Primrose Hill Revisited – the complete book online - chapter five

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chapter five

The demonstrators surged through Berkeley Square and funnelled up the byways to throng Grosvenor Square. Their chants echoed through the red-brick canyons. Shredded by the wind, scraps of shouted protest filtered through the cracks around the loose sashes. The windows were dirty and never opened — one of the strange customs of the wealthy English that he had observed. Spring had arrived outside, but here in the third floor flat the seasons did not change. The heavy folds of the curtains, the velvet swags and the upholstered fabrics that had absorbed the stuffy winter days and gloomy nights now stifled the rhythmic cries flying aloft on the bright, fresh morning. They subsided to a distant murmur, like traffic noise — except it was Sunday.

Jake stood naked except for the bath towel around his waist, waiting while Simon continued to finger a Beatles tune. It was one of his putdown techniques, as if to say I have so many more brilliant things to do than to hold discourse with you. Simon flicked an eye in his direction. Was he going to complain about water dripping on the oriental carpet? Or did he have something else on his mind? Jake had been warned about Simon. “How come it’s only five pounds a week?” he’d asked his friend about the flatshare.

“He hasn’t come out yet. I reckon he wants a straight flatmate to put his parents off the scent. They’re awfully rich, you know.”

The flat was in Mayfair, where even the traffic was hushed, gliding on cushioned tyres in reverence to the glamour and power cloistered here. The quaint, red-brick, white-trimmed buildings were only four or five storeys high — hierarchical layers of the English upper crust. With aristocratic good manners the windows shrouded their eyes, veiling mysteries of opulence and romance — glittering chandeliers, gleaming mahogany and thick-handled silver cutlery. Svelte women in silken dressing gowns reclined on chaises longues. The beds had silk sheets and the men wore silk underpants.

Someday he would wear silk underpants. Already, he lived in Mayfair. The first night, around two o’clock, laughter and brittle shards of crystal English accents drew him from his bed. Beyond the slate roofs and chimney pots, the garret window held a glimpse of a pebbled courtyard. A large, sleek convertible was parked in the shadows — a Rolls-Royce? Turquoise? Around it gathered a small group of elegant women and men wearing tuxedos. Champagne poured. The tinkle of tipsy chatter floated up the airshaft. The bright young things existed still, and their song was this: Mayfair is not a place to be abed alone at two in the morning.

The piano was a Bechstein baby grand and Simon kept a brace of Lamborghinis parked in an alley just across from the Connaught Hotel. Jake had not been invited to sit on the Italian cowhide of the Lamborghinis and, after thumping out the only piano piece he knew, the bass line to ‘Heart and Soul’, had been warned never to touch the piano again. Gradually he came to know his place: not quite a flatmate, more of a fixture. It had become part of his role to answer the phone. Simon liked to play at having a manservant, and Jake didn’t mind. It kept him in touch with what was going on; Simon had some influential friends. Who might create Opportunity.

Jake’s father, a widower, a self-educated agnostic and a failed distributor of agricultural machinery, had enrolled his son in the town library as soon as he was old enough to have a card, and Jake acquired his early cultural conditioning from the first few shelves of fiction, starting with ‘A’. He devoured the woodsmen sagas of Joseph A. Altscheler and got as far as the Leatherstocking Tales of James Fenimore Cooper before he made the football team and almost simultaneously found out about girls. So it was the nineteenth century Unitarian minister, Horatio Alger, rather than Hobbes, Kant or Jesus of Nazareth who swung his moral compass. The boy heroes of Ragged Dick, Luck and Pluck, and Tattered Tom all fulfilled the American Dream by turning Adversity into Opportunity through Self-Reliance. The democratic maxims instilled by the textbooks supplied by the Okoboli, Iowa public school system confirmed these beliefs. Jake was particularly devoted to the principle of Manifest Destiny, a philosophy promulgated in 1845 by John L. O’Sullivan, a zealously demotic newspaper editor. O’Sullivan declared that in the name of self-government of the people, it was the natural right of the United States to expand to the Pacific Ocean (at the particular expense of Mexico). Jake took one sentence to heart and memory: “It is a right such as that of the tree to the space of air and the earth suitable for the full expansion of its principle and destiny of growth.”

