The rain pattered onto our rucksacks as we tramped around the fields that day. We walked through wet woods and along splashy paths. It wasn’t oppressive weather, but gloomy; gloomy enough to have darkened the sun, the swollen clouds hung low, and the trees wore sombre green. Crows cawed in the woods, the rain dropping on our hoods felt more like a drum roll than single notes, it was so constant. We trudged around, not unhappy or miserable like the day, spirits unsubmerged, but in silence. Boots and socks felt heavy, laden with dew from the damp forest floors and seeped-in water from the puddles on the roads. Gates between the walls led to sodden fields, soggy and marshy, their long grass draping itself round our feet and dipping in to reach our claggy woollen socks.
We came to a signpost. It was old, wooden and historic, its carved and arrowed boards pointing in many directions to villages only from the past. Long gone and lost in the countryside lay dark, ruined smithies, abandoned weavers’ huts, a muddy main street lane, a basket lying astray, the fallen walls of a community once closed to the rest of the world, and now dead for it.
By the signpost was a wood, and still without words we climbed the stile and filed in to the trees. Soon we saw it, what seemed a sort of tall den; in this dark patch it looked as if green grizzled trunks stretched up together in a narrow square. Then, as we approached we could see it was a real structure, tall, a box of wet, timbered wood half a tree’s height, with a mossy wooden board for a roof. There was a door, rotting. I felt nerves, reluctant as we slowly neared, treading warily forward. Suddenly the rainy forest felt safer than this bosky shack in wet leaves. We were suddenly inside. It was a pub. The others had faded behind me and I stood for a long time. It was dark. Nearby was a counter, where I could see two or three drinkers, farmers, sitting silently with an elbow on the bar and a jug of musty ale in the other hand. They slowly raised and lowered their glasses, smoke rose from their pipes in the gloom, and they said nothing at all. They hadn’t even looked up. It was as if I wasn’t there, and I couldn’t feel or see the others behind me. I felt enclosed, shrouded, and danger.
I started to make out shelves round the walls. The room was so small I could almost touch all sides of it. Books and weeds, the shelves were full of books and weeds. The forest outside was part of this building, and tendrils of ivy and long grass came through between the books and drooped into the dark space. The small room smelt of old foliage. The pub was part of the forest, and the only sound was the quiet setting of pint jars on the bar. Then I could see other customers, silent, cowled, sifting in the shadows of a corner too far away for this tiny room.
The barman, like his bar, was tall, his slick-haired head high above me, half way to the roof. He asked me what I wanted, and poured a pot of black-brown beer. I’d had it before, recognised its name and knew its potency. The farmers had started to chuckle quietly now, a slow, knowing murmur like low, glooping lava.
It was so dark. Enclosed and dark. A deep, wordless rumble, surrounded by the dripping walls and books, and no sound from the people I’d come in with. I didn’t turn round, and felt they weren’t there. The ale emboldened me though, enough so to offer up my glass for another, which the tall man filled without a nod or a sound. He was quiet, loose, an expressionless puppet as he drew the pump back and handed me, between the farmers, the headless, chestnut-dark beer. It tasted of the trees, sweet and heavy and mildewy. Another deep draught and I could feel the room cloud up. I was getting unclear inside my head, though somehow this felt as if I was more comfortable now in these dank, boarded surroundings. They felt less furtive now, less dangerous, warmer, more like a pub. It was definitely the beer that was doing the warming, as the hut itself and the forest outside were bitter. The hut and the forest felt as if they were part of each other, yet this secret tomb-in-the-woods was where farmers came with skulking pride, and drank. A camouflaged, ivied barn where nobody else knew where they were.
I’d had enough. The strong beer had calmed my intimidation, but had muddied up my mind, and through my clouded vision I reached for my rucksack, which wasn’t there. The others definitely weren’t there either, and my money was in my bag. In my raincoat pockets there were only gloves, I knew that, and in my jeans only keys. I made a pretence of searching for money, the barman’s face looming out from behind the counter, between the farmers. He knew too. I looked up plaintively. He watched me, nodded towards the door, and had no cause to smile. The farmers had stopped their rumble, and stared into each other’s faces.
I backed to the door, and left the damp, dark green bar for ever.