First Night: The Conflict Between Hope and Cynicism
Story by Dr. Lee Brazil
Foreword and Epilogue by:
Written by Ron Breazeale, Ph.D.
All Rights Reserved
The Marble Arch Hotel
December 19, 2019, 8:00 A.M.
Lee had ordered room service for eight o’clock. An American Continental breakfast — orange juice, coffee and pastry. He needed something familiar. But the pastry was a British scone, of course. And the coffee, he liked it strong, but one sip was enough. Liz, who had recalled she was in England, ordered a better choice, tea. Lee enjoyed complaining about English cuisine, but the food and the complaints were distractions that didn’t work. Lee’s mind was on neither.
Lee tipped the waiter a pound and closed the door, double-locking it again. Lee examined the food carefully. God, am I paranoid? he thought. Maybe he should call the front desk and ask for a food taster. He could remember restaurants in the States, especially a couple in Newark Airport in the late seventies, where having a food taster would have been a good idea. This was before their major makeover in the 1980s. In the ‘70s the main terminal could have served as a set for a World War II movie. The whole place felt like a strong wind could have taken it down. And the few restaurants that were there were inhabited by wildlife, some human and some not. Lee remembered a dinner there, if you could call it that, when one of the nonhuman ones with a gray fur coat and a long tail darted underneath his table.
“Breakfast is here already?” said Liz, pulling her eyeshades off. Lee had never worn the pair she had bought for him many years before. He had made a joke of it, saying that he was sure he would wake up in the night and think he had gone blind.
“How’d you sleep?” asked Lee, still mumbling under his breath about the coffee.
“Not that well.”
“Me neither. I kept thinking about the guy at the station and the car at the airport.” He paused. “Let’s just get this thing over with.”
He handed Liz the cup of tea.
“Where’s the honey?” Lee handed it to her. He poured some cream into his coffee, sniffing it before he poured. “Is it spoiled?”
“No, just checking.”
“Oh, hell. Nothing, Liz. I’m just a little . . . on edge this morning.” “Well, I’m feeling better about this trip. Looks like the sun’s out. We’ll do some sightseeing. Have some time together.” Here she goes, Lee thought.
Liz continued. “Take in a nice restaurant. Maybe do a little shopping before . . .”
Lee interrupted. “The main thing we’ve got to do today,” Lee said with certainty, “is pick up the package at three-thirty sharp.”
“The package,” said Liz, in a mocking tone. “I wonder what’s in it.”
“I have no idea, and I don’t want to know.”
Lee tried to weaken the coffee, which had a viscosity like oil, with more cream while Liz resumed her channel surfing from the previous night. “I think I’ll go down to the lobby and see if I can find a copy of The Times.” Liz nodded. As soon as he closed the door to the room, he wondered if the lobby bar was open. He felt a familiar craving coming back that he hadn’t felt in months. Lee hadn’t had a drink since the accident. The police officer who knew Lee, did not give him a sobriety test; he just wrote up the incident since it was a minor single car accident. Black ice. Driving too fast. Lee had skidded off the road and taken out the headlight and fender on the passenger side. He had had a couple of drinks with Dr. Forester after work. But he knew it was a wake-up call and he heeded it.
Lee didn’t get on the elevator. He went back to the room.
“No Times?” asked Liz.
“No, I didn’t go,” said Lee, returning to his coffee.
“You don’t look so good. Did you sleep at all?”
“Not that much.”
“What are you thinking about?”
“The changes we’ve made in the last few years since I got back.”
After being away for so many months, Lee had had a hard time restarting his practice and his life. All he had told people, all that he could tell people, was that he had been away working on his book and had gotten caught up in the accident at the Pine Grove nuclear plant, and his return had been delayed because the government had somehow gotten the mistaken idea that he and Angus, a friend of Lee’s, had something to do with the accident. But the people of Winterpool thought that there was more to it than that. There had been rumors. Small town rumors. Liz and Lee had separated because of another woman. Lee had been undergoing treatment for a cancer caused by the nuclear accident.
