"Jenny, darling, Venture Pubs have offered us the Crown at Atheldiston." James Hoddinot's voice was trembling with excitement.
"Wonderful, darling," answered Jenny, his wife. "I've got a client at the moment. I'll ring you back as soon as I can."
James went back to preparing the evening meals at the Queen's Arms where he worked as head chef. He could not wait to tell Jim, the landlord, as well. He had worked for Jim for the best part of five years as a barman, as bar manager and as head chef. Jim had taught him most of what he knew about running a pub. He was well aware of James's aspirations of running his own pub and had given him active support.
James and Jenny had met at the Queen's Arms. She had a job with an insurance firm but used to do two evenings a week at the pub either as a barmaid or helping in the kitchen. She was a trained cook. They had been married for a year and were deeply in love.
Ten minutes later James's mobile phone rang. He wiped his hands on the cloth at his waist and answered it.
"Sorry I couldn't talk to you before, darling. Tell me all."
"Dick Williams, the Venture area manager, rang me about half an hour ago to tell me that they have bought the Crown at Atheldiston and are looking for a new landlord. The present couple have agreed to keep the place going for another month. Apparently, it's a bit run down and so Venture would be prepared to offer us a special deal for at least the first six months."
"What sort of special deal?"
"Low rent and discounted beer."
"OK. We'll obviously have to wait and see how run down the place is and just what Venture are prepared to offer."
"You bet, but I think we ought to go and see it and chat to the present landlord and his wife."
"Oh gosh yes! We probably ought to avoid the weekend. You'll be busy anyway. How about Monday, your free day? I'm sure I can get the day off."
James groaned. "Four days."
Jenny laughed. "I know, darling, but it'll also give you time to get your brain back in place. Why don't you give them a ring and fix something up?"
"Yes. Ma'am," replied James. "Thank Heaven I've got you to stop me darting off every which way with excitement."
"That's one of the reasons I love you, my poppet: your zest for living."
James blew a raspberry. "I'd better get back to work," he said. "I'll give these guys a ring once the lunch rush is over. I've just about got this evening sorted so I should be able to walk the dogs as well. Love you."
"Love you too, darling. Lots and lots."
Jim came clattering down the stairs from his office at quarter to twelve and James excitedly told him the news.
"Great!" said James enthusiastically. "It certainly used to be a jolly good pub when Brendan O'Connor ran it but I haven't heard anything about it in the last five years. If it's that run down you'll have a hell of a job getting it going again so watch Venture like hawks. From what I've heard they're sharks out to make a quick buck. If you do take it on it'll be September when you start and that's the beginning of the quiet season for pubs except for Christmas when everyone comes out of hibernation again."
"Yes, said James thoughtfully. "We could be lucky to break even over the first six months."
"And longer than that if it really is run down and you have to build up your customer base and reputation again. When are you going to have a look at it?"
"Well make sure you get the outgoing couple on your side so that you get a true picture of how things are: profit and loss, food consumption, drink sales broken down into beer, soft drinks, wines and spirits. If you like, I'll look them over for you and tell you what I think."
"Would you?" asked James gratefully. "That would be an enormous help. I won't contact Venture again until we've been able to chew it all over."
"Fine. Anyway, I must go and fire up the bar. Where's Miss Judy?"
His question was answered by a crash outside and a most unladylike expletive. James grinned at him. A dishevelled but pretty girl in her early twenties came flying in through the backdoor.
"Bloody brakes!" she exclaimed. "They take quarter of a mile to work."
"Get some new brake shoes," said Jim unsympathetically.
"What? On the pittance you pay me?" she grinned.
"Cheeky monkey," smiled Jim back at her. "Go and run a comb through your hair and then fill the ice bucket."
"Yes, sir, Jim, sir."
He smacked her bottom as she went past. "That's more like it," he said winking at James. "A bit more respect when it's due."
Judy wiggled her bottom at him and then pranced off to the Ladies.
Lunch went off much as normal. They had thirty-five covers and James was kept working. Liz came in at twelve-thirty and did the washing-up. By three he was free and, as he had indicated to Jenny, he had plenty of time to walk the dogs.
He met his father, Richard, on the way. They chatted in a desultory way and Richard showed little more than polite interest in the Crown. James went sadly on his way. Since the death of his mother, Rachel, six months ago, Richard had become a shadow of his former self. James felt deeply for him. Rachel had been beautiful, loving and a constant source of inspiration to his father, his elder brother Bill and to him and Jenny. They all missed her terribly but somehow his father was over-distraught. James wished he knew what to do about it. He and Jenny had discussed it a number of times but had no bright ideas.
