Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Duck In the London Rain

“Shall we make a new rule of life from tonight: always try to be a little kinder than is necessary?”

~ J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan

The pubs in London close at eleven sharply.  At last call they ring a bell and say, “Hurry up, please, it’s time.”  While I stayed and worked in London I would sometimes go out with people from the office.  Most of them however did not live in London proper so I would mostly eat by myself, walk around a bit and then stop in at the Museum Tavern. The pub was right down the street from the Morgan Hotel, where I was staying and the British Museum, which my rooms overlooked.  It was a place that was frequented by curators.  I was often jealous of these people who every day walked by things like the Rosetta Stone, just like some of us walk by a water cooler.  I got to know some of them pretty well; Charlie in particular.  

It is somewhat cruel, but to best describe Charlie is to say that he closely resembled the gyrocopter pilot in the Mad Max movies.  He had wild blondish-gray hair and splayed teeth that when we were kids we used to say “could eat corn through a catcher’s mitt.” Charlie was incredibly gregarious and very interested in American culture and history.  He used to constantly quiz me on various things to make sure he was getting things right about America because he had never been.  He liked hearing how closely or remotely what he read and the television he saw from our country accurately reflected our real lives.
 One day Charlie had to go home from the pub early.  After he left I remarked to Tess, the bartender from Australia, about how I thought Charlie was a very nice guy.   Without looking up, Jeremy, one of the other curators, puffing on his pipe, said, “He is so kind he would put an umbrella over a duck in the rain.” Tess smiled, put her finger on her nose, and got me another pint.

The last night I was in London I went to the Museum Tavern for the final time.  We had a rollicking good time.  At the bell for last call it was only me, Jeremy, Charlie and one other guy in the bar.  I had a lot of high-value currency still in my pocket so I bought a final round for everyone.  Jeremy perked up, smiled and said, “Well, I can do that, mate”. We, including the bar staff, had a toast and drank our last pints. Charlie asked me, “Would you like to join me at my club, Tom?”  In London if you want to have a last drink or two after time you have to go to a private club.  I said, “Sure. It’s my last night in London, why not? I’ve never been to one.” 

We left the Museum Tavern, got a cab, and went down to a place near the Strand.  It looked like a speakeasy to me.  No windows, big guy at the door making sure you were legit.  Charlie showed his card and we went inside.  Once we got into the main bar Charlie started giving me instructions.  “Don’t stand too close to the snooker table...if you want a drink just gently raise and shake your glass a bit, but don’t call. Alternatively, go to the bar and politely ask...everyone smokes here but don’t ash on the floor…This is a club not a place to find a lady…be moderate and have fun.”   Charlie went to the bar and bought me my first pint. He stood with me awhile and attempted to explain how the hell snooker worked. He whispered in my ear, “They know you are my guest. If I get into a game they will take care of you…maybe best to go to the bar though.”

We talked a bit longer and laughed, quieter than we tend to do here in America.  Suddenly he said to me with a smile, “Oh, look. What a treat for you.  Richard is here.”  I looked over and there was Richard Harris. The Richard Harris I knew from “A Man Called Horse;” “The Field” and as Dumbledore.  He wore army boots and a long camel-hair coat. He still had the long white locks and glasses from Harry Potter.  He sat in a chair like it was a burnished throne, surrounded by young people, as if he was holding court.  Charlie came into my ear again. “You’re not going to do anything weird are you?” I turned and looked at him.  “What do you mean by that?”  He ran his finger around the top of his glass and looked down.  “You’re not going to get on at him or try to take pictures, get autographs or any of that nonsense, are you? We’re a club here.”  I felt sad  and mad for a minute and then I said, tersely, “No worries.”  I started heading to the bar. As I passed Mr. Harris I nodded and tipped my glass towards him. I said, “Good evening.”  He returned the gesture.

