Monday, September 17th 1956
The base was under attack and the parade ground bell was clanging urgently. Simon, in his panic, couldn’t find his uniform trousers and as he ran out of the barracks with the other soldiers he tried to cover his cock with the butt of his rifle…
Simon Fairchild woke up, but the parade ground bell kept ringing and it was only when its sound changed to a higher-pitch that he realized it was the alarm clock. He rolled onto his side and, fumbling sleepily with the mechanism, remembered that today was the day of the dental conference in Liverpool.
He sank back onto his pillow with a groan and, mindful of Sarah, just managed to swallow the curses that rose in his throat. He’d been dreading this conference for weeks. He hated public speaking. He hated being away from home. He hated staying in hotels. And Liverpool of all places! Four hours on the train! Why on earth had he agreed to do it? Why had he let Ken Barrington persuade him this time? Why hadn’t he just said no? He wasn’t one of those dentists who were always looking for an excuse to have a day out of the surgery, he loved his day-to-day routine, and at that moment he would have given anything to have had a normal common or garden Monday ahead of him.
‘I’ll get up with you,’ Sarah mumbled, half-turning and lifting a floppy hand.
‘No, darling, you don’t have to. You stay in bed. I’ll get myself off okay.’
Simon snuggled up to her, pressing his erection into her back and cupping her left breast. He couldn’t believe how hot she was in the little nest she’d made for herself under the blankets. He could smell the ghost of her perfume mixed with the yeasty scent of the sex they’d had the night before (he’d withdrawn in good time – they didn’t want another baby just yet), and he wished he could have stayed holding her in the warm bed. But he knew he had to get up or he’d fall asleep again. He kissed the back of her neck and with a huge effort rolled away from her, turned back the blankets, and sat up.
It was just light enough in the bedroom for him to see without putting on the light. He wriggled his feet into his slippers and, going to his chest of drawers, selected clean socks and underwear. The regularity of Sarah’s breathing told him she’d fallen back to sleep and he smiled: she’d need all her energy today with both the girls at home. Sarah had hung his suit, a clean shirt and his favourite tie, on the handle of the wardrobe, and collecting these, he tiptoed to the door and closed it quietly behind him.
Simon’s thigh muscles still ached from the match on Saturday and he limped slightly as he walked down the landing to the bathroom. Passing the girls’ room he held his suit up so it covered his erection just in case one of them came out, and the action reminded him of his dream. It was strange; he’d been in the army more than ten years ago, but he still dreamt about it with extraordinary regularity. He’d hated it with a passion, hated the constant struggle to hide his fear from the other soldiers, but, even so, it had only lasted ten months and he couldn’t understand why it continued to have such a vivid grip on his imagination.
He examined the bruises that peppered his thighs and shins as he soaped his legs in the bath, and wondered how many more seasons he could keep captaining the Old Cholmians’ first team. He was thirty-three now and it seemed to take longer to recover from every game; his left knee, the veteran of many football injuries, had begun to hurt in a new way, as if something inside it was torn or broken. He went over Saturday’s 3-1 home win against Lakeside Park in his mind as he towelled himself dry. It had been a clean, skilful game that could have gone either way. Ronnie Colston had had an outstanding afternoon in goal and Simon had scored twice – a header from Bernie Coyle’s corner kick, and a simple tap-in after a fumble by Lakeside’s goalkeeper. Eighteen year-old Dominic Wood, a new addition to the team, had thumped in the third from just outside the penalty box. Simon had felt a little embarrassed about his second goal, it hadn’t seemed quite sportsmanlike to take advantage of a fumble in that way, and he’d apologized to Lakeside’s captain who’d been very good about it.
The Old Cholmians had celebrated their win in handsome fashion – booming singing in the communal bath, and watering-can after watering-can of beer in the clubhouse under a swirling fug of cigarette and pipe smoke. It had been a splendid night; Tolly Barnes had got on the club’s piano and it had turned into quite a sing-along. As he sat on the edge of the bath carefully drying between each toe, Simon had an image of Tolly, absolutely blotto, a fag see-sawing in his mouth, caterwauling The Lambeth Walk for all he was worth, and laughed to himself. He hoped he had a good few seasons left in him yet. He would have hated to give it up. No other sport generated the sort of camaraderie that football did.
When he was thoroughly dry he put on his suit trousers and vest and, with his braces dangling at his hips, filled the sink with hot water and lathered his jaws with his shaving brush. Sarah had bought him the ‘Rise ‘n’ Shine’ electric shaving kit for his birthday, but he’d gone back to using his old cutthroat razor, convinced it gave him a better shave. He ran the blade through the creamy beard with the steady hand that made him such a first class dentist until all that remained were a few slivers of soap which he wiped away with a hand towel. He put on his shirt and his Cholm full colours tie, knotting it carefully so that the thinner end was one inch shorter than the fatter, just as he liked it. Taking a glass jar of Brylcreem from the cupboard above the sink, he scooped up a glob in his fingers and massaged it into his hair. He combed his long fringe forwards until it covered his eyes like fronds of wet grass, then backcombed it so that it lay flat against his scalp.
When he’d finished, he paused and studied his face in the mirror. It was a good face, a handsome face. He had a prominent Roman nose, deep-set blue eyes, a high forehead. It was a man’s face. He didn’t understand the success of the new slew of ‘pop’ performers and film actors; they looked more like boys to him than men, baby-faced and effeminate. He found them strangely disturbing. In fact, he found the younger generation of men perturbing in general. He didn’t understand their cantankerous attitude, the way they were always challenging authority, always attacking the status quo. Fewer and fewer of them wore suits anymore and chose to wear those dreadful denim jeans instead (trousers worn by dirt-poor American share-croppers for God’s sake); and most of them wouldn’t have been seen dead in a nice hat. He didn’t want to be an old fuddy-duddy, he wasn’t exactly in his dotage himself, but he detested their so-called ‘rock and roll’ music too. The first time Simon had heard Elvis Presley on the radio he’d genuinely thought it was a joke. It was just noise, a jangling, moronic noise, but what offended him most about it was that it took sex – an intimate and private matter between a man and a woman – and made it public and vulgar. What was wrong with his generation’s music? What was wrong with Frank Sinatra? Beautiful songs, beautifully sung. You could hear every word of the lyrics clearly enunciated, you could dance to the tunes like civilized people, not epileptics in the grip of a seizure. The youth of today wanted change just for the sake of it – even if what came next was worse than what had gone before, and it gave Simon a queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. He didn’t like change. He’d seen enough changes in his lifetime. He didn’t want to see anymore.
He couldn’t resist looking in on the girls before he went downstairs. Their door was ajar, but he had to push it a little wider to see them both. Gemma was asleep on her back, her face flushed, frowning slightly as if sleep was something that had to be taken very seriously. On her pillow was the Sooty glove puppet which had recently replaced Cinderella as her favourite toy. Rebecca was invisible beneath her blankets save for a thorny tangle of black hair. She was still congested from the cold which had kept her off school on Friday, and the sound of her laboured breathing tugged at Simon’s heart strings. He was sorry he wouldn’t be able to have breakfast with them as usual; he often thought they were at their most gorgeous in the mornings with sleep dust on their lashes and elf-locks in their hair, ready to carry on where they’d left off the day before as if the night had never happened. He’d miss five year-old Gemma describing, as she did every morning, whatever convoluted dream she’d had (and shamelessly adding new details of her own invention as she went along); he’d miss Rebecca, who was two years older, rolling her eyes at her sister’s silliness and trying to draw attention to her own maturity by copying Sarah’s mannerisms – raising her little finger when she drank her milk, patting down the curls she didn’t have. He was sorely tempted to sneak inside and give them both a kiss, but he didn’t want to risk waking them.
In the kitchen Sandy greeted him with frenzied enthusiasm, standing on his hind legs and paddling his front paws like a circus dog. Trying not to get any hairs on his suit trousers, Simon squatted down and tickled his ears and patted his back until the cocker spaniel’s paroxysm of excitement began to lessen.
Simon had been ambivalent about getting a dog. He’d been against it in the beginning as he didn’t particularly like animals, and hated the thought of the dirt it would bring into the house, but the girls had been desperate to have one and he’d finally relented. His one stipulation had been that they buy an adult dog – he drew the line at having an incontinent puppy in the house. In due course he’d driven Sarah and the girls to the nearest dog shelter where they’d picked a five year old cocker spaniel they’d rechristened ‘Sandy’. On the way back home, with the dog barking and the girls overexcited and noisy, Simon had felt quite bitter about the way he’d been manipulated. But Sandy had quickly won him over, and Simon was as soppy with him as the girls were, rolling around on the lounge floor pretending to be another dog, chasing him around the garden, feeding him titbits at the dinner table to the girls’ delight and the exasperation of Sarah. When Sandy lay still and let the girls dress him up in their dollies’ clothes or fell asleep with his head on Simon’s foot, whimpering and twitching as he dreamed, the dog could almost move him to tears. At the same time, however, if it wouldn’t stop barking or jumped up at one of the girls, Simon could become so angry he was worried that one day he might really hurt the dog.
He let Sandy out then lit the gas and placed the kettle on the hob. Taking a loaf from the bread bin he cut two slices, arranged them under the grill, then laid the table for breakfast. He went into the hallway to the cupboard under the stairs, took out his immaculately polished dress shoes and put them on, tying the laces in a tight double bow (he hated having to stop to tie his laces). The kettle began its anticipatory moans, but before they could crescendo into a scream, he hurried back to the kitchen and switched off the gas.
