Rob was distressed, as he emerged blinking in the sunlight, and not just by the greasy
stench of the pizza stall by the station exit or the unrelenting press of bodies
crowding the area round Oxford Circus. He had to get free quick - move with conviction,
purpose and no small amount of bad grace or risk being swept back down the steps
into the darkness of the tube station below. It had already been a fairly traumatic
day and it was barely half past eleven. Clutching the envelope containing the cause
of his disquietude he pushed on.
He was meeting Pippa for lunch, usually a consoling thought but today even that was
tainted with irritation. Passing the Argyll Arms Rob glanced through the etched glass
and allowed himself a moment's satisfaction – the satisfaction was in the passing.
Too touristy... nice enough but really - too olde englyshe pubbe, too packed. Not
going in there. Instead he pushed on and headed up Regent Street towards Langham
Place. Past the All Bar One – too expensive, too SHIT.
Pippa was working. But she was confident that she'd be “able to grab an hour or two
between sessions.” Rob hadn't paid too much attention to the details. He only knew
it was some high paid pop gig. She'd been going on about it for ages so it must be
quite a serious pay day. Pip was working. Rob wasn't. What more detail could he possibly
need? Still... there was just a chance that she'd have some new perspective on all
of this that Rob hadn't thought of... she was bound to put things in a better light
– she usually did. But Rob thought it was unfair to expect her to do it all unaided
so he'd generously turned up especially early to have a preliminary couple of pints.
And he knew just the place...
As Regent Street gave way to Portland Place the frantic crush fell away. Rob relaxed
a little as the altogether more genteel thoroughfare stretched ahead of him, down
towards Regent's Park. After just a few yards however, he peeled off along New Cavendish
Street before finally turning into the blissfully secluded Weymouth Mews and arriving
at his destination: the equally blissful and secluded Dover Castle. After the merest
of pauses to admire the now electric “gas” lamps, the burgeoning hanging baskets,
and the affluent cobbled surroundings Rob ducked inside and turned his attention
to the main business of the day: “Pint of Old Brewery Bitter, please.” Sam Smith’s:
not exactly everyone’s cup of tea, more to the point, not exactly everyone’s idea
of a decent pint but... given Rob’s parlous financial state it was a god-send. With
beer prices only barely limping beyond the £2 mark, if you didn’t enjoy your first
pint you could at least afford to persevere a little until you acquired a taste for
it. Getting change from two-fifty helped keep Rob (just) within touching distance
of his youth and (just) above the breadline whilst all around him the price of a
pint was pushing remorselessly towards four pounds.
So, if he’s so strapped for cash, why’s he drinking? Well, he’s not spending without
careful consideration. He’s going for value for money: the effect, he is confident,
would be two-fold. His delicate state would be ameliorated sufficiently that Pippa's
depressingly cheerful mood would not impact on him too severely, and subsequently
he would be rendered more receptive to any words of comfort she might have. So that
explains that clearly enough; at least he was doing something thoughtful and positive
with his time, not just drinking the day away for no good reason.
Taking his pint, Rob moved over to the window. He dropped the envelope on the table
and (might as well put it to some good use after all this time) set his glass down
on it, before slumping not altogether comfortably against the curved back of the
chair which, judging by the creaks of complaint, received him grudgingly. He looked
out of the window. The whole of the mews was bathed in sunshine. The light glinting
off the high gloss paintwork of the front doors and highly polished door knockers
was matched in intensity only by the light glinting off the wire wheels of any number
of sixties sports cars, peeping out beguilingly from beneath their tarpaulin shrouds
- a weekend indulgence and “guilty pleasure” for those with enough money not to feel
guilty about it at all. Rob’s only consolation was that the owners themselves were
nowhere to be seen. The added lustre as the sun caught their shining teeth would
simply have been too much.
