Two Widows, Three Alcoholics

Two Widows, Three Alcoholics

The three alcoholics were sitting on the terrace of the Hotel and Country Club, adorned in luxurious white dressing gowns. After a brief earlier downpour, the sculpted lawns glistened green beneath them in the early-afternoon sun. The trees of the distant forest, a florid collection of all shades of summer colours, as fruitful as a giant’s salad garden, filled all horizons. From the pond at the foot of the sloping bank, the soothing splatter of the fountain travelled over the immaculate baize to find the three alcoholic Ladies, faces upturned to bathe in the warmth of the day.

‘Drink?’ Lady Gwendoline Charlwood asked, half-opening one eye. A secretive smile teased the corners of her mouth, told only by the slight deepening of the nasolabial folds and the smoothing of the wrinkles branching from her lips.

‘Hmm,’ Lady Steve de Mori groaned, readjusting her back against the stiff steel of the chair.

‘Oh, yes, let’s!’ said Lady Rose Henniker, her chair scraping through the gravel of the terrace. ‘I say, boy,’ she clicked her round fingers. ‘Yoo-hoo, over here.’ The waiter put down the tray of empty glasses and began to stride towards the basking Ladies. ‘Vite!

Lady Steve de Mori stretched her back and blinked into the sun. ‘I do believe that I may have dozed off there for minute.’ She dipped a finger beneath her Franco Luxuriator sunglasses and rubbed her eyes.

‘Darling,’ said Lady Gwendoline Charlwood, raising her finest of eyebrows and tilting her head to one side, ‘you most definitely were asleep. You were snoring like a sick bull. And showing off rather more than a Lady should.’

Lady Steve de Mori tucked the gown between her thighs and pulled her knees together. ‘It is hardly surprising if I should have fallen asleep. I barely slept at all on the cruise. I’ve been rather playing a game of catch up over the past few nights.’

‘Oh yes,’ Lady Rose Henniker said. ‘The cruise. Did you manage to snare yourself a millionaire sexagenarian?’

Lady Steve de Mori peered over her sunglasses, her pale blue eyes red-lined and twinkling within the diamond-studded frames. ‘I didn’t go lonely every night, no. It’s just that they weren’t in the category of the available.’ Lady Steve de Mori plumped her hair and sucked on her lips. All three Ladies cackled laughter, as the young waiter joined them at their table. With his hands behind his back, his dark eyes fixed to a towering azalea in flower further along the lawn, he waited for the Ladies to finish.

‘Ladeez,’ he announced. ‘’Ow may I serve you?’

‘Darling,’ said Lady Rose Henniker, giving the waiter a light pat on the bottom, ‘saying even something as unobtrusive as that around such Ladies as these is to stand beside a beehive smeared in honey.’ The waiter chewed on his bottom, observing the ladies with caution.

Lady Gwendoline Charlwood pouted, looking the waiter slowly up and down. ‘Mmm, something I would very much like to witness.’ Once more, all three Ladies brayed. The waiter took a half-step backwards.

‘May I get you anysing to drink?’ he asked.

‘Always a good place to start with a Lady,’ Lady Steve de Mori said.

‘Sank you,’ said the waiter, drawing a service pad from his back trouser pocket. ‘What would you like?’ He looked at each of the Ladies in turn.

‘’Av you zee Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Montrachet?’ Lady Rose Henniker asked, with dramatic gestures of the arm, as if throwing a pizza dough.

‘Err, I am sorry, I do not sink so,’ the waiter replied. ‘Per’aps I could offer you –’

‘Whatever is your most expensive white wine, then, Pedro,’ Lady Rose Henniker interrupted. ‘Chardonnay. Yes, Ladies?’

‘Oh yes,’ said Lady Steve de Mori. ‘On such a sunny day as this it would be a crime to not.’

‘Very good,’ said the waiter. ‘Sank you. What size of glasses would you like?’

‘Glasses?’ said Lady Rose Henniker. ‘Glasses? Young man, perhaps you do not yet understand the needs of Lady, with your nugatory years. Bring us the bottle!’

‘Ah yes, oui,’said the waiter. ‘An’ per’aps you would like a leetle snack from ze restaurant to take out ‘ere on ze terrace?’

