A flashback chapter from 'Ten Viterbi', first in the series, in which the narrator meets his muse for the first time. This section is 'tame' compared to much in the series, being here primarily to introduce the characters. Also pokes fun at... you'll have to read it to find out, won't you?
I sighed as I contemplated the buffet once more.
Sebastian’s parties were always like that.
Oh, there’s nothing wrong with the quantity or quality of either food or drink, the appropriateness of the music, or the popularity of the host, but one way or another they always seem to feel like remarkably hard work.
Maybe the music is always just a bit too loud, maybe the heating is always up a bit too high, or maybe its just that I don’t really fit in with the rest of Sebastian’s friends.
I mean they’re all a pretty good lot all things considered; those things being the land, titles, and the amount of money they all have, but I have none of those and with the best will in the world I always feel like an outsider, however welcoming they are.
Sebastian isn’t a snob, far from it or I wouldn’t have got a look in, but they are simply the sort of people he was brought up with, went to school with, and knocks around The City with, which makes them pretty much the only people he knows. They are all perfectly nice, and almost militantly egalitarian, (he wouldn’t put up with the other sort however much money they had,) but with a few exceptions they are all rather reminiscent of Tim Nice-But-Dim. I think Sebastian knows it too, which may be why he seems to like having me around.
There are a few notable exceptions that Sebastian has managed to acquire over the years; Myself for one, and Bran Richardson for another. Yes, yes I know; he may be the seventh richest person in the country, but Sebastian didn’t know that when he found him at the side of the A1 one wet Wednesday afternoon in November, trying to fix his Morgan with nothing but a chewing gum wrapper and two paperclips.
Then there was that mysterious woman in jeans and sweater I’d seen here and there over the last hour or so. I’d never seen her before, and she certainly didn’t seem to have come from the same mold as the other guests, but she looked perfectly at ease for all that, minding her own business, and with every male eye locked on and tracking like an over-optimistic Rapier battery, desperately trying to summon up the nerve to open fire. A bit over half the female ones too, come to think of it. I hadn’t seen her for the last few minutes, and vaguely wondered where she’d gone.
Anyway I’m at risk of jumping ahead of myself here, so let's get back to the events in order.
By about seven my head was starting to swim.
I’d not had that much to drink, but I’d put away even less of the buffet so what I’d had drunk was hitting my bloodstream like a freight train. I decided to step away from the Hooray-Henrys for a few moments in the hopes the September breeze would shift the cobwebs a little so, collecting another glass of bubbly with my right hand and a clutch of prawn cocktail vol-au-vents with my left, I headed for the door that let out onto the formal garden.
I wasn’t really looking where I was going, but that wasn’t the reason I nearly ran into a man-mountain in the doorway.
For a moment I was merely embarrassed, thinking I’d nearly knocked down another of the guests, and I muttered an apology and stepped aside to let him pass. He didn’t move, but remained standing in the doorway, which was more than a little strange.
“Please, after you.” I ventured, and swept my fistful of vol-au-vents in what I intended to be an inviting gesture. He still didn’t move.
By now it was beginning to dawn on me that something was slightly amiss. ‘See, you are drunk,’ passed through my mind.
I looked at the man more closely. I didn’t recognize him, but that was true for a fair proportion of Sebastian’s guests, and new ones were turning up all the time so that wasn’t much of a surprise.
He didn’t have a glass in either hand though, which certainly put him in a minority.
Mentally shrugging my shoulders I decided not to worry unduly, and made to squeeze past the man, only to find my way barred by an arm the size of a tree-trunk.
I stepped back in surprise, and looked again.
For some reason, despite the September evening gloom, he was wearing sunglasses. His suit was impeccably tailored, and buttoned, but however good the tailoring it was unable to completely hide the slight bulge under the left armpit.
“Excuse me,” I ventured, “I’d like to use the door, if you’d be so kind.”
“Not now sir.” was the short reply. His accent was American, with more than an element of southern twang to it.
Nonplussed I didn’t know how to respond to that. “I beg your pardon?” I managed at last.
“You can’t use the door at this present moment in time.” and he added as an afterthought, “Sir.”