Simon sat at the kitchen table and sipped his tea but it was still too hot to drink. As had become something of a habit, he buttered his toast so that the entire surface was evenly covered, then spooning a dollop of marmalade into the middle of each slice, spread that in the same methodical fashion. He took a small bite, dusted the crumbs from his fingertips, and picking up the Sunday Times from the chair beside him, looked for articles he hadn’t read. Teddy boy riots. Elvis Presley appears on the Ed Sullivan show. Eisenhower tells Southern States to end schools segregation. Eden’s Three Power plan for the Suez Users’ Association. He tried to read the article on Suez but couldn’t concentrate. The thought of the talk he had to give made his stomach turn over. If he was this nervous now, what would he be like when he addressed the conference that afternoon? He had an image of himself standing at the lectern paralyzed with fear while a vast audience shifted uncomfortably in their seats and tried to suppress their laughter. He pushed his plate away, and going over to the window, looked out, trying to gauge the day.
The sky was a bruised grey, full of rain. Simon stared hard at the back fence and could just make out tiny needles of rain, harbingers of the downpour to come, and he made a mental note to take his umbrella. He cast an approving eye over the garden. After three inclement Sundays he’d finally been able to mow the lawn yesterday after church. It looked much better now – there was something appealing about the alternating straight lines of dark emerald and lime green. He hadn’t had time to finish the weeding before his parents had arrived, however, and much to his annoyance the usurpers in the shrubbery spoilt the overall effect. He’d get out there next weekend if he could and poison them all. He watched Sandy busily sniffing around the shed. On the scent of the neighbour’s cat most likely. If he caught it shitting in his flower beds again he’d turn his air rifle on the bloody thing.
Simon gave up on breakfast and going into the hallway walked down to the dining room. It still smelt of the roast dinner they’d had the day before, a beautiful shoulder of lamb that Sarah had cooked to perfection. His parents came over for lunch every Sunday, and the girls, knowing they’d be spoilt terribly, looked forward to it all week. Although his dad could still be a little domineering at times, Simon and Sarah got on extremely well with his parents and he was glad that the difficulties between his mother and Sarah were ancient history now. His mother had been fiercely opposed to the relationship in the beginning. She’d told him it was ‘unprofessional’ to have a relationship with his dental nurse, and that as a Guy’s dentist with a promising career ahead of him, he could ‘do much better’. When Sarah fell pregnant just a few months into their courtship and Simon proposed, Mrs. Fairchild had detected a carefully laid trap and said he’d walked right into it like a fool.
Over time, however, Sarah had won her mother-in-law’s grudging respect. She kept their new home looking immaculate and she excelled in all the female accomplishments – she could knit, sew and cook better than Mrs Fairchild herself. But it was when the children came that the lurking suspicions the older woman still harboured were finally dispelled. Sarah proved herself to be an exceptional mother, and Mrs Fairchild, who hadn’t found motherhood at all easy herself, marvelled at her energy. The girls were happy, self-confident and precociously bright, and although Simon involved himself in the life of his children as much as time allowed – certainly more than his father ever had with him – there was no doubt that the lion’s share of the credit for this lay with Sarah. When Gemma was still a toddler Simon’s mother had taken the extraordinary step of apologizing to Sarah about the way she’d treated her. Sarah had accepted the apology with good grace and didn’t seem to harbour any resentment over what had happened – unlike Simon who could still become angry when he thought about it. The two had gone on to form a genuine friendship that only deepened over the ensuing years. Yesterday after lunch, they’d washed up together in the kitchen, chatting away like a couple of house-martins, while Simon and his dad had smoked their pipes in the lounge and talked about the clinic and the worsening crisis in the Middle-East.
In the alcove made by the bay widow in the dining room Simon had his ‘office’ – a small-roll top desk and a side table on which he kept the telephone. This was where he did the dental clinic’s paperwork in the evenings after the girls had gone to bed. He’d sat there for an hour or so the previous night, looking over his speech, trying to settle his nerves so that he’d sleep. There was a small suitcase standing beside the desk which Sarah had packed with the few things he’d need for his night away. He put it on the dining table and clicked it open, then opened the roll-top, took out his speech and slipped it into a large manila envelope. He hesitated a moment, opened the envelope again and flicked through his speech to make sure that all the pages were there and in the right order. His anxiety satisfied, he put it in the suitcase, but didn’t close the lid; he’d need something to read on the train and he looked around his desk for the novel he was reading but couldn’t see it anywhere.
He went into the lounge and opened the curtains. The Alvis which he’d bought just the month before, was parked neatly in front of the house beyond the low brick wall, and he admired its sleek lines with the pride of new ownership. There’d only been two other cars in Purfield drive when they’d moved there six years ago, now there were at least ten (the Braithewaites at number sixteen had recently bought a Ford Popular). Simon was in no doubt, however, that his Alvis was the smartest motor in the street by a nautical mile. He didn’t like Sarah driving it, and not just because it was so new – he wasn’t particularly comfortable with the idea of women driving at all. It was a well-known fact that their concentration wasn’t as good as a man’s and their reactions were slower. He didn’t mind Sarah driving to the local shops or to the girls’ school, but if there was any serious driving to do then he preferred to be the one to do it.
He spotted Lucky Jim on the floor by the sofa and picked it up, but remained standing uncertainly in the middle of the lounge, strangely reluctant to leave. He stared forlornly at Sarah’s knitting bag on the sofa, the Radio Times spread-eagled on the armchair, the game of Scrabble he’d been playing with Rebecca when Sarah had announced it was the girls’ bedtime. He felt a pang that he wouldn’t be there tonight to finish their game, that he’d be stuck in some God-forsaken hotel in Liverpool. He felt like he was being sent into exile.
Back in the dining room, he dropped the novel into his suitcase, clicked it shut and took it with him into the kitchen. He put on his jacket and was just checking he had his wallet and keys when the kitchen door opened and Sarah appeared in her dressing gown, squinting sleepily into the bright light, her hair comically disarrayed.
‘You needn’t have got up, darling,’ he said. ‘I was just about to leave.’
‘I wanted to make you breakfast,’ she yawned, retying her belt and folding her arms across her chest against the cold, ‘but I fell back to sleep. Have you had something?’ She saw that the toast on the kitchen table had barely been touched. ‘Simon! You’ve haven’t eaten anything!’
‘I didn’t have much of an appetite, I’m afraid. I’ve got butterflies about this blasted speech.’
She came over to him and wrapped her arms around his waist.
‘You’ve nothing to worry about, silly. You’ll be the best speaker there. You’re always the best at everything you do.’
Simon brushed the black curls from her eyes and kissed her softly on the lips, her heavy breasts shifting against his chest like liquid. After seven years of marriage she still aroused him as much as she had when he’d first kissed her in the saloon bar of The Dog and Badger.
‘You go back to bed, you’ll catch cold.’
‘No, I’m up now,’ she said, covering another yawn with the back of her hand. ‘I’ve got a million and one things to do. I want to wash all the curtains today. I’ll make an early start before the harpies descend.’
Simon saw the kitchen clock over her shoulder.
‘I’d best be off. Do I look okay? Any crumbs?’
Sarah took his chin between her thumb and index finger and inspected his face with mock severity.
‘You look very ’ansome, guv’nor. A right proper genl’man.’
They walked up the hall together, Sarah leaning heavily on his arm, and at the door she helped him on with his overcoat. He put on his hat and took his umbrella from the stand.
‘I’m not going to wish you luck,’ she said, straightening his coat collar, ‘because you don’t need it. I know you’ll be brilliant.’
Simon felt overcome by the same morose self-pity he used to feel as a little boy when he had to go back to school after the long vacation, and he rolled his eyes. ‘Remind me never to agree to speak at one of these wretched conferences again, will you?’
‘Don’t be a big girl’s blouse,’ she laughed, giving his arm a playful shake. ‘You’ll be back before you know it. Just think of the fuss I’ll make of you when you get back,’ and there was a suggestive twinkle in her blue eyes.
They kissed again, then Simon opened the front door and stepped out into the drizzle. At the garden gate he looked back. Sarah was still watching him, peering round the door, shyly hiding her state of undress. She blew him a kiss and waved, and Simon waved back discreetly in case any of the neighbours were watching.
Except for the ten months he’d been away in the army, Simon had lived all his life in Cholm. Even when he was studying dentistry at Guy’s, he’d preferred to live at home and commute into London rather than take digs in town. In fact, the mile-and-a-half walk to Cholm station encompassed all the major landmarks of Simon Fairchild’s life. As he left Purfield Drive and made his way into the picturesque high street, he was able to see the clock tower of Cholm College, the private boys’ school he’d attended. Simon had been extremely happy there and had made lots of friends, many of whom – like Ronnie Colston, Bernie Coyle and Tolly Barnes – were his closest friends to that day; in fact, they got together so regularly at the Old Cholmians’ club, it sometimes seemed to Simon as though school had never really ended. A short cut through the narrow alley between Boots and WH Smith’s brought him out into Hanging Lane at the far end of which was the pot-bellied facade of The Dog and Badger where he’d sneaked his first pint of beer with his dad when he was sixteen, and where, roughly ten years later, he’d taken Sarah on their first date. At the almshouses he crossed the road and took a gravel path running alongside St. Margaret’s, the twelfth century church where he’d been christened and married, and which he still attended every Sunday morning with Sarah and the girls. He left the churchyard through an iron gate and made his way along Station Road, one of the prettiest streets in Cholm, passing the turning into Esk way, where his parents lived, and where, in the front bedroom of their red-brick Victorian villa, Simon had been born in the spring of 1923. He still couldn’t help thinking of this house as ‘home’ but he’d flush with embarrassment if he ever referred to it as such in company.
A few hundred yards farther ahead, on the other side of the road, was the dental clinic Simon had taken over from his father six years earlier. He couldn’t resist crossing over to have another look at the new sign he’d had erected in the front garden the previous week. In handsome gold lettering on a background of navy blue it read: ‘Cholm Dental Practice’, and beneath were listed the names of the practitioners: Simon Fairchild, W.D. Hamilton-Barr, James F. Erikson. The sign painter had assured him it would be easy to make alterations should the personnel of the clinic change as it inevitably would in time. Simon had inherited William Hamilton-Barr (or ‘HB’ as everyone called him) with the clinic, and HB would be retiring in three years or so. James Erikson was the first appointment Simon had made himself, another Guy’s graduate and a first class cricketer. Simon had interviewed an Indian by the name of Patel who’d been a better candidate than James in many ways and had seemed an extremely pleasant chap to boot, but after some agonizing he’d decided to give the position to Erikson. Cholm was a conservative town, and a lot of his older patients would have refused point-blank to see an Indian dentist and Simon couldn’t say he’d have blamed them.
