Sample story from “Rolling Down The Road”. This is Story #10, and takes place in May 1967
An Oxford Man
‘She’s my best friend, Steven!’
‘Women always have multiple best friends,’ mused Steve, ‘Odd. Best is a superlative, so there should only really be one …’ He noticed her expression and shut up.
‘My very best friend then,’ she said with a glare, ‘Anyway, she’s coming on Friday night.’
‘So they’ve let her out …’
‘It’s a mental hospital, not a fucking prison.’
‘Right. So she’s better, then.’
‘Well, a bit. She’s still depressed. Anyway, she’s bringing her new man. They’re going to stay in The Costerham Arms.’
‘A new boyfriend?’
Cecilia picked up the letter again, ‘She says “man” but she says he’s very sophisticated.’
‘OK. So we have to …’ the glare came again, so he restarted, ‘So we’re going to spend the weekend with them?’
‘Obviously. As they’re coming to see me … us. And it’s not the weekend. They’re going back on Saturday afternoon.’
‘Fine,’ he finished. He’d never met Philippa, though he had hitched over to Leeds once with Cecilia to visit her in the hospital. He’d simply spent an hour on a bench in the leafy grounds reading a book. An orderly in green overalls had come over and told him brusquely that it was time for afternoon tea, and Steve had got up meekly and started to follow him, before he realized he had been mistaken for a patient. Cecilia had thought it hilarious when she came out. Steve explained that he’d taken it as a generous invitation to visitors.
‘No, no, Steven. It’s because you do look slightly crazed.’
They waited on the platform for the 6.40 arrival.
Philippa looked like a friend of Cecilia’s … latest fashion, lots of bright make-up, blonde hair up in a somewhat old-fashioned bouffant with a large pink bow. She ran along the platform and the women hugged each other, jumping up and down. Steve wondered where the new man was. Cecilia grabbed his arm, ‘And this is Steven!’
Steve found himself hugged tightly to Philippa’s bosom, and kissed on the cheek, ‘I’ve heard so much about you!’ she said, ‘And this is Jay.’
So this was him. Steve had dismissed the small man in a blue double-breasted jacket with a red and yellow cravat from his thoughts. He’d exited from the train with a leather suitcase, put it down, and took out a silver cigarette case and lit up. He looked about forty.
‘How do you do, Steven. I’m Jay …’ the man was extending his hand. Steve took it. Soft, moist. He coughed from the proximity of the cigarette,
Steve smiled, ‘Jay? An Oxford man.’
‘How did you guess? Yes, St. John’s.’
‘No, I meant the name. Jay. I’ve been reading The Great Gatsby. Jay Gatsby says he’s an Oxford man.’
‘Indeed. I was named after him. My mother was reading it at the time of my conception.’
Cecilia laughed, ‘Not at the exact time.’
‘Oh, yes. The precise time. My mother wasn’t interested in that sort of thing, and Father satisfied his carnal urges with he housemaids … I was born in India and they were in plentiful supply. However, duty called for a son and heir, so she would submit on the appropriate day each month, but she liked to read over his shoulder, and let him get on with it.’
Steve exploded with laughter, ‘You’re joking.’
‘Good Lord, no. Why should I do that? Thank goodness I was a boy. Had I been a girl, I should have been called Daisy.’
‘It’s the woman in the book,’ Steve explained.
Steve led the way to the bus stops, ‘There should be a bus along in ten minutes,’ he explained.
‘Taxi!’ It was Jay, hand out in the air, ‘You jump in the front, old chap. Your legs are longer than mine.’
Steve and Cecilia had never been in the Costerham Arms before. Overstuffed dark brown leather chairs, polished mahogany panelling, grotesque dark oil portraits on the walls, red and gold carpet, a polished brass spittoon next to reception. Steve wondered if anyone had ever used it this century.
The receptionist was obsequious, ‘Yes, Mr Wellesley … we have your reservation, sir. The Palmerston Room, sir. Four poster.’
Jay turned to them, ‘Do take a seat in the lounge bar. Have a drink …’ he turned to the receptionist, ‘Whatever my guests want. Put it on my room account.’
‘We’ll just be five minutes …’ said Philippa.’
Jay shook his head, ‘No, expect us in half an hour, I want to freshen up and …’
Jay winked at her.