All-pervading and all-powerful outside, the sun nevertheless knew its limits. Knew
when it wasn’t welcome. And so Rob sat in shade and seclusion with the added protection
of the trailing hanging baskets should the sun set to expanding its empire and dare
to reach into the pub. Sat and waited. And watched and thought. The pub was far
from busy, the clock only just ticking round to midday. Give it another hour and
things might change a bit with the lunchtime rush of those in the know, all proud
of their acquaintance with this secluded bolt hole but that was for later. Now there
were just a handful of drinkers inside. Strangers all, Rob nonetheless recognised
them well... It was at times like this that Rob wished he smoked. At a time when
the rest of the world seemed to be growing out of such romantic ideals, a time when
even the smokers he knew - as they took another long satisfied drag on their roll-up
- condemned it, with wagging nicotine stained fingers, as a disgusting habit that
they abhorred, Rob couldn’t help admiring and being ever so slightly envious of them.
He’d always rather cherished the idea that, despite the available evidence to the
contrary, he might yet grow up to be Peter O’Toole – the raffish charm and twinkling
eye being more than compensation for the ravaged constitution and weakened body.
The drinking part he reckoned on having pretty much cracked. I mean, alright, he
hadn’t quite racked up the number of debauched nights of drunken sin as O’Toole but
surely it was only a case of “when” and not “if”. At least it was an activity with
which he was familiar and he was fairly confident that he could ramp up his excess
at any given moment, when the time came. Smoking however, was a mystery to him and
something that he really ought to set his mind to before too long. Try as he might,
there was simply no shaking it – Rob knew: smoking was cool. Rob was good at drinking;
not smoking. Solitary smoking was elegant and cool but solitary drinking he still
struggled with and he had only to look around him to confirm why.
In the opposite corner - across the bar - sat another figure. For all Rob knew he
could have been looking at an image of himself in thirty years’ time, a gift from
the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (who had clearly developed a sideline of Hangovers
in April Yet to Come) – though if that was the case, he fervently hoped that someone
would put him out of his and everybody else’s misery long before that vision became
a reality. The man was dressed in a heady combination of Dunn and Co and Sports Direct
that simply screamed “past caring”: scuffed and worn Oxfords, nylon tracksuit bottoms
and Lonsdale polo shirt; the whole ensemble topped off with a threadbare cardigan
that even in 1978 could have been thought of as having seen better days. As he watched
the man nurse his pint, Rob shuddered involuntarily. The man wore a desperate, haunted
look. Every now and again his creased countenance would become animated, a glimmer
of light just discernable in his rheumy eyes. But all too quickly it would fade and
his body, unaccustomed to the sudden intimation of life would slump forward again
– the weight of the world on its shoulders. For all Rob knew, this man had discovered
the answers to all the problems of the world. Perhaps, should one engage such thinkers
and philosophers in conversation, there is no end to what one might learn. But no
one does engage him in conversation. He is left alone to debate his internal struggle.
Rob suspected that that desperation which he saw writ large was borne of the understanding
that any answers he had once had were lost to him now, never to come within reach
again. The greatest debate he now faced was whether drinking Sam Smith’s Old Brewery
Bitter had become a profligate expense and whether the money might not be more economically
spent on meths. For him, life is now a scene in a rear view mirror, receding into
the distance as the fog of alcohol rises all around him.
Rob’s gaze moved on in search of something less alarming. There by the door stood
a quite different figure. In truth he could have been dressed much the same. Rob
didn’t notice. What Rob noticed was the blissful, far-away look he sported - the
beatific radiance of his demeanour. Rob followed his languid movements as the hand
moved, away from mouth to poised resting place in space. The Smoker too was clearly
deep in thought but the problems of the world did not weigh so heavy on him. So serene
was that expression, the problems of the world had been contemplated and resolved.
More than that – with the serenity mingled a calm assurance and aloofness: An expression
which told the observer that he had solved the problems of the world but just wasn’t
gonna tell anyone. Subconsciously Rob’s hand reached out to take up his own pack
of virtual cigarettes and found... Pippa’s handbag.
“Hiya. Not been waiting too long have you? Get you a drink?”
Rob thought for a moment, the good sense in the offer was clear, “Old Brewery Bitter,”
he said, quickly draining the last inch of his pint. “Oh and have one yourself!”
“Oh can I? Great, thanks! You’re all...”
“Heart?” Rob suggested.
“Yes, something like that...!” Pippa smiled and headed to the bar. Rob watched her
go. There was no doubt about it, she looked good. He seemed to have been noticing
that more and more recently. She’d be just the girl for someone, all swaying hips
and pert buttocks, nicely packaged in the snuggest of jeans. In fact the someones
would probably be queuing round the block.