The sign had cost quite a bit more than he’d wanted to pay, but all in all, he was satisfied with the result – professional yet inviting – and switching his suitcase to his right hand, he continued on his way to the station. A damp gust of wind sent the maple leaves swirling through the air around him like a cloud of russet butterflies, and a line of W.H. Auden’s came into his head: ‘Now the leaves are falling fast…’ They’d studied that poem at school and he remembered that there was something about it that had moved him, but he had no idea now why he’d like it so much or how the rest of the poem went.
Simon’s older brother used to bait him mercilessly about never leaving Cholm. Gareth had become a military policeman in India after leaving school instead of going on to university. During the war he’d joined the parachute regiment and had been decorated for gallantry at Arnhem. When the war finished, after a brief period farming in Kenya, he’d returned to England and was now a senior inspector in the Metropolitan police. Gareth saw himself as a hardened adventurer, a man of the world and he liked to tease his ‘baby brother’ about the tameness of the life choices he’d made. He nicknamed Simon ‘little piggy’ because, as he never grew tired of explaining to people, ‘he’s the little piggy who stayed at home’. Simon took it all in good part. He wasn’t going to apologize for living in Cholm. He loved Cholm. When he stood outside St. Margaret’s on a Sunday morning and the bells were ringing and the roses were blood red against the white stucco of the Tudor cottages, he felt like he was in the very heart of England, the ancient heart of the greatest country on earth. He wasn’t going to apologize for following in his father’s footsteps either. He liked being known by everyone in town as Simon Fairchild, the dentist, he liked the kudos it brought him, and he enjoyed the job itself, the chit-chat with his patients, so many of whom were more like friends now. On top of this, his clinic was extremely lucrative and growing more so each year. Cholm suited him, dentistry suited him, marriage and children suited him. He was happy. Why on earth should he be envious of Gareth? Gareth could tease him as much as he liked about his life decisions, it was water off a duck’s back. The only time Simon bridled at his brother’s ragging was when Gareth – usually when he’d drunk too much – insinuated that Simon had shirked his duty in the war. For Simon this was like a red rag to a bull and he’d flare up, protesting, ‘I got malaria and was discharged unfit for service as you damned well know!’ Gareth would always back down, throwing up his hands in mock surrender and telling him to ‘keep his hair on’, but the sly smirk never left his face. More than once after an altercation of this sort, Simon had lain awake in bed imagining himself pounding Gareth’s grinning face into jelly for daring to call him a coward.
Simon was surprised by the number of commuters waiting on the station platform at that time of the morning and as his eye passed over the raincoats and trilbies, bowlers and pin stripes, woollen overcoats and homburgs, he saw the unmistakeable figure of Ronnie at the far end of the platform reading The Times.
‘Well, well, well,’ Ronnie grinned when saw him, folding the large broadsheet expertly away and tucking it under his arm. ‘And what brings you to Dante’s first circle?’
‘This bloody dental conference in Liverpool. I told you about it last week.’
‘Ah yes. Liverpool. Beautiful city. Hideous people.’
‘It’s been hanging over my head like a poison cloud all damned week.’
‘Look on the bright side,’ said Ronnie, running a hand over his thick ginger moustache, ‘a night away in a hotel – you might meet some glamorous blonde up there. Could be the best night you’ve ever had,’ and he waggled his eyebrows.
Simon smiled weakly. Ronnie fancied himself as something of a ladies’ man and, although Simon was pretty sure he’d never actually been unfaithful to Fiona, he was worried that one day he’d carry the game too far and make a terrible mess of things. Fiona was a darling and Sarah’s best friend. Simon changed the subject.
‘And why are you catching the 6.42? Bit early for you isn’t it?’
Ronnie held up The Times and pointed to the headline: Nasser Calls Eden’s Three-Power Plan ‘Provocation’.
‘Things are hotting up with our dear friend Gamal Abdel,’ he said.
After getting a double first at Oxford in PPE Ronnie had joined the Foreign Office. He was now an Assistant Private Secretary.
‘Is there going to be a war?’Simon asked.
Instead of answering, Ronnie pointed at something with his paper, and looking round, Simon saw the train coming into the platform. The long string of steam the locomotive pulled behind it bunched as it slowed and collapsed like the hem of a dirty dress over the commuters.
They got a first class compartment to themselves and sat by the window facing each other. Ronnie fumbled out his cigarettes and offered one to Simon.
‘No, thanks, I’ve brought my pipe. I’ll have a good smoke on the train to Liverpool.’
Ronnie lit up and took a long drag, coughed a phlegmy cough, and sat back, crossing his legs.
Simon was keen to elicit an answer to the question he’d asked on the platform. ‘So? Do you think this Suez business might turn nasty?’
‘It’s not looking good.’
Simon recalled the latest newsreel footage he’d seen of Nasser justifying his seizure of Crown property, rousing the Egyptian mob into an anti-British frenzy. You could see on his fa, self-satisfied face how much he was relishing his moment in the spotlight. He was like a rotten tooth infecting the entire Middle-East with his poison. He needed to be extracted, wrenched right out of the gum, roots and all.
‘I think it’s high time we taught that upstart a lesson,’ he said. ‘Who the bloody hell does he think he is?’
Ronnie smiled. ‘I quite agree, I quite agree. But it’s not that easy. Things are different these days.’
Ronnie’s ironic tone surprised him. ‘What do you mean?’
Ronnie gave a long sigh. ‘Tomorrow, the Secretary of State for the Colonies will announce that The Gold Coast is to be given its independence next year.’
Simon looked at him blankly. ‘What’s that got to do with Nasser?’
‘We’re giving up the Empire, old man,’ he said, exhaling a great quantity of smoke which clung to his face like a fog. ‘Nigeria will be next, then Uganda, then Tanganyika, and after that it’ll be Malaya – just you watch. We can’t afford it any more. It’s as simple as that. We’re dropping down through the ranks of nations like a drunk going A over T down the stairs. The yanks call the shots now and they don’t like us treating the Middle East like it’s our personal fiefdom.’
Simon was silent. The train was passing the village of Turley. The flag of St.George was flying on the tower of the squat, stone church which dated all the way back to Anglo-Saxon times. Simon knew it well. As a boy he’d regularly cycled there from Cholm to make brass rubbings of the knights on the floor of the nave or to fish for bream in the pond behind the graveyard. The flag twitched limply in the damp breeze and he felt the same sense of unease he’d felt getting dressed in the bathroom that morning. Change was coming. Teddy boy gangs were fighting in the streets with razors. The do-gooders were campaigning to abolish capital punishment. Thrill kills. Rock ‘n’ roll. Jeans and T-shirts. Britain was changing. It was losing the Empire which had made it great. It was losing its place at the big table….
Simon hoped there would be a war with Egypt. He hoped that Britain would give Nasser the bloody good hiding he deserved. That would stop the rot. We have to stop the rot, he thought, we have to restore some order. Order was essential. Without order there was only chaos.
Simon arrived in Liverpool just before one o’clock and emerged from Lime Street station into a scene of chaos: gridlocked cars beeped their horns, curious pedestrians stood on tiptoe and craned their necks to see. Simon was too far away to distinguish clearly, but from what he could make out a delivery truck had hit a brewer’s dray, flipping it onto its side and upsetting its load. A crowd of men had gathered at the scene of the accident and were trying to extricate the horse from under the truck. Simon took out his pocket book and checked the directions he’d written in the back, then looked around to find the name of the street he was on. A newspaper boy shouting, ‘Stirling Moss wins second grand prix!’, the ironic jeers of the motorists and the contrapuntal honking of horns, made it hard to concentrate, but he finally managed to orientate himself. He glanced back up the street where a policeman had arrived and taken control of the situation, then set off for his hotel.
He felt dozy after the long train journey and was grateful for the chill wind which woke him from his stupor. It was much colder than Cholm had been, but brighter, and shards of blue sky were visible between the banks of bosomy white clouds. Screeching gulls hung crucified in the crosswinds and he could smell the salty tang of the sea, and, in spite of his anxiety, he felt a childish quickening of his pulse.
The Grand Britannia was one of the oldest hotels in Liverpool, an imposing cliff of white Portland stone. A doorman in a top hat opened the door for him, and a young bell boy offered to take his case, but Simon declined with an awkward shake of his head. There was only one person on duty at reception and Simon queued behind a family whose expensive-looking luggage was piled high on a hotel trolley. From the brief exchanges between the heavy-jowled husband and his young wife jogging a newborn on her shoulder, Simon surmised they were Turkish. Their other two children, a smartly dressed boy of seven and a girl not long out of her toddlerage, played tag around the luggage trolley, the lithe boy dodging and twisting athletically to avoid his sister’s outstretched hand. The boy began to use the trolley as a barrier between himself and his sister and as he swung it from side to side the abrupt movements threatened to dislodge the suitcases. To Simon’s dismay neither parent made any attempt to stop the game and he had to turn away to hide his irritation.
The richly decorated foyer with its red-carpeted staircase and oak-panelled walls, reminded Simon of something, but it took a minute or two before he recalled the photographs he’d seen of the Titanic’s grand staircase. Just then he heard his name being called. He looked round and saw Ken Barrington, dapper and sharp-nosed, hurrying towards him, beaming a radiant smile.
Ken shook his hand vigorously, and Simon tried to ignore the smear of what looked like mayonnaise on his chin.
