A Short Story
By Leighton Vaughan Williams
It Never Rains in Stratford
“All’s well that ends well,” declared Harvey. As a matter of principle, this made a good philosophy. But the principle always seemed to elude Harvey, for whom nothing seemed to end well. For this reason, Harvey’s philosophy just didn’t work for Harvey. But he persevered. “Things can only get better,” he liked to intone. But they never did, not for Harvey.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. If he had been another, he might fittingly have been labelled as some sort of heroic failure. But Harvey was no hero, except to himself. Coward, liar, promise-breaker, he was all these, except to himself.
So who was this man, possessor of not one quality known to another?
Harvey was a poet, or so said his passport. And he was indeed a poet, of sorts. He could make any two words rhyme, regardless of the sense. He had once penned a poem where he rhymed tangerine with magazine. It made no sense, but sense was not important, not to Harvey. He loved words, and used them as a weapon. But he was not a good shot.
The first time I met him I was standing aside a riverbank one Saturday summer morning in Stratford-upon-Avon. I was carrying an umbrella, as I had seen the weather forecast. Heavy rain and thunderstorms forecast from 4pm, just about the time I would be emerging from the matinee performance at the theatre. “No need for an umbrella,” he declared. “It never rains in Stratford.” His message was direct and delivered in a self-confident, almost cockily assured style. “So why are you carrying an umbrella yourself?” I replied. “I am not carrying an umbrella. I am carrying a pink umbrella”, he shot back, as if this explained everything. It did not.
“You see, my umbrella is making a statement, it is not to protect me from the rain.”
“Of course not,” I replied. “It never rains in Stratford.” “Quite so!” he agreed, and proceeded on his way, dressed for the sun, plus pink umbrella. I walked on, in the direction of the theatre.
The play was excellent, written by a local resident and performed by the best of players, plucked from far and wide. What I particularly liked about the play was that it made a statement, as well as making sense. I like those qualities in a play, as well as in a person.
As I emerged into the outside world, it started to rain. Quite heavily. I opened my umbrella. Next to the riverbank I noticed a man with a pink umbrella. It was open and was sheltering him from the rain. I joined him. “It never rains in Stratford”, I said. He looked at me from beneath his pink statement. “Quite so,” he responded, “at least that’s what they say!”
“It’s better on the page than on the stage,” Harvey stated from underneath his mock parasol. “What is?” I enquired. He could sing to a canary and make it listen. Perhaps make it dance. But it would never understand. I guess that’s enough sometimes. But not today. I sought clarification. “Words,” he said. “Words are better printed on page than spoken on stage.” “Really? Even for a play, or a poem? Even for a song?”
“Especially for a song,” he confirmed. Harvey made his living teaching English to foreign students, or so he said. He taught them words, he explained, words on a page. As many words as possible. I never met any of his students so don’t know whether they could speak English, on stage or otherwise. I rather doubted it. But I was convinced they would know many English words, all set neatly down on a page.
And as for me – did I seek truth from narrow words on page, or was I open to life’s broad, diverse play on stage? I didn’t know then. I didn’t know.
And I didn’t know then that Harvey had a secret. It was a secret that mattered, and not just to Harvey.
But the secret would come later. For now, we talked about non-secret things, about words and about pink umbrellas and plays and poems and songs. And about tangerines, tangerines that rhyme with magazines.
And we talked about the boats that floated on the river. And the fish we’d never catch. Because we’d never try. This was a summer afternoon. In Stratford-upon-Avon. Immersed in a secret. Which would come later. And which would change my life.
Fear in a fork full of light
We spoke of shadows at morning rising behind us, and shadows at evening rising to meet us. We spoke of the storm, of the poignant immediacy posed by each flash from the heavens, each challenging our very right to be. Fear in a fork full of light. I welcomed the thunder, the now long count to the thunder. “All’s well that ends well!” he whispered. I agreed.
We went on in sunlight, and drank coffee, and talked for an hour. We sat at the table in the courtyard, which now reminded me of quill and parchment and days gone by. We talked of T.S. Eliot, we talked of lands laid waste, we talked of cats and mountains, where we felt free, and we talked of favourite fruits and colours. We talked for an hour. But it seemed longer. Much longer.
“Vortigern and Rowena is my favourite,” he had said as the hour ticked down. “It’s your favourite what?” I had asked. “My favourite Shakespeare play,” came the assured response. “I’ve never heard of it, are you sure it’s in the canon?” I politely enquired. Though I knew it was not. “Most certainly,” he responded. “Played once at Drury Lane, you know.” I didn’t know.
We had been briefly silent after that.
