Three years have passed since Anne left Oxford. Three winters have come early and gone late like unwelcome guests that stay too long. Summer’s lease, as we know, hath all too short a date, even in Somerset. Anyway, weather apart, Anne is now a barrister in chambers in Bristol. She is going through those years of starting a job and settling into it. How we long for our apprenticeship to pass and to be accepted by our colleagues and clients but when we look back, those years of learning often turn out to have been the best years of our life. Anne is the youngest person in the chambers, always with something new to assimilate, always with something new to get used to. Day by day she has to learn to do what the others do from habit. She has little responsibility as yet, but the work that she is in charge of is important to her. The years of study, the years of theory are finally put to use. She has to test herself. She has to find a place in the scheme of things. She is now part of the working life of the city and she is conscious of this as she walks through Queen Square with all the other people who are making for their offices during those busy minutes just before nine o’clock in the morning. Finally, she is doing something.
In these early years in Bristol, Anne met Quentin Goodish. Life went on in England too, not only on the road east and in Australia.
If Anne and Quentin had passed each other in Park Street, they wouldn’t have looked at each other. Quentin did not stand out among other men, and Anne would not have paid him any special attention. She was tall and attractive and was always noticed but Quentin wouldn’t have seen her because he always walked along, head down, absorbed in himself and his own concerns. How did they meet, then? How did it happen?
They had simply decided to go to the same play on the same night in the Theatre Royal in King Street. He went alone, and she went alone, and they been given seats next to each other. Later Anne often wondered if this had been a coincidence, or if the woman who sold the tickets had planned an evening for them. ‘Is my social life to be decided by the person in the box office? Has it come to that?’ Lonely they both were. Work had given Anne little social life. Her colleagues were mainly middle-aged men with young families and many commitments, people who had already chosen their various flight paths and who were busy.
Quentin had arrived at the theatre first. Five minutes later Anne was shown to the seat next to him. They nodded to each other, and both felt ill at ease since the other seats in the row were empty. However, once they were sitting next to each other, it would not have been right for either to stand up and move two or three seats away. So there they sat, uncomfortably, their elbows almost touching. Through the first act Quentin rehearsed what he would say, and when the interval came he said it.
“Would you like a drink?”
“Yes, that’s a good idea. Thanks.”
The invitation was not much to show for half an hour of thought, but it had the effect he hoped for, and they went together to the bar. Anne had been wondering, as she sat there next to someone who was on his own just as she was on her own, if anything would happen in the interval, and she was glad when something did. The bar was crowded and four harassed barmen were trying to serve fifty impatient theatre-goers in ten minutes. However, Quentin managed to get two beers and bring them back, without spilling them, to where Anne was waiting.
The rest was easy. In any crowd, once the “other person” is converted from a stranger into someone you have the socially accepted right to talk to, all the hard work is done. How often do you see the partner of your dreams, over there across the room, and you long to walk over and begin to talk, but you don’t, and they later get up and go, and sadly you watch them leave! But here the step was taken. The communication was now acceptable. ‘On you go, Anne. On you go.’
After the play, they left the theatre together, each much happier and with more hope in life’s possibilities than when they had walked in. A light rain was falling. It had been sunny when they had entered, but weather is immaterial. Better to be with someone in the rain than lonely in the sun. They walked down King Street to the Llandogger Trow. Quentin bought two more beers, and they embarked on that first, tricky, getting-to-know-you, summing-you-up conversation.
“Ah, so you’re a barrister, well, I’m an accountant. Where do you work? How
long have you been here in Bristol? Yes, it is a fine city. The play? Did you
like the play? So you’re from Somerset. I have an aunt in Taunton. Ah, you’re
from further north. The Mendips. Right. I’m from Bristol. Born here. Both of
us born in Clifton! Well! Can I get you another drink?”
Anne’s answers were fitted in among the questions; she asked a few things herself, and little by little they each constructed another acquaintance.
As he drank his beer, Quentin became more relaxed and being more relaxed he became more talkative. Anne listened patiently.
“Interesting, by the way, the name of this pub, ‘Llandodgger Trow’. It sounds odd, doesn’t it! I only learnt this recently, but Llandogo is a village on the River Wye a few miles above Tintern Abbey. Perhaps that’s where Wordsworth was walking when he wrote his poem. Around there anyway. In Llandogo they used to build boats called trows. Hence the name of the pub. ‘The Llandogger Trow.’ The trows sailed from Llandogo down the River Wye, along the coast of the Bristol Channel eastwards, and then taking the River Avon on the incoming tide, they reached Bristol, where they berthed at the dock down the road from here. ‘Treasure Island’ starts here too, in this very pub, except in the novel it is called the ‘Admiral Benbow’. Funny how novelists change the names of places. There’s no need to. They could just keep the name of the pub as it is. And here, so they say, Daniel Defoe met Alexander Selkirk, and so Robinson Crusoe was born. But I ramble on. I do ramble on sometimes. I’m so sorry.”
“I think they’re going to close now. We’d better go.”
“Yes, you’re right. By the way, what about the play next week? You know, at the Theatre Royal again? Would you like to go?”
“That would be lovely. Thanks.”
Quentin felt very lucky, and thought that for once he had received something which he did not deserve.
When Anne got home, it was nearly 11 o’clock, and just before she put the key in the lock she looked up The rain had gone, and it was a clear night, a clear frosty night, and every star was shining. She felt better. The stars were all in their places, everything was in its place, and things were going on as they should.
She felt reassured. The universe was on her side. She found Orion, with the three stars in his belt. It was the only constellation she could pick out with ease, and so it was the one she always looked for. In January and February Orion was at his best, high up in the sky and easy to see. Harvey had pointed it out to her on a crisp February night, the night before St Valentine, when they were walking back to her room after seeing a film.
If she could see Orion, everything was all right, and that night Orion was there, bright and clear, faithfully in his place, with his belt and with his sword, and things were OK. Yes, he was there, with the two bright stars at his shoulders, guarding his quarter of the sky. She turned the key and took a last look up at the sky. Then she opened the front door and went in.