It was Douglas Searle in person who opened the front door to admit James Kelly to his little gathering of choice guests.† It wasn't yet 7.30pm, the time at which Kelly had been advised to arrive at Mr Searle's imposing residence, but most of the others were already there and, with the assistance of some alcoholic refreshment, eagerly preparing themselves for the meal to come.
†††† "Delighted to see you again!" he declared, as Kelly stepped through the open doorway and met his host's outstretched hand half-way.† "What a fine evening it is!"
†††† After exchanging a few trivial remarks, James Kelly was escorted into the lounge and summarily introduced to each the other guests, all but one of whom he had met before.† That was Susan Healy, a short twenty-six-year-old art teacher with blue eyes and fair hair who had recently become Keith Brady's latest girlfriend.† Kelly knew from experience that Brady, the chubby painter over ten years her senior who now stood proudly, and therefore protectively, beside Susan, had a special talent for finding himself new women and losing them just as quickly.† But perhaps this one, being familiar with art, was his bride-to-be?† Knowing Brady, James fancied he would probably find himself being introduced to a different girlfriend the next time he was ushered into the lounge by Mr Searle.
†††† "Still hard at work with your writings?" Brady asked him as soon as he had got over the shock of meeting a new face.† But before he could even nod his head a hand had grabbed one of his arms and another voice, more seductive than Brady's, was congratulating him for his healthy appearance.† It belonged, he soon realized, to Paloma Searle, Mr Searle's half-Spanish wife, who had been in animated conversation with one of her guests when he first entered the room.† Her dark eyes sparkled with joy at the sight of his face, which had, in the meantime, become somewhat flushed.† At thirty, she was a woman of considerable charm and eloquence whose 5' 8" of shapely flesh, dark hair, and gently aquiline nose were chief among the many qualities which especially appealed to Kelly's aesthetic sense at this moment.† He hadn't seen her for over three months and felt quite flattered to receive a glass of wine from her hand and to be offered a seat beside her on a comfortably padded couch.† The smell of her perfume tantalized his nostrils as he immersed himself in her lively eyes, listening, as closely as the general hubbub in the room would permit, to the melodious flow of words which cascaded, like confetti, from between her moist lips.† She could only find time to congratulate him on the publication of his latest novel, however, when duty beckoned her away to the kitchen, where the chicken salad apparently required a few final touches.† She had already prepared most of it, but seemingly still had some more work to do.† His eyes followed her across the room, like a hungry dog intent upon collaring a succulent bone, as she made for the door, noting, with especial pleasure, the seductively curvaceous shape of her calf-muscles, tastefully outlined beneath a pair of dark-green nylons to which her purple miniskirt formed quite a contrast.
†††† "So you're back here, too!" boomed out Trevor Jenkinson's bass voice above the softer voices socially at large on the airwaves.† "It seems they have a weak spot for writers."
†††† The tall, greying man who had just taken Mrs Searle's place beside James Kelly happened to be a writer himself, albeit of a more conventional kind.† His twenty-something years in the profession had resulted in the publication of some fifteen crime novels, none of which Kelly had read, though he vaguely knew the titles of a few of them.† Had it not been for the man's affability and unpompous manner, Kelly would probably have felt intimidated by his professional seniority.† But his easy-going personality, so much in tune with James Kelly's own, precluded any such intimidation with an ease which the younger man could only admire.† Here, anyway, was a writer who had outgrown his professional egotism and virtually come around to regarding his reputation with indifference, if not downright repugnance.† How different from Stephen Jacobs!† There were times when his aura of self-importance so overwhelmed and disgusted one that one would have dared to tell him that his work was by no means as good as, largely on the basis of its superficial success, he imagined it to be.† But that would simply have resulted in Jacobs regarding one as insulting and summarily taking his leave of one in order, presumably, to seek better understanding elsewhere!† There was no toppling him from the pillar of professional self-esteem upon which he had elected to sit, compliments, in no small measure, of a public-school and Oxbridge background.
†††† "Yes, I think his wife's rather fond of you," Jenkinson was saying in a more confidential tone-of-voice.† "She likes to see younger men about the place."
†††† Not wishing to comment on that, James Kelly finished off the wine in his glass before asking: "Are you reading anything particularly interesting at the moment?"
†††† "I'm always reading interesting things!" replied Jenkinson in what seemed to the younger man like a slightly ironic tone-of-voice.
