The grey man had been staying in the hotel for a fortnight now. This was unusual. It was a place for transients in a street at the King’s Cross end of the Euston Road. The rooms were small, chopped up from larger ones, and the furniture cheap and nasty. The bathroom was so tiny you could wash your feet in the shower while sitting on the toilet. There were no pictures on the walls which were dirty-cream in colour. The hotel served breakfasts but after the first day he didn’t bother with them. In any case most mornings he remained in bed long after the hour at which breakfast was served. He was rarely more than half-asleep but that was how it had been throughout the night. Smoking in the hotel was forbidden, but he paid no attention to the prohibition and stubbed out cigarettes on the outer shelf of the window, then dropped the butts into the dank area below.

When he left his room towards midday, he exchanged a ‘good morning’ with the man at the desk whom he assumed to be the proprietor. He was an Arab of some kind with buck teeth. This morning the man thought he looked at him curiously, as if wondering why he had prolonged his stay beyond the initial night he had booked for. But he paid the bill in cash and no questions were asked.

Leaving the hotel he walked to Tottenham Court Road, and then by way of Charlotte Street and Rathbone Place across Oxford Street to Soho Square. In Charlotte Street he remembered restaurants which were no longer there. One of them had been an Austrian place called Schmidt’s where they served roast goose and red cabbage. It had been cheap and noisy and popular and he had never understood why it had closed. He had been young then and was old now. He stopped off at the last greasy spoon caff for a cup of tea and a bacon roll. In Soho Square he sat on a bench and read a Simenon novel. He read it in French and it didn’t matter that he had read it before. He had a good supply of them and you could read them time and again and he told himself they would see him out. Out mightn’t be far off. Yet he wasn’t quite ready to go. This dead half-life suited him. It keeps me going, he said to himself. He was content to be free from obligations. It was two months since he had stood by the graveside and watched his wife’s coffin being lowered. She had been his second wife and for a long time they had lived apart. But she had got a message to him from the hospital where she was dying and he had visited her there. We were no good for each other, she said, and he could agree on that. Nevertheless when he stood under a grey sky and tossed a handful of earth on her coffin, he came close to weeping, for himself doubtless as much as for her, poor woman.

Her daughter said, ‘I don’t know why you came. I don’t know how you could bring yourself to come.’

‘She asked me to,’ he said.

‘The house is mine. You know that, don’t you? She left everything to me. There’s nothing for you.’

‘That’s as it should be,’ he said. ‘You brought shame on her. I can’t forgive you.’

He turned away, irritated by her impertinence in supposing he might want her forgiveness. Then he turned back,

‘I don’t need anything,’ he said.

I’ve got my pension, he didn’t add, they couldn’t take that away from me.

His first wife was still alive. Or perhaps she was. He didn’t know. Strangely she had written to him two years previously when he was in there, as he put it to himself, to say she was sorry. He didn’t know what she had to be sorry for, and he didn’t reply. They had loved each other once, but that was a long time ago, and it had been a mistake to leave her for the other woman, but there had been a lot of mistakes and it didn’t matter.

The sky was grey again this morning, clouds drawn like a blanket across its breadth, and it was heavy with rain.

He lit a cigarette, a Senior Service. The brand was hard to find now, but the newsagent in Old Compton Street still sold them, and that was another reason for coming to Soho. Once he had smoked sixty a day but now he

had to ration himself to a single pack. He looked around the garden. On the next bench a blond boy was kissing a girl, all over her face he was. Lucky boy, lucky girl. Her left leg was stretched out, toe just touching the ground. It was a plump, unformed teenage leg, in black tights, the short skirt riding up high. She pushed the boy’s head away and laughed, then darted a kiss at him. The boy looked over her shoulder, caught the man’s eye, and smiled. He might even have raised an eyebrow. Time for a drink.

The Duke was the closest to what London pubs were when he first lived there. Sometimes at night, unable to sleep, he made a list of all those in which he had drunk, or used to drink. It was a long list, but always an incomplete one. Some had closed, more transformed themselves, but the old Duke still smelled of beer, shepherd’s pie and, at opening time, floor- polish; no longer of cigarette smoke, of course, sadly. He ordered a pint of bitter and settled himself at a table in the corner, as the pub filled and voices rose.

