It would not be the first time that Tom had heard his name delivered by his dear wife as though it were an expletive or something left on the carpet by the cat, and it would not be the last. He swayed slightly as he hung his jacket and cap on a coat hook by the door, but kept his silence.
“I hope you’re not expectin’ me to be cookin’ agin at this time o’ night.” The quality of mercy was not a matter to which Mrs Thomas had ever given too much consideration. “Your mutton’s in the dog an’ I’ll thank you not t’make a mess in t’kitchen. There’s cheese in t’larder an’ yesterday’s bread. It’ll ‘ave t’do you!”
Tom watched her night-capped head, quilted dressing gown and carpet slippers disappear up the narrow stairway and gave a small prayer of thanks for his deliverance. He was aware that a less fortunate man might have been greeted by the more solid arguments of the rolling pin and was grateful to have escaped with a mere tongue-lashing. That he probably deserved both was on his mind as he turned his attention to the stale bread and cheese, but he found some comfort in the thought that he was unlikely to be the only recipient of marital wrath in Torver that night.
The Old Ale House below High Torver Park in Old Torver, had never before enjoyed such loyalty from its regulars. They came early and stayed late, eager for their nightly ale since she had arrived a month before, a most welcome presence behind the bar. Where once they had come for Fullers Own and the Old Peculiar, now their appetites were whetted by the sweet allure of this fair temptress from a foreign land - the Den Horen Blonde.
The house had suffered greatly when the men of the Parish marched away to give service in the war. Every able-bodied man who could be spared from the needs of the land and the growing of food was shipped out to fight the enemy on the battle fields of Europe. And whilst the womenfolk and children watched them go with heavy hearts and tearful eyes , Ned Fuller, the landlord, grieved for the loss of custom and the ache deep in his pocket. When the hostilities ended he needed a new attraction to draw them back to the Old Ale House. He found it in the Den Horen Blonde.
She was twenty years old, born in the House of Den Horen in the Belgian town of Leuven. Despite her tender years, before coming to England she had served the desires of drinking men in the inns of Brussels and the towns around. In whatever house she chose to grace the bar, men would come to enjoy her intoxicating charms, and some of the men of Torver, on the long march to Germany, had tasted those charms and fallen under her spell. And when they returned home, the battle won, they told Ned Fuller who lost no time in seeking her out and arranging for her to be brought to Torver and the Old Ale House.
Trade was brisk at the flowing pumps as the men gathered night after night to lay their meagre pay upon the bar. And every night the Blonde was there, calling to them, flirting with them, befuddling their minds with her sparkling personality. Who knows how many wives and bairns went a little hungry during those bright post-war days as coppers rattled into the till and thirsts were quenched in convivial company. Excuses flowed along with the ale as each man justified his neglect of home and family. “We fought a war for this,” they would say in self-deceit as they supped their ale and paid their respects to the Blonde behind the bar.
The first test of village loyalties came when young Freddy Tanner dared to cross the landlord of the Old Ale House. Ned was serving and the bar was crowded at ‘last orders’ when Freddy called his attention to the pint he had just been served. “D’yer think you could squeeze a small whisky into that, Ned?”
The boss looked around at Freddy and then at the beer. “Aye, I reckon, if’n you’ll jes hang on a minute.”
“Tha’s what I thought, Landlord. So how abaht fillin’ it up wi’ beer!”
“I’ll ‘ave a bit less or your lip, young Tanner. You’ve got a pint so you jes shuddup an’ drink it. Anyways, I reckon you jes ‘ad a sup out o’ that.”
Freddy, who hadn’t touched the pint, was having none of it. “Don’t you go tryin’ that game on me. You get an’ fill my pint. You got no roight t’go cheatin’ your customers.”
Ned Fuller was round the bar in a second and had Freddy by the collar of his jacket, propelling him towards the door. “You young ruffian. How dares you ‘cuse me o’ cheatin. You get out o’ere an’ don’ come back!”
Freddy Tanner was ejected onto the gravel road and the landlord returned to a bar stunned to silence. Tom Price, who had been standing next to Freddy at the bar, looked very sheepish as he concentrated all his attention on his own pint. Jack Hobson and Dicky Burroughs sidled away to the corner, neither wishing to involve himself in the dispute for fear of having to take a stand. Everyone knew that Freddy had been wronged, but no-one was prepared to risk the displeasure of the landlord by speaking up for him. To do so whilst the boss was still simmering with anger might well have led to their own dismissal, and the lure of the Blonde was far too strong to allow for such a risk. “Well, he should learn t’keep ‘is gob shut,” was one of many comments which grew in condemnation as the regulars competed to side against the young Freddy Tanner. Every member of the company in turn voiced his approval of the landlord’s action, convincing himself , in his own self-interest, that Freddy had been in the wrong. Freddy had been their friend, but he could not compete with the Blonde for the affection and loyalty of his fellow villagers.
In the weeks that followed, Freddy found himself isolated and ignored by his erstwhile friends. The menfolk of Torver avoided his company, and when they met him by unavoidable chance, simply avoided his eyes. They knew they were wrong, but their infatuation with the Blonde overcame their reason and all their decent instincts. The pain for poor Freddy of being barred from his local was added to in great measure by being treated as a pariah throughout the village, spurned by folk who for years had supped at his table and welcomed his company.
The rejection of Freddy Tanner was but the first of many demonstrations of the allure and power of the Blonde over the menfolk of Torver. Evening events in the village went unsupported whilst the Old Ale House thrummed with crowded activity. The annual cricket match against Coniston, which had been a mainstay of Summer activity since heaven knew when, was cancelled when practice nights failed to attract enough players to assemble a team. The grass verges went unmowed, turning to weed, and horse droppings dried on the road for want of a willing shovel to remove them.
And the womenfolk grew angry.
Over the days and weeks that followed the arrival of the Blonde in Torver the mutterings grew to a rumble of discontent. The early embarrassment felt by individual wives at the disloyal behaviour of their husbands fell by the wayside as they learned of others also affected. The women met, first in twos and threes, then in groups of half-a-dozen or more to share their experience and voice their rising anger. The village was alive with talk, but it was not gossip of the usual character, there being no poor single victim upon whom the superior mocking tongues could be inflicted. They were all affected and they found their victim within the smoke stained walls of the Old Ale House – not the Blonde, but the landlord’s wife.
Poor Elsie Fuller was elected to receive the full fury of the Ladies League as though she were personally responsible for the sins of all the husbands of the village. At their monthly meeting the good ladies set about her, berating her for her husband’s offence and demanding the departure of the Blonde. Oh, they all knew the cause of their strife, just as surely as they knew the cure. And the landlord, who ran a strict bar and would raise his fists to any trouble maker without a moment’s hesitation, eventually bowed to the will of his wife. The Den Horen Blonde was sent away, banished from the Old Ale House, that the wayward men of Torver might return to their homes and to their duties.
In the years to come she would travel the world, intoxicating men with her mysterious charms, and she would one day return to Torver to weave her magic in another house, behind another bar. But who was she, this temptress whose sweet allure could supplant the loyalties of good men?
It was in 1466 that one Sebastian, Master Brewer of the House of Den Horen in Leuven, Belgium bought the brewery outright. It was in 1926, that the brewery produced a new beer for Christmas - crisp, clean and fresh, inspired by the stars in the clear night sky. She was the Den Horen Blonde, from the brewery of Sebastian Artois. And they named her Stella.
Torver Tales >