Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Chapter 2: “This is, I take it, some kind of private club.”

The Reform Club, Pall Mall



A journalist for the Daily Courier in London, Edmund Molloy was delighted to meet a beautiful girl, Agnes Cardwell, at an art exhibition.  He was even more delighted, after a rapid courtship, to have her perform an intimate act upon him. Deciding they were destined for a life together he attempted to propose, only to have Agnes declare that their brief relationship was over as she sought a more adventurous man.  Bitterly disappointed but determined to show her how adventurous he could be, he set off to see his best friend William Britten at the Reform Club on Pall Mall.



 I was ensconced in the Reform, at Britten’s favourite table, relating my sorry tale. He expressed great surprise over Agnes’ forward behaviour and I detected a slight sense of envy. “Well, I was rather surprised myself,” I told him. “Wasn’t expecting that level of, er, intimacy at all. I was just going to propose and…”

“Did you?” asked Britten.

“Did I what?”

“Did you propose!”

“Oh yes! Well I started to. Down on one knee and everything!” I replied. “Just after the, well, you know!”

“Oh dear!” said Britten. “Afterwards? Had you discussed it before?”

“What? The proposal?” Had I done something terribly wrong in proposing, I started to wonder?

“Well I didn’t mean the bagpiping!” he said.

“Bagpiping? Oh! I see! No. No. Not discussed any future plans of marriage. It just came over me!”

“I thought she swallowed it!” he joked. I glared at him.  This was no time for levity!

“What? Have I made some terrible faux pas?” I asked.

“Well, if we look at it from her point of view…” he said.

“Why should we?” I replied, baffled.

William sighed. “Well, if we did. You had not discussed any prospect of a future married life with Agnes at any point since you first met her?”

“No.”

“You had not sought her father’s permission?” he added.

“No. She is over twenty-one!” Britten raised an eyebrow. “Oh. I should have, anyway, eh?”

“And after she performs an act of such intimacy upon you that many married women would demur at performing upon their husbands, you ask her to marry you. Might this not be interpreted by her that you have decided that she is such an abandoned trollop you better snap her up quickly, so she can provide a life of companionable debauchery on demand?”

“But, but, I didn’t demand! She volunteered! She made all the running! I was seduced, not her!” I went on to relate our painful discussion after The Act, as Britten insisted on calling it.

“Well this does put a slightly different complexion on the whole affair. In which case her declaration that The Act was by way of a goodbye gift may well hold true. You have been thrown over, Edmund. Entertainingly, no doubt but the effect is the same!”

I sat there in silence and swirled my cognac disconsolately around my glass. “But she intimated that if I performed a valiant act of adventure she might reconsider!” Although in retrospect I realised that she had done no such thing. It was just me raising my own hopes that such an act would lead to a reconciliation.

“The age of chivalry is obviously not dead. Perhaps she would like you to confront a few dragons!” said William, getting up and waving at the waiter to sign his chit.

“Oh! Do we have to leave? I do not have a shift tonight! I fancy a late supper! And quite a lot of drink!” I said, disappointed. I hoped that a solid meal and a couple of bottles of claret would settle the horrible gnawing feeling I had in the pit of my stomach.

“We certainly are leaving but I too have a day off from work tomorrow, as I worked over the weekend and I have been given a day in lieu. I will take you somewhere where we can get some excellent claret, a fine cold collation and other entertainment as well. You, my friend, need a night for yourself and I am paying for it!”

“There is really no need!” I said but I was grateful, of course. The salary of a junior journalist was meagre to say the least. Britten had plenty of money and was generous with it, without ever giving the impression he was paying for the poor friend out of pity.




We left the Reform and crossed Pall Mall into St James Square and then proceeded to a large white town house in King Street, close by the St James’s Theatre. It had a small brass sign next to the door which read ‘Babylon Imports’. “You are not, I hope, going to conduct some business involving the import of rubber at this hour?” I asked. He shook his head and pressed the doorbell but I did not hear any sound. Britten smiled at me and we waited for around half a minute. Eventually, the black painted door was opened and a gentleman, who had the appearance of someone who exactly fitted what you might imagine a clerk at an import business might look like, appeared before us. Grey, thinning hair, wire glasses, black jacket, striped trousers, a large nose, furrowed forehead and a somewhat confused looking expression.

“Ah, good evening, sir! How nice to see you again. Is this gentleman your associate?”

