Friday, June 23, 2017

The Two Seats by Harry Downey

Mr Jenkins, while visiting his son in Derbyshire, makes a friend at the local pub who tells him a story about two of the regulars; by Harry Downey.

The man walked through the door of The Red Lion and hesitated. Faced with a choice of two doors, after a moment's consideration he went through the one to his right, which had Snug in ornate gilt letters on its glazed upper section. At the bar he ordered a half pint of local bitter, sipped it approvingly, and turned round to face the room. As his eyes wandered around his face changed from uncertainty to growing contentment.

In the corner to his left next to a stone fireplace, which had an unlit log fire, there was a large, cushioned wooden chair with arms. Oak and clearly old it looked inviting. The man went across to the chair and sat down.

'You can't sit there. Sorry. It's spoken for. That's Old Seth's seat.'

The stranger looked up. He had thought he was alone in the room. It was early in the evening, and a Tuesday anyway, normally a quiet time for a pub, but he could see now that there was someone else after all.

The second man spoke again from his bench seat in a corner. 'He'll be in later. He's usually pretty punctual.'

The newcomer stood up. 'I'll sit here then.'

He made to move to an identical seat on the opposite side of the fireplace.

'Sorry lad, you're out of luck. That one's reserved as well. It's Old Jack's seat. You'd better come and sit next to me. You'll be alright here. The name's Summers − Fred Summers.'

'Thank you.'

The man moved over and sat down.

'My name's Jenkins.'

The two men shook hands. Fred spoke.

'You're not from round here are you? That twang isn't local. Where are you from then − London?'

The Snug began to fill up as the conversation continued. Mr. Jenkins was from Margate and had come up to Derbyshire to spend a short time with his son. That young man lived in the new development to the east of Moorsedge and commuted to Sheffield. Mr. Jenkins had tried 'the yuppy pub' on the estate and didn't like it. However, he did like 'the occasional beer' so here he was.

The two new acquaintances clearly both liked to chat. Each found the other's company increasingly congenial as they discovered they had much in common. They were both retired civil servants, both widowers, both keen on sport, and increasingly disillusioned with the way the world was going. The pub filled steadily and Mr. Jenkins, a man experienced in the ways of public houses, could see why. The atmosphere was pleasant and relaxed, the landlord was a jovial man who appeared to enjoy a good tale and seemed to have a fund of jokes to draw on; and as the two men agreed, 'George there knows his beer and serves a good pint.' The two had gravitated to pints a round or so back.

Obviously most of the regular drinkers there were from the village and this was their local. Naturally Fred knew them all and seemed utterly relaxed in this setting. One table had a small group of men who, Mr. Jenkins thought out loud to his companion, 'Probably walked over from the estate where my boy is. It's a help when you don't need a car. You can have that extra drink and feel safe about it.' As this was early in the week, he could imagine how busy it would be on a Friday or Saturday.

Almost all the seats in the Snug were taken, but the two near the fireplace remained empty. Fred explained that it was a little local custom and that the seats were reserved for the village's oldest beer-drinking inhabitants.

Then - 'That's Old Seth just coming in.'

Seth collected his pint and took his seat.

'Eighty-seven.'

Mr. Jenkins felt he must have asked the question without realising it.

Minutes later - 'And that's Old Jack' - as they watched him sit down opposite.

'A mere boy. He's only eighty-six. Just watch this and listen.'

The old men faced each other. There was nothing to mark them out from other old men. They had white hair, plenty of it in Seth's case, less in Jack's, while Seth used a stick and Jack didn't. They were dressed normally enough, each of them in darkish suits that were shiny with wear, with white mufflers around their necks. They both had caps that they took off when they sat. As Seth had gone to his seat Mr. Jenkins couldn't avoid hearing his boots − black, highly polished and very squeaky. Each sipped his pint. Neither spoke for several minutes.

Mr. Jenkins began to speak, only to be cut short by his companion. 'Just hang on a minute.'

