Preface

Earth, Sea and Sun
Posted originally on the Archive of Our Own at http://archiveofourown.org/works/38934168.

Rating:
Mature
Archive Warning:
Choose Not To Use Archive Warnings
Category:
F/M, M/M
Fandom:
Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1974), Maurice - E. M. Forster, Maurice (1987)
Relationship:
Nick Carraway/Jay Gatsby, Maurice Hall/Alec Scudder, Clive Durham/Maurice Hall, Anne Durham/Clive Durham
Character:
Nick Carraway, Jay Gatsby, Maurice Hall, Alec Scudder
Additional Tags:
Romance, Sexual Tension, Unresolved Sexual Tension, Male Homosexuality, Racism, World Travel, Food Porn, Comfort Food, Judaism, Philosophy, Jealousy, Antisemitism
Language:
English
Series:
Part 2 of The Green Light
Stats:
Published: 2022-05-11 Completed: 2022-05-14 Chapters: 26/26 Words: 35506

Earth, Sea and Sun

Summary

In my previous fic 'If I Forget Thee' Nick gives a first hint at how he and his lover James went on a journey literally around the world.
They officially travel as business partners and good friends, taking great care not to disclose the true nature of their relationship because homosexuality was punishable by law in most countries then. Spending time together on foreign soil has its challenges, and apart from sigthseeing, James has his own private objective to pursue.
Interested? Have a good read then!

Writers in Manhattan

We crossed the desert from Texas to California by car. We boarded a ship in San Diego and spent weeks in a cottage on a private beach in Oahu. It was before the days of mass tourism, so we went about naked, we made love in the surf and dived into the fluorescent waves after sundown. We had whiskey at harbor clubs in Sydney and Melbourne. We went on a guided tour to the inland rainforests of Ceylon. We tasted delectable food in Naples. He bought two delicately crafted rings in Zurich and proposed to me in a café on a boulevard in Geneva. We got drunk in Montmartre. We had modest meals in London. (If I Forget Thee, chapter 26).

 

Nick

As I am writing this, my beloved James and I are still together. We have lived through another war, encapsulated safely in our luxurious apartment on Ninth Avenue.

Old age keeps us from traveling far. Going to Atlantic City with our friends Maurice and Alec for a weekend is all we can manage now, and we do not regret this. After all, James and I literally traveled around the globe in our younger years, starting in August 1926 and coming home in July 1927. It saturated our desire to explore foreign territory for good, even though we went to Europe every year after that until the war broke out.

James was once known for throwing lavish parties every Friday and Saturday at his enormous house on West Egg. We barely receive guests now and whenever we do, only moderate quantities of liquor are consumed. Since the abolition of the Prohibition in 1932 and the collapse of bootlegging as a consequence, drinking heavily has gone out of fashion, for legitimate fruits are very bland to the taste in comparison to the erstwhile forbidden ones.

Television sets are rapidly becoming ubiquitous now. James was the first in our apartment building to buy one. We both grew tired of music shows and cheap Hollywood dramas after a few weeks.

Maurice and Alec, who vow never to have their homes desecrated by such annoying devices, agree with us. ‘We lived in the ages before the introduction of spoken movies and radio broadcasting,’

Maurice once remarked. ‘I’d say our generation is privileged. We had to undertake some efforts to have our minds inspired. Yes, we had fun then.’

Maybe it was this concept that made me sit down at my typewriter and decide to relate the story of our tour de monde. To my surprise, James did the same, in his study which is located next to mine.

‘You may be a better writer,’ he said to me, ‘but if you allow me to contribute, I will finally be able to cast off what has been weighing on my mind for twenty years now.’

I knew what he meant. ‘There’s nothing for you to feel sorry about,’ I retorted. ‘After all, I hurt you too. And you always said it didn’t matter.’

His eyes behind his reading glasses grew soft. ‘The very fact that we both repeated that phrase for ages accounts for one thing – that neither you or I have closed that chapter yet…Please let me participate, old sport. I can only do so much, but…’

The look I gave him stilled him. He had long ago stopped addressing me with this very British title.

I had grown used to him calling me ‘my only love’, ‘my husband’, ‘my beautiful dark-haired pearl’ and many things more.

Old sport – these words are still alive within him.

‘O.K.’ I said. ‘In fact, I see nothing wrong with you writing as well. My book would not be complete without a contribution from you.’ As if I ever intended to have it published, which would either have me end up in jail or in a penal colony, if such places still exist.

James and I agreed that we should write down what we saw on or journey, not necessarily to purify ourselves, but to elaborate on the invigorating, life-giving displays of friendliness and compassion we encountered, as well as on the hatred, the ignorance and the scorn, either intentional or not, that we had to deal with.

When our story is finished, we will keep the manuscript in a safe with a note attached to it telling our attorneys that it should be printed after our demise for the benefit of the next generation.

 

Lovers and Friends

Chapter Summary

James gives a review of the things that happened in earlier years.

We reached Penge, the estate in Wiltshire that is owned by our good friend Clive Durham, early in April 1927. This was to be the last notable stage of our journey around the world. Maurice would join us after a few weeks. By the end of June the three of us would sail to Dublin and spend a few days in Ireland before embarking on a steamer to New York.

We had first met Clive and his wife Anne in 1923. They were old friends of Maurice’s and had come to America for a visit. Back then, I believed their only objective was to enable Anne to attend the wedding of a boarding school friend of hers in New Haven. They stayed for months, however, at the Plaza in Manhattan and then at my villa on West Egg. Like Nick had predicted, they roamed up and down the East Coast, even as far as New Orleans in the south and the bitter shores of Nova Scotia in the north, riding in railway carriages or driving hired cars and sojourning in every place where people played golf or tennis and were rich and bored together.

In fact, I had met Clive before. In 1919, I enrolled at Magdalen College in Oxford to study, a privilege granted to officers from allied forces who had performed outstandingly in the war. I had left school without a diploma at fifteen and it had only been thanks to a forged college certificate that I had secured myself a military course as an officer when America prepared to send its sons to the European battlefields in 1917.

At thirty-three, I was still as unsuspecting and naïve like one would expect from a man born and raised on the fertile soil of northern Minnesota. When I had my first interview with a mentor at Magdalen, I inquired if the institute offered any courses in German literature. ‘We do,’ the man said. ‘But it would be unsuitable for an American officer. You fought the Huns so bravely. Why would you take any interest in Goethe’s or Schiller’s works?’

I cleverly refrained from mentioning my own background. My parents were Germans, originally from Homburg in Hesse. Our family was Jewish. None of this was very apparent now, since I had changed my last name from Gatz to Gatsby at eighteen. If the man had known all this, he would not have encouraged me to take a German course anyway. An American was supposed to be purely American at all times.

Quite honestly, I had not come to England to attend college. I wanted to find Maurice Hall, the officer from London whom I had met at a staff meeting in France and who had captured my heart. He was the first man I had loved. I still do, in spite of better knowledge. I still conjure the warm, sweet nights we spent at dirty hotels in Montmartre on leave. When he was taken ill in July 1918, all contact was broken off.

The war was over now, and I was determined to find him, to flee to Scotland with him and to live with him forever. I had heard him whisper or cry out a name while he was asleep in my arms in Paris - Clive.

Clive, the man who had been his lover during their college years at Cambridge.

Maurice had called it a fling, but I did not believe him. Since he was a bachelor, I expected him to return straight into Clive’s arms after the armistice, even though Clive was a married man.

I had a feeling that trysts, even with a person of the same sex, were considered less immoral in Europe than in America. So-called buggery was punishable by law in England, but I assumed the matter was considered quite acceptable in intellectual circles where works by Lawrence and Wilde were read and discussed.

I went out of my way trying to find Maurice in London. He had never told me where he lived. I telephoned every listed under the name of Hall and got nowhere. The only choice I had was to travel to Penge, for I was sure I would find him there, as a guest or some kind of tenant, an illicit lover to a married squire.

I hired a car, drove to the estate, found my way in through some hawthorn bushes and then met Clive Durham. A man probably in his late twenties, riding an Arabian gelding and not wearing a protective cap. He sported gold-rimmed glasses and his physique was frail. When he saw me, clad in uniform, he mockingly gave me a military salute and asked me if I was lost.

‘I read about Penge in an American travel guide and I very much wished to see it, sir,’ I said, taking great care to speak clear Oxford English. He laughed, he laughed at me, and then remarked that the estate was not a tourist attraction. His apologies for an obvious misunderstanding sounded gratuitous.

I walked back to the car. Clive Durham was an ungrateful tyrant. He should have been more welcoming. After all, the American forces had come to the rescue in 1917 when the power of the British army was suffering.

My anger was artificial, though. Clive Durham had delightful chestnut-brown hair, sparkling eyes like a spring sky and tempting pink lips that begged to be kissed. He was beautiful, and for a split second, the image of Maurice struck me as atrociously ugly compared to this man.

I returned to London and resumed hunting for people listed under the name of Hall. When I was about to give up and book a ticket back to America, I managed to speak to Miss Kitty Hall, Maurice’s younger sister. She told me that her brother was not in London at the time, but that I was very welcome to come to tea.

I met a girl in her twenties, dark-blond brown-eyed and always sporting a mother-of-pearl cigarette holder. Her voice reminded me of Maurice’s, the sweet looks she gave me were like Daisy’s, the girl I had courted and loved in Louisville before I had left for the trenches.

Kitty and her mother were most cordial. My American uniform did all to convince them, I suppose.

They expressed their regrets that I would not meet Maurice. He had boarded a ship to New York the previous week. So why did you invite me, I thought, I’m wasting my time here.

The glow on Kitty’s cheeks told me all. She was presumably unattached, and any man in uniform, even the ugliest one, looks dashing, and my home country was the most powerful nation in the world. It amused me how Britain had always fascinated me with its proficiency to adopt and to display true culture and how these people now looked up at mine in awe.

All I learned from Mrs. Hall and her daughter was that he intended to find a position on Wall Street. I did not ask if he already had a home address in New York. Luckily, they did not ask me to give them mine. I was registered as a tenant with a landlady in Milwaukee then. It would have seemed like the back of beyond to these English ladies who lived in a charming villa near Alfriston Gardens, a district in Buckinghamshire on the border of the capital.

When I took the bus back to Pimlico, where I had a room in a boarding house, I decided to engage one of my staff to oversee my small drugstore and fuel station business in Milwaukee and to move to New York. I wanted to earn a fortune vast enough to buy an enormous house that could rival the one on Penge, outside Manhattan, far from prying eyes, for only then would Maurice come back to me.

I bought a place on West Egg, a peninsula on the northern Long Island shore and started inviting anyone I had happened to meet in Manhattan. Soon my villa turned into New York’s most acclaimed fairground where liquor was drunk in enormous quantities in spite of the Prohibition.

This legal restriction is in fact the best thing that happened to me. Besides the revenues from the fifty drugstores I owned and many shares in oil businesses in the South, I had gained a fortune as a bootlegger in a few weeks. If this had not been so, I probably would never had lain eyes on my beloved Maurice again. It was not until June 1922 when I shook hands with him at my neighbor Nick’s house.

The irony struck me. I had spent royal amounts of money to attract guests to my place hoping he would be among them one day, and all it took me in the end was a tea party hosted by the man next door to finally have my love at my side again.

As I am writing this, I have to stop very often to take of my glasses and to wipe away my tears.

Poor Nick, he had happily said yes when I had learned that he knew Mr. Maurice Hall who worked on Wall Street like himself. I asked him if he would invite Maurice to tea and not tell this man that I would be present, too. I had been too scared to do it otherwise, since I believed Maurice had now cast off the so-called unspeakable part of himself, that he would avoid me at all cost to prevent our erstwhile love to become known, moreover, that he had turned decent and married.

But fortune smiled on me. Maurice fell in love with me again, we shared a bed at my house, we basked in happiness and bliss.

In September 1922, he announced that Alec Scudder would come to America. This man had been an under-gamekeeper on Clive’s estate and Maurice’s lover before the war. He had lived in Argentina for nine years and ran a successful garage business outside Buenos Aires, but he missed Maurice too much, and Maurice missed him too.

I am laughing now as I fit another ink ribbon into my typewriter. All my hard work had proved to be useless. I had risked being lynched and prosecuted in order to found my empire where I would live with my adorable, beautiful Maurice. Maurice, however, chose to be reunited with a man he had courted for two or three weeks in 1913 and who was as poorly educated as me.

All this does not signify now. Alec has become a dear friend to me and Nick.

But what irks me is how Nick always hovered in the background, saying nothing and doing even less.

I did not know he had fallen in love with Maurice and then with me. It took him a breakdown and a flare of passion that nearly drove him to murder and suicide to open my eyes a few days before Christmas in 1922. I rescued him from my patio while he was about to attack me, and one desperate embrace ended all. He had been let down by Maurice and me and saw no use to go on living. It was then and there that I fell in love with him. My sweet, wonderful Nick, my husband of nearly twenty-six years.

I hurt him so much then, like I would later on, and yet he chose to stay with me.

‘I wish I could marry you,’ he often says. This makes me happy, but he suffered so much that the very thought of those dark times still has me in tears when he’s not around.

Leaving New York

Chapter Summary

The four friends have a cookout in Maurice's garden and a few days later our travelers find themselves on their way.

Nick

In August 1926, a few days before we would leave on the train to the South, Maurice and Alec threw us a farewell party in Maurice’s garden on West Egg. ‘I shall be terribly lonely,’ the host had remarked on the telephone. ‘I’m soon bidding my lover adieu as well. He’ll be gone for God knows how long, and you and James won’t be around to keep me company.’

James and I thought this a bit grotesque. A few days after our departure, Alec would sail from New York to Southampton. He had not set foot in his home country for thirteen years. It was time he met his younger siblings’ children. Besides, he wanted to comfort his mother, because his father had passed away in the spring. It would be a well-deserved visit to England, and he would be back by October.

‘And of course, I am pining for shitty overcast skies and unpaved roads and pints of stout, mutton and mint jelly, spotted dick for pudding and real cigarettes,’ Alec happily remarked when he had let James and me into Maurice’s house.

‘Spotted dick?’ James asked.

‘It’s a pastry, you clod, not what you think,’ Alec laughed. ‘I wash down there on a daily basis anyroad, and so does Maurice, bless him.’

Only Alec can say things like that. In spite of his long years in Argentina and America, he is still a Wiltshire lad.

Maurice, however, had different plans. He had come to our country in 1919 and was now the proud holder of a permanent residence permit.

‘I have applied for American citizenship,’ he told us when we were sitting on blankets in his lovely garden. ‘I received a confirmation of reception of all the documents I submitted, but it may take months before I finally get to pick up my new passport.’

‘Well, you’ve earned it,’ James remarked. ‘You are now a shareholder with the company that hired you. Swift, Feinman & Hall – it has a marvelous ring to it…Congratulations, old sport.’

Maurice nodded in gratitude. His and James’s words were lost on me then. I only remembered them weeks later, when I was already heading west in the desert, somewhere in Arizona or New Mexico.

What I saw when I was sitting on a blanket opposite him was too distracting. He was sunbathing and wearing nothing but a swimsuit that moulded his body as if it had been painted on, chastely covered but still very naked in an American’s eye.

He had traveled to England a few times since he had emigrated, always anxious if the port authorities would re-admit him on American soil upon his return. He was still a British citizen who had only held a temporary residence permit during his last voyage. He and Alec lived inconspicuously in separate homes, officially as brothers-in-law, but the very idea that the authorities might discover the true nature of their friendship never left them.

But here he was, lying on his stomach and looking over the rims of his sunglasses, with greying black hair, a firm, heavy body and a deliciously tanned skin. He was incredibly beautiful.

‘I’m traveling to England in April, God willing,’ he now said, looking at James and me and pursing his lips. ‘Let’s hope there’ll be no icebergs that spoil all the fun…Yes, we shall meet on Penge.’

‘If there’s anything left of the stinking place by then,’ Alec scoffed. ‘Mr. Durham invited me most kindly of his goodness to visit, and since my parents’ house is completely packed with my brothers and sisters and their screaming brats, I have no choice but to accept his offer to stay at the gamekeeper’s cottage. I might do a thing or two and by the time the owners have found out, I’ll be on a ship back to New York…My nephew Joe lives on Penge now as the gamekeeper’s apprentice. I’ve a feeling old Mrs. Durham wants me to show him the ropes. Trapping weasels and checking birds’ nests and tending to the dogs. That’s Penge all right. You never get your tea just like that. They want you to earn it. Blast, I’m an entrepreneur here, but they couldn’t care less. It’s gonna be Scudder-do-this and Scudder-do-that, I tell ye. They’re all bloody -…’

‘Alec, please,’ Maurice interrupted him.

Alec rose from the blanket and smirked. ‘O.K. I see. Any of ye care for some pork chops and sausages? I’ll light the barbecue…Morrie, dear, would you most kindly of your goodness get the potato salad out of the ice-box? You’ve been frying on your lazy arse all afternoon, pal. Time you got some work done, mate.’

 

James

It was Alec who drove us to Newark in the van he used to transport car parts or goods for his little shop. The vehicle held our trunks and suitcases. We needed many things on our eleven-month journey.

Maurice followed in his sparkling new Chrysler, a two-seater that was so fitting for a man who now owned one-third of Wall Street’s most prominent bond trading company.

We had chosen Newark for the start of our voyage. Its station was less crowded than New York Central and we did not want our friends to have trouble parking.

When our trunks were carted away to a luggage compartment on the train, we all shook hands and patted on shoulders. Our final goodbyes had been said at home, with embraces and kisses. We could never show in public how much we loved one another.

‘Have a safe crossing, Alec,’ Nick said. ‘And don’t break old Mrs. Durham’s precious china cups and for God’s sake, stay clear of the apricot tree. You don’t want to get done for theft, do you?’

Alec grinned. ‘I’ll be good, Nicky. Blimey, yer the best. You did give me some ideas, you know.’

‘Maurice, dear, do ascertain if it’s safe to board in April,’ I said to Maurice, sounding more worried and loving than I intended. ‘If you hear any reports on icebergs in the Atlantic, please postpone your visit to England.’ We had been lovers once, but that belonged to the past.

His sweet, midnight-blue eyes understood. ‘I will, James, I will,’ he smiled. ‘I’m already dying to see you on Penge and longing to spend some time in Ireland with you and your beautiful Nick on our way back.’

‘Well, godspeed then,’ one of us said as the train whistle howled.

Nick and I ascended the metal steps and found the seats we had booked. We waved at Maurice and Alec on the platform until they were out of sight.

We were now on our way to everywhere and nowhere.

 

 

Two Men from the North

Chapter Summary

Our two dear friends get their first taste of the true South. It's yummy.

Nick

We traveled south along the east coast by rail. James had booked exquisite hotels. This was officially a business trip, but only in places that offered suites with two bedrooms and a spot that could serve as an office could we spend the night in each other’s arms.

As we moved on, the pleasant, breezy weather gradually turned muggy and moist. Since every hotel had room service, we could not sleep naked lest we should be found out by a probing maid or waiter carrying a breakfast tray.

The hotel in Savannah had no suites. I had to walk down two hallways to get to James’s room.

He grinned as he let me in and put a ‘do not disturb’ sign on the doorknob. Then he led me to his bed, hurriedly wriggled out of his clothes and undressed me so frantically that buttons popped off my shirt and my collar was ripped.

When we were lying on the sheets, we looked at one another. He was as flaccid as I was. I drew him to me and kissed him lovingly, only to back away in revulsion seconds later.

He gave me a crooked smile. He understood. The whole environment, including the two lovers, was too damp and hot to even consider making love.

‘That’s all right,’ he whispered. ‘We’ll get to Texas soon enough and from there we will only have dry heat until we reach San Diego. At least our sweat will evaporate quickly then.’

 

James

I could tell that Nick was suffering. Like me, he was born in a climate where even the worst daytime heat was compensated by pleasant cool nights in the summer. He is descended from Scots and Englishmen and my German ancestry goes back to Baltic shores. Neither of us were exactly built to contend with clammy weather and ever-hungry mosquitoes.

We sat in railway carriages listening to the meaningless chatter of other passengers, defending our belongings against grubby children’s fingers on more than one occasion, playing cards, smoking, drinking tepid coffee and sometimes arguing when we were alone.

‘We’ll be all right as soon as we get into our loan car in Dallas,’ I often said to him. ‘An open car. And nights in the desert are always cool. There aren’t enough trees that absorb the heat.’

‘But we’re not in Dallas yet,’ was Nick’s standard reaction.

‘Just wait and see, old sport,’ I retorted many times until I realized that this hurt him too. ‘Old sport,’ a term of endearment used by Clive Durham ever since his Cambridge days, picked up by Maurice who infected me with it in turn when we were lovers in Paris in the war and an essential rhetorical element in my vocabulary after that, should only be directed at those whom you consider close friends. It is definitely not a thing one should say to one’s lover.

 

Nick

We had traveled at ease, so it was not until two weeks after our departure from Newark that we reached New Orleans.