“More than that Mr Oliver, he is my very best friend!” said Britten.

“Excellent! Well you must both come up!” We stepped into the building and to the right, through a glass door bearing the words 'Babylon Imports', I noticed a normal office, as you might expect, with a large map of the world visible on the far wall. However, we were led straight up the stairs and were shown to the only door on the first floor landing. The landing was completely lacking in any noteworthy items at all. Not a table, not a lamp not a painting. Just a rather worn blue carpet.  As we approached the door it was opened from inside by a large negro, dressed, rather surprisingly, in the eighteenth century manner, complete with powdered wig, silver embroidered black tailcoat and white breeches.

“Good evening Mr William. How nice to see you again!” he rumbled in his basso profondo.

“Good evening, Jacob. This is my particular friend Mr Edmund! He is my guest tonight.”

“Welcome, Mr Edmund” said the imposing fellow. “Will you be dining tonight? He asked Britten.

“We are absolutely famished!” said Britten. “And passing thirsty too!”

We were shown into a large, sumptuously appointed salon with dark panelled walls and rich, red leather upholstered furniture. Small palms in brass planters were scattered about the room, breaking it up into smaller areas. One wall was almost entirely made up of bookshelves holding a myriad of gold embossed volumes. An old style globe sat in one corner. There was a large tiger skin rug on the floor and, indeed, I noticed a number of interesting decorative items from foreign parts: an ancient Greek statue, an oriental warrior’s helmet, some spears and other weapons which had an African look about them and some primitive tribal masks. Paintings on the walls were of jungles, waterfalls, tropical islands and mountain ranges. A splendid roaring fire was a pleasant antidote to the chill March air outside. Above the chimneypiece was a large painting of bare breasted native girls of the South Seas. This was not done in the modern style of Gaugin but more in the traditional and realistic manner of someone such as JW Godward. Agnes’s father possessed several charming pictures by that artist.

“It’s like the Royal Geographical Society!” I observed. “Although rather smarter. This is, I take it, some kind of private club?”

“It is the Babylon Exploration Society,” said William. “Members explore the geography of many foreign parts! It was founded by the directors of Babylon Imports below; a company associated with my own.”

“I suppose you are a member because of your trips to Brazil and Malaya,” I said.

“Indeed, it was through our Chairman, Sir Gerald Crozier, that I was put forward as a member of the Society!” he said, as we were shown to a pair of comfortable armchairs near the fire with an unusual, intricately tiled hexagonal table between them. It was very ornate and I looked at it with interest. It had the look of Egypt or the Levant about it

“It is Turkish, sir. Sree ‘undred years old, I am told!” Britten and I stood up at the feminine voice and I was presented with the most elegant lady, dressed in midnight blue evening attire which left her shoulders and collarbones quite bare as well as offering an enticing glimpse of her upper bosom. She was tall, perhaps five foot six, with deep, dark brown eyes, prominent cheekbones, a strong aquiline nose and well formed lips. She smiled and I was quite taken with her.

“Good evening, madam,” I said, entranced by the brunette beauty before me. “My name is Edmund M…”

“Stop zere, Mr Edmund. We ‘ave a tradition ‘ere of using only our Christian names. I myself am Madame Nathalie!”

“I am enchanted!” I said. “Are you, perhaps, from France?” I asked. “Your accent is most mellifluous!”

“Indeed, Mr Edmund. I am lately from Paris, where I run a similar society to zis establishment. I was asked by some visitors from England if I might set up such an organisation in London as well and so, sree years later, ‘ere we are!” she spread her slender, bare arms to encompass the luxurious interior.  She wore, most unusually for a woman, a delicate, gold wristwatch.

“This is a splendid salon, indeed!” I noticed that several other gentlemen had been shown into the room by Jacob and were being seated away from us.

“Well, please enjoy yourselves tonight. I must attend to ze other members!” she smiled and left with a rustle of silk and an enduring cloud of lavender perfume. We sat down again.

“What a striking woman!” I declared, quite overcome. “But how unusual to have a woman presiding over an exploration society. Does she have any history of exploring herself? Like Lady Baker, perhaps?” I had interviewed the redoubtable widow of the explorer at her house in Devon the previous year.

“I believe that she once lived in Indo-China and, indeed speaks several oriental languages,” said Britten, smiling at me.

“Why are you smiling at me in such a fashion?” I asked.