Old Jack spoke first just one word.

'Larwood.'

The response was snapped out by Old Seth almost before Jack had finished.

'Tyson. Easy. Yards faster. No contest. Stick to what you know about if there is owt.'

There was a mumble from Old Jack that could have been, 'Silly old fool. Everybody knows it's Larwood.'

The two old men glared at each other in silence for minutes on end.

Then 'Tyson' − issued as a single word challenge.

'What on earth is going on? It's just two silly old men in their cups. Yet surely they can't be drunk at this time in the evening. Are they all there?'

'Just hang on. I'll get another drink in before we go. Pint is it? I'll save the story till tomorrow - it'll keep - that is if you can make it then. If you're free in the morning meet me at the bowling-green across the road at 10.30. After all, we're both men of leisure, aren't we? How does that suit you?'

The arrangement suited Mr. Jenkins very well. He left The Red Lion minutes after Old Jack and Old Seth did. They left separately without having said another word to each other. The only words they spoke were to thank Fred Summers as he bought each of them a drink.



Next morning was beautiful late summer weather, ending an exceptionally dry season. The bowling green was obviously regularly watered and showed no signs of the drought. The single green was in superb order. Fred was already there when Mr. Jenkins arrived. He was sitting in a seat at one corner of the green. There was another seat at the next corner on the same side. Both were placed to catch as much sun as possible.

Mr. Jenkins went to join him. Fred unscrewed a flask and poured out two cups of coffee. He added something from a small hip-flask. They both sipped appreciatively.

'I'm just admiring the condition of this lot. You know, the groundsman runs the local Post Office and does all this in his own time. Fifty quid a year is his honorarium, as they call it - and it's worth every penny. What we'd ever do if he left the village I don't know.

'I see you're curious about the green. It's the local game - crown green bowls with the middle of the green built up higher than the edges. Much more skill to it than the flat grass you play on down south, or so we always think. You have to compensate for much more this way when you bowl. The waywardness of the green as well as the bias from the bowls. It's a fine game. Quite a challenge. Needs some skill to be any good at it. We'll have a game or two before you go back.

'They'll be here soon, so I'll tell the tale before they arrive. Then perhaps we can go and have a pint later. That'll be alright, then?'

Mr. Jenkins was beginning to enjoy his little holiday.

'Well, it's like this. I got most of the early part from my father; he's gone now, God bless him; but he was a local man born and bred, just as Jack and Seth are, and they all grew up as lads together. It seems that as young men both of them were very keen on sport mad keen. That's true of many young chaps, of course, but with them it was exceptionally so. Not only were they very keen, but they were both pretty good at cricket and football. The village had teams for both games - we still have − but Seth and Jack were a lot better than the village sides were, so they joined outside clubs in higher standard leagues. Incidentally, they both had a trial with the County but neither of them was signed up. Derbyshire had some fine bowlers in those days, so you really had to be good to make it. I know you like your cricket so you might remember - Cliff Gladwin, Les Jackson, men like that. Players who got their England caps in time.

'Anyway, each of them thought he was the best for miles around, so every time they met in a game the gauntlet was really thrown down. There was a sort of 'Cock o' the Walk' feel about it.

'At the age they were they had their eyes on girls, of course, as well as the sport, but unfortunately they both fancied the same girl in the village. She went off with somebody else eventually, but that's not really part of the story. Add this rivalry over a girl to competition on the sports field, and you have a recipe for trouble.

'Anyway, the way Dad told it to me, one cricket season the two found themselves on opposite sides in a key match. One of the two neutral umpires that the league had selected hadn't arrived, so the captains and the other umpire agreed to allow a member of the batting side to be the second umpire. This second man would stand at square leg every over, so he would only have to rule on stumpings or runs out with the 'proper' umpire making most of the major decisions; caught, lbw − things like that.

'Fairly straight forward you would think, and it's a normal enough practice in cricket at its lower levels. Happening all the time.

