C H R I S P A L I N G
The Possibilities of Love
(Performed at Brighton fringe festival 2005. First published in Prospect magazine Feb 2005, Transmitted on BBBC Radio 4 2013)
A well dressed man walked into a small village pub and stamped the snow from his shoes. He was watched by the landlord in his old brown cardigan, leaning on the bar counter. A log fire burned in the grate and a piano was playing in the snug next door but the lounge was empty. Even if it hadn’t been, the landlord would have noticed the stranger. The soft grey cloth of his coat seemed to glow with a kind of radioactive wealth. The material moved in unison with his body like a second skin.
On reaching the bar, the man took off his long coat, folded it over a stool and ordered a whisky. The landlord - Reg - asked him whether he wanted any particular brand. The visitor asked for a Johnny Walker, ice, no water.
“Still snowing?” Reg asked when he handed the man his drink. His podgy fingers had printed the glass.
“Yes. Still snowing.” The man’s accent was local but it carried a trace of American. Like the ice in his whisky it chilled some of the warmth out of his voice.
Neither of them said anything for a while. The visitor’s curiosity, unlike the landlord’s, didn’t seem to extend beyond the contents of his glass, though every so often he pulled up his shirt cuff and checked the time on his heavy Rolex.
“Come far?” Reg said, when he could bear the silence no longer.
The man smiled and said, “You could say that,” and when he smiled he looked younger. Reg would have put him at thirty, perhaps late twenties - and when he told the story of the man later he would always - at this point - reveal that the man had fair hair, like straw, which was cut very well - and blue eyes. Though occasionally Reg said they were green, just to vary it. The man put him in mind of a cowboy, though the landlord was always hard pressed to say why.
“Go on, then,” Reg prompted, “Tell me where you’ve come from.”
“San Mateo.” The visitor threw a question mark over it because he knew Reg wouldn’t have heard of it.
“That’s America, I expect?” Reg said.
“You’re in computers, then?”
“Yes,” the man said, smiling again.
Something about the moment prompted Reg to hold out his hand and offer the visitor his name. They shook hands firmly and the man said his name was Billy, but then he quickly corrected himself and said he always called himself William nowadays. In fact he hadn’t used the name Billy for ten years. When he gave his name the piano stopped playing - and it was the absence of the music that drew the mens’ attention to it.
“That’s nice,” the visitor said, when the music started again. “Really, really nice.”
“It makes a difference, doesn’t it?” Reg said. ”It makes a difference to a place having a bit of music around. But the piano player does not do requests. I’ve tried - but no requests allowed.”
“That’s all right, I don’t mind that.”
The men took a moment more to listen to the music.
“I hope you don’t mind me asking.” Reg said. His curiosity always got the better of him, his intolerance to silence was legendary. “Say if you do, but I hope you don’t mind me asking - what brings you here?”
“Well,” the visitor said quickly, “I doubt that you really do.”
Reg was unsure whether he’d been insulted, but he nevertheless asked the visitor to explain. As he did, William’s story was punctuated by him occasionally breaking off to listen to the music or watch the thick snow fall through the small misted window. This is what he said:
“Ten years ago tonight, I was sitting over there, by the fire, with a woman. Her name was Victoria. I was nineteen years old. I’d been seeing Victoria for three months and I was in love with her. I think she was in love with me. At nineteen you know what love means - it’s only when you get older you start to use italics when you use the word. It’s not that you stop believing in it, it’s just that you start to question whether your understanding of it is the same as everybody else’s. So - italics. But then - at that time - like I said, I loved her. She was beautiful, but she didn’t give it all away. Like … “ and here he struggled for words, “like a really fine jeweller’s shop which displays just two small diamonds in the window. Walking past you might miss them, but stop and linger for a while … So that was Victoria. As for me. Well, I wasn’t going anywhere. I couldn’t find a job I liked, I was restless, spirited, and usually broke. But I had this sense that under the right circumstances I could make something of myself. I just knew I had to get away from this place to do it. Which would have been easy if it wasn’t for Victoria.” He stopped again, swivelled on his stool and turned towards the grate. “I made her a promise - sitting over there by that fire - I made her a promise that ten years to that day - on January 11th 2003. I’d come back into this bar and I’d collect her and take her with me to wherever I’d built us a home. And the deal was that if she chose to come, she should come with one suitcase and her passport - and that’s all. Oh, yes, we were to meet at 9.30.”
Reg looked up at the clock beside the bar mirror. 9.22. The piano player continued to play.
“So,” the man said, “I went away - and I lost myself for a while in India, then, when I found myself again, I worked with a considerable number of sheep and a few men in Australia. I spent what I’d saved there in Holland, I hitch-hiked through the South of France - and finally, on a whim, I flew to the States and I knew that was where I could deliver on the promises I’d made. I won’t bore you with the details, but there was a gold rush in Silicon valley. A few years ago you could barely open a magazine without reading about it - and there remain any number of men - and a few women - my age, maybe younger, CEOs, entrepreneurs, to whom a million dollars is nothing. But these people are hard to spot because, for the most part, their wealth is not displayed. In fact they play it down because it’s not what they imagined it would be when their company went public - it’s not at all what they thought it would be. The day after the IPO you can wake up and be worth 30 million dollars - more - and by lunchtime you’re wondering what the fuss was about.”
“Thirty million dollars?” Reg said. “Can I get you another drink then?”
“Yes. And have one for yourself.”
“That’s very kind. Very kind indeed.”
9.26 now. Four minutes until the millionaire met the woman - or not.
Reg handed the man his whisky and said, “So, this Victoria . . . she still lives round here does she?”
“Who knows? We haven’t spoken since that night.”