He was sitting in the flat above the pub at half-past five quietly reading the newspaper with a mug of tea when Jenny came bounding in. She leapt from about three feet onto his lap. Both terriers followed. There was a flurry of hugs, kisses, and licks.
"Hello, my darling! Hello, girls! Yes, I'm thrilled to see you both but let me kiss my hubby." She did so warmly and lovingly despite squirming dogs.
"I love you, James darling, and I miss you while I'm at work. I do hope the Crown works out and then I'll be able to get at you whenever I want."
James kissed her back equally warmly. "I'll hold you to that promise," he said. "It might become a bit competitive though. Who wants to get at the other first?"
Jenny snuggled against him. "No, darling, both of us all the time. We'll just have to ration it so that we can get something done. Anyway, I need a cuppa and, as I'm on tonight, it'll need to be a quickie because I also want a shower."
James released her reluctantly. "Do you want help?" he asked.
"No, you dirty old man. You have your shower after work tonight."
She skipped off to the kitchen. James marvelled at her energy. He wondered whether it was reaction to being pent up in an office all day.
In no time Jenny was back clutching a mug of tea. "So tell me more about The Crown," she said.
"There's not a lot to tell you." He repeated his conversation with Jim.
"Bless him," said Jenny. "He's taught you everything you know about running a pub and then he's ready to let you go and make a try for yourself. He could have been selfish and thought that he'd keep you on as his manager while he took a back seat. He's pretty special, isn't he?"
"Yes, darling, he is and I'll bet you that if we take it, even though we'll only be five miles away, he'll continue to support us."
Jenny kissed him. "Shower time," she said.
She was back in what seemed no time at all. "Almost six o'clock, my darling. Duty calls."
They were both together in the bar that evening. Jenny went straight through to open up. James stayed in the kitchen to brief Jim on what he had prepared. Such was their teamwork and confidence each had in the other that they could run things this way. It gave Jim much more flexibility in his management of staff.
On Monday the Jays drove to Atheldiston. James had agreed with Phillip and Sophie Jones that they would arrive at about one, take a drink and lunch off them and then have a discussion and walk round once the pub was closed for the afternoon. He also asked them to produce all the figures Jim had told him to get.
They arrived quarter of an hour early so they decided to look round the village. The manor house dominated it. Manor Farm at the southern end was huge. There were some quite rich houses, a couple of rows of terraced labourers' cottages built in the 1930s and a council estate of about a hundred houses. The pub was tacked on to a corner of the manor wall and off the main road through the village. Main road was an overstatement. It was more of a main lane.
The Crown was most attractive from the outside. It was old, red brick with small paned windows in white. There was a climbing rose on the front wall and each of the downstairs windows had a window box brimming with colourful flowers. The car park was round to the side. James estimated it would hold twenty cars.
On the stroke of one they went inside. A man in his sixties was behind the bar. He looked tired but gave them a warm and welcoming smile.
"You must be Mr and Mrs Hoddinot," he said holding out his hand. "I'm Phillip Jones."
James shook his hand. "James," he said, "and my wife, Jenny."
With old world courtesy Phillip kissed her hand. "You are a lucky man, James, to have such a beautiful wife."
The Jays both happily smiled their thanks.
"So what can I get you to drink?" Phillip went on.
"An orange juice for me, please," said Jenny.
"And a pint of bitter, if I may?" answered James.
"Coming up right away," said Phillip. "The menu's on the blackboard over the fireplace."
"I don't want anything too much or I'll get all kippy," said Jenny to James. "I'll just have the tuna baguette."
"I agree, darling, but I'm going to go for the Stilton ploughman's. The crusty bread sounds good."
In the meanwhile a middle-aged man in working clothes and a tweed cap perched over one ear had come in.
"'Mornin', Phillip," he said.
"Good morning, Fred," replied Phillip starting to pour a pint of Guinness without bothering to ask. "You're late today."
"Yeah, 'ad ter go inner Pitsbury for a spare for the 'arvester, di'n' Oi?" He eyed the Jays with calm appraisal, nodded an acknowledgement of them and turned to his drink.