'Anyroad, Jack's side batted first and made a decent score in what was always going to be a close match. Jack himself was out first ball so he wasn't in a good mood and that's putting it mildly. Seth's team started to bat and their captain was in and making a good few and looking good for more. Jack came on to bowl and was being thrashed all round the field - that's what Seth says anyway - then, Jack says, he bowled a beauty and the other team's captain was stumped; out of his ground by a yard or more.

'Unfortunately for Jack, Seth was umpiring at square leg and gave the batsman 'not out.' Seth says he didn't have a good view because a fielder was in his way, so they gave the batsman the benefit of the doubt. Personally I don't see why the benefit shouldn't go to the bowler some of the time - but that's for another time. So, Seth's team went on to win the match by a handful of runs. Dad says they nearly came to blows about it on the field, and later on after the match.

'Obviously, Jack wanted revenge. His opportunity came during the following football season. It happened because the side Seth played for had a match against another team (not Jack's). He was a spectator that time, and being known to most of the players on the field, was asked to deputise when one of the linesmen twisted his ankle or something.

'Jack waited until Seth was going through with an almost certain goal in front of him, then flagged him up for offside. Of course, the Referee could do nothing about it. He had to take his linesman's word for it so he whistled when he saw the flag go up.

'They were each in their twenties then, and they're both well turned eighty now, so that's been the length of their feud. They've never lived anywhere else except here in the village, just a few doors away from each other, and they haven't spoken a civil word to each other in all those years.'

Mr. Jenkins had been enjoying the sunshine, sipping his drink and listening intently to all this.

'The story's interesting enough up to there,' he said, 'but what's all this "Larwood and Tyson" business about then?'

'Well,' said Fred, putting down the flask from which he had just poured refills for them both, 'they're too old now to fight out their feud on a pitch so they fight about sport in a different way.'

'For instance, "Larwood and Tyson." You know who they are, of course? Harold Larwood was the fast bowler in the "Bodyline" Test Series while Frank Tyson and Brian Statham bowled the Aussies out the '54/'55 Tour. The point is they were both exceptionally fast, and who was the faster is a matter that really never can be settled. In other words, it's a matter where Seth's opinion is as good as Jack's and visa versa, and there's no way whatsoever they or anybody else can say which one is right, and which one is wrong.

'Every now and then one of 'em will try to think up a reason for backing their man some vaguely recalled incident or something they've read. Neither of them is going to win, but they keep trying. The silliest thing about it is, I don't know about Larwood, but I know for a fact that neither of them ever saw Frank Tyson bowl.

'If they're not arguing about those two, then it's about Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney. Again, who can ever say who was the better of those two, eh? I certainly can't and I saw them both play quite a few times. Different, certainly - but one better than the other? No-one can say. These two old chaps never did see them play to my knowledge.

'Then there's United and Wednesday, County and Forest. They'll use anything to try to win an argument. There might be something in one of the newspapers, and we all know what rubbish they'll print to sell a few copies. Really, it's a form of jousting by proxy.

'The daftest thing of all, though, is when they argue about tennis. Nowadays there is a court in Moorsedge - it's down there near the Village Hall. It gets a lot of use around Wimbledon time, but otherwise it's just the club members who give it any usage. Round here, tennis used to be regarded as a bit of a posh game and for girls and sissies. Working class people wouldn't dream of playing the game back then; certainly that would have been the case when Jack and Seth were young men. I very doubt if either of them has ever held a tennis racket in his life, yet you should hear them go on about Borg and McEnroe. I sometimes despair and think they're barmy, I really do. They've lost it.

'No - that's not fair. They're a pair of decent enough old men really. They live in the past as I suppose most old people do, anyway. Just as we probably will when our turn comes.

'It's a bit like you and me - both cricket lovers, both supporting different counties. Two counties that each has a top flight wicket-keeper. Bob Taylor from up here and Alan Knott from down in Kent, your county. I reckon our man's better - but I expect you have a different point of view. We could argue about that till kingdom come and never settle it.

