Above the heavy wheeze of his battered lungs Martin was aware that ahead could hear someone talking loudly, a monologue with no other voices. Occasionally there was laugher and sudden bellowing shouts. As he walked slowly forward he was passing through less dense undergrowth and under a lighter canopy, and could see that he was coming in at an angle to the footpath. On his bottom sat a man dressed in smart tweeds, slightly dishevelled and decorated much as Martin was with mud splashes, dust, twigs, leaf and bramble fragments. His binoculars, festooned with members enclosures tags from multiple racecourses, hung from a strap around his neck and stood to attention on the curve of a round belly. The belly was upholstered with large checks, the waistcoat partly unbuttoned and stained with what might once have been red wine, or some anonymous gravy. The bowler hat that lay upside down on the ground beside him was slightly tattered at the rim, its grosgrain band faded and worn, the pale green satin lining creased and variously patterned with a miscellany of sweaty traces. A long history. He was drinking from a battered silver flask and eating crisps from a bag torn open on the ground, within easy reach of his slender long fingered right hand. He was smiling. His handsome face was pink and shining and lined with pleasures long since enjoyed. They were deeply etched around his eyes and mouth, from which a slow dribble of spit was slowly ebbing.
As Martin scrambled out onto the path with his precious cargo, the man raised his flask in a polite salute “Welcome my friend, welcome to the celebration”. Martin hot and puffing and still in a state of mild distress, stared silently at this jovial greeting. The man continued humming his little song, suffered a momentary gurgle of indigestion and continued to work on his crisps and the remnants of the flask. Martin matched what he saw before him as best he could with the similar scenes he had seen in London on his walks to and from the 93 bus stop and elsewhere. But this was not some homeless outcast with just enough money to get pissed. The probabilities were all wrong and no people were on hand to provide money, nor were there shops to spend it in. Martin stood trying to reconcile the incongruities of the scene and failing, eventually said “cheers” rather awkwardly back.
The man lolled comfortably against his tree, nestling into its bumpy curve, the outstretched buttress roots offering a cosy embrace that helped to prevent him falling over sideways. Through half closed eyes and with immense dignity he said “I’mmos dreaflee sorry”. He coughed a small ahem in order to gather his thoughts and prepare the next few words, which he hoped would have spaces in between: “but it’s completely impossible … at this prissizetime”. Another small pause to regroup his syllables and to wipe carefully at the crisp crumbs peppering his cheeks, but adding more in the process “…for me to welcome you proply because I abslootly cannot stand”. A long sigh masked an intense effort not to drift off into a doze. “Up”, he said. At this point he raised his face to look squarely and decisively in what he estimated must be Martin’s direction and with immense effort and concentration finished with “And even if I could, which is not even remoeleelikely, I would not be able to stop myself fa falling back down again.” At this point the effort of conversation overcame him and the man passed out completely, letting his flask fall to the side, tumbling the upright binoculars almost into the crisps but for the strap around his neck. The coloured tags fluttered gaily and he snored a little snore. “Rrrrrrf” he said and “rrrrrerf” in reply.
Martin stood still watching this extraordinary performance and crouched down beside his fellow traveller to give his shoulder a gentle push. As suddenly as he had dozed off the man woke up and spluttered “m fine, m fine”, before scrabbling around frantically for his flask, sending crisp crumbs and edges swirling. 487 Martin noted as they fell, plus four for the neatly opened pack. Martin still crouching, watched him as he took a pointless swig from the long emptied flask. “Don’t I know you from somewhere” Martin said aware of a curious familiarity. With a mock bow conducted with immense dignity from the chin to the collarbone the man said “Julian Nettlesby esquire, at your service.” “What not John Nettlesby?” “No. Juleeean. Brothnsober, ’cept for pint or two on Sattidy nights at Swan. Me” with a thump at his chest “altogether diff kettle of” And he dropped his head into his chest and once again fell asleep.
Standing there in the woods alone with a possibly dead old man sprinkled with crisp crumbs was a new experience for Martin and it took a moment for him to work out what should happen next. He looked at his phone and realised that he had no idea how to call an ambulance, but noted that it was getting late and cold under the rising wind. Darkness was beginning to squint through the trees and Martin’s assessment was that this was probably not a good combination for Julian Nettlesby esquire. They were surrounded by woods, but they were on a path. A start. Running along the track Martin could hear the sound of a machine droning tunelessly in the distance. As he burst out of the wood onto the open grass he could see Simon on the sit-on mower topping the edge of the field. That was what that bill for a new Kubota tractor was for, Martin thought watching the machine’s slow progress as it travelled ponderously along.