The more risqué quarters of the city had lost much of their splendor since the hand of respectability had swept them clean during the war. Brothels had been closed, bootleggers jailed and those who were still outside had either fled or accepted the religious zealots who preached hellfire for all sinners of the flesh and Heaven for those willing to repent,

But the South still breathes joy and merriment on every street corner. We had not expected any festivities when we arrived because Mardi Gras with its colorful floats and marching jazz bands and costumed dancers is celebrated in early spring before the forty days of Lent preceding Easter. We were pleasantly surprised when we found Storyville, the so-called mauvais quartier, boiling with music, plays and incredible food.

It is delightful to step out into the street, even after a night of fitful sleep, and to head for the next café for breakfast. Splendid French coffee, hot beignets, croissants, sweet rolls, grits and maple syrup while ever-smiling locals, black or white, strummed banjos and worked accordions.

A few years later, when radios made their way into American homes, James and I surrounded ourselves with music, from the morning coffee hour until bedtime. It reminds us of those blissful days on the Louisiana coast.

Every café turns into a night club after sundown. Wine flowed in abundance, because the Prohibition was ignored more blatantly here than in New York, quite rightly so, because this city was founded by French settlers.

I remember one night when we were having superb gumbo and a side dish of stewed okra at Le Campagnard, a restaurant where the stains on the tablecloths told us that last week’s busload of tourists had enjoyed the food as well. Tepid beer was served and we stuck to this, believing the tale that tap water caused lethal diseases.

The black pianist that had given us lovely ragtimes went on a well-deserved break. A young, white person now came on the stage, dressed in an old-fashioned frock and sporting a frivolous hat on a powdered wig. Only when the artist started singing did we realize that it was not a woman, but a man.

The Cajun lyrics were largely lost on us, but we did hear ‘je vous aime’ and ‘mon bonhomme bien-aimé’.  A young man in a tux joined him and offered him a bunch of silk roses. The singer thanked him by kissing him lovingly, leaving smudges of lipstick on the unpainted face.

‘That’s enough, John,’ a waiter barked. ‘I don’t want no police at my door like last week.’

‘Come on now, it’s only play,’ a British voice from the audience rang out. ‘And you might worry more over serving alcoholic beverages here.’

‘I’ll get your bill,’ the waiter remarked curtly. ‘I’m done with your snotty English ways, sir.’

James and I continued our meal in silence. It was delicious. We ordered crème brulée and fresh fruit for dessert. The latter came with a salt shaker. This was new to us. We put some grains on cubes of melon and peach slices and discovered to our surprise that it was lovely.

‘I didn’t enjoy the show after the pianist left,’ James remarked when we strolled back to the hotel in the indigo night that smelled of the Atlantic. ‘That singer was ugly.’

‘He was,’ I agreed. ‘But imagine…He got to perform anyway. In America. We ought to tell Maurice about it, he’ll be pleased.’

James looked around to see if anyone had overheard us, then nodded and lit a cigarette.

 

A Voice from West Egg

Chapter Summary

Nick and James phone their friend from their hotel in New Orleans.

Chapter Notes

James

When we were back at the hotel, we had a brief argument. It was going on eleven and it was a weekday. Maurice, a full-blown businessman now, must have gone to bed. Apart from that, he must be suffering enough as it was since Alec had left for England. The last thing he probably wished for was having to answer the phone and to listen to useless talk from Louisiana.

‘I’ve a feeling all is not too well on West Egg,’ Nick said. ‘I’m going to call him, bedtime be damned.’

When I first met Nick, I had noticed his shyness and his reserved demeanor. I had thought him good-looking, but very boring as well, your stereotypical Wall Street man who talks in figures and blushes even when he undresses for the night in the private darkness of his bedroom.

It’s odd how he had embraced rebellion, even wickedness, when he believed he would lose me either to Maurice or my parents. He is a man convinced of the value of his judgments, smug, arrogant and inflexible, but now for the benefit of his own character and mine. The thought that he nor I will ever live to see the abolition of all laws against so-called sodomy saddens him.

At that moment, I felt that I could not contradict him, so I did not protest when he picked up the phone and asked the reception clerk to put him through to an operator.

‘Hello…Maurice? It’s Nick, dear, how are you? Am I not disturbing you? Still awake? That’s not like you…Yes, James and I are fine. We’re in New Orleans and…Yes, he’s next to me.’

He handed me the receiver with a puzzled look in his eyes.

‘Hello, old sport,’ I then heard from West Egg. His voice sounded tired, more than the time of day could account for. ‘How lovely of you to ring. Listen, I’m glad I get to talk to you. I’ve come across something distressing.’

He diplomatically asked me if I knew ‘The Rise of the Colored Empires’ by a man named Hubbard or Goddard. I didn’t, because I had only read some reviews. The writer, claiming to act scientifically, warned the readers about the impending usurpation of world power by blacks and Chinese. I just didn’t want to spend my leisure time on a book that went against all my beliefs.

‘Goddard’s rubbish has been out of print for some time,’ Maurice went on. ‘So he won’t bother us anymore. A friend of mine lent me another book, though. I only managed to read some sections. It was enough to make me sick to the stomach. I had no dinner tonight.’

Maurice’s friend, a man originally from Munich who lived a few doors down from him, had returned from a visit to Germany with a book, a present from a relative.

‘I read German newspapers almost on a daily basis,’ Maurice went on. ‘Of course, I have eyed the founding and the development of the NSDAP with disgust and disbelief, but it turns out that Adolf Hitler writes books, too. I would have dismissed it as rot if it hadn’t been for the fact that the volumes sell like hot cakes in Germany and Austria.’

The underdeveloped war veteran wrote about the necessity of claiming territories for the benefit of the German working masses. Any human being who did not belong to the Aryan race was considered a hindrance. He called the Jews advocates of unwholesome ideologies and followers of the equally despicable socialist or Marxist movements.

‘It will be a long time before you reach Europe,’ Maurice said. ‘But my friend from Munich, who was as disgusted by the book as I was, lent it to me because my closest business associates and many of my friends are Jewish. I made it a point to warn them all, including you. By the time you set foot in Germany, your life may be at risk. Not only because of your faith, but also because of your amorous preferences. I’m not sure if Hitler writes about so-called Uranians or sodomites, but I’ve a feeling he regards them as inferior as well. Of course, your name is English and you and Nick travel as business associates or good friends, but I’m far from easy about it…Do me a favor, old sport, and refrain from traveling to Germany or Austria. Switzerland is safe, and nothing ever happens in Holland or Bel –‘

‘I’m an American citizen,’ I interrupted. ‘And I want to see my family.’

‘I understand, dear,’ Maurice said sweetly. ‘I understand. My mother and my sisters are far away in England and I miss them sorely…But you never actually met your aunts and uncles and cousins in Homburg. Why go and see them now? You might wait until the national-socialist ideology is completely defeated…Really, James, I’ve had no sleep since I read the first lines of that book.

It’s called ‘Mein Kampf.’ Utter nonsense from an American point of view, but Germany feels it has been wronged after the armistice. They will strike back.’  His voice broke. ‘And I don’t want you or Nick to come to any harm…Please stay safe.’

Maurice had been my lover. He had left me for Alec Scudder. His concern was so touching that it brought tears to my eyes, but then I felt myself harden. He was right in warning me, but he had lost his prerogative to fuss and cluck over me like a neurotic nanny.

‘Nick wants to talk to you,’ I said despondently before I handed the receiver to the man who now held my heart like no one else had done before.

 

Nick

Ignorant about the things Maurice had said to James, I spoke and heard his listless voice again.

I wanted to cheer him up and so I told him about the singer who had performed such a bad show while James and I were having a scrumptious dinner.

‘Good heavens, I went to New Orleans on business once,’ Maurice said. ‘I could have crayfish and beignets and jambalaya morning, noon and night…I do envy you, dear.’ I believed I heard him laugh.

‘As for that man doing a two-penny transvestite act, that’s definitely not new or original. James and I saw such shows in the war, when we were in Paris on leave.’ He made a gleeful sound now.

‘Do ask him if he remembers that ghastly pub on the Rue Caulaincourt…They had a bearded lady in a men’s three-piece suit who performed tricks with her three short-sighted Pekingese dogs.

Her lover was a blind girl who played the piano…The place was called ‘Chez Maurice’, after its owner, and that is why James wanted to go there. Its unofficial name was ‘Gueule de Bois’.’

‘Wooden mouth?’ I asked, wondering if this was another impermeable European joke.

Maurice laughed gleefully now. ‘Gueule de bois actually means ‘hangover’. Quite adequate for the café. The wine was horrid…Are you still stopping in Paris? Oh, do go and see if it’s still there. The shows are absolutely rotten. You’ll have lots of fun.’

I felt this was going nowhere, so I asked if there was any news from Alec.

‘He wired me after landing in Southampton,’ Maurice said. ‘I suppose he’s on Penge now, but I am waiting for a letter. Either from him or Clive.’

James and I said goodnight to Maurice, hung up and undressed.

We had turned on the ceiling fan and a cooling, albeit slightly foul-smelling sea breeze came from the window. ‘Make love to me,’ I whispered. The lights were off, but I could feel his smile against my naked shoulder. ‘Are you sure?’ he asked in a low, tempting voice. ‘We have not had any connubial pleasures since Washington.’

Since we did not work much but rather made our money work for us, we had a blissful intimate life at home. Largely unhindered by paperwork or mandatory office hours, we could make love whenever or wherever we felt like it. In bed before breakfast, in the bathtub after our morning coffee, on the beach or even in the swimming pool after sundown. We had been rather deprived on our journey, because railway bunks are too narrow and the compartment walls are paper thin.

But we were in New Orleans now, a city where life was celebrated from dawn till dusk, and the spicy food had stirred up our senses.

Soon I felt James’s gorgeous mouth exploring my manhood and my pouch, I writhed and groaned and was barely conscious when I repeated the act on him, taking in his delicious fluids while he ran his fingers through my hair.

It was only a little later when I was lying on my back and watching him caress his own member back to hardness that an image flashed past me – a man with a tanned skin, wearing only a swimsuit and sprawled on a blanket, watching me with hungry eyes over the rims of his sunglasses.

As James slowly and deliciously entered me with the aid of some cold cream, I opened my mouth to get a taste of Maurice’s nipples. The feel of James’s luxurious tongue on mine almost startled me, but then I melted and listened to his moans and the creaking of the bedsprings.

We underwent the apotheosis with our mouths locked to stifle any cry of lust. This was a hotel after all.

Minutes later, I heard James grope for his cigarette case and his lighter. There was a tap, a brief orange flash, then the aroma of Virginia tobacco.

‘Dear me, that was wonderful,’ he sighed. ‘We’ve been together for almost four years now. How come it hasn’t worn off yet? Oh, we’ll make love more often now, like we do at home.’

Chapter End Notes

Maurice is rightfully worried about the possible effects of Hitler's book, but his statement, established in 1927, that the volumes are selling like hot cakes is historically not very accurate.
10,000 copies were issued when it first came into print in 1925. The real rise in sales came when Hitler seized power in 1933.

Black Gold

Chapter Summary

Nick is stricken with a strange illness in Dallas, causing James to worry.

James

I had re-entered the oil business in 1923, so it was only natural to stay in Dallas for at least a week to visit the companies that I partially owned as a shareholder. Their offices were strewn all over the downtown districts.

Shortly after we had left the station and picked up our loan car, Nick started complaining about weakness. He felt as if he had drunk five bottles of whiskey on an empty stomach.

‘Motion sickness,’ I assumed. ‘You can get that on trains too, you know. Let’s go to the hotel. You’ll feel better in the evening. We’ll have a wonderful dinner tonight – enormous medium-rare steaks and roast onions and potatoes. After all, we’re in Texas now.’

He made a sound of disgust and pressed his handkerchief to his mouth.

Knowing that we were in a more traditional part of America now, I had booked two separate rooms at the hotel. When we got there, I found to my dismay that they were on different floors.

Nick fell into the bed without even taking off his waistcoat or his pants and was asleep before his head hit the pillow. The room had a ceiling fan and a window facing a stern brick wall.

My poor, dear Nick. I had a meal in the dining room alone, the aforesaid dish I so craved and pecan pie for dessert. All I could do for him was have some tea sent up to his room. He was too weak to even get up and let me in, and when I tried to phone him I got no answer.

I missed the comfort of his soft body that night and had breakfast in misery with only a newspaper to keep me company.

I had to bribe a chambermaid to borrow her spare key and it’s just as well that I did, because when I opened the door, I was instantly hit by an unpleasant smell.

Nick was in bed, pale, sweaty and with bulging eyes. ‘Don’t go anywhere near me,’ he moaned hoarsely. ‘I just soiled myself all over.’

A quick glance into the bathroom told me he had gotten up at some time during the night to be sick in the toilet. He had missed it and haphazardly mopped up the mess with towels.

‘Please go and see Mr. Hansen,’ he said when I stepped into the room. ‘I’ll be all right.’

I went and saw Mr. Hansen at Western Texas Oil Inc., got some remarks about wanting to pry too much out of the shares I held and then a very cordial invitation to visit the oil fields.

It was two o’clock when I returned to the hotel and had to spend money again to gain access to Nick’s room. The tea on his nightstand was untouched, with flies swimming in it. The bedding had been changed and the bathroom was clean, but now he was unresponsive, no matter how persistently I clutched his hands or tapped his shoulders.

A little later I found myself outside, heading for a park that might distract me. There was a pond with white swans floating on it, their silhouettes sailing eerily through the shadows from the maple trees.

Since I had missed lunch, I bought a few sandwiches from a concession stand, only to realize that I was not hungry after I had paid. I went back to the pond, tore the bread into tiny pieces and watched the birds gobble them up. One of them spread its wings and hissed at me – probably a mother swan trying to prevent me from getting too close to her babies. Animals sometimes misinterpret human kindness, which is not unnatural, since man is very often no different.

I made my lover ill, it went through me. He’s the world to me, but I infected him with my will to leave home and to see the world, and it’s all too clear that he’s not strong enough to take it.

I roamed the park and the streets surrounding it for hours, not stopping for coffee, smoking and trying to get my thoughts in order.

Shortly after seven, I went back to the hotel and requested for some tea to be sent up to Mr. Carraway’s room. I dashed upstairs and waited until a waiter came down the corridor carrying a tray with a pot and a cup. When he fished a key from his pocket, I said: ‘I’m going in with you.’

The man shook his head and said no and that it was against the hotel’s rules. I held up a dollar note.

‘No,’ it came again. ‘Boss won’t like it.’ I now detected an accent. He must be Hispanic.

‘Listen,’ I said. ‘I know you’re afraid of losing your job, but please let me go in with you. Mr. Carraway is in my service. I am responsible for him. If anything happens to him, his parents will blame me.’

The man gave me a look full of distrust. I was blond, freckled, much taller and older, and therefore nothing like him. People tend to side with those who are similar to them in appearance.

‘If your boss gives you any trouble, please come and see me,’ I said. ‘My name is Gatsby and I’m in room 314. I will make very sure that you won’t get fired.’

I took another dollar out of my wallet. ‘There you go,’ I went on, knowing that this sum was sufficient to feed his family for a week. ‘You deserve it.’

He shook his head again. ‘It’s O.K.’ he murmured, making a repelling gesture towards the bills and then opening the door.

Ay, virgen,’ he cried when he saw Nick lying in the bed. He put the tray on a table, made the sign of the cross and stepped back. ‘It’s O.K.’ he said to me again before rushing out of the room.

The smell of fever was overpowering. Nick’s forehead felt burning hot.

On the nightstand, next to another untouched cup of tea, was a little note, scribbled in barely legible letters. Please travel on without me I’m too sick I’m going back to New York I love you.

Clutching the paper in my trembling hands, I sank down on the rug beside the bed and wept.

 

Nick

To this very day, I have never understood why I was feeling well one minute and on the brink of death in the next. The journey from New Orleans to Dallas by rail had been pleasant. The tales of contaminated tap water, germ-infested food and bayou fever are widespread in the North, because unknown is generally viewed as unwholesome.

When I was lying in my hotel bed, sweating and suffering from my own bad smell, I drifted in and out of troubled sleep. At some point, I believed I heard Maurice singing or humming soothingly like only he could. He was with me now, dressed in a white bathrobe, the same one he had worn when he had stayed at James’s house in 1922. I felt his cooling arms around him and then I woke up with a jolt in a hotel in downtown Dallas, Texas.

I could feel James checking on me, I heard the bedside phone ring annoyingly, knowing it was him trying to reach me from his room, but I was too weak to answer, let alone to apologize. He wanted to travel around the world but my sickness had stopped him in his tracks even before he had left the country. I wanted to go with him wherever he would go. ‘I love you,’ I said in silence a thousand times, because it was so and because I wanted Maurice’s image to disappear.

I remember waking the next night when all was dark, with James sleeping uncomfortably in an easy chair by the window. His soft, calming breathing sent me back to sleep.

When I woke again, dawn was breaking and he was gone.

 

Fever

Chapter Summary

Dismayed and distraught at his lover's illness James seeks help from strangers.

Chapter Notes

James

It was shortly after six o’clock when I left the hotel to get some fresh air after a fitful night in Nick’s room. I had helped him when he had to use the toilet, in vain because his stomach was empty and he passed no urine. He was dehydrated.

I found the park again which was deserted but for some newspaper delivery boys and servants walking their masters’ dogs.

The bench where I had sat on the previous day was littered with pamphlets that were limp with morning dew. Some bold lines drew my attention. The only good Jews in Texas are those under headstones I read. I looked closer and concluded that it was a Klan manifesto. If the idea of touching these papers with my bare hands had not been so revolting, I would have gathered them and set them on fire with my lighter.

I walked on as the sun rose in the sky and the air gradually grew warmer.

This was not my first visit to Dallas, but I only knew the business district, and I still don’t understand what directed me to a place in the suburbs, miles away from the hotel and so modest that it had melted into the neighboring shops and warehouses.

The door was open and I could hear the faint murmur of voices. I checked my watch and saw that it was going on nine. This was not an office, but people stopped here on their way to or from work, at all hours of the day in fact, to read, pray, to discuss or simply to kibitz a little.

‘Good morning,’ a friendly gentleman greeted me. ‘How can I help you today?’ He sounded like a greengrocer. I was not like him, or rather, he could not tell that I was indeed like him.

‘Good morning,’ I said. ‘My name is Gatz. I’m passing through. Could I borrow a kippah?’

He nodded and let me help myself from a box full of black or blue velvet specimens.

‘I was wondering if I could pop in at the shul,’ I went on, fitting a cap onto my scalp.

‘Are you from New York, sir?’

‘I am. I’m in Dallas on business.’

‘To what congregation do you belong?’

‘B’nai Sefer in Queens, but I don’t go there often.’

I was lying. I was not registered as a member at any of the New York communities, but I felt this was rather irrelevant. Most of them knew my name, though, as a benefactor who donated occasionally.

‘And what brings you here at this hour if I may ask?’

‘I’d like to pray for the recovery of a good friend of mine downtown.’

‘Well, follow me then. We’ll fit you in somewhere.’

The shul was not overly crowded. Old men wearing ritual fringes and prayer belts were hunched over old books, reciting softly or singing.

‘Good morning,’ a man said to me. ‘I don’t believe I’ve seen you here before. How can I help you? You look lost.’

Yes, I was lost. I had come here to seek forgiveness for inflicting illness on the man I loved, for straying from the paved path that any man of sound mind and body is supposed to take.

‘I’d like to pray. I’ve come from New York with a man who is in my service as a financial manager of my business. He’s more than that. He’s my best friend. We met in the trenches at Ypres in 1918, I was his superior then, I’m an only child so he’s like a brother to me, even though he is a gentile and…’

‘You don’t need to tell me every detail,’ the man smiled. ‘It’s all right. Is your friend in trouble?’

Then he shook his head. ‘Where are my manners…I’m Rabbi Joseph Leizer. Welcome to our community house.’

We shook hands. ‘My name is Jakob Gatz,’ I said, feeling the roots of my original names tug at me. ‘But everybody calls me James.’

‘That’s nice. Now tell me, is your friend ill?’

I had lied again, about Nick only being my friend, about having met him at Ypres. The rabbi was so kind. I felt like a sinner.

‘He’s very ill. He can’t eat or drink, he’s got a fever. I even believe he’s delirious.’

‘We’ll see to that later,’ Leizer smiled. ‘Would you like to choose a prayer? We’ll read it together.’

‘I forgot most of my Hebrew.’

‘That’s all right, Mr. Gatz. We’ve got English transcripts too. Why don’t we recite Mi Sheberach? I’m sure you remember that.’

I blinked my eyes to stop tears from flowing. The man had sensed that I was a very modern Jew whose piety consisted of memories of things learned in yeshiva as a child. I could not even boast that, because some tutoring sessions by a wandering rabbi and lessons from my father had been my only religious education. Leizer did me an enormous favor by suggesting a prayer that is as well-known to my people as Our Father to Christians.

