Even my loyal readership needs a little action in order to keep interested and I can promise it aplenty. You see my lunch date was no ordinary fellow. He was reknowned throughout the land as one of the sharpest and most dangerous proponents the game. His wit and sharpness had made him wanted in four counties for the heinous offence of being luckier than the house. I had been pulled reluctantly out of retirement to see if I could take a single game of backgammon from him, and, having met him, I knew there was little hope. My past, such as it was, filled as it was with scrapes and tangles, did not include overmuch success on that hardest of boards.
There is nothing noble about scaling down the wall of a building to spare the blushes of a young lady whose lover was banging on the door, but there is something enjoyable about it. I was decorated by a beautiful blonde who laughingly described me as a gift to the girls on the course. On the very few occasions that an interloper lost his decorum usually managed to persuade him, with a mixture of charm and intense confusion, that such behaviour could never be appropriate in front of a lady. One has to look after the girls, so to speak. In fact one also has to look after the girls who are boys. There is no shame in that as long as it is done with equal measures of love and honour.
As a man of pride and foolishness I never expected to have my head turned as sharply or my heart stolen as completely by such an unexpected source. At the point at which I thought I might never find a use for my talents, I was sent by those whose orders are not to be ignored to meet a boy called John. He taught me something I shall never forget and my Muse owes him a great deal, while I merely I owe him my life.
The fact my clothes never quite matched the current mood inspired a certain bewilderment in those whom I drove or swam with. My heady ignorance was a joy to behold for those keen to hold on to their tightly and well won privileges. I was both a ghost of my former self and the sort of happy clown who brings out the best and the worst in those around me. I have laughed, smiled and cried in brief, intermittent bursts, remembering John and the life he afforded me. John and I were Kings of Covent Garden, anointed by our own unexpected but anticipated joy at sharing a recce and a few drinks. While I waited nervously for the Lady to arrive, carrying her bags and holding her arm, John was always laughing in the background, tempting me to greater and greater mischief and delight. My time with the Lady was brief, but important in the overall scheme of things. My time with John was a rare and beautiful moment of freedom. I can’t imagine anything ever being as good again, and I pray nightly for one more chance to share a story and a reminiscence with him. My account begins when the Lady vanished and John suddenly appeared.
I was leaning against the plate glass window of a shop, which I remembered as a cornucopia of treasures in the festive season. I had the Lady’s gifts, bestowed upon her by an ardent admirer. The tea from Persia had been chosen by a skilful merchant who understood the finer fragrances which passed me by in the fumes from passing taxis. The manual of viticulture was written by one of the finest minds I have ever encountered. John stole them in a heartbeat. He was that quick.
There was nothing I could do but chase him through the streets as far as Soho. I caught him by the arm and led him into a club where he was known and I was vaguely remembered. The desk clerks were rather surprised but enthusiastic to see us. It was remarkable how much it had changed from the dingy watering hole of lost souls that I remember to a hip and happening centre of excellence. Having deposited the Lady’s gifts safely I knew I owed John a real drink so we moved swiftly and purposefully to a bar in Greek Street that I remembered from the old Days. John phoned his close friend Victor, who needed company as much as I did apparently. I frostily agreed to meet him and see if I could listen to his tales of woe. After all, what are good friends for?
The bar was packed with Aussies, enjoying the full delights of a night out in the Big Smoke. As a smoker myself I met a remarkable fellow outside the bar whose attendants appeared a little over enthusiastic. He was good enough to give me a light and I will always admire his brother’s taste in lighters. I was not, however there to smoke. John and I had serious business to attend to. We ordered a small private room behind the bar and some cheap whisky. The heat caused John to remove his outer layers and I was amazed at how lithe and well honed he was. This was a remarkably talented boy. Later that evening, saddened by his friend Victor’s troubles, I myself unzipped my cardigan to much derision from both of the younger chaps. Grey is apparently not the new black.
“Tell me Flashy old love,” John virtually crooned, “What irks you most about the new Jerusalem?”
“The bloody Socialists have paved over it…” I grumpily retorted. This was not a nickname I had hoped to have remembered at such an inconvenient moment. It was clear to me in an instant that the skills I had once virtually mastered would need to be fully honed in order to deal with such an impertinent young man.
