CONJUNCTIONS:52, Spring 2009
But once settled into the seat across from Miles, all that fell away.
“You’re looking well, Robbie,” he said, smiling.
He smiled again, his pale eyes still locked with mine, and I felt that familiar frisson: caught between chagrin and joy that I’d been summoned. We’d met decades earlier at Cambridge; if I hadn’t been a Texan, with the faint gloss of exoticism conferred by my accent and Justin boots, I doubt if he would have bothered with me at all.
But he did. Being chosen as a friend by Miles carried something of
the unease of being hypnotized: Even now, I felt as I imagine a starling would, staring into the seed black eyes of a krait. It wasn’t just his beauty, still remarkable enough to turn heads in the restaurant, or his attire, though these would have been enough. Miles looked and dressed as though he’d stepped from a Beardsley drawing, wearing bespoke Edwardian suits and vintage Clark shoes he found at charity shops. He still wore his graying hair longish, artfully swept back from a delicate face to showcase a mustache that, on special occasions, would be waxed and curled so precisely it resembled a tiny pair of spectacles perched above his upper lip.
On anyone else this would have looked twee. Actually, on Miles it looked twee; but his friends forgave him everything, even his drunken recitations from Peter Pan, in which he’d played the lead as a boy.
I knew my place in the Neverland hierarchy: I was Smee, sentimental and loyal, slightly ridiculous. I doubt that, even as an infant, Miles had ever been ridiculous. His demeanor was at once aloof and good-natured, as though he’d wandered into the wrong party but was too well mannered to embarrass his host or the other guests by bringing this fact to their attention. His mother was a notorious groupie who was living out her twilight years in Exeter; his father could have been any one of a number of major or minor rock stars whose luxurious hair and petulant mouth Miles had inherited. Back at Cambridge, he’d scattered offhand anecdotes the way other students scattered cigarette ash. His great-aunt had been Diana Mitford’s best friend; as a child, Miles had tea with Mitford, and upon the aunt’s death he inherited a sterling lemon squeezer engraved with the initials AH. Once, camping with a friend on Dartmoor, he’d found a dead stag slung over the branches of a tree, the footprints of an enormous cat in the boggy earth beneath. A German head of state had fellated him in a public men’s room in Marrakech. He’d been Jeanne Moreau’s lover when he was thirteen, and had his first play produced at the Donmar Warehouse two years later.
That sort of thing. Now he gazed at me, and unexpectedly laughed
“Robbie! It really is so good to see you.”
When the waiter arrived, Miles asked for a Malbec that was not on the wine list, but which appeared and was opened with a flourish several minutes later.
“We’ll pour, thanks.” Miles gently shooed the waiter off. “Here—” He filled my glass, then his own. “To happy endings.”
Over lunch we gossiped about old friends. Kevin Bailey had lost everything in the crash and was rumored to be living under an assumed name in Portugal. Missy Severence had some work done with a plastic surgeon Miles knew, and looked fabulous. Khalil Devan’s third wife was expecting twins.
“And you’ve been OK?” Miles refilled my glass. “You really look great, Robbie. And happy—you even look relatively happy.”
I shrugged. “I am happy. Happy enough, anyway. I mean, it doesn’t take much. I’ve still got a job, at any rate. And my rent hasn’t gone up.”
For a minute Miles stared at me thoughtfully. I was used to these silences, which usually preceded an account of recent disturbances among some subset of sexual specialists in a town I’d never heard of.
Now, however, Miles just tapped his lower lip. Finally he tilted his head, nodded, and gave me a sharp look.
“Come on,” he said. He removed a sheaf of notes from his wallet and shoved them under the empty wine bottle, pulled on his fawn-colored overcoat and wide-brimmed hat as he headed for the door.
“Let’s get out of here.”
We walked across Hungerford Bridge in the intermittent rain, skirting puddles and pockets of slush. Below us the Thames reflected empty, parchment-colored sky. When I looked back across the water, the buildings on the opposite bank seemed etched upon a vast blank scroll, a barge’s wake providing a single ink stroke. Gulls wheeled and screamed. The air smelled of petrol, and snow. Beside me Miles walked slowly, heedless of damp staining the tips of his oxblood shoes.
