Time. It has been such a long time since we have been confined to these tiny spaces. My room. My bike. My deliveries. The shop on the way home for beans, bread, vitamins. I have taken a step out, I messaged Martha and arranged to meet. Once a week. These are my notes on our times together, her and me, and James whom I knew from before Covid, and the remarkable regulars at Aesop's Playground.
amorals 1: Much Outcry
Welcome to Aesop's Playground, the finest local south of the river. In this pub you will be greeted in the finest traditions: stout, ale, lager, preselected to suit your taste; cider, perry and wines from quaffable to delectible; spirits and cocktails from the bartender's bible. You can eat from a rustic food menu or our traditional pub snacks. Let the gentle rhythm and hum accompany your tales for this is a pub for storytelling.
I put the laminated leaflet down and looked about the pub. The leaflet had clearly been written before Covid. No rustic food menu in sight. No variety in the drinks on offer. Spirit bottle holders empty save one, an unlabeled white spirit. The beer taps turned about. Probably been no beer on tap for over a year, not since the shortages. Beer cans only, poured with care by the barman. They have wine which is better than most pubs, well, according to the news as I haven't been to a pub in four years. A little over four years.
I was certainly not the first to come out of the seclusion, but there are still many who stay indoors. With each new wave of pandemic more and more people have become recluse. Of course, I have been working three days a week throughout, except the lockdowns when everywhere was closed. The last three lockdowns were particularly tough. Twenty percent pay barely covered bread and beans, and vitamin tablets. I was stoic though many might have suggested slovenly a more apt word. I shaved when the last lockdown lifted four weeks ago and went to work but those were the only two changes to my daily routine. I went straight home at the end of work. I did not leave my room on days when I was not working. And I still ate little more than bread and beans.
Then my pay came through. One hundred percent. I could afford to do something other than stay in my room listening to the nineties on Spotify. So I made a plan and found myself at the Playground.
On the bus ride here I sketched a person drinking from the kindness cup which I titled: Think of kind and clever things to say to people. The person I drew was thinking about friends talking: one of them on a bus, the other, Lorraine, like the LKJ song, at the other end of the phone. The person drinking from the kindness cup had tried to think of something witty to say to the one on the bus but failed, nonetheless the person drinking from the kindness cup persisted in searching for the witty comment as could be seen from the persistence lines and thought lines about the eyes. There may be another time to use such a clever and kind comment.
I added a note about the persistence lines and thought lines while I waited for Martha.
The plan I had made to get me out of my room was to message Martha: It's been too long, fancy meeting up for a drink? X. She replied: Sure, any afternoon in the week, I can be at the Playground at 4, it is on my way home from school xxx. Martha works in a school. Tuesday is the best day for spinning a good story, see you there.
I suggested Tuesday as I work on Mondays, then Fridays and Saturdays.
I arrived early to give myself enough time to enjoy a swift half: lining the stomach, loosening the tongue and calming the nerves. Martha arrived a good fifteen minutes late. She waved at me as she scanned the entry code with her phone. She gave the hand gesture of would-you-like-a-drink and headed to the bar like she would have before Covid, in the days of the social club when we both worked in an office. She brought two beers to the table, we said nothing before she sat down, removed her mask and took a long sip of her beer. “Figured I owed you that after arriving so late today. Should have remembered you are always early.”
I was not sure if she was talking about buying me a beer or taking a big sip to catch up with me. I decided to go with the beer.
“Thank you, you haven’t forgotten my favourite.”
“You get what you get.”
Conversation with Martha never hesitates, never halters. She always has something to say but even her conversation leant on the new small-talk, although she didn’t go for the standard how they have cocked up the latest restrictions.
“Isolation has not done you any harm, a little fullness counters your pallid complexion nicely.”
"And you, my dear Martha, it seems you have not been isolating at all. Even in the depths of winter you have a gorgeous glow."
"Oh I get out when I can."
