Since it’s been quiet on YZ lately, I thought it would be safe to post another chapter of The Lemon Squash Continental Hotel, work I’ve returned to after a long layoff. The first 2 chapters were posted here in script format, but what follows is more like a novel. When I started in academia, I was warned ‘Never ask for comments on a genuine first draft. You work it up until it’s the 3rd or 4th draft, and then tell them it’s the first. Otherwise they’ll murder you.’ This really is a first draft. I don’t think the structure is going to change much – very simple, no backstory, no subplots – but hopefully the style will be refined. But does this storyline grab you? The book is a sequel to Glimpses, and this chapter follows on from one in which Guido’s father arranges for him to get a bedsitter in a house in London’s Notting Hill.
Sixty-two Chepstow Villas was an odd gaff. The exterior stucco was painted a dark ultramarine blue, so dark it was almost black. Bit creepy. Not a bad room, though. First floor front, big Victorian sash windows, plenty of light. Guido sat down on the bed, carefully laid out his Rizlas, tobacco and a quarter ounce of Afghan Black, and began rolling a three-skin joint. He noticed the bed wobbled a bit when he moved around. One of the legs was loose. Better point that out to the landlord, before he got blamed for damaging it. There was also a meter for the gas fire in his room, but it seemed to be jammed. Didn’t need the fire in this heat wave, he thought, but I’d better go and find the landlord, in case I get blamed for that as well.
Still, the room wasn’t bad for five quid a week, even if the furniture needed a bit of attention. It would do for a few months, while he kept his head down. Which meant absolutely no dope dealing, because that would be asking for trouble. Get a straight job, until all the fuss over Ronnie Fizz had died down. And pay off his gambling debt, before someone was tempted to grass him up. Pam was right about him being in the frame, because he’d been in the motor with Tommy Bolt. The Bill would try to make out he worked for the Maltese, like Tommy. Mind you, a lot of people must be in the frame over this. Everyone wanted to see that fucker dead.
He held the joint up and admired its shape: not many people could roll a joint as neat as that. Instead of lighting up, he placed the joint on his pillow, eased off his left boot and sniffed inside. Pretty vile. Luckily he had a full bottle of talc in his bag, so he sprinkled a generous measure in both boots. There was only one grotty bathroom for six rooms, and the bathroom meter took a shilling, so he wouldn’t be having too many baths. Wouldn’t matter as long as long as he bought plenty of talc. He never travelled without talc, because it saved washing all the time.
He heard a creak on the floorboards outside his room. Guido thought he’d glimpsed the landlord hiding on the basement stairs when the Major showed him around yesterday, but it might just have been a shadow. He tucked the joint on the mantlepiece behind his alarm clock, handling it gingerly, as if it was an unexploded bomb, and tiptoed to the door. He opened it as quietly as he could. As he peered into the hall, he saw the landlord lurking on next flight of stairs up.
‘Ah — the new man,’ the landlord announced. ‘I’m John Marchant. I’m the owner.’ Marchant squinted at Guido through an old pair of spectacles that had been repaired with sticking plaster over the bridge of the nose.
‘Just want to show you my bed leg,’ Guido said. ‘It’s loose. And my meter’s jammed.’
‘Show the Major. He deals with everything practical. Everything to do with the outside world is the Major’s domain. I haven’t been out since Suez. The Major helps me out with my shopping, so he doesn’t pay any rent; he’s got what you might call a Grace and Favour apartment.’
Marchant’s glasses perched on his nose precariously, and he’d acquired a habit of readjusting them whenever he spoke. Guido watched as they slid slowly down the man’s nose, until checked by a forefinger and pushed back up.
‘Glad to know my father’s of use to someone,’ Guido said.
‘You’re not a witch are you?’
‘This house is full of bloody witches. Her on the top floor, she’s one. So’s that Denise on your floor. If you see them together, they look like a female version of the ruddy Kray twins. Actually, Denise is quite good looking, but if anyone ever looked like a vampire, she does. She looks like that actress from the Brides of Dracula? Andree Melly? Here, come and see all the paraphernalia in her room.’
Marchant unlocked the door next to Guido’s with his pass key and pushed it open. The scent of sandalwood drifted out. ‘Joss sticks,’ Marchant sniffed. ‘They all burn them. To cover what else they’re smoking, I expect.’ He strode into Denise’s bedsitter.
Guido hung back. ‘I think I should be going,’ he said.
‘Look at this,’ Marchant said, pulling a book off Denise’s bookshelves and holding it up for inspection. ‘The Sacred Magick of Abramelin the Mage … It’s still the bloody Middle Ages round here … Apart from all the lingerie, of course.’ He nodded towards Denise’s black silk underwear, spread over the back of a chair, and gave a conspiratorial wink.
Guido felt increasingly uneasy. What if Marchant was some kind of voyeur or fetishist? Maybe he went around touching the women’s underwear when they were out? What if Denise came back while they were still in her room?