‘OK,’ said Steve, ‘About eight o’clock then?’
‘Yes … I’ve booked dinner for eight fifteen. Here, of course.’
They were the sole occupants of the lounge bar. The plush seats were scarlet, against more dark mahogany.
Steve sat down, ‘That was all a bit obvious, wasn’t it?’
‘Well, I expect they cherish a bit of privacy. How old do you think he is?’
‘Forty?’ suggested Steve.
‘Forty-five, I reckon.’
‘Phew. Old enough to be …’
‘… her father,’ finished Cecilia, ‘It’s all a bit embarrassing.’
‘It certainly is … I really can’t afford to eat here, Cecilia.’
‘He’s paying. Philippa whispered it to me as we got out of the car.’
‘But he’s never met us.’
The barman came over, ‘What can I get you?’
‘Um, is there a … like, a price list?’ asked Steve.
The barman shook his head, his smile was fixed. ‘I’ve been told to put everything on Mr Wellesley’s room account.’
Steve and Cecilia looked at each other.
‘White wine, please,’ she said.
‘Dry, medium dry?’
‘The same for me, please,’ said Steve.
‘Should I bring you a bottle of Pouilly-Fuisse? Or we have a very nice Sancerre. I can highly recommend the Muscadet,’ he was watching Steve’s facial reaction. He shrugged, ‘Or just two glasses of the house white?’
‘The house wine’s fine,’ said Steve, ‘Uh, just glasses.’
The barman went to the bar, picked up two small plates and brought them over. Salted nuts. Olives.
‘We didn’t order these,’ said Steve.
‘They’re complimentary, sir. With your drinks.’
‘Thank you,’ said Cecilia. She watched him go, ‘You have been in a hotel before, haven’t you, Steven?’
‘Yes, but not like this. I was going to ask him if he had any Yugoslav Riesling. Good job I didn’t.’
‘That’s probably what the house wine is,’ she said.
Jay and Philippa came down at ten past eight.
‘I do hope they’ve been looking after you,’ he said.
Philippa was brightly flushed in the face and whispering something to Cecilia, who chuckled.
‘Yes, very nice wine,’ said Steve, ‘Er … white.’
‘Well, let’s go in … and I must say at once that this is my treat.’
‘I really couldn’t …’ Steve felt obliged to murmur.
‘He could,’ said Cecilia, ‘Thank you, Jay.’
They took their seats. A waiter spread napkins on their laps, and handed out menus in maroon leather cases. Jay had one in royal blue. Steve opened his. No prices.
‘Apparently, according to a brochure in the room, they’re famed for their Tournedos Rossini,’ said Jay cheerily, ‘That’s certainly what I’m going for … and the smoked salmon to start. I’d been hoping for oysters, but they don’t have any.’
Philipp giggled again.
‘Hmm. Some aubergine in batter with the main course, and French fried potatoes… yes. This will be a pleasant change after the hospital shepherd’s pie. It’s been like a month of constant school dinners.’
Steve stared glumly and without comprehension at the menu as orders were taken. His mother had instilled the rules of silver service and table settings into him, fondly imagining university to be full of formal occasions. She had learned them as a waitress in snotty 1930s seaside hotels. Eat soup with the spoon moving away from you. Work through the cutlery from outside to inside. Or was it inside to outside? Never speak with your mouthful. There were the side plates for bread, but which side was his?
Finally Cecilia kicked him under the table, ‘And what are you having, Steven? The rest of us are all having the same.’
‘Yes, me too, then.’
‘And two bottles of the Saint-Emilion, I think,’ finished Jay.
There was silence. Jay’s look to Philippa was somehow triumphant.
Cecilia cleared her throat, ‘So,’ she started brightly, ‘Where did you two meet?’
Steve and Cecilia had both worked out the inevitable answer, and regretted the question, even before Jay spoke.
‘At the hospital.’
Cecilia looked at him, ‘Uh, are you a doctor?’
Jay laughed, ‘Oh, no. A patient, just like Philippa. A doctor would be struck off for what I’ve just been doing with a patient.’ He picked up a fork, examined the tines, and wiped them carefully with his napkin, and picked up the steak knife and examined it, ‘That’s somewhat of a conversation stopper, I see.’
