The Pub at Barnton Parva
Booking this trip had seemed the right solution after a period of instability, and a yearning for change. It had been several years since my last holiday, and the thought of a different routine in different surroundings was exciting. In the morning as I took my rail-ticket out of its envelope to make absolutely sure, for the umpteenth time, which train I was catching, I became aware of the strange feeling of having been driven to go on this trip. My head was conjuring unwanted words, telling me that this was something I was destined to do- yet surely not - as this was just a visit to a good friend living in a quiet Wiltshire village, so I shrugged such nonsense as being simply over-tired.
Now, sitting in the Quiet carriage – carriage F – rested and calm, I gazed comfortably out of the window at the soporific green of late summer. Small houses, churches rich with varied steeples, elderberry hedges; canals, complete with swans and narrow boats lay serene and beautiful as we rushed thoughtlessly by; ruminating cows showing no interest whatsoever in our progress, just probably glad eventually to be rid of our intrusive noise.
We stopped at a pretty station bedecked with baskets of petunias but little else other than a sign announcing that it was Wakefield Westgate. No-one got off the train and no-one got on. Despite the station’s quiet anonymity that feeling of unease arose again. That day I was deliberately wearing my favourite pink jacket, which invariably raised my spirits and made me feel both smart and comfortable – even though a sudden September rain-cloud spilled over our carriage windows, nothing was going to spoil my contentment so I was enjoying an excellent little bottle of Pinot Noire and a tasty lunch – yet somehow, below the surface there was that feeling of unease – I felt almost afraid.
We continued our journey - through towns now, nothing quiet or peaceful. Rail-side goods yards vying with junk yards for the ugliest aspect of our rusting, throw-away lives. Many more houses, all identical. Then more rolling meadows with nibbling sheep before tight collections of dormant red roofed houses. Little boxes with ornamental cherry trees and marshalled dahlias. Acres of stationery cars outside office blocks. All this living going on as I raced by did not for a minute tell me why this felt like such a water-shed. Come on pink jacket! Help me out. The turbulence of the last few months had left me tired, this combined with the wine and the train’s rhythm was soporific, so closing my eyes I settled down to a forty minute sleep before arriving at my destination.
The jerk, accompanied by the screech of breaks, was a shock. Audible gasps filled the carriage as people looked anxiously at each other, somehow expecting someone to know what had happened. The tannoi made some weird sounds and then eventually:- “Due to unforeseen circumstances we are afraid we cannot proceed. We are asking everyone to leave the train. We are on the outskirts of Barnton Parva. Coaches have been procured to take you to a local Pub and there will be assistance to anyone having trouble leaving the train. There is a drop onto the track of roughly two feet.”
Staff appeared to help with luggage and we were soon clambering onto terra firma. My heart had stopped going into overdrive, and the only problem I had – was how to keep my favourite pink jacket clean! The blue buses were a welcome sight and we were soon on our way, peering out of the windows, trying to see what had held us up. I could see two or three Police cars, an Ambulance and a crowd of people standing ominously at the front of our train, which was a worrying sight.
We navigated leafy lanes, foliage brushing the windows of our bus as we proceeded, then turning a sharp corner we went slowly down- hill towards a crescent of ancient yew trees, their gnarled branches twisting into the afternoon sky with a sense of direction that belied high winds. It was dark under the yews, and in their centre stood a Pub. There was no sign of life, no lights despite the overhanging branches. No cars. No people.
We stood in wordless little groups, seeking some acknowledgement of our arrival. None came. There were trickles of nervous laughter. Several of the more out-going men went into the bar. Someone rang the bell that sat so expectantly on the counter. No-one came. All available seats were soon taken, and the bar rapidly developed a smoky atmosphere and chatter increased. Some passengers with more ‘push’ than others took over the bar. One poured drinks, another made lists of what everyone had ordered.- for the Landlord when he would eventually turn up.
Light switches were found, someone lit a fire – late summer warmth had not penetrated the Pub’s stout walls. Peanuts were discovered, stale crisps discarded. Conversations became louder, laughter heard and soon the overcrowded Pub became stifling. I decided a short walk would clear my head. Leaving the heavy yew trees I turned left onto a high-banked lane. There were houses further on, curvaceous thatches topping wattled walls and mullion windows. Early evening light was rapidly melting into dusk. Just ahead of me a figure came out of a cottage and walked towards her garden gate. We both reached it at the same time.
“Hello” she smiled. “ Hasn’t it been a lovely day – the last of the sunshine!”
I nodded. “Yes indeed” I replied. “I’m a stranger here – one of many I’m afraid. Our train had to stop for some reason and we were decanted into a local Pub – the one down the road, but actually it’s a bit small for so many – so I wondered if by any chance you knew of a larger where some of us could go?”
