How Justin Met Vera
The foyer at the Chatsfield Hotel was how Justin Yorke imagined the vestibule of a huge Roman villa would be. One enormous gallery, divided into three spaces by two sets of arches and pillars. Though the floors were not tessellated, each one was set with an ornate marble pattern, black and white chequers leading to blue and cream diamonds, leading to brown and red-veined modernistic swirls. The fountain of champagne glasses stacked six tiers high was set up in the first space, the entrance to the hotel, where the privileged guests would register for their privileged suites. They would be taken there in the gilded lift with its plush red seats, for heaven forfend they have to stand for the few minutes it took to climb to their privileged heights. In the meantime, their mountains of luggage would be hoisted up the back stairs by some poor soul sweating in a preposterous outfit that no doubt reminded him of the uniform he’d left off in the fields of France a few years before.
Justin metaphorically rolled his eyes. Five minutes, he’d been here, and he was already on his high horse. The point was not to judge, but to observe. Maybe even do as Dex bid him, and try to remember how to enjoy himself. Maybe.
The stage was set up in the space between the two sets of colonnades. Where future guests would take afternoon tea, there was a crush of night-club style tables for the audience. Soft wall lights were shaded by plaster fans and scallop shells. The air was heady with the scent of hothouse flowers, perfume, powder, and too many bodies. A haze of cigarette smoke curled around the huge chandelier that formed its own galaxy of stars in the centre of the room. Almost every woman present puffed from a long cigarette holder. Smoking was no longer improper, merely shocking, and shocking was de rigeur these days. It was not only faces that were powdered but knees too. Lips were painted. Eyes were heavily underlined. Hemlines were rising.
Before the War, Justin would have been part of the crowd, dancing, laughing, drinking and rutting his way from dusk till dawn. Looking around the room, at the couture dresses, the silks and satins and diamonds and furs, at the sleek, the too- well-fed and deliberately under-fed, the rich, the famous and the elite that he’d been born into, gone to school with and served with, reminded him that he had everything and nothing in common with them.
It made him uncomfortable. Was he a hypocrite? Given the choice, wouldn’t almost everyone do what they were doing? Would it really make a difference if they stayed at home and vented their spleen as he did? He doubted it. All very well to despise them in theory, but pretty much impossible in practice. It wasn’t the party-goers who were in the wrong, but the world.
The piano at which Noel Coward had sat was being moved to one side. The man really did have the rapier-like wit they all talked about, and the ability to lampoon without turning the crowd against him. Perhaps it was because Coward was one of them, laughing at himself as much as his audience. While Justin…
He sighed impatiently. He had no idea what he was doing. A sense of hopelessness enveloped him. He wished to hell he’d stayed away. He didn’t belong here any more, but it brought home to him the fact he no longer belonged anywhere. Was he lonely? It hadn’t occurred to him to ask. He was certainly feeling very much alone tonight.
‘Here, old boy, get this down you.’ Dex removed the untouched glass of champagne, substituting it with a tumbler of amber liquor. ‘Scotch,’ he added, ‘plain enough, even for you. Drink up, and just for once try to relax.’
Justin grimaced. ‘Sorry. Am I such a pain in the arse? No, don’t answer that,’ he said, grinning. ‘To the Chatsfield. May it become all the rage.’
Dex raised his glass. ‘Oh, I expect that’s a done deal, with David Chatsfield in charge. You don’t fool me you know. You’re wishing the place would go up in flames.’
‘No.’ Justin took a swallow of whisky. ‘I’m wishing the world was a different place, that’s all.’
‘You won’t get any argument from me there,’ Dex said, frowning down at his half-empty champagne glass. ‘It’s time for a change. That’s why I asked you here.’
‘Twisted my arm, more like.’
‘I’d have dragged you kicking and screaming if I had to.’
‘Why? Spill it, what’s going on?’
Dex smiled. ‘I’m leaving. Actually, I’m emigrating. I’m going to try my hand in the movie business.’
‘Good God!’ Justin took a large swallow of whisky. ‘I didn’t see that one coming. When?’
His friend laughed. ‘Tomorrow, actually. Hence the invite. This is my last night in London.’
‘Bloody hell, Dex, why so sudden? Do you know anything about the movie business?’
‘No, but I have a friend who does. A very particular friend.’ Dex smiled awkwardly. ‘You know how I am, what I am. I’m sick and tired of pretending. In California, I hope I won’t have to. And as to the movie business – I have pots of money, and I have sound judgement and an eye to a good investment. More importantly, I need a change. And so, Dear Boy, do you.’
‘What do you mean?’ Justin’s eyes narrowed. Dex smiled, the smile the gossip columnists called winsome. Justin was neither won nor impressed. He folded his arms. ‘What’s going on?’