“Right,” Reg said slowly. “So what . . . I mean, what if she doesn’t show up?”
“I’ll give her until ten, and then I’ll walk out and I’ll tell my driver to take me back to the airport and I’ll fly back home and I’ll try to figure out what to do with the rest of my life … You see Victoria is what makes all this money mean something. Do you understand? I was one of the lucky ones. I never had to ask what it meant - or why I had it. I made it for her. Without her, then, I’ll have to, I don’t know, readjust my expectations. Significantly.”
“Of course. Of course.”
It was a long four minutes. Four minutes in which the hands of the clock barely seemed to move. Even the piano player was now playing a slow tune and the snow seemed to be falling in slow motion. And in those four minutes, Reg, as he occasionally did, readjusted his expectations so that when the pub door opened on the dot of nine thirty, he’d digested the bitterness he’d been feeling about talking to a man who could buy and sell him a thousand times over, and was back to the place he had been at the beginning of the evening: reasonably content, warm; in congenial circumstances, alone, but not unhappy, and with a clientele who were kind enough to listen to his stories, and who - when they could get a word in - occasionally had some of their own to contribute.
The visitor didn’t turn round straight away. He stayed on the bar stool with the draft of the open door on his back. Reg, making no pretence of hiding his curiosity, was staring at the woman with the blue battered suitcase and the fair hair, and the smile on her face and bright red lipstick, and wool coat speckled with diamonds of melting snow. He was disappointed. The woman was not at all how the man had described her. She was - in Reg’s eyes - quite unremarkable.
Only when the door swung shut did the visitor get off his stool and go to the woman and embrace her. Reg thought he could see a snag in his step as he crossed the room. But he seemed pleased enough to see her because he guided his guest to the table by the fire and called for two more whiskeys and - even though Reg would normally ignore such requests – he took them over on a tray and said, “these are on the house.”
By the fire the two talked intently, heads bowed, and the piano continued to play and Reg got quite sentimental watching them. In fact he almost began to believe in love again - or at least the possibilities of love. A few more people came into the bar over the next half hour and Reg served them, but he couldn’t quite pull his attention away from the couple by the fire. Then, at ten o’clock, the bitter ran out and Reg went down to the cold cellar to change the barrel. It was cold down there. The floor was slick with ice. When he got back in to the warmth of the bar again the man and the woman were gone. Just two empty glasses were left, side by side on the table by the fire.
Reg went outside and across the small car park and looked down the narrow lane. Through the thick snow, he saw the tail-lights of a large car: a huge red-eyed beast backing away into the night. Reg watched until it was out of sight.
At eleven o’clock he rang the brass bell, draped the towels over the pumps and called time. There was only one old man left in the bar and he didn’t protest about being sent home. Reg had got so used to the piano music in the background that it was only then that he noticed it again. The piano player had been playing all night almost without a break. Reg walked through into the snug and leaned against the wall.
“You can stop now, everybody’s gone,” he said. The piano player stopped playing and squared up her sheet music. She was an intense young woman with a quiet beauty. Reg had been surprised when she’d arrived the week before and asked if he was looking for somebody to cover the Christmas and New Year period. He’d asked her what the catch was. She’d told him there wasn’t one.
“Have you got a moment, love?” Reg said. “I’ve got to tell you what happened in here tonight. I’m bursting to tell somebody.”
The woman smiled and said she was in no hurry, so Reg fetched them both a drink, sat down with her and told the story of the millionaire and the woman with the suitcase and them just leaving, without saying anything, in the big car, and how his name was William and hers was Victoria. The woman listened intently and asked Reg for details when he didn’t offer them. Exactly how did the man react when the woman came into the bar? Did he show any surprise? Could Reg hear anything of what they were saying to each other? Reg told her what he could and made up the rest. He enjoyed being listened to rather than just heard, there was something seductive in it and the woman was a good listener.
Afterwards, the woman put her music into a thin leather bag and walked to the front door, waiting for Reg to unbolt it. She ducked under his raised arm, through the door and out into the car park. Reg watched her from a distance; opening the door of her red mini, throwing her music onto the passenger seat, then reaching across to brush the snow off the windscreen with her gloved hand. When she turned and smiled at him and the car park lights found the jewels in her eyes he felt as though a hand in a velvet glove had taken his heart and squeezed it. And as he fell in love with the piano player he understood what had been troubling him since the woman with the battered suitcase had walked into the bar.
Reg called, “Hold on a minute, will you?” Impervious to the cold, he crossed the car park and leaned in through the car window. He said, “I’m sorry, love, but you can tell me to mind my own business if you like but you’re her, aren’t you? You’re the woman he came back for?”
She said, “Yes, ” took her hands from the cold steering wheel and laid them in her lap. “I’m Victoria.”
“I see... I see, and the other lady?”
“A friend of mine. She’ll tell him who she is - but William knew it the moment he saw her. She’s a romantic, like him. Dreams are always more important to romantics than reality.”
“You didn’t want to go with him then?” Reg pressed, he knew his time was running out.
“There were moments - over the last few years - when I thought about it. But William was no more in love with me than I was with him. He was just in love with the idea of being in love. I didn’t know quite how I was going to tell you - but you’ll have to find another pianist now. I’m sorry.”
Reg said. “But I haven’t paid you. Not a penny.”
“Yes you have.” Victoria got out of the car and kissed Reg on the cheek.
When she was gone Reg could still smell her perfume on his cardigan. He put his hands in his pockets and watched the snow for a while from the shelter of the porch. The tyre tracks Victoria’s car had left on the lane were quickly filled and soon it looked as though nobody had come in or gone out of the small village pub since the snowstorm began.