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Flowers of Babylon

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Nick

James and I made love under white sheets and a midnight-blue brocade cover that night, sending our cries of joy into the warm air that permeated the apartment. It was only here where we could be blissfully naked and free, even though a hard-working lawyer was sleeping in the next room.

We lay relaxed and smoking in the dark afterwards, talking softly and listening to the noise of traffic and night buses outside. Then we drifted off, only to be startled by a hard rap on the door when Maurice’s old alarm clock on the nightstand showed half past six.

James and I were both naked, but he quickly drew up the covers to our chins and then hoarsely called out: ‘Come in!’

Clive walked in wearing a tatty flannel dressing gown over ridiculously striped college pyjamas. His dark hair stood out in every direction and he was wearing old glasses.

I had to stifle a laugh.

‘Good morning,’ he smiled. ‘Did you sleep well?’

We nodded and watched him sit down on James’s side of the bed. He told us he had to leave for court at eight and that he hoped to be back by noon. We would leave straight for Penge after that.

‘Sorry to rush you like that,’ he said. ‘But I’d like to be home by tea time. Anne will be back from Bristol by then. So please have your suitcases ready before I return from the Old Bailey.’

He handed us a spare key. ‘There you go…there’s barely any food in the house, but there’s a deli outside Temple that sells lovely sandwiches.’

‘A deli?’ James echoed.

Clive nodded. ‘Yes, that’s what the owners call it. It’s supposed to be very American, but they don’t sell bagels there…It’s not kosher either.’

James smiled. ‘That’s O.K., old sport. You know I don’t observe those laws.’

Clive laughed. ‘Keep the key until you leave England. Treat this place like a hotel, even when I’m not here….’

Then his eyes met mine. ‘I say, old sport, are you all right?’ he asked worriedly. ‘You must still be exhausted from your jolly days in Holland and the crossing.’

‘I’m O.K.’ I muttered.

He nodded and then, thank God, got up from the bed and left the room.

Only when we heard him splashing and whistling in the bathroom did I relax and sink back into the pillows.

James moved closer to me to kiss me, but he stopped mid-way.

‘Sweet Jesus, what’s wrong with you, Nick?’

'What's wrong with you?'

We both had monumental erections.

‘Let’s deal with this first and then we’ll have breakfast,’ he whispered, after which he slid under the sheets to give me his delicious mouth.

 

James

A row of smiling and waving people awaited us on the front porch when Clive pulled up outside the flagstone steps to the main entrance of the manor.

We were greeted by those we had never met in person before but who had already become dear friends to us. There was old Mrs. Durham, Clive’s mother, a lady in her seventies with elaborately done-up dark-red hair, Lady Pippa, Clive’s older sister, tall, thin and very blond, and Lord Archie London, Pippa’s husband, a balding, fifty-two-year-old man.

‘Do feel most welcome, gentlemen,’ Mrs. Durham said. ‘You must be Mr. Gatsby…How do you do?’

‘I am well, thank you,’ I smiled. ‘I was sorry to hear about your health. I hope you are feeling better now.’

She nodded happily and then shook hands with Nick. We did so with the others and then they made way for the lady of the house. Anne Durham.

We had last seen her in New York in 1923 and it surprised me how little she had changed. Black was the predominant color in her appearance – her curly hair, even though the first silver threads of old age were showing in it, her modern, silk dress, the shades under her brown eyes that told me she’d had a strenuous drive back from Bristol. Her ivory bracelets clicked when she drew me and Nick to her to kiss us. She smelled of dried rose-petals and something Oriental. Even though she wore no make-up, her likeness to Daisy Fay was striking.

Nick and I had met Daisy, his cousin once removed from Louisville, in France a few weeks ago. She had divorced her husband Tom, left her little daughter Pammy with her parents in Louisville and moved to Paris to write smutty novels that were widely read in spite of because of their being on every national index marked as harmful to young or female readers.

Anne, who ran a literary reading circle on this estate, had come across Daisy’s work and surprisingly enjoyed her stories. She kept a correspondence with the writer and had even invited her to come and visit.

I wondered what she would say when she learned that this Bohemian lady actually was related to Nick.

 

Nick

We had moved inside to allow Mrs. Durham to cross-examine her daughter Pippa and her son-in-law Archie about the accommodation for the two guests from America.

‘I had the Blue Room, the little library and the former school room prepared for Mr. Gatsby and Mr. Carraway,’ Pippa said. ‘I thought some extra space with a typewriter and a phone extension would be convenient for the gentlemen, since they are in England on business.’

‘The Blue Room?’ Mrs. Durham frowned.

Clive laughed. ‘Yes, Mama, the one with the smoking fireplace. I doubt whether it will be to their liking, but…’

‘It sounds marvelous,’ I reassured him.

Clive summoned a houseboy to carry up our luggage and beckoned for us to follow him.

The rooms turned out to be located in a deserted wing of the house. They were all connected and the bathroom was right across from them.

Our host waited until the boy had left and then flew to us to kiss us each on the cheek. ‘There!’ he said happily. ‘Now I have officially bid you welcome.’

He led us to the bay window of the library and pointed at the enormous, quiet garden outside.

‘You can shoot gamekeepers from here,’ he smirked. ‘No one will notice. We deliberately let you have these rooms so that you can have some privacy. I’m afraid they’re none like the beautiful suite Anne and I stayed in at your house on West Egg…But then again, you’ll often be out in London or sightseeing, I suppose. We’ve got five cars in the garage we barely use, so feel free to borrow them.’

He then showed us the Russet Room across the corridor. This was to be Maurice’s domain for the duration of his stay. ‘You’ll have to share the bathroom with him, but I’m sure you won’t mind,’ Clive grinned.

The ablutions had an enamel tub, a standard sink and a turn-of-the-century water closet. Stacks of fluffy towels, rows of little flasks and a display of shaving gear were on display to mask the fact that Penge was nothing like the luxurious hotels we’d seen on our journey.

But I was moved at the efforts our hosts had made. Everybody with the exception of old Mrs. Durham and the servants knew that James and I were lovers. These arrangements would allow us to live comfortably and undisturbed. We’d have to contend with Maurice’s presence soon, but Maurice was like us and not given to prying. Still the thought of him being only yards away from us in the Russet Room gave me unpleasant shivers.

‘I’ll leave you to unpack,’ Clive said. ‘If you need anything, just ring the electric bell in the office.’