‘I need to see if the Major’s down his lock-up,’ Guido said. ‘He might have some work for me, humping furniture. Needs must …’ He stopped himself from completing the sentence, ‘… when the devil drives’, in case it sounded like approval of Denise’s interests.
‘She calls these books Grimoires. Is that healthy? I mean, is it normal? … As soon as a room’s vacant they send someone round for it. The Major’s the only normal tenant left. And you, of course. They’re taking this bloody house over … Look at these daggers. What do you suppose they use them for? … How’s this for bedside bloody reading?’
Marchant had found more evidence of abnormality on the bedside table. He held aloft a large leather-bound volume of some antiquity.
‘Sadducismus Triumphatus, or Full and Plain Evidence concerning the Loathsome and Malevolent Practice of Witchcraft,’ he announced, reading slowly and deliberately. ‘St Paul’s Churchyard, London, 1666. The year of publication would be 666, wouldn’t it? Just listen to this:
… these Monstrous Women take Elm, which is the Devil’s wood, and fashion a Male Member, which they attach to their Loathsome Bodies by Leather Thongs, in order to commit the sin of Sodomy upon both men and women. In this manner they worship Lilith, who was, the Church Fathers tell us, Adam’s first wife, condemned by Almighty God for refusing to serve Adam, and for taking upon herself the male birthright … And men who have congress with these Witches are corrupted, giving up their Immortal Souls to Satan, who is the enemy of God … becoming in their ignorance the Base Servants of a woman, which is contrary to Nature.
‘Would reading that settle you down for peaceful slumber, Guido? They believe in shafting men with ruddy artificial cocks. Better not bend over in front of that Denise. Not unless you’re that way inclined?’
Marchant pushed his glasses back up his nose and squinted at Guido, who felt obliged to say something macho, but could only manage, ‘Not bloody likely’.
She didn’t open the front door in a conventional way, because she had both arms full of shopping. She twisted her limbs into an impossible contortion so she could turn the key while still clutching her shopping bags, then hit the door sideways with her buttocks, so that it burst open. While manoeuvring sideways through the door, she sang in a loud and raucous voice:
Groovin’ . . . on a Sunday afternoon,
Really couldn’t get away too soon.
‘The Young Rascals,’ Guido called out from halfway down the stairs, en route for his father’s lock-up.
‘Here, give us a hand with this …’ She steadied a shopping bag with her chin and extended a hand to be shaken. ‘Denise Moorcroft. You must be Guido Roberts, my new neighbour? Any relation to Major Roberts, our sodding janitor?’
‘He’s my father. Would you like a coffee? I can manage a jar of instant, and an electric kettle?’
‘Well, I’ve got some dried milk here, if you like it white?’
Guido gave a mock bow, and swept his arm sideways in an invitation to Denise to join him.
‘I’ve heard quite a bit about you already,’ Guido admitted, as he carried her bags upstairs. ‘The landlord’s convinced you’re a witch. You and your friends?’
‘We are witches,’ Denise said, with a bright smile. ‘We’re the real thing, not like those bloody Gardinerian witches up Notting Hill Gate. Or all the sodding Alexandrian witches who drink in the Bell. We’re the authentic wiccan lineage, the Divine Sisters of Lilith.’
‘All gobbledegook to me, I’m afraid.’ She really did look as though she was auditioning for the Brides of Dracula, Guido thought. Her dark eyes were lined with kohl, and her skin was so pale it looked as though she powdered her face with white flour. Her lipstick was black, or purple, he couldn’t be sure which. She had deliberately created this horror comic look, he decided, because she wanted to make people keep their distance. Except she didn’t seem at all reserved or inhibited; quite the reverse. She was sprawling over his bed, rather than sitting in the room’s sole armchair.
‘Lilith is the Great Goddess,’ Denise said.
Guido wondered whether her relaxed manner meant he could score with her. She had a good figure. Big tits, must be 38 inches. Bigger than Pam’s. Bet she had big nipples. With big, black Oriole. Or was it Areole? Or were they called Aureoles? Big, black Aureola, bigger than half-crowns.
‘I meant all that stuff about different kinds of witches,’ he said. ‘That’s double dutch to me.’
‘We’re serious about matriarchy. You can’t call yourself a witch and take orders from a man, like the bloody Gardinerians and the Alexandrians. We actually believe in female supremacy. Women are in charge in our covens.’
‘There was some Christian legend about Lilith?’ Guido wanted to change the subject and tried to remember the passage Marchant had recited.
‘Jewish legend. About the first Eve. Lilith was created out of the earth at the same time as Adam, but she walked out of Paradise rather than submit to patriarchy.’ Denise had become serious and rather intense. ‘Lilith was created equal, so why should she submit? She told Jehovah to fuck off. She rebelled on principle, not out of foolish pride. Lilith took control of her own sexuality and exerted her right to be a free being. So Jehovah made the second Eve out of Adam’s rib, in order that she would be inferior and accept male domination. You get it?’