'Both the old men lost their wives some years back - about the same time as it happened − so there's no-one at home for them to annoy. Here's one of them now.'

Mr. Jenkins recognised Old Seth from his stick and squeaky boots.

'They sit here most of the day, you know. It doesn't matter whether anyone's actually playing or not, so long as it stays fine.'

Old Jack appeared a few minutes later and sat down. It was on the same bench as Seth, but at the opposite end of a seat made for four or five. There was nothing resembling a greeting.

'Let's go across and I'll introduce you.'

As they reached the seat, Seth was gloating over United's current good form. Jack didn't have a response ready. He looked a bit sheepish and said nothing.

'Morning, Seth. Morning, Jack. Both alright then, are we? Did you notice this chap with me in the pub last night? It's Mr. Jenkins. He's staying with his son over at the new estate for a few days. He's from Margate.'

Seth was the first to speak.

'Howdo. Margate - that's down south, isn't it?'

Jack chimed in. 'Essex or Surrey or somewhere.'

'Do you play?' Jack motioned to the bowling green.

'Flat greens down there, aren't they? With a little white jack. No proper game for a man, that. Looks easy enough - child's play really.'

Seth thought he saw his opportunity.

'You're a youngish chap, aren't you?' (At sixty-four Mr. Jenkins was flattered.) 'Did you ever see Frank Tyson bowl?'

Instantly Jack responded. 'Take no notice of the old fool. What do you reckon to Tom Finney, eh? The best ever, wasn't he?'

Fred nudged Mr. Jenkins. 'They won't miss us, you know. Once we've gone they'll lose patience with the argument and go home, or doze off in the sun. This morning has already used up their talk ration for two or three days. They probably won't speak to each other again till Friday and then they'll only argue.'

Mr. Jenkins and Fred left the pair and had a drink and a sandwich in The Red Lion. As Mr. Jenkins was due to return home early the following day he didn't have the chance to study Jack and Seth further on his visit.



It was April the following year when Robin Jenkins invited his father up to stay again. On the day of his arrival Mr. Jenkins went to his 'favourite local hostelry', entered the Snug as he had done months previously, and sat where he had then. He was the first of the evening's customers. Fred Summers arrived and joined him. Fred seemed subdued.

'They buried Old Seth last week. He fell downstairs one morning. No chance at all at his age. Broke his neck.'

He took a generous gulp of his drink.

'I went round to tell Old Jack when I heard. I always tried to keep an eye on them both if I could − because of Dad I suppose. Jack never batted an eyelid. All he could say was 'Silly old bugger. Couldn't he see where he was going?

'I offered to take him along to the funeral but he didn't seem to want to know about it. He just went up to the bowling green and sat in his usual seat.

'In the pub here we had a whip-round and sent a big wreath, and any of us who could go went to the Church for the funeral. There was nobody in Seth's family who would need money after he went, so anything that was left from the collection we gave to the Vicar's Charities Fund. We all felt − here in the pub that was − that as a mark of respect to Old Seth we'd keep his seat empty for the time being.'

'A nice gesture.' That was Mr. Jenkins.

Fred went silent again.

'The night of the funeral Old Jack came in as usual. He didn't have to put his hand in his pocket once that night. Everyone felt it was somehow a bit special, and all his drinks were bought for him. Actually, though, he never did have a lot to drink, did Old Jack. He sat there all evening in his normal seat. He spoke if anyone spoke to him but that was all.

'I saw him once or twice looking at Seth's old seat but never once did he refer to him. I noticed he left the pub a bit earlier than usual that night.

'He didn't come here the following evening, and when I didn't see him at the bowling green the day after that, I went round to his cottage on Old Mill Lane. When I knocked there was no reply so I let myself in. Jack was one of that generation that never locked its doors − he always said it wasn't necessary. Haven't times changed, eh?

