Later, Potter-Gore wakes to find Colville lathering soap over his face. Both eyes snap open this time, but there is only a split second of clarity before the pain jabs, mixing the pink blur of Colville’s bald head into the dancing flowers of his pinafore. A brush of thin foam splashes across his lips and, raising his head, he splutters, ‘Eughaaagh . . . Christ, Colville, what are you doing?’
Colville places a hand on his master’s forehead and pushes it firmly back into the chair. He swipes the brush across Potter-Gore’s cheeks and says, ‘Sir, it’s time for your shave. You are not forgetting your appointment for dinner this evening?’
‘Oh God. What are you babbling about, Colville?’
‘Your appointment sir. With Mrs Potter-Gore.’
Colville does not reply. Instead, he holds up an open razor. The blade flashes in the light and Potter-Gore closes his eyes, gulping as it is drawn swiftly up his throat. When it lifts away he groans, ‘If you cut me Colville, I’ll thrash you.’
The servant barely pauses – ‘Of course sir’ – and the blade is splashed in a basin before it is brought back to his throat once more.
So . . . he has a meeting with Cordelia?
Pain stamps the backs of his eyeballs. Of course he has a meeting with Cordelia. Wasn’t this the reason for embarking on a bender the day before? Yes, he knows all about it. Obsessed with appearances, as ever, the grasping bitch has demanded to be seen with her husband. A pathetic request, given the circumstances of their last meeting; but if he is to fulfil the terms of their contract he has no choice. Typical of Colville to remember . . . fucking toady.
‘You’re a fucking toady Colville. Did you know that?’
‘I’ve never considered the matter, sir.’
‘Well you should.’
‘I shall sir. But if you wouldn’t mind holding still, there’s a section of stubble underneath your left earlobe and I should hate for my hand to slip.’
Shave completed, Colville takes the basin to the bathroom. Potter-Gore can hear the liquid swilling into the toilet pan, the enormous roar of the flush, then the rush of water into the bath. He knows what is coming, but to avoid thinking about it, considers the fullness of his bladder. Hours must have passed since it emptied into his trousers and, swollen once more, the pain starts to keen.
‘Colville,’ he shouts, ‘I need to piss,’ and Colville hurries through carrying a ceramic bedpan.
‘Here you are sir; you can remain seated.’
Potter-Gore pushes the pan away. ‘No no, help me up you idiot. I’m not pissing into a jug like some old fart. I may have had a little too much to drink, but I can still piss like a man can’t I?’
‘Of course sir.’
Potter-Gore reaches out both hands and is pulled to his feet. Once erect, his first urge is to collapse back into the chair, but Colville grasps the lapels of his jacket to keep him steady and then moves an arm around his shoulder, shifting him to face the bathroom door.
‘Hurry. We don’t have long.’
It’s a struggle. With each step, pain socks at the tender parts within Potter-Gore’s skull and their progress is hampered by damp trousers which cling to his thighs. But soon the toilet bowl slides into view and Colville shuffles him in front. The servant keeps his arm around his master’s shoulder and shouts to be heard above the thundering bath taps.
‘Now sir, if you could place your right hand on the wall in front of you.’
Potter-Gore lurches forward, slapping a hand onto the wallpaper ahead.
‘And now the left.’
This leaves Potter-Gore with his arms spread against the wall, his crotch in position over the toilet bowl. ‘Hurry man,’ he says again, but Colville has turned to fuss over the taps.
‘Sorry, sir, but if I don’t turn these off your bath will overflow.’
Suddenly the room is silent and Colville is back behind Potter-Gore, placing a hand on his shoulder. The servant’s other hand reaches round to tug at his zipper and Potter-Gore remembers that it is already undone due to a failed attempt at tossing off sometime within the previous twelve hours. A hazy vision of Cordelia slipping out of a tassled corset . . . . Hopefully Colville wasn’t in the room at the time.
‘For Christ’s sake, Colville, hurry up. The fly’s down already.’
‘Hold steady sir . . . . If you could just bear with me a moment . . .’
and Colville’s warm hand enters his trousers, tentatively feeling for the entrance to his sodden undershorts. The hand roots around for a second and, gently taking it between forefinger and thumb, guides Potter-Gore’s penis into the open air.