Lee knew a lot about rumors and how destructive they could be in a small town. There was his great-uncle Bush. Lee had grown up hearing the stories from his mother. His great-uncle had been driven out of his home and into the Appalachian woods by rumors. Rumors that he had killed a young woman and her husband. He had not, but he stayed in the woods. He became a hermit. Years passed. But the stories only got larger and more frightening. People were afraid of Uncle Bush.
“Being alone,” Lee’s mom would say, “gave Uncle Bush plenty of time to think and hope.” He decided he would create an even bigger story than the ones the townspeople were telling. But he also wanted to hear their stories before he died — or, as they would say in those days, “got low.” So he arranged, with the help of the town’s undertaker, his own funeral — a funeral that would be preached before his death.
Lee thought he must have a lot of hope to try such a thing. It was the middle of the Great Depression. But the funeral director and some of the townspeople saw the opportunity to create some publicity for themselves and their town, and an opportunity, of course, to make some money. Lee smiled, remembering all of this. He guessed rumors could lead to something positive. Uncle Bush got to hear the townspeople’s stories and to tell his own. His funeral was a great success. Hundreds came, including Lee’s mother and father. It made national news and his story was eventually made into a movie, Get Low, with Robert Duval playing “crazy” or optimistic Uncle Bush, depending on how you thought about it.
So, it had not been easy for Lee, even with the help of friends like Griff, who insisted that he spend time on his fishing boat, or by old friends who visited them when the demands of their lives allowed.
The drinking had been a refuge. Just a couple. No harm in that. Every evening. And then one at lunch. And the weekends. Another bottle of wine — or two or three? Liz and Lee had argued about the drinking, but Lee hadn’t listened to her until the accident.
“You know, Liz, I didn’t know what would happen when I came back from Boston.”
Liz smiled. “Well, I wasn’t sure we would ever get you back from Boston.” She switched off the television.
“I know, but — but I mean with us. Dru out of the house. Retirement.” He looked down at the floor. “Well, partial retirement. Just you and me.” He looked at Liz. “I didn’t know if we could,” he hesitated, “if we could make it.”
Liz didn’t say anything. She was waiting for Lee.
“Well, I’m feeling pretty good about our chances. I mean, I’m feeling pretty good about us. You know, we seem to argue less. Our . . . well, our timing with each other is better.”
“It’s still not the greatest sometimes,” said Liz.
“And other things are better, too,” said Lee with assurance.
“You mean sex?”
“Well, that too,” said Lee with a smile.
“Why is that, Lee?” she said, looking directly into Lee’s eyes. “I haven’t changed that much.”
“I guess I’ve changed the way I think about all of that.”
“What do you mean?”
“I didn’t want to change.” Lee looked away. “I didn’t want to accept the way things were. How I needed to change. But flexibility is a good thing,” said Lee with a chuckle. “Hmm. You’ve got to change your thinking before you can change what you’re doing.” He paused. “I guess I finally took my own advice.”
“Well, I’m glad I’m married to a flexible man.” She put her arms around Lee, pulling him back into the bed and she kissed him. Really kissed him.
“So why don’t we practice what we preach?” And they did.
The sun rose higher in the sky and the morning passed. The maid’s knock at the door roused them around noon. They showered and started to dress. Lee asked her again not to go with him. And predictably, Liz refused. They decided to try the park again. This time there were no men in trench coats. The sun felt warm. They sat on a park bench and stared at the sky and said nothing.
“Honey, it’s almost three. We had best get a taxi. Let’s walk over to Paddington and catch one.”
Before they could reach the station, Lee waved one down on Edgeware.
“The Tower of London,” he instructed the cabbie.
“Right. Straight away,” said the young driver.
The Tower was in central London on the north bank of the Thames, a complex of buildings and towers that had served as a fortress, royal palace, and prison used most famously by Henry the Eighth as a prison for one of his wives, Anne Boleyn. William the Conqueror in 1078 had built the first tower, the White Tower.
Traffic was heavy. As they approached the Cannon Street Station, a truck suddenly pulled out of a side street, narrowly missing the cab. The young driver’s quick response averted a crash that might have killed all three of them.