An English transcript of the Thora was provided and Leizer sang softly, smiling encouragingly as I found myself singing the long-forgotten melody. ‘May the Blessed One overflow with compassion to restore him, to heal him…’

‘You’ve got a wonderful voice, sir,’ Leizer whispered when we were done. ‘Let’s recite it again…What’s your friend’s name?’

‘Nicolas, Nick in short.’

‘Well, let’s ask Him Who Sits on High to look after Nick.’

I wept as we sang again. My voice broke. I hiccupped through the last lines, silently asking the Father of the Universe to forgive me for blundering in a holy place, for not being made according to His image, for being uncircumcised, for passing my incurable ailment on to an innocent, beautiful flower.

‘Let’s go to the next room,’ Leizer said. ‘Some coffee would do you a world of good, my son.’

The hot drink restored my spirits somewhat. Leizer noticed and nodded contentedly.

‘Has your friend seen a doctor?’ he asked.

I had omitted asking the reception clerk at the hotel to phone one. Why, I still ask myself. Because it was probably just a bad cold. Because it could not be cured anyway. Because Nick’s suffering was a punishment intended for me, so I had to sit it out and suffer as well.

My silence was not distressing to Leizer. He left the room and came back with a man who had forgotten to remove his ritual fringed stole.

‘Meet Dr. Steiner. We were lucky he just came in to pray.’

I shook hands with the man, who inquired where the patient was staying and then said he had a car.

‘Let Mr. Gatz finish his coffee first, David. A few minutes’ delay won’t matter.’

I produced my wallet and took a fifty-dollar bill from it.

‘Very kind of you, but you don’t need to pay us for a small favor.’

Something snapped in me.

‘I am wealthy, in fact I am the wealthiest man on Long Island. I’ve got three limousines at home and I barely drive them. I live among rich people who don’t know what to do with their lives out of sheer boredom. They have houses full of servants. It’s disgusting, I’m disgusting.’

Dr. Steiner sat down and looked at me as if I were a dim-witted child.

‘Mr. Gatz, please…You worked hard to get where you are now, didn’t you?’

‘I did. I grew up in poverty.’

‘Many of us did. Do you support your parents?’

‘I do. I bought them a house outside Duluth. Now they can enjoy their old age without a care in the world. I can only do so much…’

‘But that’s wonderful!’

‘I’m the prodigal son gone wrong. I just left and never came back to have a calf slaughtered in my honor. It’s disgusting.’

‘It’s not. I take it you have employees?’

‘Yes, quite a many, including my sick friend.’

‘They are living well, thanks to you. You gave them bread and roofs over their heads.’

‘Many others do the same thing.’

‘What is wrong with that? You shared your bounties.’

Something dawned on me.

‘That is so. Please accept this donation. You can use it for the shul or for maintenance or for a charity bazaar. I suppose there will be one before Sukkot in November.’

‘Thank you, Mr. Gatz. Thank you ever so much.’

 

Nick

I woke to the feeling of two cold fingers pressing my neck glands. ‘Not swollen,’ I heard. ‘And it looks like the fever’s gone down a bit.’

I opened my eyes and looked into two friendly brown ones behind oval glasses.

‘This is Dr. Steiner, old sport,’ James said softly. ‘I met him at a shul just now and he has graciously offered to examine you.’

‘Hello, Mr. Carraway,’ the doctor said. ‘How are you feeling now?’

I told him I felt like death, which made him smirk. Then he asked me about my bowel movements, my intake of fluids and the number of times I had passed water since I had fallen ill.

‘Aspirin will help,’ he then said. ‘And tea with sugar and salt in it. I know, that sounds horrible, but you need electrolytes to stop the process of dehydration.’

So it was nothing serious. ‘What could have brought this on?’ I wondered aloud.

‘You’re from the North, aren’t you?’ the doctor smiled. ‘I’m from Vermont myself and I see many people from our nick of the woods who practically collapse as soon as they get to warm areas.

It’s quite common, also among Northern Europeans, because they were born in a more temperate climate.’

‘Will I be able to drive?’ I asked. James’s face lit up.

‘You will,’ Steiner nodded. ‘But you should stay in bed for a few days now.’

‘We’re bound for San Diego. Mr. Gatsby and I will take turns at the wheel.’

‘That’s sensible, but please rest a bit before you move on.’

‘Thank you, Doctor.’

James saw the man to the door and then rushed back to the bed to take me in his arms. His eyes were sparkling.

‘So you want to keep traveling with me,’ he said out of breath.

‘I was delirious when I wrote that note. I’m sorry.’

He kissed me. He still loved me. All was well.

At least he had not found out what hat surely caused my illness.

Chapter End Notes

Mi Sheberach - a Jewish prayer for the cure of the sick.

The Desert

Chapter Summary

Nick and James are on their way to San Diego. James makes a shocking discovery en route.

James

We stayed in Dallas for a week, as planned. I would have gladly added another week so that Nick would fully recover, but he protested loudly and said he was feeling much better.

Poor, sweet Nick. He had lost much weight. His complexion was still alarmingly pasty when he got behind the wheel of the loan car to take us out into the desert.

Claiming to be O.K., he did most of the driving until we reached San Diego.

I spent hours in the passenger seat, dozing with the wind rushing through my hair or taking in the landscape.

The southernmost part of our country seems bland at first, a monochrome terracotta display of plains and mountain ridges, but it gradually stimulates the mind into discerning different colors and shades – the brownish green of sagebrush, the pebble-white of boulders and cattle skulls, the azure of the slopes at dusk or dawn.

We were on former Mexican territory now. Every village or hamlet surrounded quaint whitewashed brick church buildings with giant crosses on the belfries.

‘Oh, look at those sweet children!’ Nick pointed when we had to stop at a junction to give way to a passing procession. At its head were a smiling priest and seminary students carrying a relic in a glass case, probably a splinter of wood from the Cross or a bone or a personal accessory from an unforgotten human saint.

Nick, so profoundly atheist that his views alone could constitute a counter-religion, did not care about this. He smiled at a row of singing and praying children. The girls were dressed as little brides sporting gauze, lace-trimmed veils and holding roses. The boys either wore sailor suits or tweed jackets over press-fold knickerbockers. One of the friendly nuns who guarded the little train like worried mothers nodded at us, the gentlemen who had graciously stopped their dusty car with Texan license plates.

I looked to the side and saw Nick staring at the scene. The shades under his eyes and his chapped lips told me he had not fully overcome his sickness yet.

‘Those little ones are cute,’ I said to ward off an alarming thought that rose within me. ‘But you often told me you don’t like children.’

‘Not the ones that were all over our luggage on the train.’ He smiled sourly, as if he remembered something. ‘But basically, they’re all good. Untainted by adult wickedness.’

I produced my handkerchief and pretended I had to blow my nose.

So this was it. Nick was thirty-three now, the age of Jesus when he was crucified. An ominous, decisive number. It must leave him to wonder why he was still a bachelor to the world while all his college friends and trench buddies had married and become fathers. He was probably aching to have offspring.

I felt an immense relief when I remembered he would be thirty-four in a few days.

 

Nick

All I wanted was to show how strong I was. We had had separate hotel rooms ever since we had left New Orleans. There were no suites to be had and we spent afternoons either in his or my domain going over business contracts and route maps.

The southern strip of land that runs along the Mexican border is home to villages that are alive with Hispanic merriment. People crouched on porches chatting, smoking and drinking homebrew.

Dinners in restaurants were fiestas where guitar music and polyphonic songs provided lovely enhancement. This was steak country, but I felt myself grow tired from beef and roast potatoes.

This was still America and Protestants made themselves heard from islets in the ocean of Catholic joie de vivre.

I remember having lunch with James at a roadside restaurant, one table away from a group of clergymen in black suits. They demanded silence all around before they bowed their heads in loud prayer to thank the Lord for the bounties they were about to receive.

When we got into a neighborly chat with them after dessert, they explained they were on their way to a convention in Mexico.

‘It’s hard work, gentlemen,’ one of them said. ‘The country is a cesspool of vice. We hope to attract more young men and women to attend our mission’s college. The country might benefit from clear minds and sound morals after centuries of unrest.’

‘That all started with Cortez,’ I remarked. ‘Those who came after him introduced the Inquisiton to Mexico. It’s nice to learn that the past can be repeated.’

I felt James’s cold eyes on me. He was scared to attract too much unwanted attention and averse to insulting any man of the cloth.

‘Have a safe journey,’ another reverend remarked, and then he and his colleagues hurriedly paid and left.

I bent over to James, offered him a cigarette and whispered: ‘Take me to Mexico.’

A Joyful Country

Chapter Summary

James and Nick go to Mexico, snort peyote, get robbed at a Spring Break party and have discarded face masks for breakfast. Not.

Sorry for the elaborations on food but it so happens that I luv to cook.

James

Ever since we had left the train in Dallas, Nick had had very little appetite. After his sickness, he ordered steaks and potatoes for good measure because he did not want me to eat alone. His food, barely touched, went back to the kitchen or was devoured by me if the place was too seedy to require proper manners.

‘I don’t see how a stay in Mexico will make you feel any better,’ I argued. He gave me a pleading look with brown eyes that had lost their sparkle. ‘At least we’d be abroad then,’ he said, and so I gave in.

We reached Aguas Calientes, a dusty town in Cranenburg County in western Arizona on the eve of his birthday. There was no hotel there, only a boarding house that held all promises of bedbug-infested nights and tepid breakfast coffee.

The county is probably named after a small village in Germany on the Dutch border that goes back to olden times when the Via Romana was constructed. We were in the middle of an arid desert where cactuses loomed eerily under azure skies. I was sure the landscape on the other side of the border did not look any different.

Since we did not like the thought of staying at a dusty hotel, we drove three more miles and reached Mexico not wondering if our loan car would be insured outside America. But I still thank my stars for giving in to Nick’s wish.

We found a large, colonial villa full of rooms that could be reached by outside galleries. It served as a boarding house where no meals apart from breakfast could be had. The tourist season was past its peak and so I managed to get two rooms next to each other.

We had arrived at noon and after unpacking we spent an hour or more on the gallery, smoking, talking and looking down into the courtyard that was full of flowers.

‘God, I am hungry,’ Nick said. ‘Let’s go and have luncheon somewhere, old chap.’ He clasped his mouth to suppress a giggle. I understood. It was a thing Maurice would have said.

 

Nick

We left the villa and strolled into town. Its main street was a busy mess of people buying food from market stalls. A guitar band played merry Spanish songs.

‘Don’t touch any food unless it has been peeled, boiled or refrigerated’ is a phrase everyone intending to travel further south than Charleston hears from worried family and friends. The thought of risking another bout of terrible sickness was pleasing to me. We were not in America anymore.

The restaurant we ended up in had a lovely courtyard where trees gave ample shade.

As we sat down at a table and looked around for a menu, I remembered something.

‘It’s my birthday,’ I whispered to James. ‘I’m thirty-four.’

We were in public and he could not kiss or embrace me, but his eyes sparkled. ‘Many happy returns, dear…Would you believe it, I thought of it a few days ago but then I forgot. I’ve got a present for you. It’s in my suitcase at the hotel. Do remind me to give it to you later.’

‘Have breakfast like a king, lunch like a commoner and dinner like a pauper’ is another saying that, contrary to the aforesaid one, makes much sense to me, even though my own ideas are slightly different. A large meal at midday and a frugal one at night is conducive to general well-being.

The waiter spoke English fairly well. We ordered sopa de verduras, chicken in mole poblano and stewed rice. Mexico was not under prohibition and wine was available, but I was unsure about its quality and ordered a pitcher of lemonade. This consisted of water boiled with lime peels, sugar and sage.

I watched James daintily lift spoonfuls of soup to his lips. He was wearing a grey linen summer suit and a dusky pink tie with an elegant gold pin on it. The Mexicans must think him an Englishman.

Well, he’s American, thank heavens, it went through me, and it was then when my appetite became so ravenous that I dug into the delicious broth that had green beans, onions an jicama.

In between bites I chattered like mad about all the wonderful things that lay ahead of us, beaches and harbor clubs and rainforests and lazing on first-class decks. He listened with sparkling eye and a smile on his lips, like a father enraptured by his little son’s incoherent fantasy tales, drawing from his cigarette, and when he sighed almost unnotably, truly like the hard-working forty-one-year-old man he was, I noticed what was going on around me.

The patio was full of Mexican families in their Sunday best and small groups of fellow countrymen sporting summer suits like us – garments from Bond Street, or maybe some of those people were British tourists, now eating and talking and smoking under a sky that had grown overcast.

The latter meant nothing. In these latitudes threatening clouds could hang over a parched country for days without producing a single drop of rain. They merely sealed in the heat as they did now, but the absence of direct sunlight drove the last bit of sickness out of my body.

 

James

After the soup a dish of roast chicken in mole poblano was served. Chickens are not endemic to Mexico. Like sheep, cows and house pigs, they had been introduced to this country by Spanish settlers ages ago. The mole contained chilis and dark chocolate, a recipe from olden Aztec times. The Spaniards themselves had adopted many things from the Moors who had occupied their home soil for centuries, such as sextants, mattresses, fruit sherbets and rice. The latter had thus found its way to Mexico and a delicious example was now on our table, stewed with onions, peas and tomato sauce. There were many little side dishes and Nick all but polished off what I had not been able to appropriate – avocado and tomatillo slices, diced cactus fruit and wheat tortillas.

By the time we had lit cigarettes and were waiting for coffee and dessert I felt tired. Nick was still looking pale and thin, but he was unbelievably lively.

‘It’s gonna rain,’ I overheard an American from the next table say. I breathed some air into my lungs and found it had the cool quality of Minnesota spring showers.

‘So it’s this weather you’ve been longing for,’ I said to Nick. ‘Your birthday wish has been granted.’

The words he spoke then would elude me for months to come. Yes, he wished for precipitation after weeks in the desert, and we would probably be wearing oilcoats and sporting umbrellas from now on until we returned to New York, but he was sure that rain felt different in Mexico than in Holland, the country we would visit before we crossed over to England.

It amazed me how he ate sopaipillas in palm sugar syrup, fruit salad and little wedding cakes after a very large meal. The coffee was delicious. Since it was his birthday, I offered him a glass of aguardiente to calm down his stretched stomach. He hiccupped as we walked back to the hotel while the first drops came down from the sky.

We went to his room for a siesta. He lapsed into a comatose sleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.

The downpour lasted until sunset, with bolts of lightning flashing in a blackened sky.

He tossed and turned in the bed, moaning and sweating from what I took to be indigestion.

When he woke up in my arms, he belched loudly, kissed me and happily announced that he would take a bath and get dressed for dinner. He was starving again.

 

A Free Spirit

Chapter Summary

James and Nick have dinner at a real Mexican cantina, but it turns out to be anything but a birthday celebration.

Warning: this chapter contains references to sex crimes and racial bias. I do not condone any of the ideas mentioned but merely used them to depict social injustice.

Nick

I still don’t know what possessed me that evening. True to the childhood rule that the birthday boy was entitled to decide about the games and the treats during the party and what was to be served for dinner, I told James I wanted us to search the town until we would come across the seediest, dirtiest cantina in the district. It was in those places where the food was really rustic, not an array of neat delicacies composed to suit the palates of American and European travelers.

‘I’m far from easy about this,’ James said. ‘What about the car?’

‘It’s in the courtyard of the boarding house,’ I retorted. ‘It’ll come to no harm.’

We strolled through the darkness and the air that was so pleasant after the downpour. As we drifted further away from the colonial quarter, the pinpoints of electric lights were gradually replaced by the yellowish sheen of oil lamps. Families were having dinner in their courtyards. There was singing and shouting. Multitudes of children ran around giggling, quarreling and throwing annoying miniature firecrackers. The air was saturated with the smells of frying oil, garlic and cilantro.

We found a cantina where Mexicans were seated at tables chattering, smoking, playing domino and sipping tequila or pulque.

The friendly waiter spoke no English. The only modern foreign language I had learned in school was French. ‘Comer, por favor,’ I tried hesitantly. ‘Verduras, tortillas…no mucho.’ I hastily added the line Alec had taught me: ‘Lo siento, no hablo espanol.’

Presently the waiter brought us a pitcher of lemonade, a bottle of tequila and some small dishes of chick pea salad, sliced avocado, tomatillos and cheese fritters. The tortillas were hot and crunchy.

We dipped those in delicious salsa verde or plain sour cream.

James hoped we would not be robbed or assaulted. We were so obviously American that this was to be feared at all times, but we were three miles away from the border so I assumed the people in this village regarded us as neighbors.

James changed as the meal went on, probably thanks to a few glasses of tequila. He felt as detached from America as I did. No one in this place understood English, so he felt free to say what he would otherwise have omitted in public.

 ‘I’m so happy to see you’re becoming your old self again, my dear,’ he said in his characteristic musical voice that was subdued as always and yet carried far.

We never noticed that the Mexican family that was at the next table left and that a new guest sat down and ordered a meal. By the time we realized this, it was too late.

Our slight haze of love and intoxication was interrupted by the smiling waiter who brought us more dishes and a fresh stack of tortillas.

The man at the next table looked up from the book he was reading and politely wished us bon appétit. He was skinny and pale, his blue eyes stood out of his sunken, unshaven face like warning lights. A European.

The tortillas were still too hot to eat, so James and I lit up cigarettes and leaned back.

‘I’m sorry, gentlemen,’ the man said, ‘but could you put those out? I’m afraid smoke does not agree with me.’ Judging by his speech he was an American from a fairly northern state.

A war veteran, I thought, probably suffering from the long-term effects of poison gas that was used in Flanders. James and I crushed out our cigarettes and apologized.

We were silent as we continued our meal and the stranger used shreds of tortilla to scoop up chick peas and beans from his plate.

When the waiter served coffee and sweet pastries, he looked up from his book and smiled. ‘Enjoy your dessert, gentlemen,’ he smiled.

‘Would you like a glass of tequila?’ James offered. It was the only polite thing to do, since he was like us, not a local but a tourist.

The man shook his head. ‘No, thank you. Liquor, like coffee, is detrimental to human health, as is meat, by the way. I noticed your meal was vegetarian. You are sensible.’

‘That was purely coincidental,’ I said. ‘We had chicken for lunch.’

He made a sound of disgust. We were sinners of (or with) the flesh to him. But he was only annoyed with himself for being impolite. ‘Where are my manners…My name is Douglas Hermann. I’m pleased to meet you.’

His last name sounded very German, and this must interest James. ‘Well, my name is Gatsby, and this is Mr. Carraway. The pleasure is all mine.’

We shook hands. There was no way back now.

 

James

Mr. Hermann told us how happy he was to meet two fellow countrymen in this run-down quarter.

He lived in a large farmhouse in the hills, so high up that the little villages across the border could be seen on clear days. Originally from Washington State, he had left college without a diploma as a young man and fled to Mexico to avoid being made to fight in the trenches.

He had married a woman from Nevada who was descended from Germans like himself. They both abhorred the pressure of luxury and idleness that had gotten hold of America after the war.

Hermann had read works by Shaw, Indian philosophers and founders of European health movements. He started inviting people to his estate. They worked in the vegetable garden and herded or milked the goats together. Meals were strictly vegetarian. Many of the guests were Americans as dismayed by modern times as he was, or writers, scholars or journalists from Europe, predominantly from England and Germany.

The farmhouse and the lands surrounding it gradually became a community. Gymnastics, dances and discussion circles were all held in the nude. It was the only way to show that man was equal to his fellow man, regardless of age, creed, nationality or sex. In fact, this age saw the birth of a new movement that would soon stand strong against the established religions of the world. Faith had hitherto caused nothing but pain, hatred and segregation. Living in a place where every item of food on one’s plate was the result of one’s own painstaking work and where nudity served to show that people were essentially similar was the only way to enlightenment.

‘Are there any black guests on your estate?’ Nick wanted to know.

Hermann shook his head. ‘No. I invited a few through my friends, but they wouldn’t come. Seems they’re not quite cut out for this kind of thing.’

‘And what about servants?’ Nick then asked.

‘Yes, we have some. Locals. My wife and I keep telling the members of our community that they are supposed to clean the outhouses and wash clothes too, but especially the women refuse. Even the most progressive ones are still too bourgeois to scrub latrines. I hope that will change in time.’

‘Do you pay your servants?’

‘We don’t. We give them food and clothes and such for their families. Some members tutor their children in town if they prepare to apply for a scholarship. Paying or getting paid for services would go against our beliefs.’

‘Nudity as a concept of living does sound rather strange,’ Nick remarked. ‘Are there people who take this out of context? I mean…’

‘Some do,’ Hermann said. ‘But my wife and I don’t tolerate any funny business. One single attempt at sexual misconduct and you can pack your bags and leave…We do stimulate open relationships, though. Marriage was invented to keep people from exploring too much which would separate them from church and society. That’s not what we want.’

I poured myself another glass of tequila while Nick came up with his next question.

‘What about children? Do they get to live and work there with their parents, too?’

