A fter the briefest of tired, keys – dropping greetings to his wife Eileen (47, fragrant mother-of none, busy preparing a pie of two parts indefinable meat to one part indefinable frustration), Peter Lealman climbs the stairs to his study, a misnomer of late, as he has done precious little there but stare and masturbate.
And sure enough, when Peter Lealman settles himself in his plasticky, slightly uncomfortable Panache Executive swivel, he methodically unzips himself, and eases slacks & briefs to just above his knees. He reaches inside his otherwise empty briefcase for pornography of a cheap, soft calibre. Its title? “Black Beauties”. Now this may seem sledge-hammer ironic in the light of Peter’s membership of and waning enthusiasm for The Shield Of St. George, a rabidly right-wing “pressure group” consisting of a dwindling bunch of amateur golfers and suburban clerks and owners of rural dress shops with names like “Pizzazz”. But, actually, this is the way that Peter likes to imagine women of African/Caribbean origin – servile, exotic, lascivious; he, the sub Graham Greene ‘massa’ exercising his droit de seigneur whenever he damn well feels like it. Such sticky self abuse, he fondly imagines, is therefore political as much as sexual, an affirmation of his beliefs. You can lay about fanning yourself anywhere you like, sonny, but not on my doorstep. Send your daughter to my room.
The Shield Of St. George – principle pledge the benevolent repatriation of non white minorities – used to embarrass the Tories with lunatic fringe meetings during their otherwise epochal 80s conferences (you know, that Peter Lilley, he spoke at one of ours once, he really had something…) ; now they do very little at all, and Peter, their under – secretary, has lately been trying to organise a little silver service soiree at one of Holland Park’s least memorable hotels (teachers do seminars there, for Christ’s sake) to get things going again. But as I said, his enthusiasm has, of late, started to dissolve. Not that he is going through any potentially (at his age) messy self – analysis; indeed the tone of his writings have hardened back into Enochism over the years. Its just that he can’t really get excited about anything anymore…
Which leads us back to the wanking. Perfunctory is the word - without noise, without a facial flicker or squint, without, it seems much in the way of pleasure at all. Despite giving all to Randy Retro Donna, Queen of Harlem, he struggles to achieve orgasm in his carefully prepared Handi-Tissue. True, Eileen had trilled up at the vital moment (you’re way ahead of me here) “Coming, dear?”, but its, wince, more than that. “In a second, love,” he gasps, brow furrowed with much to much effort. In fact it takes him a little longer than that. She is aware of what he is doing. He knows she is. Neither cares.
Disposing mechanically of the tissue and filing “Black Beauties” in a box marked ‘Accounts’, he clicks on his PC, and starts putting the finishing touches to the Arm’s gala invitation, ready for printing. One last roll of the dice, Peter me boy, lets hit ‘em for six. He reflects wistfully as he types…now the seventies, that had been a time for serious, robust debate. The eighties yielded fabulous fruit, but pushed anyone with radical ideas out further. Now what for the Shield, with their strictly No Oiks regimen, and their Elgar-soundtracked dreams of warm beer and warm wife-swapping? Theirs, after all, was a racism you could trust, not be scared of, have a pint with, take to a summer fete.
Through the magic of Cluip-Art, he adds a final flourish to the invites - a trumpet, forlorn in its isolation at the bottom, empty and soundless. He looks at the list of addressees; he knows them all, has done for many years, now he’s not even sure that some of them – and these are the hardline – will come. He clicks off, and, dragging his feet in mute rebellion, ambles downstairs to chew on his wife’s pie.
