My gaze is outward. My book has fallen into my lap. It rests rather heavily, as, watching through the window I see the young mother push her baby up the hill. She stops, though in truth she was walking so slowly that the process of stopping was imperceptible. She crushes the butt of her cigarette beneath her half booted heel, wearily exhaling the final cloud of smoke as she absently inspects her child. She tugs the hood further over the child’s face, as if to hide it, then proceeds up the hill, her sense of burden manifest.
I continue to contemplate the blank space left on the pavement long after she has gone. My book falls now to the floor with a thud, the bookmark making a bid for freedom. It hardly matters; I will not lose my place. The book is a familiar friend, a reliable fantasy that has transported me from this world to a parallel place since I was a child. Nonetheless, I pick up the book and carefully replace the bookmark, quietly nuzzling the pages to inhale the reassuring musk of its so often turned pages.
Tonight, I ‘go down the pub.’ Imagine that, it is Tuesday and I ‘go down the pub!’, quite as usual. Well not quite as usual. This pub has stood on my corner all the time I have lived here, quite unregarded by me except as a local landmark. Nine months ago, my Tuesday evenings were occupied with salsa classes in the church hall besides the pub. These were strange affairs, quite rum indeed. I joined, I suppose for the company, and company it was for a while, and the pulsating music rarely failed to brighten my mood.
However, the imbalance of women over men was acute, and I found myself ungenerously questioning why this queue of men had to move in quite so closely, the collective impact of their aftershaves growing suffocating as the effort of gently but insistently pushing them away to a place where our bodily contact was purely dance related became more and more bothersome. Three months ago I replaced the dancing with a local reading group, where I found that the imbalance between men and women was quite the reverse of the dancing class.
Naively assuming that this group would share my passion for books, I was soon to discover that in the main my fellow readers had done little more than skim through the fortnightly work, the conversation arresting around the obvious vagaries of plot and superficialities of character. The gossip around the margins was initially quite comradely and fun, but in the end far too prone to descend to inconsequential chat around TV soaps that I had never watched but felt compelled to share a view on. The jolly invite in the pub window seemed, by contrast to be something that might fall between these two experiences, and was at least worth a try … ‘Roll up, Roll up. Pub Quiz open to everyone, make new friends, win fine prizes!’
I was trepidatious of course when I first pushed that solid mahogany door open for the first time to release the tobacco fumes, you know how it is. But I was quickly reassured by the warmth of the welcome, the explanation of the team system, and by my ready adoption by Heather and her husband Frank, who enlisted me into their team ‘Heather’s Hopefuls.’ I was quick to apologise in advance for my sublime ignorance with regard to all matters sporting and popular, including pop music and most of reality shows and serials on TV. My mind was put to rest by Heather’s explanation that most contemporary culture topics were well covered by she and frank, and that where they were weak was in literature, history, politics and the arts, where they just knew that I would make a great contribution. I surprised myself at how quickly I left behind any feelings of not belonging, or of living up to this high expectation, to become absorbed in the quiz process, to really enjoy the whispered conspiracy as our team huddled together to bat around possible answers as the pregnant question hung in the pub’s fug.
I was relieved to find that the history and arts questions were indeed well within my compass, to the extent that ‘my’ points were the difference between we the ‘Hopefuls’ winning rather than losing. Heather was quick to open one of the bottles of red wine that we won as first prize. I felt a slightly giddy sensation as the warm cloying wine lubricated our celebration. Heather was animatedly orchestrating our campaign for the next weeks quiz. There was no dubiety as to whether I would be included in the team. I readily agreed that I would read the broadsheet dailies in some detail that week, adding current affairs to my growing list of specialised subjects.
