The Old King

New beginnings and a strange visitor at a Derbyshire pub.

Lisa wished she’d worn another skirt, this one was shorter than her coat. The good thick tights would keep her warm, but she worried how she looked, giving it all the legs, at her age.

   ‘This,’ she said, breath misting the cold air, ‘Is where I should tell myself I look great, build up my confidence.’ Hands in pockets she strode along the jitty by the side of the railway cutting, talking to herself. Knew she was doing it, but when you spend a lot of time alone it’s sometimes nice to hear a voice.

   She crossed Field Lane and kept quiet on her way through the car park. There were plenty of people on King Street, out celebrating with four days to go before Christmas. Halfway along Strutt Street Lisa had another word with herself.

   ‘Well, you look no worse than some of that lot.’ Chuckled and waited to cross Cheapside to Days Lane and the Old King’s Head.

   Inside the door she unbuttoned her coat and looked for Nick. No, just a couple of solitary drinkers. Checked her watch and yes, it was a minute or two to eight.

   ‘What can I get you, duck?’ said the lady behind the bar.

   ‘Gin and tonic, please.’ Lisa watched the drink come together. ‘Think I was last in here at someone’s eighteenth. Long time ago.’ The pub was decorated, festive. Nothing too glitzy, not over the top.

   ‘It won’t have changed much,’ said the bar lady. ‘You been away?’

   ‘Yes,’ Lisa nodded. ‘Lived in Chester over twenty years now.’

   ‘Back for Christmas?’

   ‘No, it’s my mother.’ Handed over a note and took change. ‘She died in October and I’ve been sorting things out.’ Lisa still hadn’t picked up her drink. ‘I only work Monday to Wednesday now, so I can do a lot of it myself.’

   ‘Sorry to hear about your mum,’ said the lady. ‘I’m Betty, by the way.’ Friendly smile.

   ‘Lisa. I’m here to meet a friend.’ Paused. ‘Well, he was a boyfriend once, but that’s ancient history.’ Took out her phone and checked their texts. No, there it was – eight o’clock.

   ‘That’s right, sneak to the bar while I’m at the gents.’ Nick put a hand on her shoulder. Lisa went back in her bag, found the purse. ‘Only kidding,’ he said. ‘Got most of a pint still, over here.’ Pointed to a table by the window as Betty gave him a dark-horse look.

   Lisa sat down, wishing they were nearer the fire.

   ‘I think the old girl knew you were in the toilet,’ she said.

   ‘Should think so, she pulled me this pint.’

   ‘I mean she was just letting me talk.’ Lisa sipped her gin at last.

   ‘Well, you do enjoy talking,’ said Nick. Took a drink.

   ‘Look, I can just go, if you don’t want company,’ said Lisa, missing his smirk. ‘Plenty to do back at my mother’s.’

   ‘You’re not stopping, then?’ he asked. And she knew. Not tonight, he meant here, in town, in Belper.

   ‘I’ll stop for a bit,’ she said. That ought to hold him. It wasn’t that she thought he was still, you know, interested. Just didn’t need anything complicated to think about, not now. Not yet. They’d had a couple of coffees since she’d been coming back at the weekends, which had been nice, but this was the first time at night, so it felt a bit different.

   ‘Are you ready for Christmas?’ she smiled. ‘Or denying it, as ever. Pretending it’s not happening.’ Wide eyes as he nodded. ‘Just like my ex.’

   ‘And you sound like mine.’ Both took another drink.

   ‘Tell you what,’ said Lisa, ‘we’ve got a type, both of us.’

   ‘What type?’ said Nick.

   ‘The wrong type!’ Laughed. ‘All my boyfriends were like you, and so was my husband.’

   They were both divorced. Lisa had left her husband a couple of years ago, and Nick’s wife had taken off before that, to be with someone else. Lisa had left to get away. Her husband wasn’t violent or unfaithful, just controlling, manipulative. She put up with it for far too long, but once decided it was easy. Easier than Nick’s divorce, anyhow. They had children.

   ‘How are your lads?’ she asked, thinking Nick might take some thawing out before he gave much away, or maybe a pint or two more inside him.

   ‘Alright,’ he said. ‘James is still studying. But Billy’s business is doing brilliant. Folk always want electrical work done. He’s taken on two more since summer, and they’ve got another van. Be moving to some bigger premises next year.’ Smiled, happy. Supped the last of his beer and stood to get another, bringing another gin for Lisa after chatting for a minute with Steve Toplis, one of the other drinkers.

   ‘Thank you,’ Lisa took the glass. ‘Better not have too many of these.’

   Nick shook his head, sat down and tasted the first of his new pint.