“Ee want facking tea, ‘ee haf to make it ‘is facking self”
Felipe winces. He feels he has to apologise for Pego most of the time, especially to the casual staff who round out his core of four on the bigger dinner events that the hotel runs. Right now, he’s too tired to admonish his older, louder colleague. And he knows that if he does, there’s always a chance that he’ll get an icebucket on his head as he walks through to serve at the later function. One of Pego’s favourite gags, to the accompaniment of hysterical laughter (Pego) and embarrassed bemusement (the guests). Anyway, he concedes, Pego has a point. We serve coffee after desert. Tea is for the big functions – and the Albion Hotel WC2 has precious little of those any more. I mean, who’ve we got tonight…The Shield Of St. George?? I mean, who (the fack ) are they? And they’ve cancelled half the tables they asked for a month ago. 12 settings in the Lavender Room. Not much in the way of tips there. They can get their own facking tea as well.
“Hey Pego” Felipe calls, “Lets get this cleaned up quick, man. I need a cigarette”
But Pego is busy farting in short bursts, each emission accompanied by an “Ole!”. Felipe sighs as he clatters trays together, what else can he expect – Pego is from the mountains, olives in a shitty bedsit in Edgware Road with his wife, has done so for thirteen years, sending money home to his son-in-law to put into the pig farm he will retire to, still farting,. Still laughing. As he empties half-eaten Cambridge Creams into a huge, stinking bin, he starts to think of his own home town, Lisbon, and the fatigue seems to weigh heavier.
“Yes my darling”
“You see, people have always known the truth. But they’re scared to admit it. I mean, its like the truth doesn’t exist anymore. Instead we get a lot of poppycock from the bloody BBC – even Murdoch’s running scared these days. I mean, take your average Frenchman. The fact is that your hundred percenter Englishman can take your Frog any time he likes. Have him, do him a treat, no question. No matter that they’re good at rugby or any of that. It clouds the issue. We get stuck in, bloody steamroller ‘em, like bulldogs, like Churchill was, rip ‘em apart. No spine, no backbone, yes? Yes! And everyone KNOWS this, deep down. And its up to us to remind them”
Peter had to admit that Gerard was on fine form. No matter that when G. swept his arm around heroically, the “us” he referred to amounted to no more than nine. Gerard knew how to hold a room. A veteran of the “Reclaiming Your Nation” debates, he’d inspired many in the past . But where the blue blazes were they now? Peter felt gloom cloud over him as he raised his glass of chardonnay – French of course – he’d paid for the best that this godforsaken hole could provide. He glances at the dismal 80s décor of the Lavender Room while Gerard’s oratory begins to merge into one long spittle-flecked tirade. Run by foreigners, of course. And he doesn’t like the way his waiter looks at him, either. Very surly, almost insolent. He drains his glass, and snaps,
“More wine, please, Phil, and speed it up, there’s a good chap”
“Of course, sir”
Cramming those three little words with as much antagonism as he can muster, Felipe walks as slowly as he can into the kitchen. No icebucket yet, although he senses that Pego is planning something to lighten the mood. Their fellow helper for the evening, Jason, an English catering student, grins at him expectantly, sweaty in the searing heat of the kitchen, every time they pass – always a bad sign.
“I hate these cunts, Pego”
“No readies from tese wankerrs, eh Felipe”
“No Pego, its not that, look at their books, man, at their display”
“I not read their shitty bits of paper”
“You can’t read – twenty fucking years in this country and you cannot read a word”
“I read the good stuff, like Page 3, big tits, eh Jason?”
Jason smirks inanely.
“You should read this fucking stuff, you fat fucking pig. They hate us. They’re English fucking snobs. They’re racialists, Pego”
“Well, so long as they’re not Jews”
“Pego, I fucking give up with you sometimes. Get their entrees in, now, fat pig”
“You love me baby. We still fuck later?”
Jason ventures an “Ole!” and stands there lamely, forever shuffling on the outside.
“Don’t stand there like a prat - follow with the sauces, Jason”
Felipe curses as he goes to fetch the wine from the cooler. This is the fucking end. I will go. Anywhere. Back to Lisbon. Could do anything. And if this lot ask for fucking tea, I’ll shove it up their Earl Grey arses.