‘Glad you made it, Simon, glad you made it. How was the journey?’ Ken asked, but carried on speaking without waiting for him to answer. ‘The conference got off to an excellent start this morning. We had some really fine presentations. We’ve only just broken for lunch actually.’ At that moment the Turkish family moved away from reception and the young man with the pencil moustache invited Simon to step forward. ‘Look, you get yourself checked in,’ Ken said, ‘then come on down and join us. We’re through there,’ he added, pointing to a pair of double doors to the left of the staircase, ‘in the Keats room. They’ve put on a lovely spread for us, they really have.’ He beamed at Simon again, gave his hand another hard pump, then hurried off swinging his arms as if he were on parade.
Simon took the elevator up to the third floor, again declining the bell boy’s offer to carry his suitcase. Considering the Grand Britannia’s reputation, he was disappointed with his room. It was bare, functional, and the armchair, the wardrobe and writing desk had a second-hand look about them. An amateurish watercolour of the Liver building and a doily on the dressing-table were the only attempts he could see at decoration. It was cold too, and as soon as he’d hung up his hat and coat and unpacked his few things, he made sure a window hadn’t been left open and turned the radiator up.
He went into the bathroom and relieved himself, then washed his hands at the sink. He stared at his reflection in the mirror and slowly shook his head. What on earth was he doing there? What on earth was he doing in Liverpool at one o’clock on a Monday? Why had he agreed to talk at this damned conference? The thought of walking to the lectern and making his opening remarks made him feel physically sick. Never again, he vowed, never again. He straightened his tie and ran his comb through his hair, then went back into the bedroom. He took his speech and the small box of slides from his suitcase, and, making sure he had his room key with him, stepped out into the corridor. He considered the lift but decided to take the stairs. He was in no hurry to join the lunch party.
Back in the foyer he went through the double doors Ken had indicated and found himself in a plushly-carpeted corridor lined with busts of famous writers. He found the Keats room easily enough by following the hubbub of conversation and guffaws of hearty laughter. It was little more than a small bar for diners waiting to go into the Shakespeare restaurant that led off from it, and it was crowded with delegates dutifully sporting their name badges. The crowd was thickest around the small bar where the barmen – a blond youth with a Teddy boy quiff, and a sullen Oliver Hardy lookalike – were worked off their feet. Tables had been put along three walls and were piled high with sandwiches and cakes, and at a station beside the fireplace two waitresses were serving tea from a stainless steel urn. Ken Barrington was, as usual, in the thick of things, entertaining a large group gathered around him in a semi-circle. Seeing Simon, he waved him over.
‘This is Simon Fairchild everyone,’ he said, putting a hand on Simon’s shoulder. ‘He’s reading one of this afternoon’s papers. Simon was at Guy’s with me – the only student in our year to gain a distinction, and he bagged so many prizes it was obscene.’
‘Well, I didn’t drink as much as the rest of them,’ Simon smiled.
‘No, no, no!’ Ken protested, ‘that’s not true! He drank more than the rest of us! Hollow legs this man has, hollow bloody legs.’
Ken introduced Simon to the other dentists and Simon shook the men’s hands paying little attention to their names, just vaguely noting their salient features – a bony forehead, a garish bow tie, a ginger beard, NHS glasses. ‘And this is Ramona Dart,’ Ken concluded, indicating a middle-aged woman with shoulder-length blonde hair. She was wearing an eye-catching turquoise dress and standing a little apart from the others, and Simon had assumed she was part of the group next to them.
‘Ramona’s here from the Unites States on a short sabbatical,’ Ken said. ‘Part holiday, part work, so she tells me. She’s giving a paper tomorrow.’
‘What’s your paper on?’ Simon asked, more out of politeness than any real interest.
Ramona laughed at a joke which only she got as yet, and blew out a long stream of cigarette smoke. ‘It’s not something we should discuss while people are eating,’ she said, looking at ginger beard who was forking potato salad into his mouth from a plate balanced against his gut.
‘Don’t worry about me,’ he mumbled with his mouth full. ‘I’ve got a strong stomach me.’
‘Well, okay, you asked for it – my paper’s on an extremely rare form of oral cancer that presents with papular lesions of the hard palate and gums which bleed on chewing.’
Ramona couldn’t hide her surprise. ‘Yes! How did you know that?’
‘I recently referred a patient – an elderly Polish chap – with lesions on the hard palate and the oral surgeon’s diagnosis was Kaposi’s sarcoma. I’d never heard of it before so I went to Guy’s library and mugged up. There wasn’t much on it, just one article, but I remember it said it was more common among elderly men from the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe.’
‘That’s right, but we have no idea why. That’s what I’m hoping my research is going to find out.’
‘Callum here is at Cardiff University,’ Ken said, indicating bow tie. ‘He tells me Norman Godwin’s still walking around wearing bicycle clips and singing Don Giovanni – ’
Simon turned back to Ramona to explain that Norman Godwin was an eccentric lecturer they’d had at Guy’s, but Ramona had been subsumed into the group next to them and was talking to a tall youth with curly black hair and a college scarf wrapped python-like around his neck.
Ken saw someone across the room he had to speak to, but before he hurried off he pleaded with Simon to tuck into the lunch. ‘They’ve put on a lovely spread,’ he said, ‘they really have.’ Simon promised he’d sample the buffet, but with his stomach tied up in knots, he knew he wouldn’t be able to eat very much. He got drawn into a tedious conversation with bony forehead, bow tie and ginger beard about the Royal Commission and the proposals to introduce more charges for NHS dental patients. Eventually he excused himself saying, ‘I’d better eat something, I missed breakfast this morning.’
He queued at the steel urn and was given a cup of strong tea by a waitress who didn’t look much older than fourteen. None of the food looked appealing, and he put two salmon and cucumber sandwiches on his plate just for appearances’ sake. It would have been difficult to eat anything anyway, encumbered as he was with his tea and the manila folder, made bulky now by the box of slides. He was leaning over a tray of sausage rolls trying to decide whether to take one when a voice beside him said, ‘Are you making a statement?’
He turned to see Ramona, cutting herself a thick slice of chocolate cake and smiling mischievously.
‘Statement? How do you mean?’
‘You’re the only one here who’s not wearing a name badge. Are you saying you refuse to be labelled?’
‘No, no, far from it! I missed registration this morning.’
They tried to move towards the fireplace where there was more room, but a tidal movement among the delegates pushed them back towards the food table.
Ramona nipped off the end of the chocolate wedge with the side of her fork and, in spite of the crush around her, ferried it to her mouth without accident. ‘Mmm. That’s good! I love the way dental conferences always have so much sugary food. Do what I say not what I do, right? I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t resist. What’s that quote? – I can resist anything but temptation? – that’s me when it comes to chocolate cake.’
She was older than Simon – thirty-eight, maybe forty – but still attractive enough to pull off the ruler-straight fringe which only suited the prettiest faces. Her eyes were unusual, long and narrow, oriental eyes in a Caucasian face and they gave her an aura of sleepy sensuality. She had what Ronnie called ‘Monroe topography’ – full-bosomed and broad-hipped with a tiny waist. Simon was squeezed so close to her in the press of other delegates he could see that the darker turquoise opals on her dress were representations of leaves, and again that line of Auden’s came into his head, ‘Now the leaves are falling fast…’ How did it go? Something, something ‘will not last.’
‘So what’s your paper on this afternoon?’ Ramona asked.
Simon explained the research into fluoride he’d been doing at Guy’s and how the data they’d provided had helped persuade the government to begin its own more sophisticated trials the previous year.
‘Ken talked me into doing this,’ he said, glancing anxiously around at the other delegates. ‘Public speaking isn’t my thing at all. I’ve got a bit of a phobia about it actually. I don’t like being away from home very much either.’
‘Do you have kids?’
Simon was usually quick to talk about the girls, but now he hesitated momentarily.
‘Yes. Two little girls.’
‘That’s why you don’t want to be away. Kids anchor you like nothing else.’
‘Do you have – ’ he baulked at the word ‘kids’ – ‘children?’
‘A daughter – Emily. She’s fourteen. She’s staying with her dad while I’m out here. We divorced a couple of years ago.’
He almost said, ‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ but hesitated, unsure if that was the right response, and changed the subject. ‘Where are you from in America?’
Ramona told him all about Boston, about the heavy snowfalls in winter that collapsed the power lines, the eight foot drifts, the flooding in the spring. She talked quietly and Simon had to lean close to hear, so close that he could smell her perfume. It made him think of white sand and palm trees. Ramona was explaining the American qualification process for dentists when Simon saw Ken waving at him from the melee around the bar. ‘Simon!’ he shouted. ‘Can I borrow you for a moment?’
‘Excuse me,’ Simon smiled. ‘Ken’s calling, and when Ken calls…..’ As he squeezed past Ramona his hand inadvertently brushed against her breast and he blushed, but Ramona didn’t seem to have noticed.
‘I need to get your signature on a few forms, old chap,’ Ken said, ‘or you won’t get paid,’ and he hurried Simon down the corridor into the large function room where the conference proper was taking place. Simon’s stomach turned over when he saw the raised platform at the far end, the churchy lectern, the water carafes and glasses set out on the table ready for the afternoon’s speakers. As he walked up the central aisle he glanced nervously around at the rows of chairs, and even though he didn’t want to know, he couldn’t stop his mathematical mind calculating that the room could hold some two hundred people, a good many of whom were already beginning to take their seats.
Ken introduced Simon to Betty, his assistant, a suety woman in her early sixties, and Keith O’Donoghue, a stocky Welshman who was due to speak before him. O’Donoghue, to Simon’s dismay, didn’t seem the least bit nervous about the speech he was about to make. Betty offered to work the slide projector while Simon gave his paper, and Simon readily accepted, passing her the slides and pointing out where each was numbered. Ken sat on the edge of the stage and handed Simon a clipboard with various forms for him to sign, then fished around in his pocket and brought out a badge with Simon’s name on it. As he put it on, Simon remembered Ramona and discreetly surveyed the delegates filing back from lunch but couldn’t see her.
