Goodmans Hotel by Alan Keslian - HTML preview
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Andrew’s ‘blackout’ had been caused by a subarachnoid haemorrhage, a leakage of blood from one of the small arteries which supply the brain. He had been helping to lift a large container of plants at Ferns and Foliage when he collapsed. The garden centre’s manager was summoned and, unable to bring him back to consciousness, called an ambulance. Andrew had come round to some extent by the time the ambulance arrived, but was dazed and unable to stand, and was taken into hospital for tests and observation.
On Saturday morning Tom took him a few personal things from Biddulph Mansions and some business papers, while I spent the morning in Chiswick looking after domestic essentials. In the late afternoon I went to the hospital, finding my way to Andrew’s ward under the many signs for medical departments such as paediatrics and haematology. I looked nervously at the beds on either side in the open part of the ward but could not spot him and began to wonder if he had been moved; then I found him in a partitioned corner at the far end where he had a little more privacy than most. He looked weak and vulnerable, but showed no other signs of illness or injury. Hearing my deliberate cough he looked up, and after saying hello made me smile at my own awkwardness by asking me how I was.
‘Sorry, I’m not used to these places. Tom told me a bit about what happened – you had a blackout.’
‘They’ve diagnosed a subarachnoid haemorrhage. I had one before, a couple of years ago. A small blood vessel here,’ he pointed to the back of his head, ‘has burst. It’s not something that’s associated with age particularly, they’re puzzled by it. Bring that chair over. Sit down.’ His eyes were clear but he was slurring his words slightly.
‘Are they looking after you in here?’
‘I think so. They’re busy all the time, but no doubt they give me as much attention as my case requires.’
Two hospital consultants had talked to him about the possibility of an operation to close off the small artery which had haemorrhaged. They were waiting for test results before deciding whether to go ahead. ‘Perhaps my age will make them decide against it. Take my advice, Mark, never be ill. Tell me, how is everything? You look tired.’
‘Tough day at work yesterday.’ This was hardly the time to tell him my troubles. On his bedside table was a card with the message Hope You Are Feeling Better Soon, and beside it a small amber bottle with a fancy label. ‘You’ve had a card already.’
‘Yes, have a look.’
The picture showed a thatched cottage with a front garden full of flowers, a little over cute, and inside written with a green felt tip pen was the message: Rub in a little of the sandalwood oil from time to time and think of me - or someone better!
‘The bottle came with it?’
‘Aromatherapy oil. Smell it.’
I carefully unscrewed the cap and sniffed the contents. ‘That is nice, a lovely smell. I’m afraid I haven’t brought anything. Who sent you this? A secret lover?’
‘If only. You’re not so very far out though – why shouldn’t you know. I’ve had a regular weekly appointment with a masseur for quite a while. He does offer aromatherapy, but my motives for seeing him were rather more basic. Don’t look so shocked.’
‘I wasn’t. Surprised, that’s all, you’ve never mentioned him.’
‘Perhaps not, but I wasn’t intending to make a secret of it. Paying for sex... but what are the options, at my age, if you still have the urge? Any sort of outlet, let alone a relationship, involves time, effort, and money. The arrangement was honest and straightforward, more so than a lot of supposedly respectable marriages are. It suited us both, there was mutual respect. I rang him to say that I would miss this week’s appointment and that the illness was likely to prevent me seeing him for some time. So he came to visit and brought the card and the bottle of oil. Tell me what’s wrong with that.’
‘Nothing. You assume I’m prudish. I’m not. I’ve done things I wouldn’t boast about, far more dubious than going to a masseur. What counts is how you thought of each other. Such a nice gift, he must like you a lot. Have you tried the oil?’
‘No, you’re supposed to dilute it. Bit awkward in here.’
I put the card and phial back on the cabinet. ‘Is there anything you want me to do at Ferns and Foliage?’
‘You’re busy already. My staff will cope, they’ll probably do better with me out of the way. Perhaps one thing, if you can find the time.’
‘As a precaution, could you get a form from the bank so that you can become one of the signatories for cheques? Be an idea to make Tom one too.’
‘You’re beginning to worry me now.’
‘I’m not in any danger, no more than we all are, but we have to be sensible. Cheques require two signatures. At the moment there’s me, the garden centre manager, and the chap who keeps an eye on the flats for me and helps me with paperwork. Another couple of signatories will make sure we’re not caught out. If you don’t mind doing it, that is. I shouldn’t ask; you’re under pressure at work already.’
‘I’m honoured to be asked. What’s the best way of arranging it? If you gave the bank a ring on Monday to let them know, I could pick the form up on Tuesday lunchtime and we can sort out the signatures in the evening. You’re sure there’s nothing else?’
‘No, Tom gets me everything I need, don’t you worry.’ He smiled and pushed himself a little higher onto the pillows. Only fifteen minutes had passed and already we seemed to have run out of conversation. Unable to think of something better I said, ‘This is quite a novel experience for me. I’ve only been into hospitals two or three times in my whole life.’
‘You’ve never been seriously ill? You’re lucky. Another advantage in life?’ He sometimes liked to remind me that, whilst he had been born into a poor family, my circumstances had cushioned me from hardship.
‘No. Sprained my ankle once, but they didn’t keep me in. Other than that, been to visit someone in hospital a couple of times.’ To make my good health seem less exceptional I added, ‘Tom has never been seriously ill either.’
‘Your parents, you mentioned a car crash...?’
‘My sister and I were taken to the hospital, but they’d been killed outright; they had no need for visitors.’
‘I’m sorry, don’t mean to...’
‘It was so long ago. I was still at school at the time, studying A-levels. An aunt and uncle on my mother’s side took us in. They did their best for us, but they had a child of their own. We had a miserable couple of years. You can imagine how we felt. Their little girl put up with us and we put up with her, treading carefully all the time, avoiding arguments, being artificially nice to each other. I suppose she didn’t want us in her house any more than we wanted to be there. The alternative, had they not taken us in, would probably have been a children’s home of some kind, so we had reason to be grateful.’
‘But not like being with your own Mum and Dad. Quite a setback at the age of what – seventeen?’
‘Fortunately money wasn’t a problem. My father worked for an insurance company and had taken out maximum cover. They were tough times for us even so; my life has not been all ice cream and expensive toys. I don’t think I stopped feeling miserable until I went to university. In a way life started for me again there.’ Andrew was looking towards me, but although his eyes were fully open they seemed unfocused, giving the impression that he was no longer listening but engaged on some other theme or memory of his own. ‘Sorry, I must have told you all this before.’
For about a minute he did not move, as though he had forgotten I was sitting by his bed. He returned from his reverie and said, ‘You did tell me once before that you lost your parents in a car accident. Must have been very hard. Unhappy memories – not always a good thing to go back over them.’
This was the wrong time for me to be talking about a fatal accident. ‘That one disaster apart I have to own up to a good start in life, middle-class parents, no major accidents or major illnesses. Although actually I did have a bump in the car yesterday.’
‘In that priceless Mercedes? Was anyone hurt?’
‘No, a stupid low speed collision. My fault.’
The clinking of cutlery and crockery at the other end of the ward told us that food was on the way. ‘I’d better go. Sounds like supper.’
‘Don’t let that worry you. You may get a cup of tea if you’re lucky, although I can’t promise it, they watch the pennies on food. I’ve never taken out private health cover. I suppose that firm of yours has fixed something up for you.’
‘Well... yes. You might be able to get a private room here, the charge may not be all that much.’ The smell of onions and gravy drifted into the cubicle. ‘What were we talking about?’
‘The accident – the collision. The other driver was all right?’
I mistakenly assumed he was asking about my parents’ accident, not my bump in the Mercedes. ‘Cuts and bruises. That was what seemed so terribly unfair, he killed my mother and father and got away with minor injuries.’
‘Ah – I meant your collision yesterday.’
‘Oh that, sorry. No, a bit of damage to the cars, not much.’
‘You never told me your parents’ accident had been so... traumatic.’
Desirable as a subject or not, my parents’ deaths had cropped up again. ‘Yes, it got on the front page of the local paper. A stolen car with the police in chase went through a set of red lights straight into them. My parents’ car was pushed off the road, bounced down an embankment, turned over, and smashed into a garden wall. The bodywork was mangled. We were told they wouldn’t have suffered. The car thief who killed them is probably out of jail by now, the bastard.’
When I looked back at Andrew his eyes were wide open and he was staring up at the ceiling. ‘Sorry Andrew, are you OK? Shouldn’t have been talking to you about all that, not here.’ He continued gazing fixedly upwards. ‘Andrew, Andrew,’ I said more loudly, worried that he might be having another attack. He seemed not to hear me, and in a panic I hurried over to the auxiliary nurse who had brought supper. She scurried away to the office at the other end of the ward to seek help.
A stocky nursing sister came out to examine Andrew, her white tunic stretching over her substantial bosom. She leant over the side of the bed, her chest pressing down on the bedspread. In a high pitched coquettish voice she asked: ‘And how are you feeling now my darling?’
His lips moved slightly as he whispered something to her. She took his pulse, concentrating on her watch for the required minute, then released his wrist. ‘Food is on its way. Try and manage some, even if you are tired.’ She looked up at me and said, ‘Shall I leave you to say your goodbyes?’
Hastily doing as she suggested I followed her down the ward until she stopped at the door of the office. ‘Will he be all right?’
‘He seems a bit tense; he’s had several visitors today, probably been very tiring for him.’
‘Something seemed to happen, he was all right, we were talking normally... then he seemed much worse.’
‘Ups and downs, you have to expect it. We are checking him every half hour for observation, so we will know if anything is wrong. His pulse was a little bit fast, that’s all. I expect the last time you saw him he was fit and active. Sometimes simply being in a hospital bed makes people seem very poorly. Bit of a shock for you seeing him like that?’
‘Yes, that may be it.’
‘Maybe do you good to have a cup of tea or something. There is a visitors’ refreshment room on the ground floor. Are you a relative?’
‘No, a friend, the family is not close.’
‘How long will it take you to reach home?’
‘An hour perhaps.’
‘If you like you can ring to ask how he is when you get back. There’s no need, as I say, we are checking him every half hour, but ring up and ask for me if you’re still worried about him.’
Tom and I went to the hospital together the next day. In contrast to me he was relaxed and talked easily with Andrew about his friends and staff at Ferns and Foliage. He teased him about being examined by attractive young doctors and being lifted out of bed by muscular male nurses. The place seemed to stifle my ability to make conversation. Andrew asked Tom to put off whatever work he had planned for the coming week to run errands for him, bringing him paperwork and doing miscellaneous jobs for Ferns and Foliage.
Towards the end of his week in hospital for observation he was conducting business from his bed using a mobile ’phone. He was forced to stop when the senior consultant recommended surgery, and booked the operation for the next day. Arrangements were made for him to recuperate in a nursing home near Eastbourne in the hope that getting him away from London would force him to rest, but after a couple of days he had Tom driving up and down to the south coast with correspondence and was ringing his staff several times a day with queries and to ask for progress reports.
At Ferns and Foliage the manager, whilst knowledgeable and competent, insisted on sticking rigidly to his contracted hours. Except for essential cover for sick absences and unforeseen crises, Andrew disliked paying overtime, believing that bonuses based on profits were the best way of rewarding staff for good work and flexibility, whereas regular overtime encouraged people to work slowly and take unnecessary time off sick. He was worried that the manager would use his absence to change working practices, and persuaded me to go in a couple of times a week on the excuse that he wanted me to ensure the paperwork was well maintained and check on stock levels.
The manager knew about the new arrangements for signing cheques and understandably resented my interference. He occasionally made mildly critical remarks, for instance when I rather stupidly asked why it was necessary to stock a dozen different types of fertilizer, he said contemptuously, ‘Your trouble is you don’t know your chrysanthemums from your dahlias.’ The criticism was largely justified, and for him to voice his irritation was better than letting it fester into a grudge. Even Tom knew more about plants and the uses of the various packets and bottles of stuff on the shelves than I, and sensibly explained that whether so many different types of fertilizer were necessary did not matter much; the garden centre, like shops of all kinds, stocked whatever would sell.
Andrew’s illness, or rather the lack of his company, exposed a weakness in our relationship. From my very first visit to the Beckford Arms, Andrew and I had been the great talkers, discussing everything from the price of crisps to the dangers of global climatic change, while Tom put in a few comments here and there. Since Andrew no longer came to the pub regularly Tom and I were spending more time on our own together. Some of his habits of speech began to irk me: his use of ‘ain’t’ instead of ‘haven’t’, usually followed with another negative as in ‘ain’t got no time for them’ or ‘ain’t never been there’; his ‘going for a quiet drink’ in the Beckford Arms even though the pub was often noisy and overcrowded; and the way he called his clients ‘gov’ on the ’phone as though trying to ingratiate himself by being obsequious.
When he wanted he could be surprisingly articulate. In the early days when we were getting to know each other he told me about his childhood, for instance how he, his brother and a couple of friends used to play at tying each other up with bits of rope they found in an uncle’s garage. They would take it in turns to be the ‘captive’, submit to being tied up and left for five minutes alone in the pitch dark to try to struggle free, sometimes succeeding before the others came to release them, sometimes not. Their escapades sounded imaginative and exciting compared to the games my sister and I used to play in the back garden, never far from parental eyes.
Telling one another the interesting bits from our past lives could not sustain conversation between us forever, and new topics became harder and harder to find. We shared our friendship with Andrew, our visits to the swimming pool, and the sexual side of our relationship, but had little else in common. Looking back, that we should have made the effort to find new interests we could enjoy together is obvious, but what happened was if nobody came over to talk to us in the Beckford Arms we would more often than not run out of things to say. When we were apart I often thought of him with affection, but much the same was true of Andrew, and at times it seemed to me that my sexual relationship with Tom and my friendship with Andrew were not separate things but a sort of combined ‘affair’, the physical part of it being with Tom and the meeting of minds being with Andrew.