As he, with effort, finishes his Crème Brulee, Peter is aware of a lull in the conversation. The seven of them ( Alan & Moya had to leave early, get the train back to Weybridge before the drunks & the station workers begin to crowd on to them) sit there disconsolately, and Peter senses a growing embarrassment that goes beyond the exhaustion of all topics of conversation (cricket, Tony Bastard Blair, Tommy Steele, cricket, Haringey, Trollope, Old Peculiar, the Knights Templar….) . They are old friends after all. No, in the encroaching silence, they – Gerard included – begin to feel the futility invade their space, pull up a pew, their self-worth like Banquo’s Ghost leering in at them all, reflected none too well in half polished cruettes.
And their futility begins to take on a visual form, coloured queasy hangover blue, wetly hoving into view. And all of them picture it, this bleary vision of their community of the future. And only they and their like are left in this puce and pleasant land, in a fete worse than death, ignorants of influence. And they laugh heartily among the coconut shies and white elephants, and hands clasp hands too firmly, neither giving way, and stiff upper lips plant mock ceremonial kisses on the damp flaccid hands of their “Ladies”, in their blazers, their Ben Shermans, their Laura Ashley and their Nickelsons, clasping Never Never Land tankards, gleaming greenly in the mossy lichen-like hue, filled by fat Summoners of landlords, red and flaking in front of torn bunting, fading in and out of transmission, beer rings and Paki jokes and vomit, sound dimmed and straining, a boy scout band in the distance, going rum-ti-tum, rum-ti-tum….Welcome to the survivors of Rum-Ti-Tum Island, the remnants, the world they once wished for descends on them in its true bleached colours as they squirm in their dinner debris in that stuffy little function room in the Albion. They know its over, that its time to go, for the last time.
So, next to Peter, Eileen chirps up, “shall we ask for coffee?”
“No, dear, we shall have tea”
“Ah!” Gerard perks up, “’Best Drink Of The Day’” - remember that advert?” He glances at Pego, “’No, sorry senor, we no have it’ – said it all really”
Pego smiles encouragingly.
“Facking tea, again, Felipe”
But Felipe is gone, his polyester waistcoat dangling over the rim of the bin, nametag half torn out in frustration.
“Fack”. Pego is confused. Being, as he was, just about to fill Felipe’s bag with an unused roast chicken from last week’s banquet, he now has no goal for the evening, no purpose. Now it is Pego’s turn to feel frustrated.
Jason hovers, waiting for Pego’s next move.
“Er…shall I get the teapots out, Pego?”
A silence; Jason nervously attempts to remove said precarious silver from on high, the inevitable clatter as they hit the ground seems to snap Pego out of his loss.
“Fack it, Jason, put the urn on, we go for a fag”
And so the over-full urn bubbles, boils and spills on to the now empty kitchen’s dodgy wiring, and as Peter and his friends, waiting forlornly, begin to fill the silence by venting all their last remaining spleen on dodgy wop waiters, smoke begins to seep conspiratorially into the Lavender Room. Up in the crisp coldness Pego regales a goggle-eyed Jason with tales of his sexual exploits, now and then colliding with truth; beneath them Peter and Eileen and Gerard and Malcolm and Joyce splutter and hack and crash, fighting tooth and chipped nail to get to a fire door that has been unchecked and locked for a fortnight, their only way out. The Shield Of St. George will not withstand the good, honest, purging fire that rears up like tidal waves, so hot within seconds that Peter, falling, is reminded of a holiday they took as newly weds; and as he begins to ebb away, pushing Eileen’s twitching frame away from where he lies, a smell of orange trees comes back to him, beautiful, strange, a last taste of redemption, so close, snatched away as the sirens get closer.
Felipe, about to turn into Holland Park tube, hears them, and looks back. He thinks he can just about make out the flames. But he cannot know where they come from. And if he did, he has no need to go back. No one has. No one can blame him. He reaches for his ticket. He hurries on, but he, at least, is staying.
Mind the gap.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Duncan Ellis would have been a leading light of the York experimental scene if there had been one. He currently divides his time.