‘Well, I’m not very religious, myself,’ Guido said, handing her a cup of coffee. ‘My only faith is in the gee-gees. Ask me who’s going to win the 2.30 at Kempton Park tomorrow?’
‘Gordon Bennett, another sodding loser!’ Denise threw her head back and gave a deep, earthy laugh. ‘And I thought you were going to say you were a rationalist, and didn’t believe in witchcraft.’
‘Yeah, that as well.’ He resented the way she kept laughing at him.
Denise gyrated around on his bed and sang:
There ain’t a place I’d like to be instead of
Groovin’ . . . down a crowded avenue.
‘Watch that bed,’ Guido said. ‘It’s got a wobbly leg.’
‘They all have. Your dad doesn’t do much in the way of maintenance … Anyway, you can come to one of our sabbats, if you want to know more about wicca. And as a bonus you’ll get to see me in the nude. Naked as nature intended.’
Guido swallowed hard. ‘What makes you think I want to do that?’
‘The way you’ve been staring at my tits ever since we met.’
Guido felt his cheeks burn in embarrassment. ‘Thanks, but it would depend on what Pam says. My chick.’
Denise smiled and tilted her chin at an angle, as though questioning what he had said. He felt he had been caught out telling a stupid lie.
Guido hadn’t been joking when he told Denise that gambling was his religion. It was a spiritual quest. Winning a bet was like hitting the bulls-eye for those Zen archers, it was proof that a man was in harmony with the universe. Some days begin well; you just know you’re attuned to the cosmos. Everything fits. The sun comes out, although the weatherman forecast rain; women fall in love with you, and your horse comes in, even at impossible odds. Another day, nothing works — you’re clumsy, you slip on a banana skin, you miss the bus by a few seconds. It doesn’t matter what tips you’ve had, everything goes wrong. The smart punter never bets when it’s one of those dark days.
Guido knew he was going to be lucky today. He stood naked in the bath, sprinkling talc from his neck to his feet, making sure he worked plenty of talcum powder between each toe. Then he dressed in his new Levis and a clean T-shirt. While he was dragging a brush through his shoulder-length hair, he took a call on the pay-phone in hall. Excellent news: Pam was taking the night off and would come over in the late afternoon. Today was going to be a golden day.
A song was going round in his head, and he started singing the chorus, over and over: it was Denise’s song, Groovin‘ by the Young Rascals. What was that about, he thought? Got it! Need to stay in the groove today. It was what he called a One-shot Day, when you hit gold on your first play, and then quit. Go to the betting shop, put one bet on, and then leave.
Buoyed up by a spirit of unconquerable optimism, Guido reached the bookies in Pembridge Road in time for the first race on the card, and put his last fiver on Mister Micawber to win at 11-1. It came in first, just as he knew it would. He pocketed sixty quid, enough to treat Pam to a few drinks at the Colville that night and put aside a big stake for the rest of the week, when he would set about earning enough bread to pay off his debts. Obeying his rules for a One-shot Day, Guido walked out of the betting shop and set off in search of the Major, who he hadn’t seen since he moved in.
He found the old man at his lock-up, off the lower end of Portobello Road. The Major kept his barrow there, together with some of the stock.
‘Need a hand?’ Guido asked, sticking his head around the door.
‘Not unless you’re going to do a full day’s work,’ the Major sniffed. ‘I’m not paying you to prat about.’
‘Can’t give you a full day today, I’m meeting Pam later. But I can work tomorrow. Hump some furniture? Man the stall on Saturday?’
‘I don’t bother with the furniture these days. I’ve gone over to prints and art work. These icons.’ The Major opened the lid of a cardboard box, and Guido saw a stack of Russian icons. ‘You could make some of these for me.’
Guido picked up a gold Madonna and child, about a foot square: ‘You must be mad. No one’s going to be taken in by these. They look too new. You’ve got to age them up a bit.’
‘They’re not Sexton Blakes, you idiot. People buy them as pictures, they know they ain’t real. All you got to do is stick these reproductions on wooden panels, from the backs of those old wardrobes. Then give them a coat of varnish. I knock them out for five or ten quid. If I wanted to fake one, it would be a lot more work, and it’d sell for thousands. Not saying we don’t turn out the odd Sexton Blake occasionally, but it needs some careful work. I’ve got an artist over Ladbroke Grove does them to order.’
‘How much will you pay me?’
‘Thirty bob for the small ones, two quid for the large.’
‘Two quid each and you’ve got a deal.’
‘No, I won’t make enough. I’ve got to find the rent for this place. Thirty bob for the small ones, two quid for the large, or you can sod off.’
‘Anyone ever tell you, you’re a tight git?’ Guido sighed.
– Larry Harrison