†††† "But don't you ever read boring things by mistake?" asked Kelly incredulously.
†††† "Never!" averred Jenkinson.† "If I did, I wouldn't be a writer now, would I?"† Which rhetorical statement was duly followed up by: "Fact is, even the worst things tend to interest me for one reason or another, even if only to the extent that I want to find out how bad or wrong they are."
†††† "Really?" gulped the younger man innocently.
†††† "Yes, well, I guess you could say that I grew out of my youthful aestheticism some time ago," Jenkinson confessed in a tone of scarcely concealed pride.† "I used to plume myself on reading only the best, er, novels, I suppose you could say - you know, the ones which are most, ahem, classic."† There was a short pause whilst he knocked back the rest of the wine in his glass, before continuing: "Well, I must have read just about everything there was to read in that category by the time I was thirty-five.† But, since I couldn't give-up reading altogether, I decided to try a less aesthetic line and embrace the sort of, er, novels which more discriminating writers would prefer to avoid.† Still, I'm not bored by them - at least not to the extent that I get bored by second-rate music, art, and drama, the last two of which I really can't abide at all on account of the fact that I've become too conceptual to tolerate anything so damned perceptual and fundamentally autocratic!"
†††† Kelly thought he could empathize with that statement, baffling though it was, as he chose to say: "But you can't be reading second-rate novels all the time.† Surely there must be some new first-rate ones?"
†††† The older man paused to reflect a moment.† "New classics, you mean?† Yes, I suppose I do read something approximating to the classic every once in a while.† Itís hard to tell really."
†††† Kelly was about to say something about the book he was currently reading, which wasn't a novel at all, when Mrs Searle suddenly appeared in the doorway and informed everyone that dinner was ready.† The last guest had just arrived in the guise of Rachel Davis, a relatively good-looking journalist who had apparently been held-up in the traffic.† She was now talking to Douglas Searle who, in response to his wife's prompting, immediately began to usher everyone in the general direction of the dining room.
†††† "Oh well, I could use something to soak-up the bilge water a bit," confessed Jenkinson ironically, as they came within sight of the food.† "I haven't eaten anything since lunch time."
†††† There were eight of them in all, Mrs Searle appointing the six guests their places as they arrived at the elongated rectangular table.† The Searles elected to sit at opposite ends of it, as presumably was their custom, with the guests facing one another three abreast along its length.† At a squeeze it could have sat ten people, but, for purposes of convenience, eight was considerably more satisfactory.
†††† As the proceedings got under way, Kelly found himself seated near Mrs Searle at the end of his row, so to speak, with Keith Brady to his right and Gordon Hammer, a forty-eight-year-old concert pianist with balding head and drooping moustache, directly opposite.† At the other end of the table, the host was flanked by Susan Healy on his left and by Trevor Jenkinson on his right, while the remaining place, in between Jenkinson and Hammer, was taken by Rachel Davis.† Surprisingly, they all found the chicken commendable, despite its toughness, as the preliminary forays on it momentarily got the better of their conversations and imposed a modest silence upon everyone.
†††† "Very nice," admitted Brady by way of congratulating Mrs Searle on her culinary handiwork.† "There's nothing better than a chicken salad on such a warm evening."
†††† "Indeed not!" confirmed Susan in response to her boyfriend's lead.
†††† "Please feel free to help yourselves to more wine when you're ready," Searle informed them all, generously drawing their attention to the eight large bottles of quality German wine which stood at regular intervals along the table.† "There's no shortage of plonk here."
†††† "Worse luck!" Jenkinson exclaimed in mock-ironic fashion.
†††† "Very nice wine," said Brady, who had just taken his first sip and was belatedly making a show of savouring the bouquet.
†††† "Hmm," agreed Susan over the brim of her untouched glass.
†††† Gordon Hammer was staring across at Kelly with a look that had the latter wondering whether his presence was being resented.† "Had any luck with your writings lately, James?" he somewhat arcanely quizzed him, at length.
†††† "Depends what you mean by 'luck'," Kelly blushingly replied.† "I haven't had a best seller yet, if that's what you mean."
†††† "As long as you're making some kind of intellectual progress, that's the most important thing!" the pianist declared, to Kelly's evident relief.† "What are you writing about at present?"
†††† "Er, a sort of philosophy actually."
†††† "Philosophy?" echoed Hammer, while raising his bushy grey brows in a show of gratified surprise.
