A short story about misplaced assumptions. It can be hard to look at yourself honestly, but it is always worth the effort.
It was just another hotel for Anthony, on the side of an ‘A’ road and not far from Boston. Not bargain-basement but not expensive; its willingness to take a single person booking for a single night on a Saturday had been its main attraction. It had meant he could do a day’s round of calling on customers in the towns near The Wash and then spend Sunday travelling up to Harrogate, ready for his next week’s targets in Durham and Yorkshire.
He liked working on Saturdays: the trade outlets didn’t expect him in the mornings and the retailers certainly didn’t expect him in the afternoons. He thought it gave him an edge. The best thing was that it was logical for them – Saturdays were generally their quietest day. Industrial-strength cleaning materials are more of a weekday product.
There was no-one and nothing much else for him to travel back down to London for anyway.
He didn’t know the Lincolnshire-Norfolk area at all well but during this trip, like all the others, he’d not had the time to explore it. He often thought to himself that he’d like to spend his retirement still travelling around England but at a leisurely pace.
His last two calls had both been in Boston itself. Slightly ahead of schedule, he’d taken the chance to look around the town a little. He’d been told that there were a lot of Portuguese people living there, which struck him as vaguely surprising. He was quite disappointed that he didn’t see any evidence of them, found the ‘Boston Stump’ impressive but in a predictable way and the town’s windmill attractive.
Arriving at the hotel late in the afternoon, the service was just on the right side of indifferent to save itself from being rude. To Anthony’s eye, it all seemed clean and maintained enough to not leave him worried about catching something. The bed wasn’t sagging either. All-in-all, it would do.
When he’d booked he’d been forewarned that there’d be a wedding party that weekend. When he arrived they were gathered at the far end of the dining-lounge area and that’s where they stayed all evening. There weren’t many: he counted twenty-six. He didn’t mind. Just before dinner another couple had booked-in but that was it for guests, and there was nothing about them to catch his eye. They kept themselves to themselves tucked away at the back of the dining area while they ate and then left for their room. The wedding party gave Anthony some people to watch.
Over a drink, over dinner, over coffee and over a couple more drinks later, he made sure he was seated where he could see what was going on. He found it interesting enough, if tame.
The groom was florid, too fat to be just flabby. His head was largely bald with whatever hair left closely shaved, and his ears stuck out. Anthony had long held the view that few people are beautiful; that in reality most are plain. He concluded the bride was rare for her genuine ugliness. Looking for a word to describe her, he settled on lumpy; she had bulges in all the wrong places. He was surprised that her hair looked a bit ratty – it seemed odd to him that she seemed to have not made much of an effort for her wedding. She didn’t even have a nice smile.
Anthony thought they were probably early middle aged but had the suspicion they might be younger and not wearing well. Either way, he thought, neither will ever change for the better now. He liked to keep himself reasonably fit and could never understand why so many people let themselves go to seed. All it took was a little regular effort.
The wedding party appeared to be made up of a few old pals from way back when; perhaps a couple of work-mates; at least two pairs of best mates, one his, one hers; a small smattering of close family members and assorted more distant relations. Anthony had adjusted his assessment of who was who as the evening had worn on but by the time dinner was over, he was fairly sure he was right and feeling quite pleased with himself.
What did strike Anthony as remarkable was that they all seemed to not only know each other but were friendly with each other too. He couldn’t detect any tensions at all. What was more, the dining room and bar staff also seemed to be very familiar with them. Anthony thought it likely that every single one of them was a local: ‘small town people’ he reckoned. He smiled slightly to himself as he decided they probably had never been anywhere outside of the county save a couple of cheap package holidays, and they’d have been to the nastier resorts of Spain.
The toilets were out in the reception area. The wedding guests had to walk by Anthony’s table to get to them. Without fail, as they did so they all caught his eye and acknowledged him with a smile, bride and groom included. He did notice the groom glancing at him a few times from across the room, but they were just fleeting moments; no-one made him feel like an unwelcome intruder.
There was no dancing. The only music was whatever the hotel was playing in the background. The wedding party were there to eat, talk and laugh. They were certainly a happy gathering. Anthony noticed the laughter came without a lot of drinking. The obligatory toasts were with something white and sparkling that Anthony thought wouldn’t have been real champagne; there were a few bottles of wine on the tables and that was about it apart from some soft drinks. It was mainly tea and coffee after dinner and just two brandies – drunk by the groom and the very grey, quite frail looking chap Anthony took to be the groom’s father.
