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    Mawgrim
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Travelling On - 6. Meeting the Locals

The cottage looked as cosy as ever, with light spilling out from the windows and reflecting off the puddles in the yard. The weather had returned to normal for winter in England; damp and dreary, muddy and unkempt. James must have heard his car, for he met Craig at the door with a ready hug and ushered him inside. Just stepping into the kitchen was like shrugging off the past week as if it were a piece of clothing that had become too tight and uncomfortable. James had obviously been cooking again. Something smelled wonderful.

‘I thought you might like some dinner,’ he said. ‘Nothing fancy, just a beef stew with dumplings and fresh veg courtesy of the farm.’

Craig sat down in his usual place. Wait a minute, what was he thinking? He’d only been here once before. Yet, it felt as if he’d come home.

‘Did you have a good drive here?’

‘Not bad for a Friday. No accidents en route, so the traffic kept moving. Glad I didn’t have to find it first time in the dark, though.’

‘Well, after we’ve eaten, I’ll show you the progress so far. I’ve kept myself busy this week.’ James put the steamer on top of the stove. ‘Veggies won’t take very long.’

Craig watched him move around the kitchen as he got everything together. He’d obviously changed out of his working clothes and wore a fresh pair of jeans and a mossy green fleece. Nothing out of the ordinary, but he looked great. Maybe it was because Craig now knew the body beneath the clothes, but everything about him seemed sexy. ‘You’ve got me onto healthy eating,’ he said. ‘I had vegetables three nights this week. And a salad for lunch twice.’

James smiled. ‘It’s a good start. You know, I’ve always found cooking a proper meal doesn’t take much longer than heating up rubbish. Plus you have leftovers for another time.’

‘I used to do that, when I worked in the cinema. Cook up a big chilli or a curry and have a few meals out of it at work. And make proper dinners on my days off. Mind you, I was cooking for two of us then, so it seemed more worth it.’

‘I know. Food becomes nothing more than fuel when you’re alone.’ James seemed reflective for a moment, then pointed to a wine bottle on the tiled work surface. ‘Think you could open that for us? The corkscrew’s in that drawer.’

Craig obliged, filling both the glasses on the table. ‘You know, I’ve been thinking about this all day.’

‘A glass of wine?’

‘No. Seeing you again.’ It might sound soppy, but it was true. Craig didn’t usually express his emotions much, but he wasn’t afraid to let James know how he felt. ‘I mean, talking on the phone’s fine. And Wednesday night was fun…’

James grinned.

‘But there’s nothing like actually being together.’

‘I feel exactly the same.’ He carried over a dish of carrots, peas and broccoli, then shallow bowls, which had been warmed in the oven. Finally, the steaming cast iron pot full of stew. He sat across the corner of the table from Craig and clinked glasses. ‘May we have many more meals at this table.’

‘I’ll drink to that.’

It was comfort food at its best; hearty and warming. Something to keep out winter’s cold. As Craig ate, his everyday life seemed to dissipate along with the fragrant steam.

‘How did your meeting turn out on Thursday? You didn’t say much when you called.’

Craig took a sip of wine. ‘I didn’t want to whinge at you.’

‘Feel like whinging now? Get it off your chest?’

So between mouthfuls of stew, Craig told him of the newest changes, that little shit Greg and the indifferent attitudes at head office. ‘I mean, Richard should say something to Nick. He’s been an engineer long enough to know what’s possible and what isn’t.’

‘Maybe he’s just watching his own back? It happens a lot in that difficult middle-management position. In any case, would they listen to him?’

‘Probably not.’

‘And those younger ones are just trying to make a name for themselves.’

‘Yeah, especially Greg. It’ll be interesting to see how he manages to get twice as much work done in the same time as me and the others.’

‘He’ll be taking shortcuts somewhere.’ James speared a piece of broccoli.

‘They just don’t get it. When I leave a cinema I want the sound and picture to be better than when I went in. Not just fill in a spreadsheet to say it is.’ He felt the tensions of the week receding as he talked. The wine probably helped, too.