After he returned from convalescence Andrew worked much as before on weekdays, and we resumed our practice of meeting for dinner on Sundays, all three of us taking our turn to be host, but he rarely joined us in the Beckford Arms. Most evenings in the pub other regulars chatted to Tom and me and helped prevent too many long silences, but in Andrew’s absence the time often seemed to pass very slowly. Annoyingly, if Tom fancied someone new who turned up in the bar he would unashamedly liven up. ‘Look at that one,’ he would say admiringly, pointedly lusting after another man in front of me. What might go on when we were apart did not bother me. Going into the homes of gay men to do work, and living so conveniently near the Beckford Arms, he must have had many opportunities for casual sex. Having him as my boyfriend left me with no hunger for anyone else, but it would not have been a great surprise to me if he did not feel the same and picked up someone now and again. Monogamy is not common among gay men, and attempts to force anyone into it are bound to fail. Tom was not foolhardy, and if he was having casual sex would take precautions. If he occasionally went with someone for fun, the less I knew about it the better.
On a Friday night a few weeks after Andrew’s return from Eastbourne the entire gay population of London seemed to have invaded the Beckford Arms. When we arrived all the tables were occupied and the crowd at the bar was four deep. The barman explained while serving us that another gay pub a couple of miles away had closed for refurbishment.
The din of music and conversation was so great that we had to shout to be heard. Even to stand in one place was impossible, as we were constantly jostled by other customers fighting their way to the bar or the toilets. Hot and uncomfortable, I was about to suggest we finish our drinks quickly and leave when a black man I had never seen before shoved himself between Tom and me, confidently put an arm around him and kissed him full on the lips. Tom pulled away, shook his head and said, ‘This is not a good time.’ The man looked round at me, then back at Tom who half nodded, and went off to the other end of the pub.I turned to face Tom, waiting for an explanation.
‘What can I say? You saw what you saw. It wasn’t anything. Let it go, Mark, something made me go for it that one time, maybe I shouldn’t have but I did. The thing was a one-off.’
‘A handsome man. How long has this been going on?’
‘There’s nothing going on. That once, I admit to; let’s say I made a mistake. He would have to turn up here. I sort of let myself fall for it the once, wasn’t like we even spent a night together.’
‘You expect me to believe that?’
‘Because it’s true. If something is true, you should believe it. Give me a chance.’
The intense rush of anger and jealousy made me want to march out of the pub without another word and go back alone to Chiswick, but to give way to this surge of emotion might damage our relationship permanently. Given a little time my feelings would moderate. Then, after thinking calmly, I would decide what to do. If this incident, and all the other trivial annoyances and disappointments of the past, outweighed my positive feelings, clearly the time had come to bring our affair to an end. We stood silently in the congested bar avoiding each other’s eyes. A friend came over to chat, unaware or pretending to be unaware that anything was wrong.
When the pub closed we went back to Tom’s flat and climbed into bed together, knowing the sex would be spoiled by my restrained anger and his guilt. For the rest of the weekend we were polite towards one another but far from happy, avoiding a row but not really wanting each other’s company. At dinner on Sunday we tried to appear friendly to avoid embarrassing Andrew, and somehow maintaining the semblance of normality completely neutralised my feelings of resentment. The incident had confirmed my suspicions about Tom having casual encounters, but nothing important between us had changed.
Ironically since he was at fault, the incident led him to decide to break off with me. A few days later, when I hoped that we would be able to put the tiff behind us, he told me a friend had persuaded him to go up to Manchester to work on the construction of a new shopping centre. Top rates of pay were on offer because the project was behind schedule. Guessing that this was an excuse to finish the relationship, and hoping to make him tell me so unambiguously I asked directly, ‘Are you going because of what happened in the pub on Friday night?’
‘No, it ain’t that. This is my chance to make some real money. With some savings behind me maybe I could be somebody, build up a business for myself even.’
‘Will you be back at weekends?’
‘Sundays is when they pay the best overtime rates. There should be a good few weeks’ work up there. Won’t know exactly until I get there.’
If not goodbye forever, it was goodbye for an indefinite period. ‘When are you going?’
‘Probably go up tomorrow. Might as well get started.’
Although we brought each other to perfunctory orgasm in bed that night, we gave each other little pleasure. Two days later I tried his portable ’phone number, but one of Andrew’s staff at the garden centre answered. Tom had used that ’phone since we first met, but now had left it behind because it belonged to Ferns and Foliage. He had denied me even the pleasure of wishing him well and saying that if we bumped into each other we should say hello and be friends.
Andrew invited me to a restaurant for dinner the following Saturday, saving me the misery of not knowing what to do on my first Saturday night without Tom for over a year. He told me that Tom had travelled up to Manchester by train, had kept on the flat above the garden centre, but he had heard nothing more from him.
The next weekend I went to visit my sister and stayed overnight. Of my previous social life, prior to my affair with Tom, there was little to go back to. Old friends had, not surprisingly, found others to have meals with or go with to concerts or the theatre, and I reconciled myself to being on my own much more. In gay pubs and clubs picking anyone up somehow proved impossible for me, and my expeditions ended, however late the hour, with my return to Chiswick alone.
My friendship with Andrew survived; he and I occasionally went together to see a film or a play, and we continued to have Sunday dinners together. Neither of us mentioned Tom.
Some time ago he had talked about everyone’s life having ‘compartments’, for instance home and work being largely separate, and that division being a good thing because if events in one compartment went badly wrong one could still be happier in the others. Yet despite the fat salary, the high-flown job title and the Mercedes, aside from my friendship with Lizetta, work at Lindler & Haliburton gave me little satisfaction. The technical role, which had engaged my mind with system innovations and new user demands, was largely behind me and my days were now mainly taken up with trying to match budgets and expenditure, with staff issues, endless paperwork and interminable meetings. An unsettling prospect loomed ahead: that my career would end the way my old boss’s had, and after decades of resentment I would take early retirement, thankful to escape the pressures of the job and the patronizing attitudes of the partners, to be replaced by someone younger, keener, and more up to date.
A family man, assuring himself that such a sacrifice at work was worthwhile for the benefit of his offspring, could perhaps accept life on these terms, but for a gay man – childless – it would lead to a growing sense of dissatisfaction, of having expended all those years to gain material wealth but no happiness. Were not the newspapers endlessly running stories of rich show business stars and heirs to fortunes driven, despite their money, to self-destruction?
If I was no longer with Lindler & Haliburton for money and the conceit of working for an established City firm, then what was I there for? What were the rich rewards for? To keep me miserably alive? And the more the years crept by and my abilities were worn away in the firm’s service, the harder it would be for me to switch to something new.
The daily onslaught at work prevented me from brooding, but the true nature of the change from being half of a couple to being what might optimistically be called unattached or available became clear within a week. The word desperate might be a better one for my state of mind. Tom, evidently, had tired of me, but my notions before his departure that I might be tiring of him had been delusions.
At Lindler & Haliburton a myriad of technical and staffing issues filled my days and left me tired in the evening and at weekends. Peter’s absence in the US made work more predictable, probably less stressful, but less interesting too. He was anxious to keep up with office politics and retain as much influence in the firm as possible, and we exchanged e-mails every couple of weeks.
He flew back to London for the quarterly meetings, and on the first of these return visits invited Lizetta and me for lunch. Caroline and Vincent, a new client he had recruited at the last Hotel and Catering Exhibition where the firm now had a small stand, joined us at the restaurant. At first Vincent’s presence puzzled me, business lunches with clients usually being separate events from social meals with colleagues or friends. Momentary but very expressive eye contact between him and Lizetta after we had ordered our meal revealed that to her he was more than a business client with us to be entertained. He was not a handsome man, balding and a bit overweight, but he had a warm friendly smile and an easy confident manner.
Later, when we were on our own, she pretended that their affair was my responsibility, saying that they would never have met had I not encouraged Peter to involve the firm in the Exhibitions. They lunched together a couple of times and arranged to meet for dinner a couple of weeks later, and after it she took him back to her flat. He ran a management consultancy specialising in work for the tourist industry and was married, but not – according to Lizetta – happily.
Caroline, wearing a charcoal business suit tailored perfectly to her figure, sat next to me on my right. Events at the Hotel des Amis, now over a year ago, were clearly forgotten. After the first course she took my hand in hers for a few moments and said she thought it was unfair that so many good-looking men were gay, blatantly teasing Peter by making up to me in front of him. Pleased to be able to make a fresh start with her I made ambiguous comments about not wanting to be stereotyped and saying that, like a lot of gay men, I found some women very attractive. For a while Peter ignored us.
As usual he dominated the conversation. He pressed Lizetta for information about the old codgers and whether any of them was planning retirement. He had heard that one of them was going to hospital every week for outpatient treatment. ‘Anything serious?’ he enquired, obviously hoping that it was.
‘That’s not for me to say, or for you to ask,’ Lizetta answered.
‘Oh come on, what’s ailing him? Gout, heart condition?’
‘None of those things.’
‘What is it then? Bladder?’
‘You won’t get anything out of me. You may as well drop the subject.’
‘We’ve eliminated a few things. What’s left? Cancer? Come on, we’re all dying to hear the
‘Bah! All right, let’s hear from one of you then. Mark, sitting there flirting with my wife, what’s happening to you in that fast moving high-tech world of yours?’
‘For some unknown reason the IT Unit’s work has been remarkably stable for the past month or two,’ I said, daring to hint that his absence might be the cause.
‘You sure? In the States change, not stability, is normal. Except for the very biggest partnerships which have their own IT consultancy arms, the middle-rankers are shutting down their own IT Units and contracting the work out. Could be the new trend, saves employing a gang of expensive technical experts who claim they have to be there for reasons nobody else understands. If it’s happening in the States, won’t be long before it happens over here. Maybe you should think about a move to one of the companies taking on the work. Jump aboard now before the bandwagon starts rolling.’
This warning may have been typical Peter bravado, but there had been a few articles in business computer magazines recently about companies doing exactly what he described. City firms were constantly being reorganised, merging, or shifting away from old static markets into new expanding ones. We had to adapt in a world of frequent reorganisation where people often changed from job to job. ‘Thank you for raising the subject,’ I said ironically.
Caroline came to my aid: ‘The demand for IT staff is as high as ever, at the moment they’re the last people who should worry.’ She looked directly at Peter. ‘Would it be possible for us to act as though we have come out to enjoy each other’s company over a meal, not to bully everyone into submission?’
‘Hmph! What are we going to talk about then? Shopping?’
Vincent diplomatically began an anecdote about a recent assignment his company had completed. The owner of a guest house in a small Midlands town had asked them to recommend ways to improve business. The consultants who went to investigate discovered that he created problems for himself by finding fault with his guests and constantly putting them right, but was completely unaware that by doing so he was putting people off. The man boasted about getting the better of his guests, proudly telling of an occasion when shopping in the local supermarket he saw a couple of his clients buying food; he followed them back to the hotel and used a shortcut to sneak in through the back entrance to await their return. As they came in through the front door he challenged them by asking if they knew that guests were not allowed to take food up to their rooms for environmental health reasons. When they pretended not to have any food with them he asked to look in their bag.
Vincent’s gentle humorous manner, the way he smiled and chuckled as he spoke, infected us all. The guest house proprietor, he said, also had a dog, a neurotic terrier that would growl and snap at people at the front door. In the breakfast room he allowed it to pester hotel guests for titbits. The dog would alternately whine pitifully and growl, and if anyone was brave enough to proffer a scrap of food it would snatch suddenly at their fingers leaving teeth marks on their hand. The most difficult thing about the assignment was finding a way to explain to the owner, without causing offence, that he himself was the cause of his lack of bookings.
Vincent’s genial way of speaking made even Peter relax. Nevertheless the remarks about the possible new trend in computer services were probably right. Why should an outside company not be hired to replace the IT Unit, much as Ferns and Foliage were contracted to supply the decorative plants? Whether such a change would be beneficial, no one could know for sure until afterwards. Yet if rival firms began to put out their IT work Lindler & Haliburton would almost certainly follow their lead.
The following Sunday in Chiswick I mentioned the subject to Andrew over dinner. ‘What would happen to your job in practice?’ he asked. ‘Presumably the company that took it on would need experienced staff and you could find a job with them.’
‘Possibly, yes. And someone at Lindler & Haliburton would be needed to deal with the contractor, making sure a good service was being provided, costs were tightly controlled, authorising necessary changes and so on. But that would be a less senior job than the one I have now. Otherwise it might mean redundancy.’
‘It could be your opportunity to make a real change. What sort of redundancy payment would they give you?’
‘I don’t know. Redundancy is always a risk in the City. Worrying about it could make you neurotic. You’d never withstand all the pressures if you let vague doubts about the future get to you. The firm’s IT Unit is actually quite efficient. The current arrangement may well be the most cost effective.’
‘Maybe, but you’ll have a major influence over any decision. With Peter out of the way you can probably make the arguments for and against look as good or bad as you want. Is there anyone except Peter who knows enough to challenge you?’
‘He’s not completely left the scene, and he could be back in a year’s time. Contracting out the IT services could take longer to arrange than that.’
‘You must control developments as far as you can. The big questions are do you really want to make a complete break and go into business for yourself, and, if so, doing what? A hotel for instance?’
‘You’re going miles and miles ahead of me. Why a hotel, except that you’re keen on the idea? Another job that makes use of my current skills might be the best thing. Anyway, what about the people who work for me?’
‘They’ll find other work, or take redundancy like you.’
‘That may not be so easy for some of them – they’re not all ideal employees.’
‘You and that friend of yours in Personnel will do what you can for them. You have to think of what’s best for you. Even the flowers in the meadow compete with one another to have room to grow.’
