The first three Shakespearean lunches take place at almost exactly monthly intervals in April, May and June. The first two more or less set the tone, but they still don’t entirely prepare me, for the third.
The first one happens at a beautiful Spanish tapas place just by the entrance to Borough Market, and—like all of them—is scheduled to last for about an hour, maybe an hour and a half, starting at one, but I don’t remember leaving before four, maybe four thirty. Still, there is much to talk about—writing, crowdfunding, and, of course, Shakespeare—and so my stupendous Writer Friend and I take our time and order another bottle of wine, but eventually we decide to have done, mainly really because the place, beautiful as it is, isn’t entirely cheap, and both of us are effectively skint.
For the second one, the tapas place is full up, and it’s raining off and on, and so we head a few doors into the market to a nice fish restaurant, which is all covered in glass and lends a view onto Southwark Cathedral. Much as on the first occasion, we meet at one, and we talk about writing, a little less about crowdfunding, a little more about adventures with agents, and about Shakespeare, a lot. I have another drink to go to that evening, so reluctantly, somewhat painfully, I drag myself away shortly after six.
For our third Shakespearean lunch we are fortunate in that a small outside table is available back at the tapas place on the corner, and my excellent Writer Friend is already parked there by the time I arrive.
I have recently written a play about Shakespeare and his relationship with the recipient of his ‘Fair Youth’ sonnets, and my friend is researching a story about William Shakespeare’s brother Edmund, so on this occasion our conversation for obvious reasons focuses almost exclusively on Shakespeare. Not having strictly learnt my lesson from our previous lunches, one and two, I have once again brazenly booked another drink on the Southbank at seven, but with a friend who has stood me up so many times and has so frequently been so unreliable that I think not too much of it when, around about seven, we just really have nowhere near exhausted our topic and order another bottle of wine.
It is at around this time that our luncheon turns epic. There is a fine line between an ordinary writerly lunch, which can easily last five or six hours, and a lunch that turns into something memorable, noteworthy. This is approximately the point at which that happens, because at approximately this point we have, between the two of us, had between four and five bottles of wine, and in all seriousness our conversation is likely by now to have drifted off said topic somewhat. I don’t remember onto what. I am pretty certain my formidable Writer Friend doesn’t either, though I haven’t asked him.
I feel a little reluctant to ask him what he remembers of our third Shakespearean lunch, because I would not for one moment wish to embarrass him or make him feel uncomfortable. Not that there really is much reason for either of us to feel embarrassed or uncomfortable, save for the fact perhaps that we first pay our bill at five thirty, but when we finally say goodnight to each other some time close to eleven, another bill for wine has been clocked up and paid for, and I have given up any attempt at catching up with my other friend, two or three increasingly incoherent text messages having failed to establish where exactly he was, or why exactly he wasn’t, as I suggested, simply joining us, ten minutes’ walk from where we had arranged to meet on the Southbank nearby.
But there’s also one bottle of wine that’s unaccounted for. At some point after the second bill, we must have decided to have just that one more, and our brains at that late stage of our lunch were no longer, it seems, capable of placing paying for it into the category of ‘things to do before leaving’.
Not that we were trying to do a runner. When I phone the restaurant the next day, on my first attempt there is nobody there to take payment for the bottle, but they say they will phone me back. When they don’t phone me back, I try again, and this time round a Maître’d who doesn’t seem in a particularly appreciative mood recalls: ‘Yes, you paid for the first ones, and then you kept hugging the guy, and then you were gone.’ He is still for some reason unable to take payment over the phone, but promises to call me back, for certain. For a second time, nobody calls me, so I accept that last bottle as a drink on the house and consider the matter dealt with: thank you, it was much appreciated.
But when he says: ‘you were hugging the guy,’ he is, I think, being diplomatic. Or is the term I’m looking for ‘euphemistic’. I am fairly certain that by the time we finally staggered to our feet we were effectively snogging. This is slightly unusual and also unexpected behaviour from both of us because we’re just mates. Also, my affectionate Writer Friend as far as I know has never yet been gay. Then again, it doesn’t really matter whether or not anyone is or isn’t, and I don’t hold with these labels in the first place, and so I really don’t have any concerns about this, at all.
Still, the image that I couldn’t have seen at the time, but that is now ingrained on my imagination, cheers me no end: the two of us, men in our no longer quite forties, winding up our lunch at a Spanish tapas place in Borough, at close to eleven o’clock at night, cuddling and kissing with really, by that time, not a care in the world, and still so much to talk about for, I would hope, many a Shakespearean lunch yet to come…