‘Not likely, Pedro,’ said Lady Rose Henniker. ‘Just an extra side of ice, thanks.’ Lady Steve de Mori joined her in laughter. But Lady Gwendoline Charlwood had remained stoic throughout the exchange, watching each of her companions in turn with a ruminative smile. Now she looked up at the waiter. The sunrays used little effort to find its way through her thin blond hair to light upon her grey roots – “Always remain true to your roots,” she’d say – and white scalp. Her teal-blue eyeliner glimmered soft in the heat, highlighting the runnelled lid.

‘Young man,’ Lady Gwendoline Charlwood said, surveying the dark shadow of stubble lining the waiter’s cheek. He turned to face her.

‘Yes, madame.’

‘Young man,’ she repeated, ‘I wonder if I may trouble you for a drink of cucumber and mint?’

‘I, er . . . coocumbear?’ the waiter asked, the pencil suspended halfway towards his pad. ‘A drink?’

Lady Gwendoline Charlwood nodded solemnly. ‘Please, if it’s not too much trouble? With mint.’

‘But non, madam. No trouble at all.’ The waiter scratched the pencil the across his pad. ‘I will see what I can do. Sank you.’ Nodding to the Ladies, he returned the pad to his back pocket and made to leave.

‘I’m sorry,’ said Lady Steve de Mori, with a slight look of concern. ‘May I change my order, please? I think that I would . . .’ Lady Steve de Mori looked over at Lady Gwendoline Charlwood, and then at Lady Rose Henniker, who looked yet more perturbed. Lady Steve de Mori cleared her throat with the feminine daintiness of a Lady. ‘I think that I would quite like one of those cucumber drinks too.’

D’accord,’ said the waiter, swiftly withdrawing the pad. ‘Okay. Two coocumbear and mint. Wiz ice?’ Lady Steve de Mori agreed dolefully.

‘Three!’ Lady Rose Henniker cried, tightening her fists. ‘I would like one too.’

‘Sure?’ asked the waiter. ‘No wine? Just coocumbear?’

Lady Rose Henniker sighed and rolled her eyes. ‘Yuh. No wine. Just a tasty drink of coocumbear, Pedro.’

‘Okay,’ said the waiter. ‘Sree coocumbear and mint drinks. Sank you.’ And he returned the pad to his pocket.

‘Young man?’ Lady Gwendoline Charlwood said after a sideways glance at her companions. ‘I do wonder: your accent. Where are from, originally?’

‘Me? I am from Trébas, in ze south of France,’ the waiter replied. He seesawed his hand from side to side. ‘It is not so big, so probably you do not ‘eard of it.’ He smiled.

‘Oh yes,’ Lady Gwendoline Charlwood replied, ‘I most certainly do. I once had a dalliance with a man from Trébas.’ Lady Gwendoline Charlwood nodded, raised one eyebrow and smirked. ‘I know it very well. Yes, he looked just like you, this man. Your father, perhaps?’

‘Uh, non,’ said the waiter, stepping slowly away, a frown creasing his thick eyebrows. He straightened his grey waistcoat. ‘I do not sink. I will bring you your drinks.’

‘Yes,’ Lady Gwendoline Charlwood continued, stopping the now somewhat alarmed waiter in his step. ‘And if I were just a couple years younger I do think that I’d fancy a dalliance with you.’ Lady Gwendoline Charlwood gripped the gown at her breast. ‘Wouldn’t you like to know what I keep beneath this gown?’ With their eyes widening and mouths opening, Lady Steve de Mori and Lady Rose Henniker held their breath.

‘I, uh,’ the waiter scratched his head. ‘I must go and get your drinks. Now. Sank you.’

Au revoir,’ Lady Gwendoline Charlwood called after him. ‘For now.’

‘Gwennie!’ Lady Steve de Mori scolded beneath her breath. ‘Don’t you think that you said a touch too much? I mean.’

‘I do rather think that you did, Gwendoline,’ Lady Rose Henniker added. ‘I thought that you were actually going to reveal your . . . body!’

Lady Gwendoline Charlwood pouted towards her friends, the devil firing her lips. ‘You’re right,’ she said. ‘Back in a mo.’ Tightening her gown and stepping into the flip-flops from the spa, Lady Gwendoline Charlwood skipped after the waiter. ‘Yoo-hoo, sorry, darling.’ The waiter turned, ensuring that his back was to the open door of the barroom and not a wall that he might be cornered against. ‘Darling,’ she said, smiling her best, twisting one of her pearl earrings. She glanced over her shoulder at her companions, who were observing the scene. ‘I am sorry. Do you think that you could be a sweetie and add a couple of dashes of gin to the cucumber drink? Just to one of them, mind.’