‘Sir, you are free to go,’ announces Colville, and Potter-Gore looks down at his manhood, a withered stub resting on the prop formed by the bottom of his fly. It swells momentarily and he sighs as a jet of urine spurts against the upturned toilet seat. The liquid rebounds, forming small orange puddles around his feet, but subsequent spurts are less violent and have reasonable success in at least hitting the rim.
Bladder drained, Potter-Gore rests his forehead on the cool wall between his outstretched hands.
‘Yes, just in time sir. When you’re ready, your bath is drawn.’
Potter-Gore groans and looks to his side. The bath is three-quarters full of bluish water. No steam.
‘Must we?’ he asks.
‘I’m afraid so, sir. We have two hours and seventeen minutes before your meeting. A quick dip will see you right.’
‘Think you always know best Colville?’
‘On the contrary sir, a cold bath is your own prescription.’
‘Don’t contradict me. Now: unbuckle my trousers.’
This exchange unbalances Potter-Gore somewhat and Colville puts his hands on his master’s waist to steady him. He then reaches round to fiddle with the belt. Potter-Gore can feel Colville’s breath on the back of his neck.
‘Have you ever been in love Colville?’
‘Once sir, but that was some time ago I’m afraid.’
‘Yes, I think you’ve bored me with that story before.’
The belt is pulled from the trousers.
‘I’ve been in love you know.’
‘I believe you have sir.’
‘Yes, that’s right. I have.’
The trousers fall heavily around his ankles and Colville grips the waistband of his undershorts, pulling them down over mottled buttocks. The servant then gets onto his knees to remove his master’s shoes and pull his legs free of the garments. Potter-Gore has been in this position too many times to worry about any indignity. Instead, his mind settles on Cordelia, her sharp features and limitless eyes. He sees himself grabbing her face and forcing his fingers into the sockets; he sees himself grabbing her face and forcing his tongue into her mouth. Her body yields into his arms and the pressure of their lips softens into a silky embrace.
‘Bloody woman,’ he mutters and pushes himself back from the wall. But his foot slips on a sprinkle of piss and, still entangled in his trouserlegs, he tumbles over Colville, backside colliding with the side of the bath before his body thuds beneath the surface. A cry bubbles from his mouth and water surges onto the floor. Colville’s knees are soaked, but the servant quickly sinks his shirtsleeves into the bath and grabs for Potter-Gore’s lapels. He waits an extra second before pulling his master’s head out of the water and reverts – aloud – to his native Liverpudlian.
The maître d’ at the Colonial: greased hair and dripping smile. A slick little bastard if ever there was.
‘Bonsoir Monsieur,’ he says, elaborately, while bowing from the neck.
Potter-Gore grunts with displeasure. It’s on good authority that this man is from Barnsley.
‘Is Mrs Potter-Gore seated?’
‘Oui, oui. If you would like me to take your overcoat sir?’
Potter-Gore turns and lets him slip off his jacket.
‘Is she alone?’
‘Oh no Monsieur . . . She is accompanied by Monsieur Brophy and now both await your arrival.’
The maître d’ clicks his fingers and a minion spirits the coat away.
‘And may I take Monsieur’s hat?’
The maître d’ smiles thinly and leads Potter-Gore into the restaurant, an immense room containing a sea of crowded, circular tables. Suspended above is an outsized chandelier and Potter-Gore pulls down the brim of his hat, partly in an attempt to disguise himself, but more to shield his eyes from the burn. Colville had left him in the bath for the required ten minutes and, armed with a teacup, he had managed to drink a couple of pints of bathwater – but the bender had been a major assault. Extensive damage had been sustained throughout head and stomach, agonies now emphasised by the transition from drunkenness to pure, slicing hangover. There is also a fat bruise on the cheek of his arse.
It is well after eight and the restaurant is stuffed with London’s great, good and not-so-good, most ignoring their companions and trying to catch the eye of someone more interesting at another table. On a platform in the corner, a string quartet saws away at ‘Chanson de matin’. Cordelia’s habit is to take a table towards the back, somewhere more exclusive (and thus more obvious to the hoi polloi), so Potter-Gore keeps his head down, letting his vision tunnel into the maître d’s coattails swaying in front. He imagines inquisitive eyes zoning in on him and tries to keep his stride firm and stomach intact. Finally, as he is beginning to sweat with the effort, the maître d’ halts and he collides into his back.