   ‘Anyhow,’ he said, ‘I’ve been offered voluntary redundancy.’ Put the drink down. ‘Our Billy says he could use me for some of the week at his place, driving and that. I’ve had a look at what they’re offering, and it’s nearly as much as I’d take home between now and the finish, anyhow.’

   ‘So you’ve said yes.’

   ‘Not yet.’ Moved the glass without picking it up. ‘Offer’s open till the tenth of January. Going to give it some thought, over the break.’

   ‘Not much to think about, surely?’ Lisa sipped her drink.

   ‘The money’s one thing, but I’d like to know what I’ll be doing, how my life’s going to be.’ Pointed at his beer. ‘I’m off this week, and I was in here yesterday afternoon at three o’clock. I can’t be doing that every day.’

   ‘Oh, you’ll find plenty to occupy yourself with.’

   ‘Like you have? What about when your mother’s place is sold and you’re back in Chester, by yourself.’

   ‘I’ve got friends,’ Lisa said. ‘Although most of them still work full-time. Everyone I’ve known the longest still lives here.’

   The wind had got up outside, and a lot of it blew into the pub as the door was held open by a curious character. Straggly grey-white hair ran from under his battered hat, icicled on the shoulders of his overcoat. His beard was nearer white, hid his neck and most of what looked like a red scarf.

   ‘Do you allow birds?’ he called across the room, voice booming and not local. Betty looked at him funny.

   ‘Women, you mean?’

   ‘No,’ he said, ‘birds.’ Pulled his other arm in and there at the elbow sat a raggedy crow, moving its head from side to side without breaking eye contact with Betty.

   ‘Ooh no,’ she said. ‘We’re not having that thing in here.’

   ‘All right,’ said the man to the crow. ‘You’ll have to wait outside.’ To Betty: ‘I’ll put him on the window ledge.’

   Lisa pulled a face and hoped it was going on the other ledge, not the one under their window.

   ‘Won’t it just fly away?’ said Nick, as the man came back inside and closed the door.

   ‘Never has before,’ he said, rubbing his hands together on the way to the bar. Nick finished his pint. Stood to get another, wanting to see and talk to the newcomer.

   Betty passed the man a pint of cider, getting a crumpled note in return and going for change.

   ‘What’s the crow’s name?’ Nick asked.

   ‘Crow,’ said the man, ‘they’re all called Crow. Don’t like it if you give ’em a name.’ His boots looked wet. Today had been damp, but the night was clear, frost tingling in the air. Nick could feel the cold coming off the man’s overcoat. He held out a big rough hand for Nick to shake.

   ‘Oliver King,’ he said. His hand was very cold.

   ‘Nick Lovell.’

   ‘Nice in here,’ said Mr. King. Pointed round the room, at the holly twigs, then the little sprig in his top pocket. ‘Got that from the Holly Bush,’ he said.

   ‘Well, obviously,’ said Nick.

   ‘No,’ Mr. King laughed, ‘the pub. The Holly Bush in Makeney. I was there earlier, walked here.’

   ‘You must be thirsty,’ said Betty.

   ‘I’m always thirsty,’ he grinned and went to sit by the fire. Lisa nodded over at him, as Nick returned with his new pint.

   ‘Was going to suggest moving to that table,’ she said. ‘Too late, now.’

   ‘Never mind,’ said Nick, ‘the gin’ll warm you up, if you sup it.’ Watched her nursing the last one. ‘When’d you start drinking that, anyhow?’

   ‘Got sick of bad wine in pubs,’ she said. ‘I must be getting old.’

   ‘Rubbish,’ said Nick. ‘I still feel seventeen, in me head.’ Smiling eyes. ‘And we should be talking about the future.’

   ‘It’s only just begun!’ Noddy Holder assured them, over the speakers.

   ‘There you go,’ Nick said, and they chinked glasses. Lisa stared over at the old man by the fire, now warm enough to take off his coat. Kept the scarf on though, above his dark green jumper and brown cord trousers.

   ‘I used to drive down and fetch Mum to Chester for Christmas,’ said Lisa, ‘take her home before New Year. Not anymore.’

   ‘So what will you do?’

   ‘Not sure,’ she said. ‘You?’

   ‘I’ll be at our Billy’s. His mother never comes back here, always thought she were too good for Belper.’

   ‘You used to say that about me too,’ Lisa reminded him, ‘whenever I came back here.’

   ‘Sorry. But you said it yourself enough times, before you left.’ Nick had almost finished his drink. ‘What do you make of the old town, now?’

   Lisa looked over at him, light flickering in her eyes.

   ‘Nick, I never stopped loving it. Just tried to tell myself I’d moved on.’ Eyes wetter, now.

   ‘Hey, don’t get upset,’ he said. ‘Let me get you another.’

   ‘No,’ said Lisa, standing. ‘It’s my turn.’

