Jefferson Blythe, Esquire
An excerpt from the novel by Josh Lanyon
It's here again. All the fun and excitement of getting ready for a trip to Europe. There's special excitement, of course, because this is going to be a special kind of trip, but then every trip abroad is special.
-- Esquire's Europe in Style, 1960
"That is a brilliant disguise."
I glanced down and met the bright blue gaze of a girl. She was about my age, or maybe a little older. Twenty-three? Twenty-four? Masses of curly platinum hair, a fierce nose that was too big for her thin face, a wide mouth painted tangerine.
I smiled. I didn't know what she was talking about, but something about her reminded me of Amy, if Amy hadn't been...Amy.
No, that wasn't fair because Amy was pretty and this girl really wasn't, although she definitely had something. She looked at me with bright expectation, and that was confusing because girls like her did not expect much from boys-- men-- like me.
That's not a complaint, by the way.
Anyway, we were standing in the middle of Heathrow Airport, and I was trying to figure out where I was. I mean, I was in London, obviously. England. But it was like I'd stepped off the plane into a different world. Onto a different planet. A very busy, very noisy planet. Where the natives did not speak my language. That's because people in England do not speak English. Or at least, not the same English that you and I speak.
Of course, in fairness, no one can ever understand anything being said over airport loudspeakers.
"A bowtie would have been even better," the girl offered. Her smile was sly, knowing. "A bowtie would suit you."
Okay, so now I knew she was making fun of me. I smiled again, to show I could take a joke, tugged down the brim of my hat-- which I was already feeling a little self-conscious about; I'm not really the kind of guy who wears hats-- and started walking. She walked with me.
People passed us, coming and going, lugging guitars and backpacks or wheeling luggage and children. Heathrow is one of the busiest airports in the world.
"Where are we going?" the blonde girl asked.
As a matter of fact, I did have a list. A partial list which included, in no particular order:
The British Museum
The Victoria and Albert Museum
Ministry of Sound
The London Eye
The Tower of London
The Globe Theatre
Since I only had four days in England, there was no way I was going to get to everything. But that was okay. The idea was to explore, investigate, broaden my horizons. Or at least get the hell out of Dodge for a while.
She put a hand on my arm. "I think we should go somewhere quiet. Don't you?"
I paused. Looked at her in alarm.
Surely not? Her makeup was kind of dramatic, and her lacy black top was pretty sheer, but no. No, she was not professional. Just persistent.
"Actually, I'm meeting some people," I said apologetically, though I'm not sure what I was apologizing for.
She laughed outright. "I should think so!"
This was getting strange. Er. Stranger. I said, "I'm sorry. Do I know you?"
Her brows drew together. "What are you..."
I missed the rest of it as, overhead, a blurred female voice delivered some vital piece of information that no one could make out. There was no mistaking my new friend's expression though. She looked alarmed and then increasingly angry.
"...suitcase, you've got the hat," she said as the voice above us cut off. "If you're planning to..." Another overhead announcement. This time the voice was male, but the message remained garbled.
I thought it might be a good idea to bounce, and I smiled, nodded, and turned away. Tightly clutching my suitcase, I hurriedly resumed my search for the Underground.
According to the Heathrow website, the Piccadilly Line provided the most cost-effective rail route between Heathrow Airport and the capital. The capital being...Central London? The trip was supposed to be less than an hour, with trains showing up every ten minutes or so even off-season. And July was not off-season. According to legend-- and the website-- there were three London Underground stations, but it took me a while to find even one because I kept looking over my shoulder for the girl who sort of looked like, but was definitely not, Amy.
Once or twice I thought I spotted her a few yards behind me, hair like cumulonimbus and a look of fierce concentration on her pale face. Each time she was lost to view.
Assuming she was there at all and not busily accosting some other international traveler.
Finally I found a station, boarded the Tube seconds before the doors whooshed shut, and staggered to a seat. I sighed and wiped my forehead, knocking off the hat that had drawn so much unwanted attention. I looked around uneasily, but there was no sign of pursuit. People had out maps and brochures and electronic devices and snacks. No one was paying me any attention.
I picked up my hat, brushed it off and set it on the seat beside me.
It was just an ordinary hat. Your basic Peter Grimm paper fedora. The kind of thing a lot of guys wore. Not guys like me, maybe. Or not like the old me. But I wanted to be the kind of guy who wore a hat if he felt like wearing a hat. And where better to test the look than on another continent where you wouldn't have to face anyone again if it didn't work out?
And then there was that half-heard reference to my suitcase. What was that about? I looked over at my suitcase. It was old, it was battered. That was kind of what I liked about it. It had belonged to my grandfather. Like The Book, that striped tweed suitcase had traveled with him to Europe in the 1960s. It was starting to show its age, sure, and more so after the trip across the Atlantic and down a couple of conveyor belts...so, come to think of it, maybe it hadn't been the wisest choice.
Especially if it was going to trigger outbursts from crazy English girls.
I looked cautiously around once more.
Relax. It hadn't been the greatest start to my trip, but it was already in the past.
Speaking of the past...
I fumbled around in my backpack, considered pulling out my camera but rejected it as looking too touristy, and finally took shelter behind Esquire's Europe in Style.