“Only joking my dear” I finally plucked up the courage to admit. “It can be hard to find oneself out of step with a place one knows so well. I am an old drinker and a former inhabitant of this great town, and find you younger fellows most discombobulating.”
“You are only as old as the woman you feel,” John said, with a grin as wide as the whole of Essex. “Cheer up Jim. This won’t be as painful as you might expect.”
I had little doubt that he was right but felt that both he and Victor could do with a meal. We nipped back to the Club for advice. A rather bemused patron suggested a curry. We plumped for a select upstairs room in China Town. John was clearly up to something. I had always enjoyed a nice won ton so was happy to be dragged along. Poor Victor looked starving and kindly walked the road line to avoid John and me being splashed by the passing traffic. While the waiting staff were their usual, happy and accommodating selves, I was troubled by John and lost my appetite quickly. Victor appeared equally keen to share his difficulties, for which I was grateful. I didn’t have the heart to drag John kicking and screaming back to the Club so I tipped off the authorities that he was to be allowed free passage to anywhere he preferred to be that night; but implored him to rejoin me in the morning. There was a show that both he and I had an interest in and I was keen to catch a matinee with him.
I have to admit that I got little useful sleep in the vast and inexpensive room the Club had so graciously provided. While tossing restlessly, and bathed in the sweat of an unhappy traveller, I had fitful dreams of a field in Wiltshire and an unhappy experience in my Mercedes. I shan’t trouble you with the details. Suffice it to say I was asleep at the wheel and was rescued from the burning hulk by some kind firemen. Nothing destroys the pride as completely as firemen laughing at one’s attempts to grab a few personal effects from the burnt out shell of a beloved German tank.
Waking up was a jolted head burn. I needed coffee and orange juice and some dead things and toast. The Club was a maze that I navigated without elegance. The waiting staff were tardy and loose lipped. A young Argentinian bought me a cold beer and a Romanian waitress received a large tip. I was in a foul temper and anxious to ensure John made good on his promise to return. I loftily purchased a club umbrella to disguise myself as an American tourist on a day out in London, as I needed a walk. I foolishly left my leather satchel with the desk clerks. I needed to walk.
As I walked towards the Garden and the Square on my way to Eros my mind wandered back to a long walk I had taken in my youth. Some friends had suggested that we visit a river and a lake that had a certain attraction to the local youths. A dam so wide that it spanned two countries had fish at its bottom that grew huge with the pressure of the water. As the river flowed away from the dam the local flora and fauna was as fecund and alive as any I have ever experienced. If I had any words of advice to any young men and women thinking of searching for beauty in the Orient or South of the Equator it is this. Learn when to blend and bend, and learn when to stand firm and remember who you are. If you ever forget that, you are lost, no matter how attractive the thought of the other may be, In the moments when a white swan stretches her wings wide to protect her brood, you must do the same if your brood is under threat. Otherwise back away and let her have her victory. Swans are a delight to the eye and the senses. Don’t let them entrance you, but remember to stop and appreciate them.
The heavy heart I now feel in thinking back on John comes mainly from the fact that he never knew how deeply he had touched me. He believed that I wanted something from him, when all I wanted was to be near him and to enjoy the world that he opened up to me. Such is the refreshing arrogance of youth that it believes that the old world is different to the new. Such is the jaded intransigence of age that we often forget to stand up and be flexible. Stretching helps I am told. If I had stretched my heart and my mind instead of careering headlong towards the past I might have been ready to find John, rather than to sit alone, drinking in the memory of a precious four days that made a life time’s struggle so worthwhile, and so deeply tragic.
Nonetheless, to dwell on the unattainable is to lose all perspective, and perspective may be all that I have left as I type out my agony and my heartbreak. I miss John in a way I have never missed before. Only two others have touched me so deeply, and they have both found lives made better by my absence. I wish them strength and love. They are two qualities I never had in abundance, and may have wasted them all in a blinding rush of existence. Truth be told, I wouldn’t change anything except the moment that I walked away.
I walked impatiently around Eros like a tiger waiting to be fed. I didn’t know if John would return at the appointed hour. I bought coffee in an old haunt that had changed hands but still retained much of its old charm. The Maitre de’ presented me with an extraordinary box of fancies, but they were lost on me in my distraction. I asked him to put them in a doggie bag and tipped him generously for his kindness.
