When I was 38, I let a drunk pick me up in a bar. You know, just to see if I still had it. It was raining. It was a November evening, and I was somewhere in the backwoods of the Adirondacks. I was driving from Rhode Island to Toronto, staying in motels. Taking my time. Getting lost.
His name was Billy Ray and he was from the south. The land of Spanish moss and blurred boundaries and antique sentences delivered in a languid drawl. Beautifully dressed, an elegantly ruined bachelor of 48, he looked 65. He said he was related to the man who had invented Coca-Cola and had never had to work. ‘I really have had the most wonderful life, you know.’ I had started talking to him because he looked more interesting than the book I was reading. And a lot more interesting than the wisecracking moose-hunters at the other end of the bar.
He was gay in an understated sort of way: his formerly beautiful face was thin and red, he smoked Winston full-strength cigarettes and drank bourbon and Coke. ‘I’m afraid I’m a little drunk,’ he said. Don’t worry, I said, so am I. He talked exclusively about himself in the way that drunks tend to. But he was charming. He told me he divided his time between the family compound in Atlanta, Georgia and a house down the road from where we were, on Lake George. Summers here, winters there.
‘You know, I am so lucky — I’ve always known how lucky I am… I’ve had such a time of it.’ He was exhausted because ‘Mother’ had just taken a tumble and broken her humerus and torn her shoulder and he was having to drive her to and from the hospital 60 miles away. In the next day or two he would have her flown in a Medjet back to Georgia to her expensive doctors.
He told me wearily how much he was having to do, but how little it was appreciated by his younger brother and sister. His brother had talked as if he — Billy — was not even there, doing everything. He ordered more bourbon and said again what a wonderful life he had had. Outside, smoking, he told me how 15 years ago he’d had a car accident and an unlucky blood transfusion had left him HIV positive, but he had never had full-blown Aids. If that was hard to explain to Mother, ‘Imagine having to tell her that my brother was gay and lived with his boyfriend. Oh Lord, I thought, this is going to kill her! “Do they sleep together?” she asked. “Yes, Mother, they do.” ’
When I appeared undisgusted by the revelation of his brother’s sexuality, he confided that he had himself had a boyfriend for a time, and that he had wrestled with certain identity issues (you don’t say, I thought). He said again that his life had been wonderful, despite what fate had thrown at him. ‘Why only last week I went to the dentist for a check-up and they told me I have cancer of the jaw… just here!’ He said once he had been fat and then one day he wasn’t: ‘I don’t know how I lost the weight, but I did. And then I became suddenly very desirable to others… I had a time of it.’
He told me he’d come ‘very close to disaster with cocaine’. I asked him if he’d spent much time at Studio 54. ‘Oh yes my dear!’ He breathed smoke out, under the dripping street light. ‘I’ve had such a time.’ Between trembling fingers he held out his card: William W. Ray. What was the W for? ‘Wilma. I know. They always said here comes Fred Flintstone’s Wilma! But it is in fact Wilmer — Wilmer the Third.’
I was thrilled to have met a desiccated Tennessee Williams character in the midst of a moosey backwater. Back on my bar stool, I asked him, ‘So Billy, in your lucky life, what has been the best time, in all the wonderful times, which stands out?’
‘Well…’ he considered, resting his blotchy chin on his thin hands. ‘Nobody has asked me that in a long while. I was at camp. And they said I had to go home and see my daddy and I was flown home and my uncle came out and said “Billy. Your daddy…” ’
At this point he choked up, but held himself, dramatically. ‘“Billy, your daddy died last night.” ’ And now the tears ran down his wasted face. ‘And the next day they sent me back to camp and my two cousins were still there and they wanted to know what had happened and they said Billy what has happened to your daddy? And I… and I said “My daddy’s dead!” ’
And he wept again, more deeply this time. In the circumstances I thought it would be churlish of me to point out that I’d asked him for the happiest moment of his life, not the unhappiest. He was plastered, after all. He sniffed, and asked sweetly, ‘So where are you staying tonight?’
‘Um, the Motel 6 down the road.’
‘Oh my! Well I could offer a room if you wanted. We overlook Lake George. We could have a glass of chartreuse on the veranda and watch the fireflies. Do you drink chartreuse? It has 140 different herbs in it. In the morning you could have fresh coffee and look at the lake.’ He paused. ‘I promise I wouldn’t try anything.’ Sweet of him.