The possibility of me setting up a small hotel had somehow become an occasional topic for speculation. Perhaps I had unintentionally encouraged him in the idea by telling him about Georges and the Hotel des Amis, and about a weekend I had spent in Brighton some months after starting work with Lindler & Haliburton, driving down in the then newly acquired Vauxhall to stay in a pleasant bed and breakfast that advertised in the gay press. Nothing exceptional happened, but somehow everything was so enjoyable, the guest house proprietors were friendly, and for once, there and later in a gay bar, I fell easily into conversation with interesting people. I picked up a handsome, sensitive, intelligent Canadian in a club on the Saturday night, – only a one-night stand but somehow an exceptionally happy, satisfying onenight stand – and in the morning when we sat together at the breakfast table, the man who served us discreetly pointed out, with a gentle encouraging smile, the note at the foot of the breakfast menu saying that additional meals would be charged at so much per head.
But opening a guest house was perhaps, for me, merely a subject for amusing discussion, an imaginary escape route when pressures at Lindler & Haliburton were heavy, no more than an occasional pleasant day dream. Providing somewhere to stay that was comfortable and clean for gay men visiting London, making them welcome and hearing something of their lives was appealing, but new businesses set up by inexperienced people usually fail. There was a high risk of bankruptcy.
Yet the idea must have begun to take hold. At the last Hotel and Catering Exhibition a fresh-faced young salesman in a brand new suit persuaded me to buy a subscription to the trade magazine The Caterer and Hotelkeeper. If what lay ahead for me at Lindler & Haliburton was what had happened to my old boss in the IT Unit, a growing dissatisfaction which worsened with age, even festering into bitterness at wasting my life there, a radical change now while most of my working life still lay ahead would make sense.
Peter gave me another little stimulus to think about my future by sending me a copy of an article from the Wall Street Journal extolling the virtues of corporations concentrating on their ‘core business’ and contracting out most of their support services. Not surprisingly the author was a director of a company which provided office services and computer systems to several major US corporations, and predictably he made all he could of the benefits whilst skimming over potential drawbacks. In a clever piece of low key marketing he concluded that such arrangements might not suit everyone, but recommended that all organisations, private and public, evaluate the use of outside service companies as an option. How difficult it would be to argue against that, and once an evaluation began the door would be open to persuasive people such as himself.
Peter’s motive was not one of animosity towards me – he was careful to explain that he wanted me to be aware of the trend rather than be surprised and overtaken by developments – but what if he was discussing the subject with others in the firm? The same day, as though collaborating with Peter to spur me into action, Andrew rang to suggest having another look at Goodmans Villa, the house he had taken me to see almost two years ago. It was no longer on the market but he thought if we approached the owner she might be willing to lease it to us.
‘What started you thinking about that place again?’
‘I happened to pass it the other day and rang the estate agent for a chat. There would be no harm in making a few enquiries. If we could get a lease on it for say ten or twenty years we should be able to make it pay.’
‘There’s still a job for me here at the moment. Maybe the hotel is a long way in the future, something for my retirement.’
‘What harm would there be in having another look at the place, if I can arrange it? If you don’t want it maybe I could raise some money and let it out as flats. That’s what it’s being used for at the moment.’
‘London is full of flats and hotels. What’s special about that particular house? Why now?’
‘Why not now? We may be able to do a good deal on the house. There is an impasse between the property company that has bought up half the neighbourhood and the owner of Goodmans Villa who doesn’t want to see them tear it apart. If she would give us a long enough lease at the right price, we could make a viable business out of it. There’s nothing to lose by going to see it again. Since we last went the flats have been re-let, but the agent will take us for a look round.’
He seemed determined, and no good reason to refuse came to mind. After fixing a date for the visit he surprised me further by saying that Tom would be back and suggesting he come with us. He knew the circumstances of our break-up, and should have been aware that I would be reluctant. With sham indifference I said, ‘Why should he want to come? He’s not interested in buying it, is he?’
‘He could be useful – his practical experience of plumbing and wiring – but if you’d rather he didn’t come...’
Giving away my hurt feelings I said, ‘If he’s working for you again and you really want to bring him I suppose it’s your decision. Maybe I’m the one who doesn’t need to be there...’
‘Don’t think too harshly of him. Tom’s no saint, but the two of you can be friends, can’t you? Put up with him for my sake, even if he’s out of favour with you.’
The estate agent arranged to collect us from the garden centre by car. Arriving fifteen minutes early, I found Tom and Andrew together in the staff room upstairs and responded sullenly to Tom’s greeting, avoiding looking at him. To my annoyance, Andrew excused himself saying he had to make a ’phone call, leaving Tom and me together sitting beside the table used by the garden centre staff during their breaks.
‘You been all right?’ he asked.
I would have preferred silence. ‘So-so.’ Making an effort to be polite I asked: ‘How was Manchester?’
‘Did OK, plenty of work.’
Annoyed even more by his casual manner I said pointedly: ‘I tried to ring you.’
‘I was staying in a caravan on the site, working every day except two. It wasn’t easy to get to a ’phone. Hardly saw Manchester, none of the gay bars, nothing like that.’
‘They wouldn’t let you out to send a postcard?’
‘Wasn’t like that.’ He looked up, his face miserable. ‘I thought about calling you but wasn’t sure what to say. You might have been angry with me.’
What was he talking about? ‘Why should I be angry with you?’
‘Andrew’s told me things. I thought you ought to have a chance to find somebody who would be more like your sort of people.’
Had our break up come about because of some off-hand remark of mine to Andrew about Tom and I not having all that much in common? What could Andrew have said to him? ‘What do you mean, my sort of people? What sort of people are they?’
‘You know what I mean. This isn’t easy for me.’
‘Do you think it’s easy for me?’
‘You don’t know, Mark, you don’t know half of it.’
‘Half of what?’
The estate agent’s arrival brought this awkward exchange to an end. We went down to the car, and I sat in the passenger seat to avoid being next to Tom, with whom I now felt absolutely furious. Had he ditched me over some stupid misunderstanding? A lack of shared interests was something we could have done something about. We could have increased the stock of things that we had in common by going to new places and finding new interests together.
When we reached Goodmans Villa and walked up to the front door he hung back. In the hall a scattering of advertising pamphlets littered the floor. The agent, Andrew and I stepped over them, but he stopped to pick them up. I watched him, thinking: you fool, what are you doing that for, picking up other people’s rubbish?
He straightened up abruptly, almost as though he had heard my thoughts, and returned my gaze, making me ashamed of thinking of him so sneeringly. What good would come from being angry with him? If there had been a failing it was probably mine. Why had I not talked to him about finding more activities we could share, rather than complaining to Andrew about us not having enough in common? For all the differences between us, Tom was in every way my sort of person, and should never have been allowed to doubt it.
He was looking around the empty hall wondering where to put the papers he had collected. I went over to him, took them from him, tidied them into a neat bundle and put them at the side of one of the stairs.
He avoided looking at me, but my eyes were now constantly drawn towards him. He must have showered and shaved immediately before coming out. His black curly hair seemed light and fluffy, and his denim shirt curved over the contours of his muscular shoulders. He wore new jeans, and my fingertips could almost sense the rough texture of the dark material.
I turned away from him, reminding myself we were there to look at the house, and tried to act calmly and sensibly. My hunger for him had become too strong; it engulfed me. Standing close to him made me sweat and tingle inwardly. My hands seemed to develop a will of their own and wanted to reach out to touch him. Paying attention to what Andrew and the estate agent were saying was impossible.
After a brief look around the ground floor, where the tenant was out, we descended the dark staircase to the basement. The ‘garden’ flat remained unoccupied and had deteriorated since our last visit. When the agent opened the door at the top of the stairs the smell was awful, much worse than before. In a corner of the back room were a twisted pile of bedding, two large holdalls packed to bursting, an orangeade bottle half full of dubious liquid and some festering take-away food cartons. The lock and security bolts of the door to the garden had been forced, bare wood showing where the frame had split apart. The person who had been dossing in the room was absent.
‘You’d think one of the tenants would have let me know about this. One of them must have seen or heard something. I suppose now I’ll have to call the police.’
Tom said: ‘No, don’t do that, what harm’s he done? There’s no call for that.’
Andrew agreed: ‘He’s right, what are the police going do about it? They can hardly put a twenty-four hour watch on the place.’
The agent shook his head. ‘I’m thinking about insurance. If there’s any damage, if he – or they – cause a fire or steal anything from upstairs, the insurers will want to know that the police were informed straight away.’
‘The insurers will know only what you tell them. Tom will put the man’s things outside and board up the door; we’ll check tomorrow to see if he’s moved on. If not we’ll let you know and you can call the police.’
The agent shrugged. ‘If you’re volunteering to do the work...’
‘Yes,’ Tom confirmed, ‘you forget about it. I’ll bring some polythene sheeting, put the bedding and the holdalls outside and cover them up, and I’ll make the garden door secure. That’ll be the last of him.’
We moved on to the front basement room where black mould had spread extensively over the walls. ‘Is anything being done about the damp?’ Andrew asked.
‘No. To tell you the truth I’ve been meaning to sort this garden flat out but haven’t got round to it. The damp proofing specialists are pretty good these days. They’d have a damp course put in and the replastering done in two or three weeks.’
Tom disagreed: ‘We’re not talking damp courses here. The soil at street level must come up four or five feet on the other side of that wall. Depending on how bad it is they might have to dig a trench outside, install a waterproof membrane and improve the drainage.’
‘There isn’t a problem here. We can get a free quote for the work from a specialist who’ll provide a twenty-year guarantee. Damp proofing is routine these days.’
We returned to the less sticky air of the ground floor and continued upwards. On the first floor, as with the ground floor rooms, having furniture in place gave a much better idea of their size. Each of the main rooms was big enough to divide into two twin-bedded hotel rooms with en suite facilities.
On the next floor up we met the tenant, a middle-aged woman who showed us her flat and talked all the time. She ushered us into the bathroom and said to the agent, ‘I know I mentioned it last time you came, but I’m sure the toilet is leaking. I’ve put a mat around the base but it’s always wet.’
‘As I told you, someone will be coming to look at it.’
Looking at the lavatory I thought I could see a fine crack running down the pedestal beneath the glaze, and bent down to look more closely. A few drops of moisture were visible. Tom came up beside me, standing so close that his hips were a couple of inches from my face. Turning my head slightly I could see the brown leather belt threaded through the loops of his jeans, and his shirt creasing where it disappeared into the waistband. My pulse quickened and my face flushed. The others had moved out into the hall.
After straightening up I felt dizzy. The very molecules of the air around me seemed energised by his presence. My state of arousal must have been visible. He said hoarsely but softly: ‘I think something’s give way.’
‘The toilet bowl or the connection with the drain. Something’s give way.’
‘Oh... Not very nice.’
‘It’s not healthy. That estate agent wants shooting.’
Going in front of him on our way out of the room I paused deliberately, making him bump into me. ‘Sorry.’
‘S’okay,’ he said softly. The smile he gave me, my first for so long, told me that his mood too had lifted. We followed Andrew and the agent back out onto the landing, where we paused at the foot of the narrow twisting staircase leading to the attic. From above came a familiar old piano tune from the twenties or thirties. ‘Sounds like they’re in. Do we need to bother with the attic rooms?’ the agent asked.
‘A quick look,’ Andrew decided. Tom and I followed, and I could not resist putting my hand on top of his on the stair rail as we went up. He looked back and smiled again. How desperately I hoped his desire for me had rekindled. Halfway up the bare wooden stairs was a tiny bathroom somehow squeezed into an area below part of the roof. At the top was a small square of landing barely big enough for two to stand, with the doors of two bedsits on either side of it. The agent knocked at the one on the left, but the sound reverberated so much that the doors on both sides opened in answer. On the right was a Middle-Eastern looking man of about thirty with a thin line of black moustache, and at the door on the left stood a boy who looked too young to be living on his own.
‘I hope I’m not disturbing you, lads, can we just have a quick look, if it’s not too inconvenient?’
The boy went back into his room and the music ceased abruptly; Andrew and the agent followed him, while Tom and I accepted a gesture of invitation into the room opposite. Text books with scientific diagrams were strewn around the table and bed, and on a cabinet was a partly disassembled computer. The tenant was unsmiling, resentful of our intrusion, and we glanced quickly around, directing our eyes upwards towards the ceiling as though checking for damp.
‘Something wrong with the computer?’ I asked.
‘I’m studying computers and electronics. Imperial College.’ After a pause he added ‘Darren has been playing his music very loud, sometimes in the night.’
‘Darren?’ He must have assumed I was someone to whom he could make a complaint. ‘Very late? Did it keep you awake?’
‘It makes it hard for me to study.’
‘Did you ask him to turn it down?’
He didn’t reply, but stood looking at us, obviously wanting us to go. ‘Sorry for disturbing you.’ Tom followed me out onto the landing.
The room opposite was smaller, perhaps only half as big. We could see Andrew sitting on the bed talking to the boy. The ceiling sloped down so much that he would have banged his head if he had sat up in bed suddenly in the night. The bed and a small bedside cabinet took up about half the floor space, and against the opposite wall was an ugly old fashioned wardrobe. In between was a little corridor of carpet. A chair, a wash basin and a small table with an electric kettle and a cooking ring occupied the space under the window. The boy had covered the walls of the room with posters, mostly of rock stars, but there were a few of American blues singers, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker and Bessie Smith. The indicator lights on his compact stereo system flickered to music that we could no longer hear. Andrew was interviewing him.
‘I think I know where you mean, a hamburger bar on the corner near the Underground station isn’t it? How long have you been there?’
‘Since I came to London; about four months.’
‘And before the hamburger place, where were you?’
‘I was at a school.’
‘Did you finish your exams?’
‘No, I left.’
‘Ah – and where was this?’
Tom and I glanced at each other, and then at the estate agent who raised his eyebrows. We all three stared in concert at Andrew trying to make him look round. He ignored us for several minutes before raising a hand in our direction, palm open, as though trying to deflect our collective gaze.