I circled the statue of Eros remembering the lies and the truths below the gaudy signs and the shop that sold me my brother’s dreams. As you can imagine I mishandled them with aplomb as he grew younger and richer on the good stuff. As grumpy as I was, and as full of self doubt, something kept me circling, willing John, to return.
Just as I was contemplating the long walk of shame back to the shop to pick up my Mercedes and return home a coward and a fool, via the Strand and the Great Palace of uncivil disputes, there he was, shining like a National guitar and grinning in the sunlight like a fawn who has slipped his mother’s bonds to walk out with a tiger.
I can’t describe the way the Universe tilted on its axis. One smile and I knew that this malevolent spirit was in fact an angel come to hold me up on our long walk to the Theatre. I could hardly remember where I put my brain or my heart but seemed to do the right thing by offering him the doggie bag. That raised another smile that blinded me to the fact that he might have preferred a taxi to a route march. Selfishness being one of my defining characteristics I held out an arm for my inspiring comrade and preceded to boast my way around London like a pair of industrial bagpipes.
All the while, back at Cheyenne Hall, my long suffering wife, K, wondered what she did to deserve my absence. Luckily John assured me the answer was nothing. This appeared to resonate with all the kind advice I had so far received so it didn’t so much as raise a hackle.
I was soft footed and ham fisted with the soul of a schoolboy on a swing, (as Freyr might have raised a single black eyebrow to intimate). The Man of Steel had apparently lost his heart to a teenager with a chequered past. Most unlike me I know, but intoxicating nonetheless. It was time for some serious showing off. Forgive me if I gloss over some of the details, Dear Readers, remembering anything at all is a struggle at the moment; safe to say John’s smile is a beacon to remind me of the absolute joy I was to experience moments before leaving him and his angelic companion, and wondering through life hoping against hope that I would fall asleep and trouble no one with my bootless cries; or at least relive a few more japes in the company of many old friends and one extraordinary new one.
I hadn’t been aware, during the amble, that a gentleman who I had once met in a bog and made a very poor joke to him about his daughter would be hosting what might conceivably be a last hurrah in Somerset with a rhode I had never met but always admired. I had been in the habit of making bad jokes to gentlemen for most of my life, and I suspect that may have meant I had missed his most celebrated soirees many times in the past. I would be sad to miss this one but I am sure the BBC will provide excellent coverage from their drones and their lofty vantage point.
Having dragged the poor fellow through the maze of my memory for another day we found a back way into the Palace and admired the outfits and the grumpiness of a certain policeman whose name and face shall be forgotten to spare his blushes. We were entirely accountably early, as my desire to actually be in Court, born out of loyalty, duty and a sense of my own superiority, had been trumped by my desire to spend time alone with John, far from the long arms of any authority that might resent our togetherness. John, a stalwart demanded we return, so I dragged him kicking and screaming to an old haunt beloved of a chum and his cripplingly poor and lazy boss. We sipped coffee, John checked out the hand driers, I bought a few inappropriate gifts and claimed to a gent that John was my son. The intoxicant I shelled out on had nothing on me or John at that moment. I could see stars.
Each grumpy step back to the Palace de Justice was accompanied by a squeak from John’s boots. My umbrella kept time and we made it to the, now heavily guarded entrance. Outside the few press photographers and the unkempt mob of angry peasants appeared not to notice John and I cut a swathe through their numbers. We made for the gods, to get, at least a view. As it happened we were ushered into the family box, much to the consternation and delight of various members of the family. John assured me he could take a few notes without upsetting the various professionals who were furiously preening and typing, gloating and groaning all around us. I knew several of the assembled hot pollock from beneath the stairs, or the various smoking areas I had encountered during a wasted youth. One in particular appeared so delighted to see me he hardly uttered a word.
The picture of youth and bravery I was hoping to catch a glimpse of troubled me with his appearance, as did his troubled wife. John, on the other hand, ever the fidget, had to have a heavy hand placed upon his knee almost the entire time in order to stop me raising my voice, or indeed, beating a hasty retreat. I am sure you can sympathise with my position, (or as Rosie would say, lol.) To be continued…