My grandfather had regarded this book as a kind of talisman when he'd made his grand tour fifty years ago. It had been his idea-- after the thing with Amy-- that I should go abroad for a couple of weeks. He claimed his trip had been a turning point in his life, and there was no question that I was at a crossroads.
I studied the battered cover, decorated with cheeky orange and purple cartoons. I opened to my bookmark.
To be able really to dig Britain, you must be the sort of person who prefers the quiet and subdued to the noisy and strident, and who's more comfortable with old leather, varnished wood and polished brass than with chrome and plastic. It helps to have a slight allergy to bright colors, loud talk and high-pressure operations in general...
The plan was I would stay at my Aunt Pat and Uncle Mike's place in Maida Vale. Uncle Mike was English and in the import-export business. Which I used to think was family shorthand for espionage-- or worse-- but, in fairness, my aunt and uncle did collect an ungodly amount of Third World textiles and ceramics.
They were in the States right now, so I would have the house all to myself. Which seemed like a dream come true. And that was not even taking into account the indoor swimming pool, weight room and fully equipped game room.
Less dreamy was getting there though. It took over an hour, and there were three connections-- well, four if I counted getting on the wrong train-- but finally I stood on the front steps of a red-brick mansion on a wide, shady street. The house, the whole street, looked like something out of Mary Poppins. The doors and window frames were painted glossy white. There wasn't a front yard, but the house was surrounded by cobblestones and pale yellow roses. Purple vines grew artistically around the front door with its etched panes of beveled glass.
It was perfect. Really perfect. It was like something right out of Esquire's Europe in Style. Finally I was starting to feel like I was on vacation and not doing nine days of prayer, penance and pilgrimage.
The only jarring note was the sound of music playing loudly from the second story. "Of All the Gin Joints in All the World." Fall Out Boy was a long way from home.
Maybe the butler was enjoying a few moments of peace and not-so-quiet? Did Aunt Pat and Uncle Mike have a butler?
I decided it would be better not to use my key. Instead, I rang the doorbell.
It took a few rings and another song from Fall Out Boy. In fact, I had to lean on the buzzer before a pale shadow appeared behind the door panes.
The door swung open to frame a muscular guy in gray sweats and nothing else. He was a little older than me. We stared at each other.
Green eyes, shaved head, a couple of earrings and a new tattoo-- this one of a cross-eyed mermaid. My cousin Robbie.
My cousin Robbie who was supposed to be...anywhere but here in England.
Great. There went the neighborhood. "Hey!" I said, trying to sound like I was delighted to see him.
Robbie's face changed from irritation to alarm as he, in turn, recognized me.
"No," he said. "No, no, no. You can't be here."
"What? I am here."
"You have to go."
"I'm staying here. Your pare-- "
Robbie leaned forward and hissed, "I don't care what my parents said, you have to get out of here. Now."
I began to splutter. "But I'm staying here. It's all set up."
"Serena is here," he replied, like that should settle it.
"Well, great," I said. Which one was Serena? As far as I could tell, his infinite playlist was stuck on shuffle.
"We're getting back together. I think. So you can't be here, Jeff. Go away. Now." Robbie began to shut the door.
After a disbelieving instant, I put my hand out to try to stop that slow, inexorable swing of the door. "Wait. Robbie, wait a sec. When can I come back?"
"I don't know!" There was a murmur of inquiry from inside the flat, and Robbie scowled ferociously and pushed harder on the door. I pushed harder too. In fact, I put my shoulder against the gleaming surface, but both I and the door slid back a few inches. Robbie used to play rugby for George Washington University. I did track and field for Georgetown. Runners don't move mountains; we go around them.
He whispered, "Not today. Not tonight. I'll let you know."
"But where am I supposed to go in the meantime?"
"Go wherever you want. Go to a hotel. Just go." Robbie gave one final, mighty shove, and the door sank into its frame with heavy finality. I could see my sweaty palm print on the glass.
I stood on the cobblestones, staring in disbelief at the red-brick house.
Now what? Where was I supposed to go from here?
I started to pull my phone out to call Aunt Pat, but stopped. That would be one step from yelling, "Mom!"
Come to think of it, maybe I could have Mom call Aunt Pa-- no. I was twenty-two, not twelve.
I looked around the wide, shady street. If this Serena had any brains, she'd be gone by teatime. Maybe I could just wait. Find a quiet spot beneath one of these trees and check my email for an hour or two. Upload some pics to Instagram?
Yeah. Probably not.
Why didn't that asshole Robbie go to a hotel?
Well, okay, it was sort of his house. But still.
I tried to think. It felt harder than normal. Probably because I hadn't been able to sleep on the plane.
I'd wanted adventure and spontaneity, true. But I also wanted a clean, safe place to sleep at night. Plus, I hadn't budgeted for a hotel while I was in England.
It felt like too many disasters in a row. First that weird girl making fun of my hat. Then Robbie throwing me out on the street.
The July sun beat down on my head. What time was it? Did it matter? Whatever time it was, it wasn't real time. It wasn't the same clock my body was on.