†††† "At least that's a sort of moral or intellectual progress over fiction!" commented Jenkinson from his end of the table.
†††† "Weren't you something of a philosopher once, Douglas?" asked Hammer, turning his quizzical attention towards their benevolent host.
†††† "It depends what you mean by 'philosopher'," the latter dutifully responded, albeit with a slightly embarrassed look on his clean-shaven face.† "I seem to recall dabbling in maxims for a year or two in my undergraduate days, but, other than that, I can't profess to having written anything overly philosophical, probably because I'm not abstract or metaphysical enough and, alas, am more interested in making money than in advancing Truth."
†††† "Were the maxims ever published?" Kelly asked.
†††† "Of course not!" laughed Mr Searle.† "In fact, I don't think I even bothered to submit them to an agent actually.† Quite apart from their lack of commercial appeal in a country besotted with trashy fiction, I wasn't exactly what you might call a twentieth-century La BruyŤre."† He scooped up his glass and imbibed most of its contents in one swift draught, as though to underline the fact.† "How about you - is your philosophy aphoristic?" he rejoined.
†††† James Kelly felt obliged to finish chewing a large piece of cold chicken which he had already directed into his mouth, before replying: "Partly."
†††† The terseness of this response must have slightly puzzled Mr Searle, for he quickly went on to ask: "Why only 'partly'?"
†††† "Because I couldn't stand writing nothing but aphorisms or maxims," Kelly revealed.† "Besides, although my maxims are uncomfortably close to La Rochefoucauld at times, and thus of a character which should shock and provoke people, I don't have the good fortune to live in an age when philosophy of that nature is in vogue, as I'm sure you can appreciate."
†††† "A pity if you happen to have a talent for maxims," declared Hammer.† "Incidentally, I used to know a majority of that old bastard's maxims by heart, you know."† He scratched his sparse pate with a finger of the hand holding his fork, before bursting out with: "Isn't there one that goes: 'Men would not live long in society were they not one-another's dupes'?"
†††† Irreverent titters of laughter erupted from various quarters of the table, while Susan Healy felt obliged to blush with some embarrassment at what she imagined the maxim to imply.
†††† "Yes, I believe so," confirmed Kelly with a straight face.† Though, in reality, he felt quite embarrassed by Hammer's blunt choice of maxim, which seemed unduly cynical even by La Rochefoucauld's notorious standards!
†††† "Do give us an example of one of your maxims, James," requested Mrs Searle with an encouraging smile.
†††† "Yes, do!" Hammer seconded.† "But since I'm in no mood to be bored, make it scandalous!"
†††† Kelly took a deep breath, as though to gather courage or inspiration from the air, and intoned as casually as he could manage, under the circumstances: "A woman will not thank you for having a wet dream while she is in the bed."
†††† A burst of spontaneous amusement greeted Kelly's maxim from all corners of the table except Hammer's, since the pianist had failed to grasp it.
†††† "What nonsense!" he protested, with an almost Dalian show of facial exasperation.† "And you call that philosophy?"
†††† "On the contrary, I've specifically chosen one which was, er, literary," retorted Kelly, before taking a sip of nerve-bolstering wine.† "A purely philosophical one might have given you all mental indigestion," he quipped after a sharp gulp.
†††† "But isn't it unlikely that a man would have a wet dream while sleeping with a woman?" objected Brady rhetorically, to the tune of renewed amusement from most sections of the table and his girlfriend in particular, who contrived to blush diplomatically in the process.
†††† "I guess it depends on the sort of woman he happens to sleep with," Kelly pithily averred.† "I'm confident there are men who have stained their woman's lingerie in that fashion."
†††† "Presuming, of course, that their woman was actually wearing any at the time," Mrs Searle half-smilingly contributed to the debate. "Some women ..."
†††† "Pray, tell me," Hammer impatiently interposed, while pushing his near-empty dinner plate to one side, so that it overlapped with Rachel's dinner space and caused her to adjust the position of her own plate accordingly, "has such an experience ever happened to you?"
†††† It wasn't a question James felt competent to answer, but he did his best with a denial which was duly supplemented by words to the effect that whenever he had had the relatively good fortune to experience a wet dream, there hadn't been anyone else in his bed.
†††† "Then on what authority did you write such a maxim?" Hammer pressed him, with a triumphantly quizzical expression on his sardonic face.† "Surely one must base these things on personal experience?"
