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SERIES ONE : EPISODE 01
Crossing the car park from the old barn we used for our meetings, I reminded myself what a Lodge of Instruction meeting was for. Practice.
And whilst it wasn't yet a case of 'practice makes perfect', a few more sessions and the chaps would be ready for the 138th Lodge Installation meeting of the Henry le Despenser Lodge, number 2691, in the Anglia Coastal Province.
Mind you, probably the 138th different way it had ever been done.
Anyway, time now for a well-earned pint, and as Assistant Director of Ceremonies, tradition dictated that it was my shout.
Most of the chaps were already in the bar of The Black Shuck Inn, probably ordering their usual from lovely Lucy, the landlords' daughter, resident barmaid, and part-time caterer for our after-meeting meals.
I waited for a couple with a dog to decide which of them would step out into the cold air first. The dog didn't seem interested, preferring to linger in the doorway to benefit from the last vestiges of heat from the wood burner.
I never have been a fan of dogs in Public Houses, but I guess that with the state of the trade as it is nowadays since the smoking ban and the availability of cheap supermarket beer, every pub has to make itself attractive to all comers. I know that's what Ray, our long-suffering landlord, is always moaning about anyway.
Equally so, I have never been a fan of sharing our Lodge meeting place with normal punters, even though according to Ray, they were here first.
He constantly reminds us of this when we want to book his dining room for a peaceful meal after a Lodge meeting, and we moan because he has surrendered the adjacent bar to a group of itinerant musicians who include his pub in the circuit of local hostelries they terrorise.
They call themselves the ‘North Folkers’. I think they're great.
An eleven-piece menagerie of dedicated musicians, singers, and poets, made up from four women in floral skirts with ribbons around their ankles, and six men with tapestry waistcoats and flat caps.
Oh, and one dog with a polka-dot scarf around its neck, who can howl along with most of the Fairport Convention and Bob Dylan Covers they perform.
It’s their declared mission to keep alive the tradition of playing and singing whatever the hell they want, in an often near-empty pub, and still going home afterwards with a sense of achievement.
That's really what you call a 'glass half full' attitude.
They are trying to build a following for all things ‘Folksy’, and even form the core of the 'Coastal Clod-hoppers', a traditional clog-dancing group who reckon that they can trace their dances back to the Middle Ages.
They probably can. But whose middle-age, I'm not sure.
Positioned strategically on the old coast road from Kings Lynn to Norwich, The Black Shuck Inn was a stop-off point back in the 18th Century for coaches to change horses, and for passengers to rest and have a meal.
Being a Free House, and in the same family for three generations, it has resisted the homogenising effects of the Pub-chains and major breweries, and retains much of its original timber frame facade, clay peg-tiled roof, and draughty box sash windows.
It serves reasonable pub-grub and a half decent pint of locally brewed ale, and the interior is probably much the same as when it was first built.
Eventually, the dog couple managed to convince their four-legged owner to leave the warmth, so I stepped into the bar and was immediately hit by the smell of hops, pork scratchings and wood smoke.
I had missed lunch and was feeling rather peckish, so maybe a bowl of the deservedly famous Black Shuck Soup would fill the hole.
I noticed Lucy talking to a chap at the bar. She glanced up and smiled, at which point the chap turned his head and our gaze met, but only for a moment, before he swivelled on his bar stool to concentrate once more on Lucy. I couldn't blame him for that.
Immediately something nagged away at the deep recesses of my brain, for in that instant I thought I recognised a boy I once knew in the man before me.
Was it his ever so slightly too-close-eyes, or maybe the turn-up of his lip at the corner of his mouth?
Whoever he was, I couldn't recall his name.
Then, Lucy called to me, "Max, there's someone here who knows you". I looked over, and he was smiling at me.
He had me at a disadvantage, for now he knew my name, but I was still at a total loss for his.
Thankfully Lucy recognised the look of confusion on my face, which came from working part-time in my boatyard office, where she helped me fight through piles of rainforest which had been reduced down to plans of modified hull designs, cabin fit-out specifications, and of course unpaid bills.