‘Oh Monsieur! Pardon, pardon.’
‘Not at all,’ Potter-Gore mumbles, stepping back and staring at the floor. ‘Don’t make a fuss.’
The maître d’ turns back to the table and swoops into a deep bow.
‘Madame Potter-Gore, I have pleasure in presenting Monsieur Potter-Gore.’
Potter-Gore glances up from his shoes. There she is. Cordelia. Wife. Bitch. Beauty. She sits erect, gazing at him with dark eyes and smoking imperiously. A plate of teased salad leaves sits untouched on the table and she wears her usual dispassionate expression, lips pinched into an ambiguous bud. Next to her a large, bearded man tucks into a lamb chop; he doesn’t bother to acknowledge the new arrival. Potter-Gore forces himself to look into Cordelia’s eyes and suppresses a wince.
‘Well, Siggy,’ she says. ‘Do sit down. You look disastrous.’
The maître d’ slides a chair from the table.
‘May I now take Monsieur’s hat?’
‘No. Go away.’
‘But your order sir? May I say that Monsieur Brophy’s choice of the lamb was an excellent one.’
‘Just bring me a glass of aerated water will you.’
Immediately he regrets the request: Cordelia tuts.
‘Oh Siggy, you’ve not been disgracing yourself again? You really are the most frightful lush.’
She leans forward, tapping her cigarette into an ashtray, but he looks away to quickly scan the room. He recognises nobody among the multitude of bejewelled and balding heads and as the band move on to ‘Salut d’amour’ he manages an ironic smile.
‘Oh dear, Cordelia. Nobody’s here to see you with hubby.’
‘Now, now Siggy. You know appearances aren’t important. It’s you I want to see. As you know very well, your welfare is my only concern.’
They are interrupted by a burp from the bearded man. Unabashed, Brophy wipes his mouth on a napkin and reaches for a cigar clipper.
‘Well, I can see that it must be important, considering the company you’re keeping these days.’
Brophy lights a cigar and blows smoke at Potter-Gore.
‘Siggy,’ he says in a thick Ulster accent, ‘Don’t be a fucking bore.’
The Irishman takes another cigar from his top pocket, and aiming it like a dart, launches it across the table. It bounces off Potter-Gore’s forehead and lands in Cordelia’s salad. She makes no reaction and Potter-Gore sits motionless with his hands flat before him. She raises the cigarette holder back to her lips and they settle around it for a second before emitting a tiny puff of smoke. Her eyes glint in the chandelier light. Her skin gleams; her teeth shine.
As ever, she’s the epitome of elegance: a neat silk jacket, pin-striped, is draped across her shoulders; her black hair is pinned beneath a ruby-coloured cap. His eyes travel across her cheekbones; they follow the tautness of her neck to the single diamond at the base of her throat. Despite his humiliation – and her disdain – he aches to take her to bed. Instead, he keeps his hands on the table and says, ‘Brophy, you’re a cunt.’
Brophy smirks. ‘Oh, I know. But then so are you. Remember Mosul, 1922?’
‘No. I don’t remember Mosul, 1922. But I do remember Kut, 1916.’
Brophy leans back in his chair and takes a long drag on his cigar. He looks across the dining room and thoughtfully scratches his beard.
‘I’m off for a piss.’
He rises, trailing his fingers along the back of Cordelia’s neck as he moves past. Potter-Gore waits until his large frame has lumbered out of the restaurant; then he stretches his hand across the table. Cordelia rests her cigarette back in the ashtray and reaches out her own hand. Brophy’s leaving suddenly changes her; her expression sags, she looks down at the tablecloth. He gently rubs her hand and she gives a conciliatory smile.
‘I’m sorry about Brophy. He can be very foul.’
‘I know. But he’s not so bad really. He’s very . . . predictable.’
‘You mean unimaginative.’
‘Exactly. He thinks he’s clever. But really he’s a fool. And his table manners are atrocious.’