He took his seat on the stage and was joined by O’Donoghue and Bryant Dempster, a pouchy frog of a man who was to be the last speaker of the day. Simon took his speech from the manila folder and flicked nervously through it. He’d timed it at home and it had lasted for forty-five minutes, but skimming through it now it seemed hopelessly short. Ken paced back and forth on the podium like an anxious headmaster warily eyeing the pupils as they shambled in to morning assembly. Ramona was one of the last to enter, still talking to the tall young man in the college scarf, apparently in no rush to take her seat. Simon, partly hidden behind a water carafe, watched her easy laughter, the way she held her clutch bag in both hands beneath the swell of her belly, how the dress material stretched tight over her broad buttocks, and he had a sudden graphic image of her in her underwear, her heavy breasts, much bigger than Sarah’s, bubbling milkily out of their cups.
‘Hurry up, please,’ Ken called, his impatience beginning to show through his habitual good humour, ‘we really should get started.’ Ramona and the student hurriedly took their seats near the back, and the last latecomers slipped in through the door and sat down.
Ken raised both his arms to silence the excited chatter. ‘Well,’ he declared as the room quietened, ‘after that splendid lunch we come to our second session of the day,’ and he rubbed his hands together with relish at the prospect. After a short preamble in which he described Keith O’Donoghue’s research into the dental habits of the Maasai people, he invited the Welshman to the lectern. Simon joined in the clapping, so nervous now that he hardly knew what he was doing.
O’Donoghue began by describing his first safari to Kenya, illustrating every few paragraphs or so with a black-and-white photograph which Betty orchestrated seamlessly. The talk was different to the usual dental lecture, more anthropological than dental, but Simon was so concerned about his own speech that after ten minutes or so he stopped listening. As discreetly as he could, he read through his speech again, only looking up to join in the occasional burst of laughter or applause. Each time he thought about standing at the lectern and beginning his speech, a queasy wave of anxiety washed over him. Time passed with agonizing slowness; O’Donoghue’s forty-five minutes seemed to stretch itself out into hours. Simon only heard occasional snatches through the white noise of his distraction – ‘…deciduous canine tooth buds are traditionally removed as the gingival swelling is believed to contain worms…out of one hundred and fifty plant species in the Sekenani valley one third are employed as toothbrushes…’ – but after a few seconds the words would sink again and be lost in the rising waters of his anxiety.
When the talk finally ended and the room erupted into applause, Simon was weak with waiting and his guts burned like hot coals. Knowing it was his turn now he tensed, ready to climb to his feet, but he’d forgotten the fifteen minutes of question time allotted to every speaker and had to remain where he was and feign interest again. He silently writhed in agony; part of him wanted the questions to end so that this torture would be over, another part wanted them to carry on forever so that he’d never have to make his speech. And it was starting to seem as if the questions really would go on forever when there was a sudden burst of applause, O’Donoghue was sitting back down beside him and Ken was standing at the lectern again. The applause faded and Simon heard his own name, the words Guy’s and fluoride, and then Ken was turning towards him stretching out his arm in invitation.
Simon rose with the treacly slowness that belabours movement in a nightmare, and walked to the front of the stage, a sickly smile on his face. His heart was thumping so hard in his chest it made his eyes tear and he found it difficult to draw breath. He stood at the lectern, his knees shaking uncontrollably in his trousers, and arranged his papers with trembling hands. The room fell silent.
Simon looked at the expectant faces, then down at his speech. The words swirled before his eyes, and even though he squinted he couldn’t bring them into focus. He opened his mouth to speak, but no sound came out and he felt himself blushing. The sledgehammer pounding of his heart demolished his ability to think clearly. Someone coughed. He saw bow tie in the front row watching him with amused curiosity and was dimly aware that his worst nightmare was coming true, that he was making a fool of himself, that he was looking ridiculous in front of his peers. The words of his speech refused to stay still, they scurried across the page in all directions like ants. He leaned heavily on the lectern, his fingers gripping it tightly as if he were hanging on the edge of a rocky precipice. The audience fidgeted and a dry laugh came from somewhere at the back of the room. At the sound of laughter, a hunted look flashed in Simon’s eyes and an ugly spasm – so rapid it was almost imperceptible – contorted his facial features. Suddenly straightening, as if ordered to attention, he cleared his throat and began to speak.
His voice was faltering at first as he thanked Ken for inviting him to speak at the conference, but it gradually grew stronger and found its natural modulations as he explained how he’d become involved in the research into the caries preventative properties of fluoride at Guy’s. When he told his first joke – about the elderly patient who’d accused him of wanting ‘to preserve people’s organs’ (he’d confused ‘fluoride’ with ‘formaldehyde’), the warmth and enthusiasm of the laughter took Simon by surprise. He looked up from his notes at the sea of laughing faces and was unable to resist smiling himself. And he knew it was going to be all right.
The hotel’s public phone was in a booth at the rear of the foyer, but when Simon looked, he found that Bryant Dempster had beaten him to it. Dempster glanced up from his conversation when he saw Simon then settled himself back in his chair as if to make it clear he had no intention of hurrying for him. But Simon didn’t mind. He was in an exuberant mood after his speech. Once his initial nervousness had worn off it had gone swimmingly. He’d spoken fluently, rarely needing to look at his notes, and had managed to connect with the audience and get them excited about the prophylactic potential of fluoride. He’d felt more in control the longer he was on his feet, and when Betty put one of his slides in the wrong way he’d even made a joke, looking at the downward curving graph and quipping, ‘that’s what happened when we did give patients formaldehyde’, a remark which brought the house down. Simon was particularly happy with the way he’d dealt with a question from NHS glasses who’d asked him whether adding fluoride to people’s water supply without their permission wasn’t ‘undemocratic’. ‘I mean,’ he’d said with a shrug of his corduroyed shoulders, ‘wasn’t that what the war was all about?’
Simon hadn’t needed long to think about his reply. ‘It’s as undemocratic as an ambulance taking a man to hospital who’s found lying unconscious in the street,’ he’d said. ‘The man isn’t asked whether he wants to be taken to hospital, but in the long run he’ll be very glad he was. Eradication of decay is a vital goal for British dentists. Fluoride will be an important tool. If, in the process, there’s a “technical” breach of an individual’s rights, I think most people would agree that’s a price worth paying for the greater good. I’m not going to worry about theoretical niceties when our children’s health is at stake.’ There’d been spontaneous and prolonged applause at that, a satisfying reproof, Simon felt, to NHS glasses’ liberal sensitivities. When the afternoon session broke up several people had congratulated him on his talk including Ramona who’d declared that he’d made a convert of her and promised to preach the miraculous powers of fluoride when she got back to the States. ‘And hey,’ she said, ‘I thought you had a phobia about public speaking – you didn’t look the least bit nervous to me.’ Simon had been left wondering whether she just wasn’t particularly observant or whether the inner turmoil he’d been feeling hadn’t been as noticeable as he’d feared.
He walked up and down the foyer, looking at photos of the Grand Britannia from the halcyon days before the Great War (how serene the women looked, how commanding the men). He was excited to speak to Sarah and tell her all about his triumph, and after five minutes or so, he returned to the rear of the foyer, but Dempster still didn’t show any signs of finishing. Simon studied the heavy-lidded eyes and lugubrious Hitchcockian profile with amusement. Dempster’s paper on tissue responses to rotary and ultrasonic cutting procedures had run on for an hour and twenty minutes and been excruciatingly dull. At the end there’d been one question and then stony silence. And even though Ken had done his best to revive the audience’s spirits, reminding everyone that drinks were at seven-thirty in the Keats room for dinner at eight sharp, an hour and twenty minutes of Dempster’s paper-dry monotone ensured the afternoon session had finished on a flat note.
Dempster finally hung up and flashed Simon a humourless, saurian smile as he left the booth. Simon stepped into the aura of sweat and pipe tobacco he’d left behind, dialled the operator and waited to be connected. When Sarah came on the line he had such a vivid image of her face it was as if she was standing right in front of him and he broke into a smile. He could hear the hours of waiting in her voice and her solicitousness for him brought a lump to his throat. Gemma was calling excitedly in the background (It’s Daddy! It’s Daddy!) and Sarah had to ask her to be quiet as mummy was on the phone.
‘So? How did it go?’ she asked. ‘I was thinking about you at three o’clock.’
Simon told her all about his speech, trying not to boast, but at the same time making it clear it had been a triumph.
‘I told you it’d be fine,’ she said, ‘I knew you’d knock ’em dead. You really are a worry wart.’
Simon was a little reluctant to leave the subject of his speech, but he knew it was bad form to go on about himself too much, and he asked Sarah how she’d spent the day. The weather had cheered up in the afternoon she said and she’d done some weeding – with the girls’ ‘help’ – and she’d also managed to wash and dry all the net curtains. At the mention of the weeding Gemma became anxious to speak to him and was so importunate that Sarah had to put her on. There were no preliminaries, no hello or where are you, daddy? just ‘I found an earthworm. It was as long as a shoelace.’ After that, Gemma didn’t seem to have anything more to say, and stonewalled all his follow-up questions as expertly as a politician. He asked to speak to Rebecca and, after a pause in which Gemma conferred with her older sister, she said, ‘Rebecca can’t come to the phone right now.’ When Sarah came back on the line they’d both had a good giggle at this.
‘I won’t be doing this again in a hurry, I can tell you,’ he said. ‘I miss you terribly.’
‘I miss you too, darling. It’s not the same without you here. I can’t wait to have my husband back home.’
‘I’ll be on the seven thirty-eight tomorrow morning without fail.’
‘What time’s your dinner tonight?’
‘Well, you have a lovely time – just don’t get too sloshed.’
‘As Winston Churchill would say, I’ll allow myself “a brief period of rejoicing”. I’m just so glad it’s all over.’
