Where new writing finds its voice
Short Story


Ronald Grover


In those days I was still trying to be a poet. It was hard going and I didn’t make much money. That particular day, however, I received a letter from a review saying that they would be glad to publish one of my pieces. They also said I should send them other poems that I thought might fit.

I told this to Brooks when I met him in the afternoon. We sat hunched on one of the benches on the South Bank, to the right of the bridge and facing the river. He looked carefully at me and then went back to rolling his cigarette. The wind was just then starting to pick up and he had to work the paper close to his body.

‘You were late today,’ he said, lighting his cigarette.

‘I know. I’m sorry.’

‘I don’t see the point in me taking the time to meet, if you’re going to be late.’

‘But it’s good news, don’t you think?’

‘I suppose so,’ he said.

We said nothing for some minutes. Brooks just carried on smoking as I watched the river brawling along. I was, I confess, sore. I had arranged to meet Brooks because I thought he’d be pleased. He was the one always telling me to send off my work, not to worry about the rejections, and if I got any, to send off some more.

‘Come on,’ he said finally. ‘I’m meeting Stein for a drink anyway. I’ll buy you one as well.’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Come on. By way of congratulation.’

Brooks stood up and I looked at him. He wasn’t a tall man and his grey overcoat almost swallowed him whole. With his thin white moustache, he looked like a provincial headmaster. Behind him, the afternoon was turning bad.

‘Fine,’ I said. ‘But you’ll have to buy me more than one.’

We left the bench and went down the steps and along the dull paving, joining up with the office workers scurrying back from lunch. I did not much want to talk and ended up keeping behind Brooks. He kept on looking over his shoulder like a mournful spy trying to tail his quarry from in front. At the crossing we forked left and down to the old arches. I followed Brooks inside the pub and made for the corner where I could face him and face the bar, and let the heat from the radiator press against my calves. Brooks brought over two pints of beer.

‘Here’s to you,’ he said. ‘Here’s to writing.’

We clinked glasses. Brooks remained swaddled in his overcoat and here, inside, he looked all of a sudden very small. He looked old.

‘Hello chaps!’

It was a voice from the other side of the pub. It was the voice of a red-faced man with thick hair. Stein. He lumbered over.

‘Hello Brooks,’ he said putting a rough paw on Brooks’s shoulder. ‘Hello,’ he said looking at me. ‘Didn’t expect to see you here. Just grab myself a drink and be right back.’

Brooks stared at his pint.

‘Anything the matter?’ I said after a while.

‘Nothing. Should it be?’

‘I’m sorry I was late.’

Brooks shrugged. ‘Are you writing anything else?’

I took a sip. ‘I’m working on a few things. It’s difficult to find the right words.’

‘It’s impossible to say just what you mean?’

‘Impossible to say what you mean about what?’ boomed Stein. He clawed a stool and sat down, spilling his drink across the table. ‘Can’t seem to say enough, myself.’

We spent that afternoon in the pub. I got drunk, not enough to fall over, but enough to warm my blood and to make my mind wrap everything in a melancholy air. Stein talked a lot about his work. He had been writing some sort of verse epic for as long as I had known him, some two and a half years. To be frank, I did not think he would ever finish. Brooks was quiet, only really speaking to prod Stein along. It was as if he had run out of things to say and I ended up feeling bad for being so short with him before.

Stein eventually left. He had a small job on the side, tutoring rich children, and had to be in South Kensington by five. I went to the bar and bought another pint of beer for Brooks.

‘Is it your writing?’ I asked Brooks when I returned.

‘Is it that obvious?’

‘Just a guess.’

‘My writing and my wife too.’


‘Yes, I got married a few months ago.’

‘I didn’t know that.’

Brooks twisted his cuff. It was badly frayed. ‘She wants to go away in the summer. To Spain. And then she wants her mother to come and live with us.’


‘I love her, but I’m drowning. How am I supposed to write? I can’t write with all the money I need to make to keep her and soon her mother.’

‘How much do you make?’

‘Hardly anything. Nothing. I have a script that I’m hawking around and I still get a few royalties from the plays when they get put on, but really nothing.’

‘But you still try to write poems?’

‘I have no time. My mind’s taken up with numbers and schemes and a whole amount of calculations.’

‘What does your wife think?’

‘Jesus, boy, that’s the worst of it. She thinks I’m at work.’

Brooks told me the story. His wife had told him she could never marry a writer and he resolved to her that he would not be one. He woke every day at seven o’clock, breakfasted, and left the house at eight. He’d walk around and if it got cold he’d skulk in a department store or a library. On Fridays he might try to spend the day at a cinema. At six o’clock, he’d drift back to his wife and tell her what a dull place the office was and how glad he was to be at home and in her arms.

I was incredulous. ‘Why don’t you get a job?’

‘Don’t you think I’ve tried?’

‘How long has this been going on?’

‘Ever since we got married.’

‘Oh Brooks,’ I said. ‘Oh Brooks.’

We finished our beers in silence and Brooks walked with me to the station. The evening was melting into that drizzle London knows so well. As I was about to go inside, he put his hand on my arm,

‘You know what I see when I see the river?’
he said.


‘Nothing. That’s the problem. To me it just looks like a river.’

I never saw Brooks again.


* * *


I plodded on with the poetry for a while but I soon got tired. It is a hard thing to be told again and again that the things you’ve made are no good. I ended up giving it all away and a friend of my father’s got me a job working in insurance. It was dull work, but not at all hard and I earned a good wage.

Then, two years ago I was on the train, on my way to Lille for a big conference they have there. It was a Thursday evening and because I did not have to go back to my family until Sunday, I decided to have a drink. In the buffet car I thought I knew the man at the front of the queue. When he glanced over, I recognised him as Stein. I had not seen him for many years. After I left off trying to write, I left off meeting with the old circle, Stein and all, because there did not seem to be much point. Poetry was what we spoke about. If I didn’t have that, I was like a day tripper out to fish with salt-washed men from Humberside.

But Stein recognised me as well, and we greeted each other with good strong handshakes. I discovered that he was in reinsurance now and heading the same way. He bought me a drink and as we fell to talking about old times, I asked him if he knew what had happened to Brooks.

‘Is he still married?’ I asked.

‘Married?’ said Stein. ‘Never knew the bugger got married.’

‘I’m sure he had a wife.’

Stein looked at me in a funny way. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘did you ever read anything Brooks had done?’

‘No, nothing. I thought he’d dried up.’

‘That’s because he’d never written a word. I read an article about the whole thing. Born rich, so rich he probably pissed gold. Name wasn’t even Brooks; that was just the club he belonged to. He’s got a great pile in Gloucestershire somewhere. We should visit.’