“What’s yours?” he had resumed. “My what?” I asked. Though I knew what he meant. I just wanted to be difficult. “My favourite Shakespeare play? I see.” I thought for just an instant. “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead”, I ventured. “That’s my favourite. Played once at Drury Lane.” We had reached stalemate.
We parted company after that, with my brief offer of a handshake politely declined. I did not like Harvey, nor even his pink umbrella, but I knew now there was something about him, something I needed to know. Was it just curiosity, or did I feel fear, like the fear that comes to us in a fork full of light? It started to rain again. “It never rains in Stratford,” I shouted to his departing presence. He did not pause to look back. Instead he opened his umbrella and hurried on. Who was this strange, unattractive character? And why had I spent an hour drinking coffee with him, and his pink umbrella? He could sing all night to a canary, and make it listen. But it would never understand. I felt the same way.
Lamborghinis and Lecture Slides
I spent the evening making notes, for a presentation I was due to give the following day at the elegant conference hotel which was also playing host to a convocation of Lamborghini owners. I like cars, but I have no special love for Lamborghinis. But they are cars. So I like them. The owners I was less sure of. There was no good reason for this. It was simple pre-judgement. You could call it prejudice, but it’s not possible to be prejudiced against Lamborghini owners. Is it? It would be like being prejudiced against pink umbrellas, or those that sport them.
I put aside the thought. Presenting at a conference on a Sunday always makes me a little uncomfortable anyway. Still, the breakfast was good. I had looked forward to it and was not disappointed, except for the eggs. The eggs were inserted into a communal pan of hot water. Hard boiled, my favourite, took fifteen minutes, the notice said, so I left them unattended, to boil, while I sipped my coffee. This quickly revealed the weakness of the communal pot system. I added an extra sausage in compensation.
My lecture was about the concept of “reasonable doubt”. I knew this would be popular, because I was the keynote speaker and there was no competing presentation. And because I had seen so many delegates sporting their newly printed identity badges in the breakfast room. Some had been eating hard-boiled eggs. I took note of those who had been eating hard-boiled eggs. For future reference.
“What is a reasonable doubt?” A good way to open the talk, I thought. The audience looked at me, expectantly. “A reasonable doubt is a doubt that is reasonable.” That made the question clear. The problem was the answer.
I told of my experience on the golf course, on the final hole, with a putt for the match, when the ‘phone had rung in my pocket, chiming the bells of Big Ben.
“World Trade Centre”, it was my wife, “plane has hit it. Tall building, though. Still, a plane once hit the Empire State Building. So it’s not that rare. “Really?”, I said, “When did a plane hit the Empire State Building? I can’t recall that.”
“1946, that’s what they said on the TV. So it’s happened before. Terrible accident.”
“Yes. Terrible accident, but I have a putt for the match. And yes, I will have the Waldorf salad. It’s such a nice day.”
And so it was, a very nice day, until the second time Big Ben chimed, and this time I didn’t mind. I had sunk the putt at first attempt. Game over. Game won. I answered the call. “Only one plane hit the building in 1946”. My wife again. “Yes?” I was slightly mystified by the historical detail. “But what about this morning? Any more news on that?” A pause. “Only one plane hit the building in 1946,” she repeated, “but today, there has just been a second.” I advanced the powerpoint slide to show a representation of that fateful second impact. “I knew then it was not an accident. I knew then it was not carelessness. I knew then it was a deliberate attack. And I knew it beyond a reasonable doubt.” The audience of approaching sixty nodded, almost in unison, almost.
A Reasonable Doubt
It was time for questions, and I was ready, of a kind, to answer. As long as it wasn’t THAT question! It wasn’t. “If you are an umpire at a cricket match, how sure do you have to be to give someone out?” “Sure, beyond a reasonable doubt,” I answered. Then I gave the honest answer. That was the standard, I explained, but it wasn’t held to, not in real life. I knew because when I went to class to learn about being an umpire, the umpires teaching you would always avoid your gaze when you asked the question, and would seek to move rapidly on. They were embarrassed, because they knew it wasn’t true. In the real world, you see, umpires and referees make decisions based on what they think has happened. Toss of a coin decisions, I call them. They don’t know much about reasonable doubt. But I did. I knew all about that. I knew too much about that. Time now for the next question.
As long as it wasn’t THAT question. It wasn’t.
“How sure do you have to be to accuse a man of stealing your watch?”
I was now on more sure ground. “Sure, beyond a reasonable doubt.” There was no equivocation now. “To accuse a man of stealing your watch is like accusing a man of stealing your wife. You have to be sure before you do that, sure behind a reasonable doubt.” Almost the entire audience smiled in agreement. Almost.
I felt relieved. Just one more question, said the moderator. Please God. As long as it isn’t THAT question.
