds, my friend!”
“Well when I was in the hush-hush mob – you know the guys who nobody talks about – they trained us to survive in the jungle,” George continued, oblivious. “I lived for six months on worms and rainwater in the Amazonian rain forest.”
“Worms and rainwater?” chimed in another guy who was bald as a coot with a round shiny red face. “You were lucky. I had to dig in the ice for sea slugs, and occasionally kill a huge savage wild boar with my bare hands. It’s the only way to survive in a Siberian winter. . .”
I made my excuses and left. They seemed really nice friendly guys, I did like them, but the wild tale-telling seemed more than bizarre, and I couldn’t really keep a straight face.
I told Barbara about the would-be desperados in the pub, but she made light of it. “These country people are a bit over-the-top, that’s all,” she said. “But they’re nice. We just have to get used to them. And after all it’s not the only pub in the village.”
The following evening I popped into The Philosopher’s Dilemma. This looked a much more lively place, the drinkers seemed a bit younger than those in The Undeniable Truth. No sooner had I taken a seat at the bar, than a couple of men came along to chat to me.
“You’ve taken on Barnaby’s cottage then, have you, mate?” said the man who’d introduced himself as Arthur. He was about my age, fortyish, and was nursing his pint as if he loved it.
“That’s right, we’ve just moved down from London.”
“Well it’s very nice to see a new face. Now let me ask you something.” He pointed to my pint of beer. “Is that a pint of beer?”
“Yes,” I muttered, a bit surprised. “Isn’t it?”
“Ah now, according to Zen Buddhism, you might think it’s only a glass of beer. But in fact one might argue that the glass of beer only exists in your mind.”
“Glass, you say Arthur?” said a newcomer, who was slightly older and had a thinker’s frown and a huge thatch of grey hair and wore a large dirty blue pullover. “Come come now, I think you’re being a bit fast and loose semantically. You call that a glass, but I think of glass as a material not an item.”
“Ah but Grundvald Geitszberg wouldn’t agree there, he wouldn’t agree at all,” chimed in a man behind us in a strident northern accent. “Greitszberg would say that none of us are actually here in the pub. In fact this pub only exists in our imaginations. . . .Thinking logically, we aren’t here and we never were. We have to go right back to first principles. . .”
Once more that week I made my excuses and returned home to tell Barbara my tale of woe.
“You know what?” she remarked cheerfully. “I think we should both go out together tomorrow night. Go somewhere different, not some blokey pub. The girls at work were telling me about a new wine bar that they recommended.”
The Wagging Tongue was just off the high street, in fancy modern premises, and inside the décor was bright and smart and sassy. The walls were purple, the ceiling painted with psychedelic colours, and all the drinks seemed to be every hue under the sun. The subdued lighting created a wonderful atmosphere of calm.
Barbara had been right, it wasn’t a blokey place at all, and most of the customers seemed to be female, and none of them looked as if they were likely to pontificate about philosophy or how to survive in Siberia. As soon as we sat down at a table we were joined by a friendly-looking woman, who said her name was Veronica. She was middle-aged, dressed stylishly in a tightly-fitting dress, and was sipping Chardonnay.
“You live in the old Barnaby cottage don’t you?” Veronica began, smiling sweetly. “So you’re not far from the vicarage. Tell me, have you heard any strange noises coming from there during the night?”
“Well I have. My word, some of the things that vicar gets up to, you wouldn’t believe! Women coming in and going at all hours, not even trying to hide their shame! They do say that under his cassock he’s wearing stockings and suspenders. And apparently he takes drugs.”
“Yes, yes, he does,” butted in Sally, a silver-haired sophisticated lady who’d also drawn up a chair at our table. “Stoned out of his mind he was last Sunday,” she said sotto voice, leaning closer conspiratorially. “He could hardly blather out the sermon, kept stumbling. Course they do say that he sunbathes naked in his garden, waves his willy at all and sundry! Would you credit it, a man of God!”
“But how about that Dougie Brown, that farmer down Angleton way? They tell me no sheep is safe from his evil ways – been in prison for it, he has!”
“Well I never! The dirty devil!”
“I’m not a one to talk badly about anyone, you know me. But what about Sheila Brown, his wife?” demanded Veronica. “Had every man in the village, some of the boys too. What a trollop she is, they say she’s got hairs on her chest.”
“You can’t really blame her I suppose, not if her husband prefers making love to a sheep…”
When we got home, by mutual consent Barbara and I felt we didn’t fancy going back to The Wagging Tongue.
But as time went by, and we got used to the village ways more, I got more comfortable with my job and I realised how much I had enjoyed the company of the nice guys at The Undeniable Truth.
It was very touching, the way they welcomed me back.
“We do like to see a new face,” admitted George. “We wondered if we were going on a bit and were shocking you with all our tales of derring-do last time you came in.”
“Oh no, I’ve just been busy, that’s all. The thing is, I’ve got a confession to make to you fellas. When I was in London, I wasn’t a salesmen, as I told you. In fact I worked for MI5.” I looked around to make sure that only my immediate comrades could hear what I was saying. “You see they had to retire me from active service. Thing is, they only let you kill twenty people a month and I had exceeded my quota. It wasn’t really my fault, there was this Russian gangster aiming a rocket launcher at me. His girlfriend, who had these huge breasts, she had a spray canister of nerve agent ready to squirt into my face, so what choice did I have?”
After that I got into the habit of going to The Undeniable Truth regularly. And then I got a book on philosophy and popped into The Philosopher’s Dilemma and thoroughly enjoyed talking rubbish with my new friends there. Barbara took to going to see the friends she’d made at The Wagging Tongue and had a great time dishing the dirt on all and sundry. When she came home she’d keep me entertained for hours with all the hair-raising tales of the sordid goings-on of our neighbours.
However, a few weeks later I was in the queue in the post office and I was mortified when I overheard a conversation behind me between two elderly ladies:
“Do you know the new people who’ve moved into the old Barnaby cottage?”
“No, but I heard about them. Londoners, so they do say. And my word, it seems they’re not half peculiar. The woman spends her time gossiping and pulling people to pieces, and the man is a raving crackpot and a pathological liar.”
“Well, what do expect from Londoners? They’re not normal folks like us.”
(photo courtesy Diego Torres)