‘Err, yes, oui. Just ze one?’ After Lady Gwendoline Charlwood nodded her confirmation, the waiter quickly disappeared in the barroom.

‘Polite young man,’ Lady Gwendoline Charlwood said to the Ladies, settling herself down onto the cushioned seat. ‘He was absolutely fine with my coquetry. Cool as a cucumber. And I do believe that he found it rather charming, by the little gleam that I saw in his eye.’

‘Yes, and have you had your own eyes tested of late, dear?’ Lady Rose Henniker asked.

Très drole, darling,’ Lady Gwendoline Charlwood retorted. ‘So très, très drole.’

‘May I ask,’ Lady Steve de Mori asked, playing a thumb along the deep tan of her cheek, ‘why exactly we chose cucumber in the place of a nice cooling chardonnay?’

Lady Gwendoline Charlwood could not help herself but smile. ‘For a while now I have been pondering the idea of leaving the drink alone,’ she replied. ‘I have not had a wink in nearly two weeks now. And we are on a spa day, after all. But don’t feel that you must climb on upon a wagon of your own. You must do as you wish.’

Lady Steve de Mori gazed over towards the forest. ‘I’ve been pondering such myself,’ she murmured, narrowing her eyes inconspicuously behind her lenses. ‘The drink does nothing for me. Never has, truth told.’ Lady Gwendoline Charlwood bit her lips together.

‘Back in a tickle,’ Lady Rose Henniker said, already up out of her seat. ‘Out with old; in with the new.’

Darling,’ Lady Gwendoline Charlwood gasped. ‘Not the sort of inference that I would expect of a Lady.’

Chuckling along, Lady Rose Henniker slipped in to the mansion building by way of the barroom door. On the terrace, the two Ladies upturned their faces to the welcome sun once more. The cry of a lone buzzard travelled from the forest on the stillness of the day. A young couple walked over the lawns, towards the golf course and the woodland beyond.

‘This is the life, though,’ Lady Steve de Mori said, pressing her flip-flops further out over the gravel, mindful of her gown. ‘With or without a tipple. Not quite a cruise, yet a perfect British summer’s day, nonetheless.’

‘Darling,’ Lady Gwendoline Charlwood replied, ‘if you fancy a beverage of a stronger kind, please do please yourself. Don’t mind my newfound sobriety.’

‘No, no,’ said Lady Steve de Mori. ‘We all go in together. I never have tried cucumber in a drink before, except for in Pimms, of course.’ Lady Steve de Mori licked her lips. ‘I am rather looking forward to a life shorn of drink.’ She looked for a reaction from Lady Gwendoline Charlwood, but she found none.

The gravel crunched. The Ladies both turned, to see if it was their drink arrived. They both reacquainted themselves with their previous positions, and Lady Rose Henniker noisily dragged her chair to reposition herself in the sun. She reapplied the Tiffany hairclip to hold back her natural ringlets – “grey and proud as a funeral shroud” – from her face. From the corners of her eyes, Lady Rose Henniker looked from one Lady to the other Lady. And she grinned to herself.

‘Ladies,’ said Lady Rose Henniker, breathing deeply of the fresh air, ‘this is the life.’

‘In your absence,’ said Lady Steve de Mori, ‘we’ve just agreed that exact same thing.’

‘I tell you,’ Lady Rose Henniker continued, ‘inside there is like a mausoleum. I saw more spirit in the Capuchin Catacombs when I went there with Roger Moore in the late sixties.’

‘Ah, yes,’ said Lady Gwendoline Charlwood, ‘I always wonder when you might find an opening, however small, to slip the name of that certain erstwhile fancy of yours into the conversation with such adroitness of such renown.’

‘I am simply saying that Roger and I happened upon a place of such great evocative misery to as be comparable to the lifeless souls currently filling tables inside there,’ Lady Rose Henniker replied, disappointed that her Lady companions’ attention remained fixed only to the insides of their eyelids. ‘Yes, a fine looking man, Roger was. It was in his final years as Simon Templar, when he looked his absolute best.’

‘He looked his best in Maverick,’ said Lady Steve de Mori.

‘Well, yes, of course,’ said Lady Rose Henniker. ‘Of course he did. He had such a fine jaw in his youth.’

‘I always preferred the more mature look he wore when he became Bond,’ said Lady Gwendoline Charlwood, easing the hem of the dressing gown over her knees.

‘I know, I know,’ said Lady Rose Henniker. ‘Those worry lines that ran so deep were so charming. How could any Lady have not found themselves attracted to him, even as an older man? Maturity suited him so. And it was already evident when I was his fancy.’

