James Frost. 23.Male. A wanted man. Absurdly handsome. Ridiculously intelligent. Kind to the point of folly. Very odd. Very Rich. Only child. Family dead.
The beer glass was not quite empty; not yet. He lifted it languidly, curled it to the left, to the right, raised it an inch and dropped it, still held, to the table. Looking around the pub he inspected the customers. Then, bored, closed his eyes, screwed his face in tired anguish, lifted his drink and gulped the remainder resolutely.
-- Oh dear, this is all rather sad. I must leave.
And so he did.
-- Rainfall's natural. Everyone's running. Oh dear. What now? What ever? Oscars. She might be there. No reason why not. More chance this night than another.
"Spare us some change, Sir?"
He placed a crumpled £50 note, drawn casually from his trouser pocket, in the hand of the dishevelled gentleman and walked on.
-- This city, this hive of the downtrodden. It could all be so different. All these people, all their plans. Nearly there. Star Wars Part III's out soon; must book that ticket. But should I book for Richard?
He entered Oscar's as he had countless times before,yet still the charm of its interior and quiet serenity soothed his restless nerves, blunting the habitual ruggedness of his thoughts. She was not here.
-- I'd better have a drink. Well, I want one.
"Hi, James, how are you?"
"Fine, very good; and you? Nice evening, isn't it. Pint of kroney please."
The barmaid set about her business. Not having a clue as to the true identity of her regular -James having seen to that- she asked about the progress of his job search.
"Oh, you know. Tough business. No joy yet. Just keep trying I suppose. Something will come along."
He'd never in principle approved of lying. But in the past his present circumstances could not have been foreseen and now that he'd graduated to an extraordinary position in life, in which everything was changed, he no longer saw purpose and but did saw plenty of danger in clinging further to an outdated ethic. He sat down at his usual seat and placed an unopened pack of Marlboro lights on the table in front of him.
--Well, I suppose I could phone her. No, too keen. Its all too typical.
And with that she fled his thoughts for the rest of the evening leaving them filled with his usual, pressing, concern- the direction his life should now take; or rather, what large number of directions it should not, for he was not a man of limited choice.
--Perhaps, without compromising myself, I might get outside inspiration. Probably not, but you never know.
"Elizabeth", he called to the barmaid.
"Yes", she murmured, concentrating on not spilling another of her customers' pints.
"Do you play the lottery?"
"Sometimes, not often, why?"
"Nothing, but if you won the jackpot, how would you spend it?"
"Have you won it then?", she quickened, looking at him with a raised and gently flirtatious eye."
"No, don't be silly..... In.. my..dreams." This girl is delightful, he thought, whilst laughing warmly in the playful spirit of her mood. Moments later he tried again.
"No, seriously, what would you do?"
"Well, I wouldn't work here for a start, that’s for sure."
Elizabeth loved her Job. After all, she was marrying the manager next month, but then, as James didn't need telling- not that he'd suffered the claws of the grind- its not many who'll stick with their jobs, indeed any job, if they don't need to. Her answer brought an assenting nod from the customer sitting at the bar, gratified at last to have got his drink, a reaction due not only to his hating being bullied at the office, and resenting not having enough time for his painting. He too had once worked in a bar and it was not a happy time.
Elizabeth's third attempt to summon his attention had no more success. She would try again and this time make certain of it.
"James, James, hello, James, anybody home?"
Her intonation, though vigorous, was animated with the same playful langour. Remembering himself, appalled at this shocking treachery of memory, he turned quickly to the hovering statuesque face that smiled at him protectively, shaking itself gently in genial reproach.
"James- that is your name isn't it. Stop looking like a Zombie, you'll scare the customers."
"Sorry, lost in thought."
--Bloody hell. Still, she thinks I'm a nutter anyway. Well, perhaps I am.
As he approached the bar he struggled to suppress his hilarity at the surreal exchange and contented himself with a broad cheeky grin.