I was at a loss. People just don’t talk to you like that in England, after all. “Why not?”
“My employer does not wish to be disturbed.”
What? I was stunned. I’d just about had my fill of toffee-nosed plonkers by this time and, as aforementioned, I’d had a bit to drink on an empty stomach so was starting to feel a bit combative. I knew perfectly well that he didn’t work for Sebastian, and he wouldn’t put up with anyone in his employ acting like that anyway.
I thought for a moment, and hit on the ideal response.
“That’s nice for him.” I replied, “Why don’t you tell him the bathroom down the hall is free if he wants a bit of me-time, but right this instant I would like to go out to the garden.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t let you do that right now.” came the blank response. The tone indicated that the speaker meant it, and was used to having his way.
“What?” My voice may have risen a few decibels here, and I suspect it had risen an octave too.
“I said,” He levered himself up to his maximum height, though still spoke quietly, “I can’t let you do that right now.”
By now the exchange had been noticed, and a small crowd had started to gather.
“Who exactly do you think you are?” I asked.
“And who precisely does your employer think he is?” inquired another chap who’d just sauntered up. I later found out he was Bertie, one of Sebastian’s oldest school friends from Eton.
“I’m just doing what I’m told.” Mountain replied. He planted his feet a little further apart, unbuttoned his jacket, and placed his balled fists on each hip. The threat was clear.
“Told by who?” Bertie’s voice rose in outrage.
Before he could reply Sebastian arrived with, “What the devil is going on here?”
Obviously recognizing the host, Mountain began to look distinctly uncomfortable, but didn’t move a muscle despite that.
Bertie replied, “This moron,” indicating Mountain, “won’t let this man,” indicating me, “out of the house!”
“I was just trying to step out for some air,” I explained, “when this chap decided to make an issue of it.”
Sebastian wasn’t amused. He turned to Mountain. “Well, let him out.”
Mountain seemed to shrink a bit, but remained in place with a blank expression, and eyes fixed on the middle distance.
Sebastian tried again, “I said, ‘Let him out’!”
Mountain still didn’t move, and his blank expression firmed.
Sebastian was clearly at a loss now, not used to being treated like this anywhere, let alone inside his own house, and his cool was starting to crack, “Get out of the bloody doorway, at once!”
I decided to take a slightly different approach to the problem. The quest for air had now gone from a vague preference to a life-or-death matter, and I was determined to get out to the garden, that specific bit of garden, right now, and by any means necessary.
Leaving the group I crossed the Great Hall, where most of the guests were oblivious to the drama unfolding behind them. I drained my glass and left it on an occasional table, then turned left past the library, exited via the lobby, and set off across the lawn to return to my starting point via the outdoors.
Dusk had well and truly fallen by now, and the small amount of daylight still lingering in the sky served to heighten rather than penetrate the shadows, an effect made worse by the many kilowatts of artificial light emanating from every window. The late warm spell was clearly over and the distinct chill in the air, combined with a mid-sized dose of adrenaline in my bloodstream that my encounter with Mountain had caused, was sobering me up fast.
As I was about to round the west tower I caught the sound of a foot on gravel, and paused. I recalled the bulge under Mountain’s armpit and for a moment wondered if there might be more like him out here.
I turned away from the lights for a few moments to allow my eyes to adjust to the gloom, then looked around the corner. The formal garden was before me, and I could just make out the gravel paths, as lighter stripes on the darker lawn. I couldn’t make out anyone there though.
Then the sound came again and, homing in on the source, I caught sight of a man and a woman standing by the sundial at the garden’s center. The man had his back to me, and appeared to have his arm around the woman’s waist.
“Is that what it’s all about?” I thought to myself, “There are plenty of empty bedrooms upstairs and they’re a whole lot warmer.”
I watched for a moment. Not intending to intrude on their privacy, but after a few seconds something just struck me a slightly wrong about the scene. The man may have had his arm around her waist, and she wasn’t obviously trying to get away, but from the little I could see in the gloom it struck me that she maybe wasn’t overly keen to be there either.
I resolved to investigate further, and advanced across the manicured turf.