I considered: thin-walled fleapit on main road vs Gatsbyesque mansion by lake, presumably staffed. Obviously there might be a slightly awkward pass made at some stage, but nothing I wouldn’t be able to handle after a youth misspent in the theatre.
‘Thank you, I’d be delighted.’ There then followed a slightly embarrassing moment in which Billy turned at the door and proudly announced to those left in the bar that he was taking me home: ‘This poor boy has just got off the boat from Cuba and has nowhere to go. Ooh la la! Allons-y! ’
There is a group of moose-hunters somewhere in the Adirondacks for whom I will be forever a florid-faced rent boy.
Billy drove with the relaxed confidence of someone accustomed to driving completely plastered. I followed his tail-lights for miles through waterlogged forests, relishing the prospect of Egyptian cotton and oak panelling. I would spend a peaceful night protected by thick walls of privilege and a morning overlooking the fjord-like Lake George, mists lifting, the silence broken only by the discreet clink of a breakfast tray being set by my arm.
At last, Billy pulled over on to some rough grass outside a modest one-storey log cabin. He turned off his lights. No mansion in sight. Perhaps this was the gatehouse? I gulped down rising panic. We walked up on to a perfectly ordinary wooden porch with a creaking swing door and a bird feeder. If there was a lake, I couldn’t see it. We walked in.
The main room smelt of woodsmoke and dusty sweet decay. On every surface was mess; disordered papers and ashtrays full of half-smoked cigarettes and lots of prescription pill bottles, orange with white tops. While Billy twittered about searching for chartreuse, I looked at a faded old photo stuck on the fridge. A happy chaotic family group shot with a sensitive-looking man standing slightly apart from the others, in a beautiful suit. A younger Billy Ray.
I sipped some of the chartreuse on the porch with him. It was about 80 per cent proof and tasted poisonous. Billy savoured it lovingly. I said I had to go to bed. He showed me to my room. Which was down a narrow corridor opposite his. It had a single bed, some stacked chairs and a broken ceiling fan. The bathroom was 1970s with a dark-green carpet, pink tiling, a yellowing toilet bowl and faded towels. The place was hot and stuffy. I felt a pang for room 7, Motel 6. I muttered something about having a long drive in the morning and said goodnight.
If Billy was disappointed, he didn’t make me feel bad about it. He said, ‘You’re very trusting.’
I said, ‘Oh, I can look after myself.’
Once I was alone I felt my heart beating hard in my chest. I thought: I’ll just go to sleep, wake up and leave. With darkness and sleep and warmth, what did it matter where I was? It was my own fault anyway for being such an opportunistic slut. So I kept my T-shirt, socks and boxers on and climbed between pink musty sheets. I closed my eyes and thought of Billy and his dying mother.
And then I thought of how remote the cabin was, in the backwoods. In the dark. And the rain. And that not a soul in the world other than Billy knew where I was. And then I thought of Anthony Perkins in Psycho.
I sat bolt upright, put my clothes on, remade the bed and walked determinedly back to the kitchen. Billy was sitting in a chair in front of the fire with his legs crossed, his head back and his cigarette curling from his fingers, its ash about to fall. Both glasses of chartreuse were on the side table.
‘Billy I’ve got to go.’
‘I know,’ said Billy gently. ‘I know. It’s OK. I’ve just been sitting here gathering my thoughts. Gathering my thoughts. I’ve had such a wonderful life and you know, whatever life throws at you, you have to count your blessings. I’ve had such a wonderful time. Such a wonderful time.’
And as I stood there watching him, it occurred to me that Billy was dying too.
‘Billy, who sleeps in my room normally?’
‘And how does she feel about your illnesses?’
‘Well, you know she’s not too concerned; see she’s not too aware of everything. But she’s just so pleased that I came back. Cause I’m the Prodigal Son. Yes, I’m the Prodigal Son. And I say, “Mother, we’re to lie next to each other in two beds and we’re going to be together.” Cause she changed my diaper, y’know, and I’m going to be with her now.’
‘Well, it’s been lovely to meet you, Billy.’
‘Yes, you too.’
I hugged him. He waved at me from the porch as I drove into the dark. I listened to ‘Fix You’ by Coldplay on my way back to Motel 6.
Tom Hollander is Cutler Beckett in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, the Reverend Adam Smallbone in Rev, and Lance Corkoran in The Night Manager.