Four men bicycle across the English countryside. One of them, Harry, has plotted their route to a tavern along an old Roman road. They dream of beer and the youngest, Bert, of women. Ted, the oldest and the only married man, “said all he hoped was that the Romans had left a drop in the bottom of the barrel for posterity.”
The tavern is a tea shop. The hostess, “a frail, drab woman, not much past thirty, in a white blouse that drooped low over her chest,” explains that she doesn’t sell beer. The nearest pub, The Queen’s Arms, is ten miles away in Handleyford, a town the men have already bicycled through. They are disappointed, almost angry, and Ted thinks:
“Ease up, take what you can get. `Queen’s Arms’ – he remembered looking back. The best things are in the past.”
Not the thoughts of a young man. The story is V.S. Pritchett’s “Many Are Disappointed.” In nine pages, the English Chekhov delineates six characters, including the young daughter of the hostess. Almost nothing happens. The title is spoken by the woman:
“`You don’t sell beer,’ said Bert. He looked at the pale-blue-veined chest of the woman.
“`No,’ she said. She hesitated. `Many are disappointed,’ she said, and she spoke like a child reciting a piece without knowing its meaning. He lowered his eyes.”
“The best things are in the past.” “Many are disappointed.” Thoughts appropriate for the bottom of the year. Tonight is Amateur Night, when non-drinkers drink, a difficult night of revelry for many. The lonely grow lonelier. Desolate celebrators will wake with sick heads. A time to beware of the cozy seductiveness of the past and the disappointments we already plot for the future. Charles Lamb, no stranger to disappointment, was certain the best was in the past:
“No one ever regarded the First of January with indifference.”