‘And how have you found the big city?’
‘It’s great. I could make some tea or coffee if you like. I’ve only got paper cups though.’
‘From work? Paper cups are fine by me,’ Andrew said.
The estate agent looked at his watch. ‘Sorry, Andrew, I have to go back to the office. Darren, what’s that I can see moving about over there?’ He nodded towards a small aquarium that stood on the bedside cabinet.
‘They’re my terrapins.’
‘You’re not allowed pets. You’ve been told.’
‘They don’t disturb anyone. Nobody knows they’re there.’
‘They’re against the rules. They’ll grow too big for that tank. Then what’s going to happen? You’ll have to—’
Andrew interrupted him. ‘Oh, if need be I expect I could find a place for them at the garden centre.’ He turned to the boy. ‘You could come in to feed them. Surely there’s no harm in them staying where they are for the moment. You’re right, we ought to get moving. Thanks for letting us see your room. Can’t say I eat a lot of burgers, but I hope we’ll see each other again sometime.’
At the estate agent’s office we had coffee while we looked at architects’ drawings of the house and at a file containing various leasing agreements and other papers. Andrew asked if there had been any more interest from the property company.
‘As before they seem to be stalled. They own the terrace and most of the mews, which have all been converted into modern flats, but if they could develop the whole site including Goodmans Villa and the adjoining house, with some new building at the back, they might have another thirty or forty units. The owner’s stubborn, they’ve offered the old lady well over the market value, but she won’t let them gut the place for sentimental reasons. You stand to do very nicely out of a lease if she’ll agree to one. When she dies, the heirs will probably want to sell up. They might buy the lease back from you at a premium, but whatever happens you should get a good return on your investment. You can’t lose.’
‘We’ve been thinking of turning it into a guest house. Renovation costs will be substantial, the place has been neglected for years. We need to have a shot at a business plan...’
When we were nearly ready to leave Andrew rang the garden centre to ask one of his staff to collect us. He had himself dropped off first at Biddulph Mansions, reminding Tom as he got out of the van of his promise to board up the basement of Goodmans Villa. We continued on to Tom’s flat, not needing to tell one another in words that we were impatient to make love. As soon as we were through the front door I wrapped myself around him. He pushed it shut and pressed me against the wall, leaning his weight against me and holding me tightly as though to stop me getting away. When he released me a little I edged sideways towards the bedroom; he weighed down on me again, rubbing himself against me but keeping me trapped against the wall, as though I had been trying to escape. After two more of these pretend captures and releases we reached the bedroom doorway.
As I stepped backwards into the room he pushed me onto the bed and lay on top of me. A minute later he left me briefly to relieve himself. Longing for his return I rocked myself slowly from side to side, this latest brief absence, after so many weeks apart and the hours of anticipation while we looked over the house, an agony. My desire for him was so intense that if he had spread his shirt and jeans out on the bed for me I could probably have made love to them.
Having warned me of the trend towards buying in computer services from specialist companies, Peter expected me to resist any attempt to close down my unit should one of the younger more forward looking partners, or even one of the old codgers who had been tipped off about the trend by a friend at his club or on the golf course, suggest it.
He knew nothing of Goodmans Villa or Andrew’s ideas for a gay hotel. That I might want to relinquish the income and status of my position in the firm to set up a small business had probably not crossed his mind. The happiness brought me by Tom’s return helped my decision. Giving up Lindler & Haliburton for Andrew’s world of small independent gay businesses would surely show that there was not some other social group who were ‘more my sort of people’, prove the depth of my commitment and strengthen the bond between us.
A software supplier I regularly dealt with was also in the business of running computer facilities for other City institutions. I told my contact there that one of the younger Lindler & Haliburton partners was rumoured to be thinking about contracting out the work of my unit. This was untrue, but he passed the rumour on to his colleagues, and before long they began lobbying several of the partners to be allowed to bid for the work. Peter need never know that his warnings had helped contrive my exit from the firm.
In return for my co-operation in the process that would bring about my redundancy – and for anyone to take over the work without my help would have been extremely difficult – I was promised a substantial ‘severance’ payment and a huge bonus based on anticipated cost savings over the first five years of the change. The partners may have genuinely believed that the savings dangled before them by the company hoping to take over the work were realistic, or in the increasingly bitter internal politics at Lindler & Haliburton, Peter’s enemies may simply have thought it worth paying a substantial sum in order to be rid of me, one of his main supporters. Had he been present he might have prevented the change, but since he was in exile, other than harrying me by telephone and e-mail to put forward the arguments for keeping the IT Unit as it was, there was little he could do. I pretended more and more to be disillusioned because, after all my work over the years, the partners wanted to call in outsiders to replace me and my carefully selected team. Misleading Peter in this way might be disloyal, but he had had my past hard work and support by way of repayment for the help he had given my career. The time had come for the account to be closed.
My disillusion with Lindler & Haliburton and work in the City increased by the day. Things that had once impressed me, the huge sums of money appearing on balance sheets, the senior staff meetings and conferences in prestigious office buildings, the business lunches, all the outward show of City affluence, ceased to attract me. My hopes and ambitions lay elsewhere. My years of work there came to appear as a necessary period of labour undertaken in order to win my independence.
Having recently invested in the Buckinghamshire nursery, Andrew had no capital available to invest in Goodmans Villa, but he played a major role in obtaining the lease. The old lady who owned it depended on income from the flats to pay her nursing home fees. The flats were deteriorating and becoming more and more difficult to let, and she could not afford extensive renovations. He went to see her, and she welcomed the proposal to take the house over for use as a hotel. Her solicitor was in favour, and the hotel, or rather guest house, that had for so long been a vague possibility became the subject of contract negotiations. After several meetings we agreed on a lease for ten years with options for two five-year extensions.
The draft business plan for the first year, drawn up with Andrew’s help, was guesswork. We estimated the likely charge for a night’s stay using advertised prices at other hotels and guest houses nearby, calculated potential annual takings and set them against running costs. Profit or loss depended on our assumptions about the level of bookings, something we would not really know until the hotel had been open for a year or more. Lizetta’s boyfriend, Vincent, helped us with the figures and encouraged us with statistics about rising demand for hotel rooms in London.
Arrangements to take out the lease on Goodmans Villa, like the contracting out of my work at Lindler & Haliburton, went on for month after month. As the opening of the hotel came closer, going into the office every day became an agony. The snobbery, the competitiveness, the hand-stitched suits, ostentatious motor cars and business lunches were now loathsome to me. That world, in which general social good meant nothing, where men were ranked entirely according to money and position, now seemed horribly obsessed with the superfluous and pretentious.
Events seemed to progress under their own momentum. Andrew guided me through the stages of agreeing and signing the lease for the hotel, giving the existing tenants notice, arranging for the conversion work, clearing the hurdles of planning permission and having the business registered with the authorities. At Lindler & Haliburton I gave opinions on the papers and memos dealing with the hand-over of the IT Unit, and attended meeting after meeting at which long lists of queries about costs, timings and terms of contract were examined and weighed from every imaginable viewpoint. Seven months passed as item by item all the uncertainties were resolved. At last two crucial documents, the contract for the firm’s future computer services and my formal acceptance of redundancy terms, were ready for signature.
Except for my friendship with Lizetta, the break from my old working life was to be total. Because she was also friendly with Peter and Caroline I held back from revealing my plans for the hotel until the key documents were signed, and she knew only that Vincent had been giving me some advice about setting up in business. When I made critical remarks one day over lunch about the firm wasting money on extravagant perks she said, ‘You really have had enough of the place, haven’t you? I’m sure you could have put a stop to them contracting your work out if you’d wanted to. My opinion of the firm has gone down too, especially since I’ve met Vincent. He gets on by being considerate and constructive, whereas at Lindler & Haliburton there is so much personal antagonism; everyone is becoming more greedy and grasping.’
When eventually I did tell her of my plans for the hotel, asking her to promise not to tell Peter, she was surprised and delighted. A week before the party to celebrate my departure from the firm, I invited her, Vincent, Tom and Andrew for a meal at a recently opened French restaurant. She had met Tom briefly once before, but knew Andrew only from what she had heard me say about him.
We all arrived at the restaurant together. The waiter who showed us to our table was relaxed and friendly, but by mistake he gave us menus that were entirely in French. Tom, embarrassed and threatening one of his moods, tucked his elbows into his sides and his face took on a rock-like expression. Somehow Vincent did what I had never succeeded in doing: he laughed him out of it. ‘Oh blimey, might have known, hope one of you knows what all this means. Last time this happened to me we all ended up eating some sort of stomach-churning casserole, tripe and goose gizzards or something unmentionable.’
‘Don’t worry,’ Lizetta said, ‘Mark speaks fluent French.’
‘Might have known, bloody know-all.’ Vincent’s choice of words may have been confrontational, but his tone of voice was warm and gentle. ‘Come on then mega-brain, what’s it say?’
Tom started to laugh, very quietly at first, but he couldn’t stop himself. When I began to translate the menu he laughed even more, as though instead of saying Lamb Steak with Rosemary Jelly or Sliced Duck Breast I was reading out a series of extremely funny one-line jokes; Vincent started laughing with him, and Lizetta and Andrew were soon infected too. Keeping my face straight, I continued, looking up and glancing around the table occasionally, trying to look mildly put out. A concerned waiter came over to offer us copies of the menu in English. Lizetta coughed and swallowed to regain control of herself and asked him for a bottle of mineral water. Pouring this out and sipping the contents they recovered themselves sufficiently to decide what to order.
On thephone the next day I mentioned to her how fortunate we had been to have avoided one of Tom’s moods. She said, ‘That’s one of the great things about Vincent, he has the knack of putting everyone at their ease. Doesn’t matter who he meets, a car park attendant or a captain of industry, a few minutes later he’ll be chatting away with them as though they’re close friends.’
On my last day at the firm I had to return the Mercedes. My Chiswick flat had been sold by then and I had moved into the newly damp-proofed and renovated ‘garden flat’ of Goodmans Villa. Waking up on my first Monday morning, with no congested journey to work to endure, no need to observe a rigidly imposed pecking order, and no senior partners to answer to, I revelled in the fresh, new, as yet unblemished world of being my own boss in my own guest house. I had never felt happier.
The decorators would not finish their work on the upper floors for another fortnight, but otherwise the hotel was ready for its first guests. Tom had completely rewired the building, and a small company he recommended did the rest, ripping out the old partitions and installing new plumbing and fittings to create twelve double en suite rooms. The cost of the lease and all the work had absorbed my savings, the generous pay-off from Lindler & Haliburton, and the proceeds from the sale of my Chiswick flat. Andrew had to guarantee an overdraft at the bank to provide me with cash for running costs.
As well as being my living accommodation, the basement housed two big commercial washing machines and a dryer. The breakfast room, lounge, kitchen, and a little office were on the ground floor. Breakfast and Sunday dinner would be available, and for other meals guests could use local restaurants and take-aways or the Beckford Arms, all within a few minutes’ walk.
The landlord at the Beckford Arms introduced me to an old friend of his who managed a long established gay hotel, Housmans Hotel, near King’s Cross. During several evenings in the pub and a couple of meals together he talked to me about the business, advising that as an absolute minimum the hotel would need a part-time cook for breakfasts and at least one parttime cleaner. Over the years he had had lots of interesting people come to stay, actors, musicians and visitors from all over the world. He told me about a married man whose wife tracked him down to the hotel and screamed accusations of perversion and betrayal at him in the hall, about a masseur who booked a room for a week and had to be asked to leave when client after client came in asking for him, and about guests who seemed to think sex with the hotel’s staff was included in the price of the rooms. He gave me lots of tips, for instance always to confirm times of arrival and departure when taking bookings, and how to deal with allegations of theft from rooms and the various ruses used to evade payment. The thirty-four rooms of his hotel were, he claimed, occupied most of the time; he offered to refer clients to me when he was fully booked, and I promised to do the same for him if Goodmans Hotel was successful.
He came to see it when the decorators had finished, and as we stood outside looking at the restored and repainted stucco facade, the tidy garden, and new signs in gold lettering on a green background big enough to stand out, but not so big as to look like advertisement hoardings, the appearance of the premises filled me with joy. Everything was the way I wanted it.
Except, that is, for one thing: the tenant in the attic. Andrew had befriended the gawky boy he was so taken with when we inspected the house with the estate agent. According to him Darren was sensitive and intelligent, and his having been abandoned by his parents to fend for himself in London was disgraceful. He would, he said, happily have found somewhere for him himself, but Darren was not earning enough to pay for a self-contained flat, and at his age with his boyish appearance and trusting nature he was too vulnerable to be pushed out into the risky world of multi-occupied accommodation. There was no question that his circumstances were very hard, and although letting him stay meant having him occupy what could have been another hotel room, albeit up three flights of stairs, Andrew had helped me so much in setting up the hotel his arguments were difficult to reject.
At weekends he took Darren on trips to museums, gardens, art galleries, the theatre, classical music concerts and jazz clubs. When he proposed taking him to Paris for a few days Tom and I were seriously worried that he was becoming infatuated, but he dismissed the idea, saying that he was old enough to be Darren’s grandfather and that there was nothing sexual about their friendship. On a cold day seeing them leave the hotel together that was what they looked like, a grandfather and grandson going out for the day, Andrew white haired, well wrapped up in a thick overcoat, scarf and gloves, the boy in jeans and a T-shirt, or on wet or extremely cold days draping himself in one of the lightweight but ludicrously long raincoats that were a teenage fashion at the time.
At first, I suspected that Darren was simply flattered at being treated so generously by a rich older man, and that his claimed interest in the places Andrew showed him was largely a pretence. However, given the chance, he would detain Tom and me for half an hour with detailed reports on their expeditions to Kew Gardens, Greenwich Observatory or some other attraction, and after hearing several of these enthusiastic accounts I had to accept that he was genuine.