I went to the bar and ordered another pint.  The girl there said, “You’re with Charlie, right?”  I nodded.  I asked “What do I owe you?”  She smiled and said, “No worries. It is Charlie’s.  You are his guest.”   A young guy standing next to me, who clearly was struggling with his equilibrium and was holding on to the bar to try to balance it, grabbed my shirt sleeve.  He asked “What do you really owe?”  I said “Excuse me?” He laughed. “You owe your soul.  You’re American, right?” I said, “Yes, I am.” He was clearly drunk or on his way there.  “Then you have no soul.”  I said, “I’m sorry?”  He lurched around a bit off of his anchor and spilled some of his drink on himself. “What do you think is a soul?”  I tried not to incite anything. I just wanted to get away. Nevertheless, I took the bait. “Are you asking in a religious or metaphysical way?”  He just looked at me through blurry eyes, swore, and said with great vitriol, “Soulless American bastard. No soul whatsoever.”  Because there was  louder noise, Charlie came up and asked, “What is happening here?” The guy said, “I’m trying to talk to this soulless man but he has no defense.”   

The bartender signaled Charlie and he went up in the guy’s face.  He said, “You must apologize.  This is my guest.”  The guy said, “I will not.”  Charlie raised his voice. “Apologize! You must apologize!”   I said, “It’s not that important, Charlie. Good night.” I headed for the exit of the club.  Charlie followed me. He stopped me at the door. He grabbed my arm and said, “I am very sorry, mate. He’s drunk. Please come and have another drink.”  I shook my head no.  I said “Thank you for the invitation, Charlie.  I’m going home.” 

When I left the club it was raining in only the way in rains in London.  Not quite a shower; more like a hovering mist that is not hard enough to drench you but enough that you can’t see out of your glasses.  I grabbed a cab back to Bloomsbury feeling angry, indignant and somehow betrayed.  When I pulled up to the Morgan I saw a man sitting on the steps under a very large umbrella with two bottles of brown ale next to him.  It was Charlie.  I asked, “How did you get here before me and where did you get that beer?” He said, “You’re an American. They always take you the longest way…and I know the desk clerk. He did me a favor.”

 I sat down on the concrete steps beside Charlie.  He held his “brolly” over both of us. “Why are you here?” I asked.  He sighed. “I realized I wasn’t very kind to you back in the club. I treated you poorly, like you were some kind of lout, and that is not what I think. What sort of host am I to let you go home in the rain, feeling bad? I don’t want to let you leave with that impression.” I said, “It’s alright, Charlie.  It wasn’t required. I’m a little bit hurt but not so bad. It wasn’t you and it’s not that important.  Jerks exist no matter where you go. You learn to just walk away.”  He laughed.  I asked, “What?” He said, “I rather like that word ‘jerk,’ It’s very American and yet so appropriate.  I will use it.”   

We sat and drank our beers in silence for awhile.  Suddenly he said, “As a book guy you had to have loved living here in Bloomsbury for a bit, didn’t you? Surrounded by the haunts of Dickens, Woolf and what not?”  I nodded yes.  I said, “It was heaven.”  He asked, “You know Peter Pan, don’t you?”  I said “I have seen it many times.”  He shook his head. “But have you ever read the book?” I replied I hadn’t.  He said, “Barrie left all of his money when he died to Ormond’s Hospital not but a few streets from here.  From what I understand for all his quirks he was a kind and good soul. I like visiting there to talk with the children.”  I thought and then said, “I shall have to read it sometime.” 

We had Charlie’s friend, the desk man, bring us two more beers. We talked and laughed for quite awhile. As it started getting late by London standards Charlie saw a cab and said, “This may be my last, best chance.”  He got up and waved it down. He then shook my hand.  He said, “Safe travels, friend. You have my card; please stay in touch.”  As he got into the cab I called, “Charlie, you forgot your umbrella!”  He just closed the door, smiled out of the window and waved as they drove off.   

I went into the hotel and got my key.  I felt very much like a duck in the rain.