Anyone familiar with the books of Armistead Maupin will have clocked a respectful nod to his glorious tales in the name of this blog site. I chose the title Tales of the Second City, because I thought it suggested both Birmingham and LGBTQ content, without explicitly stating either… and paid homage to a series of novels I fell in love with over twenty five years ago.
I was introduced to Maupin’s Tales of the City at university. His heart-felt chronicles of the intersecting lives of a group of fictitious San Francisco residents have been dear to me ever since. I have read all nine books several times, watched the television series repeatedly, listened to the Radio 4 adaptations, tapped my toes to the musical, pre-ordered the French graphic novel (I may have to learn French) and, on my 40th birthday, met a real-life version of one of the novels most cherished characters.
I spent my birthday weekend in Hay-on-Wye (a picturesque market town, just over the border into Wales). Hay is a Mecca for bibliophiles, being home to dozens of bookshops, earning it the nickname ‘the town of books’.
My partner and I set out after work, so it was dark by the time we drove into Breconshire.
“With competition from Amazon and the like, I am amazed that the bookshops in Hay have managed to survive,” I commented as we arrived in town, but as we wove our way through the streets, passing the semi-ruined castle at its centre, it became sadly apparent that online booksellers had clearly had an adverse effect on business. About a third of the bookstores had closed or converted into general antique shops, although the place still boasted many more bookshops than your average rural market town. Shop numbers were depleted, but Hay-on-Wye wasn’t in danger of losing its nickname anytime soon… or its annual international book festival.
Being familiar with Hay, having visited many times before, we easily found our Bed and Breakfast and parked under the dim glow of an ornate iron streetlamp.
We grabbed our bags from the boot of the car and presented ourselves on the monolithic step of the imposing stone fronted guesthouse that was to be our home for the next few days.
I rang the bell and within moments the door was opened with a flourish by an elegant woman adorned in a billowing kaftan.
“Hellooooo,” she greeted us warmly. “Mr (Insert surname here), welcome to my home.” Peering into the darkness to locate my partner, she continued, “This must be Mrs G…” she instantly cut herself off and, without missing a beat, covered her assumption with, “Welcome, welcome, do come in.”
I liked her immediately.
“This is the kitchen,” she said, indicating a door to the left and the rustic room beyond, complete with aga cooker, stone floor and sturdy scrub top table. “We don’t have a dining room,” she told us, “we all eat together in here. I bake fresh bread every morning and there will be a selection of homemade jams and marmalade. While you are staying with me, you are one of my family.”
Our landlady turned to ascend the imposing staircase, kaftan swirling dramatically behind her.
I turned to my partner and mouthed gleefully, “Oh my God, it’s Mrs Madrigal!”
Anna Madrigal is the flamboyant bohemian and ‘mother of us all’ who provides the beating heart of Maupin’s Tales of the City novels. A woman who gathers her logical family around her in the haven that is 28 Barbary Lane. The owner of this Hay guesthouse so reminded me of Mrs. Madrigal that I half expected to find a freshly rolled joint taped to our bedroom door, in the manner that Anna traditionally welcomes new tenants.
As we rose through the house to our room in the eaves, I noticed dozens of painted canvases tucked into every available nook and cranny. They were balanced atop antique wardrobes, slotted behind dressers, stacked beneath tables or just casually propped against walls.
“These are my daughter’s work,” she told us. “Her artwork is currently on sale in a Birmingham gallery.”
After being shown our room and handed the keys, we were left to settle in.
I dropped my bag on the bed, inspected the bathroom then stepped back onto the landing, with its rakishly uneven wooden floors, just in time to hear our landlady’s voice resound up the stairs from the kitchen, “I thought it was his wife, I nearly called him Mrs.————,” followed by a gale of well-meaning laughter.
I laughed too.
We spent a pleasant weekend driving around country lanes, walking along the riverbank, frequenting the town’s many pubs… and one cider house (owned at the time by a distant and dishevelled in-law) and, of course, perusing those numerous bookshops. We had a lovely time… well, until my partner got a dash of food poisoning from a pub meal, but we didn’t let that dampen our spirits, too much.
On the morning of our departure, our landlady invited us to join her in the parlour, a room that fused a cream tease of off-white elegance with brazen bordello.
“I like to learn a little about my guests,” she explained, as she served us tea and biscuits. “I don’t automatically let anyone stay here. If I don’t like the sound of someone on the phone, I tell them we are fully booked and give them the number of another B&B in town.”