‘I bet you are, you poor thing. When I made the bed this morning your side looked like you’d gone ten rounds with Rocky Marciano.’
He could hear the girls arguing in the background, Gemma beginning the whining that invariably ended in tears.
‘I’d better go,’ Sarah said. ‘Rebecca’s dragooned Sooty into the play she’s putting on and Gemma isn’t happy.’
Simon didn’t want the call to end. He felt a sudden, desperate yearning for her, mixed with a strange sense of foreboding, and was reluctant to hang up. Lowering his voice a little so that he couldn’t be overheard in the foyer, he said, ‘I love you, Sarah.’
‘I love you too, darling.’
He could hear Gemma’s whining deliquesce into sobs now, and they said their goodbyes and the line went dead. Simon remained listening to the drone of the dial tone, overcome by a horrible sense of loneliness and an urgent longing for Sarah.
Going up in the lift he wondered why the telephone call had upset him so much. It wasn’t the first time they’d been apart after all, and he’d be back home tomorrow afternoon. As he walked down the corridor to his room he thought he began to detect the prick of a guilty conscience. Had he been too familiar with Ramona? He remembered how he’d ogled her when she’d come into the hall and fantasized about her in her underwear. The recollection made him grimace. Sarah deserved much better than that and he made up his mind to avoid Ramona like the plague from now on.
Simon was pleased to find his hotel room had warmed up nicely. He looked at his watch: he had time to kill. He wished he hadn’t opted to stay for the dinner now. It would have been horrendous doing that journey twice in one day and he wouldn’t have got back till gone midnight, but at least he would have woken up in his own bed. He sat in the armchair and tried to read Lucky Jim, but he couldn’t concentrate, and, closing his eyes, he went over the events of the day in his mind. He fell into a light sleep and was woken twenty minutes later by people talking in the corridor. He felt in much better spirits after his doze and took a long bath, manfully resisting when an image of Ramona in silky camiknickers flashed into his mind.
He dressed for dinner in front of the wardrobe mirror and went through the same routine with his hair as he had that morning, combing it forward and greasing it back, smarming it down with his hands so that not a single hair was out of place. He was looking forward to the meal. He’d hardly eaten all day and was ravenously hungry. He was looking forward to a good drink too. He’d bloody well earned it today. Ken and the others weren’t the liveliest bunch – it wouldn’t be like last Saturday night at the old boys’ club – but they were decent enough chaps. He just hoped they wouldn’t talk shop all night. He was in the mood to celebrate and have a few laughs.
Impatient to start drinking, Simon went down to the Keats room early. He was pleased to see that others had had the same idea. The bar, more spacious now that the food tables had been removed, was already quite full of delegates and thick with an impasto of grey-white cigarette smoke. He saw Ken over by the fireplace with Keith O’Donoghue, bony forehead and ginger beard, but couldn’t face them without a drink. He edged his way to the bar and failing to catch Oliver Hardy’s eye, was served by the blond boy with the Elvis quiff. The barman pulled his pint with three smooth tugs of the pump, and while he busied himself at the till, Simon took a long swallow. When the lad came back with his change he stopped, and, trying not to smile, pointed to his own mouth to indicate that Simon had something wrong with his. Simon wiped the moustache of froth from his top lip with his hanky and thanked him.
Ken and the others congratulated Simon again on his talk, and Simon tried to hide his elation with some self-deprecatory remarks. Ken had recently been elected to the General Dental Council and was discussing the Council’s attempts to determine a fair registration fee. Ken thought four pounds ten was reasonable, but ginger beard and bony forehead thought it was too much. The conversation inevitably moved on to the McNair report and the urgent need to find another four thousand dentists, and Ken described the Council’s plans to expand the existing dental schools. As Simon listened to him he felt his attitude towards Ken softening. He’d always found him a little ridiculous with his boy scout enthusiasm, his committees and sub-committees, his panels and reports, but it was people like Ken, with his willingness to give up his free time and travel all over the country, who’d shape the future of British dentistry and – earnest and humourless as he could be – Simon couldn’t help feeling a grudging respect for him.
Bony forehead disappeared and reappeared with a tray of drinks, and Simon’s second pint slid down as smoothly as the first. To his relief the conversation moved from dentistry to lighter topics – Rosewall’s win over Lew Hoad in the US National Championships, the chaos in London when Marilyn Monroe had tried to shop in Regents Street, Blackpool’s recent drubbing at the hands of Bolton Wanderers. Keith O’Donoghue, like many Welshmen Simon had met over the years, was a natural raconteur, and ginger beard – or Derek Winchester as Simon now made an effort to call him – was a blunt Northerner with a repertoire of droll one-liners. The three men recognized in each other kindred spirits, and while Ken and bony forehead carried on discussing McNair, Simon, Keith and Derek talked about the cars they’d owned and exchanged their funniest motoring stories. Derek described waking up in his car after a night on the town to find himself parked in the middle of a roundabout in the centre of Wakefield, and Simon laughed loud and long, genuinely beginning to enjoy himself. He saw Ramona in a group at the bar talking to the student who never seemed to leave her side now. She’d changed out of her turquoise dress and was wearing a black skirt and a fuchsia top with a frilly neck. She smiled at him, and he smiled back and raised his glass, but resisted the temptation to go over and talk to her. She seemed to understand, and lifting her white wine to him, turned away and rejoined her group’s conversation.
The dinner wasn’t in the Shakespeare restaurant as Simon had expected, but in the room where the conference had been held. Several round tables had been laid and many of them were already full by the time Simon arrived. Ken presided at the head table with the other GDC members, Ramona was seated at a table between Betty and NHS glasses. To Simon’s surprise there was no sign of the student; he looked around the room, but couldn’t see him at any of the tables and concluded, with a sudden quickening of his pulse, that he hadn’t stayed for the dinner. There were still a few seats at Ramona’s table, but Simon carefully guided Keith and Derek to one by the far window. He was pleased to see there weren’t any women at this table as it meant they wouldn’t have to watch their p’s and q’s all evening.
There were two bottles of red and two bottles of white wine on each table and the three of them helped themselves liberally throughout the meal. As one bottle of wine was drunk, a waitress would replace it with a new one, and Keith joked that this was where all their registration money would go – buying fine wine for dental bashes like this. The acoustics were bad and it was hard to hear the other diners at their table and, after some initial pleasantries, they broke up into small groups. This suited Simon as he knew that with Keith and Derek there was no danger of the evening turning into a bore. He felt relaxed and expansive, and each time he poured himself another glass of wine or smoked another cigarette, he remembered the agony he’d gone through before his speech and told himself that he deserved it.
Over the prawn cocktail starter he found himself rehearsing his worries of that morning with his new-found friends. They agreed with him that Nasser needed to be given a bloody good hiding, and Derek, who’d fought in the parachute regiment in the war, used the salt and pepper pots to explain how he thought British and French airborne forces would seize the canal zone. Paraphrasing what Ronnie had said to him on the train, Simon bemoaned the slow disintegration of the Empire and tried to list the countries Ronnie said would soon be breaking away, but could only remember the Gold Coast and Tanganyika. Keith, his hair disarrayed, his eyes glazed, asseverated over and over again, ‘The Africans need another hundred years before they’ll be able to govern themselves,’ and told a series of anecdotes about Kenya and the backwardness of the people; the story about one of his servants who’d been unable to understand how the new serving hatch worked and had actually climbed through the hatch carrying a tureen of soup, had made Simon roar with laughter.
The wine made Simon feel uncomfortably hot and he had to take off his jacket and loosen his tie. He became aware of the great noise the diners were making, the loud sea-surge of conversation, the scraping of cutlery, the cannonades of laughter, and he looked around the room with pleasure at the animated faces. Craning his neck he could see Ramona talking to NHS glasses, and remembering his bolshie left-wing question, Simon imagined sending his glasses flying with one hard punch to his face. The arrival of the main course – a steaming Lancashire hot pot – broke that chain of thought, and they carried on discussing the loss of Britain’s Empire. Derek mentioned the recent EOKA bombings in Cyprus and Keith said it wasn’t just the British, the French were in retreat too after Dien Bien Phu.
‘They lost nineteen soldiers in Algeria just the other week – hacked to death they were. They won’t be able to hold on there much longer. If Britain’s to reverse the trend,’ he said, waving a full fork, ‘we’ll have to extend National Service.’
Simon was sceptical. ‘The mollycoddled youth of today wouldn’t stand for it.’
‘You’re bloody right,’ Derek chimed in. ‘Bloody Nancy boys half of them.’
Derek asked where Simon and Keith had served in the war and, as Simon explained that he’d contracted malaria in Egypt and been medically discharged, that hunted look flashed in his eyes again. Neither Derek nor Keith showed the slightest hint of scepticism, however, and commiserated with him on his bad luck. They talked about the Teddy boy riots and the need to bring back the birch and they bemoaned parliament’s recent attempt to abolish capital punishment. ‘If you murder someone then you should hang, it’s as simple as that,’ Simon said, his hand thumping the table for emphasis, and the other two had nodded their agreement. Keith told an obscene joke about the last thing Ruth Ellis wanted to eat before she was hanged and Derek laughed so hard he’d had a coughing fit. When he’d recovered, red-eyed and hoarse, he’d croaked, ‘Christ, I thought I was going to choke.’
‘That’s what Ruth said!’ Keith exclaimed and that set them all off laughing again.
Simon lost all track of time, and when, shortly after the waitresses served the chocolate pudding, Derek got up to leave, Simon couldn’t believe it was already nearly eleven. Time, which had moved so glacially earlier in the day, had passed with extraordinary speed during the meal. ‘I can’t keep up with you,’ Derek said, his face bloated and flushed after three hours’ drinking. ‘Ken was right, you’ve got hollow legs,’ and in spite of Simon and Keith’s protestations he left, stumbling a little as he passed between the tables.