‘No. In fact, we do not allow anyone under the age of twenty-one to join our community. If we did, we’d risk being jailed or deported, if only for keeping them from attending school. And working with adolescents is no good anyway. They think going around with no clothes on is embarrassing, or they can’t suppress their sexual curiosity. That’s normal at that age, but I don’t want to get into trouble with the law.’

‘Where do members leave their children if they’re not allowed on your premises?’

‘At home with their families or at boarding schools.’

‘What if a female member becomes pregnant?’

‘We either suggest that she gets rid of it, and if she won’t, which is usually the case, we tell her to leave before her second trimester is up. We don’t believe in overpopulating the planet, so we provide ample methods to prevent pregnancy. It works quite well.’

Nick took a cigarette from his case, but when Hermann gave him a friendly look, he put it back.

The houses across the alley harbored semi-official bars or tobacconists’ shops, it seemed. Some youngsters who would long have been in bed at this hour if they had been American loitered in the doorways or leaned against the brick walls talking or smoking or playing inexplicable games with marbles in the dust.

A few men dressed in cheap linen suits walked by. One of them addressed two Mexican boys of about sixteen. An awkward conversation followed because they did not speak each other’s languages, but then there was laughter, after which the boys joined the strangers and walked away.

I had read about this, hoping I would never see it with my own eyes, but it was there, and there was nothing I could do about it.

‘I saw you looking at those people, Mr. Gatsby,’ Hermann said mildly after some minutes of silence. ‘It’s the very vice of every border town in Mexico. Men come here to seek certain things from youngsters. Of course those boys only put up with it because they get paid well. Quite obviously, the number of female prostitutes is even higher. Many of those poor people are underage and anyone soliciting it risks punishment, but it seems the Mexican authorities are unable to deal with it…’

‘It’s disgusting,’ Nick remarked.

‘I agree,’ Hermann said. ‘I thought for a moment that you two gentlemen came down here to look for illicit amusement, but something tells me you’re not…And as for homosexuality, by the way, it was quite a normal thing in the Aztec era. Warriors would take on young male lovers, but not for life. They always chose women in the end who would bear their children.

And that’s part of the concept of my community too. Same-sex relationships, either platonic or carnal, are allowed in the form of harmless dalliances. We stimulate unions between men and women. Two matching halves of a whole, not necessarily for life, but as the only real thing.’

‘And yet you won’t accept procreation on your estate,’ Nick said.

Hermann was offended by this. He chose to change the subject.

‘I don’t know what your plans are, gentlemen, but…’

‘We’re on our way to England,’ I interrupted.

Hermann smiled condescendingly. ‘England? The people who venerate their King as if he were a god and who kill animals for their sport? The nation that rules a third of the Earth’s land mass? Well, I wish you a nice journey, but I’m happy living in good old Mexico…If you are staying in the area for some time, please come and visit. You’ll like the vegetable garden and the stables and the dances…If you intend to stay for more than one day, we’ll expect you to work…My wife would love to meet you. Please feel very welcome. Here is my business card.’

We thanked him politely. Then he paid, rose from his chair and stepped out into the cool, pungent night.

‘Let’s take the bottle back to the hotel,’ Nick said to me.

At Sea

Chapter Summary

Our friends finally get to leave the American mainland.

Nick

It took us almost half an hour to get a telephone connection to West Egg from my hotel room in San Diego. This was the last time we would hear Maurice’s beloved voice before we would meet again in England. It was early October now, and Penge was almost six months away.

Maurice had to yell over thousands of miles of torrid wire to make himself understood. James and I learned that all was well at James’s villa. Maurice had had tea with the doorman.

Furthermore, he had received news from Alec, who was now a guest of the gamekeeper’s on Clive’s estate.

‘His letter is unbelievably bland. He writes about the jolly times he has with his childhood chums in the pubs in Osmington, about his father’s grave, and about the game on the estate…He describes elaborately what he has for tea…pardon…for dinner every night. It’s odd, it is as if he feared his letter might be read by others before it was delivered to my house.’

He laughed and said it didn’t matter anyway. Alec would be back in two weeks.

We told him all about the very short time we had spent south of the border – two days with only one overnight stay at a boarding house.

‘Mexico sounds out of repair to me,’ Maurice then said. ‘But I’ve been told the food is heavenly.’

‘It is,’ James said. ‘But we came across…’

And so Maurice got the whole story of our unpleasant encounter with Mr. Herrmann in a taverna.

‘Don’t believe for a minute that this fellow is running a chaste Rousseau- or Seneca-inspired community,’ Maurice snorted. ‘Apart from racially biased, he’s probably not averse to conducting complete orgies. He doesn’t practice what he preaches. He’s against marriage but he’s got a wife, he won’t accept any money, but how the hell does he manage to finance his business? Listen, I’ve read a thing or two about these movements. Men like us go there because they believe they can finally find romance or at least acceptance. It’s all a washout. Men like us are still far from being accepted for who we are. But then again, you won’t have to think about this for a very long time now, my darlings.’

He then painted a picture of the next stage of our journey. A pearly white beach, palm trees, a murmuring ocean, fishing, nights in a cottage, a nearby tropical forest. ‘A true greenwood,’ he sighed. ‘You’ll finally get a taste of true life. Nature in its purest form. How I envy you!’

When we had hung up, James suddenly remembered something. I could tell by the way he frowned and bit his lip.

‘We’ve just been horribly careless,’ he said softly. ‘We talked about punishable matters. It was a long-distance connection. God knows how many operators may have been listening.’

He still felt he had to behave like the bootlegger he’d once been: never discuss hot topics on the phone or just use code words, burn any compromising note as soon as you’ve read it.

I laughed. ‘Only federal police authorities are allowed to tap lines. And those poor, underpaid girls at the switchboards won’t tattle. They don’t want to lose their jobs.’

And then I took a deep breath, poured us another glass of very illicit whiskey, lit a cigarette and toasted. ‘And even if anyone overheard us and alerted the police, they would find us gone by the time they got to this hotel. We’ll be out of territorial waters by noon tomorrow.’  

 

James

The tropical zone of the Pacific often suffers under hurricanes from November until March. It was October now and the boat that had Sydney as a final destination was packed with people who had taken the chance to travel while they still could. Most of the passengers either lived on the islands or were bound there to work at the missions.

It took us six days to reach Honolulu. The lounges were all but confiscated by men in black suits reading Bible texts or discussing the belief in Resurrection and Redemption. The Dominican or Ursuline sisters who had come on board in San Diego with us must be doing the same, but I suppose they took to their cabins, since they were barely seen. Public presence in serious matters is still an inexplicable male prerogative.

I had booked two first-class cabins. Upon embarking Nick and I learned that they were on separate decks. Presenting ourselves as men traveling on business, we requested for a typewriter to be put in my room, thus providing me with a valid reason to have Nick with me at all times.

Even though we basked in luxury, sharing a bed was impossible. Waiters rapped on doors at all hours to deliver leaflets with information on the midday and evening entertainment, to bring fresh towels or to ask us if we needed anything. We needed peace and quiet they could not provide.

I remember locking the door once and sinking down on my bunk bed with Nick in my arms, seconds before the vessel was lifted on an unexpectedly high wave. When the ship was thrust down, Nick rolled unto the floor and bumped his head on the leg of the dressing table. He then got up, put his clothes back on, sighed ‘All this must be tomorrow,’ a phrase we both attributed to Clive, and left the cabin.

We dodged the ballrooms with their badly playing orchestras and singing Wagnerian divas and resorted to the first-class deck to overlook the sea. The vessel sailed under the Australian banner and we were outside territorial waters and the grip of American law, so drinking among the passengers went out of hand.

I had expected Nick to suffer from sea sickness, but he was happy and cheerful and marched up and down the deck for hours. ‘Isn’t it wonderful to be outside America now?’ he said to me more than once.

The Greenwood

Chapter Summary

And finally...Hawaii.

Nick

James and I had both read much about Hawaii. The volcanic islands were uninhabited until Polynesians in longboats discovered them roughly around the time Leif Erikson and his men set foot on American mainland. It was not until after the arrival of Cook’s fleet in the late eighteenth century that the secluded archipelago became a point of interest. Plantations were established and migrant workers from China and the Philippines were brought in.

The multitude of different cultures is very beneficial to any visitor. It is sad, however, that the original population has decimated due to many unintentionally imported illnesses like measles and smallpox.

As I am writing this, the government in Washington is discussing the possibility of granting statehood to Hawaii. Whether that is a good or bad thing is a matter of personal judgment.

After a night at a seaside hotel in Honolulu, James and I went to a car rental agency and were presently given a ramshackle T-Ford for the duration of our stay.

We were bound for a private strip of beach with a cottage on the northernmost tip of Oahu. The owner had written to us that the house contained modern, albeit modest commodities, but no electricity. As a boy in my teens, I had joined many church hiking groups. I had learned to shoot, dig latrines, pitch tents and many things more. Apart from that, whatever one was supposed to do to survive in the wild was common knowledge in the Midwest anyway.

James had grown up in a similar area. He had started hunting game for money at the age of twelve and had missed a lot of school hauling stacks of hay or herding cows. It struck me now how ill-prepared he was for our stay.

‘Listen,’ I said, ‘while we’re still in Honolulu, we should buy some essentials. Not only provisions.’

He gave me a puzzled look. ‘Why would we need those, old sport?’ he asked. He deliberately used this English title because we were having coffee in a bar outside the port. Then he grinned.

‘Well, O.K. then. Be a boy scout and clean out the stores. We can afford it.’

As the son of a family that had been in the hardware business for three generations, I only needed a quick glance at window displays of shops to know if they sold what we needed.

I bought yards of mosquito netting, haberdashery, rope, fishing rods, knives, waxed matches, petroleum and many things more. James protested when I stepped into a firearm store.

‘Why would we need a rifle?’ he asked. ‘It will rust in this humid climate.’

‘Plenty of ways to prevent that,’ I retorted smugly. An English survivor of Gallipoli had once told me that you could even clean rifles with urine if there was nothing else available.

He ended up buying a supreme Winchester, a tin of grease and two hundred rounds of ammunition, his eyes sparkling as the shop assistant smilingly put the purchases in a cardboard box.

Months later, a Dutch gentleman at the bar of the Hotel des Indes in Amsterdam would gasp at our tale. ‘What, you can go out and buy firearms just like that in America? Thank heavens we think differently here. You can’t get hold of a rifle unless you’re with the forestry department. We’re peaceful people. We don’t believe in violence.’

Our next stop was at a grocery store. James shook his head as I bought a ten-pound bag of rice, five pounds of flour, coffee, tea and only a few tinned goods. ‘Listen, we’ll be staying there for two weeks,’ he whispered. ‘This is not nearly enough to hold us over.’ I gave him a grin and paid.

He felt defeated but kept silent as he got behind the wheel of the car and drove us out of town.

We took the eastern coastal road, the one that connected many holiday resorts and that was not too badly out of repair. As we went further north, I could feel him soften. ‘Oh look at those beaches!’ he said many times. ‘And the trees and the flowers! Isn’t it beautiful?’

 

James

After a forty-five mile drive we stopped at the shop that was run by the owner of the cottage. He greeted us warmly, told his children to go out and play and offered us coffee.

We paid for our stay and looked around if there was anything we still needed to buy.

The man was Hawaiian, born into a culture where love between men was not frowned upon.

However, these were modern times. We saw a cross hanging over the shelves behind the counter, as well as pictures of biblical scenes pinned haphazardly onto every clear patch of the walls.

Christian missionaries, especially those from Protestant churches, had gained much influence over the years. Maybe the tale about locals losing their jobs or business if they did not accept Jesus Christ as their Savior was still true. We had to choose our words wisely in order not to offend this friendly man and to protect ourselves.

Yet the remark he gave us struck me. ‘It’s strange two gentlemen go out and live on the beach. The cottage most done rent out to couples on the honeymoon kine.’

I am not a learned man, but I can think quickly. ‘Well,’ I said. ‘I’m a writer, and Mr. Carraway is my assistant. I’m writing a book on surviving in the woods…You know, about plants and fruits you can or cannot eat, about fishing. People in New York love to read such things.’

He nodded. ‘That’s nice…But a year or the kine ago, a couple from a missionary school up in Canada come down here to do some training. Done booked the place for a month. They come back here after a week. Lady was too sick to stand it. They go back to Canada.’

‘We’ll be O.K.’ I said. The man shook hands with us, watched us climb into the car and waved until we were out of sight.

 

Nick

We drove for about five miles until we found a side road. The owner had given us the key to the gate.

I got out, opened  it and waited until James had driven through it. After that, I hermetically locked the gate and got back into the passenger seat.

We were on private property now and the muddy track was all potholes and protruding tree roots.

It was a bumpy ride through a dense forest. James yanked the wheel, took elevations in first gear and occasionally let out yelps of alarm. Yet he assured me that he was used to this. After all, he had driven on destroyed roads in the war.

I’ll never forget the sight we saw when we were out of the woods and on a stretch of soil that marked the end of the track. We overlooked a deserted beach with boulders and driftwood strewn about. The sand was white. Behind that was the bright turquoise ocean that carried the smells of salt and seaweed. To the left we detected a clump of palm trees surrounding a cottage. It had a corrugated iron roof lined with gutters. There were a few rain barrels on the front porch.

We got out of the car and plodded through the sand. I opened the front door and gasped.

The interior was clean, but it looked desolate. There were two bedrooms with a double iron bed in each of them. The mosquito nettings were torn. A musty smell permeated the place.

The small dining room was scantily furnished with a few rickety tables and worn wooden chairs. The stove in the kitchen was old and dented. Cockroaches fled as I opened a sagging cabinet.

This was well-stocked with metal dishes, mugs and cooking pots.

On the far side of the house we found a bathroom. The enamel of the tub was chipped, but to our surprise, we found a toilet. This led me to explore the back porch. A giant water tank hovered over it.

The island saw enough precipitation, but I knew we had to use the resources economically.

‘Out of repair,’ James sighed. ‘We can still drive down to one of those beach resorts and book rooms there. I don’t see why we should play St. Anthony in a tree or Robinson Crusoe just for fun.’

This was all I needed. ‘Just wait and see, dear,’ I said before I dashed back to the car to unload our luggage.

On the Beach

Chapter Summary

A private love nest for Nick and James.

Chapter Notes

James

I am basically a very lazy man, a stereotype found all over the world. ‘I started earning a living at fifteen, not like those snotty bourgeois youngsters who spend years at college, I did my bit in the trenches, I bought my parents a house and I have dozens of people in my service who can afford to feed and clothe their children thanks to me. I’m forty-one now, no longer young, I deserve a bit of leisure.’

The trouble with having to work to earn a living is that it gives one a sense of entitlement that goes against beliefs instilled into us by religion and society.

Nick, ever the cynic, never contradicts me on this point. ‘You’re always busy, James,’ he said while I helped him haul our things into the little house. ‘Rest a bit now.’ Our personal belongings had filled two suitcases. Our trunks were stored at the port of Honolulu.

He told me to laze on the beach. I changed into a swimsuit, took a towel and found myself a nice spot. The sky was overcast, so I needed no protective skin cream.

Nick swept the house, scrubbed the kitchen with some gas from the car to drive out all the roaches and hung the bedding over the porch rail to air.

He brought me a mug of tea and said that the stove was no good. The chimney was too small to provide any good traction.

Then he started working around me. He collected every piece of driftwood and seaweed from the sand and carried all to the little shed behind the cottage.

I burst out laughing when he appeared with a garden rake and started gathering bits of waste from the sand. ‘We want a clean beach, don’t we?’ he remarked.

The sun was setting in the west when he returned wearing a bathrobe and carrying two mugs of tea. He slumped down beside me, rolled unto his stomach and lit a cigarette.

‘Are you tired?’ I asked him. He smiled and shook his head. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I’ll light a fire to cook dinner. What do you fancy?’

The options were restricted. We had rice, canned beef and vegetables. And of course this would all be mixed together like a makeshift gumbo devised by a demented cook.

Presently I saw him stirring the contents of a cast-iron pot that sat in a nest of glowing embers.

The result was salty and bland at the same time. The scraping of our spoons on metal plates annoyed me. ‘It’s delicious,’ I lied. His sweet look was worth more than any condiment.

The sky gradually grew darker as we had more tea and smoked. Maybe I dozed a bit, because his cheerful voice startled me. I looked ahead of me and saw that the waves had grown fluorescent.

‘Come with me,’ he said, pulling me up and then taking off his gown and his drawers.

Fully numbed, I slowly peeled off my swimsuit. I had never done this before.

Holding hands, we stepped into the cool surf. Like one entity, we splashed water onto our chests, waded on and then dived into a rolling wave.

Tears came to my eyes as I watched Nick swim away and then back to me, gracious like a magic merman, his beautiful silhouette barely visible in the first light of the rising moon.

I caught him in my arms, felt his legs slide around my waist like tentacles and kissed his wet face. His hair was plastered to his forehead, droplets hung from his lashes and his tongue was warm on mine in the cool water. He moaned softly as our sexes touched. Then he let out a delicious laughter like he might have done as a young man in college, he was no longer thirty-four and I no longer forty-one.

As I am writing this, I still feel the sensation of our wet skins touching, I can still hear our stifled giggles as we rinsed ourselves off in the bathroom, and then our cries of lust and pleasure when we made love in bed, unhindered by passengers or hotel staff, shut off from the rest of the world by the mosquito netting that lay around our nest like a bride’s veil.

 

Nick

I knew we would not use the car for days to come. It sat forlornly on a strip of solid level ground that protruded from a wooded hilltop.

You can do anything if you put your mind to it – a saying that runs among people who are too lazy to help a fellow man in despair. It is wrong to assume that hard work will get you anything you want. First of all, you have to get work and preferably you should be paid for it. The fact that this can be out of your reach in spite of your best efforts would be proven after the collapse of Wall Street in 1929.

The aforementioned wise words do apply to anyone wanting to rough it in the bush, provided that the climate offers the opportunities of fruit and animals. What I had failed to realize, though, was that gathering ingredients for the our next meal consumed hours.

I put on shorts, wool socks and hiking boots and climbed the slopes. It was a slow business because I had a rifle and a calico bag strapped to my back and my pockets were stuffed with bullets. Years after the war, I had grown unused to handling firearms. I aimed at noisy creatures in the treetops but only caused them to flee screeching or squawking. Many bullets were wasted until I finally took down a bird that looked very much like guinea fowl. I picked it up, collected some delicious-looking fruits on my way back and showed James my booty. ‘Let me pluck the bird, dear,’ he offered. ‘And I will bleed it dry.’

It was sweet, but odd all the same. Jewish dietary laws dictate that only meat without a single drop of blood in it is considered kosher. James never observed the rules. He was not deeply religious. He ate pork, he had dairy dishes with his meat even though it was trayf ‘to eat the flesh of a kid cooked in it’s mother’s milk’ and he did not fast in the days preceding Sukkot.

But he happily set to plucking and gutting the bird, discarding the feathers and the giblets in the fire and causing a terrible stink. I cut up the fruits and since there were so many, I could dispense with rice or flatbread.

We roasted the meat on long twigs and feasted. ‘No gravy, no tarragon or garlic, not even horseradish,’ he muttered. ‘How I wish we were at a French restaurant on Grosvenor Square now!’

I froze. We were not in England, we would not get there before long, the beach and the country were in a world out of time. His remark was downright offensive.

I cast him a furious glance but then he uttered his low, musical laugh that could make icebergs melt.

‘Just kidding,’ he said. ‘The meat is crispy on the outside and succulent on the inside. I don’t believe I ever had such a supreme meal of chicken before, darling.’

We gorged on the fruit, enjoying the blend of sweet and sour flesh and then had tea. For some reason, we did not crave any coffee.

After that, we shoveled sand and ashes over the fire, rinsed the dishes in the ocean and left them in the kitchen to dry. It was going on two o’clock and we were tired, so we lay down on the bed where we dozed, kissed, whispered and made love until four.

When I woke, I decided to hunt for dinner straight away. I did not want the flour to go rancid and I had once been given the recipe for damper bread by an Australian soldier in France.

I had no leavening agents so the sticky dough barely rose in the saucepan in the kitchen while I was yards away at the end of the beach, sitting on a rock and hooking chunks of canned meat onto a fishing line.

The ocean was full of swimming delicacies, but those creatures were either highly intelligent or used to bait provided by humans. They just sucked the treats of the hook and then beat it. The sun was setting by the time I caught a fish the size of a sardine. I cut it up and decided to use the flesh as bait. It worked, because I managed to lure two flat, round creatures the size of soup plates. Their scales had wonderful iridescent colors. They were almost too pretty to eat, but I killed them anyway and went back to James, who was attentively watching the fire.

He had taken the pan of dough out of the kitchen and was now waiting for it to turn into some kind of bread. We ended up with a scorched mess that could only serve as fuel to roast the fish on.

‘It’s all right,’ James said. ‘It tastes lovely. Not only because it does, but because we’re really roughing it in the greenwood now. I wish we could stay here forever.’

It was all the reassurance I needed.

Chapter End Notes

Trayf - the opposite of kosher.

