I was in London in November of 1978, staying at the Portobello Hotel, famous for having a twenty-four-hour bar in its basement. I came back late, two or two thirty in the morning, and there was Van Morrison in the lobby, sitting on a low stool and staring at a coffee table. Just staring, in a trance. He radiated a deep and hard-won solitude, and it looked like he was in the mood to kick someone’s cat.
I went up to my room, but better sense prevailed, and I came back to the lobby a few minutes later. He was gone. I looked around and decided to go down to the always-open bar in the basement. It was empty, aside from a pretty girl tending the bar and what looked like an overcoat someone had left in a booth.
I saw Van Morrison upstairs, I said.
The girl nodded.
Does he come down to the bar?
Every night, she said.
Do you ever talk to him?
Every night, she said.
What … do you mind my asking? What do you talk about?
Same conversation every night. Same conversation. “Mr. Morrison?” I say. “Hello? Mr. Morrison? Could you sign your tab? Mr. Morrison? Could you sign your fucking tab?”
The overcoat shrugged and moved a bit.
There was a person inside it.
The girl poured it a large glass of gin with one chunk of ice and brought it over.
“Don’t worry about the drinks,” she whispered. “I just put them on Van Morrison’s tab.”
The overcoat sat up and pondered the drink. There was an elderly woman inside the coat, disheveled but in quite an orderly way. There was a string of pearls involved, a bracelet, and quite good-looking shoes. I couldn’t see much else.
I found out the next night that she sometimes slept there. I wasn’t sure whether “there” meant the bar or the hotel. It could have been either.
And I found out that she was Jean Rhys.
She didn’t seem surprised that I’d read her books.
I had been given Wide Sargasso Sea a few years before and had fallen hard for it. As was my wont at the time, I dove into her entire catalog and didn’t emerge until I’d reached the other side.
After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, I named, as if I were on a drunken quiz show. Voyage in the Dark. Good Morning, Midnight …
I know their names, dear. I wrote the bloody books. And it’s all one bloody book. All just slices of my own little cake. Gone a bit stale, I fear. But still tasty.
All one bloody book, except for that Sargasso one. That was from a very different menu.
She almost smiled.
And then she remembered the drink in her hand and returned to more serious pursuits.
The past was gone and far away, but gin was forever.
Brian Cullman is a writer and musician living in New York City.