I did not say anything for a while. I just smiled as she chatted about the people with whom we had worked. She listed what they are doing now. She gave only the latest detail as if I had been following their Facebooks or Instas. It is charming the way she does that whenever she meets someone: updating the present company on the latest of the company not present at the beginning of the conversation. When she had finished the news of friends in common she proceeded to extended anecdotes and complaints about her current colleagues. I found myself wondering if I should take notes of the names and the main complaints for future reference but decided this conversation would never need more than agreement, that I would not offend as long as I filled the pauses with no and you’re so right. And between my Nos and You’re So Rights I surveyed the afternoon drinkers. One man on a bar stool. It was good to see there is still a place for a man on a bar stool, even if the bar stools are at the end of the bar, in a section not interfering with the queue area.
I realised Martha was looking at me.
“Isn’t it meant to be table service?”
“Yeah, the code is on the table there but Aesop has some elderly and disabled customers so he does bar service too.”
“Of course, you were saying.”
Martha went back to her complaints about her colleagues and I went back to half listening while surveying the pub.
A woman seated in the corner reading a book, I couldn’t quite see the title, sipping from a glass of red wine, she shared a table with a couple whose heads were close together in quiet conversation. A lively large group occupied the booth, probably eight squeezed together discussing something with passion. I imagined they might be talking about starting a profanity embroidery group like the one I have just started following on Insta. It is simply fantastic. A table of three kids in the center of the space, probably have fake driving licences. And nearest the door a group of five youngsters, probably in their twenties, roudy, confident and with a carelessness years of covid gives to the young. The new normal is all about the youngsters taking centre stage. Three women, two men. The men are startlingly contrasting. The one a beautiful hipster with great poise and a fine physique. The other a scruffy chubby blond man who reminded me of the man Martha dated when we worked together. It was not his looks, it was his loucheness, his languid-ity, if such things can be determined by the way a man colonises his regulation issue pub chair. His name for a moment was beyond me, Martha's ex, that is, not the man in the pub. I have not been introduced to the man in the pub.
Martha was talking about a class which involved Aesop’s fable about the Mountains in Labour. I was not listening closely enough to know if she was talking about a pupil or an adult but she said the name Walter while I was mulling over the man in the languid repose.
“Walter, like the dude you dumped because he couldn’t give you an orgasm?”
We had laughed a lot at Walter’s expense when they separated, laughter therapy.
“Oh, I remember. But I never actually told you the story. Did I? I promised I would but I didn’t.”
She was right, the laughter therapy was usually triggered by my asking her to tell me the story of her orgasmic Walter and her promising to tell me the story of how hard he tried but the outcome was always the same. I was about to say now would be the perfect time for the story but I noticed someone coming our way, smiling. For a moment I thought he must be a friend of Martha’s but I remembered just in time he had worked with me. Though I am not good with names, I remembered his. I stood to shake his hand. We didn't shake, of course, just stood awkwardly for a moment having forgotten we should no longer touch.
“James, it has been a while. You remember Martha?”
“Sorry, I don’t, have we met before?”
“I don’t think so.”
They both looked at me.
“Martha worked at HB with us. Before. James was in marketing with me. But you weren’t part of the social club, were you James. So you guys probably didn’t meet. Anyway, would you like to join us for a pint or are you meeting someone?”
“That would be great, I am meeting someone but they are not here.”
“Same again, Martha?”
“And for you?”
“I’ll come with you.”
"There is no choice but I could do with a hand."
While we waited for our beers we went through the list of people in the marketing department, who had left, who was promoted. When we got back to the table I was feeling a little wicked so I asked James about one more person.
“Another person you might know about was Walter from HR.”
“Walter? Why are you asking about him? He was a dick. I always thought you didn’t like him. You always joined in when we mocked him.”
Martha was looking at me with wary eyes, knowing what was coming.
“Well, Martha was going to tell a story about him. A story she promised to tell me a long time ago.”
James could clearly see something was up.
“Sure, if you want, but of course it would be unfair to hold you to a storytelling promise when your audience has changed.”
“It’s OK James I don’t mind. I said I would, so I will, but you will have to forgive me as this story is rather rude.”