His friend looked not the least bit intimidated. ‘What’s going on, is that I’m tying up loose ends, and doing you a favour in the process. As you might know if you read the gossip columns, I have a girl. A very lovely girl. I’d like you to take her on.’ Dex held up his hand to prevent Justin from speaking. ‘I know, I know, you don’t need a girl, and even if you did, you don’t need me to find one for you. Well, you’re wrong on both counts. I don’t know what happened to you after the War or why you disappeared off the face of the earth. I’ve never asked, because I always hoped you’d trust me enough – but you didn’t, so I’ve no idea, and I’m not asking you now. I do know you’re as miserable as sin, and you’re lonely as hell. Trust me, I recognise the symptoms.’
Flushed, Dex took another sip of his champagne. He was waiting for a response, but Justin didn’t have one. Nothing. Not even a comment on the fact that this was probably the longest and most personal speech Dex had ever made to him, because that would mean he agreed with what Dex was saying, or at least thought it was up for discussion and it wasn’t.
‘So,’ Dexter said, nodding to himself, ‘I decided. What you need is a girl, and what I need is to get rid of a girl, so you’d be doing me a favour taking her off my hands, because this girl isn’t just any girl.’
‘Forget it.’ Justin pushed back his chair. Everyone was back at the tables, crowded up at the stage. He and Dex were in the front row. It wasn’t going to be easy to get out, but he was going to try.
But Dex had other ideas, grabbing his arm in an extremely firm grip. ‘Sit down.’ The lights dimmed, and the band which had appeared on stage struck up a chord. ‘I said, sit down, Justin.’
Seeing that he had no option but to do so, Justin sat.
‘Thank you,’ Dex said with a thin smile. ‘Now, indulge me. Finish your drink and watch the floor show.’
Justin drank. On the stage there was a cake. A huge white and gold cake, decorated uncannily like the Chatsfield’s dining room, and possibly the biggest cake Justin had ever seen. It had been pushed on there by a posse of very scantily-clad girls. Every one of them was platinum blonde, every one of them dressed in a tiny white dress trimmed with long fringes that were no doubt meant to pay lip service to decency, and in fact did the exact opposite. The girls were strewing gold confetti and doing some sort of dance that showed off their only-just-covered little behinds. The men in the audience were roaring their appreciation. It was utterly over the top, and yet at the same time it was amusing and curiously sweet rather than vulgar.
‘What, are you expecting me to pick one? Let me remind you, this is 1921 Dex, things have changed. Women not much older than these ones will be able to vote in the next election, I doubt very much….’
‘Can you not drop the politics for one night!’ Dex rolled his eyes. ‘I told you, it’s not just any girl, it’s my girl. Not that she ever has been my girl in that sense, as you must be perfectly well aware. Vera Milton-Kerr. She’s beautiful, she’s clever, she’s witty and I’m sure she’s also very sexy, if you like that sort of thing, though as you know it’s not my cup of tea. I am pretty certain she will be yours though.’
‘And here she is.’
And there she was. Coming out of the cake. Glossy black hair cut into a sharp, short cap. Smokey eyes rimmed with black. Full lips painted crimson. Gold dress. At least Justin thought it was a dress, though it clung to her curves like a gold mist, and the long fringes that passed for a skirt did nothing to hide the most curvaceous behind, and the most glorious pair of pins he’d ever seen.
Vera Milton-Kerr stepped out of the cake like Venus rising from the waves, and the waves weren’t the only thing rising at the sight of her, all but naked, the expression on her face sultry, her smile mocking. She knew exactly how she looked, she knew exactly what effect she was having, and she didn’t give a damn. It was that which piqued his interest. That which kept him watching, when he should have been walking.
She stood centre-stage, directly in front of him. David Chatsfield had appeared by her side. She was singing. It took Justin’s scrambled brain a moment to work out what she was singing. Happy Birthday. Her voice was smoky, like her eyes. Slightly off-key. Gold petals were raining down on the stage and on the audience now. David Chatsfield was declaring the hotel open. The band struck up, and the dancers began to shake their fringes. The audience were on their feet clapping. There were cheers and the popping of many more champagne bottles to fill another tiered fountain of glasses which had materialised at the back of the room.
And there she was. This time, standing in front of him.
‘Vera, I’d like you to meet one of my oldest friends, Justin Yorke. Justin, Miss Vera Milton-Kerr,’ Dex was saying. ‘She lives like a vampire, up all night and sleeping all day, and underneath that delightful exterior she’s every bit as miserable as you. I think you will be absolutely perfect for each other.’
Dex took the woman’s hands in his. ‘Darling, the time has come for us to end our little charade. I’m afraid I told you a tiny little lie about my leaving date. I’m off tomorrow, not next month, but I promise I’ll write just as soon as I get there. Consider Justin my parting gift to you. Enjoy, you sweet thing, for my sake if not for yours.’
‘And this is my parting gift to you,’ Dex murmured, for Justin’s ears only, slipping something into the pocket of his dinner suit jacket. ‘Make sure you use it, because I had to use every little bit of my influence with David Chatsfield to get hold of it.’
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