I lay tucked up in bed happily that evening, feeling more content and more full of life that I had felt for a while. Quiz night had far exceeded my expectations. It had proved to be a good combination of the suspense and vitality of the salsa, without the unwanted intimacy; and the intellectual stimulus of the reading group, without the rather claustrophobic, mildly despairing climate of the reading group. And then there was Simon, the final member of our team. Like me, he did not seem like a regular pub person, yet he clearly was, as they all seemed to know him well. There was a slightly studious air about him, something in the way his brow furrowed over each question, giving each his fullest attention – whether it be celebrity trivia, or an inquiry into the origin of life – that attracted me towards him. Last week – the third week of our victorious run – Simon and I were left with a bottle of wine between us, Heather and Frank having somewhat hurriedly announced their departure then scampered off with their booty.
Simon and I sit together in silence, both focused on the bottle in front of us. Simon breaks the silence first, timidly suggesting that he and I might share the bottle some evening, away from the pub, maybe over a meal. My heart skipped, on impulse I wanted to say ‘yes, let us share it now, let us share us now.’ But of course I held back, you know me well enough by now to know I would. I did say, though, that that would be very nice, and why didn’t he hang on to it, then we could enjoy it together some time. Then I muttered some excuse and left, half tripping over a stool as I made for the door.
He has been on my mind this week. I notice that whenever I enter the pub for the quiz, he is already there. As I walked past the pub each evening last week, I noticed his graying head framed through the yellowed window as he sat at the bar. Tonight, I determine that I will arrive earlier, to allow us to get to know each other a little better, away from the urgency of the quiz. I return my book to the table, a faithful friend left to conduct her patient vigil while I adventure abroad.
This evening I have already decided that I will look a little less like the local librarian, and to wear that red frock that I recklessly bought in the January sales, then saved for a special occasion. I have now declared that tonight will be that occasion. I prepare then eat a light supper of white fish, which I absently eat while studying the Daily Telegraph for tit bits of current affairs that might prove useful during tonight’s interrogation. The fish should provide ballast enough to absorb the wine , should we win again, as we customarily do. I drop the final morsel in the cats bowl.
She seems nowhere to be seen, I suspect still canoodling on the rooftops with the newly arrived tom from downstairs. I swing open the pub door in confident and bright expectation, to reveal as ever a smiling Heather, alone, but no sign of Simon. Heather compliments me on my dress, then proffers me a drink. Noticing me looking around, clearly distracted from our casual chat, she drops her tone to a conspiratorial one, to assure me that I should not fear; that Simon will turn up, he never misses.
Without further encouragement, she starts to tell me what she knows of Simon, which it transpires is not a great deal. He lives alone, just around the corner, and his job is something to do with antiquarian books. He may well have been married at some time, but he has never mentioned an ex, and certainly never in that scornful, ‘you know what its like, feel sorry for me’ tone that so many men automatically adopt when referring to past wives. She has never heard him refer to children, or indeed to other family. I mumble that he seems very nice, very gentlemanly, and she readily concurs. She giggles with a sisterly wink that he hasn’t fail to notice me either; and that his interest is undoubtedly more that just that of valuing the contribution of an accomplished team mate. I demure, pleased at that moment to be rescued by the arrival of Frank from this somewhat intrusive and disquiteingly accurate interest in my hitherto private deliberations.
The quiz master clears his throat and taps his microphone. Heather indicates that the three of us must proceed alone, accommodating Simon when he eventually arrives, which he surely will at any moment now. In the event, we are now deep into round three, my recent specialty, ‘Current Affairs,’ and still no sign of Simon. I mutter my way through the answers, but his absence is palpable, and my attention entirely elsewhere. I feel awkward, somewhat exposed in my dress, feel silly that I should have assumed that tonight would somehow deliver to the unreal expectations I have stupidly and without evidence attached to it.
Come the half time break, I cough a little on my sausage roll, resigned now to the fact that he will not turn up tonight, and perhaps never again. Maybe I purely dreamed him, for no one else seems to notice his absence. I stand at the bar, more conscious than ever of my incongruous dress, as I fight for space among the throng to buy drinks for my teammates. I am never sure at busy bars if I should produce money first and wave it , as some do, or if that is rude, or whether I should instead be told how much it will cost before I find the money. Either way, it will probably cost more than I can afford. All at once, I feel alien . I know in a heartbeat and with a certainty that I was never meant to be in places such as this. I just don’t fit. To compound my discomfort, I feel a light touch from behind of hands on my hips. I shuffle slightly forward, turning to glance behind to discourage my unwanted assailant.
