He eased himself into the corner by the fire.
It was early, the lunchtime rush had yet to materialise and he was able to command a cosy spot. A smile and a nod to the barmaid produced a pint of best with the foaming head just as he liked it. He took a sip and was reassured to find it was as good as ever. A classic pint!
Charles remembered the introduction of the dreaded Watneys Red Barrel, tasteless thin stuff, ‘small beer’ indeed, in his opinion. He had watched with horror in the Sixties as this fizzy keg beer and its competitors had quickly driven out most of the ‘real ales’ of his younger years. It was a joy to find real, cask-conditioned ale once more. He liked this pub; the stone floor, the old oak tables, the blackened fireplace with its ovens still attached that was now creating a warming glow on an unseasonably chilly day.
Looking up, he could see myriads of different beer mats stuffed into the cracks between the boards. The oak beams were blackened with soot from the fire, twisted and gnarled with age. A proper pub. The ancient beams reminded him of the ‘hopper huts’ down in Kent before the war.
As a child, he had spent holidays with an uncle who farmed fruit and hops in Kent. In summer, whole families would decamp from the East End of London down to Kent, catching the trains carrying all they needed for the weeks they would be away. They would cram into the tiny hopper huts to sleep and work from seven or eight in the morning picking the fruit and then hops from the bines and getting paid by the bushel (and earning very little). His uncle had always insisted he should learn what it was like for the less-privileged and so he was ‘loaned’ to one family or another to help them work in the fields. He would acquire a tan, an understanding of those less privileged and, in due course, an appreciation of the final product of his labours.
He took another sip from his pint and looked around. The bar was beginning to fill now. Overlooking the Thames, within sight of Tower Bridge and the Tower beyond, the old pub had survived and now flourished with the influx of tourists London attracted.
Looking down at his pint to take another sip, Charles saw that the previously full head had diminished leaving a few cloud-like sections floating across the surface. As he peered closer, something between the clouds caught his eye. Could only be a bloody Heinkel coming at him from out of the sun! Alarm instantly stiffened him and he kicked at the rudder as he grabbed for the joystick.
Dan and Sylvie had just entered the pub, grabbed their drinks and were just looking around for a free table, when their attention was caught by a curious scene over by the fire. The old gentleman seated in a wheelchair next to the fire had knocked over his pint and lashing out with his leg had overturned the adjacent table. He was now grabbing for something in front of him and was attracting the attention of the small crowd at that end of the bar who appeared to be laughing at him.
Sylvie saw Dan quickly put his pint down on the nearest table and push his way through the crowd towards the old chap who was now yelling something at the top of his voice. She could see a thin-faced, very elderly man, smartly dressed in grey flannels, a black blazer, white shirt and what appeared to be a club or military tie. On his head was a beret, now knocked askew, with some form of badge adorning the front.
Dan appeared to have admonished the other drinkers for their lack of care and was now squatting down next to the wheelchair, with one of his large arms around the old chap’s shoulders and his other hand calming the arm that had been waving around. Dan, finished talking to the old fellow, who was nodding and wheeled him over to join her at a table that had just become free.
‘Sylvie, this is Wing Commander Blakely, who is going to join us for a drink and hopefully be our guest for lunch.’
‘Delighted to meet you, sir. And I do hope you will join us for lunch!’
‘Ppplease, call me Charles and, if you insist, Iiii’d love to join you and your gallant companion.’
Over the next couple of hours, they found Charles to be a charming, if occasionally forgetful, companion. They learnt of his happy childhood, a few snatches of his time in the RAF, his marriage to childhood sweetheart, Dorothy and his time in local government. The one enduring tragedy in his life had been the bitter disappointment that Dorothy (sadly now deceased) could not have children. Yes, they had discussed adoption but neither felt that, worthy as it was, it could be a substitute for their own progeny. He now lived in a care home with support from the RAF Benevolent Fund and his pension. The pub was an old haunt he visited occasionally.
Dan called him a taxi when Charles felt it was time to be getting back. After saying goodbye, Sylvie could see them from her window seat as the driver prepared the ramp. Dan was squatting down again and giving Charles a hug and could see him handing him his card. She had never seen this side of Dan before, in their short relationship, and she felt a warm & reassuring glow about him.
‘Was he OK?’ she enquired when he returned.
‘Yes. I’ve said I’ll keep in touch. He’s not got a soul in the world.’
‘What made you help him in the first place?’
‘I’ve heard snatches from my granddad & one of my great uncles over the years about what some of these chaps went through. I couldn’t bear to see him all alone with no-one even trying to help him. There’s so few of them left now and I think we were meant to meet him.’
‘What on earth do you mean?’
‘Look,’ replied Dan pointing up at the pub sign that was visible through the old window, ‘The Raven in the Tower.’
‘I’d not noticed. But what do you mean?’
‘He just reminded me of one of those ravens we saw over at the Tower earlier. Dark jacket & beret, piercing eyes and prominent nose. He looked, to me, for all the world like one of those magnificent birds forever trapped in their situation.’