Simon saw that other diners were beginning to call it a night too, but he and Keith carried on talking, finishing up the wine that was left. Keith told him a story about the first dental post he’d set up in the Kenyan bush and how one night, not long after he’d moved into his government bungalow, he’d been woken up by a knock at the door. It was a young woman from the village, and she said the chief had sent her to him as a present. Keith said he’d been appalled and had sent the girl away. He’d gone back to bed, but a few hours later he was woken by another knock at the door. When he opened it this time there was a boy about ten years of age. Simon shook his head with disgust, and Keith intoned again, ‘The Africans need another hundred years before they’ll be able to govern themselves.’ At half eleven Keith rose to go, and patting Simon on the shoulder he said, ‘You should get to bed too, boyo. Been a long day.’
Simon found himself sitting alone at his table. The waitresses were clearing up and only a few stragglers remained. Ken was smoking a cigar by the door with an elderly man who’d been at Simon’s table but to whom he hadn’t spoken. He looked round to see if Ramona was still there, but her table was empty and had already had the cloth stripped from it. Simon stared into a full cup of coffee that he didn’t want and looked at the mess he’d made on the white table cloth – bread crumbs, splashes of red wine, a shitty smear of chocolate. He felt the room turning slowly around him as if he were sitting on a carousel in a children’s playground, and the giddy feeling made him smile to himself. He knew he’d had too much wine but he didn’t care. He felt good, he felt calm, serene. His eyes were heavy and he let them close. When he opened them again Ramona was sitting beside him.
‘How’s the star turn?’ she asked.
‘So am I,’ she grinned. Her cheeks were red and her narrow eyes just moist slits. ‘That Betty,’ she snorted, ‘God, she’s a hoot!’ Ramona offered him a cigarette which he didn’t really want but took anyway. Simon remembered dimly that he wasn’t meant to be talking to Ramona like this, but she’d come over to him and he wasn’t going to be rude to her. She talked to him more about Boston, saying, ‘That’s where we threw your British tea in the water and started the revolution,’ and she poked him playfully in the shoulder. She talked about Emily and the special bond between mothers and daughters, and Simon, even in his befuddled state, saw how homesick she was. She became maudlin about the atomic bomb asking where it would all end, and she told him about the time she was driving home and thought a flash of light in her rear-view mirror was a nuclear strike. ‘And even though I quickly realized it wasn’t, I had to pull the car over I was so upset, and I sat on the hard shoulder and just cried and cried.’ Simon had to bring his face close to hers so that he could hear what she was saying and he found himself staring at her lips and wondering what it would be like to kiss her.
‘I’m leaving early tomorrow,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry I won’t be able to hear your speech,’ but it sounded as if he was sorry about something else.
Waitresses began to clear their table and when one of them knocked over an empty wine glass both Simon and Ramona jumped and then giggled at the strength of their reaction.
‘Well,’ Ramona said with a tired sigh that signalled she was about to leave, ‘if you’re ever in Boston look me up.’ She searched through her clutch bag, took out a business card and wrote something on the back of it. She slid it across to him with her index finger, then got slowly to her feet, holding onto the back of her chair to steady herself. Simon stood too and they shook hands with awkward formality. Simon wanted to say something profound or witty but his mind was so sluggish with drink that all he could manage was, ‘Good luck tomorrow.’ He sat back down and watched her go, and decided to finish his cigarette then go to bed himself.
He looked at the card. It had a neat little logo of an anthropomorphic tooth and Ramona’s name in bold print. Underneath was her address in Boston and her telephone number. It struck Simon as odd – all her details were there on the card. So what had she written on the back? He turned it over and read:
Don’t make me beg, Simon.
I’m in room 212,
Simon sat back in his chair stunned. He’d never been propositioned before. It was so direct, so forward, so unequivocal. His first drunken instinct was to go straight up to her room and indulge his drunken lust, to suckle on those fat breasts and ride those broad buttocks, and his cock kicked in his trousers at the thought. It’s what Ronnie would have done. It’s what Gareth would have done. Gareth was always boasting to him about his sexual conquests. What was it he said? – a stiff prick has no conscience…..but even though the beer and wine had extinguished the lights on the upper floors of Simon’s mind, the ground floor was still illuminated just enough for him to make out the figures of Sarah and the girls. Slurred and woozy as he was, he knew he was incapable of doing anything to hurt them.
But he was aroused nevertheless, and he read the card over and over again. Don’t make me beg, Simon. That word ‘beg’ conjured such a pornographic image of Ramona naked on all fours waiting for him to penetrate her, that it made him squirm in his chair. He was hundreds of miles from home, he thought to himself, surely if he was careful, if he took precautions, Sarah need never know. And if Sarah never knew about it then what harm would it do? He’d only ever slept with two women in his life – a barmaid he’d dated briefly when he was a student at Guy’s, and Sarah. He might never have another opportunity like this. Could he really pass it up? Could he really say no to Ramona? Wasn’t that the sort of cowardice, the sort of gutless omission that tortures the dying man on his death bed?
He stood up, twisting the card in his fingers, and made his way back out into the bust-lined passageway, walking with the excessive deliberation of someone trying to hide how drunk they were. He didn’t want to go back to his room, he knew that once he lay down on his bed he’d be asleep within seconds, and he didn’t want that. He didn’t want to go to sleep yet. Even though he knew in his heart of hearts that he had no real intention of betraying Sarah, he wanted to keep this delicious moment alive for as long as possible. He wanted to savour it. Moments like this, that plucked you from the humdrum and made you feel like the male lead in a movie were rare – Simon was still sober enough to understand that – and he wanted to hold on to it for as long as he possibly could. A woman he’d met just a few hours before wanted him to make love to her; she was in her room right now waiting for him. All he had to do was take the elevator up to the second floor, walk down the hushed corridor to number 212 and knock. The thought of sudden intimacy with a stranger, of exploring an unfamiliar body with his hands, with his lips, with his tongue, was fantastically appealing….but in the background there was always Sarah and the girls, the ballast that stopped his fantasy from lifting into the air. Ahead of him, through the double doors at the end of the corridor he could see the lifts in the foyer, and his pace slowed almost to a standstill. He needed to find somewhere he could think, somewhere quiet where he could carefully mull everything over, weigh up all the pros and cons. He didn’t want to make the wrong decision.
He was passing the Keats room and, on impulse, looked inside. It was deserted save for the young barman with the Elvis quiff who was desultorily drying glasses behind the bar. It struck Simon as the perfect place to sit and try to get things straight in his mind, and he went in, unable to stop his body yawing to the left as he crossed the tartan carpet.
‘Hello again,’ he said, climbing unsteadily onto a bar stool. ‘Any chance of a nightcap?’
The barman pulled an apologetic face. ‘I’m sorry, sir, the bar’s closed.’
Simon remained where he was, resting his elbows heavily on the bar. ‘Come on, be a good chap. No one’s around.’
The barman eyed him a little warily as if he feared Simon might cause trouble. His face under the bright fluorescent light was as hairless as a woman’s, without even the faintest down on the upper lip, and the hotel jacket he was wearing was far too big for his skinny frame. He looked ridiculous, a boy soldier in an ill-fitting uniform protecting his bar from marauders, but at the same time Simon felt a touch of pity for him.
‘I’m sorry, sir, the bar closed at eleven. I’m not allowed to serve anyone after eleven.’ He looked at Simon and began to say something else, then changed his mind, and looking sheepishly away, busied himself with another glass. But Simon could guess what he’d been about to say.
‘Look, I know I’m a bit worse for wear, I’ll give you that, but I’ve been celebrating. At the dental conference. I gave a paper on fluoride that went very well – extremely well – if I do say so myself. I was the star turn.’
Simon urged him again, ‘Go on. Be a sport. What’s the worst that can happen?’
The barman considered, pursing his lips, his eyes darting back and forth between Simon and the door. Seeing it was useless Simon was about to get off his stool when the barman sighed and said, ‘All right then, but if Mr Herman catches me I’ll be for the high jump.’
‘Who’s Mr Herman?’
‘The night manager.’
‘Don’t worry,’ Simon said with a dismissive wave of his hand, ‘I’ll handle, Mr Herman. A vodka on the rocks if you’d be so kind.’
As the barman poured his drink, Simon took a handful of change from his pocket and dumped it noisily on the counter. ‘And have one yourself.’
‘I daren’t. If Mr Herman was to – ’ but he didn’t finish. He gave Simon a narrow, appraising look, squared his shoulders, and assuming a devil-may-care expression said, ‘All right then, I will. Might as well get hanged for a sheep as a lamb. Thanks very much.’ And taking another glass from the shelf he splashed a generous shot of vodka into it.
He brought Simon’s drink over to him, and licking his lips, Simon said, ‘See? That wasn’t so difficult was it? Nobody died.’ The barman took a tentative sip of his vodka, winced as if unused to the burn, then hid his glass behind the ice bucket on the bar.
Simon had taken Ramona’s card from his pocket and was examining it again. He was sorely tempted to tell the barman about Ramona. With his sculpted hair and pretty-boy looks he probably thought he was God’s gift to women; Simon would have liked to show him that youth didn’t have the field entirely to itself, that just because Simon was thirty-three it didn’t mean he was over the hill. He tapped the card pensively on the thumbnail of his left hand.
‘I’m in a bit of a dilemma,’ he said with a lopsided smile. ‘I’ve just had a very interesting offer.’
He put the card on the counter and slid it across the bar with his index finger as Ramona had done. The barman hesitated for a moment as if he was suspicious of some sort of trick, then picked it up and read aloud: ‘Don’t make me beg, Simon. I’m in room 212, yours, Ramona.’ He seemed genuinely shocked by the explicitness of the message and Simon was sure he detected a crimson blush spreading across his cheeks.
‘Was this Ramona at the lunch today?’
‘She was – turquoise dress – blonde hair – very curvaceous.’
