A Tiding – Part II

by Timothy J Jarvis

Part II of ‘A Tiding’. The first part can be found here.

Soundtrack: Christina Vantzou, 11 Generations of My Fathers

The Saracen’s Head is a convivial old boozer.

A fortieth birthday – dead leaves – the Saracen’s Head – a beer and a book – ‘Ferule of the Preceptor’ – pigeon pie

Mark had only met Colin a few days before the trip to the tumbledown building in Kentish Town, on the evening of his fortieth birthday. That night, he’d not felt inclined to celebrate. Six months previously, one of Mark’s students, a female undergraduate, at the London university where he taught Cultural Studies and Sociology, had accused him of rape. She took the case to tribunal. The charges were dropped when she admitted, during the hearing, that, though she had been drunk and felt used, the sex was consensual, but Mark still underwent disciplinary proceedings and was suspended from his job. His wife, Natalie, from whom he had tried to keep the indiscretion, found out about it, left him, taking their six year old daughter with her, and filed for divorce.

At that time, then, seeing censure on every indifferent face, he tended to avoid company when he could, preferring to spend his evenings alone, solacing his woes with whisky. That day, however, feeling he ought to mark the occasion in some way, he decided to go to his local, the Saracen’s Head, for a meal and a pint or two.

The sky was clear, and it was cold for the time of year. Shed foliage, drifted by a strong breeze, was banked against front garden walls along his street, and he kicked through the heaps, sending flurries of dead leaves into the air.

On reaching the pub, he ducked under the low lintel, into the warm, and his sullen temper, already improved a little by the bracing walk, brightened still further. The Saracen’s Head is a convivial old boozer. Many of its appointments are relics of its Victorian origins. Wooden screens, inset with panes of etched glass, partition the space; the bar is mahogany and pine, ornately carved; and a lapis-tile dado runs round the walls. After dark, the place is lit by a mere few dingy standard and table lamps, with only cracked and fly-spotted mirrors to swell the light, but the effect is homely, not dismal. The landlady is justly proud of the array of real ales she stocks, and her husband, of the simple, but delicious, traditional fare he cooks.

There was a group of regulars drinking at the bar, an Irish wolfhound slumbering at their feet. When Mark crossed over to buy a beer and peruse the menu, they greeted him warmly, though he was a stranger to them. Mark ordered the special, a pigeon pie served with buttered greens, took his pint, and found an empty table in a nook in the saloon bar. He got out the book he’d brought with him: a trite, poorly written work of heroic fantasy, a genre he’d found himself turning to for salve in the preceding months. It was entitled ‘Ferule of the Preceptor’, and was part four of the ‘Rule of the Decepter’ saga (the publishers insisted on the titles of volumes echoing that of the series, thinking it a strong gimmick; the author, under contract, but increasingly disgruntled with this idiocy, came up with some awful names for later instalments – a nadir was reached with that of the seventh volume, ‘Drool of the Elector’, whose contrived plot did indeed centre around a ballot paper spoiled by slobber). On the book’s cover was a depiction of the eponymous preceptor, a severe man, with a grizzled beard, who wore a robe, and was standing before a blackboard on which were drawn some arcane ideograms. In one hand he held some chalk and in the other the titular ferule, from which a greenish glow emanated. A magpie was perched on his left shoulder, it’s head cocked inquisitively. Superimposed on the image were the author’s name and the book’s title, embossed, silver, in a sham-runic font. Mark sat enjoying his beer and his book, and his temper continued to improve.

Engrossed in his reading, it wasn’t until a savoury aroma rose to his nostrils he realised the landlady had set his pie down before him. The dish was delicious, chunks of tender pigeon flesh and smoked lardons in a rich gravy, encased in shortcrust pastry. The good food lifted his spirits still further. When he’d finished, Mark pushed his plate from him and, slouching down in his seat and stretching out his legs, gave a sigh of contentment. Taking up his pint, he took a draught, returned to his reading.

To be continued