This time it was!
“How sure do you have to be to convict a man of murder?”
Stealing seeds from a pomegranate
My mind raced back to the jury room. I had argued that the accused was possibly guilty, because there was a witness to something, and that something might be enough to convict. But not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Surely not. The rest of the jurors were pretty much divided, six to convict, and five to acquit. What was sure was that there was a man, and he was dead. He had been coshed about the head and lay lifeless in the bunker guarding the front entrance to the third green. I could picture the scene, but not the killer. Some of the jurors believed they could picture both.
“So how can you be sure that he’s guilty beyond a reasonable doubt?” I had asked the scruffy middle-aged gent who gloried in the title of Head Teacher. “I can’t,” he replied indignantly. “But how you can you be sure that he’s innocent beyond a reasonable doubt?” He pointed menacingly at me. “I can’t …” I tried to explain but was cut off. “Exactly,” said the well-spoken lady in the Armani sweater and faded jeans. “So where does that get us? We can’t be sure either way, so we must use our judgement. We must consider the probabilities.”
This consideration boiled down to the judgement of a few essential facts. First, a body in a bunker. Second, a witness who had seen a man of medium height and build, of middling age, running off in the direction of the fourth hole shortly before the body was found. He was certainly no golfer. Golfers don’t run. And he didn’t have a dog with him. So he wasn’t there to run with his dog. But he did have something else, and it was ultimately used to convict. He had in his right hand a pink umbrella. As did the accused, when spotted by the local constabulary wandering down the high street the next day. You must not convict based upon the evidence of the pink umbrella alone, the judge had warned us. But we did, by a majority of ten to two. I thought of that when I saw Harvey, and his pink umbrella. Maybe that was why I had spent a long hour with him over coffee. Maybe I felt guilty, for pre-judging the man now languishing in one of Her Majesty’s prisons, for the offence of being a male in possession of an umbrella coloured pink.
So I answered the question, honestly. “You should be sure beyond a reasonable doubt”, I said. At least that is the standard, I explained. “Of course, it’s not held to in real life. Ask a juror. They will usually avoid your gaze when you ask that question, and seek to move rapidly on. In the real world, you see, jurors make decisions based on what they think has happened. They don’t know much about reasonable doubt.”
But I did. I knew all about that. I knew too much about that. Because I had cast the tenth vote to convict. To convict a man of carrying a pink umbrella.
There had been a second piece of evidence. But we had chosen to ignore it. The small pomegranate lying adjacent the fourth tee.
“One follow-up question, please.” As if reading my mind, the questioner posed the final conundrum of the session, to a mixed chorus of amusement and disdain.
“So how sure do you have to be to thrash someone for stealing seeds from a pomegranate? Do you have to be sure beyond a reasonable doubt?”
“That’s the end of the session. Any more questions over coffee, please!” The moderator drew the meeting to an abrupt close.
Pomegranates are my favourite fruit
I saw him in the corridor but he wasn’t drinking coffee. Not today. I approached him, but I knew we would not talk again of boats, or poems, or songs, or mountains where we felt free.
“Oscar never ate pomegranates,” he said. “Not since I thrashed him as a child for stealing seeds from mine. But they are still my favourite fruit.”
“And did he carry an umbrella that day at the golf course?” It was the obvious question. “Certainly not,” said Harvey. “He wouldn’t be seen dead, or alive, on a golf course. But he was carrying an umbrella when the law spotted him next day. A pink one. He always did. That’s why I carry one now. To make a statement.”
“So you weren’t the man seen running with the pink umbrella?” ” No”, he replied. “But it was my piece of fruit.”
“You could have saved him!” I pleaded. “So could you,” he replied. We had reached stalemate.
“All’s well that ends well,” declared Harvey. But it would never really end well for Harvey. Coward, liar, promise-breaker, he was all these, except to himself. A man possessed of not one quality known to another.
Now I felt I had become like him.
Coward to my principles, liar to my beliefs, promise-breaker to my conscience. I had a doubt and it was reasonable. But it wasn’t about reason that day. It was about pink umbrellas, about prejudice, about probabilities and principles gone wrong.
About narrow words on a page, not broad, diverse play on stage.
“Goodbye, Harvey,” I said. He looked up. Smiled. “All’s well that ends well.” I think he believed it. I thought now of Oscar and the look of horror on his face as the foreman returned our verdict, my verdict. Guilty as charged, sure beyond a reasonable doubt. Majority verdict, but good enough to send him down for life. Life for carrying a pink umbrella. It made no sense. Not, I suspect, even to Harvey. And certainly not to me.
I looked to the heavens. Asked for forgiveness. And began to cry.