All the same, however much pleasure Andrew derived from his company, in the first days of the hotel he was an unwanted complication. He kept his room clean and tried not to be a nuisance, but would ask me for advice about all sorts of things, about opening a bank account or going to some club or other he had heard about. Returning from the burger bar sometimes he would interrupt me in the kitchen or the office with some mildly amusing story about the people he worked with, referring to his place of employment by derogatory names such as the grizzle-in-a-bun bar, the dieters’ disaster, the nutritionists’ nightmare and the odious offal outlet. He had taken this dead end job shortly after arriving in London because he was down to his last few pounds, and passing by on his way to the Underground saw a placard in the window advertising for staff.
Tom was much better than me at dealing with him, warning him to be on his guard against strangers in case they tried to take advantage of him, telling him that he was a bright kid and ought to be thinking about his future. One night when we were lying in bed holding hands after sex Tom told me a little of the boy’s background.
He had run away from his home in Twyford after making a pass at a friend one night when staying at his house. The supposed friend recoiled; Darren’s parents, who were the religious type, were told, his relationship with them deteriorated and he ran into trouble at school. On his way home one afternoon he was punched and kicked by a gang of three bullies. Believing his parents were against him and having no confidence in his teachers, he evaded awkward questions about his bruises by saying he had fallen off a wall. Feeling there was nobody he could trust, early one morning he packed a bag and left.
Tom’s and Andrew’s appeals made me more sympathetic towards him. Once the larger of the two attic rooms was redecorated I helped him move his things into it and kept his rent the same as before. His old room became a store-room for linen, cleaning materials and a couple of spare mattresses. In return he pressed me to let him help in the hotel, and I asked him to cut the grass and keep the gardens tidy.
The next day he created a neat border for shrubs inside the front garden fence. His spindly limbs worked the spade so skilfully that he had obviously learned how to dig somewhere, probably by helping out in the garden at home. Nearby a little collection of plants in plastic containers was lined up waiting to be planted. When I asked how much they were going to cost me he said they were a present from Andrew. He spoke so anxiously, an abandoned kid desperate for reassurance and support. What could I do but smile and say, ‘You’re making a good job of that,’? He smiled in return, a little embarrassed by the praise, and returned to his task.
Over the next few weeks he brought in window boxes and ornamental containers, planted them up and nurtured them conscientiously. To encourage him I told him to bring his laundry down to the basement once a week and to help himself to breakfast and whatever food he wanted during the day from the kitchen. He always looked for me to let me know whenever he was coming in or going out, and I came to quite like seeing his skinny figure appear at the kitchen or office door several times a day. Andrew’s foundling, with his pet terrapins, had successfully established himself in the attic of my hotel.
To bring in customers I placed adverts in the gay press for ‘London’s newest gay hotel’, set up a site on the Internet, and sent nearly two hundred e-mails to gay organisations. When the momentous occasion came that the first ever guest stepped over the threshold, suppressing my excitement I pretended to check the hotel diary for the booking, took him up to his room, wished him a comfortable stay and told him that breakfast was available from seven in the morning. Alone in the kitchen afterwards I leapt up and waved my fists in the air. The hotel was in business at last.
About a month later my friendly welcome to those arriving was well rehearsed, and as people were leaving I would wish them a pleasant journey and say I hoped they would stay with me again the next time they came to London. A few guests hinted that the rooms were expensive, but others who visited London regularly on business were positive about booking again, and after a few months in business I would know if prices needed to be adjusted up or down.
Adapting to a situation in which everything not done by my part-time staff had to be done by me was not easy. If the cook was off, making the breakfasts, serving them, and preparing the morning’s bills was almost unmanageable even with the hotel only half full, and I had to take on a student as a part-time waiter. When the cleaner was off, there were potentially twelve bedrooms to ‘do’, including twelve en suite lavatories, a taste of drudgery which may have been morally good for me but was something I loathed.
Encouragingly, bookings grew; one morning my contact in Housmans Hotel rang to warn me he had given my number to a group of six men from Newcastle. ‘They’re a bit rowdy,’ he said. ‘If you accept the booking put them close together, they’re forever going in and out of each other’s rooms. Make sure they know what time you want them out on the last day. Getting them to leave on time has not always been easy.’
Minutes later a man with a deep voice and a strong Geordie accent telephoned asking a series of quick fire questions: did I have three double rooms available, how far was the nearest Underground station, would they be able to get in easily late at night, and how much were the rooms? He reproachfully drew in his breath when he heard the cost.‘That’s quite a bit more than we were paying at King’s Cross.’
‘The rooms are a good size, they’re comfortable, they all have en suite facilities, and this area does cost a bit more. What time would you be leaving on Sunday?’
‘We should be gone by dinner time, lunch time as you call it down south; our train back home is a bit after five. What makes you ask that?’
‘I usually let the rooms midday to midday, but you could have until four o’clock say, I’ll still have time to put the rooms to rights before the next people arrive.’
‘Just one more question. I take it you have no objections to, I don’t know how to put it exactly, what you might call continentals.’
Puzzled I said, ‘Doesn’t matter to me where you come from.’
‘It’s not that, we’re all from Newcastle. There’s a particular club we go to, if you get my meaning.’
‘Sorry, I’m not with you.’
‘It’s a bit difficult to say over the phone,’ he said, evidently expecting me to read his mind. ‘All denominations, races and nationalities are welcome, if that answers your question.’ ‘Well it does sort of.’
His booking meant displaying the No Vacancies signs in the windows for the first time, and their arrival marked the end of the quiet manageable first months of business, and the beginning of a much busier and hectic phase. For the first time I experienced how exhausting and unpredictable running a hotel can be.
When they appeared in the hall, nothing about their appearance or speech explained the mention of continentals. Voluble lusty lads in their twenties and thirties, they might have been mistaken for a party of football supporters. As I reached out to take their room keys from the rack one of them asked where the hotel register was. They had already supplied a full list of names and addresses by post with their deposit, but before I could tell them there was no need to sign the register two of them spotted it on the hall table.
‘There it is!’ The whole group rushed towards it, pushing and shoving each other in a playful scrum, shouting ‘I’m next,’, ‘Come on now, I’ve got my pen ready here,’ and ‘The last one to sign has to carry everyone else’s bags up to the rooms.’
They had come down to London determined to have fun, which to them meant drinking heavily, having casual sex, and maintaining their incessant loud and excited banter. When talking they often spat out their words like bursts of fire from a machine gun. They seemed to know every gay venue in London and what sort of crowd it attracted. They joked and teased each other tirelessly, involving anyone else in the vicinity in their foolery. They were always lively, often amusing, occasionally very funny, and in their regional dialect sometimes completely incomprehensible to anyone but each other.
I took them up to the second floor to show them their rooms. They followed me into the first, all of them crowding in after me. ‘This one is at the front of the house,’ I said.
‘We’re at the front of the house now, lads,’ a Geordie voice imitated.
‘Toilet and shower are through here.’
‘Toilet and shower through there.’
‘First time I’ve noticed an echo in the room. Will this do for two of you?’
‘Will this do for two of us? Was that an echo, or might it have been a parrot? Very high class – we’ll have to take our shoes off before we get into bed here.’ The impudence came from a tall redhead, who stood in front of me with his shoulders back, his stance revealing a slight paunch. When I turned to move on to the next room they crowded around the door, blocking my exit. ‘Excuse me, if two of you would like to see the next room...’
‘Come on now, don’t block the door, let the man through.’ They inched apart slightly, making room for me to squeeze between them. The whole group followed me into the next room, the sound of their voices ever louder as we progressed. One of them picked up a wrapped condom from the glass shelf above the wash-basin and asked, ‘How did you know what size to get us?’
The redhead answered for me: ‘Worried it’ll be too big for you?’
When they had seen the three double rooms they argued about who was to share with whom. As rude accusations about personal habits echoed around the floor I put the keys in the doors and turned to go downstairs. Darren was coming up towards me. ‘Sounds like a coach party,’ he said.
‘Yes.’ We could hear the Geordies hauling their bags around, presumably having decided who was to sleep where.
‘I’m not working tomorrow evening or Sunday afternoon. I could help out, if there’s anything you want doing.’
‘Let’s see how it goes.’ He climbed past me onto the landing, where one of the Geordies spotted him and signalled to the others. Suddenly silent they emerged from their rooms to watch his skinny figure climb up the next flight of stairs. ‘Where on earth did you get that?’ the redhead asked, his blue eyes open wide.
‘He helps out here, with the gardens mostly. Sorry, you won’t be seeing much of him, he has a full-time job in a burger bar.’
‘Never mind his work, I think I’ll follow him up. There’s plenty I could do for him right now.’
‘The top floor where he lives is strictly out of bounds.’
He looked at me questioningly. ‘There’s no signs saying private or staff only.’
‘No, there are no signs, I prefer to tell people personally that the top floor is out of bounds.’
‘Do you live up there with him?’
‘I’m not sure what it has to do with you, but no, I’m in the basement flat.’ When I continued on my way downstairs he called after me, ‘One thing before you go, pet, if you’re feeling a bit lonely during the night or finding it difficult to sleep, just come up and knock at any of our doors, you’ll be made very welcome I can assure you.’
‘Thanks, I didn’t realise I looked that desperate.’
‘I saw it as soon as I set eyes on you, man.’
‘You won’t be out clubbing at night then?’
‘You’re right there. You might do better giving us a knock during the day.’
Looking as uninterested as possible I said drearily, ‘Thanks so much for the invitation.’
‘Well take advantage of it, man, and I’m not just saying that to get you to take something off the bill.’
On their way out that evening they found me in the hotel’s little office under the ground floor staircase and asked for directions to a club popular with men from South-East Asia. They were particularly keen on Chinese men, referring to them as continentals as a kind of joke, having overheard someone in a bar use the word by mistake instead of orientals.
‘Do you get many Chinese or Japanese coming to the hotel?’
‘No, not so far. Perhaps I’m not advertising in the right places.’
‘A house like this full of Chinese boys would be paradise. They have such lovely oval eyes and soft smooth golden skin. You won’t find anything more lovely to touch. Why go all the way to Hong Kong or Thailand when you can pick up what you want here in London?’ The group had been coming to London for years for what they unashamedly called ‘dirty weekends’. The redhead had once lived-in as a trainee chef with one of the big hotel chains ‘down south’, actually in Stevenage. On his days off he and a gay friend used to travel to London, stay out all night at the clubs and take the first train back in the morning. Eventually he returned to Newcastle to work in the students’ restaurant at the city’s university.
They asked me about eating locally, and ruled out the nearby curry house, recalling a previous time when the effects of Vindaloo and pints of lager had ruined their hopes of picking up continentals that night. I mentioned that the Thai restaurant had a couple of very attractive waiters, warning that some of the food was extremely hot, and they decided to try there.
My plans for the evening were to eat a take-away meal that Tom would bring in and, if the hotel was quiet enough, to escape the premises by going to the Beckford Arms for an hour or so. We were seeing much more of each other than when I was living in Chiswick, but the established pattern of spending Friday, Saturday, and Wednesday nights together continued. Sunday lunch with Andrew was now always at the hotel. We had briefly discussed the possibility of Tom moving in with me, but both of us were used to our independence and were afraid that being constantly together from necessity might be bad for us.
With the hotel full, leaving it unattended for over an hour to go to the Beckford Arms was a little risky, but most of the guests had gone out for the evening and were likely to return late. All had keys to the front door, the No Vacancies signs on either side of the ground floor bay window would put off anyone who might pass by looking for a room, and a notice on the office door gave my mobile ’phone number in case of an emergency.
To my annoyance when we returned from the pub we found a note on the hall table asking for two full breakfasts to be taken up to a first floor room in the morning. The two men who had taken it had public school accents, were very well dressed, and were probably accustomed to larger hotels staffed to provide room service. They had not asked about having breakfast in their room when I told them that breakfast on Saturdays was between eight and ten-thirty in the breakfast room. Leaving me a note like that was presumptuous. Tom suggested taking them up a couple of bowls of lukewarm porridge with skin forming around the edge, but I wrote a polite refusal on the foot of their message explaining that there were insufficient staff to serve breakfast in the rooms and pushed it under their door.
The next morning Tom woke me as he climbed out of bed, his stronger build as usual causing the mattress to quake underneath me. The time was twenty past seven, and unable to lie in bed at weekends as I used to in Chiswick, my best hope was to steal another fifteen minutes’ sleep as he dressed and went up to make coffee for us in the hotel kitchen.
My snooze was short-lived. When he opened the door at the top of the stairs a loud Geordie voice reverberated down from the dining room: ‘Have you been having a lie-in, pet, we’ve been waiting here for half an hour?’ The words penetrated my semi-conscious mind, and, worried about leaving Tom to cope, I got out of bed and dressed. Of all the people at the hotel, the Geordies were the last I would have expected to be in the breakfast room first thing on Saturday morning. Upstairs, sprawling over half the tables, I found my six Newcastle guests with four strangers, three of them decidedly Chinese or South-East Asian. ‘There’s our man,’ said the redhead, ‘things’ll get moving now.’
‘Breakfast is not until eight on Saturday, it says so on the back of the door to your room.’
‘We’ve not long got in. We brought a few lads back from the club, we’d like to buy them breakfast too, or we can share out what you’ve got for us if that’s a bit awkward, just let us have some extra cups of tea or coffee.’
‘If you want extra breakfasts you’re welcome to have them, the menu tells you what they cost. I’ll put out fruit juice and breakfast cereal and you can make a start with that, but if you want cooked breakfasts you’ll have to wait half an hour.’
‘We’re starving hungry, pet – but we’ve all day, there’s no hurry. You carry on in your usual business, we don’t want to put you out.’
By the time the cook came in at quarter to eight Tom had taken them pots of tea and coffee, and I had started mushrooms, sausages and bacon cooking on the stove. Darren looked in at the kitchen as usual to let me know he was going off to work. When he passed the door of the dining room on his way out I heard the red-haired Geordie waylay him: ‘Well now, you’re not being sent off in the morning with no breakfast, surely. We’ve a cup of tea or coffee for you here, come and sit down next to me.’
