An Exquisite Sense of What Is Beautiful (4 page)

BOOK: An Exquisite Sense of What Is Beautiful
12.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

‘Ano… Daijyobu desu-ka?
Are you all right?’

He opened his eyes. A porter.

‘Yes, yes. My room. The Fuji Suite. Where is it? Fuji?
Doko desu-ka

The porter pointed to the door next to where he sat.

‘How silly of me. Of course.
Arigato, domo

He rose from his chair, opened the door. The curtains had been drawn, the bedspread turned down, a lamp conveniently left on for his return. He saw his reflection in the wardrobe mirror. The strands of thinning hair matted to his scalp. His complexion so pale. Stains of sweat on the edge of his shirt collar. Such a fine bespoke suit, crumpled now in his shrinking frame. His mind flirted with the image of the young Japanese woman in her red lingerie. What have I become, he thought? What have I become?


London, England


Uncle Rob’s inheritance provided Edward with a well-furnished flat in Bloomsbury, not far from Russell Square and his new
, the School of Oriental and African Studies. From one floor up over a busy junction, looking down on to a shop selling shooting sticks, canes and umbrellas, he could watch the store’s clientele, almost always elderly gentlemen, indulge in the same routine as they emerged with their new purchases. A swift tap on the
to test the resilience of the tip, a sweep of the head to take in the gaze of an imaginary audience, a neat turn of the heels, then a purposeful stride towards the intended destination to the beat of hard rubber on concrete. It seemed the nation’s gentry was turning itself into an imitation of the cane-wielding Churchill as it leaned yet again on the Prime Minister for support.

For the King was dying. In Glasgow, Edward had considered the monarch a remote figure, but here in London, with
Palace only a mile away, the royal presence was palpable. He could see it in those loyal subjects who crept around the capital like worried relatives pacing a downstairs room, their
reduced to whispers. He could see it in everyday commerce
as customers and shopkeepers alike handled the coins and postage stamps bearing the head of their sovereign with a deliberate
. In cinemas he stood with the audience at the end of each evening performance to sing the anthem and to murmur prayers in wish of a miraculous recovery. And in the daily newspapers he read the dramatic bulletins plotting the cancerous decay of the one remaining lung.

Amid this London gloom, he established a daily routine, his own personal square within the capital, marked out on each of its corners by his flat, his college, the Reading Room at the British Museum, and his local pub, the White Lion. For routine was the legacy of the only child – that filling in of the spaces where a sibling might have been.

At college, he took weekly classes consisting of Gramophone Drill, Structure of the Spoken Language, Speech Work and
Texts. There was also course work on the history of Japanese literature, a discussion class in Japanese, an introduction to Shinto and Confucianism. The Reading Room was where he took refuge from this onslaught of oriental language and thought. And whether it was because of his own loneliness or the sense of misery
the capital, he found himself writing poetry for the first time. Reams of it. As if he were compelled to find expression for his own language amid the Chinese characters and Japanese alphabets that crowded for attention within his head. From the Reading Room it was on to the White Lion for a warm pint in front of the hearth, with a copy of the Evening Standard at his elbow. It was a solitary existence. He had made few acquaintances among his fellow
, none he could call a friend. But he was used to being content enough with his own company.

The King’s death came almost as a relief from the monotony of his daily existence. Not the surrender to cancer as the nation had expected but a heart attack in the royal sleep after a day’s
. Edward was amazed at the spontaneous reaction of the public. Drivers stopped their cars, got out and stood at attention beside their vehicles. People wept openly in the streets. Flags drooped to half-mast. Hotels and restaurants closed. Shop owners took down
their more colourful displays. Even the Thames appeared to run more sluggish. He went to watch the newsreels showing the
but dutiful daughter boarding an aeroplane in Uganda as a
, ready to return to London as a queen. The pictures – in black and white – possessed a whiteness he had never seen before. The whiteness of an African sun preceding the darkness of a
London. He would never forget the princess that day – her transformation from a daughter of the people to the mother of the nation. After all, she was only one year older than he was.