“…. two helicopters and a new jet.” The man was saying. His accent was more New-York-Business than hick-from-the-sticks, but clearly this had to be Mountain’s employer as his was the only other American accent I’d heard that evening.
“I really couldn’t care a fig for what you’ve bought.” Came a soft contralto.
“But…” the man sounded a little unsure, as if he wasn’t used to hearing people say anything like that.
I’d got about half way across the section of lawn now, still unnoticed, and was getting complacent and a bit careless. Not looking where I was going, I stumbled noisily onto one of the gravel pathways that crossed the formal garden like a network of minefields. Instantly aware of my mistake I was nevertheless determined to play it out. I subtly ditched the still-untasted prawn cocktail vol-au-vents into a convenient herbaceous border, thrust my hands into my pockets in what I fondly hoped was a nonchalant manner, and kept going.
At the first crunch of shoe on gravel, the man froze.
At the second, his head snapped round to me with a glare.
At the third, and without taking his eyes off me he shouted “Carter!” then he turned towards me he hissed, “How dare you…”
Mountain, (obviously otherwise known as Carter,) came round the opposite corner of the house at a run scant seconds later, followed more sedately after a few moments by Sebastian, Bertie, and about half a dozen more of the guests.
The man froze again, still glaring at me but with his eyes taking in the crowd arriving from his right.
I continued to walk towards the couple, slowly, as if out for a quiet stroll. I was determined not to be intimidated by either his arrogance or his hired muscle, though said muscle, especially given the bulge under the left armpit, was distinctly intimidating, as was obviously the intention. As a precaution I removed my hands from my pockets and kept them visible.
The woman regarded me quizzically, glanced at the advancing crowd, then leaned her head back slightly to study her companion. He wasn’t paying any attention to her at that moment, eyes still locked on me, though his arm tightened perceptibly around her waist.
She assessed the situation for a few moments, and reached a decision.
“Darling!” she squealed, turning towards me, “I was beginning to think you’d never get here!”
I understood her game at once. “Sorry sweetie, traffic on the motorway.” I replied.
She shook off the arm, advanced to meet me, and took both my hands in hers. Clearly relieved she flashed me a delighted smile, that I could no more avoid returning than a compass could point east.
“I was starting to worry,” she continued.
“No need!” I replied,
“You could have called,” a little petulant.
“I did, but it went straight to voicemail.” I decided to throw her a bone, “Not surprising, the cell coverage is lousy out here in the sticks.”
Mountain/Carter arrived, but stopped at a gesture from the man.
“Darling?” he queried.
“My fiancé of course.” The woman replied and with a little wave of her fingers, then looked at me accusingly, “Late as usual!”
Lacing her arm through mine she turned her back on him to forestall any further discussion on the subject. She all but dragged me a few yards down the path.
“Thank you.” She breathed as soon as we were out of earshot.
“Was he causing you a problem?” I asked.
“Oh, no problem as such,” she replied, “ or at least nothing I couldn’t deal with, but it was getting a bit…. awkward.”
Clearly the man had finally worked out he’d overstepped the bounds of hospitality, and had concluded that a desperate rearguard action was called for to redeem the social faux pas. Before either Bertie or Sebastian were able to utter a syllable he tore into Carter with a reasonable imitation of fury.
“Carter! We’ve spoken about this! You can’t throw your weight around in other peoples’ homes; you’re not in the Secret Service any more!
“But Sir, I thought you said…”
The man cut him off, waving his right index finger right under Mountain's nose for emphasis, “I don’t care what you think I said, that’s enough.”
Having seen the precursor I knew the scene was contrived, so I was watching Carter as closely as I could from the corner of my eye. I saw him look pointedly at the man’s left hand and, following his glance, noted the odd position of the fingers on it; first and third extended, others curled. No-one who hadn’t been looking would have noticed the gesture, but it was obviously some sort of covert communication between them. Carter nodded very slightly, then pasted a contrite expression onto his face.
“Sorry Sir.” If he hadn’t been speaking a fair imitation of English I’d have said he sounded like a beaten puppy, “I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
“You certainly will!” the man assured him, “Now we’re all friends here,” he flashed a hopeful smile at Sebastian, ”so I don’t think my life is in danger at the moment. Why don’t you go and wait for me in the helicopter.” I noticed the first finger now made a loop with the thumb.