In the way that his schoolmates plotted their futures by interpreting star signs, Jake held a mystic torch of unshakeable belief in his personal Manifest Destiny. It was, perhaps, no coincidence that he shared a surname with John L. O’Sullivan and the initials J.O. He had once experimented with changing his middle name from Edward to Lance, but his Pop had objected, and in any case the engines of destiny required no fine-tuning. Already he was living in Mayfair. Someday he would wear silk underpants, with a discreet J.O. monogram.

Anyone growing up in Okoboli, Iowa knew he had to court Opportunity, or else spend his days in the midst of the cornfields. So Jake’s motto was ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained’. He had occasionally ventured his body. It had secured him an agent, some acting roles, and a number of friends who were now just pen pals, but — who knows — might be useful in the future. His conquests were all women. He knew some men admired his body, too, but Horatio Alger was quiet on that subject and, with so many attractive women around, Jake really couldn’t see the point of it. He had never had a homosexual experience — unless you could count the time in the rowboat out on the reservoir when he and two pals had a circle jerk. But they touched only themselves, not each other.

He had got out of the bath to answer the phone. He had stayed, dripping on the oriental carpet, to listen to Simon’s end of the conversation. He remained, moistly, after Simon went back to the piano.

“I thought you had a date this afternoon,” said Jake.

Simon’s eyes strayed once more to Jake’s naked torso. It was the one hold Jake had over Simon and he was not afraid to use it. Simon would not say anything about the carpet. Finally Simon spoke. “I’ve changed my plans.”

“How can you get in touch with her?”

Simon performed a mocking stage ponder, cocking his head, pursing his lips and casting an eye to the ceiling. “I can’t, I suppose. Except by writing to the box number.”

“You can’t just stand her up.” To his own ears his complaint sounded like a wail from a playground.

Simon smiled indulgently at the child. “It’s not as if it were someone I know. It’s just a silly drama school lark. Go on a blind date and pretend to be someone you’re not — a hippie or an ‘Alfie’ or Stokely Carmichael.” He frowned elaborately. “That would be difficult. I’d have to black up.”

Jake heard his Pop’s voice, not his, saying “Standing someone up is just plain rude.”

“How can one possibly offend someone one doesn’t know?”

“You’ve lost your gumption.”

“Bottle, my dear Jakes. We say ‘you’ve lost your bottle.’ And I haven’t. I’ve just decided it would be too boring for words.”

“I wouldn’t do that to my worst enemy.”

“You’re too boring to have enemies, Jakes.”

Simon grew weary of the teasing. With a thundering, dissonant chord he dismissed Paul McCartney. “Tell you what . . . why don’t you pretend to be me? A genuine drama school exercise. Give you a chance to work on your broad As.” Simon’s left hand plumbed three didactic chords. “My aunt. Took a chance. In the bath. Not myanttukkachaynceinnabad.” He riffled a swift descending arpeggio.

“You’re a real bastard, Simon.”

“Proper bastard. Or right bastard. Either will do. They both mean I can do as I please.” Simon pushed a five pound note across the piano, keeping one finger on it and looking Jake in the eye. “Keep the change.”

Five pounds was Jake’s weekly rent. Even after a night out it would keep him in pocket for a week or two. Jake reached for the note as casually as he could, the way he had seen Simon pick up restaurant bills.

Simon’s amused glance told him he had moved his hand too fast. Simon plucked a white carnation from a vase. “You’ll need this.” He gave a languid nod to the magazine rack. “And a copy of the Times.”

The rousing chords of ‘The U.S. Marine’s Hymn’ pursued Jake up the stairs to his room. “Expect the worst,” Simon shouted after him. “It’s April Fool’s Day.”