‘The hospital seems very nice …’ said Steve, ‘I was only in the garden but …’
‘You’re wondering what I’m in there for,’ said Jay, who was carefully polishing the smaller knife, ‘I expect you’re wondering whether I’m allowed out … or just absconded.’
‘Not at all,’ said Steve untruthfully.
‘Murdered my wife, perhaps?’
Steve felt Cecilia tense beside him.
Jay laughed again, ‘No, but if only I had. The fucking bitch put me in there.’
‘So, you’re married,’ said Cecilia, shooting a sharp glance at Philippa, who merely smiled back.
‘I am indeed,’
He stopped speaking as the wine arrived, and with it the ritual of sniffing, tasting, swilling and accepting. The glasses were poured.
‘Thank you,’ said Jay, ‘No, nothing unpleasant. No raving madness at all. Just the demon alcohol. I’m an alcoholic.’
Steve looked at the glass, as Jay sipped it.
‘I’m having a one day break, a little holiday, then back on the wagon.’
‘Can you do that?’ asked Cecilia.
‘No, not really. Probably not at all. The doctors say definitely not. But who cares? So, you two, tell me what you’re reading.’
Jay seemed at home on American literature, sociology, political philosophy and drama. At last Steve asked, ‘So, what do you do, Jay?’
‘Yes, for a living.’
‘My occupation is spending the family’s stored wealth. It needs disposing off. All gained in the most reprehensible manner in the 19th century: slavery, opium, exploitation, I imagine. I have a couple of shops in Kings Road, but that’s more of a hobby. My wife is a model. You’d recognize her. She runs them. When she’s not trying to run me. I used to do a touch of rally driving. Currently banned from driving, though. The drink, you see,’ he looked thoughtful, ‘Totally wrecked the E-type. I loved that car.’
Cecilia waited, fuming, but barely speaking, until Jay walked somewhat unsteadily to the toilets before dessert.
‘Philippa! You must be mad! A married man, and he’s twice your age!’
‘He’s rather sweet though. And funny, and incredibly rich.’
‘Yes, but there’s no future in it. Jesus, what would the nuns at school have said!’
‘Is he a Catholic, dear? I expect, and you’re a fine one to talk, Cecilia.’
Cecilia bridled, ‘So what do you mean by that?’
‘Well … how long was it, Steven? Ten minutes? On your first date? Or was it quicker than that?’
‘Christ, Philippa. You cow! I’ll never tell you anything in confidence ever again. What’s Steven going to think?’
‘What a lucky Steven, I am?’ suggested Philippa, ‘Anyway, Steven must know that you’ve got no discretion whatsoever in talking about sex. You never did have.’
‘Shouldn’t you go and check that Jay’s OK, Steven?’ said Cecilia acidly, ‘He’s been a long time.’
‘No, no. I’m enjoying sitting here listening.’
Cecilia continued, ‘But he’ll just dump you when he’s finished with you.’
‘I know that. I’m not stupid, Cecilia. But it’s definitely lifted my depression, at least temporarily. It feels rather an adventure … just getting out, and on a train, and seeing you … you seem very happy.’
Cecilia squeezed Steve’s hand, ‘I am.’
Philippa looked round, ‘Close your ears, Steven … and though we can, er, do it, at the hospital, we can’t really do it hammer and tongs there if you see what I mean.’
‘A nightcap in the lounge bar beckons,’ said Jay, ‘Do join us.’
‘Just the one,’ said Steve.
That was before Jay spotted the shelf full of boxes of games, ‘Monopoly!’ he said, ‘Exactly what I feel like. Let’s play.’
After the lavish meal, it would have been churlish to decline.
‘I warn you I’m rather a ruthless player,’ Jay said, ‘No mercy. Strict rules.’
‘He owns bits of the real Mayfair, I expect,’ said Philippa.
‘Good Lord, no! That’s the Duke of Westminster. Incidentally, the chappies who chose the streets had very little idea about London property values. I don’t go beyond the yellows,’ his voice was rising in volume, and slightly slurred, ‘For God’s sake! The Angel Islington’s not even a street, it’s a public house. And why Fenchurch Street station? Do you know where it is? No? Who does? Why not Waterloo or Victoria? It’s ridiculous!’
Jay started setting the board out on the coffee table. He picked up one of the metal pieces, ‘Ah, I always have the racing car.’
