Lunch at the Oval Office


The Ship and Bell, Horndean, Hampshire

Here is another glimpse into my personal life. In this case when I lived in a Hampshire village while briefly working as a ‘forky’ on British house building sites, after I came back to the UK in 2000. More about that later…


Until I returned here, I had lived most of my life in New Zealand. At the ripe old age of fifty-two I decided to pack it all in and go and see something of the land of my birth – England. I discovered that I was not the last of my family after my favourite aunt passed away, as I had been wrongly led to believe by my father for reasons known only to himself. In actual fact I found I had cousins living in the southern English county of Hampshire.

After arriving at Heathrow tired from the long trip via Los Angeles, and finding a hotel in the centre of London behind the British Museum, I stayed for a few nights. It was hellishly expensive and staffed by toffee nosed snobs who looked at me like a piece of dirt when they heard my ‘colonial’ accent, but frankly I was too tired to care. I spent the next few days exploring London within walking distance of the hotel. I visited the fascinating museum with its myriad of ancient artefacts from around the world; and wandered for hours through the congested streets of the bustling city.

I rang a second cousin in Hampshire and made arrangements to visit. The train trip from Waterloo station to the town of Petersfield where he was going to pick me up, took about an hour. The next couple of days were pleasant ones for me, talking about the family. He arranged for most of the cousins in the immediate surrounding area to come and meet the antipodean addition to the family on that first weekend. I found out much later from another cousin that whenever the Commander ‘invited’ you to do something, to refuse was tantamount to an act of mutiny. No wonder my father never mentioned him. They may have been first cousins, but they were so alike in so many ways, both of them martinets suffering from delusions of grandure…

To achieve my goal to explore a little bit of the countryside, I had to find work to support myself. I spent the first five months of my initial three year stay, living off my meagre savings watching them disappear at an alarming rate. Eventually I found a low paid job for a few months, working as a civilian storeman in a dilapidated Territorial Army base, twenty odd miles north of the village.

Public transport in that part of the UK is practically nonexistent, so to get to work I was forced to buy a car. The cost of running a vehicle in the UK is prohibitive. I chose a tiny second-hand Renault hatchback, just a box on wheels but comparatively cheap to run.

During my time there I developed a deep affection for the people I got to know in the village of Horndean, and the place I call its heart, the ‘Ship and Bell’ pub pictured above. The following is just one story from that time.


Sunday Lunch at the Oval Office

At Sunday lunchtime my local pub opened at 12 noon on the dot. I arrived at my usual time a few minutes before midday and sat outside in the intermittent winter sunshine, watching the traffic passing by from beneath the gently swinging old pub sign. The clouds were trying hard to blot out the sun as I rolled a cigarette and lit it.

A little blue car pulled into the car park beside the old pub. “Morning Jack.”

“Morning Ian.” He walked across the car park aided by his walking stick. He was a retired British army officer, ex bomb disposal, a nice bloke. Like every red blooded male, he had an eye for the young barmaids in our local pub.

“Not open yet?” Ian asked, shielding his eyes and pressing his face to the old bay window.

“Not yet mate,” I said as I enjoyed the sunshine and my cigarette.

“Morning,” an old pair of identities from the village said in unison.

“Morning,” Ian and I replied in unison.

“Not open yet then.”

“No, not yet.”

“Disgraceful! They’re always changing the opening times. You can slip in for a coffee or a pint at eleven in the morning during the week,” the elderly woman said to her companion.

“But its Sunday, they need a rest my dear,” her companion replied, shaking his head behind her back and pulling a face, grinning like a Cheshire cat.

“Shouldn’t be allowed,” she said. “We’re regulars. We come in for a drink every lunchtime.” I smiled to myself and gave Ian a sideways glance. He smiled back and rolled his eyes mouthing “silly old bat,” to me.

A well groomed late model VW Passat drove in and parked nearest to the road. John got out and pressed the automatic locking button on his key fob. “Morning all, nice day. Morning Ian, morning sport,” he delivered his familiar greeting as he stood beside me. “Not open yet then,” he smiled. “How’s the job going, still working on the same site or have they shifted you yet?”

“Same site,” I sighed.

“How long did you say it takes you to get there in the morning?” he enquired.

“About an hour and a half, providing I leave around five fifteen in the morning,” I replied. “If I leave any later, I get caught up in traffic on the dual carriageway.”