‘I don’t think that he was charming,’ said Lady Steve de Mori. ‘I think that he came across as a slippery old fool.’

‘I agree completely,’ said Lady Rose Henniker. ‘I never did trust him. That’s why I quickly decided to let him go.’

‘And he wasn’t the most handsome man, was he?’ said Lady Gwendoline Charlwood. ‘I mean, even as an actor, watching him on the screen, I appreciate that he tried his best, but he was such a bore. Seeing an older man like him seducing young beauties was about as believable as when Bobby Ewing stepped out of that shower!’

‘Yes!’ Lady Rose Henniker exclaimed. ‘I never quite took to Roger. Patrick Duffy, however, he was a real enigma of a man.’

‘Just as ugly as sin,’ Lady Steve de Mori said.

‘Absolutely,’ said Lady Rose Henniker, now wearing worry lines of her own. ‘Absolutely. As sin. An abhorrent creature. Just like . . . Roger.’

‘Come, darling,’ said Lady Gwendoline Charlwood. ‘You must have seen some attraction in Roger, more than his fame? I certainly did.’

‘Me too,’ said Lady Steve de Mori.

Lady Rose Henniker closed her eyes and exhaled through her nose. ‘Yes, he was an old charmer.’ Opening her eyes, she observed the other two Ladies. They remained silent as they soaked in the sun. ‘How could they remain inside on a day such as this, I ask?’ Lady Rose Henniker continued. ‘Old buffoons. You might yet find yourself a sexagenarian today, Stevie. He’d be the youngest of that lot in there, though, if you do.’

Lady Steve de Mori chuckled. ‘I tell you, Ladies, life recently truly has taught me that the best thing I ever had in life with Vernon is the life I’ve had with his life insurance. Bless his dull soul.’ Lady Steve de Mori stroked a finger over her healthy moustache. ‘Oh yes, if I could meet another Vernon, I’d happily live out a dull life again for the reward of this.’

‘You are a wicked, wicked lady,’ said Lady Gwendoline Charlwood.

Leaning forward in her chair, Lady Steve de Mori removed her sunglasses and fixed her stare on Lady Gwendoline Charlwood. ‘Are you telling me that you preferred your life with Maurice to the life that you’ve led as a single Lady Widow, Gwennie?’ Lady Steve de Mori shook her sunglasses at Lady Gwendoline Charlwood. ‘Is one to assume that, soaking up this sweetest of summer sun, you would rather be in attendance inside with the blazers and cufflinks crowd?’

Leaning one arm on the table, Lady Gwendoline Charlwood played with the pendulous skin of her turkey neck. ‘A Lady would not say.’ Continuing to tease the loose skin, a smile began to rise upon Lady Gwendoline Charlwood’s lips as she ruminated. ‘I always did rather drink a little too much when Maurice was alive. I am mostly pleased to be approaching a new lease of me, a Lady of sobriety.’

As the gravel began to crunch beneath foot once more, Lady Steve de Mori slumped back in her chair and jammed her sunglasses to her nose. She put one hand in the pocket of her dressing gown and played a hand over the little bottle within.

‘Ah, Stefano,’ said Lady Rose Henniker. ‘You return to us!’

The waiter arrived at the table, a silver tray perched on his upturned hand. ‘Ze barman was ‘appy to create for you zees coocumbear cocktails,’ he said. ‘Madame,’ he said, turning to Lady Gwendoline Charlwood, ‘’ere is your coocumbear wiz –’

‘With love,’ said Lady Gwendoline Charlwood. ’Thank you, darling,’ Lady Gwendoline Charlwood said with a wink.

‘And, madam,’ he said, leaning the tray towards Lady Rose Henniker, ‘’ere is your coocumbear served wiz –’

‘With great alacrity,’ said Lady Rose Henniker, shooting a victorious glance at Lady Gwendoline Charlwood, who pouted and narrowed her eyes. ‘Sanks, Stefano. Very much.’

‘And finally, madam,’ said the waiter, stepping around the sprawled legs of Lady Rose Henniker ‘ere is your coocumbear est c’est tout.’ Taking a step backwards, the waiter held the tray behind his back in both hands. ‘Please do not ‘esitate to call me if you would like anysing . . . else,’ he said, hesitating as he avoided Lady Gwendoline Charlwood’s gaze.