"So Elizabeth my dear, booked that homeymoon yet?"
"No, I spoke to Rob, he agrees it would be great to go to....but says we can't afford it. Well, I suppose we can't if we're going to put a deposit on the house."
"Oh no, really, how sad."
James fancied her desperately of course but recognised a devoted and incurious woman when he saw one. As he climbed the steps to Leicester Square he looked forwa rd to hearing her tale of how an anonymous gift of money enabled them to celebrate in Havana after all. Of course they might use it to go somewhere else or spend it on the house or things for it. What did he care? He loved her and couldn't sleep with her. Nor could he be her friend (well, not for now). He had to feel he'd got through to her somehow, if only abstractly, beyond her knowledge. As for the question of her job, one doesn't want to rush things. Better deliciously to play with her happiness and see the beautiful flower of her strange luck bloom in front of him; and, of course, one doesn't want to shock or unnerve, be too obvious. But one thing was certain: this gorgeous woman, so helpful, so kind since his arrival in London and her husband, Robin, who he'd never met but felt certain must be a good sort having passed the test of her discernment, would never want for anything. She had invoked his fierce sense of gratitude for having helped him so much in the past and he'd be damned if the phantasmal shackles of any external code or convention would any longer thwart him.
The rain had stopped; to the east the sky, violet and orange when not clouds of pregnant grey, prepared for the night. So too did James as he set off for Soho, pondering his fate and his next port of call.
In Oscar's George, prepared to leave but noticed as he did the negligence of the strange man- still unopened and his favourite brand. The barmaid was busy. Busy, busy bee. He moved across to the table. Its one thing to want to give up smoking, but I'm not silly enough not to take that as an excuse.
The phone rang in his trouser pocket. Richard checked the time, 11.15pm
"You're not working tomorrow are you?"
"I'm coming over. Get the champagne ready, not Bollinger's. I have good news."
"You've got confirmation?"
"Splendid...don't slam the door."
James spent the tube journey to Queensway slouched in a corner seat, slumped against the glass as he mumbled inanely to himself in time to the rumbling of the train.
"I think you're very beautiful", he slurred affectionately at a young woman to his right as Marble Arch station disappeared behind.
"Do you", she replied tersely.
"Well, of course, don't you?"
"Well you are."
"Really." She replied sternly, without curiosity.
"Well, you don't seem very pleased about it. Would you rather you were ugly?"
He recoiled from her and began to hum "Sleeper's awake" by Johann Sebastian Bach,
nodding his head with calm decisiveness.
"Would you like to come back to my friend's flat for a drink. Don't worry, he's far more interesting than I am."
"No, sorry. I have to work tomorrow."
"Well, so do I - in a way......are you sure?"
"Yes. I don't even know you."
"That's precisely why we need to have a drink. I can't expect you to know me after", he paused to check his watch "55 seconds."
"You want me to come back with you, to your friend's flat, at 11.20, for a drink?"
"Exactly. Oh, I see the problem. You're worried about sex. Well, don't. No sex I promise. Look at me - I'm a blithering wreck. Couldn't get it up if I tried."
"And your friend?" she enquired, beginning to warm to him.
"Oh, don't worry about him. Since his wife, No.." pausing to check the date on his telegraph "..ex wife left him he's no eyes for anything but his figures."
"His figures" She repeated with bemused focus.
"His figures, you know..sculpture."
"...sculpture, of course, how could I have been so silly."
"Bloody strange things if you ask me. Still, what can you do? They're all over the flat. All made of old wire coat hangers, males mostly. Still, he's trying to branch out. I reckon he'd do you if you asked kindly."
"He'd do me would he?"
"Yup, why not.....Well, this is my stop. Must be going. Nice meeting you. Look, if you really won't come for a drink, let me at least give you this", he removed the lilac buttonhole from his lapel, given him an hour ago on Old Compton Street, "and this, my card- pompous things I know- but what can you do?" She received the gift graciously, with a warm smile, as James backed away to the door.