'The door from the street opens straight into the living room of these old cottages, of course, but he wasn't there, and he didn't reply when I called. I went upstairs and found him in that tiny front bedroom of his.

'I was shocked when I saw him. He'd become an old, old man. Of course, he was that anyway, but somehow he never quite seemed it before then. Almost as if he'd put years on in just a couple of days.

'He was cold even under his heavy blanket. He'd obviously been sweating a lot, and had wet himself, and was rambling away about something. I called the doctor and she was there quite quickly. Jack didn't approve of women doctors − at least not for men − but she was splendid. In no time she had the ambulance round, and they took him off to hospital. I went along with him, of course. He died in the night. That was last night. I wasn't with him when he went.

'So that's the last of those two. A generation gone within a few days. That's the way it is.

'I have a bit of a theory. It's not rocket science or anything, fairly obvious really, but I reckon that Jack and Old Seth had a sort of marriage. Probably they had shared as many experiences together in the seventy to eighty years since they grew up together as most men do with their wives. So, when Old Seth went it left Jack with nothing to live for. It left him nothing else to do but die. Is that a bit too far-fetched you reckon?'

Mr. Jenkins didn't think it was and said so. The two men drank a toast to the two empty seats.

They were both in a sombre mood so Mr. Jenkins decided to pass on his news in an attempt to lighten the atmosphere. His son, Robin, had suggested that his father came to live with him after moving up from Margate. This would give Mr. Jenkins constant contact with his six year-old grandson and he had jumped at the chance.

Naturally it couldn't happen overnight there was a house to sell as well as other details to finalise but give it time and The Red Lion would have another regular.

Fred didn't react in the way that Mr. Jenkins had hoped.

'Sorry, lad. My mind's on other things at the moment. Old Jack had no relatives left that I know of, so arranging the funeral details is down to me.'

Mr. Jenkins left him to his thoughts as he went across to the bar to order two more beers. Fred had a question to go with the unsettled, slightly wistful look on his face as they re settled themselves.

'Would you say you were a conservative man, with a small 'c' that is? I mean, do you believe in the continuation of local traditions and that not everything that is old is bad, and certainly not that anything new has to be better? And that change shouldn't automatically wipe out what's been before?'

Mr. Jenkins nodded but didn't speak.

'Well then, seeing that you're going to be a regular here in our local, how about you and me filling those two empty seats by the fire. In due course, eh? Give it a bit of time for respect's sake, and then move over?'

Mr. Jenkins nodded his head and stuck out his hand in agreement.

'Yes? Take that as settled, shall we? Remember, we're trying to keep a local tradition going.'

The two men sat in silence, sipping their drinks. Then Fred spoke. There was a challenging note in his voice as he looked Mr. Jenkins in the eye.

'Now the on this matter of old traditions. I think we should try to do it properly − do the right thing. I reckon that fellow of yours, Alan Knott, is a good enough wicketkeeper but our man's better. He didn't bat as well so they they didn't pick him for England. Even a Kent man has to agree with that. Am I right?'

Mr. Jenkins' concern at where the conversation was leading must have been more obvious than he thought.

Fred looked across and winked. 'Don't worry, lad. I'm only joking - right now that is. Perhaps in the future - who knows? Custom, practice and old traditions, eh? When is it you expect to come up this way?'

'Let's have another drink, shall we? My shout.'

3 comments:

  1. Drama and jeopardy in the village - as intense as any on a larger stage. An entertaining read, thank you,
    Ceinwen

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  2. A meticulous and skillful nightmare narrative of men being swallowed by institution. Contest by proxy, parochial rivalry, provincial prejudice, armchair sport, the village green, no 'her indoors' to interfere, the pub...And all driven by health-threatening quantities of alcohol...Or - how to turn into the two old men (Waldorf & Hilton?) in The Muppets. A great read!
    B r o o k e

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    ReplyDelete