‘See,’ said Lady Gwendoline Charlwood, as the young waiter slipped away, ‘I told you that he has a fancy for me. Perhaps he did reward himself with a glance inside my gown.’

‘To see anything of gamey majesty,’ said Lady Rose Henniker, ‘these days I do believe that he’d have to venture a glance from the bottom of the gown upwards, dear.’

Lady Steve de Mori checked on the security of her gown.

‘It may be true that I no longer have the figure of a ballerina in her twenties,’ said Lady Gwendoline Charlwood. ‘But it has been commented upon that this body of mine could easily pass for a nulligravida in her forties, I’ll have you know.’

‘Would that have been a comment passed by a blind man of size, dear Gwennie?’ Lady Rose Henniker asked. ‘Or by an aged man of habitual disingenuousness?’

‘Rose, my love,’ said Lady Steve de Mori, ‘What about Harold?’

‘What about Harold?’ Lady Rose Henniker replied, turning her grinning face towards Lady Steve de Mori, where Lady Steve de Mori was drawing on the straw within her drink. She sneezed, shooting the expression of disgust momentarily from her face.

‘Oh! Cucumber always does make me sneeze,’ said Lady Steve de Mori.

‘Then why did you ask for a cucumber drink?’ Lady Gwendoline Charlwood asked, sipping like a Lady.

‘Because . . .’ Lady Steve de Mori hesitated. ‘We don’t take of alcohol any longer, do we?’

‘Well,’ said Lady Gwendoline Charlwood, after sipping from her drink, ‘you didn’t have to join me in taking a healthier option.’

Lady Rose Henniker also sipped long from her tall glass, jangling the ice cubes. ‘I don’t know,’ said Lady Rose Henniker. ‘I do think that it has rather a kick to it.’ Lady Gwendoline Charlwood sneered at Lady Rose Henniker.

The shadow of the mansion building was lengthening along the terrace. The heat of the day was reaching that moment when the air has turned completely dry, all moisture has left the ground, and all sound seems to die in the moment that it is created, like the moment is suspended in a thermodynamic equilibrium. It is the moment when all beings and animals most crave liquid refreshment to rehydrate their system. Lady Steve de Mori sipped. Lady Steve de Mori screwed up her face. Lady Steve de Mori sneezed. Sparkling jewels of mucus and spit littered the still air like a spiralling galaxy. Lady Steve de Mori wiped a finger beneath the lenses of her sunglasses. The sound of the water from the fountain splattering on to the pond and the chatter from the restaurant and barroom were the only sounds to be heard.

‘Harold,’ Lady Steve de Mori croaked.

‘Yes, what about Harold?’ Lady Rose Henniker said, shaking her head, a cluck emitting from her throat. ‘Why do you keep mentioning Harold?’

‘Well,’ said Lady Steve de Mori, yet struggling to compose herself, the hem of her dressing gown slightly parting. ‘We are Ladies who have found a certain unexpected pleasure from finding ourselves young and free to mingle once more. Yet here you find yourself, still tied to a solitary companion. Do you not ever yearn for Harold to . . . pop his clogs?’ Lady Gwendoline Charlwood with great interest looked from Lady Steve de Mori to Lady Rose Henniker. She spared a moment to look at the pair of rings adorning the fourth finger of her right hand. She moved the hand beneath the table.

‘Stevie, my dear,’ said Lady Rose Henniker, ‘though I speculate that the motives of your inquisition are merely to discern whether or not I would prefer my life if old Harold was no more, I do find your question rather morbid, as well as impertinent.’

‘Yes,’ Lady Gwendoline Charlwood said, ‘and I tend to agree. You are presuming that I do not miss the old man; that I, like you, would rather crave the materials that the world has to offer more than the companionship of dear old Maurice.’

‘I . . .’ Lady Steve de Mori looked from one Lady to another. ‘I do no such thing! Please do not ever misunderstand that I mourn Vernon still. I only enjoy this life that I lead because I know that it is what he would have wanted: for me to continue to live the life that we led as one for more than fifty years.’ Lady Steve de Mori’s hands reached out, as if holding a weighty ball, conjuring a demonic shadow over the latticework of the table. ‘Not one morning do I wake up and not gaze longingly at the empty space beside me in bed.’

‘If it is indeed unoccupied,’ said Lady Rose Henniker.

‘Yes, Rosie,’ Lady Steve de Mori said, pointing a finger at Lady Rose Henniker. ‘If it is indeed unoccupied. For all I wish is that person to be Vernon, if it is, as you say, a space already filled. So, I said that this is the life. But it is only a life. It is my life now. If I could give it all away to once more have my sweet love by my side I would do so in the blink of an eye.’