I couldn't just stand here. I would have to find a hotel. I pulled out my phone. The NOTES icon caught my eye.
My stomach gave a flop like a dying fish. But actually...why not? I had to call him eventually, and George could probably recommend a close and reasonably priced hotel...or something.
I thumbed in the numbers.
The phone rang. My mouth dried. I considered disconnecting.
Was that George? That deep, brusque tone sounded more like George's father. Who-- not that I would ever say this to George-- I always kind of thought was an asshole. I unstuck my tongue. "George?" I asked doubtfully.
"What can I help you with?"
"It's me, Jeff."
"Jeff who?" asked the very busy man on the other end of the phone call.
He'd forgotten me?
Four years was a long time, yes. But what about the eighteen years before that? I mean, his parents still lived next door to us. The George who taught me to pop a wheelie on my first bike would not have forgotten me. The George who taught me to win at Game Boy would not have forgotten me. This did not seem to be that same George.
Sorry, wrong number!
Which made this call even more awkward than it would have been. And it was always going to have been awkward.
I said, "Jeff from America. Jeff from next door. Jeff Blythe."
"Jefferson?" George said in a completely different tone of voice.
I didn't realize how worried I'd been until the wave of relief washed over me. I relaxed my death grip on my phone. "Yes, it's me. Hi."
"This is a surprise." I think he sounded cautious, and I couldn't blame him.
"Yes. I guess so. Anyway, I'm here and I th-- "
"You're-- I didn't catch that," George broke in. "Did you say you're here?"
"I am, yeah. I'm in London. I wanted to say hi."
"Hi?" George repeated, like it was an esoteric concept.
Belatedly, I realized how this was going to play. Four years without a word and when I finally popped up it was to ask a favor.
I tried to change course. "So maybe we could have lunch one day. Or dinner. Something?"
"Sure. That might work. How long are you here for?"
George made a sound that might have been a laugh. "Or that might not work," he said. "Where are you staying?"
Two seconds earlier I had made the decision not to spill my tale of woe, but out it spewed anyway. "I was going to stay at Aunt Pat and Uncle Mike's place in Maida Vale, but Robbie's there-- my cousin-- and he'd rather I went somewhere else, so I'm not sure. Actually, could you recommend a hotel?"
It took a couple of seconds for George to say, "You don't have a place to stay?"
"I did. I will; I just haven't figured it out yet." The effort of sounding confident and assured somehow served to underline how totally and completely I was on my own. I only knew two people on this entire continent. If something really terrible happened, there was no one within driving distance of rescue. The realization sort of sucked all the wind from my sails.
This time there was no response from George.
He was probably afraid I was hitting him up for a bed, which, there was no denying-- my face felt hot-- had crossed my mind. So this was another dead end, and given...things...I couldn't really blame George for not caring whether I slept on a park bench that night. It wasn't like I couldn't find a hotel for myself.
It was just that I was so tired. That's all. Adventure was easy when you had enough sleep.
And George still didn't say anything.
My eyes stung, which, again, was only jetlag. I had this under control. I started babbling, "Anyway, that's it. Give me a call if you want to get together-- "
"Appreciate it," George said. His voice sounded muffled as though he had turned away from the phone. The next minute he said in normal tones, "Where are you right now, Jefferson?"
Jefferson. He was the only person who called me Jefferson -- not counting my parents when they were pissed off. Jefferson Tyler Blythe, what is the meaning of this outrage?
The age-old question.
I had to squeeze the words past the tightness in my throat. "Randolph Mews. It's between Randolph Road and Randolph Avenue."
"All right. That's just around the corner. Hang tight. I'll swing by and pick you up."
Another embarrassing sweep of relief. So embarrassing that I felt like I had to protest. George cut me off with a clipped, "Shut it. You're sure as hell not staying in a hotel tonight."
It sounded vaguely foreign, and it served to illustrate how much time and distance lay between me and the George I used to know. He sounded...not impatient, but brisk. I was probably interrupting him at work, and I felt guilty about that, but mostly I was relieved. Here was someone within driving distance of rescue, and he was already on his way.
As much as I didn't want to look like the nuisance kid from back home, I hadn't expected to feel so out of my depth.
I needed a little time to get my bearings.
So I said thank you as George hung up. My head felt hot, my face was wet with perspiration. I took my hat off and wiped my forehead with my arm. I hadn't expected England to be so hot. I'd pictured it cool and misty. Heck, I had pictured billowing fog and gas lamps.
Anyway, maybe this wasn't that big a deal because once upon a time George had been like a big brother to me, in every way except DNA. I'd have called him sooner or later-- I'd been planning to call him-- and not only because I owed him an apology.
Remembering that awful day reminded me of the things Amy had said. I'd figured out a long time ago that one reason I'd reacted the way I had back then with George was because I'd secretly been worried that someone might think I--
"Oy!" a woman called from behind me. The tone was sharp, the voice preemptory. Also kind of familiar.
I turned. White-blond hair that seemed to crinkle and crackle with electric energy, blazing blue eyes. She looked like the Jade Raksha from The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom. She wasn't, of course. She was the girl from the airport.
"Where's my egg?" she demanded.
Copyright 2000-18, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.