On holiday, rooting in a second-hand bookshop in Haverfordwest, I chance on Horn of Plenty by Bryce McCabe.
‘Local author,’ the man says.
‘Drinks in the Three Puffins, out on the St David’s Road.’
From the dust jacket, he sneers at me across forty years.
‘Hey, Zitface!’ he says.
At our all-boys public school, Bryce had rallied the Trotskyites of the Upper Sixth, eager to bite the hands that fed us. His star went stratospheric when, at seventeen, he got arrested at a Vietnam War demo and spent the night in Bow Street nick before swaggering gloriously late into Double English. At that weekend’s party, the girls were all over him.
He made me sick.
He’d been the same at Cambridge; feeding gossip to Nigel Dempster’s column in the Daily Mail, active in the NUS, matey with rent-an-anarchist Tariq Ali.
I spent my first long vac outside Bordeaux, picking grapes and failing to get laid. Bryce wrote a book.
Part diary, part diatribe, Horn of Plenty was serialised in the Observer, which dubbed its author ‘one to watch’. Before he was twenty, Bryce was already a regular on Late Night Line Up, batting intellectual chitchat with Joan Bakewell.
Degree-equipped, I settled into evening classes at the Institute of Purchasing and Supply, and occasional car park sex with Hettie from Accounts Payable. Bryce went to New York with a three-book deal and a model who’d been in Vogue.
The landlord of the Three Puffins is polishing a glass.
‘Excuse me. Does Bryce McCabe drink in here?’
‘Have one yourself, will you?’
‘Very good of you, sir. Try the snug.’
He’s the only person in there. The ponytail’s surrendered to billiard-ball baldness and his once-broad shoulders are slumped. He’d dropped out of view before the millennium, following a vitriolic second divorce and a public spat with his publishers.
I nip back to the bar.
‘What’s his poison?’
A pint in each hand, I go up to him.
‘I don’t suppose you remember me. We were at school together.’
‘That’s what they all say.’
Not a hint of a smile.
I put his drink down. ‘Remember Mr Wilby? Old Rogers?’
He pulls his fresh pint across.
‘Is that for me?’
I reach into my bag.
‘I was wondering … Could you possibly sign this for me?’
‘It’s normally a quid.’
I check his face. He isn’t joking.
‘But seeing as you’ve bought me a drink...’
As he signs my book, I pull out a chair.
‘Sorry,’ he says, snapping the cover shut, ‘I’m expecting some people. Cribbage night.’
Back in the car, I open my Horn of Plenty.
He’s written something above his signature.
‘Thanks for the pint, Zitface.’