James topped up his glass. ‘There’s some cheese and biscuits, but maybe you’d like to leave them for later.’

‘Please.’

They sat in the armchairs, either side of the stove. All it needed to complete the cosy picture was a dog sprawled on the rug. Or maybe a cat. Hell, why not both?

‘I was hoping you’d help me in the bedroom this weekend.’

Craig looked up.

James chuckled. ‘Thought that would get your attention. The walls are ready for painting, but I’m not sure which is the right colour. I’ve tried a couple of samples, but could do with a second opinion.’

‘I’m always up for seconds in the bedroom.’ It wasn’t brilliantly witty, but the best he could manage at short notice. There was an element of truth in the statement, too. With James he was at the stage he always went through in a new relationship; horny all the time, thinking about what he’d like to do and have done to him. Wanting more of everything. It was probably a good thing they’d had a week apart, otherwise, at his age, he might have done himself some damage.

‘That’s the best offer I’ve had all week. Oh, yes. And I forgot to tell you our dinner at Cassie’s Cabin got them all speculating. I’ve been asked who you were several times.’

‘What did you say?’

‘The truth. That we’ve only just met and are getting to know each other better. I thought we could have a drink in the pub tomorrow afternoon and get some more tongues wagging.’

‘Is that wise? Will some angry farmer set his dog on me?’

‘We may be out in the sticks, but they’re pretty tolerant. They don’t even burn strangers in wicker cages any more.’

‘Glad to hear it.’

‘Anyway, come and have a look at what I’ve accomplished this week.’

He’d cleaned up the old fireplace Craig had discovered and all the walls in the living room had been stripped ready for plastering.

‘Looks good, doesn’t it?’

‘It’s beautiful.’ Craig ran a hand over the richly decorated surround.

‘I’m getting someone over to check the chimney next week. Make sure no dead birds or anything’s fallen down it. Might even have a fire lit by next weekend.’

That reminded Craig. ‘I won’t be here to see it. I’m on emergency cover.’ Working weekends hadn’t really mattered before, not since Matt left. Now they were precious and the thought of missing even one made him sad.

James laid a hand on his shoulder. ‘There’ll be other times. Just think how much I’ll have done by the next time you visit, especially with spring on the way.’

‘Is it? Could have fooled me.’

‘Haven’t you noticed it's light for longer in the evenings?’

‘I suppose.’

‘We’ll go for a walk in the woods tomorrow. Then you’ll see spring’s just around the corner.’

The evening seemed to fly. Craig devoured far too many biscuits with cheese and vented some more about the company. His phone pinged several times, but he wasn’t even tempted to check it. James made him laugh by telling him some of the local gossip. They weren’t late to bed.

Getting reacquainted with James felt just as natural and easy as it had been the previous weekend. Although the relationship was still new, Craig didn’t think he’d ever be tired of the various ways their bodies fitted together, the pleasure each managed to bring the other. Sometimes, you just knew once you’d had sex with someone a few times, there was nothing more to learn about them. Even with Matt, once the initial lust had worn off, they’d fallen into a predictable pattern very quickly. He didn’t think that was going to happen with James.

When James eventually turned off the light, the blessed darkness and quiet of the countryside enfolded the cottage and he fell, once again, into a deep, undisturbed slumber.

The following morning James made bacon sandwiches for breakfast. As he tended to the range, Craig found himself asking questions about how it worked and what needed to be done to keep it running efficiently. James explained the basic principles willingly and showed how the airflow could be reduced to ensure it stayed ‘in’ overnight and how heat was diverted to circulate around the ovens or to the back boiler, which heated water for the radiators and the tank.

‘Those radiators need a good flush out, but that’s a job for the better weather. It’ll do for now. As long as I’ve one warm room, I’m happy.’

‘Bit different from central heating, though.’ Craig showed James the app on his phone through which he could control the heating in his house remotely.

‘This may be low tech, but it’s efficient. If there was a power cut, I’d still have heat and the means to cook. I’ve even got a couple of oil lamps handy in case of emergencies.’