The Bounties of Nature

Chapter Summary

What's wrong with James?

James

We were shut off from civilization and had become one with the lush landscape in a matter of days.

I was displeased when we ran out of tea and cigarettes. It would take us a five-mile trip to the next village to buy them.

We went to the shop that was run by the owner of the cottage. He did not recognize us at first. When he did, he smiled. ‘Hello, gentlemen. How can I help you?’

He sold us tea and cigarettes and smirked apologetically when we asked for yeast. He had none, probably because it would spoil too quickly anyway. ‘Any mail?’ I asked. There was only a wire from my office manager in Manhattan telling me that all was O.K.

We hurried home and resumed our bush life. I felt guilty for Nick doing all the donkey work and offered to help with the fishing. I used some raw fowl as a bait and quickly caught some colorful specimens quite like the ones Nick had appropriated the first time.

Sweet, dear Nick had been out in the woods for hours. He was waiting triumphantly by the fire when I returned carrying my catch in an enamel basin. I was amazed. He had managed to collect some coconuts and quite effortlessly cut away the green rinds with a butcher knife as if he did this back home on a daily basis.

We feasted again as the sun set. The light of the fire was hardly enough to see by, so we had to dissect the fish very carefully to dodge the bones. The flesh was delicious and I wondered why modern times required condiments with every dish. We did not even need salt for this one.

At some moment I took a mouthful and chewed, and only when I swallowed did I notice that it suddenly tasted bitter. It burned in my esophagus and I smothered a cough. Nick flew up and hit me on the back, thinking I was gagging on a bone. ‘I’m O.K.’ I smiled and then finished my fish, which tasted superb.

We had slices of succulent coconut and hot tea for dessert. I coughed again, wondering if the drink was not too strong, but I had been used to nearly-black tea from early childhood.

When we were ready for our after-dinner swim, I excused myself, unsure if I had to use the toilet or merely some aspirin that was stored in the car. I decided on the latter and walked up the slope.

My stomach rebelled, my lungs were on fire and my eyesight grew blurred. The cold metal of the Ford’s bodywork hurt my skin as I leaned against it retching and panting. Torturous minutes passed before I finally threw up, spewing frothy mess all over the soil outside the door on the driver’s side.

I don’t remember what happened after that, but when I woke up I was lying in a puddle of my own vomit with Nick anxiously hovering over me. He did not ask me what had happened, probably because I was delirious. He helped me up with difficulty, because I was heavier than him, and then supported me all the way down the slope and across the beach to the cottage.

We did not sleep that night. I was continuously sick, I could not keep down tea or boiled water, and when the moon was setting, I heard him whisper: ‘This was all a mistake…we’re out in the fucking middle of nowhere, no doctor for miles around…We’ll take the car to the next village at first light…Fucking jungle, I hate it, I hate it!’

 

Nick

We had expected to survive in the woods. After all, we were Midwesterners who had faced the hardships of trench life in the war.

James was dying. He slept fitfully, called for his mother in German, he wailed in pain.

Dawn was still ages away, so we could not leave in the car for the next mission station to seek help.

I took the oil lamp with trembling fingers, dug out a book from my suitcase and sat down in the dining room. When I came across a chapter about fish, I had to wipe tears from my eyes.

The…I read (I can recite its Latin name but to do so would hurt too much, because all my scholastic achievements were useless that night) is hardly found in the waters surrounding the island. It drifts towards the shores on currents brought on by distant hurricanes. The flesh is suitable for human consumption, provided that the highly poisonous digestive glands have been removed. It is therefore advisory to only eat a fish prepared by an experienced person…The symptoms of poisoning are fever, vomiting, diarrhoea and, very sporadically, temporary paralysis. There are no known cases of death after the ingestion of the substance.

I rushed back to James and found him asleep, breathing more calmly. He moaned in protest when dawn was breaking and I tried to rouse him. ‘We’re going to see a doctor,’ I whispered. ‘No need,’ he murmured. ‘I’m feeling better now.’

I took this as a display of bravery by a former major who had seen carnage at Amiens before the armistice. He had been surrounded by people then. We were all alone now.

The sun was higher up in the sky when he asked for tea. I brought him a mug and he drank greedily. It did not come back up, nor did the second one.

We stayed inside for hours. He had to use the toilet many times. When the sky grew overcast at five, he put on his dressing gown and told me he wanted to lie on the beach.

There was only rice for dinner that night. I laced his tea with sugar, which he normally abhorred, but he accepted it gratefully and dozed calmly between sips.

We stayed on the beach near the dying fire until well after midnight. When he lit a cigarette around two in the morning, I felt tears of gratitude mist up my eyes. He had overcome his sickness.

 

Written Words

Chapter Summary

An argument and reconciliation.

James

I had all but finished our supply of tea in a day. After my recovery, I felt strong enough to drive to the village. Nick was exhausted after playing nurse after a night and a whole day, but he wouldn’t let me go.

‘I’m O.K.’ I said a hundred times, and then he sighed and fetched the keys to the car from the dining room.

The village shop also served as a post office. We had given Maurice a written description of our route and the places we had booked from Baltimore to Rotterdam, so he knew where to reach us. Yet I was surprised to find a large letter from him. I put my shopping in the car and got behind the wheel, determined to drive home right away. I started the engine but switched it off immediately because the envelope was burning in my lap.

I tore it open and found several pages of neatly written lines. There was news about Swift & Feinman, his little house on West Egg and Alec. Alec had returned safely from England.

Enclosed I found a letter from him, composed in rather childish copperplate, and by the time I got to the bottom of the first page, I was shaking with laughter. It was good to read about his adventures.

I read all, started the engine, hurried back to the cottage and found Nick lazing naked on the beach.

He frowned when I showed him the envelope that had traveled so unbelievably fast from the mainland. ‘No, I don’t want any of Maurice’s boring news,’ he said. ‘You read it.’

I did, over and over, turning my face away from him to hide the blush on my cheeks.

‘There’s a letter from Alec too,’ I said after minutes of painful silence. ‘Oh, do let me read it,’ Nick cried.

I handed him the sheets and soon he was sending his sweet peals of amusement into the salty air. ‘Man, he’s a comedian if there ever was one, dear. ‘Oh, would you most kindly of your goodness…’ I do feel sorry for old Mrs. Durham. She must have taken to drinking heavily by now.’

We smirked and kissed and then I went to the cottage to put my shopping away and to change into my dressing gown.

When I got back, Nick had lit a fire. I saw Maurice’s words slowly blacken in the flames. Nick held Alec’s letter clutched to his chest.

A fuse within me blew. ‘You bastard,’ I roared. ‘You fucking no-good freeloader, living off the wages I pay you. That letter was addressed to both of us, why did you burn it? Did you read it at all?’

He shook his head, burst into tears, flew up from the towel, jerkily put on his dressing gown and dashed up the slope to the car.

I did not follow him. Instead, I got the rifle from the dining room, walked down the beach to another path leading into the woods, ascended stumbling and cursing, loaded the gun countless times and fired away, taking down a few innocent, beautiful birds.

When I had run out of rounds, I went back to our spot on the sand and found Nick poking listlessly in the glowing embers. He gave me a cold, empty stare. For a split second I thought he was going to attack me, but when I took him in my arms, he relaxed and buried his face in the folds of my gown.

‘I love you,’ I whispered. ‘I love you so much…Ssshh…it’s O.K., my husband, don’t apologize…I understand…Let’s not hunt for dinner tonight. We can just heat a can of beans…Let’s see the owner of the place tomorrow and ask him if we can book for a few more weeks…And we’ll wire to Honolulu to have our boat tickets canceled and book a later passage…’

Sailing at a later date than planned would be dangerous, because by then hurricanes would rage over the Pacific. It would mean we would have to stay on Oahu until March and then return to the American mainland. Our journey across the globe would be aborted. The very thought made me happy.

 

Nick

I had expected James to announce we would be on the next ship back to San Diego after he had seen me burn Maurice’s letter. He would have been right in doing so, but he had to overcome a bout of seething anger first, and this had triggered rage in me as well, because like him, I won’t stand being treated like a piece of shit. But he understood, like he always understood all.

We were not very hungry so we only had some leftover fruit and tea for dinner.

He happily took my hand after that and led me to the sea for our nightly swim. He held me in the water and whispered how he was holding me now just like Tom Buchanan had done when he had carried Daisy down the slope of the Punch Bowl crater outside Honolulu on their honeymoon.

The very thought of James dragging me down a muddy path kicking and screaming made me burst out laughing. He was gallant enough to actually do it, but I was not light and petite like my cousin.

‘Let’s sleep outside tonight,’ he suggested when we were back on our towels. It moved me. This was what we had come to Oahu for.

We smoked and had more tea and chattered until the fire died down. The tide was coming in, almost reaching our spot.

I watched the waves get closer until I felt his warm arms around me from behind. ‘Come with me,’ he whispered.

We got up from our towels and walked towards the shoreline. His face was beautiful and sweet in the clear moonlight when he turned towards me and kissed me deeply. He drew me closer to him until our lower bodies touched. My sex responded instantly. He elegantly sank onto his knees to give me his mouth. I felt myself weaken, he felt it too and held me as I slowly collapsed onto my back.

He gently lay down on top of me and slid inside me, deeper than ever before.

We kissed wildly and cried out in lust and bliss as the tide rose around us and little crabs scuttled onto the beach looking for food.

Our orgasms shattered the world into tiny bits before we started all over again. We then returned to our towels and watched the distant silhouettes of sea turtles that had come out of the water to seek a mating partner or to lay eggs in the warm sand. We did not pay much attention to them because we made love again until we watched the animals return to their sea habitat at dawn.

We have always enjoyed our physical intimacy since the very first time in 1923 and this has remained unchanged even though we are both well over fifty now, but the celebration of love and pleasure on a deserted beach in Oahu is unique.

The Southern Hemisphere

Chapter Summary

Nick and James set sail for down under.

James

It is uncanny how a person can change in a short period of time. Nick had disembarked in Honolulu looking relaxed after six idle days on the ship, but still pale like any New Yorker.

Life on the beach caused him to undergo a metamorphosis. His skin gained a beautiful tan, he put on some weight and his biceps developed. He often kissed me and told me I looked more tempting than ever. I was all freckles now and he explored each of them with his sweet tongue.

We spent the days naked, only donning our dressing gowns at mealtimes because we were still too gentlemanlike to eat while staring at each other’s private parts.

Our lovemaking in the surf, on the sand beside the fire or on one of the rickety beds inside exhausted us deliciously, but we found that fish and fresh fruits restored our bodies like no meal on the mainland could.

We both wept as we packed our suitcases and said goodbye to our greenwood. If it had not been for the risk of hurricanes on our journey to Brisbane, we would have stayed longer, maybe forever.

As the reader may assume, I ended up buying the place a few years later. It’s still in my possession now and I rent out the luxurious cottage that replaces the former one to honeymoon couples, but Nick and I never went back. We are sure that it is still lovely, but tainted by other guests and therefore unsuitable to serve as the magic place where we were once wedded under the stars.

 

Nick

Fortune smiled on us during the week we spent at sea. The ship’s crew managed to steer clear of the nascent hurricanes, even though their edges sometimes shook all so violently that glasses and crockery slid off the dining room tables.

We crossed the Equator a day before stopping in Kiribati. An orchestra played outside and congratulations were exchanged. We were in the civilized world now, so all James could do was shake hands with me over the table and raise his glass of champagne in a cordial toast. ‘You’ve made it, old sport. Welcome to the southern hemisphere.’

A dripping wet crew member dressed as Neptune was hauled up from the ocean on a rope and greeted by a boiling audience. Women doused their husbands with buckets of sea water, a few cricket professionals dragged their coach to the railing and hoisted him up to throw him overboard, but they were stopped by an officer with a megaphone from the bridge. The man in uniform earned disapproving boos and whistles. Drunken fun in a civilized environment was never to be spoiled, sharks be damned.

James and I had separate cabins and quickly dismissed the idea of a love session on a single bunk to celebrate our crossing. The sea was not to be trusted and we wanted to reach Australia unharmed.

A few knots outside Fiji, a torrential rain set in. I stayed under awnings on the first-class deck to muse and to smoke, enjoying the downpour that was as tropical as anything. James stayed inside making endless notes in his journal and consulting newspapers in the reading room.

Boredom became overpowering, but our landing in Brisbane did not do much to change it.

 

James

We arrived in Queensland south of the Tropic of Capricorn. Outside the invisible lines that run around our globe the climate is marked by distinguishable seasons.

It was November and early spring in these latitudes, which only meant more rain than we had seen at sea. Brisbane and the Gold Coast are lovely, but should better be visited under sunny skies. We saw most of it through railway carriage windows.

We had to change trains three times. The wet, lush jungle gradually turned into reddish desert.

First-class compartments were unavailable so Nick and I sat on wooden benches for three days in the smells of stale beer, cigarette smoke and soot from the engine that blew in through the window.

We were looking like vagabonds by the time we got into a taxi at Sydney Central Station.

It was before the days of overly modern, American-style hotels. I was glad about this, because it would not have done to show up at a luxurious place in the state we were in then.

The large villa that was our boarding house looked homely enough to receive any guest.

This country was under the British Crown, so we assumed that staying in one room without getting unpleasant questions was impossible.

We had to share a bathroom with other guests. I cringed when I saw a fluffy rug that ran all the way from the door to the toilet bowl and the tub and carrying many invisible greetings from careless men.

The hostess was adorable. She offered to have our grimy traveling clothes laundered and would not let us leave for a stroll downtown until we’d had some tea. As we sat drinking it, she shook her head. ‘What was I thinking, gentlemen…Youse’d prefer coffee. Americans always have coffee in the afternoon. Shall I get the maid to make youse some?’

‘No, thank you, dear,’ Nick smiled. ‘Mr. Gatsby prefers tea and so do I.’

She was in her fifties and quite a lady, but yet he had addressed her in a sweet, East-End way. Any Englishman who dismissed upper-class manners as nonsense was prone to calling any nice woman ‘dear’ or ‘love’. And she took it with a sweet smile. After all, this country was very British.

 

Hit by a Club

Chapter Summary

The two lovers attend a concert and have a meal with two Australian gentlemen.

Nick

After weeks of wearing light clothes or none at all, the feeling of starched shirts and tweed three-piece suits was absolutely killing. But we were here on business and it was early in spring. The nights were cool if not cold.

Sydney is a place full of ten-story buildings, overflowing car parks and caterwauling traffic. We called at some offices in the business district because James was considering buying shares in wool and sugar cane. Especially the latter would turn out to be a success, because it was profitable even in the darkest years of the Great Depression and the war. The pulpy contents of the stalks are made into molasses or refined to sugar. The indigestible fibers are pressed into boards that are used in housing construction.

Australians are so hospitable that it makes you blush. ‘Come and have dinner with my family tonight.’ ‘Do visit us on our yacht for luncheon.’ ‘How long are you staying? Please spend some time at my house in the country.’ It is basically the law of the Outback: no human being is left untended to, because in sparsely populated areas people depend on one another to survive.

We were strolling down a busy street to look for a place to have tea one afternoon when James pointed at a freshly pasted billboard. ‘Look, old sport,’ he said happily. ‘Symphonies by a man named Prokofiev at the opera house. Let’s go and see it. My treat.’

I was moved. After months of no culture, he felt it was necessary to let me have some amusement I often sought at Carnegie Hall alone or with Maurice.

We went, and this was the first time I attended the performance of two works I had not known until then. Prokofiev’s first and second symphony.

I felt like a fool when we sat down in the concert hall looking around us and nearly choking in the smells of perfume, mink coats and cigar smoke.

James liked the first symphony. It’s a spring dance in a green countryside full of daffodils and cornflowers with a hint of gallant minuet dances in Rococo ballrooms and Italian joy.

‘I wish I could dance with you to this,’ he whispered. I squeezed his hand under my program leaflet and felt light, happy and confused. My own mood annoyed me.

The second symphony was more to my liking. Sydney was a wonderful city, but the European spirit that permeated it made me back away in distress. This work calmed me because it reflected my thoughts. The audience applauded like mad.

‘Mr. Prokofiev must not have been feeling too well when he wrote the second symphony,’ James remarked as we left the theatre. An icy-cold wind from the south blew through the streets.

I heard myself laugh.

 

James

We spent ten days in Sydney and then took the train to Melbourne. The spring weather was not cool, but downright cold here. After our business appointments, we happily accepted any invitation to drinks or dinner just to be able to stay indoors until it was time for bed.

Mr. Humphrey Davies, the owner of Victoria Wool Inc., took us out to dinner at his club. It was a pavilion located on the harbor. We had a magnificent view of freight ships from inside.

Dinner was delicious. Mutton and mint jelly, roast potatoes, string beans and stewed beetroot. The Châteauneuf du Pape we had with it was pleasantly warming. I suddenly realized how I had missed this ever since we had left home.

When dessert, a beautiful raspberry pavlova, was served, we were joined by Mr. Buckley, our host’s brother-in-law. ‘He can only have his meals here because he’s married to my sister,’ Davies chuckled while he snipped the end from a cigar. ‘He’s an elementary school teacher, so he doesn’t qualify as a member. I take it things are more democratic in the States?’

‘I guess so,’ Nick said. ‘But then again, each country has its own ideas. We are thoroughly enjoying our stay in Australia.’

The two men laughed as Nick and I both politely declined the offer of a cigar. We did not smoke anything but cigarettes, not even pipes like we had done in the war.

They asked us if we were planning on seeing more of Australia. The desert or the North.

‘Boring, in fact,’ Davies said. ‘And the blackies don’t take to us one bit. I don’t blame them for that.’

He then delivered a tale about the troubles with the aboriginal people. They were too stubborn to qualify as cane cutters, they were unable to find decent jobs. Their lives consisted of drinking rum or moonshine bought from relief money. Maybe it was the best thing to leave them to their own devices in the bush. Easy enough, they ate lizards.

The host then excused himself to exchange a few words with some friends that were sitting a few tables away from us.

‘I can tell you are uncomfortable,’ Mr. Buckley said to us.

‘How can you treat people like that!’ Nick snapped. I loved him deeply at that moment.

Buckley gave us his views now. He was a teacher and believed in the benefits of education for  everyone. ‘But not the way it’s done here. Aboriginal children, first and foremost those fathered by white men, are abducted and sent to boarding schools hundreds of miles away from their home villages. They are not allowed to speak their own languages or to practice their rites, they are baptized and confirmed against their will. They are forced to eat foods that are unknown to them.

Families are being disrupted this way. The Labour party is trying to put an end to this. I am a teacher myself and my colleagues who work up north agree with me on this point. Aboriginal children should be taught things that belong to their own culture. They should not be afraid to show pride in their backgrounds. It’s not that they don’t want to work, it’s just that no one will hire them, unless as cooks or sweepers. They are simply denied the right to earn qualifications for better jobs. Everyone in Australia deserves the same chances.’

Davies came back to our table and sat down. He grinned at us. ‘Has my dear brother-in-law been delivering his Marxist talk again? He always does that, especially to Americans…He means no harm but he lacks the gift of distinction, bless him.’

‘I should very much like to go back to the hotel,’ I said. ‘Thank you for a wonderful evening, gentlemen.’

No taxis were waiting outside the club, so we walked in the bitter cold foe ages until we found a bus stop.

The Indian Ocean

Chapter Summary

Ships are always the best places for romance (probably because it's impossible to get into your car and flee).

Nick

As soon as we boarded the Australian vessel that was to take us to Colombo I felt better. I spent hours on the first class deck smoking or reading while James was in his cabin going through newspapers and business reports.

The cold wind was invigorating along the southern coast. It reminded me of Wisconsin. I ate with a hearty appetite, much to James’s delight. His honey-colored hair had gone lighter after weeks of sun and salty water in the tropics. The red wine put a delectable blush on his cheeks.

The further we went north after stopping in Perth, the more time he spent outside with me, dressed in his winter coat, then in his macintosh and eventually in the grey linen suit he wore in warm weather.

By the time we had sailed through the Sunda Strait, summer was back, with endless stretches of green, palm-fringed land on the horizon.

We got off in Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies. ‘Refrain from buying food at market stalls,’ I had read in the booklet we had been handed upon boarding in Melbourne. But I knew better now. The delicacies offered in profusion were there to be eaten.

Since we had no Dutch guilders in our wallets yet, we could only pay in Australian pounds, expecting to be denied any service or getting jeered at. But the vendors smiled and nodded, indicating that they were all right with it.

Mounds of spicy rice, accompanied by fried bananas and skewers of roast goat meat were served on enamel platters. We were given forks and spoons. I would have loved to eat my meal off a banana leaf with my fingers like I saw the Javanese doing, but then I realized that I was used to cutlery and would probably bungle scooping up bits from a piece of foliage.

James and I stuffed ourselves and then bought tea from a vendor. We had this with candied fruits and cinnamon cake. James bought some more to take on the ship.

Javanese, Malay and of course Dutch was spoken all around us. An elaborately decorated mobile organ played songs I took to be Amsterdam pub chansons if those existed. It sounded deliciously out of place in this merry disorder that is characteristic of any port in the tropics.