“What’ve you got there?” asked Pippa, returning with the drinks.
“I might well ask you the same thing,” said Rob looking at the drinks suspiciously.
“Pint of Old Brewery Bitter.”
“That’s err... controversial. Something up? He asked.
What a girl, thought Rob. With just a couple of words she’d cheered him up no end.
This was encouraging. “Shouldn’t you be making an effort and drinking something more
inclined to perk you up if you’re depressed?”
“Probably, but I’m depressed and old... and fat... and beer’s really fattening...”
Rob looked sceptically from his pint to his much slimmer, slightly younger companion...
and suddenly didn’t feel quite so cheered up again. Pippa caught his gaze and defended
herself, “Yeah, well it’s alright for you: You're a bloke. You don't get old, just
mature but us ladies...”
“...are on the scrapheap once we're wrinkly. With men it's a sign of greater character.”
“Well that’s relief,” said Rob “wouldn’t want anyone to be in any doubt as to the
greatness of my character.”
“I’ve been marvelling at all the athletic goings on. That makes you feel REALLY old!”
Rob was struggling to keep up, “Which athletic goings on?” Where was this conversation
“Durrrrr... World Championships? Usain Bolt?”
“A hundred metres in 9.58 seconds.”
“Right, you DO mean real athletics. I thought for a moment it was just an oblique
reference to your latest night out.”
Pippa wondered whether to look offended, “No nights out, and definitely nothing resembling
“Ah... ok... Sure?” Rob couldn’t help himself: he had to keep needling just a little
bit more, it helped cheer him up.
“TV watching, trying to write music, and shit pop gigs. That’s it.”
“Tricky...” Rob tried to sound thoughtful and sympathetic though he still had no
idea what he was sympathising about. “Anyway, surely athletics is an even sillier
thing to use as a yardstick for feeling old? Or did you do a lot of international
sprinting when you were twenty-four?”
“Not a lot, no... That’s why I’ve enjoyed watching it: It’s not what I do, I’m not
competing with them, just marvelling. But it is a bit funny when the commentators
say stuff like he’s doing remarkably well for his age. The guy’s only thirty-one!”
“Well,” said Rob, encouragingly, “You’re doing remarkably well for yours. It’s just
that you haven’t got Steve Cram around to tell you.”
“Should I phone him? Just so he can tell me?”
“You could give it a go... he seems like an obliging sort of fellow.” For a moment
or two they sat in silence, enjoying their drinks. Well – Rob enjoyed his drink,
the mineral water clearly wasn’t doing it for Pippa and sat untouched. Action was
called for, and Rob was just the guy to take it. “Gin and tonic,” he said returning
to the table.
“But of course.”
“Aww... you know how to treat a girl.”
“Good of you to notice. So, what’s the problem then?”
“Oh, just a bad day. Pop sessions aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. It’s one thing
to feel a bit old watching the telly, but to turn up to work, something I’m actually
pretty good at, and feel completely past it, is a bit much. I felt like their fucking
mother. They’re all just little girls. Most of them probably weigh about 7 stone...
added together. All flirty and giggly... I don’t stand a chance competing with that
“Oh come on,” Rob tried to be reassuring. “I wouldn’t let a load of little pop tarts
get you down.”
“Wouldn’t you? They’re busy out there hoovering up all these gigs and they can barely
“Would it help if I said they’ll soon get rumbled if they can’t play?”
“Unlikely. In showbiz, totty tends to beat talent.”
So much for reassurance. He tried again. “Would it help if I said as far as I’m concerned
you score pretty highly on both counts.”
Pippa allowed herself a faint smile. “Also unlikely. But you could always give it
“You look great, always do. You’re much better off than any of them. Funny as well
as gorgeous. They’re just fatuous and vacant. There’s so much more to you...” Hmmm,
p’raps not the best way of putting it... “I mean emotionally, not physically, but
then you do actually have curves... that’s a good thing... not a stick insect like
that lot...” Rob was struggling... wisely he gave up and hoped it hadn’t all sounded
too bad. “And Christ knows what’s actually behind all that make up....” he added.