With a nod to his employer, a brief glare at me, but without so much as a glance at either host or guests Carter marched off in the direction of the park.
The man turned to Sebastian, “I’m really sorry if Carter has been exceeding his orders again. He used to look after the President you see, and old habits die hard…..” there followed one of those scenes where manners displace truth, polite drivel displaces reality, and everyone buys in despite knowing what total bollocks it all is.
Eventually the crowd broke up and most, fortunately including the man, returned to the party.
The lady made an excuse about ‘freshening up’ and departed back to the main house. I was sorry to see her go, as was Sebastian if his expression was anything to go by.
He came over to where I was standing, feeling rather forlorn.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to cause a fuss.” I said.
“Wasn’t your fault, don’t fret!” Sebastian replied.
“So who was that?” I inquired, indicating the lady as she disappeared back into the house.
“That's 'Ten,' apparently.” replied Sebastian following my gaze.
“True enough, ” Bertie affirmed wistfully, “But what's her name?”
“That is her name,” Sebastian looked sheepish, “or as much of it as I know,” he admitted, “I only met her yesterday.”
A full set of raised eyebrows greeted that admission.
“In Costa on Oxford street. It was a bit busy so she plonked down at my table. We got chatting and, well, before I knew it I'd sort of invited her along.”
The eyebrows rose even higher.
“I wasn't hitting on her, just being polite, and I honestly didn't expect her to come.”
Bertie gave a dirty laugh.
“You know better than that,” he gave Bertie a reproachful look, “I've given her the blue room.” he thought for a second or two and, looking pointedly at Bertie, added, “And the key.”
Bertie looked put out for a moment, but nodded his head to acknowledge the hint before changing the subject.
“So who was that annoying prat with the tame gorilla then?” he asked.
“Christian Gray.” Sebastian replied.
“You mean ‘Contract Gray’” Bran laughed, sauntering up to us with Snork and Knocker in tow, “He's famous, though not in the way he'd like to be.”
“Contract?” Sebastian raised an eyebrow inquiringly.
“As in,” Bran stepped a little to his left and put on a classic ‘wing commander’ accent, “I say Mr Gray, would you care for a coffee?”
Then he leaned a little right and assumed a remarkable pastiche of Gray’s Mid-Atlantic drawl, “Certainly, I’ll get my lawyers to draw up the contract.”
“Or,” back to the left, “Would you care to sit here Mr Gray?”
And again in the character of Gray, “Of course, I’ll get my real estate team to purchase the freehold.”
Warming to his theme he continued.
“Would you care to meet for lunch?”
“Why not, I’ll buy a little cafe in Oxford Street at once.”
By this time Bran had begun to draw a crowd.
Knocker chimed in, “Mr Gray, would you be so kind as to pass the salt?”
Bran replied, “Naturally, but I insist you pass me both the pepper and the mustard in recompense.”
Then Snork had a go, “Mr Gray, may I use your lavatory?”
“Of course, and I’ll only charge you the pro-rata ground rent and seventy five percent depreciation, seeing as you’re a friend.”
“Now now Bran,” Snork interjected, “be realistic. Mr Gray is proud of his mastery of the English language and would never use a word he didn’t know the meaning of.”
Everyone thought about that for a couple of seconds, you could see them replaying the lines in their heads. Pretty much as one they all came to the same final five-letter word, got the point and laughed uproariously.
Concluding that there was little chance of bettering that, most of the crowd wandered off to see whether Gray had left anything on the buffet.
Sebastian turned to me with a contrite expression on his face. “Sorry if he was being a pest.”
“However nice the party is he always manages to offend someone, it just seems to be a talent he has.” Bertie supplied. He thought for a few moments, then continued, “There’s not really any harm in him but, you see, he really does seem to believe his money makes him popular, and he’s so used to just buying anything he wants that he’s come to think of the whole world that way.”
“So why did you invite him?” Bran asked Sebastian.
