After north Cornwall I came to the Test Valley, I think. That is what it says on the council vans anyhow. An immensely kind family lent me an immense cottage in farmland a mile outside a village.
I’ve started new drugs costing the French taxpayer €4,000 a month. Possible side effects are thrush and fatigue. No thrush so far but fatigue yes, and I remained several days within these cottage walls before I tried to walk to the village pub for lunch.
Walking was easier than I thought it would be and I diverted up a footpath that followed the edge of a huge field up to a viewpoint. Snowy hawthorn was the one vibrant colour in a panorama of leafless trees and hedges and muddy acres. The sky in contrast was a vivid, fast-moving drama of black, blue and white.
Quartering the sloping field on which I stood was a red kite. Every other red kite I have seen has fled at its first sight of me. This one soared and glided across for a closer look. I think its predatory mind had spotted something in my gait betraying a fatal weakness. It circled lower and lower, as it sized me up for a Serengeti-sized meal, until it was not ten yards above my head. Blimey, I thought, as I backed nervously into the shelter of a hawthorn bush. What must eastern Ukraine be like?
The village was all flint, thatch, daffodils and 4X4s. Partridges were relaxing on the village green. It was a cover photograph of an ‘Our Lovely English Villages’ calendar. The pub was old, thatched and crooked with about half a million quid’s worth of cars parked in front. I pushed open a pub door for the first time since Covid. Inside was a huge fireplace and a wood fire fuelled by a thrillingly negligent heap of half and full roundels. Woodsmoke. Beams: centuries old, adze-fashioned, massive. Uneven stone floor. Benches. Tables large and small. Tweed coats thrown on hooks. Barstools. Timid little terrier. Friendly barmaid.
I greeted anyone who caught my eye and was greeted in return. The barmaid was an Alsatian, she insisted, not French, as everyone assumed. Someone bent over a plate said something about Heinkels and Dorniers, as if it were 1939. She pulled me a pint of Pigswill. From the printed menu I chose fish and chips. I perched at the bar sipping Pigswill until the fish and chips was brought out, deciding it would better to eat at the big plain table under the sunniest window. I shared it with a chap who was concentrating on a MacBook.
This man greeted me affably. No, he didn’t live here, he said, though he used to. He’d just picked up his Jaguar from the local specialist and had popped in to his old haunt for lunch. I’d spotted it on my way in, I said. Nice. That Jag once belonged to the Queen, he said. He’d bought it for a song and restored it to pristine condition. I forget what he told me it was worth.
An obviously local middle-aged couple drew up seats to our table. The man’s sunglasses were still darkened. They knew the Jaguar man and were glad to see him. They were just back from skiing. They talked about the Jag. I concentrated on shovelling my beer-battered cod and chips from plate to mouth. Apparently the Jag had belonged to a friend of the man with the laptop, but who had died owing 20 million in tax. The Jag was part of a classic car collection that easily realised the outstanding amount.
‘A friend of mine, a farmer actually, made an absolute packet and put his name down for an Aston Martin,’ said the man in the sunglasses. After a month or two someone rang him up and offered him £14,000 for his place on the waiting list – which he accepted.’
‘And I have a friend,’ said the Jaguar man, ‘who makes a partial living from putting himself on rare motor car waiting lists and accepting the inevitable bribes to swap places. He came unstuck, though, when he crested the list for a Bentley Continental.’
The Jag man went out and I went to the bar to hand in my plate and ask for more Pigswill plus the upside-down pineapple sponge and custard. When I returned to the table I was in time to hear the woman say, ‘I’m glad they’ve gone.’ She immediately apologised as I resumed my seat.
‘I can never work out whether they’ve got money or they haven’t,’ said the man, resuming their conversation. ‘If they ever had any they’ve whistled through it,’ said the woman.
And that was the only subject of conversation I heard in this wonderful old country pub: money, money money. I finished my Pigswill and headed back to the cottage, keeping a weather eye out for that red kite all the way.
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