‘Mind if I join you?’

He heard a chair being pulled back before he could answer and looked up.

‘It’s a free country.’

‘Do you think so?’

‘Not really, not now.’

‘No, it isn’t, is it?’

‘It’s just an expression, something to say.’

‘You don’t recognise me, do you?’

‘Should I?’

‘I think you should, Mr. Latimer. It’s been a long time but I think you should. I really do.’

Latimer looked at her properly for the first time. A big blonde woman, hair dyed as might be, high complexion, a drinker’s face, the mouth loose and the too-red lips a little damp.

‘I should?’ he said.

‘Oh yes. I belong to your past, and you to mine,’ and she got up, stumbling a little, went to the bar and returned with two whiskies – doubles – and a baby soda water which she pushed towards Latimer.

‘That was your drink, wasn’t it? Whisky-and-soda. I take mine neat. Cheers, mud in your eye or whatever. Janey Wilson,’ she said.

Latimer added soda to the whisky, drank a mouthful, felt the desire for a cigarette.

‘I would never have recognised you,’ he said.

‘No, I’m grown up. More than that, middle-aged, forty-four to be exact – last week. Course I’ve changed. You haven’t, would have recognised you anywhere.’

‘It must be thirty years.’

‘Twenty-nine. The Earl of Huntingdon Hotel, room 321. How’s that for memory?’

‘Impressive,’ Latimer said.

‘Bet you haven’t forgotten either. Not really.’

Latimer found his hand shaking as he lifted his glass.

‘Or was I merely one in a long line?’

‘Not that long, and, no, I haven’t forgotten. But I still wouldn’t have recognised you.’

‘Not the girl I was,’ Janey Wilson said, ‘I grant you that. I’m not an avenging angel either, you know.’

She leaned forward, touched Latimer lightly on the cheek with the tips of her fingers, collected the glasses and went to the bar for refills. Latimer in his mind’s eye flicked over photographs he had kept for years, kissed even, in lonely drunken nights.

‘You went to prison, didn’t you?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Read about it in the newspapers. I could have sent you there, couldn’t I?

But I didn’t. No reason to my mind why I should. It was no skin off my nose, remember? Who seduced who, you might ask. How’s your wife? You didn’t stick with her, did you? Or the other way round. I liked her, you know. She made me welcome in your house, before and after. Gave me tea and scones. When I used to come for private lessons, remember?’

Of course he remembered… The mini-skirt, how she crossed her legs when she settled beside him on the sofa and how her hair brushed his cheek as she leaned forward, her lips parted, and listened to what he had to say about her essay.

‘I see now,’ she had said, ‘yes, I see now,’ with eagerness in her voice, and he heard her offering herself.

He was forty-four himself then.

‘It’s a good essay,’ he had said, ‘but you really ought to see the play… Would your mother let me take you to London?’

‘I do what I please. She doesn’t care.’

‘I liked your wife,’ she said again now, ‘but I didn’t feel guilty. You were relieved, weren’t you, when you found it wasn’t the first time for me? And angry too. You wanted to know who had been before you.’

‘I was jealous. You wouldn’t tell me.’

She hadn’t been forward, despite that skirt and the crossed legs. Cool, collected, so utterly…

‘I’ve thought of you often,’ he said, ‘over the years.’

‘At nights?’

He had passed her off as his daughter at the hotel. Their room had twin beds. In the morning, without any suggestion from him, she had got into the other one, rolled about in it, made it looked slept in.

‘You hadn’t thought about young girls before me,’ she said. There was something like pride in her voice. ‘Had you?’ she said. ‘Thought, yes,’ he said, ‘often. Dared? No.’

‘They would have said you corrupted me, if they had known about it.’

This time it was he who got up, took their glasses to the bar and returned with refills. He badly wanted a cigarette, but when the door opened to let someone in he saw that it was raining hard now.

‘I wanted you,’ she said, ‘from the moment you picked me to read Viola and when you suggested we should come to see the play at the Old Vic, I knew I was going to get you.’

When Viola spoke the lines ‘make me a willow cabin at your gate’, she had taken hold of his hand and brought it against her legs.

‘So maybe I corrupted you,’ she said. ‘Was I really your first, of girls my age, and was it a long line?’

‘Not so long,’ he said.

