Primrose Hill Revisited – the complete book online - chapter twenty-one

Article Index

chapter twenty-one

How long should she wait? She had arrived at ten past the hour, expecting him to be already there, waiting. Now it was a quarter past. Well, almost. It was the right restaurant. Jake had an unerring eye for kitsch and the ‘La Fontana Amorosa’ was the quintessential Soho Italian seduction parlour: red-and-white-checked tablecloths, candles in dumpy Chianti bottles in wicker holders and fishnets with cork floats suspended from the ceiling, ready to entangle the prey. The proprietor had received her like the Queen Mum, bowing so low that for an awkward moment she thought he was intent on kissing her hand. He introduced himself as ‘Signor Giuliani’ and led her to ‘Signor Jake’s’ table in a corner. So, he was a customer regular enough to be known by his first name. How many girls had he wooed in this nook, before post-prandial nookie? Giuliani would know. She, of course, was not a girl. Perhaps that’s why he had treated her as if she had come in on a free bus pass.

She had declined a drink on the transparently silly notion that she would need to keep her head clear, when her presence here had absolutely nothing to do with her head. She toyed with the cellophane-wrapped breadsticks. Hope adored them. Now it really was a quarter past. This was no way to treat a lady, not even in America. She reached for her handbag; she would take the breadsticks home.

The swinging doors to the kitchen burst apart and three waiters marched in, wearing flowing red shirts with billowing sleeves and long, white aprons cinched with red sashes, bearing silver salvers aloft and singing ‘La Donna e Mobile’ at the top of their lungs. One of them was Jake.

The first waiter, the lugubrious, lanky one, opened the dome of his salver to reveal a savoury heap of pepperonata which he dispensed onto two plates and laid on the table. The second waiter, the jolly, fat one, disclosed an immense macaroni pie before returning it to a warming trolley. Jake knelt and opened his salver to reveal a vase containing a single, long-stemmed rose. A beaming Giuliani appeared with two bottles of Chianti, red and white. He untied Jake’s apron, removed it and pulled out a chair for him opposite Claudia. It was all too, too terribly operatic. But then, that was exactly the stuff of which her readers’ dreams were made. And she did like opera.

Claudia decided to relax and let it all wash over her. He was a good listener and she unburdened herself about her problems at the magazine. By the time the waiter collected the remains of the macaroni pie the smile on her face was genuine.

“I’ve got Belinda to thank for this evening,” she said.

“This is not a put-on. I’m not here because of her.”

“I agreed to withdraw my objection to her play.”

“The only reason I wanted to do it was to see you.”

“I’m not going to interfere any more.”

“But you’ll come to rehearsals.”

“No.”

He grinned. “I’ll miss your interpretation.”

“I don’t care if she’s exploiting me.”

“She is. I’m not.”

“I’ve decided I don’t give a damn.”

“That’s jolly decent of you.”

“Don’t get too English. You shouldn’t have to change who you are to get where you want to go, and if you do you might not recognise who you are when you get there.”

Jake nodded. “You’ve still got a lot to teach me.”

I don’t want to be your goddamn schoolmistress, she thought. What did she want to be? “So you don’t have to pretend anymore.”

“Pretend what?”

“That you have the vaguest interest in a woman who was born too soon for the counter-cultural revolution.”

“I can generate a few false emotions, but I’m not that good an actor to suppress real ones.” She could not fault that reply and so when he placed his hand on hers she accepted it.

“So, now that we’re friends again, what did I do wrong?”

Claudia shook her head. “Not you. Me. Remember that man I told you about. The one I stood up at the altar?”

“Because he was a homosexual.”

“Bisexual. That was Stephen. Belinda’s father.”

A frown crossed his face. “I told you I never met the guy.”

“I know.”

Presented with the temptation of the dessert trolley, with its endless tiers of towering cakes and profiteroles and tiramisu, Reason shook its head, but down below the unsatisfied beast within her stirred, shrugged its coils, and stretched her finger towards the gooiest confection. And then, because she felt guilty for doubting him, or because she’d had a little too much wine — no, because she damn well felt like it and why not — her hand did not return to her lap but pressed on his. Russell’s knuckles bore a faint blonde fuzz. So did his chest. Stephen’s chest was smooth and hairless, like the top of his head. Jake’s knuckles sprouted black hairs like a werewolf. It was not possible that she was in love with him. It was laughable to think she might be drawing strength from him, as women do, seeking their own identity in a relationship. It was just a lark. An affair Belinda would embark upon without stopping to think. And, then a shadow crossed her mind. Had she? He interlaced his fingers with hers.

“Maybe that’s why she’s hung up about sex,” he mused.

“Who?”

“Belinda. Because of her father. She’s so upfront about it, it makes you wonder.”

“Wonder what?”

“It’s like the guys in high school. The ones that were going on about it all the time weren’t getting any.”

“Surely you would know.”

“You think . . .”

“Belinda believes in the battle of the sexes, and she takes no prisoners. I don’t see how she could overlook you.”

“She told you that?”

“I infer.” Jake hesitated and averted his eyes. “It really doesn’t matter,” Claudia began, but thought, well it does matter. She was damned if she was going to accept the cast-off lovers of a self-absorbed child. But Jake was rescued by Giuliani who took Jake’s gaze around the room as a signal to bring the bill.

