Cold Comfort

Cold Comfort

A Chapter by Peter Maughan

Talk of a winters past in the village pub


  Cold Comfort

(from A Moon on its Back0

Peter Maughan

Old Mr Combes wiped at his mouth with a hand. He was hunched over his pint like a bowl of workhouse soup, his head half buried in his turned up overcoat collar.

''Crops stinking the whole bloody country out,'' he went on, chewing the words damp with venom. 'Going to rot in the ground. And a war on.'' His head slithered further out of his collar. ''So don't talk to I about the coldest bloody winter this century!''

John Buttle shifted his huge bulk in the chair. ''That's as maybe, Mr Combes, and I'm sure that - ''

“In  '79 - '' Jim Howel began.

Young Wilf Perkin, who'd been to grammar school and who rumoured to have something to do with computers, coughed sharply, twice. ''I think you'll find,'' he said, frowning with facts, ''that 1963 was the coldest winter this century. Indeed, if I'm not mistaken, it was the worse winter on record in central and southern England since the year 1740.''

Mr Combes brittle yellow eyes slid in Wilf's direction. ''Read that off the back of a matchbox, did you?'' he sneered, and worked his false teeth up and down a couple of times nastily.

A week before, snow had been forecast. Snow was gathering in the north and would, by the weekend, come down on the West County like a fist. Extra food and fuel were ordered, sheep herded lower down the valley, and the bird table in the postmistress's garden was made up like the spare room.

But the threatened snow had not arrived. And that evening in the village pub, the Pike, the talk had scornfully left the present to dig up winters past, their iron ghosts clanking and blowing now around the small, log-warmed bar.

In 1979, the winter to which I referred,'' Jim Howel went on, ignoring Wilf and addressing the bald brown shell of Mr Combe's head, drawn back down into his collar, ''the district council was talking about using pneumatic drills to try and salvage some of the crops. Until it snowed, that is, then you couldn't even see the tops of the hedges, never mind the fields. It was so bad there was talk of rationing, and bringing the army in.

Oh, yes!'' he insisted, as eyebrows went up round the bar. Jim sat back, arms folded, and stared at the opposite wall like a small boy sticking to a tall story.

''Six of one and half dozen of the other, I've no doubt,'' Mr Beesley said, showing his teeth in a vague placatory smile.

''Oh-ah!'' George Perry leered as if talking of women. George had a coal yard in the village and whistled at his shovel through all the windfalls of winter. ''Mind you, I don't know about digging up fields and the army coming in, and all of that,'' George went on, one eye on Jim Howel, ''but young Wilf here's right enough about '63. Me and dad had the snow chains on practically all that winter, that I do remember. 'Twere a shocker.''

'You must have had a bumpy ride for most of it, then, Jim retorted. We never saw - ''

''And if it weren't the snow,'' George went on as if Jim hadn't spoken, ''then it were the diesel freezing up you. With a full load on the back. In the middle of nowhere, and with night coming on.''

Wilf Perkin nodded in grim agreement, idly playing with an empty peanut bag.

''All that's as maybe,'' John Buttle said fussily, stepping over two of the pub's dogs sprawled in front of the fire, ''but what '82? What about that lot, then?'' He whistled the words as he bent his weight to beat a bit more life out of the logs with the poker. John straightened up and blew a couple of times, his face the color of bacon. ''That snow! I thought we'd never see the end of it.''

John sat down again, shuddering elaborately, and drawing from Mrs Beesley an equally elaborate grimace of sympathy.

Jim Howel looked angry. ''Some people have got a short memory. We were cut off here half the bloody winter in '79.''

''From mid-January till the end of February, intermittently,'' Wilf supplied.

Mrs Beesley leaned her ample body forward. The floral print dress with the buttons up the front bulging like a parcel coming undone. ''They landed here in a helicopter then, and took June Fitch off pregnant,'' she said and sat back gratified.

''Who did?'' Mr Beesley said with a worried expression.

''Probably an Air/Sea rescue job from Portland,'' Wilf said, narrowing his eyes.

Jim Howel shifted impatiently in his seat.

Mrs Beesley nodded at Wilf. ''That year, it was. 1963. When we were cut off with the snow. A week overdue June were, and that girls husband saying not to worry, she'll calve down when she's ready.'' Mrs Beesley moved the handbag on her lap in agitation.  

Jim Howel opened his mouth to speak.

''And it were just after that that the poor old Pool sisters died,'' Mrs Beesley suddenly remembered.

''That's right. She's right,'' George Perry agreed. ''They had that place back of the Pococks. Snow up to the thatch, there were. Yes, I remember that, all right.''

''Poor lovers,'' Mrs Beesley said. ''They found Miss Alice on the toilet, so I heard, and Jessica at the breakfast table. Boiled eggs untouched and the tea made.''

''Like Pompeii,'' Wilf said.

''I thought they died in hospital,'' Mr Beesley protested, looking quite willing to be corrected.

Old Mr Combe's overcoat collar stirred. ''In 1940,'' he snarled, ''even the bloody rabbits starved. And - ''

''In 1963,'' Wilf started up, ''many wild creatures died, our native birds flew south in flocks from the cold, and even those northern migratory birds, such as the fieldfare and redwing, were forced on further south. And in that year - ''

''There weren't many birds in - ''

''The Thames at Hampton Court in London froze over,'' Wilf got in quickly.

''There weren't many birds in 1979,'' Jim Howel pressed on, ''flying south or anywhere else. And do you know why?''

Frowning, Wilf pushed the empty peanut bag round the ashtray with a finger.

Jim folded his arms and waited.

Because,'' Jim told him, ''they were falling out of the sky. Their wings frozen. Solid as a Sunday boiler. That's why, boy!''

Stifling a smile he must have worn in the classroom while waiting for the question to get round to him, Wilf began: ‘‘it's true that in certain coastal areas in the east, seagulls were found - ''

Jim closed his eyes. ''Falling-out-of-the-bloody-sky-I'm-telling-you!''

''And milk bottles,'' Mrs Beesley said.

Everybody looked at her. Her plump hands on her handbag disappeared as she leaned forward. ''I've just remembered. The year they took June Fitch off. We had milk bottles exploding on the doorsteps. With the cold. 'Tis a wonder there were nobody hurt.''

The door opened and Stan the landlord backed in, clutching an armful of logs. More drinks were ordered, and the talk grew taller. Images flickered in the small bar of strolling to South Wales and back on the frozen Channel, foxes stalking the High Street with hunger like wolves, and bonfires burning on the skating rivers.

While outside, the damp and windy darkness blew against the windows, and the dogs stretched in front of the fire twitched and dreamed.

Peter Maughan 


© 2013 Peter Maughan

Author's Note

Peter Maughan
All comments welcome as usual.

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Added on February 1, 2013
Last Updated on February 1, 2013
Tags: village, countryside, pub, winter


Peter Maughan
Peter Maughan

Shrewsbury, The Welsh Marches, United Kingdom

I'm an ex-actor, fringe theatre director and script writer, married and living in the Welsh Marches, the borderland between England and Wales, and the backdrop to a series of books I'm writing, the Ba.. more..