“I think I’m going away,” he said at last.
“I don’t know. Australia, maybe. Or Tierra del Fuego. Someplace warm.”
“Tierra del Fuego’s not warm.”
He laughed. “That settles it then. Australia!”
We’d reached the other side of the bridge. Miles stopped, staring down past a dank alley. On the far side of the alley, a wedge of green gleamed between grimy buildings and cars rushing past the Thames, the intricate warren of doors and tunnels that led into Embankment tube station. I always noted this bit of park as I rushed to or from work: a verdant mirage suspended between Victoria Embankment and the roil of central London, like a shard of stained-glass window that had survived the bombing of its cathedral. Depending on the season, the sidewalk leading into it might be rain washed or sifted with autumn leaves beneath a huge ivy-covered plane tree.
Now the swatch of green glowed, lamplike, in the cold drizzle.
“Let’s go down there,” said Miles. “I want to show you something.”
We wound our way through the pedestrian tunnel and downstairs into the street. A flower stall stood outside the subway entrance, banks of Asian lilies and creamy roses, bundled green wands of daffodils that had yet to bloom. It smelled like a garden after rain, or a wedding. A black-clad girl moved slowly among her wares, rearranging delphiniums and setting up placards with prices scrawled in red marker. Miles tipped his hat to her as we passed. She smiled, and the sweet scents of damp earth and freesia trailed us into the park.
“You know, I’ve never been here.” I drew alongside Miles. “All these years I’ve just seen it from up there—”
I pointed to where the bridge’s span had disappeared behind a crosshatch of brick and peeling billboards. “I don’t even know what it’s called.”
“Victoria Embankment Park.” Miles stopped and looked around, like a fox testing the air. “I haven’t been here in a while myself.” For a few minutes we walked in silence. The park was much larger than I’d thought. There was an ornate water gate to one side, relic of a Tudor mansion now long gone. Several maintenance men smoked and laughed outside a brick utility building. A few other people strolled along the sidewalk, hunched against the frigid rain. Businessmen, a young woman walking a small dog. Tall rhododendrons clustered alongside the path, leaves glossy as carven jade, and box trees that smelled mysteriously of my childhood.
“This was all the tidal shore of the Thames.” Miles gestured at the river. “They filled it in around 1851, thus Embankment. I always wonder what they’d find if they dug it up again.”
We continued on. Signs warned us from the grass, close cropped as a golf green. A large statue of Robert Burns stared at us impassively, and I wondered if this was what Miles wanted me to see.
But we walked past Burns, past the immense plane trees shedding bark like a lizard’s skin, past an outdoor café open despite the weather, and some wildly incongruous-looking palms with long spear-shaped leaves. Perhaps a hundred feet away, Cleopatra’s Needle rose above the traffic, guarded by two patient sphinxes.
“Here. This is as good a spot as any.”
Miles walked to a bench and sat. I settled next to him, tugging my collar against the cold. “I should’ve worn a hat.”
He didn’t even glance at me. His eyes were fixed on a small, curved patch of garden on the other side of the path, two steps away. Forlorn cowslips with limp stems and papery leaves had been recently planted at the garden’s edge. The wind carried the cold scent of overturned earth, and a fainter, sweeter fragrance: lilies of the valley, though I saw none in bloom. Here too the grass was close cropped, though there were several small depressions where the roots of a great plane tree thrust through the dirt. Moles, I thought, or maybe the marks of older plantings. Behind it all ran a crumbling brick wall about six feet in height, topped by the knotty, intertwined branches of an espaliered tree growing on the other side. This, along with the ancient plane tree, made our bench feel part of a tiny enclave. The sounds of traffic grew muffled. People passing us on the main path just a few yards off seemed to lower their voices.
“It’s lovely,” I murmured.
“Hush,” said Miles.
He continued to gaze fiercely at the green sward across from us. I leaned back against the bench and tried to get comfortable. The brick wall provided some shelter from the rain, but I still shivered. After a few minutes Miles moved so that he pressed against my side, and I sighed in thanks, grateful for the warmth.
We sat there for a long time. Over an hour, I noted when I glanced at my watch, though Miles frowned so vehemently I didn’t check again. Now and then I’d glance at him from the corner of my eye. He still stared resolutely at the patch of garden, his expression remote as Cleopatra’s sphinxes.