‘No thanks, I’m in a hurry, going to work. I have coffee and a bacon roll there.’
‘It’s a great shame, you having to rush off at this hour on a Saturday morning. Tell you what, if you fancy a bit of a night out tonight, you could come to this terrific club with us. Plenty of lads your age go. There’ll be a stripper. You’ll enjoy yourself no end.’
‘I’m not sure...’
‘Well see how you’re fixed. We’re up on the second floor, or if you’re passing the lounge about six or seven we’ll likely be in there. A lad like you ought to enjoy a bit of life on a Saturday night.’
Having devoured their full English breakfasts, the Geordies and their friends all retired to the three second floor rooms. On their way up they encountered the two men who had requested room service making their way down. The staircase to the first floor is much wider than those above, and the Geordies, pulling the continentals into line and moving to the sides of the steps made a narrow corridor for the two men to pass through, trying to play the same trick they had played on me when they forced me to squeeze through them as they crowded the doorways to their rooms. ‘Come through now, don’t let us hold you up,’ the redhead called.
‘No, you’re the majority, you come up first, please.’ Wisely the two men from room four resisted the invitation and backed away from the ten-man gauntlet waiting on the stairs.
I shouted from the hall, ‘Either go up or come down, you’ll cause an accident, fooling around like that on the stairs.’ They yielded and resumed their way up.
I apologised to the two men for the obstruction, showed them to a freshly laid table in the dining room, and said I hoped they weren’t offended by my note about not providing room service. ‘We would have quite liked to have taken breakfast in bed, but we quite understand,’ was the slightly cool reply.
In the afternoon at about four o’clock one of the Geordies, a brown haired man I had not heard speak before, reappeared in the hall, unshaven, dark shadows under his eyes, having quickly pulled on a T-shirt and trousers. ‘We’ve run out of tea things. Could you let us have a few extras?’
All the rooms have their own tea and coffee making equipment. I gave him a tray with extra supplies, including sachets of coffee and China and Indian tea bags, four extra cups and some biscuits. ‘Your visitors, they look to me like orientals, not continentals.’
‘Don’t be silly, man. We’re all oriented the same way, that’s why we’re staying in a gay hotel.’
‘What about cleaning your rooms?’
‘Don’t worry about that; where we come from we only make the beds at Christmas and Bank Holidays. You don’t really need to when you sleep in your clothes.’
‘You might like to mention to the others that if you want dinner tomorrow it’s served from two o’clock. You’ll probably eat on the train or when you reach home, but if you do want the meal you need to tell me tonight.’
Their next appearance was well after six in the evening, when they met in the lounge to plan the night’s activities, their loud voices audible everywhere on the ground floor. I went up to empty their waste bins and hastily tidied their rooms. Darren came looking for me to say that he would not be joining Tom and me in the Beckford Arms that night.
‘You’re not going out with them are you?’
‘They’re going for a meal first, but I’m meeting them afterwards to go to this club with them.’
‘Be careful. They’ll have your trousers down.’
He pulled his tongue out at me. ‘No they won’t. They like Chinese boys.’
Knowing that their taste was not as specific as he thought I tackled the redhead in the hall before they left: ‘Darren tells me you’re taking him to a club. He’s very young. Are you sure he’s going to be all right?’
‘This is a more of a social type of club, not the sort of place where they’re ripping each other’s clothes off. You can’t expect to keep a boy like that tied to your apron strings, pet. Don’t you fret now, the lads know your boy’s not on the menu. No man, it’s the continental lads in the club that need to worry; some of them can expect to be making close acquaintance with Newcastle private parts tonight.’
I cooked a prawn, mushroom, and vegetable stir-fry for dinner for Tom and myself. He had worked all day installing new bathroom fittings in a nearby flat; I had not been out once. We were both too tired for the Beckford Arms and spent the evening watching television. My last chore was to take out the food needed for Sunday dinner from the freezer to defrost overnight.
In the morning as soon Tom began to move I got out of bed and dressed. We went upstairs together and found three of the Newcastle group in the dining room, sprawling on their chairs reading Sunday papers. ‘Are the others still out partying?’
‘No, they’ve gone up to bed. They don’t have our stamina. Two of them are Mackem boys anyhow. You don’t expect Mackems to keep up with Geordies.’
‘Two of them are what?’
‘Mackem boys, it’s a Geordie expression for someone from Sunderland. Have you never been outside London, man? Even people from Durham know that.’
‘No orientals this morning?’
‘Oh there were continentals last night all right. I met this beautiful Chinese boy from Hong Kong, he was a real golden boy in every sense of the word. I wish I could take him back up north with me. A couple of nights in the London clubs leaves you a bit tired, mind; I don’t know how people living down here cope with it, all the activity night after night.’
Tom, not having entirely grasped the humour intended by their use of the word continental, said, ‘Mark’s already told you, a Chinese boy is an oriental, not a continental.’
‘Ah – and if he’s an oriental, what does that make me, an occidental?’
Not understanding, Tom shrugged and pulled a face. ‘What d’you mean, doesn’t make you anything, does it?’
‘I’m no accidental, my parents intended me, I was planned.’
‘What about Darren?’ I asked. ‘Did he get back all right?’
‘He was having a great time. He’s got a lovely way of moving his limbs around, that boy, last we saw he was dancing with someone. They probably left together.’
‘You took him to the club; you should have made sure he got home safe,’ Tom said, irritated.
‘He was enjoying himself. We weren’t going to spoil his chances. What are you, his godfather?’
‘If he’d been with me I’d have took proper care of him.’
‘Well take him to the club yourself next time then.’
We assumed Darren had returned during the night and gone safely up to bed. After giving them breakfast we ate our own lighter meal in the kitchen. They finished and went up to their rooms long before anyone else came down. The well spoken couple from room four came down at the latest possible moment, a heavy fug from over indulgence the night before robbing them of their customary polished manners. They knocked a full glass of orange juice over the table, lamely trying to dab the spillage with serviettes until I brought them a clean table cloth.
Sundays can be tiring because clearing away after breakfast can take until eleven, leaving only a couple of hours free before preparations begin for the main meal of the day in the afternoon. With the cook and a part-time waiter hired in for the afternoon, the main meal was just manageable. I helped out as needed, showing people to their tables and going round later to ask if the food was all right. Tom, Andrew, and – when he was not at the burger bar – Darren, sat down with me to eat at what we called our ‘family table’.
That day Tom was working in the morning because he wanted to finish off tiling a bathroom wall. He went home to change out of his working clothes and collected Andrew from Biddulph Mansions. At one o’clock I rang Darren’s room but got no answer. If he was not back in time for dinner Andrew was sure to ask what had happened to him. Half an hour later, puzzled more than worried, I went up to check, letting myself in with my pass key. Everything in the room was tidy, the bed made and the curtains open, the only evidence of life coming from the terrapins. I gave them a little food from the tub next to the tank and watched them paddle around excitedly in their few inches of water.
Downstairs the smell of meat roasting in the ovens permeated the ground floor, while the cook could be heard chopping vegetables in the kitchen. The waiter was laying tables with fresh linen and cutlery from the big corner cupboard, attractive in his white shirt and tight black jeans.
From the little office where I was preparing bills for guests who were leaving that afternoon I heard Andrew and Tom talking in the hall, and stepped out to see an other-worldly looking Andrew, his white hair glowing in bright light from the open door behind him. In his arms he held an enormous flowering plant in a brass container; peering through the foliage he said, ‘I was thinking of putting this on the hall table. Have you a cloth or a mat of some sort to put under it?’
A couple of transparent plastic file wallets from the office were the nearest things to hand. ‘It’s a beautiful plant. What is it?’
‘A phalaenopsis, a type of orchid.’ Above the vigorous green plume of leaves rose seven or eight flower stems, each displaying more than half a dozen butterfly-like blooms, the outer parts of the flowers paper white, the middles patterned with rich purple spots deepening towards the centre. ‘I hope it won’t be in the way,’ he said modestly.
Tom straightened one of the leaves which had become creased up against the wall. ‘Perhaps I should rig up a little shelf or bracket for it somewhere.’
‘Are you lending it to me?’
‘If it won’t be in your way. The blooms will last a few weeks with any luck, I’ll take it back to the nursery once they fade.’ He rocked the container from side to side to test its stability, then pinned the leaf Tom had straightened out to the notice board with a drawing pin. ‘I expect it will be all right like that while we eat.’
The dining room was filling up and we went in and sat at our table. When the first course arrived, as expected Andrew commented on Darren’s absence: ‘Darren not joining us today?’
‘No sign of him yet. He went to a club last night.’
‘He’s not working today, is he?’
‘No. He went out with the people staying on the second floor.’
I got up to show some guests to their table, hoping he would forget the subject for a while, but as soon as I sat down again he asked, ‘The people Darren was with, are they back yet?’
‘Yes, they had breakfast first thing and went up to their rooms to sleep.’
‘Have you asked them about him?’
‘Yes. He was fine the last time they saw him. There’s no reason to think he’s gone missing.’ The words ‘gone missing’ were the worse I could have chosen, sure to exacerbate Andrew’s concern.
‘What were they like, these men he went out with?’
‘Northerners down for the weekend, good company for a night out, I expect.’
‘Not those Newcastle louts that Tom told me about? You haven’t let him go off with them.’
‘I didn’t let him exactly. He doesn’t ask my permission before he goes anywhere.’
‘Well can’t you speak to them again? One of them must know something about what’s happened to him.’
Whatever I said now was probably going to worry him more. The Geordies had told Tom and me all they knew about Darren’s whereabouts earlier. As our main course arrived at the table, to appease Andrew I said, ‘They’ll be asleep now, they’ve been out all night. Let’s give them an hour or so.’
We ate in near silence, and after consuming my last few mouthfuls under Andrew’s relentless stare I went into the office to ring each of the three second-floor rooms in turn. They sounded half asleep, promised to be ready to leave on time, but as expected none of them had any additional information about Darren.
Glumly I reported back that there was no further news, adding that at least none of the Geordies had noticed anything amiss the previous night. Andrew pursed his lips but did not speak. After several minutes’ silence, Tom, unable to bear the tension any longer, said, ‘Saturday night, Andrew. The boy’s been out enjoying himself. You know what lads are like, this morning he’ll be sleeping it off somewhere.’
Andrew responded in a chillingly calm voice, his articulation so precise and controlled that he might have been intoning a prayer: ‘And this afternoon too? There is a question of responsibility here, Tom. The boy is eighteen. He should be attending school, not scraping a living in some noxious kitchen. His parents have behaved abominably toward him. The question now is what are we to do about his disappearance?’
His use of the word disappearance made me wince. Darren’s absence was spoiling the whole afternoon. Tom fed the growing air of crisis by offering to go to look for him. As he could have been anywhere in London, and only thirteen or fourteen hours had passed since the Geordies had seen him enjoying himself in the club, this seemed an extreme overreaction. ‘He might be anywhere. While you’re chasing around looking for him he’ll probably stroll in as though nothing has happened. He’s not been gone long enough to justify making a fuss.’
Tom shrugged his shoulders. ‘If it will help the offer is there. I could go to the club, the Beckford Arms, that burger dive, anywhere he might have gone, and ask if he’s been seen.’
The suggestion of a possible course of action relaxed Andrew a little. ‘Good thinking, thank you, Tom.’ He looked reproachfully at me. ‘Perhaps I am making a fuss about nothing, let’s hope so. We’ll leave things for a little longer. Couldn’t we make a few enquiries by telephone?’ He added: ‘We don’t necessarily have to go chasing around.’
The appearance of the red-haired Geordie in the doorway enabled me to escape. In the office he settled in cash for all of the group, leaving me with what was meant as a humorous jibe: ‘We’ll maybe give you a ring next time we’re planning a weekend. We were quite happy at King’s Cross and it’s not so dear, but you probably need the custom more.’
One of the men from room four, who had also come down to settle his bill, was standing waiting his turn to pay in the hall. As the Geordie walked past him he looked as though he was struggling not to flinch. ‘Sorry to keep you,’ I apologised, ‘and sorry again about not being able to bring your breakfasts up to your room.’
‘Not at all, a misunderstanding. Don’t want to hurry you. You’re busy this afternoon,’ he said with a thin smile.
He might not be complaining, but the prospect of him and his friend coming to stay again seemed poor. Defensively I said, ‘The guest house has been particularly bustling this weekend. It’s usually quieter than this. Hope you haven’t been disturbed too much.’
‘The room was very comfortable, thanks. I suppose you can’t pick and choose your clients.’
When I returned to the dining room, Andrew was still fretting about Darren. ‘Would it be worth going up to the boy’s room to look around? There might be something that would give us a hint...’
‘I’ve been up once to feed his terrapins. There was nothing unusual; what about his right to privacy – are you proposing that we search his things?’
‘Well what do you suggest? You seem very negative.’
‘We shouldn’t—’ over-react, I was about to say, but a loud crash in the hall followed immediately by a loud Geordie oath prevented me. Tom, Andrew and I hurried out. The orchid had tumbled from the table and lay scattered in pieces over the tiled floor, the brass container lying on its side near the front door. One of the Geordies, a heavy bag in one hand, stood by the hall table looking horrified.
‘I’m right sorry, I had my bag on my shoulder, I must have caught it as I turned round. It was a lovely plant. Before you say anything, let me pay for the damage.’
‘It wasn’t even my plant.’ I looked across at Andrew, who stood by the door looking open mouthed at the wreckage, his face alarmingly red. He waved a hand helplessly towards where the torn fragments of plant lay. ‘Oh, good god, how on earth... it can’t be? How could someone have...?’