†††† "Ideally one should," admitted Kelly, back-pedalling, "though literature can't always be based on that, particularly when one lacks the experience in the first place but is nonetheless possessed of an imaginative urge, or daemon, which demands to be placated with a near-tyrannical insistence ..."
†††† "The poor fellow!" Hammer guffawed.
†††† "Be that as it may," Kelly rejoined with impatience, "if one uses one's imagination, one can see perfectly well that a woman would rather have a man's semen in her vagina than over her lingerie or back or wherever, so what's the matter with writing something to that effect without having personally experienced a wet dream whilst a woman was in the bed?"
†††† "Nothing, if you don't mind self-denigrating yourself in such a perverse fashion," Hammer guffawed anew.
†††† "Isn't it possible that a man could have a nocturnal emission without actually spurting semen all over his bed partner?" Mrs Searle suggested speculatively, only to precipitate a hearty laugh from her husband.
†††† This time Kelly had need of an ego-bolstering gulp from his wine glass, before replying: "I dare say it is.† Although there's no reason to assume that his partner between the sheets or under the quilt or whatever would be particularly grateful to him for wasting his semen at her expense.† You see, the maxim is based on commonsensical probability, which is why it has a ring of credibility despite its purely imaginative origins."
†††† "More a tinkle than a ring," averred Brady, as he turned towards his left-hand neighbour at table.† "For I'm damned if I can believe that a man would have a wet dream with his woman right next to him.† It wouldn't be particularly flattering for her to wake up in the morning only to discover that her husband or whoever had come all over the sheet in the night instead of all over her or, preferably, inside her."
†††† Susan Healy managed a perfunctory titter in spite of a qualm about the propriety of such a notion in the company of hosts who, as yet, were a relatively unknown factor.
†††† "James' maxim is rightly based on probability," Jenkinson waded-in with effect to rescuing his fellow-writer from the quicksands of ego-sucking vanity.† "One is simply asked to believe that if, by any chance, an experience of that nature were to occur, the most likely reaction from the female - providing she wasn't a prudish old puritanical hag who rejected sex anyway - would be one of disapproval or, at the very least, disappointment that better use hadn't been made of the semen in the first place.† That seems feasible enough to me, at any rate."† Having said which, he helped himself to some more wine from the nearest bottle, and straightaway set about eagerly consuming it.
†††† "One can see why," Hammer commented in a lightly sarcastic vein, showing Rachel a wry smile in the process.
†††† "Yes, I can't help but feel that it's a rather implausible probability," said Brady, who hadn't experienced a wet dream of any description for a number of years on account of the fact that his member rarely had any sperm to spare on such celibate luxuries.
†††† Implausible or not, there was a merciful lull in the conversation while Mrs Searle, assisted by the rather taciturn journalist, cleared away the dinner plates and then served dessert in the somewhat nebulous forms of jelly and ice cream, the latter having meanwhile melted to a degree which titillated the imaginations of more people than the hapless James Kelly!
†††† "So what have you been painting lately?" Mr Searle casually inquired of the painter, in an attempt to get the conversation moving again.
†††† "I'm afraid it's a bit difficult to explain," replied Brady, whilst attacking the wobbly dollop of elusive raspberry jelly in the dish before him with both spoon and fork.† "It's a kind of abstract-surreal thing in which there's a clock without hands standing on the top shelf of a bookcase without books, while the bookcase itself stands atop a coffin which is floating in a sort of pond of, er, blood."
†††† "Charming!" exclaimed Rachel Davis in ironic perplexity, making a most uncharming spectacle of her pallid face.† "Must you continue?"
†††† "Well, with due respect to our charming host, I was only replying to his question, my dear.† Had he asked me how I'd been painting lately, I could have told you about airbrushes instead."
†††† "Don't tell me we've got a squeamish journalist here!" Hammer guffawed.† "My goodness, girl, there are more revolting things than that in your newspaper every frigging day!"
†††† Brady blushingly took umbrage at the pianist's derogatory adjectives, which seemed to imply that his work was also revolting, only less so, but held his tongue while Rachel defended herself from her right-hand neighbour with a comment to the effect that one didn't have to read them whilst eating one's evening meal.
†††† "In fact, one doesn't have to read them at all," declared Jenkinson, before taking a copious gulp of alcoholic slurp from his half-empty glass.† "I can always manage with just the pictures."
†††† "They're bad enough!" opined Hammer with an expression of unmitigated disgust on his world-weary face.