Phillip winked at James who grinned back, took their lunch orders and disappeared into the kitchen. The Jays took their drinks over to a table from which they could look round and also watch any activity.
A few minutes later Phillip reappeared with a large white bread sandwich that looked as though it contained cheese. There were no trimmings with it. Fred nodded his thanks and tucked into it.
After a short pause a small, motherly looking woman came out of the kitchen with the Jays' food.
"Hello," she said with a warm and gentle smile. "I'm Sophie."
The Jays introduced themselves.
"I'll leave you to eat in peace," said Sophie. "We'll have plenty of time to talk later." She smiled again and went back to the kitchen.
"She looks tired too," whispered James.
"You know," she said, "this place is very picturesque but it's pretty out of the way. Other than a couple of tiddly little villages it's three miles from anywhere else. Guys like that," nodding at Fred, "aren't going to make us rich."
"No, darling, they aren't but Brendan O'Connor made a go of it."
"I can't be sure but I do know he had a bloody good chef in Gareth and brought people in from the posh villages the other side of the dual carriageway and, I imagine, from Pitsbury. There are also some army camps in the area and I'm sure Brendan made the most of them. Jim certainly does."
She lowered her voice. "OK, but how does one rebuild somewhere that's lost it? I mean, this place looks very sweet and appealing if you can actually find it in the first place. Then, just glance around, and it's so neglected."
James nodded. "That's something we could crack right away at no cost. We could get rid of that dartboard for starters. The area round it is hideous. The other thing is that you can't put a table there in case people get hit by flying darts. Not to mention the noise and the language."
"I know what you mean, darling, but that might upset a lot of the locals."
James got to his feet and nonchalantly strolled over to the display of trophies. He came back.
"None of those trophies is less than six years old," he said. "The darts team is a thing of the past."
In the time that they sat there only one other customer came in. He had a pint of bitter and chatted to Fred in a desultory way. That was it.
At two the Joneses came round at joined them.
"That's it 'til about half past seven," said Phillip, "and then on a Monday night we'll get half a dozen beer drinkers if we're lucky. It won't pick up again until Thursday evening when we might get a dozen covers. Friday and Saturday we might get twenty. We used to do an all day Sunday lunch but for a couple of dozen spread out from midday to six in the evening it just wasn't worth it."
"And yet, if you'll forgive me for saying so, you two both look tired," said James.
"We are," answered Sophie. "We never realised what hard work running a pub is. Even if we don't get much trade there's an awful lot of work to be done. To produce four different meals for one party means you've got to bustle about a bit but you have to use so many different utensils. That means a lot of washing up and if you're not getting the custom to pay for a washer up you've got to do it yourself. Phillip helps me as best he can but if there's one customer he can't leave the bar for more than a few minutes. So then after closing time, afternoon and late evening we're both slaving at the sink."
"Then there's the cold room to maintain, lines to be cleaned, the bar and the dining room to be sorted out," added Phillip. "Not to mention trying to produce a shopping list against a fluctuating demand and then doing the shopping itself. Then we have to keep up the garden: nothing special but mowing the grass and keeping bushes trimmed. We are tired. We thought it would be a nice, quiet retirement job but we couldn't have been more wrong. Running a pub is hard work and we should have realised it. We bought it as a free house which cost us most of our savings and Venture have made us a very reasonable offer but we have lost a hell of a lot of money and worrying about that makes us tired too. Don't get me wrong though. We've made a lot of friends although how many we shall keep when we move away I don't know."
"Where do you think it went wrong?" asked James. "Because when Brendan O'Connor ran it this pub was well known."
"Too well known," said Phillip. "It resulted in a couple of guys who were owners of a wine club in London thinking they could make a mint out of it. Two things happened. First, Brendan had a bloody good chef who followed him when he moved on. Second, two men living together above the pub set the rumour wheels in motion and they were labelled as queers. Now I don't know if they were but that was it. The farming community deep in the country doesn't go for modern beliefs. As one dairyman put it to me, "Bullocks may try to do it but I don't like human buggers." So that was it. The locals shunned them. They'd lost their chef and the local diners quickly realised that the food was no longer so good and that was it. They decided to call it a day and we accepted what was actually a good price: about half what they bought it for. We thought that Sophie's cooking could get things back again to what they had been but the pub had lost its name and other places had captured its trade. We were full of publicity ideas but were too busy to put them into practice." He shrugged. "We were too old and hadn't got the energy and spark."
