Copyright © 2017 Alby Stone
‘It’s tradition, see. Round here a man names his sons after himself. Keeps it simple. No grandstanding.’
The beer was too warm and a bit flat, but I drank some anyway, just a sip. It seemed the polite thing to do, and besides, the drink was partly why I was there. The weather was warm and I needed a break from my ad hoc tour of East Anglian B roads. The drive on the A1 from my parents’ home in Doncaster to London was monotonous at the best of times, and I had a few hours to kill before the evening’s production team meeting, so I’d decided to take the scenic route for a change while I considered ideas for the next programme. It would, I thought, be nice to see a bit of countryside. Inevitably, not quite having my mind on the journey resulted in wrong turns and poor judgement of both time and distance. It took a while to get myself unlost, somewhere vaguely south-east of Wisbech, a small village called Midham, which was actually on the AA map. By then I was hungry, thirsty and badly needed a pee, so a pit-stop was a no-brainer.
The village was picturesque and the pub was both pretty and blessedly cool. And after twenty minutes eavesdropping while I ate a ploughman’s lunch and slowly sipped a half pint of local bitter, I’d noticed something intriguing, something that might even make for a good story. The old boy at the other end of the table, alternately studying the sports section of the Daily Mirror and reaching down to pet his dog, seemed the logical person to ask about it.
‘So how do you tell each other apart, Mr, er…?’
‘Call me John,’ the old man helpfully supplied. ‘Well, we call each other by surname or nickname. One on one, or with people from different families, it doesn’t matter, does it? We’re all just “John” then. I’ve got two sons, both called John, just like me and my brother. Big John and Little John.’
‘What do your sons call you?’
He peered at me in that semi-pitying way old people do when someone younger says something stupid. ‘Dad, of course.’
Duh. ‘What about the women?’
‘Ah, we’re a bit more relaxed about that. Anything goes, as long as it’s a proper, respectable woman’s name like Joan or Jean or Jane, maybe Jenny or Janet. Nothing made-up or fancy. No film star names, not round here.’
‘Any other names?’
He seemed surprised by the question. ‘What, for women? No, that’s it. Don’t need more. We did have a Margaret once, mind. They still talk about her. Bit flighty she was, by all accounts. Just what you’d expect with a flashy name like that. Airs and graces, big ideas. Took off with a soldier from Diss and went off to Southwold with him. Bloody Southwold! He was called George. Turned her head with his red coat and that knobkerrie he brought back as a souvenir from Ulundi.’
Wondering what a knobkerrie was and where Ulundi might be located, I drank more beer, barely enough to moisten my lips. ‘So if a man has two sons, they’re both called John? Every family?’
He nodded. ‘Or more than two. When the second one comes along the oldest gets called Big John and the new lad is Little John. If there’s a third, he gets called Small John.’
‘And if there’s a fourth?’
He laughed. ‘Don’t be bloody daft, woman. We’re not made of money round here. Can’t afford to keep more than three young ‘uns at a time. Not sons, at any rate. Traditional community like ours, you can only divvy up a family business so far. We always stop after three sons. Self-control, see? Mind you, it means we’re usually a bit short of women.’
‘So what are you?’
‘I’m Big John,’ he said proudly. I looked him over. Five foot three in his boots and trilby, and built like the elderly brindled whippet that dozed at his feet.
‘It must still be confusing.’
He shrugged, supped. ‘You get used to it.’
I changed the subject. ‘So what do you do for a living?’
‘I’m a blacksmith,’ he said. He didn’t look strong enough to think of a hammer, let alone wield one.
‘And what’s your surname?’
‘Smith, of course. Family name, handed down through the generations. That’s what we do round here.’ He pointed at two men standing at the bar. ‘See those blokes? Big John and Little John Carpenter. Also known as Grumpy John and Fat John. What do you think they do?’
I took a wild guess. ‘Er – carpentry?’
‘That’s right. Between them they’ll knock you up anything from a bookshelf to a barn. There’s a Joiner family in the next village. Same difference. But you get the picture, eh? The landlord here is Big John Taverner. Those blokes playing dominoes in the corner? Big John Miller, John Butcher, Little John Plumber, Big John Baker. Small John Shepherd over yonder, talking to John Gardener. That’s our way, see. The name comes with the trade and the trade comes with the name. Same with all the villages round here.’
‘And nothing ever changes?’
The man snorted. ‘We’re not bloody hillbillies, girl. Of course things change. I mean, not much call for Fletchers and Bowyers any more, right? Not in this day and age. They took up new trades and changed the family names. Gunner and Driver they are now. One lot sells guns, the others are cabbies, as you’d expect. The Tanners opened a betting shop and became the Gambles. We keep up with the times round here.’
‘That’s fascinating. Presumably you also have Hatters, Tailors, Shoemakers…’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Not Shoemakers, Cobblers. These days they sell and repair shoes but don’t make them.’ He pointed again. ‘That’s Small John Cobbler over there. Just came in with his missus, Joan, Draper as was. That’s her sister with them, young Jean. She’s wed to Little John Sexton. The Sextons look after all the churches. A person’s name tells you what they do. We like it that way round here. Right?’
‘Right. So what about more modern trades?’
‘Don’t get much call for most of them. But it’s what you might expect. The Sparks family are electricians, do computer repairs on the side. The Stamps run the post office, the Messengers deliver the mail. They used to be the Coopers, Ropers and Weavers but we buy all that stuff in these days. Same principle, though.’
‘Um. I suppose it makes sense.’
‘Well, we’re flexible round here. But the point is, you always know who you’re dealing with, what to talk about, that sort of thing. See, if I go to the next village and get talking to a bloke and I find out he’s called Painter, I know who to call if I need a spot of decorating done.’
‘Of course.’ I finished my beer. For one thing, I really had to get back to the television studio for that meeting. For another, it was time to get out of there before things got uncomfortable, as they always did when I was not quite telling the truth, and that moment was surely imminent. ‘Well, it’s been lovely talking to you John, but I really must be getting on. Long drive home, things to do when I get there.’
Old-fashioned courtesy was still alive and kicking in this part of rural Norfolk. He eased himself upright and held out a calloused hand, which I dutifully shook. The whippet grunted in its sleep but otherwise didn’t so much as twitch.
‘Been nice to meet you, young lady. But I didn’t get your name.’
I’ve always been a really terrible liar. The blush was uncontrollable, a crimson beacon in the gloom of the bar. Thankfully, I managed to control what my mum always called my fibber’s stammer.
‘Jane,’ I told him as I backed away toward the door, avoiding his eyes, increasingly anxious to get back to my car and on the road. ‘Jane Merchant.’
He nodded and smiled, wishing me a safe journey as I made my exit. Driving away from the village I felt a bit guilty about the lie, but what could I do? I didn’t want him or any other local John getting the wrong idea. There was no way I was going to tell him my name was actually Jezebel Hawe. I could imagine what they’d think of that round there.