†††† "Anyway, getting back to what I was describing for Douglas' benefit," resumed Brady impatiently, "there are a number of mechanical ducks with large silver keys jutting out of their backs, who are paddling about on the unmentionable fluid ..."
†††† "What colour are these ducks?" Mrs Searle wanted to know, for no apparent reason.
†††† "Er, all different colours actually," Brady replied.† "One is blue, another green, and a third, which I'm still in the process of completing, is going to be a mixture of bright orange and turquoise."
†††† "How clashingly exciting!" cried Mrs Searle with a screech which must have effected Hammer, for he banged his glass down on the tablecloth so forcefully that at least half its contents spilled over the rim onto his starched cuff.
†††† "An orange and turquoise duck!" he protested, ignoring the physical inconvenience of this latest social gaffe as best he could.† "Whatever next?"
†††† "Well, I did say they were mechanical," stated Brady defensively.† "They're not real ducks."
†††† "No ducks which are painted on a canvas could possibly be real!" objected Hammer, this time being content to merely slap the table with his other hand.
†††† "No, not in any literal sense," Brady conceded with an air of petulance.† "But they can still look real.† Anyway, what I've superficially described is only part of the overall ... composition."† His gaze reverted to Douglas Searle in search of the understanding which was manifestly not to be found on the opposite side of the table.† Graciously, the host consented to a friendly nod.
†††† "How long will it take you to complete the work?" he inquired in the slipstream of a large spoonful of dessert.
†††† "Oh, I should have it finished by the end of the month," Brady nervously confessed, fidgeting slightly in his chair.† "I've been working on it for just over five months actually, so it's been a fairly long job.† In fact, I'm quite looking forward to a change of subject-matter."
†††† Hammer muttered something derogatory under his breath, before adding: "I bet you bloody-well are!"†
†††† However, recalling what he had once read in an essay by Wyndham Lewis entitled 'Super-naturalism verses Super-realism', the 'Super-real' being Lewis' term for surrealism, James Kelly thought he could get his own back on Brady by saying: "Isn't surrealism a little out-of-date now?"
†††† "More than a little," the painter responded, slightly to Kelly's surprise.† "But since I know some people who are interested in buying surrealistic-looking paintings, I make a point of occasionally obliging them, even though what I do isn't strictly surrealist but abstract-surrealist, as I think I said, and therefore a sort of combination of abstract and surreal elements."
†††† "I doubt if I'd be able to spot the difference," said Kelly, who, in any case, was privately of the opinion that even abstraction was out-of-date and no more than a sort of petty-bourgeois climax or decadence, depending on your point of view, to a painterly tradition which had long been on the non-figurative run, as it were, from photography.
†††† Meanwhile, Gordon Hammer was keeping up his running battle with Brady by saying that some people would buy anything, particularly when they have plenty of money.† "I once knew a man who bought three surrealist paintings for the sole purpose of destroying them," he went on, undeterred by the painter's objections.† "The fellow was a socialist revolutionary who wanted to express both his contempt for money and distaste of modern art.† So he damn-well set fire to them all!"
†††† "How terrible!" cried Mrs Searle over a raised spoonful of raspberry jelly.† "I sincerely hope a similar fate doesn't befall any of your paintings, Keith."
†††† Brady's face turned a sickly pale, as though he had just puked up his dinner.† "Fortunately, to the best of my knowledge, no-one has done anything of the kind to any of my paintings to-date," he gasped.
Following dessert, Mr Searle offered cigars to those who wanted them, Kelly being the only male abstainer.
†††† "That was a wonderful dinner, Paloma!" enthused Rachel Davis, as she helped Mrs Searle with the empty dishes.
†††† "I must say what a pleasure it's been, to be seated next to such a charming hostess," opined Hammer, who made a display of the fact by affectionately patting Mr Searle's wife on the shoulder.† "Her perfume simply inspires one to strange and giddy heights of rapturous applause."
†††† "Oh, do shut up!" Mrs Searle affectionately scolded him, playfully slapping his hand.† Yet there was an element of genuine appreciation in her tone as she graciously informed him, over a pile of empty desert dishes, that it wasn't every day she had the pleasure of having such a distinguished musician to dinner - a comment which brought a sly smile to Kelly's lips, as he reflected that the pleasure in question would soon turn sour if she had him there more often!† And that doubtless applied to the rest of them too, with the possible exception, he supposed, of himself.