"This is Erik" she continued, without a pause. Good girl.
Erik? A hard 'k' and not a softer 'c'. Something was registering in my mushy mind.
Then he spoke, and the years just seemed to wash away.
"Good to see you, Max", as he gave a big smile. A definite local accent with a slight hint of London.
Well, that was his nick-name when we were growing up around these parts, taken from the name of the place where he lived, Algernon Farm.
Shortened to Algae. Say no more.
We had shared a few classes at the not so close-by secondary modern school. You either get to like or dislike someone if you are stuck on a bus with them for two one-hour long journeys every week day for five years.
And I did count Erik as a close school age friend. Although thirty years can change a person, so I don’t know what he’s like now.
He looked like he had taken care of himself during that time, and there was a definite muscular outline beneath what appeared to be an expensively tailored suit, finished off with a crisp cotton shirt, silk tie and highly polished leather brogues.
No retail-park, reduced end-of-line, Sunday morning shopper, was Pond Scum.
The dress code for Lodge of Instruction and Committee meetings is normally smart-casual, however I hadn't had the chance to get changed as I had come straight from the boat yard, and was looking decidedly not smart-casual.
My old work fleece jacket with a definite whiff of diesel, and my slight beer belly threatening to spill over the top of faded jeans which had developed holes in the knees long before they had become fashionable, altogether painted the type of picture I'd rather not project.
He had only said a handful of words so far, yet I was already feeling distinctly second place.
I didn't feel brave enough to greet him by his nick-name, but it was time to redress some of the balance of power.
"Well, Erik Leonard Chumley. Not seen you for many a year", I said in my very best Peter O'Toole as Lawrence of Arabia voice, which I always seemed to adopt when I felt in anyway awkward.
Feeling somewhat smug due to my demonstration of amazing mental recall, I put out my hand.
For a man who seemingly gave the impression of being confident in his own skin, his hesitant and slightly damp grasp surprised me.
"Philip Maxwell-Ayres, if you insist on being formal", still smiling he released his grip and slapped me on the shoulder, "it really is so good to see you".
Bugger. Now he had the upper hand again. By giving my full name, he was making it clear that just as he knew that I recalled his nick-name he also remembered mine.
Max is what everyone calls me, even my Mother. But my school-days nickname is remembered by only a few and used by none, being a corruption of the second part of my surname, Ayres.
Hairs. Pubic Hairs.
Yep, children can be so hurtful.
Being my own boss, I liked to think that my radar was normally spot-on when assessing people, whether for the first time or after many years since the last time, and his body language and tone didn't suggest that he was being anything but normal and welcoming.
Probably just me. His big wide grin looked genuine enough, even if the whiteness of his teeth didn't.
Don't be childish Max, I reprimanded myself.
I was desperate for a pee, so made my excuses.
Too many cups of coffee will do that to you. I seem to spend most of my life either drinking coffee, or getting rid of it.
Standing in the loo, I wondered if I was being a tad hasty in my initial reaction to a surprise blast from the past?
I got to thinking about when we were younger, and I remembered Erik being part of the group of boys, and some girls, growing up together in the village of Hindringham Novers.
Like me, Erik was one of the boys who used to deliver newspapers and groceries for Des, our village Sub-Post Master and General Grocer.
Des never paid us much, and we spent most of our Saturday pay packet on sweets and comic story books.
I smiled to myself as I remembered that Erik, me and a couple of the older boys used to smuggle out copies of top shelf magazines.
Okay, yes, they were pornography, and for that reason I'm not condoning them. But we were boys.
I have a daughter, a Mother and several close lady friends.
I would never, ever, want to see them embarrassed, and their well-being is everything to me.
But was I alone in thinking that it was a more innocent time then?
Hiding 'dirty mags' in your bedroom so your Mum or Sister didn't find them. Swapping them at school, often for one of the American magazines which had found their way out of the local Air Force base and into the general population.
It wasn't like the filth being peddled on the internet nowadays, when anyone, of any age can access it.
At least we could control what we had back then. Restrict who saw what, and when.
