Patronage of the local pub, the Bell and Candle (Alan had often wondered why the ‘book’ had been omitted from its moniker), Alan and Robert’s old ‘stomping grounds,’ appeared to have fallen off from what Preston recalled from his memory banks. Preston glanced around, taking in the sights and sounds that differed little from days of yore. Robert, awaiting his arrival in the largest of the booths located at around the halfway point of the pub’s interior, hailed Preston as he leaned out, waving. He was accompanied by two women dressed just a hair short from provocatively, a strawberry blond next to him and a dark chocolate haired female across the booth’s table from him. Robert was dressed smartly in what appeared to be a new silk shirt under his tidy jacket. Preston in his plain cotton button down shirt and khaki trousers felt under dressed for the occasion. At least he wasn’t sporting a T-shirt and jeans as he likely would have been were he going out to American bars, he thought to himself.
“Alan...or should I say, Professor Preston, my good fellow...” Robert said as Preston seated himself next to the chocolate haired woman. “I suppose introductions are in order. Your lady left you to go it alone I see. In that case I suppose it’s fortunate that I brought a spare. At your side is the ravishing Isabelle Lester. This lovely lady to my right is Miss Erin Prescott. ”
“Hello.” Isabelle said, extending her hand, Preston taking it and releasing it as quickly as he could without being impolite as he returned her greeting .
“Now that our little circle is complete, I go to procure our pints. Excuse me.” Robert said, leaving the booth and heading towards the bar. Preston found himself alone with the two ladies, an uncomfortable silence falling over the three remaining in the booth.
“So you’re a professor? What and where do you teach?” Isabelle asked, breaking the awkward silence.
“The ‘what’ is english literature primarily. I’m sure you wouldn’t have heard of the ‘where.’ It’s a small school in the U.S...the state of Vermont.”
“Interesting.” Isabelle said, though it was obvious to Preston from her intonation that she felt exactly the opposite. He was quite sure what she would find interesting would be in direct opposition to his own interests. He was also more than sure that Robert had brought her along in the hopes Preston would find her of interest. It struck him that this ‘little circle’ as Robert had referred to the group was exactly what Anne had been speaking of in the car...they were the ‘beautiful people,’ the club she would never be invited to join. Though he truly had wanted her to accompany him, as he did in all things, he also was sure she would have felt as if she were a goat among show horses and wouldn’t have enjoyed herself in the least, especially with Robert putting on airs and speaking as if he were hosting an old episode of ’Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Unlike the pub with its familiar old milk glass light fixtures, his friend had quite altered since the ‘old days’ That much was obvious. But then coming into money had that effect on people.
Robert reappeared at the booth, placing a tray of four glasses of the golden elixir before them as he sat down, each of those seated taking one and placing it before them. Preston lifted the glass to his lips. He had almost forgotten the taste of good British ale. The swill in the U.S. was a poor substitute if it could even be considered one at all.
“I’m afraid I can’t linger overly long. As I said before I have a flight in the morning. It’s been a long day and I’m already played out. This is likely to add to it.” Preston said.
“Then we will have to make the most of our limited time for who knows when we will pass the same way again what with you abandoning us to attempt to civilize the heathens across the pond.” Robert said.
The foursome engaged in what amounted to casual and essentially meaningless chatter for a time. Preston found himself no more impressed with either of Robert’s female hangers-on as the evening progressed, finding their conversation rather superficial and banal, unlike the deeper, intellectually stimulating conversations he enjoyed with Anne from the time of their first meeting five years previous. As all had finished or nearly finished their pints, Robert stood.
“Are you sure I can’t cajole you into another? There’s a matter I’d like to talk to you about, just us two, if you ladies don’t mind. I won’t take up much more of your time, but time enough for you to enjoy one more before you go.” Robert asked. Preston, with the satisfying taste of the ale still on his tongue wavered as he thought again of what sat in his fridge back in his home overseas.
“Alright. One more. You’ve talked me into it, as you always did. But that’s it.” Preston said. Robert grinned.