Another hour might have passed. The wind shifted. The rain stopped, and it felt warmer; the light slanting through the linden branches grew tinged with violet.
Beside me, Miles abruptly drew a deeper breath as his body tensed. His face grew rigid, his eyes widened, and his mouth parted. I must have moved as well—he hissed warningly, and my gaze flashed back to the swath of green.
At the base of the plane tree something moved. A falling leaf, I thought, or a ribbon of peeling bark trapped between the tangled roots.
Then it gave an odd, sudden hop, and I thought it was some sort of wren, or even a large frog, or perhaps a child’s toy.
The something scurried across the turf and stopped. For the first time I saw it clearly: a creature the size of my balled fist, a hedgehog surely—pointed snout, upraised spines, a tiny out-thrust arrow of a tail, legs invisible beneath its rounded torso.
But it was green—a brilliant, jewel-like green, like the carapace of a scarab beetle. Its spikes weren’t spikes at all but tiny overlapping scales, or maybe feathers shot through with iridescent mauve and amethyst as it moved. Its eyes were the rich damson of a pansy’s inner petals, and as it nosed at the grass I saw that its snout ended in a beak like an echidna’s, the same deep purple as its eyes. I gasped, and felt Miles stiffen as the creature froze and raised its head slightly. A moment later it looked down and once more began poking at the grass.
My heart raced. I shut my eyes, fighting to calm myself but also to determine if this was a dream or some weird drunken flashback inspired by Miles.
But when I looked again the creature was still there, scurrying obliviously between tree roots and cowslips. Its beaklike snout poked into the soft black earth, occasionally emerged with a writhing worm or beetle impaled upon it. Once, the wind stirred a dead leaf: Startled, the creature halted. Its scales rose to form a stiff, brilliantly colored armor, a farthingale glimmering every shade of violet and green.
Vermilion claws protruded from beneath its body; a bright droplet appeared at the end of the pointed beak as it made an ominous, low humming sound, like a swarm of bees.
A minute crept by, and when no predator appeared, the scales flattened, the shining claws withdrew, and the creature scurried as before. Sometimes it came to the very edge of the garden plot, where upright paving stones formed an embankment. I would hold my breath then, terrified that I’d frighten it, but the creature only thrust its beak fruitlessly between the cracks, and finally turned back.
In all that time I neither heard nor saw another person save Miles, silent as a statue beside me—I was so focused upon the creature’s solitary hunt that I might have been bludgeoned or robbed, and never known it.
Gradually the afternoon wore away; gradually the world about us took on a lavender cast that deepened, from hyacinth to heliotrope to the leaden, enveloping gloom of London’s winter twilight. Without warning, the creature lifted its head from where it had been feeding, turned, scurried back toward the plane tree, and disappeared into one of the holes there. I blinked and held my breath again, willing it to reappear.
It never did. After a minute Miles leaned back against the bench and stretched. He looked at me and smiled, yet his eyes were sad. More than sad: He appeared heartbroken.
“What the hell was that?” I demanded. Two teenagers walking side by side and texting on their mobiles glanced at me and laughed.
“The emerald foliot,” Miles replied.
“What the hell is the emerald foliot?”
He shrugged. “What you saw—that’s it. Don’t get pissy with me; it’s all I know.”
He jumped to his feet and bounced up and down on his heels.
“Jesus, I’m frozen. Let’s get out of here. I’ll walk you back across the bridge.”
My leg was asleep so it was a moment before I could run to catch up with him.
“For fuck’s sake, Miles, you have to tell me what that was—what that was all about.”
“I told you all I know.” He shoved his hands into his pockets, shivering now himself. “God, it’s cold. It’s called the emerald foliot—”
“Who calls it the emerald foliot?”
“Well, me. And the person who showed me. And now you.”
“But who showed you? Are there more? I mean, it should be in a museum or a zoo or—Christ, I don’t know! Something. Are they studying it? Why doesn’t anyone know about it?”
Miles stopped beneath the overhang at the entrance to the tube station. He leaned against the wall, out of the wind, and a short distance from the throngs hurrying home from work. “Nobody knows because nobody knows, Robbie. You know, and I know, and the person who told me knows. And I guess if he—or she—is still alive, the person who told him knows.