When we were back on the ship, we noticed many new passengers had come on board. Two days later, when we landed in Singapore, even more were squeezed in. The vessel’s final destination was Genoa. Everybody was aching to return to Europe.

 

James

The day after we had left Batavia, we crossed the Equator again. It was late in the afternoon, shortly  before teatime. Nick was in his cabin with a headache. I had given him some aspirin and hoped that it would kick in quickly enough to have him beside me at the dinner table.

The crossing was ceremoniously announced by the head steward. The first-class lounge was deserted within seconds. Reaching the northern hemisphere was less of an achievement than the other way around, except for the Australians and the New Zealanders who experienced this for the first time.

Merry songs were sung, some couples danced even though no band was playing, and there was not a glass of champagne to be seen. This was quite to my liking.

I strolled to the back of the ship to stare at the waters we had left behind. Being on the northern half of the globe had a cold, unpleasant feeling to it. Something told me Nick and I would never see the southern hemisphere again. Even though it was not home to Oahu, it still felt as if I now had to part with our happy island life forever. No other beach would see Nick and me make love in the surf while unsuspecting crabs and turtles conquered their nocturnal territories. There was no other place where we would roam about naked and carefree. The past could not be repeated.

‘Goodbye,’ I whispered to the trace of foam the ship left.

‘’Scuse me, sir, gotta light?’ I then heard.

I  turned around and looked into the eyes of a man in his thirties pleadingly holding up a cigarette.

The wind was too strong so we went to stand behind a ventilation shaft. I had to flick my lighter many times before it worked. ‘Thank you,’ the man said with a smile.

We smoked in silence until I realized it was indecent not to speak.

‘Have you come on board in Batavia?’ I asked.

He nodded and told me that he and his wife were on their way to Amsterdam. She was Dutch and wanted them to settle in Holland so that she could be near her mother. Her father had passed away two weeks earlier.

‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ I said. ‘My condolences.’

‘Thank you,’ the man said. Only now did I realize he was American. His face had distracted me too much.

‘And besides,’ he went on, ‘we both want our little daughter to meet her family. She’s three years old now. She was born in the Dutch East Indies and she’s never seen Holland.’

‘She’ll like it, I’m sure,’ I said, feeling incredibly dumb, because the poor little brat did not interest me.

The man introduced himself as Anthony. I forgot his last name, but I remember he came from Oregon and had left for the tropics after college to work in the spice trading business. ‘Please let me buy you a drink,’ he said.

This was the first time on our journey that I had actually had the minimum of a conversation with a passenger on a ship. I had no choice but to accept.

We went to the lounge and he ordered whiskey and ice. I told him I was traveling on business with my assistant.

Liquor kicks in three times as fast when it is consumed away from solid ground. A bottle and an ice bucket appeared on the table. I must have talked and drunk like mad, because when I remembered Nick and told Anthony that I was going to check on my assistant, he smirked.

I had a key to Nick’s cabin and I found him asleep on his bunk bed. He woke when I kissed him softly. Then he told me that his headache was gone but that he was still feeling weak. He wanted to stay in bed and skip dinner. I promised to send up some tea and dry toast and went back to the lounge.

When Anthony and I went to the dining room, we found his wife waiting for him. She greeted me pleasantly, accepted my condolences on her father’s demise with a sweet smile and invited me to join her and her husband.

‘What about your daughter?’ I asked.

She laughed. ‘Little Betty is having her meal with her nanny in second class.’

It struck me as a display of old-world arrogance. Children, pets and house staff were always kept at bay. They were not allowed to spoil adult, wine-drenched fun.

The lady – I kept forgetting her name – was not in mourning and full of stories about her life on Java. She candidly chided her husband for drinking too much and jestingly called him an ol’ Yank when he ordered coffee after dinner.

When it was going on ten, she rose and announced she would retire and check on little Betty.

‘I have a cabin of my own,’ Anthony said to me when she had left. ‘My wife shares one with the baby. I don’t want my sleep interrupted by crying or hunts for lost stuffed animals or potty sessions.’

He then asked me how Nick was doing. ‘He’s fine,’ I said. ‘But he did not want any dinner. You’ll meet him at breakfast.’

Anthony smiled. ‘All that must be tomorrow.’

I had already noticed his appearance, but only now did it strike me. His hair was chestnut-brown, his eyes were grey and his complexion was milky white.

‘How old are you?’ I suddenly asked. This question was not offensive to an American.

‘Twenty-nine. And you?’

‘Forty-one.’

‘Really? You look a lot younger.’

He then invited me for a stroll on the deck. We paced up and down the planks, talking softly and giving wide berth to romantic couples gazing at the stars.

‘Let’s go and stand behind the ventilation shaft,’ he suggested. ‘No one ever goes there.’

Out of everybody’s earshot, we leaned against the metal of the tube, lit cigarettes and exchanged glances.

‘Your assistant is not really your assistant, is he?’ he then asked.

‘What makes you think that?’

He smiled. ‘The way your eyes light up whenever you mention him. Is he attractive?’

‘He looks like you.’ I was tipsy.

Now his lips were on mine. His hands crept over my back. He was smaller and rather fragile, but strong  enough to draw me closer to him. I instinctively moved back my lower body lest he should feel my arousal. His drink-sodden breath brushed past my ear.

‘Come to my cabin with me,’ he murmured. ‘No one will notice.’

‘They will,’  I said. ‘Those stewards barge in with towels or programs for evening entertainment at all times.’

‘We’ll lock the door.’

‘But then they will knock and wake up everybody down the corridor.’

‘Fuck it. Do you want it or not?’

I have never been good at successfully rebuffing people wanting more from me than just a chat.

‘Listen, Anthony, we’re on an Australian ship. Do you know what might happen to us if anyone found out and reported it to the crew on the bridge?’

‘So what? We’re not in territorial waters.’

‘We may not be indeed, but that’s no reason to…’

‘Don’t you like me then? Do you think me ugly?’

‘Yes! I mean…well, you look nice and you are good company. But I am already committed to Nick. It would break his heart if he found out. He loves me.’

‘Nothing wrong with spending one night in a different bed. Better still, there’ll be no consequences. I had to marry Elisa or else I would have been shut out from the expat community in Java. She was in the family way.’

‘Well, that settles it. You’ve a wife and a child to take care of. You don’t want to cause them any sorrow, do you?’

‘I don’t care!’

‘ But I do. I like you a lot. I just don’t want you to get into trouble.’

I was horrendously stupid. I had used my bond with Nick and Australian legislation as excuses. They only told Anthony that I would have been more than willing to sleep with him if it had been possible. By admitting that Anthony was a nice man and that I wished him no harm I had shown a far too sympathetic side of myself. If I had called him a sodomite, a bugger, a no-good piece of shit, a sinner against the Lord, I might have stood a chance to get rid of him.

He was crying now. ‘Why can’t I ever have what I want?’

‘You will. It’s not illegal in Holland, you know.’

I felt his violent lips on mine again and now I found the strength to fight him off with the same resilience I had shown in school when classmates from good families had called me a hick.

A silhouette appeared and came closer, dimly visible in the starlight.

‘Can I help you?’ I heard. A lovely Sydneyside voice. It belonged to the third officer in command.

‘This gentleman came down here to smoke and then lost his balance,’ I said, holding Anthony as if to steady him. ‘I believe its sea sickness. What can we do about it?’

‘Come back inside,’ the man said to Anthony. ‘Sit down and have a hot drink. I’ll get the ship’s doctor.’

‘Thank you, James,’ Anthony murmured as the officer gently took him by the arm and led him to the side entrance of the first-class lounge.

I watched them disappear inside and then ran my tongue over my lips, which tasted faintly sweet.

The Little Family

Chapter Summary

Tension.

Nick

I was lazing, smoking and reading in my comfortable bed. The milk that James had sent up had restored my body and spirit. The headache was gone and I felt happy that every mile brought us closer to the greenwoods of Ceylon.

When James entered my cabin shortly after midnight, I was almost annoyed at being disturbed.

He was still wearing his evening suit, but when he embraced me, I felt the coldness of water on his face and smelled minty tooth powder on his breath. It seemed odd that he had washed up for bed before putting on his pyjamas.

‘How is my husband doing?’ I heard near my ear.

‘Fine,’ I answered. ‘Thank you for the milk. I’m feeling O.K. now.’

He let go of me, got up and took off his jacket. Then his waistcoat. His bow tie ripped as he yanked it off his neck. He got caught in his suspenders and cursed. He cursed again when he noticed his shoes were still laced up.

Eventually he slumped down on top of me wearing only drawers. ‘Let’s make love,’ he murmured.

I stroked his damp hair and felt my heart break.

‘I’m still too weak and the bed is too narrow,’ I whispered.

‘Oh, I don’t care. Just a quick one. In and out.’

We ended up sitting upright and rubbing one another’s members until we erupted simultaneously. He expulsed a low moan of pleasure. After minutes of warm silence, he leaned against the paneled wall and lit a cigarette.

‘I know, love,’ I sighed. ‘We won’t be able to go all the way for a long time yet…You were desperate, weren’t you?’

‘Mmm-hmm,’ I heard. His eyes were closed now.

‘I love you so much,’ I said. ‘I miss it too. Sorely. We’ll have plenty of opportunities in the near future, my husband.’

He burst into a violent fit of tears. I held, kissed and rocked him, enjoying the warmth of his sweet, freckled body thinking: when? When we get to Penge? God damn it…Penge

 

James

After twenty years, the memories of the night I spent in my cabin are still to painful to write about.

Nick was sleeping in sweet ignorance a few doors down the corridor and for the first time in years I was happy to have a bed all to myself.

I committed the solitary act of pleasure trying to conjure images, sensations and smells of my lover’s body, the absent man had indeed a fair skin and tousled dark hair, but the brown of his eyes gradually turned into blue, the color alternating from crystal to indigo until his slim frame grew heavier and I lapsed into a dead sleep.

 

Nick

The next morning, James and I had breakfast in the dining room and then left the ship to explore the port of Singapore. It struck me as odd how he kept looking about and over his shoulder, even when we walked down narrow alleys full of market stalls.

We had just had our morning meal but the smells of roasting fish and spicy rice were too alluring.

The bowls we got from a Chinese vendor contained nondescript shreds of meat, unrecognizable vegetables and chilis that reminded me of Mexico. The hot broth revived our senses more than coffee ever could. This was genuine Chinese food, not the standard rice-and-sauce dishes from Manhattan restaurants, a delicate blend of sweet, savory and bitter flavors.

When it was time to board the ship again, James anxiously asked me if I would accompany him for lunch. He was not sure if I was feeling alright again. ‘Of course,’ I said. I had eaten more than I should and my food would probably remain untouched, but he needed me.

We were presently greeted by a handsome American and his cheerful blond wife. ‘Meet Anthony and Elisa,’ James said to me. ‘They are on their way to Amsterdam.’

Elisa told me her father had recently passed away. She was not in mourning, but wearing a daring silk frock with a shocking-pink floral print. She drank wine and brandy with gusto, smoked cigarettes without a holder and occasionally smothered a belch in her napkin. She was Dutch. I wondered if her years in the tropics or her upbringing in the planet’s most liberal country accounted for her behavior that made her unfit to be invited to tea in England. I liked her.

When we parted after dessert, I waited until they had left the dining room.

‘That fellow looks an awful lot like Clive, doesn’t he?’ I remarked to James.

‘Mmmm,’ he said absently. ‘How about a game of billiards, old sport?’

 

James

We had six more days before we would port in Colombo. Using work or mild discomfort as an excuse, I sat in my cabin writing up my journal, smoking and musing.

Nick was all over the first-class deck. At mealtimes he talked about his new friends. Anthony was fun and so was his wife even though she drank too much, and little Betty was an angel. He had pushed the girl on the swings and gone down the slide with her in the little playground. He was hoping to meet them again in Amsterdam.

‘No, let’s not do that,’ I said.

‘Why?’

‘Listen, they’re nice to be with, but…’

‘But what? They already told us we could visit.’

‘Let them settle first. It’s been years since Elisa last went to Holland.’

‘It will be March by then. I don’t see why we…’

I thought feverishly. Then I found it.

‘Anthony is one of those men who play nice and friendly, with the only objective to move back to America. He’s already hinted he would love to have a job in New York. I can’t just offer charity to every smiling face we come across. If I did, we’d have half the world on Long Island within a year.’

‘That’s a mean thing to say.’

‘I know. But have you noticed how Elisa is making eyes at you? If you want, you can have your first experience with a woman before the anchors are dropped in Colombo.’

‘Oh God, no, I’d rather drink vitriol…But she’s very nice. And the baby is an absolute angel.’

Your time in the playground on the first-class deck gave you what you missed out on, I thought. You want to be a father. I don’t blame you for that. It would be a valid reason to leave me. Please don’t do that.

To distract any further thoughts on this, I reflected on the wisdom I had developed over the past days.

Avoiding temptation is not heroic. Facing temptation and refraining from it when you are on the brink of giving in, now that’s a real achievement, more valuable in the eyes of our Maker than the idle act of looking away.

Another Island

Chapter Summary

A double defeat for James in Colombo.

Chapter Notes

Nick

James had been aloof in the week it took us to reach the shores of Ceylon. I assumed he was longing for our island paradise. I could not find it in my heart to tell him I felt the same. It would have spoiled the remainder of our journey.

He still had the decency to exchange addresses with Anthony and Elisa as we said goodbye. Only when we were walking to the customs office in the port of Colombo did he tell me that he had written down the name of a non-existent street in Westchester.

I did not care much. Spending time with the young family had only served to alleviate my boredom.

The little girl had clung to me in a most annoying fashion, finally happy to have found someone who gave her genuine attention. Some couples just should not have kids and take in dachshunds or goldfish to mock-fuss over instead.

All this was over now, James and I were together again. We were ready to explore the dense forests of Ceylon.

 

James

We had two rooms next to each other on the second floor of a large boarding house. The outside galleries were lined with lovely flowers in pots. We could sit outside our rooms now and watch the bees humming over the petals, smoke and talk shop. Colombo was another point of interest to me because I was planning on buying shares in tea companies. It made perfect sense. We drank too much of the stuff anyway to justify abstaining from such a business opportunity. We laughed.

The next day after or arrival was a bank holiday, which was not unexpected, since we were on British territory. We could not call at any office.

Most of the guests at the boarding house had arrived on the same ship. One of them got into a chat with an Anglo-Ceylonese man who offered his services as a guide.

This was perfect. We had not seen any sights yet of which the history was explained by a local.

‘Mr. Banks will take us to a mosque,’ an Englishman said to us. ‘Would you like to come along?’

I had not heard of any Jewish community in Ceylon and I assumed not a single synagogue could be found on the island. But then again, it was time I got to learn a few things about the Mussulman faith.

Nick agreed with me and off our little party went in a row of rickshaws, the main medium of transport on the Asian subcontinent.

We stopped outside a gleaming white building. The green of the copper on the minarets lit up almost fluorescently against the cloudy sky. In the courtyard we saw a turquoise basin with heaps of footwear around it. The very little I knew about Mussulman religion was that it was sacrilege to enter a mosque in shoes. A further requirement was that we keep our heads covered at all times.

The guide, who spoke English like a Londoner, ushered us up a flight of rickety wooden stairs to a balcony that overlooked an inside courtyard. It was time for midday prayers.

There were about twenty of us, Australians, Brits, one or two Americans and, very surprisingly, a little group of Germans or Austrians.

All was quiet when we watched men walk in below us. They unfolded woven mats, arranged clay tablets on which they would rest their foreheads and murmured greetings to each other.

I shivered as the muazzin sang. He sang in Arabic, a language none of us understood, but his beautiful tones made me fix the front frieze over the opposite gallery where he sat, a wonderful work of art with the ninety-nine names of Allah on it.

‘Gosh, those fellows look strange in them long gowns,’ were the first words I heard from our spot.

There was soft laughter. I looked around in distress and met pairs of disapproving eyes.

The merriment made the dams break. ‘I love the singing,’ – ‘Must be awfully uncomfy sitting on a concrete floor like that,’ – Snap!, the magnesium flash from a portable camera – ‘Anyone want a peppermint patty? – ‘Shut up, we’re in a holy place,’ – Snap! - another picture. I now half expected us to be escorted off the premises by the police.

When the prayer was over, I whispered to Nick that I wanted to wait until everybody had left.

By the time we were back in the courtyard and looking for our shoes, the tourists were chatting and laughing. Some of them lit cigarettes.

I found the guide. His friendly eyes made me break down.

‘I’m awfully sorry for the way the other people behaved,’ I said. He nodded and smiled. ‘Thank you, sir,’ he muttered. ‘But what can I do?’

I understood. He was paid for his services and could not risk getting fired over being too critical.

War is always waged better from the inside. I laced up my shoes, looked for the German-speaking people and found them.

Entschuldigen Sie bitte, guten Tag, mein Name ist Gatsby…Es ist unerhört, wie sich die Leute vorhin benommen haben, finden Sie nicht auch?'

'Wie bitte? Sind Sie Amerikaner?‘ an elderly man wanted to know. I nodded and then I noticed their puzzled looks. ‘We speak English too, sir,’ a lady remarked in English.

It dawned on me. They did not understand me because of my accent. The only German I had ever learned as a child was tinged with the dialect of my parents’ home town. I had a lot of German friends in New York, but I had gone past the crucial stage where things for life were learned, so my conversations in Manhattan were not educational in the linguistic sense of the word.

‘We’re from Munich,’ the lady went on. Of course they could not understand me. My roots lay in Hesse.

I did not give up. ‘It’s a disgrace,’ I said. ‘People were disrespectful. They would not behave that way in the Frauenkirche, would they?’

‘No, I reckon they wouldn’t,’ another man said. ‘I’m sorry, but wouldn’t you rather speak English?’

‘It’s all right,’ I said in English. ‘Have a pleasant stay in Colombo.’

I left the courtyard and found Nick smoking and sulking on the sidewalk.

‘Those people treated the whole outing as a visit to the zoo,’ he hissed under his breath.

I refrained from telling him I had experienced the same with the four Bavarians. All I could think of was how much I loved the man who was beside me now.

Chapter End Notes

Translations:
‘Entschuldigen Sie bitte, guten Tag, mein Name ist Gatsby…Es ist unerhört, wie sich die Leute vorhin benommen haben, finden Sie nicht auch?' - 'Excuse me, good afternoon, my name is Gatsby...It's outrageous how people behaved just now, don't you agree?'
'Wie bitte? Sind Sie Amerikaner?' - 'I beg your pardon? Are you American?'

Frauenkirche - a cathedral in Munich

The scene with the disrespectful audience is inspired on a similar one in M.M. Kaye's novel 'The Far Pavilions', where English tourists chatter loudly all through a prayer service at a mosque in Delhi.

Together Alone

Chapter Summary

Another remote greenwood for the lovers and some upsetting news from America.

Nick

It took us two days to observe the business meetings we had planned. We had no plans for the three more weeks until we would board a P & O steamer for Europe.

The Englishman in charge of United Teas Inc. suggested that we stay at his summer bungalow in the hills. It was the first offer of private accommodation we accepted.

A car and a chauffeur to take us to the remote village were not available right away and so we went on a guided tour into the woods some twenty miles from the capital.

Not much can be said about that. We saw tourists bravely mount elephants. They smiled down on us in triumph until the animals started to move. The rides usually ended ten yards further on, with the valiant jockeys anxiously yelling or cursing at the guide’s assistants and vowing never to mount again as soon as they were back on solid ground.

There were no temples to visit, to my secret relief, but on our way over in a rickety, windowless bus we saw stupas on the side of the road, decorated with flower garlands or yellow paint marks and offerings of fruit and rice.

The bungalow lay along a lane lined with similar buildings which were practically deserted because of the rains. Our house was kept in order by a couple we barely saw. They spoke no English and when I explained in gestures that they did not need to do the cooking, they grinned in disbelief.

Even the smallest village has an evening market and so James and I bought rice, enigmatic fruits and legumes, lentils and tea. We found wide, buttonless cotton shirts and long pants which we would wear for the rest of our stay in the hills.

I cooked, and every dish was to James’s liking. We had separate rooms, but we spent most of the day on the porch watching the rain and breathing in the wonderful smells of flowers and drenched soil.

We each had our own bed so as not to upset the servants, but every night, when the moon had risen and all was quiet, I heard the soft creaking of the French door, then the almost inaudible steps and after that a thousand sweet words whispered in my ear.

We could not be lovers in broad daylight, but we were happy sitting on the porch, sipping gin or whiskey, smoking and making plans for the future. Our lovemaking in the dark was brief and almost chaste, but we knew it was all we could do in Ceylon.

Christmas came along, a deliciously bizarre and alluring celebration among fragrant tropical plants without any snow, decorated trees or cardboard Santa Clauses for a background.