The couple from room four appeared at the top of the stairs with their luggage, looked askance at the scene in the hall below, and walked down at a stately pace, determined that nothing should prevent their escape from the mayhem of the hotel.
I took the Geordies into the lounge out of Andrew’s way and told them it would be best to make their way out quietly and leave us to clear things up. When their taxi arrived to take them to King’s Cross they meekly picked up their bags and left.
Tom helped pick up handfuls of soil and pieces of plant from the floor, at first shoving bits of it back into the pot anyhow. Oddly his clumsiness seemed to calm Andrew, who remonstrated mildly, ‘Not like that, Tom, you know how it should be done, the compost and rooty bits at the bottom, green leafy bits sticking out at the top,’ and he knelt down to demonstrate. ‘That’s better, good lad, you’ve got the hang of it now.’
The accident took his mind off Darren. Perhaps we are capable of worrying about only one thing at a time. Having cleared up in the hall, back at our table again we talked about plans for the coming week, and an amiable mood took hold at last despite the trials of the afternoon. Half an hour later Andrew was much more relaxed. When he was preparing to leave for home I said, ‘This has not been the happiest of afternoons at Goodmans Hotel.’
‘Oh, no, no, you’ve given us an excellent meal, and nobody could complain the afternoon was uneventful. Don’t worry about the plant, I was thinking of splitting it up anyway. You will let me know as soon as you have some news of Darren, won’t you?’
By Monday morning well over twenty-four hours had passed since the Geordies had seen Darren dancing with a stranger at the club. Andrew’s accusatory words from the previous day, ‘You haven’t let him go off with them,’ came back into my mind again and again. Every time the ’phone rang I expected to hear his voice anxiously asking for news. During a lull in the morning’s activities, having got no answer from the extension in Darren’s room, I went upstairs in the unlikely hope that he might have crept back in the middle of the night and had not heard or was ignoring the call.
Of course he was not there. Guiltily I eased open the shallow top drawer of the chest of drawers where he kept personal papers. The biggest stack was correspondence from the ‘music club’ from which he sometimes bought records. There was also a bundle of assorted envelopes with handwritten addresses and Twyford postmarks, probably from his parents. They should have been the ones to worry about him being missing after a night out, not me. Nothing in the drawer was likely to reveal what had happened to him, and uncomfortable about prying into his papers I slid it shut.
Pointless speculation began to plague me. He was unlikely to have run away, abandoning his personal correspondence, a wardrobe full of clothes and his terrapins. He looked so young; what if the police had raided the club and were holding him, suspecting he was under age, or if he had become involved in some more serious offence? Yet they would have had to allow him to make a telephone call. Suppose he had been attacked, or badly injured in a road accident, perhaps even killed? How long was it sensible to wait before ringing the police and hospitals to ask about him?
In the next hour or so several people phoned to book rooms, and then Tom called to say he had dropped Andrew off at the hospital for an outpatient appointment; he had already contacted the burger bar and asked for Darren, saying he was a friend, and been told that Darren was due in but had not turned up. At Andrew’s insistence he was checking with me, although he did not doubt I would have let them know if the boy had come home. His call made me more anxious than ever, and after it, whenever anyone rang, I expected to hear a nurse or a policeman giving me bad news.
The cleaner was not in that day and the morning chores kept me busy, but my concentration was poor and I absent-mindedly threw some sheets over the second floor bannisters without looking, barely missing a guest on the stairs below. A few minutes later the phone rang again and to my relief I heard Darren’s voice, nervous and pleading: ‘Hello, Mark, it’s Darren.’‘Where have you been?’
‘I’m at Turnpike Lane Underground station. I don’t think I’ve got enough money for the fare back.’
‘What happened to you?’
‘I’m sorry, I will tell you, something awful happened. Is it all right for me to come back?’
‘Yes. Get a taxi if you have to, I’ll pay for it. Are you okay? Andrew was so worried about you yesterday.’
‘Yes I’m okay, but could you ring my work to say I’m sick? I was supposed to go in this morning.’ He refused to put me to the expense of paying for a taxi, and had enough money for one bus fare which would get him as far as Housmans Hotel. To avoid him having to walk from there I rang the manager and arranged for him to lend Darren the Underground fare home.
I rang the burger palace with the old excuse for absence of an upset stomach. Andrew, presumably still at the hospital, was not answering his mobilephone and I left messages on it, at the garden centre and on his answering machine at Biddulph Mansions, then rang Tom, who insisted on coming straight over. When he arrived he had worked himself into a temper and was talking about ‘teaching that boy a lesson’. His annoyance was understandable, but we had yet to hear what had happened, and even if Darren was at fault sympathy and understanding were probably called for. Punishing him in some way for going missing might drive him away completely. ‘And that’s what you’ve come here to do, is it, teach him a lesson?’
‘Andrew’s got enough on his mind with the hospital. He’s been worried sick about him. He’s not going to get away with this.’
‘We don’t know what’s happened yet. Why don’t you leave it to me to sort this out? You coming in here making threats is not going to help.’
‘Don’t you accuse me of making fucking threats. What I said was teach him a lesson.’
‘What’s the difference?’ For perhaps a minute we stood looking at each other, afraid of the angry exchange developing into a serious row. To end the stand-off I softly proffered a single syllable which could not be interpreted as antagonistic: ‘Lunch?’
‘Should we have some lunch?’
‘All right. Thanks,’ he said with difficulty.
We were eating in grim silence when Darren arrived, deep shadows under his eyes and a bruise on his left cheek. Tom put down his knife and fork, looked at him angrily, but said nothing.
‘What happened? Have you been fighting?’
‘No. I will tell you, but can I go and clean up first?’
‘All right. See you in twenty minutes, half an hour?’
He left the room. Across the table from me Tom was losing the struggle against his temper; under his shirt the shoulder and arm muscles were flexing as though his big hands were about to lash out, his physical strength becoming all too evident. I said, ‘We ought to let Andrew know he’s all right.’
This diversion worked momentarily. ‘He’s probably still at the hospital. You know how they keep you waiting at those clinics.’
‘I could leave another message at the Garden Centre in case he calls there first.’
He realised that the mention of Andrew was an attempt to divert him. He glared at me as, trying to appear innocent and unconcerned, I put another fork-full of food into my mouth. ‘All right,’ he said, ‘I’ll leave the boy to you, you can have him, if that’s what you want. I’m going.’
‘Don’t, please don’t.’
‘I might as well go back to work. Fuck you. I said you can have him, that’s what you want, isn’t it?’ He stood up and put on his coat. ‘Fucking bastards,’ he shouted to nobody in particular as he stomped out down the hall. This was the angriest I had ever seen him, yet despite the intensity of his feelings, he had been able to back off.
My immediate task was to find out from Darren where he had been for the past two nights, and fifteen minutes later I took a pot of coffee and his favourite snack, bacon sandwiches, up to his room. The shower was running as I passed the little bathroom under the roof and I went on up to sit and wait for him to emerge. He appeared after a few minutes, covering himself with a towel, and was drawn to the tray of food by the mouth watering smell. ‘Bacon sandwiches, thanks Mark, I’m starving.’
Uninhibited by my presence he threw the towel onto the bed and put on a pair of clean white underpants. I had seen him nearly naked before at the swimming baths; his calves were about as thick as Tom’s forearms, the flesh so scanty that the knobs and indentations of his bones were visible. As well as the bruise on his face he had another, bigger and more lurid, on his right upper arm. On his neck and stomach were half a dozen or more red scuffs and abrasions, which could have been caused by a fall or a fight. As a way of starting conversation I said: ‘I fed your terrapins. I hope they’re all right.’
He put down his sandwich and went over to them, turning his back to me and bending slightly over the tank to look at them.
‘They look fine,’ he said straightening up. ‘Thanks for feeding them. It’s time I cleaned them out.’
‘Thanks.’ He took his mug, had another bite from the bacon sandwich, and began to dress.
‘Did someone hurt you?’
‘No, I fell over a table and banged my head. The bruise looks horrible, doesn’t it?’
‘You went back with someone?’
‘Yeah. I meant to come home straight after... I intended to come home yesterday, honestly.’
‘You’ve been away for two nights, we were worried. You don’t have to tell me what happened.’
‘I want to tell you. But it’s embarrassing.’
‘We’re friends, aren’t we? Come on, you can trust me.’
The Geordies, he said, having taken him into the club, were soon engaged with a group of young Chinese men and forgot him. For a while he simply stood against a wall and watched what was going on from the shadows, but seeing other men dancing on their own, or at least with nobody in particular, he summoned up the courage to join in. A man in his twenties looked across, smiled, and made his way over to him. They said hello, danced together for a while, went to the bar for drinks, chatted, then danced again.
A little later Darren offered to buy fresh drinks, but his new friend promised to get something much better than alcohol. He disappeared in the direction of the toilets for a few minutes and came back with some tablets. Darren paused and looked at me.
‘Did you take any?’
‘What was it?’
‘It was hard to tell in the lights of the disco. He told me they were speed... they looked sort of blue-grey. He said everyone was taking them. He worked as a courier with a holiday company and he said people partied all night on them, not only in London, but in Majorca and Ibiza, everywhere. He said at some places the so-called “straights” were really disgusting, much worse than gays ever were, got smashed out of their heads at beach parties, would do anything, strip off and do filthy things to each other with bottles while the others watched.’
‘He didn’t play any part in these goings-on himself, of course. What were our Newcastle friends doing while you were being offered drugs?’
‘They were there. They weren’t interested in me. They were too busy with Chinese and South-East Asian boys. Everyone down there was taking something.’
‘Not everyone. You can get a buzz from the music, the atmosphere, being with a crowd of people looking good and enjoying themselves. Anyway, so you went back to this courier man’s flat?’
‘Yeah. Not right away... everyone was having a great time, we danced and talked a bit more and – got a bit close. He asked me back to his flat, where he gave me this mug of Irish coffee that was really strong, but he’d put something in it.’ In the sludge at the bottom of the mug were the remains of two capsules. He challenged the man, but he immediately snatched the mug back and emptied the dregs down the sink. Darren was confused about what happened next. He could remember falling over and hitting his head on the table, and being helped into the bedroom where they had sex.
‘Was it full sex?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Did you take precautions?’ He looked down at the floor. ‘Did he use a condom?’
‘He had condoms. When I went back with him I didn’t know what he was like,’ he said, not looking at me.
‘Oh god.’ How could he have let a stranger take advantage of him like that? ‘It’s all right. You’re not to blame.’
He had slept, and woken in daylight, his head throbbing, his limbs shaking, his bruises and his back passage hurting. He found the man having breakfast in the kitchen, asked for directions to the nearest Underground station, but let himself be talked into waiting until his new acquaintance had washed and shaved and they could go together. The walk, however, ended not at the Underground station but at a nearby pub, where the courier said he had to go inside for a few minutes to meet some friends.
Darren felt ill and did not want more to drink, but followed obediently into the pub where he was told that what he needed was a ‘morning after special’, a concoction of tomato juice and spirits that helped stop his limbs shaking and made his stomach and head feel better. He sat quietly, bothered by the noise and the smoke-laden atmosphere, not thinking clearly. Confused and lacking will power he allowed himself to be taken back to the flat again along with several of the man’s friends.
For their Sunday dinner they ate triangles of tomato-stained pizza followed by chocolate biscuits, and then watched a film on television. They drank beer and smoked cannabis for some hours, listening to music when the film was over, until at around seven o’clock all but one of the courier’s friends left.
A couple of times he stood up intending to leave but let them talk him into staying on. They promised him they would be going out themselves soon, would take him to the train station, and to appear friendly asked him a few questions about himself, claiming to know people in the tourism industry and in television who could help him find work. Then the courier and one of his friends hauled Darren into the bedroom, drew the curtains and forced themselves on him.
‘Did you struggle, ask them to stop?’
‘They made me go with them, I didn’t want to. This friend of his wasn’t very clean.’
‘Did they force you to have sex?’
‘They didn’t threaten me with a knife or anything.’
Whatever his experience before that Saturday night, his innocence was gone now. ‘Are we talking about oral or anal sex here, Darren?’
‘Yeah.’ When they had finished abusing him, drunk, drugged, and exhausted he rolled himself up tightly in one of the sheets and lay on the floor by the wall where he slept. The next morning, his body was sore and aching. He hunted around the room for his clothes, dressed, crept out and used the toilet. The courier was in the lounge watching television, and Darren ran past the room door, down the stairs and out into the street. A terrified old lady he stopped near the end of the road gave him directions to the Underground station. From there he rang me.
Since he had not been threatened, tied up or locked in the flat, what he had gone through sounded as though it fell short of kidnapping and rape. Certainly he had been taken advantage of, but he had not put up physical resistance. Slipping capsules into his coffee was a nasty trick, but he had no witnesses or evidence to prove it had happened. If he had not wanted to take part in later events, why had he not walked out, and why had he gone back to the flat a second time? However confused and unsure of himself he was, surely he could have slipped away from them in the pub, or run off in the street on the way back to the flat? ‘Do you want me to call the police?’
‘What you’ve described sounds like you were drugged and raped. What if the next boy they pick up is even younger, the drugs and alcohol prove too much for him, and instead of bruises and a sore backside he ends up in hospital? You’re sure none of them hit you, held you down, used force on you, threatened to get you if you told on them?’
‘No. Nothing like that. What was I supposed to do? He seemed nice when we were in the club. How was I supposed to know what he was really like?’
‘He tricked you by putting drugs in your coffee. He’s going to get away with it unless we do something, isn’t he?’
‘Don’t call the police, please. They’ll call my parents.’
How would the police react, confronted with his story? The chances of proving a case against anyone were poor. Even if the men were found and questioned they would certainly deny doping the coffee and claim Darren agreed to the sex. Although a lot of the time he appeared very much a boy he was not under age.
‘Okay, let’s leave it at that for now. There’s quite a bit of work waiting for me downstairs. Will you be all right on your own for a while?’
