There is a little, ancient pub tucked away in a small street here in Bath, which I sometimes go to if I want to escape the noise and frivolity of my usual local. It has been a pub since about 1710 or so, and it prides itself on never playing piped music within the three, dimly-lit, oak-paneled rooms.
On one level, this policy is a boon, but the downside of it is that you cannot help but be party to every detail of everyone else's conversations, as the rooms are so small and the seating is so close together. This is not the pub you would choose to meet fellow conspirators in order to hatch a plot to bring down the government. Also - by the very nature of pubs and the products they sell - some extremely tedious conversations take place there, and usually at a level of volume that would be better suited to the nearby sports-bar, where Sky TV is is constantly flickering away on a six-foot screen over the counter.
I was in there just before Christmas, seated in a nook in the corner, and nursing a pint of extremely strong, old-fashioned Porter. At the table next to me - two feet away - was a man and a woman, the man slowing reading through about two sheets of A4 paper, whilst the woman looked on nervously. He was about 50 years old, with longish, dark hair and a baggy, tweedy jacket, and she was around 40, with long hair and - as it transpired - a Trans-Atlantic accent, though it was obvious that she had lived in Britain for a long time. I never did find out for sure what either of them did to make money, but it wouldn't have surprised me to learn that he was a teacher of English Literature at some red-brick university or - worse - minor public school.
I was drinking slowly, and was about half down my pint before he made any comment, and when he did make one, it was obviously highly anticipated by the woman, who seemed to be in a defensive and edgy state of mind. I was hooked, but tried not to look it. What could these lines of typed script contain to put her on the edge of her seat, as she was? She had barely touched her drink. He began - in an uncertain and hesitant manner - to speak, and he spoke with the received pronunciation of an academic who could have been born anywhere between East Kent and West Cornwall.
"I'm having .... er... I'm having a little trouble with the woman." He put his thick-rimmed spectacles down on the table, and continued to stare at the paper as if it held the key to the meaning of life, if he could but see it unveiled. The woman reacted in a way that suggested that she too used to believe that, but was now having doubts. After another long pause, he continued.
"I mean... where does she fit into all this? Is she the mother? Why is she in bed?" The woman snatched the paper from the man, and the man took the opportunity of taking a long swig from his beer.
"She is our mother, and we are visiting her on her death-bed, although she does not - as yet - know she is dying." The man swallowed his beer and started talking again.
"I'm wondering... I mean maybe it would be better if you made that clear earlier on. To save any confusion, you know."
She pulled a pen from her bag, and struck through the offending text, scribbling a note in the margin. The man took the paper back again, and continued.
"Also... this word 'transformed'... I'm wondering... maybe it would read better if it were..." He then verbally consulted his mental thesaurus, suggesting any words that would suit better, or even had a vaguely similar meaning, as she snatched the paper from him again and began frantically scribbling all over it with the pen. His spectacles were on the top of his head now, and he gazed unfocussingly at the paneled wall opposite, burbling on as she scribbled away. Having no reason to use his eyes anymore, he began concentrating on his beer, and soon stood up to get himself another. He pointed to her untouched fruit-juice and asked if she wanted a refill. When he came back from the bar, things continued in the same vein for about another 25 minutes, until she had pretty much crossed out every typed, widely-spaced line on the two pages, and replaced them with notes containing every word or suggestion that the man had made. It slowly dawned on me what was going on. She had brought one of her poems for him to appraise, and he was ripping it apart, word by word. At the end of this process, she thanked him from between gritted teeth, then stuffed the two sheets roughly into her bag. They then began a more relaxed conversation about poetry in general, and how difficult it is to make a few quid by publishing a slim volume.
"Have you ever written a novel?" he asked, feigning interest.
"I've written seven - none of them published."
"You must be able to get at least one of them picked up by someone. Every successful writer has always received tons of rejections from agents and publishers." She stared into her orange-juice and sighed.
"It's no use. I've managed to lose all the manuscripts. I never backed them up, and one day I wiped them all off the hard-drive." He looked remarkably unconcerned about this disaster, and swallowed the remains of his beer. Never fear - he had another helpful suggestion prepared for just such an eventuality as this. He had obviously come across this situation before, with one of his students.
"Well, you'll just have to re-write them all again from memory. If Jean Genet can do it, so can you!"