“Well I was at a dinner at Lloyds a couple of weeks ago,” “You know the usual senior underwriters quarterly bun-fight. Anyway I spotted Bertie here and the rest of Eaton crowd all in a group together so I sauntered over to tell them about this do. When I got there I realized I knew the whole lot of them, except Gray of course. He looked so lost, hanging onto the outskirts of the gang like a new bug who hadn’t found his dorm yet, that I didn’t have the heart not to include him too.”
“Typical Gray, hanging onto coattails and trying to be noticed,“ Snork sniffed in contempt, ”Inside a week he’ll be telling himself we were all clustered around him and toasting his genius as he dispensed generous pearls of wisdom on the world financial markets to us poor ignorant minions.”
“Anyway, that’s not a good enough reason to saddle yourself with that arrogant pranny. You’ll be stuck with him now, clinging to you like a limpet any time he sees you. You do know that?”
Sebastian winced, “I suppose I felt a bit…,” he paused clearly hunting for the right word, “sorry for him. In a way.”
“Sorry?” Snork looked at him incredulously, “He was reckoned to be something like the seventeenth richest man in America last year; he’s probably got more stashed away than any four of us combined. I’d have his problems!”
“So if he’s so rich why can’t he relax a bit?” inquired Knocker, “What does he do with it all anyway?”
“Well I’ve heard a few rumors.” Bran supplied with a leer.
Everyone turned to him inquiringly.
“I’d rather not go into it in detail, but let’s just say I’d not like to be his girlfriend.”
“Does he have one?”
“Isn't that just something else he contracts in when he feels the need.” suggested Knocker.
“No, apparently he does, and I’ve heard she’s a real looker.”
“Oh, one of them.” Images paraded through our minds of anorexic supermodel-wannabes with six-inch heels, puffy lips, and nothing between the ears but an appetite for credit cards.
“No,” Bran countered, “I hear she isn’t what you’d expect as it happens. She’s that rarest of beasts; a fairly normal person that actually seems to like him.”
“Doesn't sound very 'normal' to me” Bertie commented. “There’s no accounting for taste I suppose.”
“So where was she this evening?”
“I hear she has a job, and takes it seriously.”
“So what’s he doing here, hitting on… whoever she was?” I asked.
“Ah, that is the question isn’t it?” Bertie sighed ambiguously.
“Mind you,” he continued after a moment, “You can’t exactly blame him, can you?” and he looked wistfully in the direction of the house.
The encounter had caused me to sober up pretty convincingly, but back in the hall it seemed as if bearding Christian Gray had made me a bit of a celebrity, which resulted in my being presented with many glasses of bubbly, but precious little food. Soon my head was swimming again.
Darkness had fallen by the time I eventually managed to escape for that bit of fresh air. I wandered out to the formal garden and leaned on the balustrade to listen to the night. It wasn’t as silent as I might have liked, marred as it was by the rising whine of a turbine warming up. I hunted for the source, and identified it as one of the helicopters at the far end of the park, the only one with the lights on.
As I watched the cabin door opened, and I could just identify Christian Gray climbing in. The door closed, blotting out the patch of light, and a few moments later the whine rose to a roar and the helicopter lifted into the air. I winced as the landing light briefly passed across me, then returned and lingered, catching me in the eyes and ruining my night vision, then it ascended further and the sound faded rapidly as it headed south into the rising wind.
Relative peace finally returned, marred only by the sound of the leaves in the trees and a distant beat emerging from the great hall.
I thought about Gray. My initial impression had cooled somewhat and, taking on board what Sebastian had said, I wondered if I’d judged him too harshly.
I laughed at myself when I realized that, if it hadn’t been for him I’d never have been able to find the nerve to talk to that beautiful lady he’d clearly been trying to chat up. I laughed again, ruefully, when I realized I’d probably not be able to summon the nerve to speak to her again even if I had the opportunity. Moot point; I guessed she must have left as I’d seen neither hide nor hair of her since our very brief encounter. I tried to imagine meeting her in the hall and introducing myself, but I was unable to come up with any lines that didn’t sound stilted and lame.
I sighed, and resigned myself to anonymity.