The Joneses smiled ruefully yet lovingly at each other.
"We know Brendan's chef," said Jenny. "His wife, Mattie, was one of my bridesmaids. He and James worked together for a while so some of his skill and inventiveness has rubbed off."
"Great!" said Phillip. "So that's a wonderful start. Add your youth and energy to that and you could well make a go of it."
"I'd like to think so," said James wryly, "but could we have a look round to gauge the potential."
"Of course," said Sophie leaping to her feet. "We're banging on. Come on. We'll give you the guided tour."
"We haven't differentiated between the bar and the dining-room," said Phillip. "It used to be smoking and non-smoking but all that's gone out of the window. Incidentally, we've never catered for the smokers. Perhaps we ought to have. Anyway, we can seat twenty-eight in the bar and thirty-six in the dining room which is also long enough to take a table for twenty-two."
"This is a surprisingly big pub for a small village," said James.
"Yes," said Phillip, "but, way back, the main road west came through here. First they built a straightforward road two miles to the north and then they upped that to a dual carriageway. That's why the 'main road' at the bottom is still only a lane."
The Jays looked around them. Both rooms were basically attractive but lacked any life. There were no flowers. There were some quite amusing prints and cartoons on the walls, leftovers from Brendan O'Connor, but they looked faded and dirty. The stain on the tables was blotchy and they had clearly had not been polished in a long time. The windows were grimy and the curtains looked dull and faded. Both rooms looked depressing despite their potential.
The kitchen was filthy. Both the Jays said afterwards that they were revolted. James could not understand why the Joneses had not been nailed by the Health and Safety inspectors.
James did ask casually how often the inspectors came round.
"Not for the last couple of years," said Phillip cheerfully. "Too far off the beaten track."
The flat upstairs was a different story. It was clean and bright. There were a double and two single bedrooms, bathroom, sitting room and a small kitchen-cum-breakfast room.
"Despite whatever isn't going on downstairs," said Sophie, "I have always given priority to our own little home."
Jenny squeezed her shoulder.
They looked at the garden which was walled at the sides and had an open wood fence at the bottom which meant one could see the manor land. It consisted of a lawn forty yards long and twenty yards wide flanked by rose beds. The walls had a number of cyclamens on them. There were half a dozen picnic tables on the lawn. The grass could have been shorter. The flowerbeds could have done with some weeding and Jenny doubted whether any of the roses had been pruned in the last couple of years.
They went back inside and Sophie produced coffee for everyone. They sat down in the bar.
"So," said Phillip. "What do you think?"
"Huge potential," said James, "but it would take a Brendan O'Connor to pull it back up again. I don't know whether we have that gift. The other thing is that it needs money spent on it and I don't know what Venture would be prepared to put up. We certainly can't afford to invest anything in it. I don't want to appear rude but what incentives did Venture offer you to stay on for a month?"
"Beer discount per barrel which amounts to about 15% overall and a peppercorn rent of £100 a week."
"What about overheads?"
"Well there are all the taxes. They're enough but it's the utilities that are the big drain. With the small windows you've got to have the bar lights on throughout opening time. The fridges and the freezer suck up electricity too. We haven't got a dishwasher and I'm not sure whether that would be cheaper than hiring a washer up who can also do other odd jobs. There is a glass washer, as you probably noticed, in the bar. Then there's gas. Every time you want the grill or the oven on they're catering for a feast. Yes there are the microwaves but they're not suitable for everything. If you had the numbers, they would cover your oven use but for the numbers we're getting you could cope with a little household oven."
"I don't know," said James in answer to Phillip's query. "The place has got a lot of attraction but we've got to be hard-headed. In some ways I think we'd enjoy the challenge of getting the place back on the map but, while we're perfectly prepared to work hard and we know what running a pub entails, we're not going to slave for no return. If we do decide to negotiate with Venture we'll let you know but please don't be too optimistic."
Phillip nodded. "That's fair," he said, "and actually it doesn't matter a lot to us what happens because we won't extend. On the other hand, if we can help in any way to get you good terms with Venture or ease the handover let us know."
James shook his hand warmly. "Thank you, Phillip," he said simply.
Jenny hugged Sophie. "Keep going just a little longer," she whispered.
Sophie smiled at her. "Thanks, dear," she said. "I'm sure we will."
The Jays left shortly afterwards with an envelope containing details of income and expenditure over the last two years.