Cordelia giggles and he feels a flutter in his stomach. Something approaching happiness, which only comes in these unforced moments with his wife. He smiles back and her mood lightens. She takes another puff on her cigarette.
‘How are your digs?’
‘They’ll do. Colville keeps them well enough.’
‘But you’re still drinking?’
‘Well, you’ve thrown me out. I don’t have a job. What else am I supposed to do?’
‘You could stop, Siggy.’
‘Don’t want to. I enjoy it too much.’
‘You enjoy waking up in the morning, soaked in your own urine?’
‘Colville given you a briefing has he?’
‘Colville does as he’s told.’
‘Colville is obsequious.’
‘Well, he knows what’s good for him. And for you.’
Potter-Gore sighs and withdraws his hand. He shifts in his chair. The pain in his head has subsided, but the bruise on his backside throbs. His tongue is swollen and he’s dying for something to drink. To his left he notices a tall glass of aerated water, which the maître d’ has evidently brought without him noticing. A tinge of embarrassment creeps up his spine as he realises this must have happened while he was absorbed by his wife; that now she has got what she wanted – a public show of affection to keep the gossips at bay. He takes the glass and drains it.
‘Well, Cordelia. It looks like this meeting has been a success. I daresay the maître d’ will be reporting our tête-à-tête to all and sundry.’
Cordelia finishes her cigarette. Her long fingers detach it from the holder and she stubs it into the ashtray.
‘Siggy, we can pretend that they don’t, but we both know that appearances are important.’
Potter-Gore knows she is right. Inevitably, she is right.
‘I have to go Cordelia. I have another appointment.’
‘But Siggy, you’ve only just arrived.’
Potter-Gore leans towards his wife; she retreats into her chair. Whatever intimacy they had in the last few moments evaporates abruptly.
‘I think you’d better give me the cheque now,’ he says.
‘Wouldn’t it be better if you stopped drinking and came home?’
‘As you know, I’ve no intention of doing that. Just give me the cheque so that I can leave.’
She tilts her chin upwards, surveying him down her sharp nose. Then she retrieves the small beaded purse hanging from her chair.
‘You’re a hopeless case Siggy.’
‘Give me the cheque Cordelia.’
She takes a piece of folded paper from the purse and slides it across the table. Without unfolding it, he puts it in his jacket.
‘Don’t you feel ashamed, Siggy? Taking pocket money from your wife when you should be the breadwinner?’
She leans forward again, eyes searching his face. Potter-Gore feels a quiver in his jaw, but with supreme effort keeps his expression bland and body rigid. Really, he ought to be used to this, the double whammy of a meeting with Cordelia – that she will get what she wants from him, and kick him when he’s down – but the coup de grâce always strikes like a knife between the shoulder blades. Slowly, he gets to his feet and she extends her hand.
‘I’ll send word when our next meeting is due.’
He bows and takes the hand, brushing his lips over her skin. He remembers the vision he had earlier. Grabbing her face, forcing his fingers into the sockets; grabbing her face, forcing his tongue into her mouth.
Potter-Gore does neither. He turns on his heel and walks.
Outside the Colonial it is raining. Having been given his coat by the smirking maître d’, Potter-Gore stumbles through the revolving door. Raindrops batter on his hat as he lurches to the kerb. He coughs and rubs moisture from his eyes. A car draws up in front, but he stands still, watching as Colville gets out and walks around to the passenger side. The servant opens the door and stands to attention, but Potter-Gore waves him away.
‘Take the car home. I’m walking.’
‘Very good sir.’
The streets of London are relatively empty. Bubbles of rainwater drift over the pavements. Potter-Gore stares at them as he walks through the smirched, yellow light. A couple run past him to get out of the downpour.
When he first met Cordelia, he was in officer training. They would sit together in the park near his barracks and she’d pull out a handkerchief and polish the brass buttons of his uniform. ‘Appearances are important, Siggy,’ she would say, a simple philosophy that made him the man he was. She believed in him then, and possibly could do so again. All he has to do is get on the wagon and pull up his bootstraps.
Potter-Gore wipes his eyes once more and stops to lean on a lamppost. He reaches into his overcoat for the hip flask. Getting on the wagon is a stark impossibility. How can he live without it, the beautiful allure of a full bottle of booze? The twist of the cap, the delicious whiff of alcohol, the honey flow rushing down his gullet. Cordelia’s keeping him in readies, Colville’s keeping him presentable. The reality is, he can drink as much as he wants.