“But that’s it—that’s all. In the whole entire world, we’re the only ones.”
His eyes glittered—with excitement, but also tears. He wiped them away, unashamed, and smiled. “I wanted you to know, Robbie. I wanted you to be the next one.”
I rubbed my forehead, in impatience and disbelief, swore loudly, then aligned myself against the wall at his side. I was trying desperately to keep my temper.
“Next one what?” I said at last.
“The next one who knows. That’s how it works—someone shows you, just like I showed you. But then—”
His voice broke, and he went on. “But then the other person, the first person—we never go there again. We never see it again. Ever.”
“You mean it only comes out once a year or something?”
He shook his head sadly. “No. It comes out all the time—I mean, I assume it does, but who knows? I’ve only seen it twice. The first time was when someone showed me. And now, the second time, the last time—with you.”
“But.” I took a deep breath, fumbled instinctively in my pocket for a cigarette, though I’d quit years ago.
“Here.” Miles withdrew a leather cigarette case, opened it, and offered one to me, took one for himself, then lit both.
I inhaled deeply, waited before speaking again. “OK. So you showed it to me, and someone showed it to you—who? When?”
“I can’t tell you. But a long time ago—right after college, I guess.”
“Why can’t you tell me?”
“I just can’t.” Miles stared at the pavement. “It’s not allowed.”
“Who doesn’t allow it?”
“I don’t know. It’s just not done. And you—”
He lifted his head to gaze at me, his eyes burning. “You can’t tell anyone either, Robbie. Ever. Not until it’s your turn, and you show someone else.”
“And then it’s over? I never see it again?”
He nodded. “That’s right. You never see it again.”
I felt a surge of impatience, and despair. “Just twice, in my whole life?”
He smiled. “That’s more than most people get. More than anyone gets, except us.”
“And whoever showed you, and whoever showed her. Or him.”
Miles finished his cigarette, dropped it, and ground it fastidiously beneath the tip of one oxblood shoe. I did the same, and together we began to walk back upstairs.
“So how long has this been going on?” We stepped onto Hungerford Bridge, and I stopped to look down at the fractal view of the park, no longer green but yellowish from the glow of crime lights. “A hundred years? Thousands?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. I mean, the park wasn’t always there, but something was, before they made the embankment. The river. Enormous houses. But I think it’s gone on longer than that.”
“And no one else knows?”
“No one else knows.” He gazed at the park, then glanced over his shoulder at people rushing across the bridge. Someone bumped me, muttered, “Sorry,” and trudged on. “Unless everyone does, and they’re all very good at keeping a secret.”
He laughed, and we started walking again. “Why did you decide to tell me?”
“I don’t know. I’ve known you so long. You seem like someone who’d appreciate it. And also, you can keep a secret. Like you never told about Brian and that dog in Sussex.”
I winced at the memory. “Is there a set time when you tell the next person? Or do you just make up your mind and do it?”
“You can tell whoever you want, whenever you want. Some people do right away—the next day, or a week later. But I think most people wait—that’s what I was told, anyway. Though you don’t want to wait too long—I mean, you don’t want to wait till you’re so ancient and infirm you forget about it or die before you tell the next one.”
I must have looked stricken, because he laughed again and put his arm around me. “No, I’m fine, Robbie, I swear! I just, you know, decided it was time for a change of scenery. Warmer climes, adventures. A new career in a new town.”
We’d reached the far side of the bridge.
“I’ll leave you here.” Miles glanced at his mobile, read a message, and smiled slightly before glancing at me again. “I’m not falling off the end of the earth, Robbie! I’ll be in touch. Till then—”
He raised a finger and touched it to my lips. “Not a word,” he murmured, then kissed my cheek in farewell, spun on his heel, and began striding back across the bridge.
I watched him go, his fawn-colored greatcoat and wide-brimmed hat, until night swallowed him. For a few minutes I stood there, gazing past the bridge’s span to the dark river below, the image of a gem-like creature flickering across my vision and Miles’s kiss still warm upon my cheek.
Then I turned, head down, as a blast of wind blew up from the underground station, and hurried to catch my train.