At a crossroad.
Rarely were George and me alone at the same time in the bar, but the weeks after the New Year are notoriously bad in the trade. One Tuesday evening he and I were the only ones in the pub at 9 pm. He talked about closing early, but I said not to, we might get a few locals in the last hour. We started talking, and it slowly came to me why there was this difference between our styles. George spoke of the customers in terms of what they drank and how much they spent, rather than about who they were and what they did. We’d been sitting talking for almost an hour when a local walked in, with just 10 minutes to go before closing time. I could see that George wanted to tell him it was too late, that we were just about to close, but I greeted him warmly and got him his usual drink without being asked.
In the next 5 minutes, another 6 locals turned up, and I suggested we continue this in the snug, to which they all agreed. I could sense George getting agitated behind me, but at least, I was making money. The little session had lasted a couple of hours before we all called it a day.
Early the next morning George called me and asked me to come over before they opened for a talk. I was a bit concerned; surely he wasn’t going to sack me for staying late and getting him more custom?
Instead, he told me that he’d come to a decision. He said he had been thinking of giving up the pub, but instead he wanted to carry on as the licensee, but with me as the manager. “You have the right instincts for this game,” he said. “You were right to keep open last night, but I would have closed because of the lack of customers.”
He said he would be in at least once a week to check the books and make sure everything was running OK, and he wanted to make the final decision on hiring staff. Apart from that, I’d be in sole charge of everything on a day-to-day basis. Above the bar, there was a three bedroomed apartment, and some other rooms from when it had been a hotel, and I was welcome to use any of them I chose.
“But what are you going to do?” I asked.
He smiled, probably the biggest smile I’d ever seen him have.
“I’m going to paint,” He said. “I’ve always had a dream of being an artist but never had the time for it. I’ve got a small cottage down by the coast, and I’m going to live there and just paint. I really don’t know if this will work out, but I need to try at least before I get too old to do anything.”
He took me upstairs and showed me some of his watercolors. I had no idea he had this secret obsession, but now I thought about it, it all fitted into place. I remembered occasions when I had caught him staring into the near distance, seemingly entranced by the view out of the window. Of the vague smell of turpentine that I had caught from his clothes. I resolved to try to be more observant in future; you never knew where these sorts of insights might lead to.
Looking at the pictures another connection came to mind, and I asked him where his cottage was.
“It’s just down the coast near old Hunstanton. I got it a few years ago when someone local had just done it up for renting out, but they decided to sell it instead.” He described where it was, and I realized, somehow without surprise, that it was the cottage I’d worked for Graham on all those years ago.
I took the rest of the day off to think things over because I really needed some time alone. I drove back to the road behind the cottages and stopped to look at the places that held so much history for me. I thought about Ruby and Betty and Maggie, but especially Ruby. I still dreamt about her from time to time, and would wake sure she was holding my hand. I thought about all the other girls I’d known since then, some of whom I could even remember the names of, but mostly they seemed to be an amalgamation of images and memories. But always, my thoughts came back to Ruby.
I was at a crossroads, at least, that was how it felt to me. If I agreed to be manager it wasn’t that there would be more work, I was always a hard worker and that didn’t scare me. I’d certainly get more money, and maybe be able to afford a better Jag. But it meant being “responsible,” being tied down to a job that I couldn’t just leave on a whim. On the other hand, what an opportunity, and what a lot of fun it could be! I could already imagine the parties we would have, and I smiled when I thought about the girls I could entertain in the upstairs rooms.
It started to get dark, and I realized that there was one way I could clear my head of the confusion. I drove deep into the countryside and felt the thrill inside me start even before I stamped down hard on the gas. 15 minutes later, I was dripping with sweat, breathing hard, but still alive and unharmed. I drove back to Lynn at an average speed with the top down and told George I’d be really glad to be his manager.