†††† "By the way," said Mr Searle, who had been too busy competing with the billowing smoke from Trevor Jenkinson's cigar to notice his wife's blush, "an old friend of ours, whom one or two of you may know, is holding a fancy-dress ball in a couple of weeks' time, and has invited my wife and I, together with those of you who may be interested, to attend.† If any of you would like to avail yourselves of this generous invitation, the official cards for which I shall hand out to the interested parties later-on this evening, you are required to be at his West Hampstead address by eight o'clock on the evening of Saturday, July the Fourth."
†††† "Ah, so it's Mark Benson's affair, is it?" Jenkinson deduced.
†††† "Indeed it is!" Mr Searle confirmed with a gracious nod.† "Mark's having a bit of a fling in commemoration of his tenth wedding anniversary and you are all invited."† He stubbed-out the paltry remains of his cigar in a glass ashtray, before adding: "When you turn up at his address, don't give your real name or say you're one of Douglas Searle's friends.† Just hand over your invitation card and tell them your fancy-dress name, assuming it isn't manifestly apparent."
†††† "In that case, they're bound to know who I am," Jenkinson remarked.† "Even if I were to wear a costume which was too big for me and several masks on my face, my voice and height would give me away immediately."
†††† "Well, they won't know who the rest of you are ... with the possible exception of Gordon," drawled Mr Searle under duress of a creeping alcoholic somnolence.
†††† "Did you say July the Fourth, Douglas?" queried Hammer, looking perplexed.
†††† "I did indeed!" confirmed Mr Searle, nodding.
†††† "Sorry to disappoint you, old stick, but on the Saturday evening in question I shall be the leading attraction in a piano recital at the Festival Hall," Hammer revealed in a slightly apologetic tone-of-voice.
†††† Mr Searle sighed disappointedly through the receding haze of cigar smoke, while his wife, no less disappointed, inquired of the pianist what he would be performing.
†††† "Oh, some newfangled compositions by composers whose names I can't even remember," he crossly replied.† "A cross between the atonal avant-garde and trad jazz, with a sprinkling of Tippett and Rawsthorne thrown in for good measure.† Damnably difficult to play!"
†††† "Have you ever played in public while drunk?" asked Kelly out of idle curiosity.
†††† "Goodness me, no!" exclaimed Hammer.† "But I have played on a few drinks though; just enough to warm me up and get me onto the ruddy stage in the first place.... However, don't let me distract you from the main issue any longer, Douglas, which has something to do with a fancy-dress ball, if I remember correctly."
†††† Mr Searle made an effort to clear his throat, which was only partially successful in view of the state it was in, and then drawled: "Well, I would be delighted if ... all the rest of you could turn-up ... on the evening in question ... and contribute to the fun by wearing ... suitable fancy dress.† There are, however, two conditions.† Firstly, the men must dress in infamous attire and ... give themselves an appropriately infamous name, while the women must dress in, er, famous attire and ..."
†††† "In other words," Mrs Searle interrupted with intent to clarify the matter, "the males are to dress in costumes associated with evil men or organizations, and the females, by contrast, in costumes associated with good women or organizations."
†††† Several gasps of disbelief broke loose from among the guests at this point, and Trevor Jenkinson, mindful of the fact that not all men were by nature evil or all women good, humorously objected by wondering why it was usually the men who had to play the evil roles?† "After all," he went on, "it seems to me that women are far more qualified than us to do that these days, in view of their liberated status and unequivocally objective assaults on the ..."
†††† "Oh, don't listen to that male chauvinist pig!" protested Rachel, fixing Jenkinson's drunken head with what some might have taken to be a mock-critical stare.† "I quite like the idea, actually."
†††† "I thought you would," smiled Mr Searle diplomatically.† "The women, then, are to go along as so many Florence Nightingales, and the men ... as so many Genghis Khans."
†††† "Not literally, of course," said Mrs Searle, who was still quite sober, "but certainly within the opposing contexts of good and evil.† Thus there are plenty of guises from which to choose."
†††† "I suppose one has to wear an eye mask," Brady suggested, with an air of knowing resignation.
†††† "Yes, a small black or white Zorro-like thing, depending on your sex, is the second condition," confirmed Mr Searle with laboured solemnity.† "I was about to mention that when my wife rudely interrupted me."
†††† "Only because you're too sodding drunk to be properly intelligible!" Mrs Searle protested.