‘Does that happen a lot out here?’

‘Not as much as it used to, apparently. We’ve got decent broadband thanks to some of the locals campaigning a few years back. A lot of people work from home and need a speedy connection. You can even get 4G in some parts of the village.’

‘Idyllic,’ Craig joked.

‘Necessary, in this day and age.’

They washed the dishes, then bundled up against the cold. Craig borrowed James’s boots again. James took his camera with them this time and set off on a different route through the woods.

The morning was slightly overcast, although the sun broke through several times, making broad stripes of shadow and light on the woodland floor.

Craig heard birdsong, not the raucous cries of crows, but something a lot more musical, almost tuneful. ‘What’s that singing?’ he asked.

‘Probably a robin.’ James stopped to look around, then pointed out the chubby little bird, sitting on a fallen tree. ‘There he is. That reminds me. I need to top up the food in the back garden when we get back.’

Craig wondered if there was anything he didn’t know about. Still, he’d grown up in the country, so it wasn’t really surprising. They took a more gentle route this time, for which he was grateful.

‘So, what are the first signs of spring for you?’ James asked as they carried on walking.

Craig thought for a while. ‘When it starts to feel warm inside the car after you’ve left it parked a while.’

James looked at him in amusement. ‘Anything else?’

‘Creme eggs and hot cross buns in the shops. The first insects splatting against your windscreen on the motorway.’

‘Well, those are all valid observations, for a townie.’ He grinned as he led Craig along a winding path, towards a glade of short-cropped grass. ‘Now, look over to the left, there.’

Craig spotted the group of flowers. Even he recognised snowdrops, although he’d never seen so many of them clustered together. The low-angled sun illuminated them perfectly.

‘Life is returning as the days slowly lengthen,’ James said. ‘That’s the first sign of spring for me.’ He unfastened his camera bag and started taking some shots. ‘I’m going to catalogue an entire year here. I’ve already been taking pictures of the cottage as “before” and “after” examples.’

‘A personal project?’

‘Partly. And some will go on the website.’

‘You do that as well?’

James smiled. ‘No, there’s someone in the village. You’d be surprised at the different skills available in this one small place.’ He carried on taking photographs as Craig examined a bright red toadstool beside one of the trees. It seemed far too vivid to be a natural part of the winter palette of muted browns and greens. He beckoned James over. ‘Look at this.’

‘Well spotted. These aren’t common around here.’

‘I bet you know what it’s called, as well.’

‘Actually, I didn’t until a week or so ago, when I first found one. Thanks to Google I now know it’s a scarlet elf cap.’ James took a few pictures of it, then stepped back. ‘Let’s have one of you next to your discovery.’

‘The lesser balding cinema engineer, rarely seen in Derbyshire woodlands,’ Craig quipped. ‘A shy creature…’

‘But with an unusually plaintive mating call,’ James continued. ‘Often seen in the company of the local landowner, who finds him irresistible.’

Craig felt a little lurch, somewhere near his heart. Yes, they were only fooling around, but what James had said sounded genuine enough. ‘May be lured out by the smell of bacon,’ he finished, keeping the jokey tone. He scrambled to his feet, being careful not to squash the tiny fungus. As they continued the walk, he found himself drawing closer to James, even when the path wasn’t really wide enough for them to walk side by side.

Back at the cottage, they checked out the paint colours again in daylight. Both he and James favoured the muted green shade, available from a heritage paint collection. ‘We’ll drive in and order it,’ he said. ‘I know I could do it online, but it’s good to give some trade to local shops. We can have a browse for bookcases at the same time. Not that the room will be ready for a while, but a lot of them will reserve items.’

‘All this is in the village?’ He’d only noticed the pub and a Post Office.

‘No, Ashbourne. It’s the nearest town. That’s where I go for my weekly shop. You can get more or less anything there.’