King George VI was to lie in state for three days in Westminster Hall, a quirk of protocol that would allow his ordinary subjects far more physical proximity to the royal personage in death than in life. It was this accessibility rather than any real feeling for the deceased monarch that persuaded Edward to go to pay his respects. But he was sadly unprepared for the enormity of the event. The queues stretched for miles. Newspaper pictures would show them as a mournful and respectful bunch, tens of thousands of them shuffling patiently along the bridges and streets of the capital in the persistent drizzle under a carapace of umbrellas. But in reality the mood was quite cheerful. Some of the mourners boasted about their
at the lying in state of the King’s father. Others had filed past the coffin of Edward VII in 1910. One old biddy reminisced about the death of Queen Victoria. There was gossip about whether the Duke of Windsor would return from America. A boisterous coach party of pensioners from Leeds, all wearing black armbands,
behind him, passed around meat paste sandwiches and thermos flasks of hot tea, offered for Edward to share.

After six hours the procession reached the final corner and he could see the entrance to the Great Hall. Heads around him
sank at the view, hands folded into a clasp, the chattering ceased. At the grand doorway, uniformed ushers paired off the mourners.

‘Are you on your own?’

Edward looked up. A young woman about his own age. She was wrapped up warm and pretty in a dark green coat, matching beret and leather gloves. He had noticed her before, standing a few
rows ahead of him, chatting easily to those around her, tossing back her head in a wide-mouthed laugh at various comments. He heard her accent now. Of course. American.

He nodded.

‘Good. We need to enter in twos. Just like Noah’s Ark.’ A quick smile, then she drew in beside him, two or three inches shorter than himself, her gloved hand so close he felt he could grab it if he wanted to. Just the thought of that contact – the comfort and warmth that lay so near – highlighting the coldness and loneliness of his everyday life. She bowed her head as did he, their misty breath mingling in the air in front of them. The line shuffled forward and she was pushed closer to him, close enough to smell her flowery perfume mixed with the damp rising off her coat. He felt they could be a couple of newly-weds, she recently pregnant, deciding to call the child George if it were a boy, Elizabeth for a girl, both quietly happy in the thought of this, their own personal
to mark this historic event. Moving forward again, he could now see into the Great Hall. He heard her gasp.

They stood at the entrance to a vast medieval building with just its one precious exhibit on display – a guarded coffin on a central dais, resting on top of a catafalque draped in purple velvet.
of lights hung on long chains from the oak-beamed ceiling, casting a ghostly aura over the hall. Four long tapers struggled to illuminate the dais. Colour splashed from the velvet, the uniforms of the guards, the Union flag over the coffin, but otherwise all else was stony grey. The scene was from a royal age when monarchs ruled from draughty castles with steely armour, a testament to the warring heritage that had flowed through this dead king’s chilled blood. Slowly, they descended the stone steps, bunching up with those in front, footfalls echoing in the cold, colder than the
air, colder than death itself. They filed along the edge of the hall, reaching the mid-point, turning to face the coffin, just a few seconds allowed for Edward to absorb the tableau. A large jewelled cross at one end of the coffin, then along the flag-draped lid lay the King’s crown, orb and sceptre. Four Royal Life Guards stood at each corner of the coffin, heads and shoulders drooping from
the long vigil. And then one step lower down four Yeomen with their pikes. Edward bowed his head. The young woman beside him dipped in a slight curtsy.

Big Ben struck six o’clock. The drizzle had stopped and the other mourners dispersed quickly along the wet pathways. Back to a
life that continued to trundle along despite this dead heart at its centre. Edward lingered self-consciously at the exit of the Great Hall with this young woman Fate had selected for him to share in this historic moment. She was pretty. So very pretty.

‘Wow,’ she said. ‘You could feel the power of your country’s royal heritage back there. All those centuries of monarchy stacking up behind that body.’

‘Yes, it was impressive,’ he managed, clearing his throat. The first words he had spoken for hours. Perhaps for days. ‘I didn’t think you could still see that kind of thing in this day and age.’

She said nothing. Instead, she took off her beret, shook out her dark, shoulder-length hair, combed through the waves with her fingers. He shivered, stamped his feet, searched for his voice, searched for courage.

‘Look,’ he said. ‘It’s been a long day. I don’t know… would you like to have a cup of tea somewhere?’