She stared at me. “What Pub?”
“The one down the road there” I gestured. By the yew trees.
There was a pause, then she looked at me. frowning.
“Was it open?”
“Almost. But there was no-one actually there.”
“No, there wouldn’t be.”
“Well –“ she paused – “Well – the owner vanished about a year ago.”
We lapsed into an uncomfortable silence.
“Er – well – the owner just vanished. The Pub was closed, but if you managed to get in perhaps he has returned and opened it again. I do hope so.”
She pulled a mobile out of her pocket. “Dad – phone Donald and see if he’s back again. Why? Well the Pub seems to be open, so perhaps he has returned. Oh! please Dad – you’ve got his number and I haven’t.” She turned to me.
“He’s back – I’m sure of it. But if by chance he isn’t – there is a good Pub in Winton, so you could all go there. I’ll drive you over if you like, so you can see it. I’m going in that direction anyway.”
I thanked her, and together we got into her car and drove down the leafy lane to Winton.
The Landlord of The Ferrets greeted us with the news that my new friend’s Father had phoned asking about the Pub at Barnton Parva. He listened to my tale with quiet interest.
“What was the Pub called?”
“It didn’t have a sign that I could see.”
“The door was open, so we presumed it was in business.”
The Publican turned to me –
“Why did your train stop?”
I explained, adding that it had seemed to me that someone may have been killed or badly hurt by our train. The girl said – quietly –
“Paul – what is the date today?” They both looked at each other.
“Does that mean anything to you?” I asked
“Yes, it does. Exactly two years ago today a girl we all knew very well threw herself in front of the Midland Express. She was going to be married the next day to the owner of the Pub you have just left.”
The silence was long. I felt cold and unsure of myself.
“When did he vanish?”
“A year later to the day.”
“And this is a year to that day?”
The Publican turned to the gantry and silently poured three substantial brandies.
“I think we need this.” Paul said and gestured to a small table near the warm, comforting fire. Then he told me an age-old story of love and loss.
Donald, the owner of “The Parva Man”, was both rival and friend. The two pubs having a long and cheerful history of darts matches, shove halfpenny competitions, tugs-of-war and much friendly rivalry. Donald, at forty, was a shy man when it came to women, and Paul had been convinced that he would never marry – even that he would never pluck up the courage to ask anyone! Then, one day Tina, an attractive girl of twenty-three turned up to help in the pub. No-one had ever seen Donald look so happy, however, one late summer day they had an argument which ended up with Donald catching the train to London with some friends, leaving an angry Tina behind, muttering that he obviously ‘likes Rugby better than me!’ It all seemed so trivial.
Turning to my new friend Paul said –
“Mary – you’ve got the car here. I’ll leave Rick in charge – drive us over to Barnton Parva. We must get to the bottom of this.”
Hardly speaking we drove through the gathering gloom. The lights of the pub were bright, people still there, milling about both inside and out. Paul approached the passenger who had nominated himself as Barman. Much had been drunk and his copious lists lay on the counter. No owner had appeared. It had been proclaimed as ‘very strange’
The pub seemed so normal. On the walls were photographs. A lovely girl with long, black hair; a cheerful young man with a wide grin, showing a chipped front tooth and a trendy hair-cut. Several photos of darts teams, a rugby squad, all fronted by a tall, shy man wearing a green sweater with the sleeves rolled up. All so normal.
A crick in my neck woke me up. I opened my eyes, aware of the man sitting opposite me. He looked up from his book and smiled.
“That was a good sleep. I was tempted to wake you up in case you were in danger of going past your station – so I hope you weren’t planning on getting off at Winton - because we’ve just passed it!”
“N, not Winton.” I murmured, still groggy from sleep – my thoughts jumbled, still in what must have been a dream. But so real. My senses were utterly confused. Voices were still with me. I could smell the pub, the atmosphere.
The jerk was a shock. Accompanied by the screech of brakes. Audible gasps filled the air, people looking anxiously at each other, and then we were asked to leave the train where two village buses would take us to the pub in the village of Barnton Parva.
A crowd of railway staff and a police car were collecting around the engine.
My hands went cold as our buses eased to a stop in the centre of a crescent of aged yew trees. There stood a Pub – with a sign saying “The Parva Man”. Lights were on and people were laughing. The bar was manned by a cheerful young man with red hair and who showed a chipped tooth when he smiled.
It was immediately obvious that my fellow passenger from the train was well known. Cries of “Welcome back Donald – how was the game?” echoed around the room. Laughing, he took off his anorak to reveal a green sweater with the sleeves rolled up.
At that moment we heard sirens; car doors opening and shutting. Two policemen came into the pub, took off their hats and gravely surveyed the throng of people around the bar before asking quietly if they could speak to the owner of ‘The Parva Man’ in private.
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