Pippa smirked, “Well I could probably tell you the answer to that one: More make
up. It’s also been a very boring morning – plenty of time for the girlies to do a
bit more colouring in. Anyway, do you want a go now? Wasn’t I s’posed to be coming
to cheer you up?”
“Oh you are. You do – always.”
“Yeah , yeah, whatever! So, what is it then?” she asked, indicating the now slightly
beer sodden envelope.
“That is a lesson from history: My careers guidance report complete with a warning
about the perils of the music business.”
“Really? I didn’t know you had a career.” Pippa laughed.
“Ho ho... glad you’re cheering up.”
“Well that should make for some jolly reading. What guidance and direction is it
offering?” Pippa couldn’t help herself: she had to keep needling just a little bit
more, it helped cheer her up. “Turn right out of school, left at music college, careful
you don’t get stuck in teaching and from there you can’t miss it: straight downhill
all the way?”
“Oh you think you’re so funny. It’s actually not quite as encouraging as that but
you’ve pretty much got the gist of it. Ready? This is an area” he read, “where opportunities
are limited and often require a particular dedication to succeed. A career in music
will be most rewarding for the few who can find the opportunities; but for many it
may provide only a struggle to make a living against the odds.” Pippa looked amused
and delighted. Rob carried on. “Many people will not be suited to that struggle...”
“Oh I think we’ve got struggling down to a pretty fine art, don’t you?” Pippa giggled.
“We must be suited to it.”
“...a life of sacrifice and risk-taking” he read on, “where good luck also plays
a significant part.”
“Is that it?”
“Oh no, there’s plenty more. It’s a very comprehensive analysis. Get this: It is
difficult to judge for yourself whether you are good enough for a performing career...”
“Aww... is that why we always tell each other how good we are?”
“...It is unwise to pin hopes on a performing career unless you are also prepared
“Ugghhh... well I do teach... but whether I have ever been prepared for it is another
matter. Unless of course they mean making sure you’ve got your flick-knife and knuckle
duster handy before going into a room with the little darlings.”
“Hang on,” Rob chastised, “you quite like your teaching... I’m sure you’ve even said
it was rewarding once or twice.”
“Well....” Pippa reflected for a moment, “I guess they’re not all too bad – the older
ones that spend the entire lesson trying to look down my top are almost no trouble
at all... better than the ones that just shout and chuck stuff about anyway.”
“Oh here we go, the big finish: It is difficult to get work.”
“Is that all it says???!!” Pippa laughed. “Thank god you’ve told me, I’d never have
“Wait for it: Most performers find insecurity and hardship with little financial
“Brilliant! Who wrote it?”
Rob glanced at the top of the page, “Err... that's ISCO careers information sheet
number 67 for you: Musician.”
“Well... you gotta give it to them: they’re not wrong! Funny isn’t it: I went into
all this with a kind of blind optimism that it’d all be ok. Someone actually told
you how bad it would be and you did it anyway. And here we are, together...!”
“Well maybe I didn’t listen to them. There’s another bit here says that I expressed
an interest in music.”
“Gosh! That’s not like you.”
“So what other careers did they have in mind for you then,” Pippa asked. “What’s
the next one?”
Rob flipped the page. “Careers information sheet 30: The Diplomatic Service.”
“Fucking hell!!!” Pippa wiped the tears of laughter from her eyes. “Listen, I’ve
gotta get back to the pop tarts, sorry. But it’s been great seeing you. You’ve really
cheered me up.”
“No worries,” said Rob. “I’ll catch you soon.”
And with that she went. Rob sat there for a moment, reflecting. To say he felt better
seemed to sum things up perfectly. He got himself another pint and relaxed, his mind
drifting back to Pippa’s jeans and their contents. He was quite right, even if he
explained it better in his mind than he had in words: There was so much more to Pippa.
* * *
Pippa felt better. Rob had cheered her up. The Diplomatic Service... god that was
priceless. Had she thought a little more about the conversation she might also have
realised that scoring pretty highly on his totty and talent count had helped a lot
too, but she didn’t: she just felt good and enjoyed the afternoon sunshine as she
hurried back to work.