A tale of despair, hope and dreams. Featuring the dark side of London's night-life.
| Archie Brown sat by the window of his London apartment. He peered out at a dark and menacing sky. It was only 4pm, yet it seemed much later. He brought a tumbler of whisky to his thin lips and sipped. Rain was already in the air and a storm looked likely. Glancing at the world below, he saw a bald man exit a taxi and dash across the street. Archie placed the tumbler on a low glass table, and leant back into the armchair with closed eyes. A deep and melancholy sigh followed. He drummed his fingers against the black leather armchair. It had been a quiet day. Archie had spent it alone, watching television and sifting through various legal papers that were scattered about the place. He drifted to sleep.
Archie was in his late-twenties, well educated and financially settled. His family was large, close and supportive. Whatever he needed had always been supplied. He had explored wildest Africa and travelled around much of South-East Asia. His life had been exciting and vibrant. Yet it had also been dull and empty. Something was missing, but he didn't know what. Life was rather odd, Archie mused. One can apparently have it all and, in the same moment, feel there is a gaping cavern within one's soul. He thought of it often. But the more he perused, the more frustrated he became. There was no answer or explanation. He was not lonely and he was not poor. He was supposed to be totally happy, or at least fully contented. But he wasn't. Life was indeed odd.
The room was dark and silent when Archie awoke. He slowly got to his feet and fumbled for a lamp switch. He shielded his weary eyes as the bulb flickered into life. It took a few moments for them to adjust. Archie made his way to the kitchen, yawning and stretching as he went. He checked his watch. It was late and he needed to eat something. He yanked open the fridge door. Except for a half-full bottle of milk and a lonely pair of carrots, it was empty. The cupboards were similarly bare, offering only a small bag of macaroni and a tin of peas. He had forgotten, or had been too lazy, to go grocery shopping in the morning.
As Archie pondered his options, the doorbell rang. He wondered who could be calling at such an hour. He certainly hadn't invited anyone over. Archie approached the door silently. The bell sounded again. Through the peep-hole, a stocky figure came into focus. Archie recognised him instantly.
"Are you in, old chap?" came a booming voice. "I was in the area so I thought I'd pop by."
"Yes I'm here. Wait a minute," Archie replied, unlocking the door. He invited the visitor inside.
"Ghastly weather out there!" huffed the newcomer, stomping past without wiping his feet.
"I hadn't noticed," murmured Archie, pushing the door shut.
The guest was roughly the same age as Archie. He had straw-coloured hair and wide eyes. He sported a goete and had large, red cheeks. His name was Henry Bridgewater, son of Lord Edward Bridgewater. His family were enormously wealthy and owned great swathes of land across Oxfordshire. To his friends he was known simply as Henry from Henley.
"So, how are you?" boomed Henry again. He glanced around the apartment. "Is Lizzie not here?"
"I'm fine, thanks," said Archie. "And you know very well Lizzie isn't here. She's in Suffolk this weekend."
"Of course," replied Henry. "A hen party, wasn't it?"
"Yes, that's right."
"Very trusting of you, old chap!"
"Not at all," said Archie. "She wouldn't do anything." He watched Henry remove his coat and throw it on the divan. "A drink?"
"Actually, I suppose you might as well take this," said Henry, handing him a large bottle.
"It's Champagne. What's the occasion?" Archie noticed a small card hanging around the neck. He brought it to the light and read its muddled inscription. Henry said nothing. "Well, I didn't realise you had such feelings for me!"
Henry's cheeks turned a little redder, but he managed to force a smile. "No need for details," he began. "A failed venture, that's all."
"Do you have grub in this place?" he asked quickly. "I'm famished!"
"There's nothing much," said Archie, turning to put the champagne on the kitchen table. "Lizzie may have stocked a few pre-cooked meals in the freezer."
"Pre-cooked meals!" roared Henry, scornfully. "Is that what you've been reduced to?"
Archie smiled at his old friend. "In truth, they are quite revolting," he said. "I was thinking of ordering out."
"Let's go out for dinner. My treat!"
"I don't know, Henry. First you write me a love note, then you ask me out to dinner. You'll be proposing next!" Archie jibed.
"Very amusing, you old fool," said Henry. "What about that little Italian restaurant around the corner?"
"We can't go there."
"Don't you remember what happened last time?"
Henry sat down by his coat. "Ah, yes," he said at last. "I'd forgotten. I suppose they might remember us."
"They do," said Archie. "I walked passed that place the other day. She gave me a terrible stare!"
"The waitress you assaulted," said Archie, calmly.
"I'd hardly say assaulted!"