He laughed. “No reason at all. You are priceless! Now how about some supper and, more importantly, some wine!” We were offered some Champagne by Jacob, shortly afterwards.

“Your dinner will be in the oriental room, Mr William,” he said, “whenever you are ready.” We soon finished our Champagne and stood up to cross the salon. Britten led me through a door and we found ourselves in a corridor with a number of doors off it. The building seemed much larger on the inside than it did from the outside. Who would have thought it? Each door had a small brass plate upon it, engraved with a map of a geographical region.  Northern Europe, The Mediterranean, North America, South America, North Africa, The Levant and Arabia and so on. We stopped outside a door with a map of Japan, China and Indo-China on it.

“This is a novel idea but how apposite for an exploration society!” I said. We entered the room and there was a medium sized dining table set for dinner with two Chinese Chippendale chairs arranged opposite each other. The walls were hung with jade green silk, appropriately, and there were a large number of small oriental paintings and prints on the walls although I could not see them in detail as the room was rather dimly lit but to cozy effect. A large oriental style bronze of a lion sat in one corner and even the lamp shades were of oriental design. “How splendid!” I said, as indeed it was. “Can’t think why you bother with the stuffy old Reform when this is so much smarter!”

“They offer different environments, indeed,” said William. “Now, the food here is good but it is all cold at present. They are having the kitchen remodelled and there is no choice here so we will be presented with a cold collation, if that is acceptable?”

“Acceptable? It sounds ideal!” I replied. It was now gone nine o’clock, according to the clock upon the mantelpiece. The clock itself was of a bronze elephant on an ornate stand upon which the clock rested. Atop the clock was a Chinese-looking male figure. It looked expensive and I wondered what the membership fee was of the society. More than I could afford, I knew.

The door opened and, much to my surprise, two oriental beauties entered the room, holding red leather portfolios. They were dressed in  brightly coloured oriental silk gowns.  I was surprised to find more women on the staff. “Good evening, sirs!” said the first girl who was dressed in a scarlet gown embroidered with gold chrysanthemums.  She had loose, waist-length black hair.

“Good evening Jasmine!” said William. “This is my best friend, Mr Edmund. It is his first visit this evening!”

“Welcome to Babyron Explolation Society!” she said, struggling with the longer word, somewhat. “May I plesent wine rist?” she said, passing the red folder to Britten.

“Excellent! What shall we have? Why don’t we have some more Champagne? To celebrate your freedom from the tedious Agnes and all the opportunities you can now pursue instead!”

“I don’t feel like celebrating. I feel completely rejected,” I said.

“Nonsense. You have escaped, not been rejected. And at least you have an entertaining memory to console you! A bottle of the Pol Roger, I think. Jasmine!” She bowed and left the room leaving the other girl, who was dressed in one of the brightly coloured Japanese kimonos which had been so fashionable a few years earlier. She stood just inside the door clutching another red leather folder. She smiled at me. Her face, while also oriental, was of a different aspect from the first girl’s and her hair was pinned up on top of her head. “This is Hoshimi. All the staff come from foreign countries!”

“Where does Jacob come from? Africa or the West Indies?” I asked.

“He is from Bermondsey, I believe," said Britten.  "But south of the river is almost overseas, don’t you think?”

Jasmine returned, accompanied by Jacob who opened the Champagne for us and poured it, holding the bottle carefully in his white gloves. They both left and Hoshimi stepped forward presenting me with the leather folder.

“This evening’s menu, sir!” she said, giving me that dazzling smile again. I have always responded to a beautiful smile on a girl more than any other attribute, I do confess. It was Agnes’ smile that had first attracted me to her, across the crowded Sackville Gallery. I took the leather folder from her and looked at William.

“I thought they did not have a choice of food at present?”

“Not really,” he said. I opened the leather binder and there on the first page, instead of the expected list of dishes, were two photographs, each about the size of a postcard and mounted on cream card, of a blonde woman. The first was a portrait of a smiling, fresh face with curly fair hair, not dissimilar to Agnes. Her lips were rather fuller and her cheeks had a softer, almost cherubic aspect. The photograph below showed her reclining completely naked on a chaise longue, her soft round breasts and fleece of pale hair at the apex of her thighs completely revealed. Underneath the photographs was written, in neat copperplate: ‘Anna. Sweden. Nineteen. Five foot four inches.'  Realisation dawned on me as I turned the page. A dark haired lovely gazed out at me in her portrait and underneath there she was, standing naked, apart from black stockings, with her hands behind her bottom leaning against a brass bedstead. Her fleece was black and she had small well shaped breasts with dark nipples. ‘Béatrice. France. Seventeen. Five foot three inches’. There were about twenty five pages in all. I had a thought and flicked past the charms of Claudia from Italy, Elvira from Spain and Gretchen from Germany. Helpfully, arranged in alphabetical order, I soon found ‘Hoshimi. Japan. Twenty-one. Five foot two inches’.

