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Flowers of Babylon

Chapter Text

Nick

My beloved James and I lived through two atrocious wars. We were officers in the first one and nervous witnesses in the second one, never missing a line from American newspapers or any spoken word on the radio. Peace has settled down on Earth now. Watching mankind slowly transcend into an era full of new-found wealth is both invigorating and depressing. The next generations will only know the old world from tales handed down by those who saw it, and yet young men and women will be the ones vouching for peace and safety in the years to come.

I am fifty-four going on fifty-five now, an old man unable to boast contribution to the new age of assembly-line motor cars, hamburger joints and the restoration of war-stricken Europe.

I’ve written all I could about the tour de monde James and I made in 1926 and 1927. We literally traveled around the globe, starting in Newark where our good friends Maurice Hall and Alec Scudder saw us off on a southbound train and ending in New York almost a year later with Alec loyally waiting in his van outside the port to take us and our luggage home to West Egg, Long Island.

After months of traveling the American deserts, tropical islands in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, of extensive sightseeing from Ceylon all the way up to the Mediterranean, after visiting any ancient Roman town between Naples and Milan, after suffering stifling heat in New Mexico and bitter cold in the Alps, after getting a taste of either lavish or plain European culture in Switzerland, France, Belgium and Holland, we set foot on English soil at the port of Harwich in April 1927.

James, who has been my lover for nearly twenty-six years now, said the most remarkable thing the other day.

‘We went around the globe with the objective to visit many countries, but in fact we took the long way to England.’

 

James

Clive drove a magnificent Sunbeam. It had very little boot space. Nick said that he, being of the lower orders, would ride in the back seat and look after the suitcases that were neatly piled up so that I could sit next to Clive in the front.

Our original plan had been to travel straight to Osmington by train where one of the Durhams would pick us up. But some unexpected events had made Clive decide to drive all the way from Penge up to Harwich to save us a trip. ‘Anne had to travel to Bristol to attend the funeral of her best boarding school friend’s father…And my mother came down with a cold. She’s feeling much better now but I believe it’s best to postpone your arrival by one day.’

Clive himself was due in court at the Old Bailey the next day. He had thought it more sensible to take us to London first. We and our host would spend the night at his flat in Kensington.

The moist, sunny landscape sped by, dotted with fluffy white sheep, ancient stone fencings, modest hamlets surrounding strict-looking churches until the quiet gradually made way to the suburbs of London.

‘I always take the train to the City,’ Clive said as we slowly moved down a boulevard along the Thames in a string of cars. ‘I never drive here. It’s enough to give the most valiant of warriors a heart attack.’

The streets were narrower and busier than in Manhattan, but the air was not polluted by caterwauling horns or cab drivers shouting abuse in fifty languages. We reached the apartment building shortly after noon. Clive told the concierge’s son to take in our luggage and to drive the car into a garage three blocks away.

Nick and I had lived in hotels and cottages for eight months. This was the first homely place we set foot in after what now felt like a lifetime of vagrancy.

Clive’s mother had bought her son this apartment in 1911 while he was still at Cambridge studying for his bar exams. She had wanted to give him a safe haven while he observed an internship with a London law firm before graduating. It was here where he had given Maurice a room of his own to stay, even though Maurice still lived with his mother in Alfriston Gardens, which lay about ten miles west of Kensington. Old Mrs. Durham had never known that Clive and Maurice had been more than friends since 1909. The apartment she had given her son only served as a refuge for two lovers until Clive got engaged to Anne in April 1913.

The whole place had remained unchanged, Clive now told us. The wallpaper and the furniture looked so hideously old-fashioned that it was lovely. It was a bachelor’s den in a building full of students from affluent families and married gentlemen who kept mistresses in the City.

‘No one gives a damn so the two of you can be as noisy as you like,’ Clive said, and he showed us the room Nick and I would spend the night in.

Maurice’s room. The host even kept Maurice’s old college suits, shoes and books in the wardrobe, as if his friend could walk in any moment after a day of strenuous work at the office on Chancery Lane.