James gave me a set of beautifully crafted cufflinks he had secretly bought in Melbourne, Australian gold with triangular onyxes. I cried, with happiness for receiving such a lovely gift and with embarrassment because, as usual, I had forgotten to get him anything, the despicable side-effect of being a devout atheist and thus never remembering religious holidays.

We were happy in our little house surrounded by a garden with a million flowers. Far away from European or American amusement, we had finally regained our lives.

 

James

The day before we were due to embark, I went to the post office at the port and found to my surprise that Maurice had sent me another letter. I stand corrected – it was addressed to Nick and me.

Nick had been to check on the trunks that had been stored in a warehouse and that were soon to be loaded into the ship’s hold. He walked towards me when I had stepped out of the post office, but when he saw me waving the envelope, his face sank.

I was clueless. He had burned Maurice’s latest letter on the beach in Oahu. It was as if some disagreement had risen between the two men. I could not think of anything that might have caused it. ‘Let’s take a rickshaw into town,’ Nick said curtly.

We ended up in a restaurant very much like a British club. An orchestra played Viennese waltzes, claret and champagne flowed, English was heard all around.

‘This is lovely,’ I said as I savored roast pork, boiled potatoes, carrots and cabbage. Nick kept shoving bits into his mouth as if he were battling spoonfuls of mandatory cod liver oil from his childhood years.

He was not enjoying it, and I failed to notice right away.

Coffee was served in the lounge. Nick lifted a cup to his lips, sipped gratefully and then coughed violently. He shuddered and pressed a handkerchief to his mouth.

‘You’re no longer used to coffee,’ I observed. ‘We pretty much lived on tea in the past months.’ He nodded.

I leaned back, lit a cigarette, opened the envelope and took out the letter.

Dear James, dear Nick I read. I hope this finds you both in the best of health – what an original opening line ha ha ha. Thank you very much for the wire you sent from Sydney. Do send me one from Colombo as well to reassure Alec and me that you arrived safely.

All is well on Long Island, but could one expect otherwise? Nothing ever happens here. Distraction is only to be found in Manhattan.

Last week I had a business luncheon with a gentleman from San Francisco at the Schneider Hotel on Fifth. We were having coffee in the lounge when a row of bus boys carrying suitcases filed past us.

Nothing unusual, I thought, but then I heard: ‘Dear me, is that you? Are you still alive?’

And there she was, in the middle of the caravan, with a nanny to the left and one to the right, each carrying a child. She herself was splendidly dressed in black mink with a matching hat. Her coat was so large that I only noticed her condition when she stopped next to me. I then shook hands with Mrs. Jordan Leblond, née Baker from Montreal, a proud mother of two and happily expecting the third.

Before I could ask her if she was well, she told me her husband had died the previous month. He was sixty-seven. And of course, my business associate who was sitting next to me heard all.

She then candidly related some tales about Daisy and Tom. I won’t go into those, I am sure you will get them first-hand from Daisy when you meet her in Paris.

It was her appearance that struck me. Jordan was a sporty, spindly girl in 1922. Her dark hair now had a sheen about it that told me it had been dyed. She must be going grey. And good heavens, she put on quite some weight. A woman in her mid-twenties with the body of a fifty-year-old.

She was sad when I told her Nick had travelled to England and James to Hawaii. So please remember I said that or else you’ll betray your secret if you should run into her.

‘I’m staying at Schneider’s for a few months,’ she said. ‘In the spring I’ll move on to the South. I’m considering buying a house in New Orleans or Mobile or Biloxi. Oh, do come and visit while I’m still here. And tell Nick I said hello. He would be pleased to see me and to meet the babies – this one here’s due in January.’

If you wish, I shall get into contact with her again and ask her for a forwarding address, because I presume she will have left for the South by the time you return to New York.

The other interesting thing of late is a letter I received from Clive Durham. He is absolutely thrilled to receive you on Penge in the spring. He is literally counting the days until your arrival, like a child waiting for Father Christmas. Anne added some lines with her fondest wishes that your journey may be safe and promising she will take you to any interesting sight in her car. It looks like the two of you are going to be awfully busy in England!

There’s no letter from Alec to enclose, but he will write to you yet. No need to express that he and I miss you sorely.

Please take care of yourselves and keep in touch.

Yours – Maurice.

I tore up the letter, put it in the ashtray and set it on fire. The waiters watched me with expressionless faces. To them I was a stranger doing things they probably considered natural for a white man.

‘Why did you burn it? Before I got the chance to read it?’ Nick asked calmly, but his eyes were black with anger.

I shrugged my shoulders. ‘I thought you’d rather have it like that. There’s no interesting news in it. And there was no letter from Alec anyway.’

 

The Red Sea

Chapter Summary

Nick and James travel further north. James has a religious experience on board.

Chapter Notes

Nick

We boarded a P & O vessel that would take us to Naples. It was a British company and we would spend nearly two whole weeks at sea, only stopping briefly at Aden, Jeddah, Port Said, Alexandria and Tunis on the way.

‘Make sure to visit the towns only in the company of a certified guide’ the leaflets we found in our cabins read. It meant: don’t venture out on your own or you’ll get robbed or stabbed. This was how Western civilization felt about the Orient.

Yes, we saw beggars in the streets outside the ports. James could not bear to see people suffer and always made sure his pockets were well stuffed with change.

‘You shouldn’t do that,’ a fellow passenger, a friendly old priest from Cork, remarked. ‘Soon you’ll be surrounded by throngs of people wanting money as well because they saw you give some to one of their friends.’

James was too polite to protest, so I did. ‘Charity is one of the pillars of Mussulman faith,’ I said. ‘And I’m sure it’s in no way different from yours, sir.’

The Irishman murmured something unintelligible and then moved away from us.

‘God damn it,’ my lover hissed at me. ‘It wouldn’t be too much to ask to at least behave decently towards a man of the cloth, would it?’

He was nervous. I understood. The bazaars were crowded and we could only shuffle on slowly, touching purses or jackets from P & O passengers all looking to buy nice things.

He wanted to get gifts for our friends in England. There were many: Clive and Anne Durham of course, old Mrs. Durham, Clive’s sister Pippa and her husband Lord Archie London. There were also children to consider, but we lost count on those. All we remembered was that Clive and Anne, who had no children of their own, had taken in a little girl as a ward after the war, a distant niece from the Woods family who had lost both her parents. We supposed we would not get to see much of her, as she was at boarding school in Wales.

After hours of haggling, discussing and hauling parcels in Jeddah, we decided on only getting substantial gifts for the adults. After all, they were the ones who had to go through all the trouble of entertaining us.

James and I agreed on this. I did not tell him that I believed that children, as a rule, were already spoiled enough by strangers who happened to be friends with their parents. Furthermore, the Durhams were immensely rich. The little ones would probably only turn up their noses at any trinket from an Oriental bazaar. We bought those anyway for good measure. If James had known my opinion, he would have scolded me for being selfish and cold-hearted. He was intrinsically altruistic and generous, a thing quite characteristic of a wealthy man.

 

James

Daytime at the Red Sea is always pleasant in winter. The dusty breeze blowing from the desert is warm and smells of sand, sun-scorched rocks and bitter foliage. I spent hours on the first-class deck leaning over the railing and watching plantations, mudbrick settlements and palm tree forests drift by.

We were in more northern latitudes now so the sun set earlier and earlier as we sailed on, giving way to fantastic ice-cold night skies silver with millions of stars.

Nick kept to his cabin – we had a suite now with two bedrooms and a little lounge that served as an office. He had bought stacks of books in Colombo and sat on his bed reading them and sipping whiskey or tea.

I roamed the decks on my own for hours, enjoying the silence emanated by rows of vacant chairs. Most passengers thought it was too cold to stay outside after sundown. There was enough entertainment to be had inside, the usual jazz dances, pretty much all of Lehár’s boring works, sung in English of course because German was out of the question, raffles where books on P & O or fountain pens or fake-gold pill boxes could be won.

Morning masses and Presbyterian or Anglican services were offered every day and loudly announced by overzealous stewards who were all over the place. And of course the meals (breakfast, mid-morning coffee, luncheon, afternoon tea, the cocktail hour, supper and the nightcap accompanied by snacks) were a lengthy business. This is what traveling on a ship is about: you constantly have to run to find yourself a quiet spot to muse, smoke and to take in the landscape on the shores.

On a very cold night, when the crew on the bridge were preparing to enter the Suez Canal at dawn, I was leaning on the rail and staring into the dark sea. The steps of another passenger were muted by the humming of the engines, so when he spoke to me, I froze.

‘Good evening, sir. The sky is lovely, isn’t it?’

I understood what he said, even though the language he used was not English.

I turned around and saw a tall man dressed in a heavy winter coat, a matching wool scarf and a large fur hat.

‘Good evening, sir,’ I said in German. ‘Yes, it is lovely. Please excuse me, I’m from America and I never learned Yiddish.’

‘That’s all right, sir.’ The man spoke English now. ‘I’m from New Zealand.’

I hesitantly shook the hand he held out. He was Hasidic and I doubted if it was appropriate for him to associate with me. But it was obvious he wished to. Moreover, he must have guessed my origins right away.

‘I’m Rabbi Isaac Mendelssohn. Pleased to meet you.‘

'I’m Jakob Gatz. Are you from Auckland?’

‘No, from Wellington. My family and I are traveling to Vienna to visit relatives.’

‘I’m on my way to England. Have you had a pleasant journey so far?’

Before we knew it we were talking. The rabbi was looking forward to meeting his kin in Austria and none too pleased about the worldly atmosphere on the ship. ‘But then again, we ought to live and let live, sir…I suppose you have different interests at heart. You are on starboard now and staring at the east, even though there’s no land in sight. I believe I know why. You are hoping to lay your eyes on the Sinai desert. Who wouldn’t? It’s a blessing to be close to the land our good people originated from.’

Rabbi Mendelssohn was right. I had wanted to see this, and without Nick’s presence. Nick would have been understanding about it, but he would never fathom what this meant to me.

‘It’s too cold, really,’  the rabbi said. ‘Would you come inside and join me and my companions for prayers?’

I could not say no. I was no member of any congregation, not even the most reformed one, and now a leader of a Hasidic community invited me. The honor was just too great.

‘Thank you very much, Rebbe. But would you allow me some time to get my kippah from my cabin? I’m afraid I did not bring a stole.’

‘That’s all right. Please, it won’t be very formal. You’ll find us in the parlor next to the second-class dining room. And don’t hurry. Those who truly believe never make haste.’ He chuckled.

I dashed to my cabin and found Nick sitting in the parlor talking to a gentleman and two ladies.

‘I’m off to a prayer session,’ I said, feeling too exalted to introduce myself. ‘I won’t be long.’

A group of gentlemen greeted me cordially when I stepped into the room that probably served as a library in daytime. Tea and cookies were served.

I learned that most of the men were originally from Poland, Czechia or Hungary. They had fled the communist regimes, in fact Europe in general. Wellington was their new home now, but the call of the world they had left behind was too strong.

‘Shall we say a prayer now?’ an old man suggested. ‘We ought to give thanks for being able to see the land we originate from.’

‘I think it’s best that I leave now,’ I blurted out.

‘Why?’

‘I have sinned. My transgressions are so despicable that I could never hope for forgiveness.’

The rabbi gave me a kind look with wise, brown eyes behind round spectacles.

‘Why would you think that, my son? The Master of the Universe knows all and sees all. So He is also aware of your willingness to repent…You don’t have to confide in us if you don't wish to, but you can always open up your heart to Him.’

‘I was a soldier in the war. I aided the British troops to fight the enemy.’

‘You did your duty as an American. War is despicable. Yet history teaches us that we cannot escape the inevitable. You took up arms to fight Haman.’

‘I fought against my own people. I’m German…that is, I was born in Minnesota, but my parents are from Hesse. My fellow countrymen and I suffered in the trenches, to no avail as it now turns out, because Haman is back.’

There was some silence. ‘You mean Adolf Hitler,’ a young man muttered.

‘Do not mention his name!’ the old man snapped. ‘It’s to be erased forever!’

I now told the gentlemen about my telephone conversation with Maurice in New Orleans. ‘He’s from London, a gentile, we became friends in the war…He lives on Long Island now and his neighbor from Munich showed him this book, and he is fluent in German, and he told me what he’d read…He is now endeavoring to warn his friends and colleagues about the ideology he believes will soon get hold of all of Germany and Austria. After all, the writer is Austrian.’

‘We ought to say thanks for this gentleman’s actions,’ the rabbi remarked. ‘What’s his name?’

‘Maurice Hall.’

‘It proves how a person who is not of our faith can still be willing to support our people. It does not signify whom you worship. What counts is being a Mensch, and Mr. Hall is one. So are you, my son. Let us offer our thanks to the Master of the Universe for all the good things He gives us, in spite of the hardships we face. Even those are imposed by Him to open our eyes.’

We sang, there were no books with English transcripts, but I understood Hebrew well enough to hear the pleas for blessings upon myself and Mr. Hall, and when I burst into a violent fit of tears, someone gently tapped my wrist whispering that joy and sorrow where two sides of one medal and that I was a brave man for recognizing this.

Ten minutes later I walked into my little lounge and saw Nick dancing with one of the ladies who had been having coffee with him. Someone had provided a gramophone and the table was full of very expensive brandy, whiskey and champagne. And that is when I blew a fuse.

 

Chapter End Notes

The mention of a Hasidic community in New Zealand is purely fictitious, as the Jewish citizens of this country in 1927 belonged to reformed congregations.
The founding of a Hasidic congregation would not take place until well into the late 20th century. Since so many Jewish people fled Europe to escape oppression, the thought of some of them finding safe homes in the Antipodes was just too interesting to me to dismiss.

Lessons on Board

Chapter Summary

Nick goes to town on the first-class deck and is educated on an unspeakable subject.

Nick

Mr. and Mrs. Dutoit were from Cape Town and had taken to roaming the Orient as archeologists. They were on their way to a convention in Cairo. Miss Dutoit, Mr. Dutoit’s younger sister, had come along and would travel on to Switzerland on her own to study French and German.

They had come on board in Aden and I had paid little attention to them in the dining room, where they had been given a table next to ours. It was not until I became aware of their constant banter in Afrikaans that I actually took interest in them. Their language sounded delectably out of place in the torrid desert that could sometimes be seen from the windows.

Quite like Australians, South Africans socialize quickly with anyone in their vicinity. It’s the law of the bush. Any fellow man might either be in need of help or able to give some.

For some reason, their conversation with me was only lively when James was not around. After days on overcrowded ships that were rather like floating fairgrounds, he had actually developed an aloofness that bordered on pure misanthropy.

The Dutoits learned that he and I were traveling on business. ‘We go way back,’ I said proudly. ‘We met in France in the war.’

They were not to be fooled. ‘You’re more than just friends,’ Mrs. Dutoit observed. ‘Almost relatives, even though you’re not alike. The bond between the two of you is very strong, more than your friendship of years could account for.’ 

She was a woman so she could speak of these matters more easily. After all, women were responsible of maintaining close relationships in order to guarantee the survival of her loved ones while the men were away from home waging war or closing business deals.

She chastely saved any further elaborations, however, until Miss Dutoit had gone to bed and the couple and I were sitting in our private cabin lounge.

‘You and Mr. Gatsby are a couple,’ she said. ‘Don’t panic. Most people are too ignorant to notice anyway. But my husband and I do. We’ve dug out too many relics from olden times to believe that it’s non-existent, much less that it’s immoral.’

Without awaiting my confirmation she and her husband lapsed into a long (and slightly boring) tale about the cave paintings, clay effigies and temple friezes they had managed to conserve.

Krishna was a god of many faces, valiant and wise like a man, playful and mischievous like a youngster as he frolicked with milk maids, and caring like a mother. Gautama Siddharta Buddha was not a god, but a godlike human being, a prince who knew all and who, like Krishna, bore no traits of the virile warrior contrary to the idols the Dutoits had come across in Afghanistan and Persia.

‘We found a shrine on the Hindu Kush,’ Mr. Dutoit said, ‘and we took pictures of it. We hope to obtain some clarification from fellow archeologists in Cairo. It bears a relief of a man in heavy armor surrounded by smaller men who bow down to him to praise him either for his strength or his beauty. What we’d like to know is if this hero is actually Babur the Tiger who conquered large stretches of land in the fifteenth century, or Alexander the Great, who founded an empire that went all the way from Turkey to India.’

‘Oh, I know that,’ I said, taking great pains to smother a giggle. If the Dutoits could not tell if a work of art was from the Alexandrian era about three centuries before the birth of Christ from one created more than a millennium later, they were not very accomplished archeologists.

‘We found no accurate information,’ Mrs. Dutoit said. ‘The whole place had been been covered in dust and rubble since the last earthquake in 1895.’

Her husband then explained how Babur had married a lady from an outstanding family but had been known to have the most tender feelings for a young man at his court. This had not been frowned upon, quite like the fact that Alexander had always had his favorite officer with him.

I had studied the classics in college using highly abridged versions of the originals, New Haven being New Haven, but I had had many a talk with Maurice and Clive, who had lain hands on far more unorthodox literature at Cambridge.

‘Well, romantic relationships between men were the mainstay of Athenian society,’ I said. ‘And I just learned that things were similar during the reign of the Moguls. I wonder how the ancient Egyptians saw it.’

‘Pretty little is known about that,’ Mr. Dutoit smiled. ‘There’s this tale about Set, a god who was atrociously jealous of his nephew Horos, who was the son of Isis. The young man had it all – wisdom, good looks, a kind spirit…’

‘And three Rolls Royces in his garage and a hydroplane on his private beach,’ I completed.

They burst out laughing. ‘Ag man, jy’s ‘n komediant!' Mrs. Dutoit hiccupped.

‘My wife means you’re funny,’ her husband said. ‘Well, Set was annoyed at being inferior to his relative, so he got the boy drunk, took him to bed and forced himself on him. He was punished for that, not because of the deed with another man but for imposing humiliation. It was rape…This story is all we can find on the subject. What you should think of, my good man, is what you might see if you intend to stay on the Mediterranean shores of Africa.’

I learned how many people from Europe and the Americas, mostly artists or writers, flocked to any town from Morocco to Egypt to seek romance with local youngsters. The best example was André Gide, who had finally found happiness after Oscar Wilde had taken him to an apartment in Alexandria where beautiful men had given them all they needed. It must have something to do not only with the surprising leniency this was accepted with by local or French or British authorities, but also with the sensual, mind-boggling eroticism the West attributed to Arabian culture.

‘It all smacks of exploitation, not to mention abuse of minors,’ I said. ‘I definitely don’t want anything to do with that. I already saw it in Mexico on my way over. God, it’s despicable! I’m so glad Mr. Gatsby and I are going to England. At least we’ll see none of that there.’

‘England…Well, they’ve got their own ways, haven’t they?’ Mrs. Dutoit snorted, displaying innate Boer aversion of anything British.

We were saved by Miss Dutoit who came in like a deus ex machina. She had not gone to bed after all and was now dressed in a low-cut, sequined evening gown. A steward carrying a gramophone and records came after her.

I danced with the girl and then with her sister-in-law, we shared a bottle of champagne without bothering to use glasses, the young lady trailed her moist fingers over my face and said I looked so deliciously disheveled (I badly needed a shave) and I led her across the room waltzing because I was among friends now, and when we had all flopped down on chairs and lit cigarettes, James walked in, wearing a kippah and with reddened eyelids and a face that told me he would gladly have beaten me senseless if there had not been any women present.

 

James

The ship was sailing at reduced speed as it came nearer the entrance of the Suez Canal, so it was safe to take a bath without the risk of our suite being flooded. Nick and I shared the tub. I gently ran a soapy washcloth over his gorgeous body, kissing the moles on his shoulder and nuzzling into his soft, wet chest hair.

‘I’m so sorry,’ I said. ‘Those people from South Africa were really nice. Why should I deny you some fun while we’re stuck on this floating piece of Piccadilly Circus or uptown Manhattan? No, I won’t. You’re young, you’re still sowing your wild oats. You could not when you were in college, much less in the war.’

Nick embraced me and rubbed his unshaven cheeks against mine. ‘It’s not that,’ he whispered. ‘I learned so much from the Dutoits tonight. Do you know that you and I are normal? Isn’t that heavenly?’

‘It is, my love,’ I said, feeling my face redden with happiness. ‘I’ve known it for some time. In fact, I must have known all along. Love is never wrong. And I love you. God, how I love you! I said a prayer for your well-being tonight, tacitly of course. But it was invigorating to hear Maurice’s name being mentioned as the New Zealanders gave their thanks to the Heavens. Yes, he deserves it.’

Nick backed away from me and gave me a caustic look.

‘Oh, fuck Maurice,’ he hissed. So I drenched the washcloth and wrung it out over his head, after which he burst out laughing, hopped out of the tub and rushed to the lounge naked and giggling.

Roman Times

Chapter Summary

Welcome to la bella Italia, gentlemen!

Chapter Notes

Nick

Setting foot on solid ground after disembarking in Naples was like Christmas, Easter and Independence at the same time. No more ships until we would cross over to Harwich from Hook of Holland.