†††† "Nonsense!" her husband retorted.† "I can make myself properly intelligible at the worst of ... frigging times."† He paused to recollect his thoughts, before asking: "Will everyone apart from Gordon be able to go, then?"
†††† With the exception of Trevor Jenkinson, who replied in the affirmative a few seconds after the others, there was a unanimous "Yes!"
†††† Douglas Searle seemed distinctly pleased.† "That settles it, then.† My wife and I will see you there, though you may not recognize us at first.† If you have any qualms about ... being seen in fancy dress on route to the Benson's house, I suggest you hire a cab prior to leaving home.† The driver may find you amusing, but not many other people ... will get a chance to have a laugh at your expense!"
†††† "I've got a car of my own in any case," Brady informed them all in a tone of pride.
†††† "Then don't hire a cab!" Mr Searle solemnly advised him, to the accompaniment of titters from Susan.
†††† Since James Kelly had never been to a fancy-dress ball before, the prospect of having to find a suitable disguise to wear caused him distinct misgivings; though he knew of a costumier in the West End who might be able to supply something suitable at a reasonable price.† Even Stephen Jacobs might be able to help him out if pressed into thinking about it, he reflected.† Besides, it was two weeks until the ball, so he would have plenty of time in which to come-up with an idea.... For an instant, he saw himself garbed in some diabolical costume with horns and tail, but this illusion was quickly dispelled by the sound of Mrs Searle's melodious voice asking him whether he'd had enough to drink.
†††† "Plenty thanks," he assured her, as she made to pour the remaining white wine from the nearest bottle into his empty glass.† His gaze remained riveted on her long hair and shapely arm as she withdrew the bottle and poured its contents into Hammer's glass instead.† A sudden uprush of sexual desire for her engulfed him at this moment, and he was hard put to restrain himself from reaching under the table for her nearest leg and caressing it.† Perhaps she would have appreciated such a gesture, even with her husband seated no more than a few yards away?† After all, it might have given her a perverse satisfaction to be surreptitiously admired in such palpable fashion in the presence of her legal spouse.† Yet he knew he wouldn't commit himself to that possibility but remain committed, instead, to the belief that it would disgrace him and scandalize her, irrespective of the evidently drunken condition most of the male guests were in by now and the unquestionable kindness and generosity of the hostess herself.† Thus when, after a few tense minutes had elapsed, they were all staggering-up from the table, he realized that he had been sitting on his hands, since they were now somewhat sore.
The participants divided into little groups of twos and threes as they ambled out of the dining room and back towards the lounge, where some of them were destined to remain for an hour or two or, at any rate, until such time as they felt in a fit state to return home, whether by car or taxi.† Douglas Searle and Trevor Jenkinson appeared to be leaning on each other's shoulders for mutual support, though it was virtually impossible to tell to what extent the one was physically supporting the other or whether, in fact, they were really supporting each other at all.† Brady had an arm round the bare shoulders of Susan Healy, his latest caryatid, and Hammer, who had come to a sudden standstill in the intervening hall, was boastfully displaying his long powerful fingers to Rachel Davis, demonstrating, it appeared, a piano technique which he hoped she would find time to write about in her paper.†
†††† As for James Kelly, he found himself listening once again, at the door of the dining room, to the entrancing sound of Mrs Searle's voice, which was saying some kind words in praise of his latest novel - a work of romantic import enigmatically entitled 'The Divided Lover'.† She confessed to being especially impressed by chapter eight, a chapter, however, which, in his inebriated state of mind, Kelly could barely remember having written, let alone recollect.† So he contented himself with nodding his head in apparent approval while simultaneously smiling into the cavernous eyes of his beautiful hostess, whose graceful body stood no more than a few inches from his own.
†††† "One would think you'd written the novel under the influence, if that's the right phrase, of Aldous Huxley's Eyeless in Gaza," Mrs Searle was saying.† "For there are certain passages in it which profoundly remind one of the technique employed by Huxley in what is, after all, generally regarded as his best novel.† And its leading character reminds one of Anthony Beavis here and there, particularly in his views on politics."
†††† "Really?" responded Kelly, feeling somewhat alarmed by the prospect.† "I'm afraid I shall have to disappoint you where the presumed influence of that novel is concerned, since I can't ever recall having read it."