Martha smiled at me triumphantly, she had bested me in my little dare, just like in the old days of the social club.
“Walter was a dick. He was a louche dick I dated for several months. Of course there was also the abrupt, fastidious side of him that you saw in the office. You would have assumed him callous, even cruel, the type who enjoyed conducting disciplinary hearings. Well, to begin with that was the impression I had of him in the office. Yes we met at work, always a bad idea but it is where people meet. Of course that was when we weren't all working from home, but you know that already. Who knows where people will meet now, I'm not sure online is the best place to meet, I've a colleague who is dating online for the first time, but that is another story. Perhaps we'll get back to meeting in pubs, and socially distanced socials. So, where was I? Finance and HR used to have a monthly social late lunch after Simon joined the company, remember him? At one of these, I cannot remember the reason why, but it is a very me kind of thing to say, I said: the female orgasm is important, no, vital. It was not something bizarre, not weird. It fitted with the conversation, whatever that was, perhaps we had been discussing the Vagina Monologues, did the social club ever go see that show?”
I shook my head.
“Well, the thing I can remember clearly was Walter’s response: it is a question of care, and skill and persistence. That was it. The moment that changed my perception of Walter. I was hooked. I imagined exploring my orgasm with Walter. Yes, you heard me correctly.
“And whenever I had the opportunity, I would make a hint at it. When that film Desearas was showing I asked him on a date. Quite a first date, it might still be on Netflix if you haven’t seen it. In English.
“At a coffee shop in Waterstones, Walter told me about a book he had: She Comes First. It is a Ronseal book. It is about how to give women orgasms. First. I don’t know if he had just bought it or it was a book he had studied, but just the fact that he knew about the book was a turn on.
“Over dinner in an ironic Harry met Sally way he talked about foreplay, he talked about the multitude of erogenous zones. It was tinglingly erotic listening to him list names and types of touches in a matter-of-fact, best-bbc-presenter voice, like he was regaling a list every young man had learned in school. Shakespeare delivered by the neighbour’s nephew. Loudly enough for most of the diners to hear, well, the adjacent tables anyway. I imagined one of the diners saying: I want what she's about to get.
“He joined my salsa class, I don’t think you came did you?, the social club arranged it for a couple months. Salsa was fun while the social club organised it but when it stopped I didn’t continue. Anyway, Walter came because, he said, it is vital to be in tune with the rhythms of the body. It was the most knicker-wetting date I have been on, it didn’t matter that it was a work do, or that Walter was moving his lips while counting in his head, or that our dancing consisted entirely of bruising thumps as we moved out of synch. What mattered was Walter viewed this as a step to exploring my orgasm.
“Then a Friday about a week later came the main event. Walter didn’t like drinking with colleagues so we went to Clapham, near where he lived. We drank. We talked. We drank. We laughed. We did. Then we went to his. The time had come. The moment had arrived. We kissed. I am sure we kissed while the kettle boiled. He said he had to get a tea bag from his room. I followed him. We kissed again. He pushed and pulled, pawed at my clothes until they were off. I remember saying: It is easier if you reach round to undo the clasp. Then with the sensitivity of Usain Bolt he charged for the finishing line. Ten seconds and the condom was knotted and in the bin. And he was lying on his back, cheshire cat grin. I curled up into him with the hope of round two.
“Round two never came. Not that night, nor on consequent occasions. I stopped flirting with him about giving me orgasms and all that was left was the dick everyone in the office knew.”
Martha laughed then added.
“It’s what I was talking about earlier.”
It took me a moment to respond.
“Much outcry, little outcome.”
James raised an eyebrow.
“Aesop’s fable about the mountains in labour?”
James raised a hand at a man who had just entered the pub. Martha nodded.
“James, it was a delight to meet you, I hope this hasn’t put you off. It would be lovely to tell you the story about Aesop’s fables sometime. Maybe next Tuesday, same time, same place, for Tuesday, it would appear, is a good day for a story.”
Indeed what a plan.