   At the bar she was joined by Mr. King, returning his glass and refusing a refill.

   ‘No, thank you,’ he told Betty. ‘Still got some way to travel.’ Left his glass on the bar. ‘I’m off to the Royal Oak, now.’

   ‘On Mill street?’ said Betty. ‘You’ll have a job. It’s a house now, not been a pub for over ten years.’

   Mr. King’s face was very still as he took this in.

   ‘But that’s where I go,’ he said, staring.

   ‘Not no more, you don’t!’ called Steve Toplis from his table. Mr. King turned and stared cold into him. Steve looked down at his paper.

   ‘I think I will have another pint, please.’ Mr. King put money on the bar and blew out sad air. Betty finished taking Lisa’s money and got him a new glass.

   ‘There’s still lots of pubs,’ Lisa said. ‘You could try the Nag’s Head, or the Grapes.’

   Mr. King shook his head.

   ‘Thank you, but that really won’t help.’ He took his glass and turned to speak with her, voice lower now, and friendly. ‘I’m on a long journey, and it helps to have familiar names along the way. Means a lot to me.’

   ‘Where are you headed?’ asked Nick from the table, wanting his beer and Lisa to sit down.

   ‘A long way and back,’ said Mr. King. ‘But not so far as you.’

   ‘Me?’ said Nick.

   ‘Yew, the tree.’ A long drink of his cider. ‘I’m walking the wood road, so I see a lot of trees.’

   ‘Where are you staying?’ Lisa asked. He didn’t have a bag or anything.

   ‘Here and there,’ he said. ‘I know a lot of places, and they all know me.’ Back to his chair by the fire, but his voice had grown quieter and he didn’t stay long afterwards. Pulled on his overcoat and wished everyone well before closing the door behind him. Steve peeped out through the curtain to confirm that he’d taken the crow.

   ‘Funny feller,’ said Betty, relieved about the bird. ‘Seemed right upset about the Royal Oak.’

   ‘Can’t have mattered that much,’ said Steve, ‘if he’s never been for ten year.’

   ‘Maybe he liked out-the-way sort of pubs,’ said Nick. ‘Holly Bush, here, Royal Oak.’

   ‘Mentioned something about a wood road,’ Lisa said, and Steve stood up.

   ‘Still got those maps on the shelf, Betty love?’ he asked. She went to get them and Steve looked over at Nick. ‘Kev Freeman leaves ’em here, so we can plan walks and stuff.’

   Betty handed over the maps and Steve found the largest-scale Ordnance Survey sheet showing Belper – not recent, but good enough for the job. Nick and Lisa took their drinks over, to see what he was doing.

   Nobody had a ruler, but Steve snapped the rubber band from the sheaf of maps and stretched it between the Holly Bush at Makeney and the corner of Mill Street and Pingle Lane, where the Royal Oak used to stand.

   ‘Look at that,’ he said. Even Betty came to the table as Nick pointed.

   ‘Right through this place.’

   ‘But you can’t walk it in a straight line,’ said Steve. ‘That’s just on the map, you know.’

   ‘As the crow flies,’ said Betty. They all looked at one another.

   ‘So what’s the connection?’ Lisa asked. ‘Why these pubs?’

   ‘Should have asked before he left!’ said Steve.

   ‘Holly and Oak,’ Nick wondered. ‘Trees. And his name was King.’

Later, under the cold stars outside her mother’s house, Lisa found herself asking Nick if he wanted to come in. Had the key in her hand ready.

   ‘Better not,’ he said. ‘We don’t want folks talking. I’ll give you a ring.’ They nodded. ‘Will you wait a bit to put it up for sale?’

   ‘The estate agent I spoke to said February’s a good time.’ Lisa could see her breath under the streetlight. ‘But it’s been nice, staying here in Belper at weekends.’ Looked at him. ‘I’ll miss that.’

   ‘Don’t say any more.’ Nick stepped away. ‘Goodnight.’ Waved from the gate.

   ‘Goodnight,’ said Lisa. ‘And thank you.’

   Nick watched until she was inside.

   On Green Lane he put his hands in his pockets, looking forward to the warming climb home. They hadn’t stayed late at the Old King’s Head but the roads were quiet and there was nobody ahead as he started up Mill Street. Smiled as he passed the house that used to be the Royal Oak, then stopped and turned at what sounded like a baby crying. Surely nobody would have a window open in this cold?

   There, on the windowsill of the former pub, perched a crow. It was staring back, head swaying. Without walking closer Nick pulled out his phone and took a picture. Even the flash didn’t scare the bird away, so he went nearer and took another. Still not bothered.

   ‘Bloody hell,’ said Nick to himself and the bird. ‘Lisa won’t believe this.’ Was about to call her, then decided to wait until morning.

   Then he could ask all the other things, too.

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