You had to be a fifth former before you got to see the centre-folds.
I recalled the standing joke amongst my group of friends, that the first time I ever saw a girl naked, I was surprised that she didn't have any staples across her stomach area.
We were only boys. And boys do, stuff. All sorts of strange, stuff.
At least they used too.
But it was a different time then. Some would say it was a better time. Some would argue it was a different country.
Walking back to the bar, Lucy caught my eye and nodded towards the Bain-Marie on the bar, and I winked back at her.
The polished stainless-steel heated pot looked as though it had been at the Black Shuck Inn forever, and every day the soup it kept at a constant temperature was a different colour, depending on the subtle change of ingredients which were subject to Rays mood, as much as whatever he had in the larder.
This evening it was a mid-brown sort of fence-preservative colour, with a hint of ham amongst the vegetable aromas.
It was only then that I noticed the dog laying under Erik’s bar stool. A Springer Spaniel by the look of it, with its lead tied firmly around one of the bar stools legs.
"Good boy Monty, say hello to Max", Erik confirmed my initial thought on it being a he-dog.
Big wet eyes looked up at me, and a big wet nose twitched as Lucy handed me the bowl of soup.
It was balanced on a plate with a couple of slices of their home-baked bread, a knob of butter, and a spoon wrapped in a paper napkin.
She put my pint of beer on the bar, "You're lucky. That was the last bowl full. Twenty quid please, including them", nodding towards the Lodge of Instruction chaps at the end of the bar, who each raised their glass in thanks for me getting the round in.
I fumbled in my pocket for a note, and as I did a fiver fell to the floor.
"I really do hate those horrible plastic notes we now have", Erik smirked as I leant down to pick it up.
As I did, the soup slopped in the bowl and a large dollop splashed on the floor about eighteen inches from the dog’s nose, covering my fiver in bits of turnip, potato and ham.
Well, that was it. Monty went bonkers. He lunged towards the splash of soup, and in doing so pulled the bar stool so that it was teetering on only two legs, and in the process causing Erik to lose his balance on the seat.
"Calm down Monty", Erik screeched in a high-pitch which belied his man-about-town look, and reaching out to steady himself against the bar he inadvertently nudged my arm and the bowl tipped over spilling my supper onto the floor.
Monty was now in dog-heaven as he lapped away at the soup lake in front of him, and as I leaned forward to retrieve my soiled fiver he must have thought that I was about to steal what was now most definitely his supper, so he barked at me and snarled a warning to stay away.
I have an irrational fear of anything that can do me harm, including axe-murderers, giant mutant spiders, and ultra-possessive dogs. So, my next move shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise.
I struck out with my hand and flicked poor Monty on the end of his nose, not too hard, but hard enough to make a point.
He yelped and backed off.
Thankfully, nobody saw my entirely justified defensive action. I leaned forward again to pick up my hard-earned fiver, and this time Monty must have thought I was about to flick his snout again, so he did that typical dog thing.
He lay on his side, cocked his leg, and peed.
Unfortunately, his pee was directed upwards in a perfect trajectory towards Erik's highly polished shoes and Sta-Prest trousers.
Erik's initial reaction to the moistening of his lower leg was to check if a pint on the bar had been spilt and was dripping over the edge, but within a matter of seconds the expression on his face signalled that he had obviously realised where the dampness and the accompanying, unmistakeable smell was coming from.
Monty, now calmed down, had stopped peeing and was vigorously lapping up the remains of the soup.
After what had only been about thirty seconds of mayhem, the silence was now deafening.
I looked at Erik, who looked at Lucy, who was glaring at me, as I looked at Monty, who didn't bother looking at anyone.
"Well, erm, that was unexpected", I then gave a nervous sort of cough, and decided to move on to the other end of the bar where the chaps from the Lodge of Instruction were rolling-in-the-aisles.
I couldn't see how my continued presence would add anything positive to the situation.
At least that's the impression I got from the look Lucy was giving me, as I sheepishly handed over the twenty quid.
Dogs in pubs? Never works and always ends in tears.
I rest my case.