“I’m sorry, sir. I don’t know where the bloke came from. Are you okay, ma’am?”
“Yes, I’m fine,” said Liz, regaining her composure. Her face was flushed.
Lee didn’t speak. He just looked at Liz. They both knew what had just happened, but they agreed that talking about it more at that very moment would do them no good.
The driver dropped them at the Tower tube station. He apologized again. Lee gave him a good tip, and he and Liz walked toward the entrance gate.
The Tower was clearly a fortress between two concentric circles of defensive walls and a moat. Even in the bright afternoon sunlight, it still looked foreboding.
“You know this place has ghosts. Anne Boleyn, who was finally beheaded by her loving husband Henry, has been seen walking around the White Tower carrying her head under her arm,” said Lee.
“Please, Lee, no bad jokes about a woman losing her head over a man,” said Liz, looking for signage. “So, where are we going?”
Lee was thumbing through the Authoritative Guide to London. “It says the museum is near the center of the complex.” They walked on toward the White Tower. The Museum of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, City of London Regiment, was in a building off the main courtyard.
“Is it time, Lee?”
“Almost. The caller said,” repeated Lee with a cadence, ‘Don’t be early and don’t be late.’” He paused. “You can wait out here.” “No way. I’m going with you. The whole place gives me a chill.” “Hey, you’re the one who insisted on coming.” They walked on.
“Relax,” said Lee. “The last execution was in 1601.”
“Are you forgetting the one a few minutes ago for which we were almost the guests of honor?”
Lee smiled. “Well, in that case, would you like to see the Crown Jewels before we leave?”
“I think I saw them this morning.”
Lee smiled again.
“There’s the entrance to the museum. The ticket clerk is supposed to tell me where the package is. Well, here goes nothing.”
They walked past the sign apologizing for the lack of access for persons with a disability. Liz trailed behind Lee. Lee approached the ticket booth and placed a ten-pound note on the counter. The clerk slid the change and two tickets through the opening in the glass. Lee waited. The clerk said nothing. When Lee didn’t move, the clerk pointed to the tickets. Lee picked them up and waited. The clerk pointed at the tickets again. Lee looked at them again and back at the clerk. The clerk took the tickets out of Lee’s hand and turned them over. There was a handwritten note on the back of one of the tickets. Lee nodded. Lee was sure he would never have made it as a secret agent.
He turned to Liz. “Okay,” he said with a sigh, and they entered the museum. The note on the back of the ticket said, Under the right corner of the portrait of Field Marshal Sir Edward Blakeney.
“So, what do you want me to do?” whispered Liz.
“Just help me find this guy,” said Lee, as he started to scan the walls of the museum. “You know, I think someone doesn’t want us to pick this package up.”
“I think you’re right, Sherlock,” said Liz as she looked for a nameplate on one of the portraits. “Boy, this place is low tech. No cameras that I can see.”
“How about this one?” asked Liz?
“No, that’s Lord Dartmouth,” said Lee, looking at the Visitor’s Guide. There was no shortage of portraits of scenes of battle in the museum. But finally, on the back wall they found the right one. Sir Edward Blakeney, fourteenth Colonel of the Royal Fusiliers.
Even though the museum was now empty of visitors, Liz stood guard. “Doesn’t look like there’s any alarm wiring attached to the painting.” Lee felt for the package behind the portrait’s frame.
“Sour-looking fellow,” said Liz, staring at the portrait.
Lee nodded, but his attention was on the frame.
“Who could want to steal this guy?” groaned Liz.
“The damn thing must be awfully small,” said Lee as he ran his hand across the back of the portrait. “Hurry up, Lee. They’re going to close.”
“I’m hurrying . . . here, I think I’ve got something.” Lee pulled out a CD case and read the title, “Greatest Hits of Rock ‘n Roll, Volume I.” He put his hand behind the frame again and felt the right corner. “Nothing else.” Lee looked at Liz and shrugged. “I guess this is it.” He slipped the CD into his coat pocket. They tried not to look guilty, nodding and smiling at the ticket clerk as they left the museum.