†††† Mrs Searle was affected more from the almost triumphantly arrogant way James Kelly had stated this than from what was said, and blushed accordingly.† "Oh well, I guess I was deceiving myself," she confessed.† "Still, I'm probably justified in drawing analogies between the two novels all the same, even if Huxley's happens to be the greater."
†††† From where he stood, Kelly had no difficulty noticing her seductively prominent medium-sized breasts, the upper halves of which were exposed to telling effect by the low-cut vest she wore.† He felt a momentary impulse to congratulate her on the effect they were having on him, but immediately quashed this wild notion by awkwardly inquiring if she still wrote poetry, since he remembered her having mentioned something about occasional poetic leanings a number of months ago.
†††† "Yes, I write short lyric poems whenever I get the desired inspiration, which, alas, isn't all that often these days," replied Mrs Searle, who lowered her eyes in shame and began to blush again, albeit ever so endearingly.
†††† "I wouldn't mind taking a look at them sometime," Kelly murmured, while thinking to himself that her blush was all the ignition a man would need to spark off his engine and put it in top gear, so to speak.† "I'm sure they'd prove most interesting," he weakly added.
†††† Just at that moment, however, there was an almighty commotion from the lounge in consequence of the mutual drunkenness of Trevor Jenkinson and Douglas Searle, who had fallen over each other and overturned a coffee table and a couple of wooden chairs in the process.† As Mrs Searle and her admiring guest quickly headed in their direction, Brady was vainly attempting to wrench Mr Searle back to his unsteady feet, though his effort to do so only resulted in his being dragged to the floor by the latter's outstretched hand, to the patent amusement of those already on it.
†††† "Can't they stay on their bloody feet," sneered Hammer, as he leant against the lounge door and peered-in at the chaotic and vaguely obscene spectacle before him.† "They won't get me down there, anyway.† Here, James, you're a fit-looking young fellow!† See what you can do."
†††† But when he got to the door, Kelly was too mesmerised by the sight of Susan Healy being pulled to the floor by her plump boyfriend, and having over two-thirds of her sexy legs exposed, to be of any immediate use to anyone in that regard.
†††† "Anybody else to come down?" chuckled Jenkinson sarcastically, as his attention veered towards Rachel Davis and Mrs Searle, who were standing closely together just inside the door, and whose embarrassment was plain for all to see.† In fact, Mr Searle was almost looking up his wife's miniskirt from where he lay helplessly spread-eagled on the carpet.
†††† "You can try him, if you like," giggled Rachel, while Kelly took hold of Jenkinson's outstretched hand and, as though bracing himself for a tug-of-war, methodically pulled the drunken author back to his feet, and this in spite of his own manifest lack of sobriety.
†††† "You damn spoilsport!" growled Brady as he, in turn, found himself being hauled back to the semblance of upright respectability and gently pushed in the direction of the leather-backed couch upon which Jenkinson was already sprawled in seemingly sybaritic abandon, like a Roman patrician.† "Anyone would think James preferred bloody standing to lying," he ironically grumbled, taking hold of his girlfriend in passing and giving her a playful slap on the backside.
†††† But the effort of pulling the third man to his feet proved too much for Kelly and, before he could let go of Mr Searle's hand, he found himself lying face-down on the floor, to the vengeful amusement of Jenkinson and Brady, who almost fell off the couch in their sarcastic approval of this unseemly spectacle.† However, he wasn't there long, because Rachel Davis and Mrs Searle combined to pull him to his feet, leaving Mr Searle to struggle for himself.† And it was Mrs Searle who used this physical assistance as an excuse for grasping Kelly at the waist with both hands and offering him temporary support against the unsteadiness of his legs.† Her breasts heaved perceptibly as he leant against her with one arm draped about her neck and the other one wrapped gently round her waist, as though they had just concluded an exhausting dance, and, despite her husband's close proximity, she couldn't prevent herself from smiling into Kelly's eyes and blushing anew in the process.† It was a wonder to him, at this moment, that he didn't proceed to fuck her there in front of her still spread-eagled husband and the other inebriated guests, but he simply thanked her instead and modestly helped himself to a comfortable seat.
†††† Later that night, Kelly was able to return to his flat with the knowledge that Mrs Searle, or Paloma (as he now preferred to think of her), had not only bid him goodbye with the words "I specially look forward to seeing you again on July the Fourth" on her lovely lips, but had used them, moreover, to kiss him on the cheek as, leaving after the others, he parted company with her in the presence of no-one but themselves.