“Then we are honoured,” I said.
“I had two girls stay with me last year that I really didn’t take to, so turfed them out after one night and sent them somewhere else.”
I admired her integrity, if not necessarily her business acumen.
She then went on to tell us about an elderly naturist friend of hers who lived a few miles from town.
“You should employ him as a bellhop,” I suggested. “That would ween the men from the boys when he opens the door in the buff, especially when he bends to pick up their cases.”
Out of the blue, she asked, “So, how did the two of you meet?”
“That depends,” I said, putting down my tea and stealing a glance at my partner. “Do you want the real story… or the version we tell our mothers?”
She smiles a smile that conveyed Anna Madrigal’s attitude of, ‘Dear… I have no objections to anything’, and said, “Let’s start with the version you tell your mothers and take it from there.”
I told her the pre-watershed version about how I was sat in a park on my lunchbreak and we struck up a conversation about how we were both reading the same book of short stories.
“Lovely,” she commented. “Now, what’s the real story?”
“Well, I was in the park on my lunchbreak, that much is true, but I was cruising up by the allotments. I wasn’t initially attracted to him, as he had an ungroomed beard, needed a haircut and reminded me of Noel Edmonds, but we still ended up in a bush… with a black man. We have now been together for over ten years. The other fella didn’t keep in touch.”
“I’m pleased for your mother that you have an alternative version to share.”
“The incident with the book did really happen, although it was the second time we met. He planned his walk through the park for the same day and time as the previous encounter in the hope I had a routine. It turns out I did. I was more keen the second time as he had shaved and had a haircut, also the American accent was turn on (we didn’t chat one the first encounter), so I invited him to meet me for a drink at the bar where I worked when I finished my shift that evening.”
As we were chatting in the bar that night, my then boss came over with a note for me. She smiled at my date and introduced herself them promptly departed. After she had gone, I opened the note, which read, ‘I JUST WANTED TO CHECK HIM OUT.’
We thanked our hostess for the tea and made to leave, “We have got to be off, I’m afraid… and speaking of my mum, we have to get back to Birmingham in time to visit her as it is Mother’s Day.”
As we headed back to our room, I had an idea.
“Would you mind finishing off the packing while I pop out for ten minutes?” I asked my partner.
“Why, where are you going?”
“I noticed yesterday that the massive book warehouse, with the pyramid of books out front, had a set of the first six Tales of the City books for ten pounds. As our landlady had been so welcoming, I thought it would be nice to buy them for her as gift. They would be so appropriate.”
I headed off to purchase the books but returned empty-handed.
“Had they sold them?”
“No. There is this odd law in Wales that shops can’t make a transaction until ten am on a Sunday. Bizarrely, you can go in and browse, but you can’t actually buy anything. I’ve put them behind the counter to pay for at ten.”
We checked out and went for breakfast to kill time until I could buy the books, which I hastily wrapped in the car and returned to the B&B.
“Did you forget something?” The landlady asked when we presented ourselves back on her doorstep.
“Yes,” I replied. “I forgot to give you your Mother’s Day present.”
She was touched by the gesture and swept us through the house to meet her friend, who was sat in the conservatory.
“Look what these lovely people have given me,” she enthused.
She was unfamiliar with Tales of the City, so I explained the significance, “The pivotal character runs a house of apartments and considers the tenants her family. She completely reminds us of you.” Suddenly, a thought occurred to me, “Oh… there maybe one aspect of the character, which is revealed as the series goes on, that isn’t like you, at least I presume not, but I won’t spoil it for you.”
Her friend snorted.
“Ah, you’ve read the books?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied with a smirk.
“So, you know Mrs Madrigal’s secret.” I put my finger to my lips, and we gave each other a conspiratorial nod.
Several weeks later, my partner and I were walking through The Mailbox, an upmarket shopping complex that boasts high end retail outlets, but always seems bereft of actual customers.
As we passed though, on our way to the canal side bars and restaurants of Gas Street Basin, I noticed a distinctive painting in the window of a sophisticated art gallery and pointed it out, “That’s the same style as the canvases at that B&B’ in Hay. She told us her daughter’s work was being exhibited in Birmingham.”
We went inside for a closer look and were immediately approached by an attentive sales assistant.
“We’ve just come in to look at this artist’s work,” I explained. “We recently stayed at her mother’s bed and breakfast.”
“I met the mother when she came to the opening reception. She was quite a character,” the assistant recalled. “She belongs in a book.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “Funnily enough, I thought the exact same thing.”