“No more sightseeing for today, right?” asked Lee, as they walked toward the Tower Hill Entrance.
“What do you think?”
They pushed through the crowd that was gathering for the Beefeaters, the Tower guards, the Ceremony of the Keys which was performed every evening as the Tower was secured for the night.
As they exited the last tower, a raven swooped past them.
“Is that a good sign or a bad sign? I can’t remember,” asked Lee. “Something about being by your window…” Lee mumbled.
Liz wasn’t paying attention. She had her mind on getting back to the hotel.
“Let’s take the Underground,” said Liz. “I’ve had enough with taxis for today.”
The tube station was clean. The train was on time. And they weren’t being followed.
“So, I take it we’re staying in tonight?” asked Lee, as they stepped into the hotel elevator.
“I don’t understand you sometimes, Lee. One minute you’re wired and paranoid, and the next minute you’re doing a comedy routine. I think we’ve had our share of luck for the day. Let’s not push it.”
“Well, I think some days things just reach a point where the only thing you can do is laugh,” said Lee, trying not to sound defensive.
Liz didn’t say anything.
The room was warm. They had left the heat up. The bed felt soft as Lee kicked off his shoes and laid down across it.
“I’m hungry,” he said. “Let’s order something from room service.” Lee thought about how good a beer would taste. The craving was still there. The kitchen was busy and room service was slow, even though their order was small and not very exciting. Fish and chips. Lee ordered bottled water. The craving for having a drink had started to pass. When the meal finally arrived, his appetite had also passed. They both sat in front of the television and watched BBC news. There was new fighting in Baghdad. More car bombs.
After the news, Liz pulled out her mystery novel. Lee thumbed through the AAA Guide to London he had bought a few weeks before. They made two phone calls before getting ready for bed. Liz called Val and made arrangements to meet her the next morning at Harrod’s. Lee called their daughter, Dru.
“How are you, honey?”
“Dad, I’m great! I miss you guys. Hope you’re relaxing and enjoying London.”
“Oh, we are.” Little did she know.
“You need to retire, Dad. I mean, really retire.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know, but . . . well — well, we’ll talk about it . . . again. How’s your boyfriend?”
“Rob, Dad. He just got that job with Marine Resources that he applied for months ago. Took forever.” Rob had been out of college since his graduation in the spring, but with no job. He had finally found work in his field, which was considerably better than the thousands of college graduates who had not.
“Well, I’m glad to hear he’s working, especially in this economy,” said Lee.
“We have to talk with you and mom when you get back.”
“What about?” said Lee, sounding alarmed.
“Well, our plans.”
Lee took a deep breath. “Your plans? That sounds serious.”
“Well, yes, I think we are.”
Lee wasn’t quite sure what to say.
“Well, that’s great, honey. We’ll talk when we get back. We’ll have plenty of time during the holidays to do that. Here’s your mom.” Lee shook his head and mouthed, “don’t ask” and handed the phone to Liz who immediately began to discuss the shopping trip she was planning with Val. By the time the phone call ended, Lee had paced around the room three or four times.
“Well?” Liz asked.
“Well, what?” Lee waited.
“I know,” said Liz. “They’ve been talking about marriage.”
“Lee, we will talk with them over the holidays. There’s not much we can do but listen. She’s an adult and a responsible one.”
That seemed to satisfy Lee, at least for the moment. Liz and Lee took turns in the bathroom. They talked briefly about the next day. Lee would be taking the mid-morning Eurostar out of St. Paneras Station. He would have plenty of time to think about his only daughter and her boyfriend . . . fiancé . . . on the Eurostar.
About ten o’clock Liz turned the light off. Lee lay awake for a long time that night. Jet lag, men in brown trench coats, large trucks, and Dru. When he finally fell into a deep sleep, he dreamed of the evening in the early fall, many years ago, when he and Liz had walked the Boulevard around Back Cove in Portland, Maine. That evening they had decided to adopt a child. Liz had had a miscarriage. They were both in their early forties. The decision had taken them a while to make, but it was a good one. A few months later, Dru was in their arms, and now . . . she was going to get married and start a family of her own.