‘Give it all away?’ Lady Gwendoline Charlwood asked. ‘I mean, for me, if I were to be united with Maurice still, to be a confirmed drinker, given the choice I think that much rather the person that I have become. I feel twenty years younger without Maurice.’ Lady Gwendoline Charlwood swept a hand backward through her thin hair. ‘I feel as young as I look.’

‘Well . . .’ Lady Steve de Mori uttered, looking hopefully towards Lady Rose Henniker.

‘And I,’ said Lady Rose Henniker. ‘Of course I would rather that the old fool would pop his clogs, subservient old fart that he is.’ Lady Rose Henniker took a long sip of her drink, slurping from the very bottom of the tall glass. She licked her lips. ‘All he does is live to serve me, and I find it all a bit tiresome. He reads his detective novels – and not Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie; that new breed of template, ten-a-penny crime novelist that couldn’t challenge a pupil reading for his O-levels – and he otherwise just sits and reads the pink paper.’ Lady Rose Henniker sighed. And belched. ‘Excuse me. He has no class about his person at all. Unless it’s political or of his work, his conversation is null. I do not even attempt to engage with him these days. We sleep in separate beds in separate rooms, like nineteenth century missionaries. There is more romance to be found in a war zone. Life with Harold? There is more entertainment to be found in watching the BBC!’

All three Ladies sat in silence. The sun was slowly descending towards the forest horizon. Returning from the woodland, the young couple ventured along the wooden jetty of the pond. Flies had begun to find interest in the terrace, dotting the tables, the flowers and fussing around who was the tastiest of the Ladies. All three Ladies watched the young couple kissing at the end of the jetty, far down the bank; her back to the railing, smiling; him nuzzling her neck.

‘Fat knackers to this,’ said Lady Steve de Mori, her gown standing quite open. ‘I’m going to get port. Would anyone like one?’

‘Oo, yes please,’ said Lady Rose Henniker.

‘Bring the bottle,’ said Lady Gwendoline Charlwood. ‘The most expensive. After all, we’re rolling it.’

‘Do you think that we should have told her about her gown?’ Lady Rose Henniker asked Lady Gwendoline Charlwood as their Lady friend breezed over the terrace, withdrawing the vodka miniature and finishing it in one gulp.

Lady Gwendoline Charlwood laughed. ‘Not one bit, darling. Perhaps it will assist her in claiming an old man from the pick in there.’

‘And perhaps not,’ said Lady Rose Henniker.

Later that evening, Lady Steve de Mori, now fully clothed, mingled with the blazer and cufflinks crowd in the Hotel and Country Club barroom. She had booked a suite, just in case she found a sexagenarian who suited her agenda. The young waiter had agreed to a tryst with Lady Gwendoline Charlwood. They had arranged to meet at the edge of the woodland, past the golf course. He was emboldened to take her hand until they were quite deep into the forest, from where they were not seen to emerge until far after the sun had gone down behind the trees.

After driving somewhat haphazardly home through winding lanes and straddling the centre of roads both A and B, Lady Rose Henniker pulled into the driveway of her grand mansion on the Kent / Sussex border. After a few fruitless attempts to insert the incorrect key into the lock, Lady Rose Henniker entered the mansion and sped through to the orangery, where she found Lord Harold Henniker reading Proust’s ‘La Prisonnière’. The copy that he read from was a first edition, written in the tongue native to the author. The subtle upward lighting in the room encouraged the glass to glow, bathing the deepening night in a soft orange warmth. Standing beside Lord Harold Henniker, the large art deco lamp – which had once stood in the Royal Suite at Claridges, before some expert negotiating from one of their most eminent of loyal clientele had procured it for the place in which it was standing in the mansion – lit upon the lubricious hair of Lord Harold Henniker, still thick and dark despite his recent enrolment into his seventies. He glanced up as Lady Rose Henniker stumbled into the room.

‘Haroldy Waroldy,’ she slurred, ‘I have missed you, my handsome!’ Lady Rose Henniker staggered over to Lord Harold and plastered kisses upon his brow, stroking back the oiled hair. Lord Harold Henniker jerked his head aside. ‘I sped to get home to you, so much did I miss my Haroldy.’ Lady Rose Henniker hiccupped. Lord Harold Henniker looked her up and down.

‘You’re pissed,’ Lord Harold Henniker said. And he returned to Proust.

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