"Call it what you will. You spanked her while she was taking our order!" bellowed Archie, recalling the dreary details. "Then we got kicked out. Lizzie and I used to dine there often. Now we can't!"
"Yes, sorry about that. But there're plenty of other places around. In fact, I know just where we should go. Get yourself ready!" commanded Henry.
The restaurant was full, but Henry had no problem securing a table. His family-name opened all kinds of doors. They were shown to a small table in the corner. After they had ordered, Archie surveyed the other diners. The place was a bastion of the bourgeois, filled with bankers, businessmen and lawyers. Archie scrutinised a portly gentleman who had risen to toast a colleague. His pompous voice boomed above the hubbub so that the whole room could hear.
"I sometimes bring clients here," said Henry, unfolding his napkin. "It's decent enough."
The two friends tucked in greedily once their food arrived. Henry grunted with approval as he made short work of his dish of guineafowl. Conversation remained muted while they filled their bellies.
"That's better," said Henry, dropping his cutlery on a spotless plate. He wiped his mouth with the napkin before refilling their wine glasses.
"So tell me about this failed venture," said Archie, watching the Merlot swirl into his glass. "Who was the client this time?"
"You mean from this evening?"
Her name's Sally. She just started at The Opinion last week."
"How old is she?"
"Twenty-four," replied Henry, without hesitation. "She works hard."
"And what does she do at The Opinion?"
"Well...odds and ends. She takes calls and organises things."
Archie smiled. "It must have been very important business for you to call on her so late."
Henry's cheeks coloured a little. He took a few gulps of wine. "It was," he mumbled.
"I saw the note, Henry. Remember?" said Archie. "So I have a rough idea of what you've been up to. And it wouldn't be the first time. But I gather something went wrong?" His smile widened. "Or she just doesn't fancy you?"
"It didn't go to plan. She was ready and willing. We were in her bedroom. Unfortunately, her husband came back before we could - ."
" - Husband!" shrieked Archie. "You've sunk to a new low, Henry. Cavorting with married women is a whole new level. Far more dangerous too!"
"Yes, all right. Keep your voice down." whispered Henry. "I didn't know she was married until late in the game. She doesn't wear her ring to work."
"Enterprising young lady," said Archie. "I expect she's heard that young, single girls can get a leg up at The Opinion."
A waiter appeared at the side of the table and collected their plates. He asked if they would take dessert, but Henry shook his head. Archie was equally full. After paying the bill, they went to retrieve their coats.
"It really is beastly out there." muttered Henry, peering out the window. "I don't suppose you have an umbrella we could borrow?" he asked, turning to the cloakroom assistant.
"Of course," squeaked the boy of no more than seventeen. "We have lots. Which colour?"
"It hardly matters. But a large one would be preferable."
The boy delved into a dark, narrow back-room.
"We don't need an umbrella. Your car's just outside the front. I can see it from here." said Archie. He checked his watch. "We'd better head back to my place."
"Archie Brown!" boomed Henry. "It's Saturday night. You should be out and about, not sitting at home with a cup of coco."
"I don't really feel like - "
"- I'll bet you Lizzie's having fun. You should be too." Henry interjected.
Archie sighed. He knew Henry did not like his fiancee. "All right," he mumbled. "A quick drink."
The boy reappeared clutching a black umbrella. He placed it neatly on the counter for inspection.
"That's perfect." said Henry. He grabbed it and made for the exit. Archie followed, miming a word of thanks at the boy.
"This is it." said Henry, looking upwards. They came to a halt in the middle of a dimly lit alley. A wooden sign with the words The Red Lion hung above them. There was no one about.
"This is it?" repeated Archie, a little surprised. He stared at the dilapidated building. The windows were all boarded up and the brickwork was beyond repair.
"Wait until you get inside." said Henry. He patted Archie on the shoulder and they entered through a large grey door.
The pub was much larger on the inside than Archie had imagined. It was filled with round, smiling faces. Alcoves lined the walls on either side, each table decorated with a small bunch of wild flowers. Horse shoes and tin plates were tacked against the ceiling's oak beams. The carpet, a victim of beer stains and dirty shoes, was dark red in colour. Laughter filled the room as the new arrivals unbuttoned their coats and ambled towards the bar.
A ginger haired bartender stood patiently as they surveyed the various ales. After ordering two pints of bitter, they settled on a pair of stools. A blonde girl in a white miniskirt walked past and seated herself a few metres away. Archie and Henry both noticed her, though Henry stared a little too hard. She was ordering drinks. Archie tapped his friend's arm to let him know their beers were ready.