Before they left the digs he ordered Colville to fill the hip flask, but the idiot had allowed the stock of booze to run out. They were running late and there was no time to get some more, so in the end he was forced to have the servant gather the bottles and empty the dregs into the flask.
He shakes the flask and finds it half full. He takes a gulp. Whatever is in it takes immediate effect, setting his throat ablaze and making him cough uncontrollably. Then the potion glows in his belly. He takes a moment to decipher the contents: gin; brandy; definitely whisky; perhaps a little Pernod? The sensors in his brain tingle and the streetlights ahead double for a second, a sure sign that things are getting back to normal. He takes another sip and licks his lips. Maybe he should have Colville repeat the recipe after he replenishes the stock from Fortnum’s.
He takes a left turn off the street, down a narrow lane, and stumps along, staring at the ground and muttering. He knows he’s exhausted, but the booze has done the trick and lifted his mind from mawkishness. Anger fuels him now, and at the back of his mind, as if preordained, he already knows how to expend the excess. But that will come. For the moment, he returns to the meeting to consider whether Brophy is humping his wife. It was very pointed the way he ran his finger across Cordelia’s neck. And very obvious the way she made no reaction when he did so. It was as if she was used to it. Or expected it. Suddenly, he can see her lying on their bed, in their house, squealing preposterously as Brophy brushes his beard between her breasts. God, how awful. Surely Cordelia couldn’t allow such a thing? No, that was it: she expected him to touch her, and thus it was a prearranged gesture, designed to stoke his jealousy. See how he falls for her traps! She knows him better than himself. And now she’s sitting back in that chintzy palace, giggling with that fucking mick; having a good old laugh at Siggy, befuddled with drink as usual. It’s an uncomfortable thought, knowing they’ve tried to trick him; but he’s relieved all the same.
So, maybe she’s right. Maybe he should stop. Maybe he should clean himself up and claw back his career. Ah, but then he really would be under her thumb, wouldn’t he? Doing what she wants him to do . . . . But having said that, she’s paying for his upkeep isn’t she? Surely that means he’s under her thumb already. He stops in his tracks. Christ, it’s too bloody complicated.
He gets to the end of the lane and stumbles across another street. Ahead is a small square, ringed by trees, and all around surrounded by high Georgian townhouses. Within the square there is a strip of lawn and a familiar bench. The rain pours, the square is full of shadows the yellow lights can’t penetrate, but as far as he can tell it’s empty. He squelches across the grass towards the bench.
And what right did Brophy have, bringing up Mosul? Treacherous bastard . . . it’s not as if he wasn’t to blame as well. He was there too. But of course, this was just another trick to goad him. Cordelia doesn’t know what they got up to in their Foreign Intelligence days so it would have been Brophy’s idea to throw that in. He would call it ‘initiative’, just like he did when they shafted the Kurds. Barbarous fuck. As if trying to give the impression that he’s bedding Cordelia isn’t enough.
Potter-Gore gathers his raincoat about him and thuds down on the bench. Drops of rain line the brim of his hat like little glowing baubles; the collar of his shirt is soaked. He squeezes the knot of his tie and water seeps from it. Fucking weather. He reaches for the flask and tips back his head, opening his mouth wide to accept the last dregs of firewater. The drops explode on the back of his throat and he splutters violently; spittle runs down his chin. Some of the alcohol gets into his nasal passages and trickles from his nostrils.
He recovers his breath, and looking up, catches a movement beyond the Christmas lights on his hat brim. He squints and a woman appears before him. He can’t make out her face, but when she takes a step forward he notices a bare leg beneath the hem of her raincoat.
‘Can I help you love?’ she says.
Potter-Gore leans back in the bench. He hadn’t expected this so soon; he thought he’d have to look hard on a night like this. Doubtless, she’ll have to be a mangy tart to be out in this weather, but needs must.