“No good at our age sport,” he said shaking his head.

“Yes but I’m only driving a short distance John, you drive umpteen thousand miles a month up and down the country, and now your suffering for it – right!”

John nodded as he winced from the chronic back pain that plagued him. He banged on the window of the pub. “Shop! If they don’t open soon, I’m off to the ‘Farmer’ for a pint. It tastes better up there,” he said half impatiently, half joking.

Then Ben arrived. “Good morning Ian. Good morning to you both,” he said to the couple. “Good morning John, fine day eh what heh heh. Good morning to you great hairy antipodean troglodyte!” Ben roared his special greeting at me as he bowed low in his old fashioned mock royal way. I like Ben. He is a sweet, gentle, permanently sozzled intelligent man. Indeed at one time, one of the locals put him on the internet listing him as the ‘village eccentric’, much to Ben’s annoyance and to everyone’s huge amusement.

I don’t know about now, but back then Ben loved his pint of Guinness and a half of cider. “You’re up early Ben,” John said chuckling to himself for some reason.

“Yes, well, I had to be up at this hour,” he sniffed. “I’m having some alterations done to the house. I’m getting a new conservatory built at the back.” He produced his sparse line sketch of the proposed grand affair.

“Mother shelling out yet more money is she?” Ian said with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

Ben shot him a withering glance with those brown bloodshot eyes of his. “Gawd almighty, aren’t they open yet?” he shouted, suddenly realising he was outside the pub and not in it! It always took him a little while for things to register in his mind, bless him.

“No!” we all chorused.

“Garry’s coming up for a drink,” I said to John.

“Bloody hell, not another member of the Southern Cross Mafia,” he said shaking his head, looking at me with that cheeky smile of his.

“Which means Ben you’re no longer the undisputed leader of the oval office,” I said jokingly.

“Harrumph, fine fellow that he is I’m sure,” Ben began. “I’m still chairman of the oval office heh heh.” Ben laughed at the in joke between all of us.

The oval table inside the bay window of the old pub was where Ben, John, and I usually sat. A lot of the regulars sat there. Kenny the self-employed gardener who looked after my cousin’s garden, Ian D, Terry, and a host more, all unofficial members of the ‘Oval Office’. I don’t think anyone really knew who christened the table as such, but it was our meeting place most nights after work for a pint. And in the weekends, we met there during the lunch hour for a pint and a chat, to read the paper, sort out the world’s problems, and have a laugh.

Garry turned up in his new car, courtesy of his latest employers. “Not open yet?” Garry asked.

“No!” we all chorused yet again. By now everyone was looking through the windows trying to attract the attention of whoever was inside.

“Morning Ben, morning John. G’day mate,” he said to me finally. Garry looked at his watch. “Can’t stay long, the missus and I are off to the supermarket this afternoon,” he said. The sound of the door being unlocked behind us put an end to any more conversation. One of the attractive young barmaids opened the door and smiled her sweet smile. ‘Morning,” she said with that bright sing-song greeting of hers that melted our hearts. “Morning Natalie,” was the collective cry as we rushed past her to get to the bar at 12 noon on the dot.



Something for you all to think about


Have you ever thought about what makes the author of any work of fiction you’ve ever read, actually tick? No, well don’t you think maybe its long past time that you did?

Without exception, when you read anything written by a fiction writer, unlike non-fiction books created by those of an intellectual bent who rely solely on facts and scientific theories, what sets our work apart from them is the way we make use of life’s experiences and our vivid imaginations.

Take my novella – Céleste as an example. Apart from the smattering of facts and human legends I used in the story, in one specific passage I drew on a particularly painful memory from my early childhood, while throughout the rest of the story I used other personal experiences.

One in particular immediately springs to mind, when I wrote about the relationship between Céleste and the human she loves – David. I remembered when I fell in love back in the nineteen sixties with Mai, the most beautiful and gentle soul I have ever met in my entire lifetime, who became my wife and the mother of our son. I experienced total heart break eighteeen months later when they were both cruelly taken from me by friendly fire. As a result I have suffered several breakdowns over the intervening years, which is the reason why I live alone today, too frightened to get close to anyone ever again. It may sound foolish I know, but its a very real fear to me…

So there you have it. Now go and buy your copy of Céleste to gain an even better understanding of the way my mind works.