A pair of crutches leans against the end booth of an old Greek restaurant in Soho. Beside them sits a tall, bald man whose features, once handsome, are now large and loose like his grey jacket. Its rough tweed contrasts with the smooth suede of his friend’s. He sits directly opposite, is quick, feverish, and has a sharp voice that rises at the end of each sentence. Suede and Herringbone have known each other for years, since reading modern languages at university.

‘I haven’t told you about our Cambridge trip yet,’ Herringbone says. ‘Dickie’s room was en suite, so we shared, which was nice. Had drinks: smart casual, though most wore dinner jackets. Some not casual at all; Armani suits, shirts costing at least a hundred and twenty quid, some open at the neck. Which is okay, I suppose, if you’re Beckham. Cravats, of course, are so much warmer. Dickie wore a hideous smoking jacket which hung round his knees, so he looked casual and ridiculous. Then there was Merriweather. Eighty years old. Can you believe it?’

Herringbone sighs, lays his large hands together on the table, a mountain range of veined knuckles. Suede waits, his small hands clasped tightly in his lap. Herringbone shrugs, as if waking himself up, and continues.

‘There were no women there. Merriweather, of course, doesn’t know any.’ He takes a sip of coffee. ‘You know, Dickie’s decidedly boring these days, not bitchy or gossipy any more at all. Yes, I’m still the biggest bitch amongst us – and proud of it.’ He puts his head back and laughs showing uneven, discoloured teeth, then looks directly at Suede.

‘Of course Dickie always greets me very warmly.’

‘That’s probably because he can’t stand you,’ says Suede.

‘Strange all that money filtering straight down to him of all people,’ Herringbone says. ‘Of course he’s notoriously mean. Anyway, we had champagne in the drawing room. I spoke to a married clergyman and discussed the Apostles’ Creed. No spark there. Pompous old sod.’ One of Herringbone’s crutches starts to slip sideways. He catches it and holds the padded head in his lap. ‘The wine was better than the food. White, then red, then a dessert. All quite elaborate.’

‘Nice white?’

‘Quite fruity. Well, no more than usual, but you know … It had to go with goat’s cheese tart, then pigeon breast. Two each. Not very nice. Tough, and not a lot on your plate, just mashed up vegetables, and potatoes. Then a crème brulée thing and cheese. It was adequate, but there was nowhere to go afterwards. Disappointing really. No chance to mingle. At the end of the meal we were virtually asked to leave.’

‘You should have all brought some poetry to recite,’ says Suede. ‘Coward did it all the time. It’s a thing I always insist on at my dos.’ He crushes a breadcrumb on the tabletop and rolls it between his finger and thumb. Herringbone turns awkwardly to lean the crutch against the other one.

‘Tibor would like it here,’ he says.

Suede shifts in his seat. ‘What was it like in Poland?’

‘Oh, cosy. Snow, snow. Everything wonderfully relaxed between us.’

‘What’s snow in Polish?’

Snieg,’ says Herringbone. ‘The only other word I know is ‘darling’. Kochany. By the way, you know that you offered to pay for my plane ticket.’

‘Yes, well that was obviously a mistake,’ says Suede, waving at the waitress for their bill. ‘I’d hardly pay for it at that price.’

Herringbone shrugs and pushes his coffee to one side. ‘Trust Dickie to inherit enough to wipe out his debt. I must say, Tibor seems very comfortably off.’

‘What’s he like?’ asks Suede. ‘He looked mildly interesting on the internet.’

The waitress, a handsome Hungarian in her thirties, places the bill on the table.

‘I don’t believe it,’ says Herringbone. ‘They’ve put the service on. They

really shouldn’t charge regular customers.’

‘Let’s not fuss about details. Let’s just pay for our lunch and add a little service in cash. Round this up to thirty-four quid? Seventeen each as we normally do?’ Suede puts a twenty-pound note down on the saucer. Herringbone fumbles in his small purse, taking ages, counting out single coins. Suede waves the waitress over and hands her the plate.

‘I miss various people you know,’ says Herringbone staring out of the window. ‘And I still have guilt.’

Suede looks up. ‘Don’t be silly.’ The waitress brings the change on a small white saucer. ‘I suppose that’s all yours,’ says Herringbone looking at it. ‘Yes, it is. And I can’t do the tip unless you give me one pound fifty.’

‘But that takes away all my money.’ Herringbone scrabbles in his purse and gives some coins to Suede, then shows him the three left in the palm of his hand. ‘Can I get a taxi with that?’

‘I don’t know,’ says Suede, not looking.

He slides his wallet back into his inside pocket, then spots a coin under Herringbone’s cup, and hands it to him. ‘You’ve dropped a pound.’

‘It’s this blessed hand,’ says Herringbone, pocketing the coin. ‘By the way, guess who I sat next to at Merriweather’s supper. Remember Duncan, from that weekend in Scotland years ago? You know, the urologist. Nice chap. You enjoyed him. We both did. Rather too much if I remember. Well, we got involved in a very intense conversation about the old days. Felt something there again definitely. If it’s there you always know … and it was. But bloody Merriweather broke the spell by getting up to speak. You know, for his eightieth birthday. Toasted the Queen and embarked on his entire life story. Can’t imagine why he did it. It was obvious that he never really knew what he wanted to do at any stage of his life.’

‘Sounds par for the course,’ Suede fingers a nostril hair.

‘And he was utterly useless at everything, of course,’ Herringbone smiles. ‘God, I’m such a bitch. Can’t help it. Too late now. Can’t teach an old bitch new tricks. Anyway, Merriweather ploughed on through all the usual channels, prep school, public school and Cambridge. He was only ever given jobs through his connections.’

I got my first job,’ says Suede, ‘through my uncle.’ ‘Yes, clearly it’s not done on merit. Look at us. No wonder the country’s

gone down the drain.’

‘It’s the way things are. No shame about it,’ says Suede, leaning one arm along the top of the booth.

‘Yes, well, Merriweather certainly relied on the old boy network. Had no staying power, though. Hadn’t a clue.’

Herringbone pauses, puts both hands on the table and leans forward, ‘but you know, Merriweather was the first who made me feel okay, made me …’

They both look out of the window. It had started to rain.

‘What was the point of going through his entire life though?’ Herringbone says. ‘It was so boring. Everyone knew it was, even before he got up to speak.’

‘Sounds deadly.’

‘Yes, it was. Felt as if Merriweather was speaking at his own bloody funeral.’

‘Good lord, is that the time?’ says Suede, reaching for his scarf. ‘Did I mention that I met up with Dickie recently? He’s invited me for early drinks at his new house.’

Suede stands, zips up his jacket.

Herringbone watches him.‘Same time next week then?’

‘Probably,’ says Suede, turning down his collar. ‘I’ll let you know. Good seeing you, as always.’ He touches Herringbone’s shoulder. ‘Goodbye, old boy.’


Herringbone sits staring at the empty space opposite him. He waits for Suede’s head to pass by outside the window, then he reaches for the white saucer and tips all the money lying in it into his jacket pocket.

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