The woman, whose face is still obscured by rain and shadow, unclasps a small handbag and pulls out a square of handkerchief. She steps closer and bends down towards him, bringing with her powerful fumes of citrus perfume and fag smoke. Potter-Gore judges that she’s probably mid-thirties, perhaps forty. Tiny wrinkles pinch along the top of her lips and her skin is a little loose around the cheekbones, but they still have definition. She wears a small round hat and her hair is hidden beneath it, but when she smiles her dark eyes open wide.
‘You’re a messy boy aren’t you?’ she says, wiping the spittle from his chin. He sniffs.
‘My nose is running.’
‘That’s okay. I’ll take care of it.’
The woman moves the cloth over his nose.
‘Go on,’ she says, ‘Blow.’
Potter-Gore lies stretched on a mattress, listening to a rendition of ‘Nessum Dorma’ from a Wurlitzer on the radiogram. The music is tortuous and there is no bed frame underneath the mattress, merely the floor, but he doesn’t complain. The only thing is, the room is a little cold so he asks the woman if she can turn up the flame on the gas stove.
‘A shilling,’ she says, so he fishes one out of his pocket and flicks it toward her. It hits the floor and rolls up to her shoe.
At this stage in the transaction, Potter-Gore has been relieved of his raincoat and shoes. Otherwise, he is fully clothed. The woman has been told to keep her coat on and to stand by the stove. On the way to the room he shoved a five-pound note into her palm, so it is understood that he can take as long as he wants and do just as he pleases. The extra shilling is fine by him; he understands that the charge for housekeeping is separate.
His head is propped on a pillow and he looks at the woman over the damp toes of his socks. She does not bend to pick up the coin, but he notices when the sole of her shoe slides across it. The shoe is plain and scuffed and his eyes travel up her leg. Slim with pale skin. The rest of her body is obscured by gabardine, but he judges there’s a good figure underneath. His eyes reach her neck, slender and taught; the only blemishes are two deep age lines running across it, but these are mitigated by the silver-coloured necklace at the base of her throat.
‘Unbutton your coat,’ he orders.
Her thin fingers move up the coat, sliding the buttons from their holes. Her face is impassive, but her chin juts proudly and she gazes at him as she tosses the coat on the floor. Underneath, she’s wearing a red cotton dress. She rests her hands at her sides.
‘Take off your dress.’
The woman keeps her eyes levelled on him as she reaches behind her. A moment passes and she brings her hands round to the front and pulls the dress from her shoulders. It slides down to her feet and she steps free, kicking it towards the coat. She stands motionless in cami shorts and brassiere.
On the whole, his judgement on the woman’s figure was correct. Her legs are long, her upper arms trim. But her hair is still hidden by her hat, so he nods upwards and she reaches behind her head to draw out two gleaming pins. She rests them on the tabletop by the stove and removes the hat. Hair cascades to her shoulders. It is fabulously dark.
Potter-Gore exhales slowly and there is a pause.
‘Shall I continue?’ she asks.
Potter-Gore looks at the woman in silence. Finally, she walks over and lowers herself to his side. She sits on the edge of the mattress and stretches her legs out on the floor.
‘Do you want some help?’
Potter-Gore does not reply so she unclips her brassiere. She is about to remove it when he raises a palm. She leaves the brassiere in place and moves her hand onto his crotch. She persists for a minute or so, but when he makes no reaction she starts to unbutton his waistcoat.
‘Are you alright love?’
He says nothing.
‘Come on, it’s early days. We’ll soon get you started.’
She runs a hand over his shirtfront. ‘You’ll be fine.’
Finally, he sighs.
‘Just leave me alone please.’
He shakes his head slowly and shifts his gaze to his feet. The woman leans back. On the radiogram, the music comes to an end, and after a brief silence a clipped voice announces the news bulletin. She refastens her brassiere and rises to walk across the room. She picks up her dress and looks back at Potter-Gore. He lies solidly on the mattress with his palms by his sides. His lips are closed; his expression bland. For a second she thinks his jaw is quivering, but when she peers for a closer look it’s rigid. He no longer seems to notice her; he just lies there, staring at his feet. The woman shrugs, and moving to the stove, turns down the flame.
Copyright © David Pettigrew, 2014.
Extract originally published in Stramash, University of Glasgow.
Please do not reproduce this extract elsewhere or print out without David’s permission.