She appeared unfazed by his request, looked him up and down, mouth pursed tight in contemplation. He was about to apologise for his forwardness when she said: ‘Something stronger would be nice.’

He took her to the White Lion. Almost bounced along the streets with her as they walked. She told him her name. Macy.

‘My parents met in the New York department store,’ she explained.

‘I’m glad they didn’t meet in Marks and Spencer. Or Fortnum’s.’

She laughed. That same gutsy, confident laughter he had heard in the queue. He felt immensely pleased with himself.

He found an empty table, tucked away at the rear of the pub, close to the fire. Sean, the barman, looking over his shoulder at Macy as he poured their drinks, his little moustache twitching with curiosity.

‘You’re a sly one,’ Sean said.

‘We’ve just met.’

‘All the same. Had you marked down as a loner.’

‘Probably still will be after the evening’s out.’

‘That’s not the attitude to take.’ Sean tapped the side of his
with a nicotine-stained finger. ‘Got to think positive. That’s the secret. Trap the successful capture of your prey as an image inside of your head. Imagine that you’ve won even before the game has started. That’s what the army taught me.’

‘It’s not a war I’m fighting here.’

‘That’s what you think.’

Macy had taken off her coat. Half-turned her chair so she could warm her hands by the fire. She was wearing a cream silk blouse and black knee-length skirt. A simple pearl necklace. Elegant. Too elegant for him, he feared. He slopped some beer on to the table as he laid down the glasses. Back again to Sean for a cloth and some sarcastic comment before he could settle down.

‘Is this your usual pub then?’ she asked, cheeks reddening in the firelight.

‘I live just two doors down.’

‘Handy.’ She searched her handbag, found a packet of cigarettes. Winston. With one of these new filter tips. She offered him one.

He shook his head. ‘Are you staying in London?’

‘Near Grosvenor Square,’ she said as she lit her cigarette. ‘My father works at the American Embassy. My mother stayed in the States but I thought I’d come over with him. Try to do some
. An American in London, that’s me.’


‘You know. Like the movie with Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron.
An American in Paris.’

‘Never heard of it.’

‘Maybe it hasn’t come over yet.’ She smoothed down her skirt over her knee. ‘I’m not always like this.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘This outfit. I did it for the King. I thought it would be appropriate.’

‘I don’t think he noticed.’

She laughed. ‘I meant that I’m a sweater and jeans kind of girl. Thought you should know, that’s all.’

He shrugged. ‘I don’t pay much attention to fashion. Too wrapped up in my studies.’

‘So what was the visit to Westminster then?’ A long drag on her cigarette, purses of smoke released to the air. ‘A night out on the town?’

It was his turn to laugh. And then he dared to say on the first rush of alcohol to his head: ‘I did get to meet you.’

‘You certainly know how to flatter.’

He had no idea how to flatter. He had gone to an all-boys
school. His first year at university had been spent in a daze at actually having female students right there with him in the lecture rooms. Later on, he had managed a few heavy petting sessions at parties and rag balls, one girl masturbating him until he ejaculated inside his trousers. He was more embarrassed than relieved by the event, eventually finding a handkerchief so she could wipe her hands clean. He never saw her again. He was still a virgin, with all the blood of his sexual interest preferring to flush his cheeks rather than to fortify his penis.

She stubbed out her cigarette in an ashtray, quickly lit another, her fingers moving with a fussy energy, the painted nails scratched clean here and there. Her head leaned in towards him, elbow on the table, chin cupped in her hand. Brown eyes, flecked with bronze. Dark smudges of tiredness below the rims. The sleeve of her blouse slipping down slowly off her wrist, letting the silky down of her bare forearm flicker in the firelight. ‘What about you?’ she asked. ‘Who are you?’

BOOK: An Exquisite Sense of What Is Beautiful
12.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Bourbon & Branch Water by Patricia Green
Ready for Danger by Silk, CV
The Jerusalem Inception by Avraham Azrieli
H.M.S. Surprise by Patrick O'Brian
Meanwhile Gardens by Charles Caselton
A Christmas Kiss by Caroline Burnes
Danger on Peaks by Gary Snyder