School was done and summers were long back in the seventies so my elder brother Ralph and I bought a van and a few tools and drove around the county, working on the trees and hedges. Old Tommy worked alongside us, pottering about with a broom or rake. He did light work around the edges and generally tidied things up, all to supplement his meagre pension. Despite being born at the turn of the century he was a sprightly old boy. His tanned face had the wandering crinkles of a walnut and was always smiling.
He was a proper country man and told us the names of every bird and the wood of every tree we worked on. "See this little tree with the broad leaves? That's a goat willow. It's not all willows as weeps! Still and all it ain't much use unless you’re a hungry goat!"
One day we were doing grass work for the council. Ralph was hogging a borrowed motor-mower. A little tractor that was the most fun we had. But I didn't mind too much as that left me with our petrol strimmer which was second best. It was compelling to watch the undergrowth vanish in a green spray as I worked through the banks and hedgerows. Tommy pottered around with a rake, forming piles of scrub. This was thirsty work in a hot July and at our ages we were carrying more weight in cash than responsibilities so a lunch time visit to the pub was in order.
The King's Head in Porthtowan was cool and dark inside, perfumed with the comforting smell of stale beer and oak. Judy the landlady didn't seem to object to the juices of nettles and grass that decorated my face and shirt. But when she saw Tommy trailing in behind us she interrupted our order with a “Just a minute lads” and neatly pulled a thick brown pint which she slid along the bar to Tommy without a word. He took it in silence and wandered off to a bench outside with his sandwiches. I assumed that we were being given a mild lesson in respect for our elders and we were expected to pay for Tommy's pint, but she only asked Ralph for the money for our two. Demanded it before the glasses were placed on the bar as if we might grab them and run away, presumably gulping it into our faces as we did so. Tommy didn't mention this event or anything else, as he mangled his way through his bread and cheese.
After we dropped Tommy home that night I joked with Ralph that the lucky old codger had gotten away without paying. “Nah”, Ralph said “that always happens when we go to the pub. I always thought he had a tab goin' or something”. I'd never heard of such an arrangement before, but bowed to my elder brother’s additional year of life experience.
A couple of weeks later we were butchering some fallen trees at the edge of a village green a few miles away. I worked the chipper whilst Ralph climbed about in the trees with his chainsaw, causing a pattering rain of twigs and branches. Tommy filled the sacks with the chips, destined for playgrounds and compost. This time we went into the Smuggler's Arms for lunch, a larger pub. As we walked up to the bar, the whiskery old landlord saw us coming and was already filling a pint glass which he wordlessly slid over to Tommy. I glanced at Ralph, but he was never the inquisitive type and he just paid for our drinks. “Think he's got an account there too?” I asked Ralph that evening as we tucked into Mum's stew.
“He must be a bit of lush if he's got tabs all over the place!”
“I don't reckon so, he always starts early and don't have trouble walking straight or anything” said Ralph. “Don't ask him though, I did once and he changed the subject. He's a good worker so don't upset him.”
Over the whole of the next month I kept an eye on Tommy and sure enough I never saw him pay for his drink anywhere. One time when we went over to the next county he stumped up, but other than that the process was the same. A wordless publican sliding a beer or cider to one side. Always just the one and never a word said. I didn't feel brave enough to confront him directly as our Mum didn't raise us to be rude. Although he was often laughing and joking as we worked, he would go quiet at lunch time, particularly when it was busy. Even though I advanced a few hints he never revealed anything.
I asked Mum but she was none the wiser. “Tommy? Oh he's been around forever, driving a broom or some-such, always helping.” She didn't know anything about the mystery pints and disapproved of our visits as well I think, although she never did more than purse her lips so long as we came home upright.
I could smell autumn now, the refreshing scent of colder air. We were back working for a local again, removing dead trees in the hill fields. The farmer, Mr Hogcraft was a big red man, all patched tweed and muddy boots. He had a habit of bringing his shotgun out on the land at any opportunity. “Keep an eye out for the pot my boys” he'd say and would always allow us to take a turn at a shot now and again at the odd rabbit or pheasant.
I was man-handling thick logs onto his trailer when he hissed “freeze lads! Look yonder.” In the next field down the slope was a magnificent hare standing to attention looking right away from us. The farmer hissed, “Steve you're closest to the gun, have a go!” I crept to the gun a few feet away treading with exaggerated care and brought it up on the turn to my shoulder as slowly as a clock hand. I took careful aim, curling my finger around the triggers. I gave it both barrels in quick succession. The bangs rattled my head and the butt punched me in the shoulder. The hare shot away into the hedgerows.
Everyone except Tommy burst out laughing at my foul up and I scowled back to my logs. But later as we sat under the shade of the hedge to eat our lunch, Tommy leant over next to me.
“You might well have got 'im you know. A hare'll run even with a hole in his heart, till his life bleeds out and he flops down to hide and die. You listen to old Tommy and have a poke around under those hedges when we're done for the day”.
I did go and have a look later, and sure enough there was the beautiful hare lying on his side under the hawthorn - the fallen lord of the meadows.
I took him to Mr. Hogcraft to ask if he wanted it, but he laughed again. “No lad - you keep it and take it home to your Ma. A Widow like her will appreciate some jugged hare all right and it's 'bout time you tasted it too. We don't get many round here. That Tommy's got a country head on his shoulders right enough, always has done”.
Old Tommy was leaning on the field gate with gentle curls of fragrant smoke ascending from his pipe. He grinned his crinkled smile and continued gazing out across the hills gilded by the setting sun. If I didn’t ask him now, I never would.
“Tommy, if you don’t mind me asking, why do they give you a drink in each pub we go to?”
He continued staring across the valley and then eased his pipe out, his face tightening.
“Guilt”, he spat the word out like a bullet and turned to look through me. The laughter lines on his weathered features seemed transformed from a landscape of loose rolling smiles to exposed bedrock, all joy eroded from him by years and sorrow.
“Cos every other lad in the whole parish is buried in France, cut down like weeds at the Somme. Because I was sent home alone with pneumonia! Because they couldn’t stand to look at me! Because all I was good for was drinking their salutes!” he stopped, panting.
Tommy grabbed his coat and hat from Ralph’s frozen hands and threw it on, straitening his lapels slowly and with dignity. He set his hat square on his head, and straightened his back. And whispered “so that’s why”.