"But this is a…a…” I stammered.

“It is a private society for the entertainment of gentlemen and, actually, a number of ladies. They have their own salon. Madame Nathalie is a very modern woman.” said Britten, sipping his Champagne.

I flipped through the rest of the ‘menu’, puzzled about the activities of the lady members. I was very taken by the curvaceous charms of ‘Mette, Denmark. Twenty. Five foot five inches.’  “Do you mean there are men here who…who…” I said.

“No, all are women,” he answered.

“But why would a woman want to lay with another...? Oh! Really?” My sexual knowledge was increasing at an extraordinary rate that day. “But what do they do? I mean, without a…?” I stopped, realising that I was making myself seem like a simple, unsophisticated Irishman; which is exactly what I was, in this new secret realm of sexual interaction.

“Well, another time we can perhaps arrange a demonstration for you!”  He nodded at Hoshimi. “Anna for me, if she is available.” Hoshimi nodded and smiled.

“You have made choice, Mr Edmund?” she asked me, giving me that lovely smile. How could I even be thinking about employing the services of a prostitute at this point, however beautiful and poised? What a betrayal to Agnes! To my intended! The woman to whom I was going to prove myself with an act of derring-do! I stopped that train of thought and frowned. The woman who had just completely and heartlessly rejected me as I presented and exposed my whole being to her for her approval! On my knees! An adventurer. That was what she wanted! Not a storyteller. The way she had used the word made me sound like someone who wrote juvenile books for children. The Golden Fairy, by Edmund Molloy. A fairy who turned out to be a witch!  It was at this precise moment that I decided to record my erotic adventure that night. I would be a storyteller, yes, but a teller of tales for adults. Hoshimi coughed, quietly. I realised I had been staring into space.

“Do you know, Hoshimi, you are not only the most beautiful girl in this, er, menu but you are quite the most beautiful I have ever seen! So my choice is for you, if you accept me.” Her smile lit up the room and she bowed to me and left us alone.

“I didn’t know your taste ran to such exotica, Edmund. I was sure that you would select a blonde!” said Britten. “Perhaps the Dane, Mette.”

“Neither did I!” In fact although I did find Hoshimi beautiful and enticing I really wanted someone who looked as different from Agnes as possible. “What happens now? When do I, well…? I have never been in such a place!” A thought suddenly occurred to me. “Hoshimi. You haven’t, er…have you?”

“No, my taste does run to blondes. And redheads but my favourite, Bettina, is not available today,” he said, flicking through the menu. “Next time! There are many more girls than appear here. Madame Nathalie brings new ones across from Paris every month or so. I believe that she is setting up another establishment in Berlin too. There is a negro girl from Jamaica whose figure you would not believe! What a marvellous arse she has! The selection changes from day to day. And the rumour is that she has secured a pair of identical twins from Constantinople, who should be arriving soon!”

“Twins?” I said. “I knew a pair of identical twin girls back in Ireland. Moira and Muriel. Flame haired beauties who kept the whole city of Dublin in their thrall. There was something slightly disturbing about them, as if they were communicating wordlessly with each other in your presence. There were many fights caused by those two, I can tell you, as they appeared to enjoy juggling and, it is rumoured, swapping their many suitors!”

