I’m cooking almost full-time for my poor old Mum and learning on the job: shepherd’s pie, roast pork, cauliflower cheese. I’m slaving over the stove and recipe book for hours and she hardly touches any of it. ‘Come on. Eat up. Do you good,’ I say, not unconscious of the role reversal. The other day I tried a slow-cooked beef casserole. The BBC website advised browning the meat first. Sheer political correctness. I simply lobbed the ingredients in a pot, poured on the boiling water, shoved the pot in the oven, got in my car and drove to the pub.
About once a week, I drive over to my petrolhead friend Charlie’s posh little village pub for six o’clock. His village is colonised by wealthy and well-fed Londoners who are all in love with the pub. When it was built a couple of hundred years ago, there was plenty of clearance between the locals’ heads and the oak-beamed ceiling. Nowadays the bigger heads on the larger bodies of the well-fed, money-no-object, second-home owners must bow to avoid contact with the beams. And the bar is about the size of a snooker table. With, say, 15 people in there, it’s like an intensely convivial, dead posh Black Hole of Calcutta. At six o’clock I walked in on a shouting, laughing, barging, jostling crowd wreathed in woodsmoke. ‘What’s that on your face?’ said Charlie. I wiped and looked at my fingers. ‘Flour, mate,’ I said.
I insinuated myself between animated Barbours on the far side of the room to say hello to my favourite local, Ron — accidentally trampling two dogs on the way.
Ron is retired and lives alone in a cottage. If the number of layers and the thickness of the padding he wears in the pub is anything to go by, his cottage must be freezing. Ron probably wouldn’t admit it, but he is a Christian and on Sundays he can be seen caressing the keyboard of the organ in the parish church. He had to miss a couple of services before Christmas because he collapsed in his cottage from hypothermia and had to spend time recovering in hospital. (He didn’t think he was that cold, he says.) His knees and ankles were cripplingly bad before; now they are worse than ever. But he remains as cheerful, amusing and amused as always. Every evening, from six till seven, Ron can be found on his reserved barstool next to the fire drinking what looks like petrol from a pint glass. Ten minutes spent in his company is always a tonic.
‘Still alive, then?’ I shouted above the din. ‘Oh, yes,’ he said, taking a big swill of petrol to prove it. ‘So what’s new?’ I said, teeing him up for another comically insincere moan about the uneventfulness of his life. ‘Oh, nothing,’ he said, drooping. Then, brightening suddenly, he said, ‘Oh, yes there is. The other morning about six o’clock four policemen were standing at the foot of my bed, prodding me.’
‘No! They told me to get dressed and took me all the way to Torquay and locked me in a cell.’
‘Historical sex offences!’
‘No idea. They said “allegations” had been made against me.’
‘Historical? When? The Middle Ages?’
‘Thirty years ago.’
As Ron recollected this extraordinary turn of events, his surprise gave his eyes an expression of innocence and candour.
Now I laughed, I really laughed. Whether the allegations might have been true or false didn’t occur to me. Ron sitting there telling me all this so meekly and yet without a trace of embarrassment or rancour, and with so many clothes on, was hilarious on every level.
My imagination grew livelier and more prurient, however.
‘Boys or girls?’ I said.
‘And you’ve no idea what these allegations could be?’ ‘Nope.’
‘Were you charged?’
What else can one say? It was hard to hear and be heard above the cheery din, anyhow.
‘No more questions, M’lud,’ I said, and we naturally changed the subject to his saintly labrador. Had he barked at the coppers? Daft question. The silly arse had welcomed them in and humbly begged for a treat. I observed how fat the dog was getting. Ron blamed his own ankles for it. He couldn’t walk very far with these ankles. He talked about his dog with the same meekness as he had talked about his arrest. Five minutes later, we had both put the fact and story of his arrest so far behind us that it was forgotten, as if it had been just another funny story.
I didn’t think of it again until I was back at home testing the beef casserole, which was actually not that bad. But needless to say, Mum hardly ate any.