Her hand was in his when they left the restaurant, their backs to the Rolls-Royce parked in the shadows opposite, daubed purple by the orange glow of the Soho streetlights. Though the night sky was clear, as far as it was visible through the ruddy reflected dome above London, a subdued roar like continued, distant thunder throbbed along the pavements. It came from the north and as they headed up towards Oxford Street it grew louder.

As they drew closer the thunderous roll achieved a rhythm. “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh” rose from a thousand throats. Oxford Street was a river of marchers — a light-hearted, burbling stream of people holding hands and chanting. Aloft, a colourful flotsam of banners and placards swept irresistibly westward on the human tide.

Claudia was drawn to the tumult. Her eyes lit up and she hastened her steps, fairly tugging Jake along. He pulled them both up at the kerb, casting about for a passage across, but Claudia leaned forward like a suicide hovering on the brink of a rushing waterfall. A hand reached out from the crowd and in an instant she was gone. Jake plunged in after her but she was swallowed up amongst the heads and shoulders ahead that rose and fell like rapids in a rolling river.

A placard was thrust into his hands: ‘Yanks Go Home!’ And then he spied her, at the end of a rank a few yards ahead, arms linked with a bearded man, exercising her lungs and assaulting the air with her free hand. Jake battled his way to her side, grabbed her free hand and offered her the placard. When she unlinked her other arm to take it, he pulled her out of the march. She stood flushed, eyes glazed, like a kid who’d had too much circus. She urged him back towards the throng, but he embraced her and planted his lips on hers.

That was intrusive. That’s what she wanted. She wanted him to intrude. They walked all the way home through Regent’s Park. Embracing in the heavy scent of the darkened rose arbour, they pulled apart only when the placard fell over with a clatter.

“It’s a perfectly simple question. Have you had sex with her?”

“It depends what you mean by sex.”

“Yes or no. Not that it matters in the least, but —”

Was his expressive face tortured with doubt or was it just a teasing grin? There was not quite enough light to make it out. “I’m not sure.”

“You were drunk?”

“There were other people around.”

“Other people? How many?

“Two dozen maybe.”

“You were all having sex?”

“A love-in, they called it.”

“And it got out of hand.”

That facial contortion again. “The opposite, actually .”

“And?”

“And what?”

“How did it end?”

“When the overhead lights came on at the Roundhouse. We were all covered in embarrassment. And goose pimples.”

“So, I’m wrong about Belinda?”

“Belinda was . . . enthusiastic, but I bet she’s a virgin. She’s all mixed up about sex. Maybe because of her father.”

“I wonder if she even knows. She’s put him on such a high pedestal. I don’t think she could bring herself to recognise that he has any human . . .”

“Weakness?”

“Susceptibility, I was about to say.”

They passed no-one after that. The park was empty and when they came to the tall iron gates at the north end they were shut and locked. There was nothing for it but to climb over. Jake boosted Claudia over the top, then climbed up himself. The placard was an encumbrance and as he balanced himself on the spiked crest, it slipped and dropped back inside the park. On the ground outside, contemplating the gate, he was wondering whether to climb back inside to retrieve it when Claudia reached in and pulled it through on edge.

They wandered along a path at the foot of Primrose Hill, murmuring together and when they stepped into the puddle of light under a lamp-post they embraced, and each lamp-post after that stopped again to kiss in the luminous pool, but quickening their pace in between until they were skipping, half-running, so leaving the park they failed to see the Rolls-Royce convertible parked in the lane across from Claudia’s house.

Russell saw them coming. He peered through the sitting room curtains, a glass of water in his hand. Hope stood at the top of the stairs in her now too small Paddington Bear jim-jams, rubbing sleep from her eyes. Russell withdrew quickly, trotted up the stairs to give Hope her water and bundled her back into bed. He hurried back downstairs, dimmed the lights and exited to his basement flat, just as Jake and Claudia burst in through the front door.

Before they had their jackets off they were entwined, and they continued to disrobe each other as they moved across the sitting room, until they stood, mostly naked, in the hall leading to Claudia’s bedroom. Jake pinned Claudia against the wall. Her tongue writhed deep inside his mouth. He bent his head to kiss her breasts and then he took her, penetrating between her legs and filling her and lifting so he was deep inside her and her legs were wrapped around his hips. And then he walked, with her astride him, coupled together at groin and mouth and she moaning in ecstasy and crying with laughter at the same time.

She removed her searching tongue from his mouth long enough to cry out, “What — wherever did you learn that?”

“Okoboli Junior High.”

He nudged the bedroom door open with his elbow and as he walked through, carrying her inescapably secured, his key in her lock, she put out a hand and closed it behind them.

While the longcase clock in the hall ticked, Claudia’s groans penetrated the closed door: “Oh! Okay! Oh! Okoboli!”

When it was quiet, the door from the basement opened. Russell double-knocked the door jambs and entered the sitting room. After a cautious glance up the stairs, he tiptoed about gathering up the scattered clothing. He folded the apparel neatly on the chair in the hall leading to Claudia’s bedroom, removed the ‘Yanks Go Home’ placard on the sitting room floor, carried it into the front entrance hall, opened the cupboard and propped it up in a corner behind the coats.