The Old England Hotel has the kind of carpet that is suitable for your grandmother's birthday lunch or a Magic Eye picture. You can't see which bit of the Old England is the dining room from the outside, which always makes me anxious about whether I'm going in the right door, or I'm going to end up in a Local Front Bar For Local People by accident. But my friend and I - let's call us both Anna, to save time - have just spent hours in the Mill Park Savers repeatedly losing and finding my four-year-old as we tried to actually look at stuff, so we've decided a recovery parma is required. We creep in what we think is the right door, and we're in luck. Psychedelic carpet: yes. Sudden silence where bulbous men in tiny shorts turn their heads from their pints and stare at us in unison: no.
Table achieved, Anna goes back out to the car to get such items that will weld a child to his seat for the duration of a meal. Or at least minimise the number of times I hiss “SIT down on your CHAIR.” I lean on the bar while Luka does spasmodic laps around my legs, a four year old's interpretation of break-dancing crossed with a febrile seizure
"I love you," says his little voice from floor level.
I look down at him. "I love you too."
He looks at me and holds up a toy. "I was saying it to the Ninja Turtles."
The drinks available on tap are Carlton Draught, Vic Bitter, and Brown Brothers Dry White. I like my wine with a good head on it, so I go with the last one. While I’m waiting for my change, a little old man sidles up to the bar and does the "looking for a staff member" head movement. He’s one of those willowy, slightly bendy old men, who look like they’ve curved in the breeze because their head is a bit heavy for the rest of them to hold up straight. He’s clutching his hat in front of him in a very earnest gesture, and is dressed like he might be going to your grandmother’s birthday lunch, or to look at a Magic Eye picture.
“Can I help you?” asks the waitress.
The old man startles gently and clutches his hat a little tighter. “Oh hello, I wasn’t sure where to go. I’ve booked a table for one, for dinner?”
“Oh yes,” says the waitress, and he follows her to a small square table shoved up against a pylon, with one padded pastel-pink seat in attention.
Back at our table, Luka is quiet for 20 seconds while he mainlines his orange juice.
“My wife and I used to come here together all the time,” I overhear the old man tell the waitress. “I haven’t been here for 10 years since she died, so I thought it was time to come back and see what the old place was like these days.” He announces his little speech like he’s been rehearsing it. His voice is brave and papery.
The waitress sounds like she wants to hug him. I kindof wish she would. “Well, we’re very glad to have you back. There’s your menu, you let me know if there’s anything else you need, okay?”
Anna comes back to the table, and after we order dinner I urgently whisper to her about the man at the table around the corner. When I’ve finished, our eyebrows are so contorted with wub, you could cut them out and make us into a flip book of The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
Our meals are punctuated with the traditional tonal folk songs of the four-year-old child:
"My chips are too HOT."
“I want more CHIPS.”
“I don’t WANT to draw a vampire.”
“I want to go OVER THERE.”
“I want to go OVER THERE.”
“Can I play on your PHONE?”
“I want to go HOME.”
“I want to go home NOW.”
“I need to do a POO.”
It’s definitely time to go home. Anna wins my eternal love by leading my cartwheeling child off to the toilets, and I stand near the bar, waiting. I glance behind me: the bendy old man has quietly eaten his soup and fish, picked up his hat, and is on his way out the door. I hope Luka didn’t make him speed up his eating.
As I wander over to stand near the hotel door, it opens again and a tiny bird-like lady shuffles in. She has white hair set in soft, short curls. She wears sensible slacks and a floral patterned blouse that could almost be a Magic Eye picture.
The waitress beams at her with practiced friendliness. “How can I help you?”
“Oh hello dear,” says the old lady. “I’m just wondering if you might have a table for one available for dinner.”
The waitress presses her hands together. “Oh, you’re in luck,” she says. “One’s just opened up.”