It was only a fifteen minute drive. James cursed as he tried to find somewhere to park. ‘Might have known it’d be packed on a Saturday morning,’ he grumbled. ‘It’s always rammed with traffic, although they tell me it’s worse in the summer.’

Compared with some of the bigger towns Craig had to negotiate on a daily basis, the traffic wasn’t bad at all. He liked the look of Ashbourne, with handsome old buildings above the modern shopfronts and plenty of shops unique to this one place rather than belonging to chains. They went first to an old-fashioned hardware store; the kind where you could buy just five screws if that was all you needed rather than being forced to purchase a plastic encased pack of fifty. Craig browsed among the mouse traps, bird feed and ironing boards while James put in his order. It brought back memories of visiting a shop such as this with his grandfather, the sort of man who tried to fix everything rather than throw it away.

Next stop was an antique shop. Craig hadn’t been in one for a very long time; his mother used to drag them around such shops at least once on family holidays and he’d always been worried he’d accidentally knock over some priceless piece of fragile porcelain and be forced to pay for it. No sooner were they inside, the smell of old polish and dust tickling his nose, than a large, tweed-wearing man pulled James into a hug.

‘James, old chap. haven’t seen you in an age. Thought you might have gone into hibernation.’

James extricated himself carefully. ‘Hello, Archie. I’ve, er, been working.’

‘How’s the old place coming along, then?’ He had the sort of voice you’d be able to hear across several fields, with the kind of accent that screamed old money and public school.

‘Slowly. Although it might be easier now I’ve someone to help. This is my friend, Craig.’

Archie looked him up and down as if he was something James might have found in a blocked drain. ‘You know I told you I’d always be available to lend a hand.’

‘Yes, but you’re always so busy I didn’t want to bother you. I will be needing a digger in a week or two though, once I start clearing space for the first cabin.’

‘Well, just give me a bell. You’ve got my number, haven’t you? We should meet up during the week sometime. Have a drink, eh?’ Something about the tone of his voice suggested more than just a drink might be his intention.

‘Sure.’

‘Got to run. Good to see you again, anyway.’ The door rattled from the force of his passing.

Craig wasn’t sure what to say. James provided him with a bit more information. ‘Archie owns the farm just outside the village. He’s been very helpful when I’ve needed to borrow heavy equipment.’

Craig bet he had. ‘He’s, er, quite a personality.’

‘You should hear him in the pub when he’s had a few drinks, belting out “Delilah” on karaoke nights.’ James seemed amused. ‘Anyway, let’s have a look at these bookcases.’

By the time they returned to the village, it was well past opening time, so James, as promised, introduced Craig to the pub. The Green Dragon was a long, low building, with a sign outside proclaiming it dated from the fifteenth century. James noticed Craig looking at this. ‘Local joke is it’s not been painted since then.’ He led the way into the public bar. It was exactly as Craig had imagined; wooden floorboards underfoot, the usual dark varnished pub tables, low beams and a small raised area at the back where two men were playing pool. An elderly man with a flat cap sat on a high stool at the bar, a black and white dog curled at his feet.

‘Afternoon, Eric,’ James said.

‘Ay up,’ he replied, looking sadly at his almost empty glass.

‘Want a top-up of that?’

His wrinkled face lit up. ‘The usual.’

‘Right.’

A woman came through from the other bar. ‘What can I get you, me duck?’

‘What’re you having?’ James asked Craig.

Most of the beers were unfamiliar. ‘What’s good?’

Eric spoke up. ‘They do a nice drop of Peddy in here.’

Craig scanned the names on the pumps and couldn’t find it. Maybe they kept it hidden away, for locals only?

‘Three Peddy’s then, Sue,’ James said.

‘Coming up.’

The pool players had evidently finished their game and came down towards the bar, returning their empty glasses. Both looked to be in their twenties and had the hefty build Craig associated with agricultural workers. Of course, he could be wrong. One of them might be the website designer, the other a social media marketer. It wasn’t as if everyone who saw him immediately thought, he must be a cinema engineer. Pasty complexion from lack of daylight and looks as if he eats snacks in his car all day.