"Right, I'm off. Need anything, anything at all, give me a ring."
"Or if I want to get done."
"Yes", he answered puzzled "if you want to get done. Right goodbye."
As the train gained speed she put the buttonhole in her handbag and inspected his card. It was bordered by a thick purple line and beneath an address and phone number was stated simply, in fonts of decreasing size- James Frost, Man of Joy, All suggestions welcome.
As he passed an ornate Edwardian dressing table he stopped suddenly by a framed photograph of Richard's Father which was not there before, placed lovingly, it must have been today, beside a vase of white lilies. Pangs of grief and longing and warm memories of him, from whom he'd known the nearest thing to familial love, filled his heart, overwhelming his senses. To see him again, just once, and hear again his deep voice welling with the sounds and music of culture and feel his warm hand on his shoulder and eyes resting in his, imparting their promise of beauty and encouragement. This man, this messiah in the midst of the desert; what prodigy inhabited his soul? And now he had gone; five years had passed but his presence to James was as vivid the lilies newly dedicated with the love of a son he felt sure made his for his pale into silence. Yet stirring from the photograph emerged other ill- defined, less palpable, deeper, more painful feelings for his own father, who, lost to him since childhood, kept distant in the aridity of a sterile, impersonal domesticity, was now banished forever in the finality of death, the wound of alienation irreparable.
What are you doing?" he asked as he entered the large oak panelled bedroom and saw his friend lying on his bed, astutely studying some paperwork.
"Oh, just looking over the divorce papers. Very dull. Everything seems o.k. Alec, I thought I told you not to slam the door?"
"Did you? Oh yes,....sorry, can't you get it fixed. Slow it down or something?"
"Or something. Perhaps I can buy ear plugs for all the neighbours. I don't ask them to complain you know."
"Well, where's the bubbly, Come on."
"In the fridge."
As James left for the Kitchen Richard drew two glasses from his drinks cabinet and checking for dust and stains palced them on the broad glass table beneath his French windows. He turned to his music system and as James returned with a bottle of Don Perignon, nodding his head in sign of approval the soft sounds of Mozart flooded the room.
"Let's have a look then?" James ignored the request, filled the two glasses within a centimetre of the rim, took one for himself and handed the other to his friend.
"All good things to those who wait. This Don Perignon is far more important."
"To Alec Dewinter" Richard declaimed, raising his glass in toast.
"To James Frost."
"And to Richard Wilkinson, newly emancipated friend and guardian of our souls."
They drank their glasses dry as was their custom when honouring what Richard would term significant moments. Not before refilling them Richard pressed the matter further.
"Come on. Out with it. Hand it over boy."
"Alright, alright, though I assure you its very dull" He handed over the letter of confirmation with obvious indifference and moved to sit down on the couch. He reclined in a posture of defiant, imperious intoxication, blue eyes brightly turned on Richard who, inattentive to his gaze, was entirely absorbed in the document. Although he did not show it James was terrified lest the rigours of Richard's wordly, rapier mind find some flaw or unforeseen complication in any of the terms.
"Seventy five per cent."
"Seventy five per cent." he repeated, dumbfounded.
"So what. You knew surely about the......25% share?"
"Yes, but what about the...50% share?"
"Didn't I tell you. Dad sold....and bought the other shares last year. No, well, you know me, why should I have ? All hot air and nonsense as far as I was concerned. Something about wanting to "streamline his energies". You know what he was like. Wiped out all his other capital reserves but, you see, he needed control of the company if he was to "branch out" into India."
"And you sold it all, all 75%"
"Yes...I told you I did."
"Yes, but I didn't know you had that much to sell, did I?"
"Well, so what, so its more than you thought. Big deal."
"Where is it now?"
"Some bank in Switzerland. I've got some gnome dealing with it."
