Monday, August 6, 2007
Bill Dang's Romance
Bill Dang was the proud possessor of a virgin heart. It had beaten unused since his mother had died three weeks before his eighth birthday and the expected cake with its candles and iced cars had failed to materialise. And you could not count Catherine Tebbings with whom he had lumbered round the gym on his first wet sports afternoon at the new school, assaying the Gay Gordons without using her toes as the floor.
Catherine Tebbings had been beautiful with long golden plaits tied with navy ribbons and the passive face of a Madonna. Except of course when she had looked at him; then it had been obvious how much she had hated him. In truth, she had hated the sports mistress for making them partners. But Miss Staunton had been over by the horizontal bars, fiddling with the pleats of her divided skirt and chattering with Mr Barclay, the boys’ master, while their ears went pink. So Catherine had glared at Bill instead. From that moment he had known he would never make her smile no matter how hard he tried.
So he had not bothered. He had just kept his head down and done his work and turned out to be rather good at history. Good enough to make the Head beam on speech day and announce to the assembled parents that this year, for the first time ever in the history of the school, a pupil was going to Oxford; to Balliol to read the Classics. Bill’s father, ensconced near the carved dais at the front of the hall on one of the less-hard chairs normally reserved for prefects, had glowed and looked around at the green-tinged smiles of the other parents. Their children might be better looking, better dressed, better liked, but they were definitely nowhere near as clever as William Spencer Dang.
In the auburn days of that autumn, Bill had gone to university, kept his head down again, and emerged four years later with an excellent First and no girlfriends. A mere half a mile away he had started work as a very sub, sub-editor in the Spartan, but cluttered, rooms of a worthy academic publishing house. And there he might have stayed except for a phone call on the eve of his thirty-fifth birthday. Monty Geddings, a rowing blue of strapping proportions he had almost known, had asked him out for a drink. Puzzled, Bill had gone.
A circuitous hunt through strange neon streets had led him, eventually, to a cavernous bar. Inside, its rough brick walls were hung with canvases that looked like paint-factory accidents. Lively people of Bill’s own age, but not of his own world, jostled round steel and brown suede benches. Waves of noise swamped Bill and the paintings. He had stayed by the door, squinting against the halogen spots and trying to sort out who was who and where, until Monty had stood up and beckoned him over to sit down opposite a girl with long golden hair. Her name was Kathryn, not Catherine, but Bill had liked her anyway. She had stared at him, nibbling her bottom lip and massaging the suede cushion with her fingertips, while Monty had spun his tale into the surging babble. There was this novel she had sweated over, you know; about a disgruntled detective. Not some posh one in an English county, but a pleb in ancient Rome. It was good, honestly, so would Bill read it please? As a favour for old times’ sake? Monty had not specified which old times, nor could Bill remember them, but he had read it anyway.
And that had been it. Despite his slow, stultifying climb from sub-editing to seniority at the publishers, there was nothing dim about Bill’s mind. He had recognised a gem when he had seen it. Besides, he had liked the way Kathryn’s smile had wiped the remnants of Catherine’s scowl from his memory. So he had not only checked it for historical accuracy, he had found a publisher willing, nay eager, to launch it into the country’s bookshops. After which he had returned to Balliol, head down with determination, in the week when Hollywood’s hottest property was there flexing his pecks for the benefit of the film cameras and various bank balances. Bill had cornered him and described the magnificent opportunity Kathryn’s script presented. Thereafter Bill’s reputation had acquired a glow to shame a legionnaire’s breastplate.
So, fortunately, had his bank balance when Kathryn had insisted on sharing the fees; the suit he had bought so she and Monty could drag him along to the Leicester Square Premier could have financed a small car. Bill had enjoyed the pandemonium in a bemused sort of way that had made him feel less of a fraud. He had followed Kathryn up the red carpet, smiling at the back of her head with its blonde hair twirled and knotted into diamond-pinned curls. She was, he thought, quite the prettiest of all the blondes present. And there had been lots of them, with long swaying hair and not much in the way of material in their frocks. Bill had never had cleavages plunge in his direction before, but plenty had done so that evening. At least until their owners had discovered he was no movie mogul. Then the magnificent prows had sailed off in search of better gold.
So here was Bill, facing himself in the bathroom mirror, six weeks from being forty with a spacious top-floor flat, a healthy bank account, a new career in historical consultancy and no love life at all. The expensive evening suit still hung in his wardrobe, unworn since the red-carpet outing, and none of the under-clad blondes had reefed her sails in his harbour.
In his Marks and Spencer vest and Y-fronts, with a half-lathered face, he stared and thought, and thought and stared, while the steam re-misted over his finger trails on the mirror. Through the foggy purdah he could see a square face with the usual features evenly, perhaps pleasingly, aligned under a head of brown hair still spared Grecian 2000. He turned sideways. If he held his breath, the line south from his chest was almost concave and, while he was not a prize catch, he rather thought he might stand a chance with a quiet sort of girl. One who would look after him and cook and do all those womanly things while he earned the money and made sure no one upset her. One who would smile at him the way Kathryn smiled at Monty.
Bill looked at the mirror and decided. Lying on his desk that stood near the rubber plant in the big bay window of his living room was the latest publishing triumph: the definitive book of momentous battles. That, and his deciduous third-form volume of the Punic Wars, told him success in combat needed a plan of campaign. If love was a battle, as he had heard, then it must need the same application.
He mopped the last blobs of lather from his chin, dressed and went down to his desk. He pulled a clean sheet from the packet of paper he used with his printer only when manuscript was quite unacceptable and set it square in front of him. He picked up his fountain pen and started to write.
Note: The title and lead character come from Bildungsroman (German: "novel of personal development") which is a novelistic form concentrating on the spiritual, moral, psychological, or social development and growth of the protagonist usually from childhood to maturity.