“Red headed twins? Superb!” said Britten. “I would imagine the Turkish twins will be dark! Oh well!” Hoshimi and Jasmine appeared once more and laid out a quite splendid cold collation. There were chicken and duck legs, slices of ham and rare roast beef, pork chops, cold sausages and a game pie. There was also a plate of big juicy prawns, smoked mackerel, salmon and trout. Various condiments were placed on the table as well. Britten, patted Jasmine affectionately on the bottom as she placed a silver spoon next to the mustard. She smiled at him. I thought about doing the same to Hoshimi but did not think I could carry off Britten’s insouciance. “Now, you need to finish your Champage, Molloy, as the claret is here!” Jacob had reappeared with a bottle of 1900 Château Pichon Longueville, Comtesse de Lalande, already decanted. As we drank and helped ourselves from the loaded plates I was simultaneously becoming happier and more relaxed while also harbouring an increasing nervousness about what might happen as regards Hoshimi. “Will this be your first time? Or have you had some of those copper thatched beauties out amongst the bogs in Ireland? Some lusty colleen in the potato fields?” said Britten cutting a sausage in two. I winced slightly as my mind was on more carnal pleasures than culinary.

“Have you ever actually been to Ireland? You seem to have a peculiar view of the place!” I said.

 He laughed. “I saw the coast from the liner to Brazil! Very green!” I shook my head. I wondered how far I would have to travel to impress Agnes.

“In answer to your question, no. My experience with Agnes is my sexual frontier to date! I do not have your undoubted experience, old chap!”

“Yes, but I think you score more highly. All of my carnal fun has been with professional ladies such as we find here. My father bought me my first one as a twenty first birthday present. Not here of course. In Paris. Couldn’t understand a word she said and although she was passing pretty with black, curly hair, a nice curvy figure and a round, yielding rump, she wasn’t of the quality you find here. No, Molloy. You have had an experience with an independent, beautiful woman of her own volition. Virginia won’t even let me kiss her. All I am allowed to do is to clasp her hand when we meet and say goodbye!”

“Well, look, perhaps Virginia is not the right girl for you. I cannot imagine that such a lack of interest in physical contact at this stage will magically transform into a burning passion on marriage. How long has it been now? A year? I have known Agnes for just a few weeks and already...”

“Yes, alright, I take your point. But many men have sexless marriages and obtain their fun outside with a mistress or in places such as this!” He was poking the remaining slice of game pie with his knife. Eat it or leave it, I thought, hungrily. When the food had arrived I had thought it enough for four but we had scoffed most of it.

“But shouldn’t the ideal be a woman who is all things? A life companion, a mother to your children and a willing sexual partner?” I asked. “You only get a mistress when your wife is past it, at, say, thirty. Perhaps thirty five, if she maintains her looks!”

“Rare as hen’s teeth!” he mumbled and put his knife down. I reached out and grabbed the last slice of pie. He made a face, picked up his knife again and waved it at me like a rapier.

“You have to grab what you want!” I said.

“Perhaps I could grab Agnes? I’m an adventurous type! Been to Egypt, India, Singapore, Malaya and Brazil!”

“Well apart from the fact that making a grab for Agnes would involve me having to take you to Charing Cross Hospital, on account of your broken nose, I suspect that staying in the Grand Hotel de l'Europe in Singapore would not fulfill her criterion of adventurous,” I said. “The risk of being savaged by a cocktail waiter bearing a Gibson rather pales compared with facing down a tiger, I would have thought!”

“It was a jolly nice hotel!” he said. He had returned from there last month. “I cannot believe that it is you giving me advice on my love life when we are here to advance yours!”

“Well, it is not really love if you have to pay,” I said. I was now not sure if I could go through with what was contemplated. “It is for money not love!”

“Well, all women love for money but most are more indirect about the payment,” maintained Britten. “Dinners out, trips to the theatre, dresses, jewellery, etcetera. Let alone a place to live. Security and comfort for life. All they have to do is pop out a few babies! You jolly well pay for every roll with a wife!” he declared. “One way or another! And the girls here will love you for an hour or two. Genuine, unconditional, passionate love!” I smiled, believing that these women must just be particularly good actresses, which is what old McCandless said once about the high class ones. Toffers, he called them.

I was disappointed in Britten's cynical view of womankind. There must be true romantic love that was not dependent on financial gain, I hoped. Britten was five years older than me, however, so perhaps I was just being naive again. My more immediate issue was whether I could engage physically with a woman I had only just met and with whom I had no emotional bond.  I was starting to doubt it.

There was a gentle tap on the door and I jumped in alarm. My heart began to race.


Chapter 3 is here.


Notes on this chapter can be found here.

3 comments:

  1. So I get paid in Martinis?

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    Replies
    1. And very expensive dinners at 5 star hotels and Champagne and Italian lingerie and....

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  2. Hmm! Britten is a tough one! ;)

    ReplyDelete