‘Ay up, James,’ the larger and burlier of the two said.

It must be the local greeting, Craig realised.

‘Thought any more about joining us for the football? Tuesday week.’

‘Go on,’ said the other one. ‘It’ll be a laugh. Plus with Col having to drop out ‘cos of his leg, we’re a few short this year.’

It sounded as if they were playing rather than spectating. Pub teams, maybe, although Tuesday was an odd day for it. Most of the sides Craig knew of played on Sunday morning.

‘Yer mate can come along too.’

‘I’ve not played for years,’ Craig said. ‘Not since school, really.’

James turned to him. ‘What they’re talking about isn’t really football as we know it.’

‘Nah, it’s Shrovetide, innit?’ the large one said. ‘Here, I’ll show you.’ He pulled a phone from his pocket and opened YouTube. Craig saw a teeming melee of men attempting to grab a ball from the middle of a massive scrum. There was a lot of shouting and pushing. The action seemed to be taking place in an ordinary shopping street, although all the shop windows were boarded over. ‘That were last year. I got a hand on the the ball twice.’ He sounded very proud of the fact.

‘It’s been going since medieval times,’ James explained. ‘Every Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday.’

‘Yeah, we always get a minibus and go in. Lots of people only play for an hour or so, then spend the rest of the day in the pubs.’ The smaller local seemed to think this might encourage Craig to go along.

‘Oh, all right, then,’ James said. ‘Although I’m warning you, I’m not as fit as I used to be.’

Craig reckoned otherwise. James always seemed to have plenty of stamina. ‘I can come over, as well. After my weekend on emergency cover, I get Monday and Tuesday off.’

‘Well, if you’re sure…’

‘Why not?’

The larger man slapped him on the back. ‘Brilliant. It’ll be a tenner towards the bus.’

They drank their beer, which Craig found out was actually called Pedigree, then the locals - brothers, he discovered, called George and Eddie - bought another round, although James settled for just a half as he was driving. They had a couple of games of pool before returning to the cottage in the gathering dusk.

‘See, it wasn’t so bad,’ James said. ‘I think they liked you. Mind you, you might regret signing up for Shrovetide.’

‘Like Eddie said, you don’t have to play all day.’ He’d discovered the game could last up to eight hours, or until a goal was scored by throwing the ball against a millstone. Or something like that. It sounded fairly confusing.

‘Last year, they all ended up in the river. I think it might have been snowing, too.’

‘Not chickening out, are you? I thought you wanted to become a proper local?’ Craig joked.

‘You too, by the looks of it.’ James’s eyes twinkled.

‘Well, I’m off that day,’ he said. ‘In fact, I’m owed some holiday. I could take Wednesday off as well and help out with whatever you’re doing that week.’ If James wanted him around, that was.

‘That’d be good. Why not come down for the whole week? If it’s not too boring.’

‘Being here,’ he wanted to add being with you, but didn’t, ‘Is never boring.’

This is the football game they talk about in the pub.

Royal Shrovetide Football

'You'd punch your best mate' - Shrovetide - the birth of medieval football

Apologies for this week's chapter being late. I forgot about the eight hour rule when I posted a response to one of the prompts earlier in the day.

Copyright © 2021 Mawgrim; All Rights Reserved.
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Craig needs a lot more of these types of weekends to get used to the "new normal".  What's up with Archie?  He seems the jealous type.  Did he and James have a fling?  I enjoyed the pub scene.  I like the idea of Craig making himself at home with the locals.

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Wow, I can really picture the country life in this chapter where we finally meet more of the locals and their traditions.  I wonder if there might eventually be Morris dancing at some point in the tale?

I had to laugh my ass off at the comment 'they don't burn strangers in wicker cages anymore'...swear to God, the original British Lion Wicker Man has always been one of my favorite movies since I saw it at a drive-in a year or so after it came out!  I have a limited edition of it by Anchor Bay I think with the shorter version, and the longest version left from all the compiled sources were edited.  Nice wooden box too.  Maybe it's some ancient spark in my DNA, but that movie stirs something deep in me regarding nature and our place in it which no modern religion can.