‘Were they all me?’

There was a note of greed in her voice.

‘All you?’ he said. ‘It wouldn’t be very polite to say so. It would rob them of their individuality.’

Which of course wasn’t true, but it would have been still less polite to explain that it hadn’t been her as Janey Wilson, not at all.

‘It’s good to have met you again,’ she said, ‘if only to say no hard feelings, I don’t hold anything against you.’

‘Some would say you should.’ ‘Oh indeed. Indeed they would.’ ‘But you don’t?’ ‘Why should I? It was an experience, what I wanted. Did me no harm.’ She picked up her glass. ‘Here’s to us,’ she said, and drank. ‘Another?’ ‘Why not? But it’s my round.’

He watched her at the bar, a big woman, the dyed-blonde hair streaky, chaffing – the old-fashioned word was right – chaffing the barman, and could make no connection with the past. The girl who still came to him some nights as he waited for sleep was more real.

Then there was someone standing beside her, a blond boy shaking the rain from his hair which fell over his neck. He returned with her and pulled out a chair. His drink was lager.

‘This is an old friend of mine,’ she said, ‘Mr. Latimer. He used to be my teacher.’

The boy nodded. ‘This is Paul,’ she said. ‘Your son?’ ‘What makes you think so?’

She laughed, and laid her hand, fingers outstretched, on the boy’s thigh. He let it lie there. A crucifix, on a gold chain, dangled free from his open- necked shirt. He looked Latimer in the eye, and smiled.

‘What have you done with Samantha?’ she said. ‘Went shopping.’

‘That’s my daughter,’ she said, ‘just fifteen. Excuse me,’ she said, ‘call of nature.’

The boy, Paul, watched her go. ‘Janey’s all right,’ he said. ‘You saw us, didn’t you, in the garden?’ ‘You smiled at me,’ Latimer said, ‘as if to say… Never mind.’

‘So you’re old friends?’ He picked up his glass and drank half of it in one long swallow, his Adam’s apple bobbing. ‘Bit of an age difference, isn’t there?’

‘Just so. Like you and her.’ ‘She’s happy, you know. You won’t say anything?’ ‘None of my business.’

‘That’s right. None of your business.’

Latimer fingered his empty glass, wondered if the rain had stopped and he could have a cigarette.

‘You were watching us. I could tell. Weren’t you? That sort of look. Which of us did you fancy?’

‘Oh,’ Latimer said, ‘I won’t deny it, though I’m past everything now, but which of you would you like me to have fancied?’

‘Me of course,’ the boy said. ‘I could give you a good time.’ ‘That wouldn’t be fair to Janey, would it?’ ‘Course it wouldn’t. So… what do you say?’ ‘I think the rain’s stopped, and I need a cigarette.’

‘A hundred quid,’ he smiled. ‘Me or Samantha. Two hundred for the pair of us together. What do you say?’

‘Does Janey know about you and her daughter?’

‘Course she doesn’t, and you won’t tell, will you? So what do you say?’

‘What makes you think I have that sort of money?’

‘What makes me think you won’t find it? So?’

He smiled again, that young smile which says that anything is possible and you can always get what you want.

‘I say, you’re a nice boy and I still need a cigarette. Be nice to Janey, she deserves it.’

‘She’s all right.’ ‘And her daughter.’

The boy’s smile showed a gap between his two front teeth. He darted his tongue from side to side.

‘Do you try this with everyone?’ Latimer said. ‘Not everyone. Quick, she’s coming back. What do you say?’

‘Soho Square, same time tomorrow,’ Latimer said.

He got up, gave Janey a kiss, said it was good to meet her again, but he had an appointment, ‘with my probation officer,’ he said, which happened to be true.

‘Nice meeting you,’ he said again, laid his hand lightly on the boy’s shoulder, ‘and you, Paul,’ he said.

He stepped out into the Soho street, lit the cigarette he needed so badly and found that his hands were shaking.

‘I’m mad,’ he said, ‘I’m really mad.’

He cut his meeting, went into an off-licence and bought a half-bottle of Teacher’s whisky. Back to the hotel and Simenon, En Cas de Malheur, and fantasies and oblivion. Soho Square gardens, twelve o’clock tomorrow and then and then and then, what, which, how, why?

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