“Excuse us, ladies.” Robert said as he beckoned Preston to join him. Preston rose, following Robert to the bar where he ordered two more pints, handing one over to him before leaning in towards the bartender. “Jimmy...do you think you could see fit to allowing us the use of the room?” Robert asked, Preston unsure what room Robert spoke of. The bartender, nodded, he and Robert speaking a few words before he led Preston from the bar, past the booth where Isabelle and Erin remained finishing their drinks, and to a door with a window of frosted glass in the back of the pub. Turning the old knob, Robert entered, flipping on the lights, Preston following him inside, Robert closing the door behind him.
Preston drank from his second glass of ale as he looked about the room. It was furnished with a few small tables, obviously a place reserved for private parties or business meetings.
“So...what do you think of Isabelle? Quite a beauty, isn’t she? And at the moment unattached.” Robert grinned before taking a drink from his glass and setting it on the table behind him.
“I, on the other hand, am very much attached. I’m afraid even if I weren’t we wouldn’t get on. I don’t believe we have much in common. I’m afraid if I asked her what she knew of the ‘Capulets’ she’d think I was referring to a hat to lend.” Preston said as he continued to drink from his second pint. Robert grinned.
“She may not be overly well educated in the traditional sense, but she has quite a store of knowledge of...other subjects of interest.”
“Does she charge for this knowledge by the hour?” Preston asked.
“You’re truly not interested? We could all go back to my place, have a bit of fun before you’re off...”
“Christ...really, Robert? That’s what you wanted to talk to me about?” Preston said, irritated.
“You’re not even the least bit curious?”
“Not in the least.” Preston replied. “If that’s all, I really should be going.”
“I wanted to ask you something else. I have a proposition for you. I’m expanding farther out in other markets...experimenting with new lines...the wine business is booming as it is for other spirits, down times are good times for my type of business. I’d think lecturing over the same books, the same authors and topics over and over again, year after year would become rather tedious and monotonous after a time, especially to pampered American brats who if they had their druthers would rather be getting pissed at the pub and shagging than discussing the finer points of our wonderful bard’s masterpieces. I have an opening for a brand ambassador...I need someone like you that’s intelligent and can express themselves well which is a rare bird these days. You’d bank twice what you’re being paid, likely more than that. You’d travel the world, meet lots of interesting people...far more interesting than our dear Isabelle, I promise you.”
Preston, surprised but not completely stunned by Robert’s offer, took a long swallow from his glass.
“You’re right my work can feel drudgerous at times, but at the end of the day, I’m quite happy in it, especially when comparing it to our previous profession. It’s not a pile of money, but it’s more than enough for me to be comfortable. I can say for the first time that I’m more than satisfied with every aspect of my life at the moment so I’m afraid I’m going to have to disappoint you. I appreciate it, I do, thank you, but I’ll have to pass.” Preston said, finishing his drink and setting the glass on a nearby table.
“Are you sure? You’d bloody well be certain about it. Such an opportunity won’t likely present itself again for quite some time. We were one hell of a team once upon a time, we could be again.” Robert said, drawing nearer to Preston until he was standing within arms reach of him.
“There’s a big difference between shilling wine and dodging bullets.”
“There certainly is. Isabelle...she really does nothing for you?” Robert asked.
“Not in the slightest-” Preston said before finding the rest of his statement interrupted as Robert reached out, placing a hand to Preston’s cheek before pressing his lips to Preston’s own. Preston stood stunned stiff for a moment before putting his arms out, his hands against Robert’s chest, pushing him back, staring at him aghast, speechless.
“I’m sorry, mate...I...I couldn’t help myself...I’ve been...I’ve been waiting so long...too long...I thought...” Robert said meekly, appearing fearful, the confidence and bravado gone from his tone.
“What the bloody hell was that? What are you talking about?” Preston managed to say.
“I thought maybe I’d been wrong all this time...before...back then when you were gadding about with real women...I left it alone...I thought she was a cover...this Anne of yours...”
“What? No! What do you mean ‘real women?’ Trust me, Anne’s the realest woman I’ve ever met. She’s more ‘real’ than that painted strumpet out there! The only thing I’d likely get out of a night with her is a prescription for antibiotics! Listen, if you dance to that particular tune, that’s all well and good, I have no problem with that, I think no less of you, but it’s not my taste in music.” It was then that Preston realized...the airs Robert had been putting on, the clothes, had not been to impress the women he had invited to join them, but him.