To my relief then delight, I see a smiling Simon, innocently asking if he can help me to ‘get them in.’ I smile, then nod eagerly, keen for assistance in this profoundly male task. We are crushed together, really quite close, as he leans over me to attract the barmaid’s attention. I grin idiotically, brushing sausage roll crumbs from my lips as I allow him to squeeze alongside me. Emboldened, perhaps, by the enforced intimacy of the situation, he remarks enthusiastically as to how pretty my dress it, and how it suits me. I blush, then swallow my normal reflex to discount a compliment, instead saying simply ‘thank you, I hoped people might like it.’
As the drinks slowly arrive, he explains that he was delayed at work. Amid the fall out from a house clearance, he had discovered an exceptionally rare book. Indeed, so rare that the mere faxing of a copy of the inside page of this first edition had magicked up in their small shop a full blown Sotheby’s valuer who wasted little time in confirming its progeny, and it extreme value. He bubbles with excitement as he confides that his find is now under lock and key in London, in the British Museum, the most significant find in the hundred year history of their modest shop.
We return with the drinks to share ‘our’ good news, for so it seems with the other Hopefuls. Buoyed by a spirit of confidence and good fortune, our team sweeps through the second half despite the distraction of the book find, and cruises to a record breaking fourth consecutive win. Amid good-natured boo’s and groans from the defeated teams, Heather announces that they need to get back home early this evening. Without further do, she gathers up her prizes and her reluctant husband, and fights her way to the door past cries of ‘fix’ and ‘ringers.’
Simon and I are once more alone, although this time gazing into each other eyes rather than at the bottle. He grins widely, surrendering to any attempt to control his excitement over the revelations of his day. He tells me the whole story all over again, in every detail. We are closer than ever, oblivious to the diminishing crowd around us. I slip my hand over his, and squeeze it by way of encouragement of him to savour every nuance of his story. My squeeze is easily returned, as he presses a little closer, our thighs touching.
Then it begins to happen. Those tears again. I want to choke on then to shoo them away. I inwardly curse them, but still they inevitably well, hot like coals behind my eyelids. I have no idea where they come from, or why they uniquely blight me so. All my life I have fought to control them, but now, even at this crucial moment in my journey, they conspire to undo me. I feel pathetic, ashamed, desperate that Simon should not notice. He does but his reaction, far from being to laugh at my silliness, is to apologise for his inconsideration that he should be so preoccupied with his day that he should fail to ask how mine had been, when clearly it had been distressing. He asks me immediately to share what is wrong.
I feel sillier than ever and stutter that in fact nothing has gone wrong, it has been a perfectly normal day. And that I very much looked forward to this evening. It is just… well just these tears. I tear my handkerchief between my fingers, wring it out as I gaze glumly at my feet. He gently places his arm around my shoulder, removing my hankie as he takes both my hands in his. I melt a little inside. Through gulps, big gulps I ask in a small voice if he doesn’t mind the tears? He whispers no, that in point of fact he finds them quite touching, and adorable. I ask him if he would escort me home, as I feel rather exposed here in public. He says of course.
It feels so good to walk the pavement with this man. The tears now flow, but now I am beyond caring, even enjoying sharing them with him. At the front door we both know that there is no need to put ourselves through the ‘any one for coffee’ ritual. Once inside he places the wine on the table beside my reliable book. Oh my God, he will find my book choice childish, then the spell will be broken. But the spell endures. He strokes my friends spine, opens her up, and compliments me on the edition and condition. We move together by the window. As I look to the space where the mother was this afternoon, I feel his breath on my neck. I pull him close, closer into my closed world. I kiss him at last by the window, glad that I removed the net curtains when I first moved in.