‘Wouldn’t the top hat be more appropriate, darling?’ suggested Philippa, ‘As the bloated capitalist.’
‘The racing car,’ he insisted, placing it in front of him, ‘I always have the racing car.’
‘I’m not having the thimble or the iron,’ sniffed Philippa.
‘Have the shoe.’
‘No, I think I’ll take the battleship,’ she said.
His voice rose in pitch, ‘No, Steven should have the battleship. It’s male.’
Steven smiled, ‘I thought they called ships “she” though.’
The battleship was plonked down hard in front of him.
‘I don’t mind what I have,’ said Cecilia.
The thimble was placed in front of her.
‘Well, Philippa … make up your mind,’ he snapped.
‘I’ll have the top hat then,’ she said sullenly.
‘That’s silly!’ he announced, and placed the iron in front of her.
She put it back in the box, and took the shoe, ‘Is that alright?’
‘It’ll have to be.’
The game ran smoothly enough for an hour or so. Jay laughed rather too long at his own joke about the GET OUT OF JAIL FREE card being GET OUT OF THE LOONY BIN FREE. Philippa just gave a quiet sob. PAY HOSPITAL £100 elicited a neighing laugh, ‘Is that all? Chance? Chance would be a fine thing.’ When Philippa picked up YOU HAVE WON SECOND PRIZE IN A BEAUTY CONTEST, his derisive snigger brought a tear to her eye. His SPEEDING FINE £15 resulted in a three minute rant about the Metropolitan Police.
Jay finally lost his temper after Philippa landed on Park Lane with a hotel. It was Jay’s. She didn’t have enough money to pay.
‘Here, take some of mine,’ said Cecilia, pushing a small pile of Monopoly money over.
‘Do you not understand the game at all?’ he hissed furiously, ‘You can’t do that.’
‘Show me where it says I can’t give her money in the rules,’ said Cecilia, ‘And she’s my friend.’
‘What would be the fucking point? Eh? What would be the fucking point?’
‘It keeps her in the game with the rest of us,’ said Cecilia, ‘Obviously. That’s the point.’
‘No, she’s out! Take your money back!’
‘Keep your voice down,’ said Steve quietly, ‘And do not shout at her again.’
Jay plonked the dice in front of him, ‘Your throw.’
Cecilia was shaking her head warningly at him, and mouthing ‘Let it go.’
Steve satisfied himself with a hard stare, and threw the dice.
The game finished around two in the morning, though the bar had declined to serve alcohol to the two non-residents after eleven. Jay won.
Steve and Cecilia arranged to see them the next morning for coffee, and to accompany them to the station.
There were no street lights, and nearly a mile to walk back to the halls. They declined his offer to call them a taxi.
‘Are you coming to my room?’ said Steve, ‘No cleaners tomorrow. There’ll be no one about to see us go in now.’
She nodded, ‘I’m worried about her though.’
‘He seems quite harmless,’ said Steve, ‘In spite of the bad temper. I mean, she could push that little prick over with one hand tied behind her back.’
‘That’s not what I meant.’
‘It was weird seeing how some people live … with money, I mean,’ Steve said.
‘Are you jealous?’
‘Of Jay? No. Did you like that hotel?’
She shook her head, ‘And that thick slab of bloody meat with Madeira in the creamy sauce was disgusting in a way.’
‘I thought so, too,’ said Steve, ‘What was that gooey stuff on top?’
‘Yuk. I could get into that wine though.’
‘Fortunately you can’t afford it.’
‘I don’t think he seemed a happy man,’ said Cecilia.
‘Nor did I. I reckon if he’d started losing he’d have tipped the board over.’
‘Did you notice he was cheating? He moved five instead of six to avoid landing on your Bond Street. You had three houses on it.’
‘That’s how you get money,’ said Steve, ‘Why didn’t you say something?’
‘It wasn’t worth it. Anyway, he’d bought us dinner. Did you care who won?’
‘Not at all,’ They were getting close to his hall, ‘We’d better whisper,’ Steve said.
Cecilia stopped, ‘Well, Steven. I’d rather be us, creeping into your narrow single bed, hoping the warden won’t catch us, than to be Philippa swilling champagne, and romping about on silk sheets in a four poster with an ageing playboy.’
‘Have they got silk sheets at that place?’
‘How would I know … anyway, shh … let’s slip in quietly.’