“I dance to more than one sort of tune, I guess you could say. I misread the notes of your particular composition. I’ve mucked it all up. I’m sorry. It’s likely this will be the last time we see each other. I’d appreciate it if what passed here remained here.” Robert replied sounding forlorn.
“Who you are is who you are. Your secret, as long as you wish to continue to keep it, though I’d advise you’d be far happier to just be out with it, is safe with me. As I said, I have no trouble with it, I never have, even when I was supposed to, when we both were told it somehow made a difference when it came to defending our freedoms and each other. I can’t imagine that was easy for you listening to that rubbish.” Preston said, his own manner softening towards his friend.
“No, it wasn’t.” Robert said, bowing his head as he shook it. “It was never easy, even before that. Are you going to marry her...Anne? Start a family, all that?”
“You know how I’ve always felt about that particular institution. I don’t see why it’s necessary to ask anyone’s blessing or permission to be with someone. She’s expressed an opinion along the same lines. As for the other bit...I think there’s enough people mucking things up in this world already. Guess I’ve seen and know too much to want to bring anyone else into the mess without their say. Anyway, she’s unable so it’s a moot point.”
“Well that makes things neat and tidy for you I suppose.” Robert replied.
“I have to go now. I hope you find the right person...for the job, I mean...and yourself as well.” Preston stepped towards Robert extending his hand. Robert looked at it a moment, seemingly surprised it was being offered before taking it. “I owe you my life...several times over. I’ve never forgotten that. I never will. Until we meet again, my friend.”
“Yeah...until then.” Robert said sounding melancholy as Preston put a hand to Robert’s shoulder, gripping it, before turning and exiting the room. Saying his goodbyes to the women in the booth, Preston made his way to the door. Before leaving he turned, taking one last look over the Bell and Candle as a strange feeling passed over him, as if he somehow knew his presence would never again grace the establishment in which he’d once spent so many pleasant hours. Robert’s words for reasons unknown to Preston echoed in his head, that it would be the last time he would see him. He sensed a chill coming over him and the same fatigue as had overcome him in the car.
Preston arrived back at his grandmother’s home and made his way through it in the darkness towards his old bedroom by the use of the memory of its layout he had dredged up and that had hardly changed since the last day he had been a full time resident. Anne was awaiting him there, curled up in the bed though she had yet to fully descend into sleep as she anxiously waited for his safe return. Something was nagging at her, something wasn’t quite right, though she couldn’t put her finger on exactly what it was. It had begun in the car earlier that day when she had seen Preston’s face lose its color as stress, grief ,and fatigue, or what he played off as such, had gripped him.
Undressing and slipping under the covers, Preston sighed in relief.
“I can’t even tell you how good this feels...thank you, for keeping it warm for me.” Anne rolled over to face him, nestling up next to him and wrapping an arm around him.
“So how was it?”
“It was...interesting.” Preston answered.
“He hit on you, didn’t he?” Anne said, smirking. Preston turned his head to look at her. “He offered me a job, which I of course turned down...then he hit on me. How did you know?” he asked, astonished. .
“I told you, I have a sixth sense about people. He tried so hard to hide it that he might as well have had it tattooed on his forehead. I thought the first time I met him he was likely a fish swimming in more than one pond, but I wasn’t quite sure enough to say anything. I figured if he were ever going to act on it, it would be tonight what with you leaving in the morning...with Nan gone who knows when you’ll be back and if he’d even still be here by that time. He had to make a play, put all his chips on the table.”
“I can’t fault anyone for taking a chance. It’s what I’m always telling my students...no risk, no reward. I just hope he’s able to move on. We’ve been friends since we were seven years old. How did I miss it?”
“We often miss things we don’t want to see or are inconvenient, things we don’t want to deal with.”
Preston looked around the room, the bed and dresser being the only furniture remaining from his time there growing up under the care of his grandmother. In his mind’s eye, he could envision how it had looked in the past.
“I suppose this is the last night I’ll ever be here. All this will be someone else’s soon. If these walls could talk...”
“What would they say?” Anne asked.
