“I was sacked from my job, came home in the middle of the day and found my wife in bed with another man. So I lost my job and my wife all in one day.”
“I’m so sorry,” said the stranger, who had joined me at the table in the corner of the room of the crowded pub. His white clerical collar advertised his profession, but there was nothing clerical about the way he drank two triple whiskies in quick succession.
I suppose shock had made me rush out of my house and wander along the high street and take the first bus that arrived. Getting off in this seedy district seemed as good an idea as any, and when I saw the dirty looking pub, appositely called The Last Hope, I went in past the cracked wall tiles, stood at the dirty bar, caught the eye of the lugubrious sweaty landlord and decided to get blind drunk.
“It’s good of you to listen to my troubles,” I replied to the vicar.
“Not at all, I just wish I could be of some help. In fact I don’t usually drink in the daytime, don’t normally drink at all. I just came in here because I was desperately lonely, and didn’t know what to do. You see, I feel a bit desperate myself. I’ve lost my faith.”
“Your faith in God?”
He nodded gloomily. “I’ve lost the belief I’ve had all my life, the one thing that gave me hope, the one thing I cling to in times of trouble.” He was almost crying as he drained his glass. “Apart from my family, having faith in God was the thing I care for most in the world, my faith in an all-powerful God seemed a part of me. Yet it has just vanished, pouf! Just like that!” He clicked his fingers. “Frankly, I don’t know what to do with myself now. Life is hardly worth living.”
A third man joined us at the table, sitting down and taking a large pull of his colourless spirit – presumably gin or vodka. “Hope you don’t mind me joining you two. I’ve been at the bar for an hour and I couldn’t stand hearing people laugh. The other tables are all occupied, and you both looked as miserable as I feel, and the prospect of seeing one more cheerful smiling face made me want to scream. I want to wallow in gloom”.
“So do we, mate, this is the miserable buggers’ table,” said the vicar, his voice slightly slurred. “I’ve lost my vocation, and my friend here has lost his job and his wife.”
“And I’ve lost my last hope,” added the morbid newcomer, his brow-wrinkled face and downturned mouth reflecting our shared misery. “I’m a novelist. I’ve been writing novels for ten years now, and got nowhere. I retired from my day job last year, got the pension and thought, now, this is my chance, I can write full time, and really produce the goods. And just last week I heard that my latest book has been accepted by one of London’s leading agents. He told me he’s going to make it a bestseller.”
“So what’s your problem?” I asked him.
“Apparently he said the same thing to forty other aspiring novelists. He invited me to see him at his office today, and when I got there the place was crowded with angry writers like myself. Someone told me that the agent had got so upset at having to reject everyone, that he succumbed to the temptation to accept every writer who sent him their work that week. He arrived at the office this morning, took all his clothes off and started mouthing obscenities and attacking people. He’s been carted away to a mental hospital.”
The vicar and I couldn’t stop laughing, and eventually the newcomer, who told us his name was Steven, joined in.
“Yes, I suppose you have to see the funny side of it,” he told us, offering to buy us all another round, which we accepted.
Drinks in front of us, five minutes later, Derek, the vicar, looked at me seriously.
“Listen Peter, can I ask you some personal questions?”
“Did you like your job?”
“Like it?” I thought for a moment. “Actually, I hated it. Talking to rich businessman about their tax affairs bored me witless, but it paid well, and my wife has expensive tastes.”
“And did you like your wife?”
That was easier to answer. “No. We rowed constantly, and actually hated the sight of each other. Neither of us had got around to suggesting a divorce.”
“You did a well paid job you hated for the sake of a wife you loathed the sight of. So, really and truly, you’re not much worse off, are you?”
“No,” I answered in amazement, seeing things for the first time with crystal clarity. “No I suppose not.”
We all sat and thought for a few moments.
“And Derek, can I ask you a personal question in return?” I asked him.
“Why are you so certain you’ve lost your faith? Forgive me if I’m talking rubbish, but surely the whole point of having faith in God is that it wavers now and again, and the important thing is that you mustn’t give up. Why don’t you just hang on in there, and do nothing at all and see what happens? Seems to me that you just have to try and have faith that one day you’ll again have faith. Does that make sense?”
“I suppose it does.” Something like hope entered his eyes. “Yes, yes, Peter, perhaps you’ve got a point. I was going to see the bishop and leave my parish, but maybe I just need a break to see things in perspective before I do anything I might regret. . . As you say, faith waxes and wanes.”
Steven hadn’t been listening, was sorting through some papers in front of him. “Look at these,” he said to Derek and me. “I self-published another novel last year, and I got mixed reviews. But here are some of the good ones. Surely I must have some talent as a writer?”
We both flicked through the reviews. Some were scathing, some were vaguely encouraging.
“Judging from a few of these,” said Derek after reading them for a while, with half glasses balanced on his long nose, “what it boils down to is, people think you’re talented with words – poetic and brilliant at semantic imagery, one of them says. Another says you’re a born wordsmith. But they all agree you’re not very good at telling stories.”
“Umm,” he answered gloomily.
“So have you ever thought of trying your hand at poetry?” I asked him, sensing Derek’s train of thought.
“Poetry?” Steven looked up. For the first time he didn’t look suicidal. “You know I never thought of that. Now you mention it I used to write poetry at school. I was pretty good at it.”
“So maybe that’s what you should try next. Roger McGough had to start somewhere – maybe he discovered he was a lousy novelist first?” Derek declared, popping off to refill our glasses at the bar.
When he got back he looked at the two of us before he began to drink. For the first time, he looked marginally less miserable.
“You know these past few years I’ve been rushing around with work, and gradually I realise I’ve lost all my friends, had no one to chat to, just to hang around with and talk rubbish. I’ve just been living to work,” Derek told us. “Talking to you two chaps reminded me of what it was like when I was a small boy at school. Everyone’s equal, you just muck in with the other boys, play games, make friends, fool about. I miss that. I really miss that.”
“Absolutely agree,” Steven said. “As you get older you lose the knack of making friends.”
“I know exactly how you feel,” I added.
“I’ve really enjoyed meeting you two,” Steven said, getting up. “You’ve made me feel so much better. Better get home now, before I’m too pissed to walk. But is there any chance you both might be in here tomorrow?”
“Yes,” agreed Derek eagerly.
“There’s every chance,” I added with feeling.
And, for the second time that day, I smiled.
(image by Kellogem from Pixabay)