‘I remember her!’ he exclaimed and shook his head. ‘You can’t pick ’em, can you?’
‘She’s waiting for me right now,’ Simon leered, eagerly watching the young man’s reaction.
‘Well, what are you waiting for?’
‘It’s not that easy. I’m a married man. Chances are that the wife will never find out of course, but it’s always a risk. What would you do?’
The barman seemed to colour even more at this question and gave a nervous laugh, ‘Leave me out of this.’
‘I thought barmen had all the answers.’
‘That’s only in the films.’
Simon drained his vodka. ‘Let’s have another.’
‘I haven’t drunk this one yet.’
‘Well, young man, you’re going to have to speed up.’
As he drank and joked with the barman, Simon gradually began to accept what he’d known all along: that he wasn’t going to go to Ramona’s room, that in spite of all her charms, he wasn’t going to jeopardize his marriage to sleep with her. This didn’t deflate him, however, if anything he was relieved that he didn’t have to go up there and play the lover. That Ramona had wanted to sleep with him was the most important thing, not whether he’d actually gone through with it. Her desire for him felt like an extraordinary validation, a validation which until that moment he hadn’t realized he needed so much. He felt euphoric, and he wanted to go on drinking and smoking and talking and laughing all night.
The barman was clearly an inexperienced drinker and by the time he’d finished his third vodka he was already quite drunk. The alcohol had stung his lips a bright crimson as if he was wearing lipstick, and a thick strand of hair had sprung loose from his quiff and hung in his eyes. His initial reserve quite forgotten, he told Simon all about himself, his Liverpudlian accent growing thicker the more he drank. His name was Christopher Middleton and he was twenty years old. His father had died when he was just a toddler and he’d been brought up by his mother. She was an actress – ‘quite a famous actress actually’- whose stage name was Aurelia Hailsham. She’d had small parts in Brief Encounter and The History of Mr Polly and had done ‘a lot’ on the stage he said. And in fact the name did ring a faint bell to Simon although he couldn’t picture what she looked like. Christopher confided that his ambition was to be an actor too.
‘You see yourself as England’s Marlon Brando, do you?’ Simon said, enunciating the actor’s name in a way that made it clear he wasn’t taken in by all the talk about America’s new acting sensation. Christopher was appalled by the idea. ‘No!’ he said, ‘Dean! James Dean! He’s my hero. It’s the first anniversary of his death on the thirtieth. I’ve made a shrine to him in my bedroom, with photos and everything. I’ve even got a toy replica of his Porsche Spyder.’ Simon dismissed Dean and Brando and all the other young upstarts with an ugly sweep of his hand. ‘Bogart,’ he drawled, ‘Bogart. Now he’s an actor. And he’s dying, d’you know that? Bogart’s dying. It’s a bloody tragedy.’ Christopher said a theatre group in Birkenhead were putting on a production of Look Back in Anger and he’d auditioned for the male lead. Simon said he’d heard this new drama was just ‘working class ranting’, but Christopher mounted a passionate defence of the play and even quoted some of Jimmy Porter’s lines at him. ‘You can’t call that working-class ranting,’ he said, ‘that’s good writing that is.’
Simon wasn’t particularly fond of films or the theatre, and he thought acting an odd career for a man to want to pursue, and he was glad when the conversation turned to football. Christopher told him that he’d played for Liverpool’s youth team but had had to give up because of weak Achilles tendons. Simon, a Tottenham supporter, ribbed him about Liverpool’s lowly second division status, but Christopher was sanguine about the setback. ‘We’ll get back up this season, don’t you worry about that. We just missed it by the skin of our teeth last year. Now we’ve got Phil Taylor in charge there’ll be no stopping us.’ Simon predicted that Tottenham would win the league ‘by a clear fifty points’ but Christopher said his money was on Manchester United.
Christopher jumped when the door to the Keats room opened, but it was only Ernie the night porter whose well-trained nose had smelt out an after-hours drinking session. The elderly Glaswegian told them that Herman, ‘the kraut’, had gone home as his wife was having a baby. He had a whisky that he made no offer to pay for and leaned against the bar, glumly cleaning his rain-spotted glasses with a handkerchief, the huge bags under his eyes like burst blisters. Simon rightly guessed that Ernie had done some boxing in his time and they talked for a while about Rocky Marciano. Ernie agreed he was just a street slugger and that Joe Louis had been by far the better fighter. ‘Louis’s last fight was the saddest thing I ever saw,’ he growled and the old bruiser’s expression softened at the recollection. Ernie finished his scotch and went back on duty, warning them that he’d have to come back within the hour to lock up the bar.
It was gone half-past one when Ernie stuck his head round the door and said he was locking up. Simon and Christopher were having such a good time they didn’t want to stop, and Christopher took an unopened bottle of vodka from the shelf so that they could carry on drinking in Simon’s room. Ernie was prowling around the foyer, and not wanting to be seen with the vodka, they decided to take the back stairs. By this time they were so drunk they were hardly able to walk. They staggered and tripped, and the more they tried to be quiet the more noise they made, alternately shushing each other and then bursting into uproarious laughter.
It was on the second floor that Simon remembered Ramona.
In the drink sodden hours since she’d given him her business card she’d turned into a cartoon image of female lust in his mind, a cartoon woman with cartoon tits lying on her bed with her cartoon legs splayed wide, demanding sexual satisfaction. Leaning on Christopher for support, and, barely able to get the words out he was sniggering so much, he said, ‘this is the floor Ramona’s on – you know, the yank that wanted me to – you know – give her one.’
‘The yank,’ Christopher tittered, trying to focus on Simon’s face, ‘that wanted to give you a wank! The wanky yankee!’
This set them both off into hysterics, and for a full five minutes they went through all the rhyming variations they could think of – the wanky yankee, the wanky hanky-panky yankee, the wanky hanky-panky spanky yankee – the childish echolalia making them gurn and squeal and convulse with laughter, the articulacy of Simon’s speech that afternoon a distant memory now.
‘I reckon – ’ Christopher said, desperately trying to hold back another avalanche of giggles – ‘her hole’s all dried up she’s been waiting so long!’ and they’d both collapsed onto the threadbare carpet beneath the fire extinguisher, helpless with laughter.
After several failed attempts to get out what he wanted to say, Simon, his voice strangled and high-pitched, finally managed to snort, ‘It’s got cobwebs in it!’ and they’d both doubled up again.
Eventually, all laughed out, they’d sat on the stairs, sighing and groaning and wiping their eyes.
All his lust for Ramona had gone now leaving behind just an ugly sediment of hostility. Through the blanketing fog of his drunkenness, all he could recall was that she’d threatened his well-being somehow, that she’d threatened Sarah and the girls in some way, and when Christopher said that they should find her room and give the slut a scare Simon had enthusiastically agreed.
They reeled arm in arm down the silent corridors but were unable to find room 212 among the rabbit warren of mezzanines and annexes in their intoxicated state. While they were noisily arguing over which way to go, a door at the far end of the corridor opened and a man in a dressing-gown barked, ‘Do you mind keeping the noise down? People are trying to sleep!’ They turned tail and ran giggling back to the stairwell, but Simon, slave now to the dark undercurrents of his drunkenness, and fired up by the talk about boxing, was determined to go back and give the man a bloody good hiding and Christopher had to physically hold him back. It was only when Christopher said he’d lose his job if they caused a ruction that Simon ceased struggling and the two of them had carried on up the stairs to the third floor.
It was stifling hot in Simon’s room now, dry and airless like a greenhouse. He took off his jacket and undid the tie that was already pulled half-way down his chest, and Christopher shrugged out of his oversized jacket and threw his bow tie hard across the room into the painting of the Liver building. They sat at the writing desk by the window, Christopher in the chair and Simon perched on the armchair, and drank vodka from the bathroom toothbrush glasses and smoked cigarettes until they could hardly see each other through the creamy skeins of tobacco smoke. Their conversation no longer followed any logical course, but jumped elliptically from one topic to another. Christopher’s face was flushed scarlet, his eyes burned feverishly and his neatly styled quiff was wildly disordered. Simon struggled to keep his eyes open. The suffocating heat made his head throb, and the whole room seemed to sway as if he were on a vessel far out at sea.
Simon was boasting that men in their thirties had more endurance than men in their twenties, that they were physically stronger. ‘A man in his twenties is really still just a boy,’ he said, clenching his cigarette in his teeth and closing one eye against the smoke as he rolled up his shirt sleeves. Christopher exploded theatrically at the word ‘boy’ and challenged him to an arm-wrestling match there and then. Simon accepted, goading him that it would be like taking candy from a baby, but to his astonishment Christopher beat him easily, and when Simon challenged him to a rematch he lost again. Vexed and irritated, Simon demanded another contest, and when he was on the point of losing for the third time, he suddenly sprang from the armchair and tried to force Christopher’s hand onto the table using both of his. Christopher’s chair teetered dangerously on its back legs, and realizing he was about to fall, he grabbed hold of Simon and they crashed heavily to the ground together. They wrestled furiously like two schoolboys, their faces blood-red, their teeth gritted, giggling and gasping and snorting and swearing, each trying to pin the other down and force a submission.
Simon ended up on Christopher’s back with his arm around his throat in a headlock. As Christopher fought frantically to break free, the back of his head butted Simon’s mouth and he saw sparks of white light and tasted blood. Infuriated by the stinging blow, he redoubled his efforts to pin his opponent, and spreading all his weight on top of him, he pulled the headlock tighter. Christopher bucked and reared underneath him, trying to throw him off, and the two rocked violently back and forth together in the small space between the bed and the table, knocking over one of the toothbrush glasses and spilling vodka on the carpet. But as they began to tire, the nature of the confrontation subtly changed; their movements became slower, full now of grim intensity and serious purpose, and Simon, slipping in and out of consciousness, relaxed his headlock so that Christopher could struggle out of his trousers.
END OF PART ONE