Besides, I concluded, with the best will in the world I was almost infinitely unlikely to ever see her again. I leaned my elbows on the cold stonework and, resting my chin in my hands, stared out into the night again.
“So where did you park your white stallion?”
I nearly jumped out of my skin as the soft contralto shattered my reverie. It had come from my left, no more than three feet way. I turned to see a silhouette leaning on the balustrade beside me. It was bereft of all detail, but the voice and the shape of her bob outlined against the glow emerging from the house identified the speaker with certainty.
I had been so wrapped up in my own thoughts I hadn’t heard a sound of her arrival, doubly surprising given the gravel path.
I struggled to find the right words to reply, or any words to tell the truth.
“Tied to a tree over there.” I managed at last, indicating a mass of darker foliage to the right.
“Sebastian won’t be happy if he eats a new way into the maze.” She replied with a laugh.
Her laughter was unforced and infectious, and I found myself joining in.
“Oh it was his suggestion.” I returned, “the jester got lost in there last year and he’s been sadly missed ever since.”
We fell silent, both staring out into the darkness. I could faintly feel the warmth radiating from her, there on my left, close but not quite touching. I wondered what it would feel like to lean my shoulder against hers, to feel the warmth through my shirt, the pressure of her body against mine. I longed to find out, but knew I’d not do anything about it. So close, but so far in so many ways.
I resolved to make the best of these minutes of companionable silence, and simply enjoy having her near me for a while.
“I looked for you inside.” She said suddenly, breaking the spell.
I turned to her in surprise.
“I wanted to say thanks for earlier, and for being so quick on the uptake.” She smiled. Though I couldn’t see it as such, I could hear the clear signs in her voice.
“Always glad to help, My Lady.” I bowed slightly.
“Do you make a habit of helping damsels in distress?”
“Not really, though that’s mostly for lack of opportunity.”
“The damsels, or the distress?”
“Both as it happens.”
We both laughed at that, then lapsed once more into companionable silence.
“There’s something else I wanted to do.” She resumed after a few seconds. This time she sounded less confident, nervous, and maybe a little scared.
“What was it, and would you like me to help?”
She turned towards me, and reached out to touch me, gently, on the arm. We faced each other for maybe half a minute, our faces no more than inches apart. I could tell that she was engaged in some sort of internal conflict.
“I…” she started, then hesitated, stalled.
Finally she took a deep breath, leaned forward very slightly, and kissed me gently on the lips.
I was surprised, but not shocked. After a second or so I responded gently, and she reached up and cupped my face in her hands. Neither of us moved, said a word, or even breathed.
“There’s no need..” I began.
“No, its not that…”
“Do you need to?” I could hear the smile in that, and a hint of mischief too.
I thought a moment. “Not really.” I concluded with a smile of my own. I found my arms were now gently wrapped around her. I didn’t know how they’d got there, but it seemed completely natural.
She leaned forward and kissed me again.
This time it lasted quite a bit longer.
The rest of the evening was, (and still is) a bit of a blur. I know we lingered there by the balustrade for quite a while before returning to the party.
I distinctly remember that I never got to try the prawn cocktail vol-au-vents, or pretty much anything else from the buffet truth be told, but my hunger had long since vanished into insignificance and my stomach had given up in disgust and stopped bothering me. I’m pretty certain I drank a fair bit more than I should have, but my head was spinning anyway so I guess it can’t have made a great difference.
I think I remember dancing (which is something I absolutely never did) but I've not the foggiest idea what music was playing.
I vaguely recall the envious looks directed in my direction by Bertie, Knocker, Bran, and.... just about every other red blooded male in the place come to think of it.
I don't know how late we partied. I do know the party was still in full swing when we left, but that doesn't help much as Sebastian's parties always include breakfast, and often lunch too. No, my memory is mostly a blank right up until the moment the key went click in her bedroom door, then everything switches into high definition. Then suddenly her body was pressed against me, her lips were on mine, her hands reached for my buttons with sudden urgency....
And for the next few hours the rest of the world might as well not have existed.
And what I do remember, and know I will never forget as long as I have a pulse, is one single moment of that first night I spent with Tennyson Viterbi.