“Things you’d likely not want to hear about.” Preston said, feeling somewhat guilty for the one memory in particular that had for whatever reason just surfaced.
“Try me. It’s not like I don’t know you had a life before me. More of one than I had, I’m sure. So who was she?” Anne inquired, Preston turning his head to look at her again, once more surprised, and somewhat discomforted, by her almost psychic perceptiveness.
“Molly Hart. She was the first. I sneaked her in through the window.”
“You naughty boy.” Anne said with a smirk.
“Bloody hell, that was a long time ago. I wonder if she still remembers.”
“You always remember your first. You do so I’m sure she does. I know I do.” Anne said with a grin. Preston had hardly been able to believe it when just before taking their relationship to the level that included physical intimacy, Anne had confessed to him that at the age of 37 she retained her virginity.
“I wish she didn’t. I can only hope somewhere along the way she was struck by a lorry or something and developed amnesia. I think it took longer to get her through the window. I’ve taken pisses that lasted longer. Nothing more pathetic than two virgins trying to suss it all out.” Preston said. Anne chuckled.
“I’ve never climbed through a window before, but if that turns you on...is that a thing here? There’s that Beatles song too. When I was in school it was the back seat of the car, usually on prom night. Of course you have to have a date first. Did I ever tell you about my prom?”
“No, you haven’t.”
“I’d waited all my life it seemed for that night. I remember being younger and seeing the girls dressed in their dresses like princesses and every year knew it was a year closer until it was my turn. Then it finally was...and of course I had no boyfriend and no one asked me. Finally I screwed up the courage to ask them myself. No surprise they all said no except one...Joe Michaels. I was so excited. I worked extra hours to buy the dress and shoes, the jewelry, to pay to have my hair done...the night came and I was all ready like Cinderella for the ball...but he never showed up. Of course we didn’t have cell phones then. I’d spent all that money so I decided to go by myself. I drove myself there, I walked in and he was there...with another girl. It had all been a big joke at my expense. He never planned to take me. I think a part of me knew it all along but I had held out hope that time maybe for once I’d be wrong. I should have just left but as I said, after I’d worked for it, spent the money...so I stayed. I ended up sitting at the same table...by myself...the entire night. Every time a guy would walk by I’d think maybe this time...maybe if I just wait someone will ask me to dance. It never happened. No one even talked to me the entire night. It was like I wasn’t even there.”
“Good god. I will never understand why people feel the need to be so cruel. I’m sorry, my love.” Preston said as he turned onto his side, caressing her cheek, brushing away a tear that had escaped from her eye before kissing her. He could see the pain in her eyes that she still held within her a quarter century later. After five years together, as she shared the stories of her life, one at a time, slowly over that time, he continually found himself astounded at not only the depth of cruelty she had suffered at the hands of so many, but that she had had the strength to continue through it all. He had encountered the typical troubles and frustrations of most teenagers and young adults in that period of his life but they had been nothing compared to what she had endured, his life relatively smooth sailing even with the divorce and then death of both of his parents as a young boy and being raised by his widowed grandmother.
“You have nothing to apologize for. You’re one of the very few that have nothing to be sorry about.” Anne said. Preston thought about their conversation in the car earlier that day. He realized how flippant he’d been, how oversimplified had been his advice. Then after what Robert had said he’d believed, that Preston had merely been using Anne as a cover for what he thought was Preston’s true sexuality just as celebrities of old had once married women they barely knew to keep their secret, it finally hit home to him after five years all that being with him meant for her, what she had to deal with almost every day.
“Yes I do. Earlier today, our little row in the car. You’re right, I’ve been a member of a club that’s given me privileges I never realized. I never asked to be, but I have been all the same.”
“But you’re right too, I need to stop worrying about what other people think. As long as I’m happy and you’re happy, that’s all that should matter. It’s late, we should get some sleep. I know you’re worn out. I shouldn’t have kept you up babbling about shit from almost thirty years ago. Sweet dreams. I love you.”
“I love you, too. Joe Michaels was a tosser.” Preston said kissing Anne’s forehead and wrapping his arms around her as she smiled at the insult to he who had jilted her long ago, both then surrendering to slumber.