I really want Craig to get his affairs in order so he can permanently join James in his own slice of Olde England.  

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6 hours ago, CincyKris said:

Craig needs a lot more of these types of weekends to get used to the "new normal".  What's up with Archie?  He seems the jealous type.  Did he and James have a fling?  I enjoyed the pub scene.  I like the idea of Craig making himself at home with the locals.

You'll find out more about Archie in later chapters. The pub scene was typical of an English village pub, where most people know each other and dogs are allowed. In my village all the old pubs are like this and the newer, posher one tends to cater to people from outside the village or from the new houses.

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5 hours ago, ColumbusGuy said:

Wow, I can really picture the country life in this chapter where we finally meet more of the locals and their traditions.  I wonder if there might eventually be Morris dancing at some point in the tale?

Morris dancing is more of a summer tradition. In Derbyshire we also have a tradition called well dressings, a left over from the days when people believed water deities should be thanked for providing a village with fresh water. Wooden boards are covered in clay and designs pressed into it using flowers, fruit, seeds etc. they are then displayed over a weekend in the summer months to raise money for charities.

I remember being scared silly by 'The Wicker Man'. There are some places in the UK where you really get the feeling something ancient is hiding away and may be observing you. 

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I'm starting to feel sorry for Craig's cat. 😟  The sooner he moves in the better!

Nice to know that some of those old style hardware shops still manage to survive.

A nice introduction to a few of the locals, but I suspect Craig may regret volunteering himself for the football.

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1 hour ago, Ivor Slipper said:

I'm starting to feel sorry for Craig's cat. 😟  The sooner he moves in the better!

Nice to know that some of those old style hardware shops still manage to survive.

A nice introduction to a few of the locals, but I suspect Craig may regret volunteering himself for the football.

Jerry's a survivor. He's probably got a few other 'homes' in the street where he goes for food and attention when Craig's not around. Plus he has Madge.

we used to have an old style hardware shop in the next village until the elderly couple who ran it retired. There are still a few around as not everyone likes the diy superstores.

Shrovetide football is a real experience. I’ve been a couple of times to 'watch' but it can suddenly move very fast heading straight for you. One time I had to climb over a barbed wire fence to avoid being trampled, another to hang on to a branch over the river!

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26 minutes ago, Mawgrim said:

 

Shrovetide football is a real experience. I’ve been a couple of times to 'watch' but it can suddenly move very fast heading straight for you. One time I had to climb over a barbed wire fence to avoid being trampled, another to hang on to a branch over the river!

What might be described as a real 'spectator sport' :)

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drsawzall

Posted (edited)

I think this is one of the best chapters yet...so much to learn from. I spent time on both links and know that for certain, once we are past this Covid BS, I will be crossing the pond. I am planning to do nearly a two week hike across England. Now I will have to add some extra time as I need to walk the course and see the goals. A pint in the Green Dragon, if it exists, would complement the pints I have had in Boston's Green Dragon!! (https://www.greendragonboston.com/)

Oddly enough I had to Google Ashbourne when you first mentioned it, and was surprised to read about it's rich history. 

For anyone interested...

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashbourne,_Derbyshire

Edited by drsawzall
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40 minutes ago, drsawzall said:

A pint in the Green Dragon, if it exists, would complement the pints I have had in Boston's Green Dragon!

It’s a fictional Green Dragon in this case, although there are quite a few pubs by that name around the country. Ashbourne is well worth a visit as it is considered the gateway to the Peak District and as you've found out, has quite a history and is also a charming town (except for the traffic). While in the area, you might also like to see Tutbury castle, where Mary, Queen of Scots was imprisoned, go horse racing at Uttoxeter or visit the weird and wonderful gardens of Biddulph Grange - shortly to feature in another story.

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The chemistry between the guys is exciting and I'm sure Craig is on the verge of telling his employer where they can shove it!

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