Anthony associated celebrations with drinking so he found the relative abstinence curious. Even more surprising was the way the wedding party had all either left for home or turned-in well before midnight. He’d been prepared for a disturbed night and was almost put-out that it didn’t happen. As he lay on his bed fiddling with the TV remote and channel-hopping before falling asleep, he concluded the whole wedding must have been on a tight budget with none of the guests well off either. That would explain everything.
Never a morning person, Anthony left it as late as he could to go down for breakfast. By the time he was finishing – supermarket own-brand cereals, luke warm milk, mediocre coffee, cheap sliced white bread toast, tiny pots of over-sweetened jam – those of the wedding party who’d stayed the night were all settling their bills and saying their goodbyes in the reception. He decided to stay where he was until everyone had gone. There weren’t any Sunday papers to read but he found a tourist board leaflet to bide the time with.
“I wrote this for you last night.”
Anthony hadn’t heard him approach. The voice, so close by, made him jump. The groom didn’t seem to notice and handed him a piece of nicely thick cream-coloured paper. Acting automatically, Anthony took it, glanced down and saw it was a poem, handwritten in blue. Confused, caught off-guard, he nevertheless had the presence of mind to wonder why would this man be writing poems for strangers on his wedding night. Anthony’s face betrayed everything.
“Now the cancer’s taken hold Jane sleeps a lot. I have a lot of time.” The groom smiled.
Anthony could see he was being kind, friendly; that the smile and explanation were genuine, not intended to wrong-foot him. He tried to smile back but couldn’t, wanted to say something kind back but couldn’t think of anything and instead stuttered a “thank you.” He’d mumbled without looking up. Feeling foolish and rude, he tried again as he raised his head: “Thank you.” This time his words were clear.
The groom was already walking to the exit. He held up his right hand in acknowledgement and called out “good luck” without looking back.
Anthony, without any thought, followed him to the door and out but stopped in the shelter of the hotel’s porch as he realised he had nothing to say.
There had been steady rain overnight but the skies were clearing now. There was just a little drizzle in the air.
He watched the groom loading up their car – a few presents, what he took to be a hired suit in its plastic wrap, one suitcase. The bride, in a dove-grey raincoat, had been waiting outside, half-sitting on the bonnet, minding their things. The groom had to slam the boot twice to get it to shut. It was an old Ford Mondeo. Car finally packed, she stood up and Anthony heard her say “And now?” as they got in. Anthony couldn’t imagine what they might hope for.
The way out of the car park was at the far end; they didn’t drive by Anthony as they left. Anthony realised he’d wanted to wave goodbye, felt lame when he couldn’t and then pathetic that he’d wanted to. He pinched the bridge of his nose, rubbed his eyes with the same thumb and forefinger, found himself feeling something more than merely tired and wondered if this was what people meant when they said about being world weary.
Back in his room, he flopped down heavily on to his unmade hotel bed and read what the groom had written for him.
There are no preservatives, no chemical colourings
There’s just wholesome salt for your cuts
There’s no synthesised sweetener either
Don’t bother me with your ifs and your buts
There’s no rest for the wicked as always
That there’s no time like the present’s still true
There’s no business like celebrity either
You wouldn’t recognise the friends you once knew
The no nonsense no quibble guarantee
Buys no peace of mind for the wise
Talk is cheap and the salesmen will call
You sold your soul so don’t act surprised
With no milk to sour on your doorstep
If you fall silent without a goodbye
They’ll round-up some neighbours to say stuff about you
But whatever they say will be lies
No deposit’s required though there’s no end in sight
I’ll wave as I go and wish you good luck
They dangle the carrot from the same stick they beat you with
You know where there’s brass there’ll be muck
I can’t find any memories worth keeping
I should dig a ditch so they’ll trickle away
I’ve no plans worth the name for whatever time’s left
I can’t think of words that I still want to say
Good intentions, worse desires still linger
Thoughts no mind should ever enjoy
Give me a long handled shovel and a dark night
I’ve still the strong back I earned as a boy
The words in the crossed-out verse had been heavily, very deliberately, ex’d out.
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