"And how much did you get?"
"Its there on the last page, you'll come to it. Not the market value I know but then it was all so dull. I couldn't be bothered fishing around for the highest price, that is if there'd been a higher one. Look Richard, I know I'm absurdly rich. Makes me feel quite ill, what with all the expectations crowding in on me. All I ever wanted was security. To be left alone by the beast that is Mammon. Dad denied me that and now I've got it. Some consolation at least for the death of my entire family. As it is I happen to have more money than is sane, but you know I had to sell, you know I did."
James stared at his drink, eyes tracing the champagne in its course as the glass swirled in his hand. Recoiling into his thoughts, as he was prone to do whenever reality postured at him in too extreme a fashion, he held the crystal vessel to the light of a lamp that shone across the room and surrendered himself wholly to its refractions.
Richard did not know. He'd never swallowed James' conspiracy theory, though he accepted it was possible. But he understood. James would never have made a success of the oil business, he just hadn't the mind for profit. "Why is enough not enough, what are they frightened of? They're so busy its a wonder they're not screaming? They want as much money and as little time to spend it in as possible. If this is not the dance of a mad, demoniacal ghost, what is?" Such thoughts were more in his line. Expressing them, of course, never did him much good, for which reason he'd learnt, on the whole, to keep them to himself. No, James had never belonged to the system. Nor had he either, in his heart, but then he'd never harboured James's passionate zeal for liberty, his wild, frenzied, what must he thought at times be lunatic demand not to be told what to do by anyone. Nor was he ever willing so brazenly to shun, as James had, the ordered conventions of the simpler path to an easier life of docility. Nor had he been consumed, in the same way, by that idealism which lent shape and purpose to his stance, though he had felt it and still did. Nor, above all, did Richard, in all honesty, feel the same conviction about the purpose and importance of his identity as James did, in all honesty about his. And yet in their beings the same language of longing was spoken and in their imaginations, when collected in vision, the same dreams were pictured. And when together they each felt brought out through the veil, delivered from the cages of fear and defence, in which, as they did not always recognise but together always knew, they spent the rest of their lives, whether alone or with others.
"I suppose you realise what ú4,500,000,000, invested in secure bonds of minimal yield will allow you to earn everyday; or, as will no doubt be of more interest to you allow you to spend everyday without loss?" For the past twenty minutes Richard had been fiddling with his calculator and poring through his files in a surreal fit of playful adventure, whilst James, emerged from his meditations, had paced the room, in trance to the Mozart when not moving, tenderly, from photograph to photograph of Richard's family and their life together in Dubai.
"Well, its enough to get you out of that sodding bank I presume. You can't expect me to be unemployed on my own." It was quite typical of James, thought Richard, to have traversed the sensitive subject of the impact of developments on his own life in such an impish and cavalier fashion. No, he would stick to his theme and let the matter lie.
".........., or in more conventional terms......a week........a month........a year. Looking at it in a different way that's .....an hour....a minute and .....a second." So if you don't touch a penny of it and don't even invest more proactively, you'll have doubled your money, by my calculations, in......years."
"Heaven forbid I should let anything like that happen! Yes, well done Richard. Congratulations. You've just spent an inordinate amount of energy, and fully neglected your champagne in the mean time I should add, arriving at figures I could have told you myself, with some variations of course. My gnome in Zurich's given me the full run down already. In fact, he thinks I should do rather better. But my God it was a bore getting him to understand I wasn't interested in maximising profit. He just couldn't get his head round the idea. I think he thought I was quite mad. Poor man."
"I can imagine."
"I said the more money I invest the less I'll have to spend and with that much money it would be indecent to want more."
"So what are you going to do- give it all away? Be a martyr to your spirituality. How noble." The sarcasm hung heavy; though he did not think James quite mad enough to do that he had learnt not to put anything past him.