‘Yeah, I’ll be fine.’
In the evening he rang the burger bar to say he was feeling better and arranged to go in to make up his hours. Tom called to apologise for losing his temper and for what he had said earlier.
‘An instance of bad boys getting all the attention and good boys resenting it? Don’t worry, it’s forgotten.’
‘You’re too easy on me. I was angry, all the worry about Andrew and Darren and everything, but I would never have hurt him, you know that. Shouldn’t have took it out on you.’
‘Strong feelings... it’s okay, really.’
Though Andrew rarely joined us in the pub since his illness, we arranged to meet him there that evening so I could tell him of Darren’s adventure without the interruptions inevitable at the hotel. He and Tom listened eagerly, and agreed with me that, there being no evidence of rape, contacting the police was not appropriate, in fact they seemed surprised the idea had occurred to me. Andrew had other thoughts about what we should do: ‘If he had been under age the police might have acted, they would have had a reasonable chance of getting a conviction. He’s back and he’s safe, that’s what matters. The next step is what we must concentrate on.’
Tom offered to go looking for the courier and ‘give him a fright’ if he found him. ‘That’s not a bad idea, but it isn’t what I had in mind. The boy’s future is what concerns me. However you may be right, someone ought to let the bastard know that boys like Darren may have friends who don’t like them being used as sex toys.’
This sounded dangerous to me. ‘Remember there was a group of them. We may end up being the ones who are given a fright.’
‘I’ll have some help with me. Someone has to try to stop the filthy bastard.’
‘You’re both right. If you go up there, Tom, you’ll have to back off if there is the slightest hint of danger. Anyway that wasn’t what I wanted to talk about. First, we should fix up for Darren to have a medical check. Since I’m so familiar with hospital routines these days I’ll make an appointment and take him to the clinic.
Second, we need to turn our minds to the long term, to improving his circumstances. That’s where the real problem lies. He’s bright, talented, but he’s in a dead end job, he’s drifting. Unless we do something about it, how long will it be before he lets himself be led into another sleazy mess? There are plenty of others like our friend from the club, and worse. We need to give the boy a sense of purpose in life, a reason for turning away from that sort of nonsense.’ He looked directly at me. ‘I know you have your hands full with the hotel at the moment, but the business will soon settle in, and you’re the one who can make a difference here.’
‘So this has become my problem now, has it?’
‘The fact is the boy relates to you, he looks up to you, he listens to what you have to say. That wretched job of his is half the problem. He ought to go back to his studies. We could get him into a college of some kind. I could take him on part-time at the garden centre, he has a real feel for horticulture. Look how well he’s done with the gardens and the container plants at the hotel. Even better, you could take him on. You would be able to fit his hours around attendance at a college much more easily. All that changing beds and vacuum cleaning you do, you should spend more time managing the business, taking a broad view of how it’s developing. Yes, that’s the answer, don’t worry about money, we’ll sort something out between us.’
I was annoyed by the way Andrew was planning a new role for me in Darren’s future. ‘Why me? You’re the one who befriended him, took him out to concerts and all sorts of places. I let him stay on at the hotel because you wanted me to.’
‘Don’t get angry with me, please. I’m asking too much of you. Let’s forget the whole business, it would be an imposition. I shouldn’t have mentioned it. This is what happens when heterosexuals breed irresponsibly, leaving others to cope with the problems of their offspring. We’ll talk about something else. Tom, what about that new ventilation equipment I want installing in the nursery. No desperate rush, but are you likely to be able to make a start in the next few weeks?’
Andrew had steered the conversation exactly as he wanted. Having successfully planted the idea in my mind that Darren should work at the hotel, he had given the appearance of backing away from it by saying, ‘Let’s forget the whole business.’ We both knew that it was anything but forgotten. He had already begun to soften my resistance by holding out the prospect of delegating some of the hotel chores to Darren. Soon he would inveigle Tom into helping his cause, and gentle persistent pressure from the two of them would wear me down.
Tom persuaded his older brother to join him on a trip to Turnpike Lane to confront the men who had taken advantage of Darren. His brother was a thick set man with cropped hair who could intimidate with a concentrated look of hostility, his eyes glaring and his lips tightly set. On Tuesday they set off in one of the Ferns and Foliage vans, collecting Darren after his early shift in the burger bar, to drive up to the house where he had been molested. From the passenger seat he watched the two brothers go to the entrance, ring the bell and thump the door. There was no answer from the upstairs flat, and all they learned from the couple on the ground floor was that the occupant spent a lot of his time away. Tom said they were looking for a boy who had gone missing, and that they would keep coming back until they got some answers.
They went on to the pub Darren had been taken to, where they ordered a coke for him and pints of beer for themselves. They asked the barman if he knew a courier for a holiday company who did the Spanish resorts. He shrugged, ‘This is not what you’d call a regulars’ pub, we do a lot of passing trade.’ Tom’s brother leaned over the bar and beckoned him closer. ‘Reason we’re looking is he’s been taking advantage of under age boys, know what I mean.’ He stared menacingly, waiting for an answer. Darren sat nearby on a bar stool with his coke. He told me afterwards he felt too embarrassed to move, and desperately wished the fire alarm would go off or something else would happen to bring the excruciating scene to an end.
Unnerved by the intense hostile stare, the barman said edgily, ‘Can’t help yo,u mate, there are a few regulars, but so far as I know none of them works as a courier. Most of them keep their selves to their selves. This is a busy pub evenings and weekends, you get all sorts. I hope you find him. He’ll be barred from here if we know who he is, you can be sure of that.’
Customers at three of the pub tables were subjected to the same growled questions by Tom and his brother, not from any expectation that they would admit to anything, but in the hope that word of the visit would get back to the culprits. The brothers left the pub looking as though they would throw a punch at the smallest provocation. Whether word of this performance ever did reach those it was intended for we never found out. To Darren’s great relief, and mine, there were no further trips to Turnpike Lane.
At the hotel out of politeness I asked Tom’s brother if he wanted to stay for dinner, but he refused saying plausibly there would be a meal waiting for him at home. I saw him to the front door, and before leaving he fixed me with his unsettling gaze and said tauntingly: ‘I hope you’re the one who’s the woman, and not him.’ Giving me no chance to respond he turned quickly and walked briskly down the path, not seeing my angry grimace.
Furious, I told Tom what he’d said. ‘You shouldn’t take no notice of him. He’s a piss-taker, always has been.’
‘I suppose you can’t pick who you have as a brother.’
‘He didn’t intend to be insulting, he wouldn’t understand a remark like that was going to cause offence. He thinks he’s funny. Take no notice of him. He ain’t worth it.’
The more important activity following Darren’s ordeal was to coax him back into the education system. Lizetta occasionally arranged courses for new recruits to my old firm, and was the obvious person to ask about his chances of a place in college. We met for long lunches together every month or so, usually in busy moderately priced restaurants in town. When I mentioned Darren she immediately wanted to know what he had been studying at school, an obvious question but one that had somehow not occurred to me. Reproachfully she said, ‘People find it a struggle to get back into education once they’ve dropped out. Does he want this badly enough to keep it up for a year or more? If you want me to help him things will have to be gone into properly.’
She suggested I bring him along to lunch so she could meet him. Andrew had been encouraging him to think about a career and, predictably, had suggested horticulture. When I told him about Lizetta he brought down some of his old school work to show me, neat life-like drawings of fungi and painstakingly detailed illustrations of plant cell structures. His teacher had given him good marks for the work. ‘You really are interested in plants, aren’t you? You haven’t got all your old school work up there, have you?’
‘No. Biology was my best subject. Most of my school work is still at home in Twyford, if they haven’t thrown it all out.’
His father, before he turned to religion, used to take him on walks in the countryside and had taught him about the wildlife in hedgerows and ponds, and from an early age he had helped in the garden and on the family allotment. He had built on this knowledge in class. Knowing he was still in touch with his parents from the letters in the drawer in his room, I asked if he was thinking of going back to collect the rest of his things. ‘My sister will collect some stuff for me, what’s the point in me going back? All they’re interested in is banging tambourines for Jesus.’
‘They’re your mum and dad. You ought to go back to see them sometime.’ Our discussion was interrupted by the sound of the reception bell. In the hall was one of the Chinese men the Geordies had brought back with them to the hotel. Cheung was about Darren’s age, very cute with a small slightly upturned nose. One of them had given him a Newcastle telephone number, but when he tried it he found it was the number of a mini-cab firm. He wanted me to give him the correct number or an address.
The mini-cab number may have been given deliberately to fool him into thinking more than a night’s sex was on offer; if a boyfriend, or even a wife, answered a ’phone call or opened a letter from him serious problems might ensue. When I refused, he looked so unhappy that I agreed to forward a letter for him, on the assumption that the redhead, to whom I had sent confirmation of the booking, would pass it on to whoever in his party was so sorely missed after one night of love. I sat my visitor down at the kitchen table with writing paper and an envelope from the office.
Darren remembered Cheung from the club and made him a mug of tea, which he drank while writing several pages in a close regular hand. When the letter was finished they chatted for a while in the hall until Darren had to go to work, and they left the hotel together.
The redhead rang me a few days later to thank me for forwarding the letter, but said that although they would be happy to see any of the Chinese boys again the next time they came down to London it would be unfair to encourage them to expect anything more than another one night stand. The ’phone number, he said, must have been a misunderstanding of some sort; they did use one particular cab firm regularly, and perhaps Cheung had seen the number written down somewhere and wrongly assumed it was a home number.
He claimed that none of them would have tried to mislead by giving the impression of wanting to keep in touch. He also asked after Darren, and I said he had had a terrible time with someone who picked him up, and that he had been in real danger, but had managed to escape without coming to permanent harm.
‘We were all worried about him on the train home. He’s a clever lad, he’ll learn how to look after himself. We’ve all got ourselves into dodgy situations when we were younger. I’m sorry if we let you down there.’
That chance meeting at the hotel was the beginning of a relationship between Darren and Cheung. A couple of weeks later they arrived together at the Beckford Arms on a Friday night. I was late, having been delayed by unexpected arrivals at the hotel, and found them laughing and joking with Tom at the bar. We all returned together and Darren took Cheung up to his room, the first time, to my knowledge, he had taken a lover up with him. Perhaps, after all, some good might have come from his visit to the Geordies’ favourite club.
Following Darren’s weekend escapade in Tottenham, for a few weeks life at the hotel settled reassuringly into steady profitable business. Goodmans Hotel had, so far, escaped any of the horrors of which my friend at Housmans Hotel had warned me; there had been no fraudulent payments, nobody had suffered a heart attack, there had been no fights and no vandalism. Then one morning a guest on the first floor came looking for me in the kitchen to complain he had been woken by a disturbance in the room above. He said someone up there must have gone berserk. There had been an almighty crash, followed by scraping sounds and thuds and bangs that went on for half an hour or more. The noise stopped eventually and he went back to sleep.
I leapt up the stairs to the second floor, fearing that taking in two men who had arrived without a booking had been a dreadful mistake. The door to their room was ajar. A loud knock produced no response, and when I tried to push it open it would not move. Lifting it up by the handle with difficulty I eased it open inch by inch. A toilet stink hit me as I entered the room. The upper hinge had been wrenched away from the door frame, and carefully leaning the door against the wall I turned around to face a scene of devastation.
The twin beds had been thrown onto their sides and the mattresses and bedding were strewn higgledy-piggledy across the floor. The dressing table was leaning acutely, its once square angles now grossly distorted, the drawers tossed about the room, the mirror broken, half of it lying in pieces on the floor. The television lay face down, the tube shattered and the back dashed into splinters; the kettle, tea and coffee- making things had been flung down on top of it.
Two inverted ‘V’s of damp on the wall and dark patches on the carpet showed where the men had urinated. The light fittings, broken and torn away, were hanging by their wires. In spray paint on the wall, above where the heads of the beds had been, was the outline of a giant erect male organ with the obscenity ‘SHIT SHAGGERS’ scrawled in thick marker-pen below it.
The major cause of the stench lay in the tangle of crumpled bedding on the floor. They had defecated on the white cotton of my sheets. With the room’s en suite toilet a few yards away, the action demonstrated real malice. The mess on my bedding appalled me more than all the other damage. As I opened the windows to let out the stink the braided curtains seemed to hang with chaste disapproval over the devastation below.
The perpetrators of this outrage had doubtless made their escape before the house stirred. The prospect of cleaning up what they had left in the sheet made me nauseous. I stood at the window for several minutes inhaling fresh air, watching the boughs of the street’s plane trees swaying in the breeze. In the hotel downstairs activity would be continuing as usual; the cook and waiter would be busy with breakfasts, and people checking out that morning would be asking for their bills. If I went down to normality now the smell and the mess in the room would be waiting to be dealt with, and would be constantly on my mind.
With no rubber gloves to hand I gingerly lifted up the soiled bedding, keeping my fingers clear of its repulsive contents, and manoeuvred the faeces towards the toilet. After flushing the excreta away and putting the soiled linen into black plastic sacks, I washed my hands, flushed the toilet a second time and washed my hands again, hoping to make doubly certain that every last trace of the filth had gone. On leaving the room I carefully edged the door closed, hiding the devastation from other guests who might pass.
I called the police, and during a lull in breakfast activity took the part-time cook and waiter up to see the damage. Sharing the horror with them helped me a little, but at ten-thirty they went off duty leaving me on my own. Darren had left for an early shift at the hamburger dive, the cleaner was not due in that day, and there was no answer to my ’phone calls to Tom or Andrew.
I apologised to the guests who had heard the disturbance, saying this was the first time there had been any trouble and that the hotel was normally very quiet. Fortunately none of them made a fuss. When everyone had gone, various hotel duties kept me occupied for a time, but after putting the last of the breakfast dishes into the dishwasher I sat miserably in the bay window of the dining room waiting for the police, wishing merciless vengeance on the pair who had vandalised my room.