It was a building more suited to the south of Italy than to its actual location, set into a terrace along one of the cobbled streets of an old English market town. Like the rest of the house, the zenith – the octagonal cupola itself – was now a mess of peeling stucco. But its bell still tolled the hours, albeit at some degree of variation from the metronomic chiming of St. Edmund’s. For three hundred years the two bells had carried on their conversation, and for that same number of years, the townsfolk had been happy to eavesdrop upon it.
Built by a prosperous apothecary who had been three times mayor of the town, the Cupola House was the kind of informal institution from which every place of its size benefits. For a building with an Italianate exterior, inside it was rather a spit and sawdust kind of place; no-one seemed to know how it had resisted the tide of gentrification that had swept the rest of the town, save for the landlords’ stubborn refusal to listen to offers. The couple could see their customers liked it as it was, no frills save for a bar lined with the best beers that they could source; and so they kept the cracked flags and the stained tables and the wall above the roaring fire somewhat blackened by years of wood smoke. It was lived in, and snug, like a cardigan worn for comfort rather than style. Which is not to say that the Cupola’s customers lacked style, but that comfort was interpreted individually by each and every one of them without much regard for the fashions of the day.
Though a bastion of the non-conventional, the welcome was as warm as you’d get anywhere. The landlord and lady strove not to preside over their domain like monarchs at court; they saw themselves more as servants of the mood, and the mood came from the customers and the longevity of their custom. The drinkers relaxed into the Cupola’s unforgiving wooden chairs as if they were the plush leather sofas in the lounge bar of the grandest hotel in town. In a nook of the Cupola’s rather more democratically open living room was a woman whose broad, immediate smile and mass of curling russet hair ensured she stood out even when she would prefer to observe rather than be observed. A regular from down the years and across the week, she might be said to be House royalty. Hers was a regal name, too – Charlotte. Not that she affected airs, or found herself deferred to; in fact the reverse was true. From the first sip of her opening drink, she exuded the warmth you saw in her face; a striking face whose attraction was in part that it was open to life, to the scenes that she witnessed as she went about her working day, and to the people milling about the pub, so many of whom seemed to take a chance at some point or other in the evening to engage her in conversation, like bees buzzing about an apian monarch.
As was the case with that earlier red-headed regnant, Elizabeth I, it was hard for a newcomer to gauge who her consort might be; but the outsider would swiftly divine that such a woman would not be walking through life alone; and on closer inspection, he or she would spot the man sat across the table from her, arguing the toss with a logic so unbending and rigorous that in its glint the observer would deduce the beginnings and sustention of their attraction.
The evening we see her embarked upon, this was the evening of her mock-coronation, for it was between the third and fourth pints that she let slip the news that the (cross-dressing) younger of her two sons had recently become the singer in a Parisian electro swing band called Princesse. A wag nearby suggested that if her son was une princesse, then she was la reine – la reine Charlotte of the Cupola House!
But all was not what it seemed. Charlotte’s life was two intertwined spirals. As one helix spiralled up among the pints of ale and glasses of wine and shouted conversations and gusts of laughter, the other spiralled down on into the stillest part of herself, from which detachment sprang words, swimming upwards for their life, breaking the meniscus of the lake at the centre of the forest of noise around her with the sudden grace and surprise of a landlocked dolphin. The words that rose mused on her fellow drinkers, on herself and her lot; and on the nature of existence. They were beguiling words as they broke the surface of that pool in her mind and Charlotte knew she really ought to catch them before they lost their buoyancy and disappeared, very possibly forever. But more often than not the stories and the images held in them sank from view as the whirl of the evening and the first of those two intertwined spirals scooped her up in its arms and bought her another drink. Sometimes, however, when she got home in the early hours, or waking sore-headed in the morning after a broken night’s sleep, the words would still be there, bobbing like apples or corks or waterfowl, and she would net them or feed them bread and then once more she had language in the palm of her hand. She didn’t care much if anyone read what she wrote; what was important was to name the nameless and numberless feelings and thoughts and images teeming up and down the two spirals, leaping from one across to the other and back again. To do this was to achieve a moment of measurement, of graceful balance, in the see-saw of life, a life whose chief certainty was that the helter-skelter whirl of another night at the Cupola would be upon her again before she knew it.
Both spirals were silent – the one rendered speechless, the other wordless – the day she turned the corner and saw that the Cupola House, that beautiful building with its long history and its warm welcome, had been gutted by a fire. Its bell tumbled, its cupola gone.
When the words came back, she would ensure that its memory was kept very much alive.