"Of course not. I might as well aim for the urinal by pissing in the wind. No, I shall remain a level force. Allowing for inflation, I will spend each year as much as I earn in interest, no more, no less. I shall spend on myself each year as much as I need, which I don't envision being much- well, comparatively speaking, and the rest.." James paused, inspecting again, this time with a subtle devilish grin the glass' dance of light.
"The rest I will play with."
"The rest you will play with." James had always enjoyed Richard's sardonic parodies, his mocking putdowns, indeed from a young age had mastered the art of their provocation. To Richard, they were entirely functional; through them, though they exaggerated his disdain, he could ensure that at least the ghost of Terra Firma was present.
"Yes, that's right. Though of course you have nothing to worry about. I would've hoped that was obvious. But you know.." James stood up and filled both glasses, Richard's needing only a drop..."you know, the strange thing is I can imagine now all the various permutations of expenditure possible to me if I'm going to do the acceptable thing and not upset an awful lot of people- and they all bore me to death. But, you know, the even stranger thing, the way I am going to spend it comes straight from the heart of the essential values of our western civilisation- individualism, free choice, private philanthropy, the very negation of that communism we spent the better half of the last century fighting- and yet its exactly that very expenditure, that manner of freedom, which will annoy certain people and rub them up into a frenzy. I find that rather funny.”
Richard did not respond and gazed at him affectionately, his eyes signalling that same combination of bewildered awe and passionate fondness he’d always felt for his friend.
“ By the way, where are your sculptures, thrown them out? Is that wise?”
“No. I’ve moved them to a storage facility down the road- clears some space, don’t you think?”
“ That it does” responded James, before burping ceremoniously.
“And there’s more. I’ve got an exhibition. Mr Wheeler came through in the end. At the ICA in October. So its a rather good job I moved them, going from your present state. I don’t want them kicked to fuck do I?”
Richard woke at 10.30 surprised to discover his friend already gone. A note lay beside him on the pillow “Rich, had to meet a guy called “Pete”. Ran into him last night; he made me laugh- a lot. You know what its like. See you soon. Alec.” It was so good to see James again, he thought, as he rose from his bed and put the kettle on. But what the hell is he going to do now. I’m sure whatever he does will be interesting, some crazy show to which I’ve got front row tickets.
Richard seriously feared, however, that the tenuous grasp James always held on reality might now slip from him completely. All efforts to solicit concrete plans from him had failed, excepting his oblique reference to assist him in some manner. Quite what such assistance would be and how it would be delivered was unclear and remained so for a further six hours, until he checked his bank balance and discovered £5 million had been that very day been payed into his account. His immediate reaction to this was to laugh, not in joy or incomprehension but admiration that the cheeky swine had been able to get hold of his bank details, and at the effrontery of this unrequested, bold, cocksure, yet entirely welcome intrusion into his material affairs. Nevertheless, in his thoughts he applauded and approved the tactic, for how grubby and vulgar it would have been for them to discuss such matters. If it had been by anyone but James such a donation of funds would have carried a very sinister ring, that of subornment, bribery, or being bought or hired. As it was he knew the act contained no significance outside or beyond itself.
But would he, though, resign his job? The new wealth could only concentrate his mind. No. Not yet at least.? Contrary to James’ presumption, Richard actually rather liked his work at the bank; or rather, was it only Samantha his colleague he liked, or rather loved. Well, there was that.
“Hello. Sorry if I seem a bit out of it. Heavy night. How are you?”
“What are you having, the columbian coffee’s rather good.”
Peter sat down at a vacant table whilst James went up to order. When he returned, and after a few more nervous doubts Peter resolved to make a go of it. After all, last night he had seemed very keen. But then, why hadn’t he come back with me. Then he noticed he wasn’t wearing the buttonhole. Hmmmmm.
“I see you didn’t like my gift after all.”, said Peter pointing at James’ empty lapel.