James had sulked when I had decided to stay on board when we had landed at Port Said, Alexandria and Tunis. The two latter cities had once been Greek settlements and he believed I had to see the sights. After all, I had read much about Hellenic history in college. ‘It sounds out of repair to me,’ I had said on all occasions. ‘You go if you want to.’

And so he had ventured out all alone among throngs of passengers hunting for souvenirs, which is what one basically does, even on landmarks of profound historical importance. I knew he was still looking for a nice thing to buy for Maurice. ‘And Alec,’ I reminded him. ‘Oh yes, Alec,’ he muttered.

He always came back carrying parcels full of Turkish delight, honey and pistachio pastries, almond cookies and pickled olives.

He had cleverly asked me to book a boarding house not far from the central railway station of Naples. No meals were served there and the clientele consisted mainly of art students from northern countries and couples of modest means who wanted to see all the sights. It was in these places were two men booking one room was taken as a normal matter, because sharing a bed to cut down on accommodation fees was considered sensible in Italy.

After weeks of sweet, idle life in the Orient I noticed that the waistcoat of the suit I had last worn in Melbourne had shrunk alarmingly. I could hardly button it up.

‘You’ve grown fat, old sport,’ James joked, but when he tried on his conventional New York tweed, he cursed. ‘Damn, so have I.’

We were sure to regain our shapes because there would be a lot of walking, even though there were street cars that ran in every direction.

Our first outing took us to the ruins of Pompeii. It was late January and very cold, quite like early spring in New York. The sun, however, was always present and we could feel its warm rays on our faces around noon. We never saw any rain. But still, this was winter and way outside the tourist season. ‘The sights will be deliciously deserted,’ James said as we rode on the street car that took us out of town. ‘You’ll get to explain everything to me. We won’t need a guide.’

I abhorred the prospect of acting the superior to him, even though I knew more about ancient cultures than he did. He had never finished school, let alone attended college, which haunts him to this very day.

Things changed as soon as we found ourselves walking down gravel paths and leafing through a travel guide. The site was deserted but for some sweepers.

The city of Pompeii, once home to modest terraced laborers’ houses and enormous holiday villas for the rich, was all but completely destroyed after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79. Those who survived wrote about a rain of ashes that lasted for days. It is surprising how many buildings had been well conserved under layers of soot and rubble.

We came across the fundaments of a building that must have had many cubicles. A few worn frescoes on pieces of stone wall showed men and girls copulating in every position. Their facial expressions were like those of people going about their everyday business as if they were waiting for the A train into Manhattan or queuing up for rides on Coney Island.

This had once been a brothel. It made me wonder how prostitution had survived all ideologies mankind had ever developed. Seeing all this made me think of the Prohibition. Forbidding something by law only made people indulge more in it.

This insight calmed me until we came across a paved courtyard with a sunken rectangular basin.

‘A bath house,’ James assumed. I nodded and pointed to the next room. ‘And that may have been the dining area,’ I said. ‘The Romans had their meals lying on mats or cushions. A row of slaves would stand behind them. Any sound or movement they made was punished by their masters.’

‘How on earth could they do their work then?’ James asked.

‘Good question,’ I said. ‘Seneca wrote about such banquets, but not about this paradox.’

‘Is he the man who was forced into suicide by drinking poison?’

I laughed. ‘No, that was Socrates, a Greek…Seneca was actually made to cut his wrists. Nero, the emperor, wanted him dead for allegedly playing a part in a conspiracy. I always believed he was just tried for being too clever, too modern. He spoke in favor of domestic servants. He wanted any master to treat his staff respectfully…quite like you treat yours.’

‘My dear,’ James said, blushing delectably.

‘Anyhow,’ I went on, sounding a bit like Alec who always resumed an interrupted storing by saying ‘anyroad’, ‘Seneca describes the fate of slaves. They were made to clean up the mess. Their masters would eat and drink until they couldn’t take anymore and then they would just throw up, leaving the servants to mop up the puke and to bring more food and wine so that they could start all over again.’

‘Dear Lord, it does sound a bit like the parties I used to throw, doesn’t it?’

Our roars of laughter rang across the ancient walls.

‘The prettiest of the young male slaves had to dance attendance with plucked eyebrows and shaved legs, endlessly pouring wine into the gentlemen’s cups. And when dinner was over the guests either walked to the next station – wait a minute, there were no trains then – or stayed the night and got prime entertainment from aforesaid pretty youngsters in the spare bedrooms.’

‘I get it,’ James sighed. ‘So that is why I got to watch all that nonsense in Paris in the war…artists dancing in the nude, completely hairless, claiming to revive ancient cultures…I take it you went to some of those shows, too?’

‘No,’ I said, feeling proud. ‘I went to Paris on leave once and I saw cabarets with talking dogs and clowns that had too much to drink.’

We laughed again.

‘This Seneca, was he a moralist?’ James then asked. ‘By the way, when did he live?’

‘He was one in a way. He died in 64 or 65.’

‘I wonder if he ever witnessed Christians being brought to trial at the Colosseum in Rome.’

‘I wouldn’t know,’ I answered, happy to deal with a part of the philosopher’s biography I was ignorant about. ‘But it’s possible.’

‘If so, would you believe he and his friends were…against sexual acts?’

‘Not against homosexuality itself, society was very much influenced by Hellenic culture then. Seneca actually addressed the topic of abuse and exploitation of good people. He advocates respect…And, oh yes, he’s a bit of a minimalist. Just living in luxury and for fun is not his cup of tea. He wrote that coarse bread only the poor could afford was not to be despised. Hunger would turn it soft and white.’

James lit a cigarette and started humming a tune in his characteristic, musical voice.

Every morning, every evening, ain’t we got fun,’ we then sang. ‘Not much money, oh, but honey, ain’t we got fun…There’s nothing surer, the rich get rich and the poor get children, in the meantime, in between time, ain’t we got fun.’

We had to stop because we were hiccupping.

‘Good old Seneca wouldn’t stand a cat in hell’s chance in Manhattan,’ I said.

James stepped up to me and kissed me languidly and deeply. I remember this moment so well, even though it’s twenty years ago now. It was the first time we kissed in public, under the cold, azure Italian sky, feeling connected after having shot college-tainted history down in modern flames.

 

James

The country had been under Fascist rule for some years, but we saw little of it. In retrospect, I believe Nick and I had crept through the eye of the needle into Switzerland. It was only later that we learned about men being accused of sodomy for the mere sake of getting them incarcerated, a political rather than a moral move. This was still Italy where life went about in pleasant weather with faces invariably smiling at us as we walked the streets.

It's not very advisable to visit Italy when you are determined to lose weight. Since it was winter, the famous ice-cream was not to be had anywhere, but every taverna or bar or restaurant offered wonderful meals.

The secret of Italian cuisine is making a tasty creation out of nearly nothing. Spaghetti, a few spoonfuls of pulpy tomato preserve, some fresh basil leaves and you’ve got a dish that eclipses all.

I still remember the veal cutlets with only a little lemon juice and a pinch of salt, the steaming hot bread loaves, the abundancy of sweets like marrons glacés and cassata, a cake full of candied fruits and liqueurs originating from North Africa.

Nick ate with gusto and swore he wanted to stay in the country just because of the lovely food, but as we slowly traveled up by train his spirits gradually left him.

The railway carriages were no places of repose. Even in first class children ran up and down the aisles squealing and quarrelling. This was Italy, the country where no one ruled as fiercely as the Child, the most venerated creature imaginable. It was no different in America where little ones from urban areas loudly told their parents which rides there were to be taken and what snacks to be bought in fairgrounds, but I could not help but think that my mother would have slapped me if I had behaved like that at home.

We still shared bedrooms, huddled together under a multitude of blankets, making love like mad because the cold had restored our energy. ‘It’s the only thing that keeps me going,’ Nick said when we were relaxing after our orgasms, smoking and having brandy in the blue darkness.

It was the food. As we progressed towards the Alps, the light, unpretentious spaghetti dishes were gradually replaced by heartier fare suited for mountainous areas.

It was in Milan where he asked me to have his meal sent back to the kitchen. I had to do the talking since German was still widely spoken here, happy to be able to express myself after weeks of broken English and sign language.

The waiter did not understand my accent and mistook my friendly words for a request to have the dish replaced by a similar one.

Chapter End Notes

In Pompeii, Nick refers to Lucius Annaeus Seneca's Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, a collection of educational letters to a (probably) fictitious young friend.
Exempts of this vast work were part of the curriculum I had to study in order to pass my final Latin exam in high school in 1991.
Seneca's views struck me as being pleasantly similar to Christian doctrines about honesty, modesty and self-resilience, a mild form of rebellion against the Roman Jazz Age full of treason, exploitation of workers and drunken orgies.
The song Nick and James sing so disrespectfully was composed by Richard Whiting. Cover versions of the original are used twice in Jack Clayton's 'The Great Gatsby' (1974): Klipspringer performs it on the piano while Gatsby gives Daisy and Nick a tour of his house, and another adaptation is played during the end credits.

Snow

Chapter Summary

Switzerland is a beautiful country. Or rather, it would be if there were no Alps blocking the view.

Chapter Notes

Nick

The northern Italian provinces, once largely under Austrian rule, are proud and resilient. The inhabitants feel a connection with the countries that border them. Strangers are as warmly welcomed here as in the south, but when the first snow-capped peaks of the Alps came into sight, I wanted to stop right then and there and take the next train to Genoa to board a ship back to America.

Every nation is proud of its cuisine and quite rightly so. I attribute my aversion to the food to my own stubbornness.

James found a delight in dissecting poached potato dumplings to see what was in them – bacon, onions, chives or chopped liver. He adored the side dishes of sauerkraut and stewed mushrooms.

‘It’s all I can do to keep myself going, old sport,’ he explained as we lit cigarettes over superb coffee at a restaurant in Como. ‘The new movement does not hold a good promise for the future.’

Mussolini did not care much about Adolf Hitler’s ideas, but the underdeveloped Austrian painter had found what he sought in the ideology advocated by his Italian idol. They both wanted a new order, and even though Mussolini did not express any clearly insulting views on the Jewish population, I felt things would eventually change for the worse. James was thinking the same, we were both unable to act against politics, so what were two tourist to do who were under the safe umbrella of American citizenship? Eat and eat and enjoy life. I was happy for him, because he could still see the sun where I saw none.

 

James

We had seen nothing but white landscapes ever since we had left Milan, but the efficiency of the Swiss railway companies amazed me. We boarded a train in Como expecting to get stuck in a mound of snow along the way, but we arrived in Zurich five hours later and two minutes ahead of schedule.

Business awaited us here. Knowing full well that no one would understand my German, I took Nick along to the banks where I intended to deposit some of my assets. He spoke French well enough to manage, but we were both relieved when we were addressed in remarkably good English.

The old city on the Limmat, which is more of a capital than Bern, is full of boutiques, wine bars and exquisite restaurants. Nick was overjoyed to finally have some southern food again, spaghetti in different forms and with different ingredients, such as poached and fried shreds of dough with oodlings of Gruyère cheese, cannelloni stuffed with minced veal or spinach, Knöpfli in delicious beef gravy.

We had had good beer ever since we had landed in Naples, but now we found that this was a better drink to have with our meals than wine. Mouth-watering sweet pastries for dessert compensated for the weak coffee.

When the bank business was completed, we explored the town and its cathedral. The church was open to tourists even when Mass was celebrated. We noiselessly filed past the pews to admire the frescoes and were very satisfied that the visitors behaved politely, unlike those we had seen at the mosque in Colombo.

We had a few days left before we would leave the country so I decided to get us new clothes at a department store. After months in areas where every man had a smaller size than us, we were delighted to find waistcoats, jackets and pants that would fit. This is one of the advantages of shopping in a cold climate where people eat to keep warm.

My last project turned out to be a bit of a problem. Nick would not leave my side and I could not shake him off in public without offending the Swiss, because they are soft-spoken and demure by nature.

‘Look, there are books in that window,’ I distracted him one afternoon. ‘Why don’t you go inside? I’m sure they sell French novels.’ Nick would not go, claiming he had stocked up on lecture in Ceylon.

‘Please go,’ I said. ‘You may inquire if they sell German newspapers. I could do with one. I just want to pop in here to have my wristwatch checked.’

The trick worked. I went into a jewelry shop and asked for engagement rings. ‘Large ones, please,’ I added. ‘My fiancée has rather thick hands.’

The friendly man at the counter showed me a huge display box with specimens varying from blandly undecorated to blatantly showy.

‘What colour are her eyes?’ the man asked. ‘Dark brown,’ I answered. She’s Italian.’

He then showed me two rings with topazes in them. ‘They’ll go with any color, sir,’ he said. ‘Your eyes are green, but with a bit of blue in them…Yes, these would be perfect for you and the beautiful lady who will soon be your wife in America.’

This was Swiss humor. A woman who needed a large ring must rather seem like an ape than a southern belle to him. I laughed and paid.

I found Nick outside sporting a Bavarian newspaper and with a face like a thundercloud.

‘What the hell took you so long?’ he asked.

‘I saw a cuckoo clock and I wondered if Alec would like it,’ I explained. ‘But he would probably call it a piece of junk. We’ll find him a nice souvenir yet.’

‘I agree,’ Nick smirked. ‘Imagine him staring at a little house with a pendulum in his living room waiting for the bird to pop out so that he can yell ‘Cu-fucking-coo yerself, mate, or take yer bleedin’ business elsewhere.’’

Heads turned when our laughter rang through the snow-covered street.

Chapter End Notes

Knöpfli - literally 'little buttons' are tiny balls of pasta dough that are served as an accompaniment to meat, either with or without a sauce. Yummy!

A City on a Lake

Chapter Summary

A farewell for now, with a wonderful ceremony before the story continues.

Nick

Geneva is a city on the western edge of the Alps close to the French border. It is on the southern banks of Lac Léman, where yachts sail in the summer and slumber outside the quays in the winter.

It was late February now and we had seen nothing but snow-covered mountains from the train. They were rosy-pink in the mornings, gleaming white in the afternoons, flaming red at sunset and of a ghostly electric blue at night, a sight so magnificent that I’m still at a loss for words to describe it.

The town was alive with winter holiday tourists from all over the world who were determined to break arms or legs skiing down the slopes in daytime and getting hopelessly plastered after sunset.

Tom Buchanan had lived in Montreux since 1923. He was in and out of sanitariums, which let me wonder if the treatments he received were in any way conducive to his recovery. Of course James suggested that I would travel up and see him, but I declined. I had been struck by a bullet while floating in James’s swimming pool on West Egg in 1922 and I still did not know who had fired at me. It might have been Tom, because he had had more than one reason to do so.

It was in Geneva where James and I would part ways for two weeks. We spent two nights at the Hotel du Lac (we both thought this was a highly original name) after which he would travel on to Germany and I would board the train to Paris. He knew that what awaited him in Homburg would be the hardest task to master on our journey, but still he did not want me to go with him.

We spent half a day at a skiing resort up the slopes watching people clumsily balance themselves on wooden slats and fall down on their massive behinds or just pelt one another with snowballs.

James and I are wholesome enough to stay clear of any form of sport and exercise. It’s basically a murderous undertaking originally intended to win favor with the head of a clan or to prepare for war.

It was very pleasant to think thus as we sat on a sunny terrace sipping hot, creamy cocoa while other people wore themselves out after having paid horrendous sums for the access to the summit. They could have had all this for free on the slippery, icy platforms of any New York station. But I must admit that the accomplished skiers who rushed down the slopes zigzagging around rocks and trees were amazing.

The sun sets early in mountainous regions, so the afternoon was already red and golden by the time we took the cable car back to town. It felt like the world was dying and this was the last bit of celestial light we would get to see. James understood and put a gloved hand on mine.

‘Look at me,’ he whispered. I did and then I saw in his lovely, polychrome irises what mine must radiate. ‘You’ve got tears in your eyes, old sport,’ he said softly. ‘I’ll cheer you up later.’

He was so incredibly sweet. As soon as we were back in the streets behind the boulevard, he stopped at every shop window and asked me if I saw anything I liked. I kept silent but he found a dark-purple, almost black silk scarf with paisley motifs on it and bought it for me. ‘I’ll wear it from now on,’ I said when we left the shop. ‘Even in bed.’ He put an arm around me and kissed me on the cheek. This was considered an unwholesome Gallic custom in Switzerland, but we were so close to the French border that nobody took offence.

Neither of us had much of an appetite that night. The soup, the roast and its trimmings and even dessert went back to the kitchen barely touched.

‘Let’s have coffee on the boulevard,’ he suggested. ‘And a nightcap after that.’

It was snowing now, the thick flakes falling softly from the sky. The car drivers diligently used their windscreen wipers and drove on like it was summer. The Swiss are used to any kind of weather and never complain. That is why the concrete square on the bank of the lake, which served as an ice-skating rink was still full of young people swirling to the tunes of a brass band. The trees on the boulevard were decorated with colored electric lights. The air was filled with warm smells of candied apples, vanilla rolls and mulled wine from the many concession stalls.

‘Let’s rent some skates,’ James joked. ‘Let’s show the Swiss gentlefolk some Midwestern skills.’

We laughed. Men like us could ride anything on four legs or four wheels and fire guns from horseback, but going around in circles in dainty boots with iron blades under them was for cissies.

He took my arm and we marched away from the lively scene and the merry lights. I thought how good we must look now, both clad in black coats trimmed with grey seal fur.

It was heavenly to walk like this with the gentle sting from soft snowflakes on our faces. I wanted this to last forever, but kept silent.  We came to a small square that jutted out from the boulevard. In its middle was a statue with floral gifts at its feet. A saint or a local hero.

Assuming James wanted to stop to light a cigarette, I dug up my gilded case from my pocket.

‘Let’s have one later,’ he said softly. ‘I’ve got something to say to you.’

We were standing in front of the artwork facing one another from under the wide rims of our fedoras. He drew a few breaths but could not speak.

‘You are overdoing it a bit, dear,’ I said to break the silence. ‘You insisted on going all the way to Geneva with me to see me off on the train to Paris. We could have parted ways in Basel or Bern. It would have saved you at least a day of traveling on your way to Homburg.’

His eyes glowed in the dim lights from the street lamps. ‘It was a pleasure to take you here,’ he said. ‘I wanted us to be on a lake.’ He nodded towards the sheet of water that reflected the dark clouds. A green light, a beacon to serve naval traffic, flashed on and off on the French shore.

‘It looks like a sea now, doesn’t it?’ James said. ‘Our very own sea.’

‘We could have had that in Zurich too. Why here?’

He laughed softly. ‘I don’t know. Zurich just isn’t the place. Too German, I suppose. This is a French-speaking canton. More romantic.’

He sighed and looked at me with sad eyes. ‘My love, I’m off to Germany tomorrow. You know, it’s complete nonsense what I’m going to tell you now, but it’s been on my mind ever since our stay in New Orleans…I’ve a feeling I won’t make it back alive.’

I took his hands in mine. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘The political situation is far from pleasant, I’ll hand you that, but what could possibly happen to you? The country is open, you are an American citizen on a family visit.’

He gently squeezed my hands. ‘You don’t understand, Nick. You are a gentile. It’s logical to assume that not just any ideology that forbids ours will find a wide audience. But Germany feels wronged for losing land after the war. They want to reclaim Polish territory that is now under Russian rule. They want full overland access to Danzig. The country is doing rather well now, but if another financial crisis hits the world and unemployment rates go up, then people will be inclined to blame others for their misery – the Jews. Propaganda is not a new thing, but with modern technologies any idea can reach any citizen across the globe. We’ve had good years, but as the rule is, they are followed by bad years.’

I crept into his arms and listened to his soft breathing and the barely audible patter of snowflakes on stone.

‘But you will see your family,’ I said. ‘And you will help them.’

I felt his chest rise and sink as if he suppressed a sob. ‘Yes, but at what cost?’

‘You’ll be O.K.’ I murmured, feeling the inadequacy of these words.

He loosened his embrace and looked me in the eyes with a smile. ‘Yes, I’ll be O.K…But just in case I won’t, I would like to do something now. It can only be done here, with the lake and the mountains watching…Just a minute…’

He dug up something from his pocket very much like a snuff box. It took him some time to open it.

‘Nick, look at me,’ he pleaded, because I only had eyes for the object.

My eyes met his again, so beautiful with their colors from all seasons.

‘Will you marry me?’ he asked. ‘We will never get to do so officially. But what does it matter to the sky and the snowy peaks and the lake? They are our witnesses and they will give us their blessings…Please say yes, Nick, give me something to cherish in case I should never see you again.’

I felt tears run down my face as I held on to him shaking and shivering, at a loss for words but my desperate lips on his told all. Yes and yes and yes forever.

He slipped a ring onto my finger and then I did the same on him. The white gold and the rectangular topazes glistened in the dark. They were beautiful, oh so beautiful, he was mine and I was his and we forgot about the nightcap in a café or candied apples from a stall and rushed back to the hotel where we had champagne sent up to our suite and made love until midnight.

Afterword

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