“Oh, the buttonhole.” Quick thinking was necessary, he could tell. Oh my god, he’s not gay is he?
“Sorry. Errm, do like the coffee?”
“Yes, very good.” Peter didn’t mind about the buttonhole. Just no point mucking about.
“Peter, do you like frankness, you know, people being direct?”
“Yes, very much, can’t you tell.”
“Of course, sorry, its just that, well, are you gay?”
“Yes.” Peter’s eyes smiled, his lips narrowing to an inquisitive, charmed smirk.
“Right, of course, I thought as much. It’s just that, well, I’m not.”
“Please don’t presume I think you fancy me. I’m not that vain. It’s just, you know, I don’t want to string you along.”
“Its okay, don’t worry, thanks for telling me. I do fancy you actually- do you mind?”
“No, not at all, no, I’m flattered, thank you. Erm, this doesn’t hurt you does it?”
“No, don’t be silly, I’m not made of jelly.” Peter jested, imitating the movement of the pudding. “Anyway I can switch it off. Fancying blokes is like applying for jobs- you get used to rejection. But I must say, I’ve never met anyone who’s behaviour has been quite so deceptive.” Peter held in his memory the sight of a man, swaying at the bar by his side, filling him up with drinks, laughing at his every other utterance and almost without exception fixing him with a gaze so bright and seemingly imploring (seemingly so it now transpired) it almost blew his brains out. James, for his part, felt that sudden, sinking feeling of the implosion of innocence which he’d known far too many times for his liking; and despite Peter’s generally amiable behaviour wasn’t sure how this last remark would leave the prospects of his own designs. A warm, broad smile spreading across Peter’s face, however, quickly reassured him.’
“I mean, it wasn’t just me. All my friends. They were certain I was on to a sure thing.”
“Sorry, it wasn’t intentional.”
“So, if its not to be, why did you want to see me again?”
“Well....how can I put it. You see, apart, of course, from the sexual misunderstanding, my behaviour, my interest in you- it was genuine. I found your mind, what you were saying, fascinating, amazing, quite apart of course from being bloody funny.”
“Really, why thank you.”
“No really, don’t laugh, I did, I felt I wanted to see you again. I thought maybe we could be friends.” James immediately realised how lame a remark that was, a recognition confirmed by Peter’s look of precipitous scrutiny.
“And I thought maybe, because you’re out of work and hard up, and because that makes me sad, I thought I might offer you a job.”
“What, as jester- for you? Do you do shows, or run a comedy circuit, or something?” To Peter this latest revelation really did come as a shock, but then he couldn’t help being intrigued. It had been ten months since he’d left Centrepoint, and though for most of this time he hadn’t wanted or needed to work he now did and was on the lookout. But what on earth was he driving at.
“No, no, nothing like that, though that’s not a bad idea, actually. No, I was more interested in your experience as a social worker, and of working with the homeless, and your knowledge of the charity sector, and.......and, well, for want of a better phrase, your idealism and general view of the world.”
Peter was confused, but wherever this was going it did at least shed light on the majority of James’s few remarks of last night- those focused, amiable enquiries into his profession and beliefs. He shifted in his seat and took a long gulp of coffee, before realising what until then hadn’t concerned him at all, that he had not the slightest idea what this man did for a living.
“My “idealism”, my “general view of the world”- what are you, a journalist?”
“Nothing like that.”
Peter struggled to come to terms with what had been said and what to make of the offer put to him. He felt the £5,000 in his pocket - a downpayment of trust James had called it but curiously with no obligation attached and thought - do I want to work for a nutter? He recalled James’ words: “Take the £5,000. Walk away if you want. Spend it, enjoy it and that will be an end to it. I’m glad to have been of help. Alternatively, write me the report, research the matter and I’ll pay you £10k a month for as long as the project takes. If you’re successful I’ll reward you with a further £1,000,000. And Peter, don’t tell anyone who’s put the money up or it’s over, which would be sad.”