James Federline first appeared in the evening of a regular Monday in the year of 1871. And that, the appearing part, is actually the most accurate description of it all, because he might as well have materialized out of thin air right there, in the door to the bar of the Savile Club. Before that moment no one had heard his name, and all the club’s members could have sworn that they had never seen him in their lives.
James Federline was appearance-wise not a very remarkable person, he was of average height, not too thin or broadly built, had quite a high hairline and raven-black hair, fashionably pomaded to be very shiny and very flat. His face was in all aspects bland, one of the kind you forget the moment it disappears from view. His eyes were round and brown, his nose thin and bordering on big, his thin lips the same colour as his skin (lightly tanned with an almost-sickly yellow undertone). When it comes to age he could have been anywhere between 15 and 30, the dim lightning made it especially difficult to tell.
And this man, who had up until seconds earlier not existed in the mind of any living person, stood now at the entrance of the Savile Club’s bar, brushing something imaginary off his white tie uniform. He licked his lips, kept his eyes from meeting anyone else’s, twisted ever so slightly, and shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
The club’s actual bar stood in a corner by the fireplace, which was lit and ornamented just as grandly as all the wooden walls. And where these walls had no wooden carvings there hung instead paintings, motives varying between portraits and scenes from the bible, a small one which hung over the mentioned fire. The air was thick with cigar smoke, visible in the small pools of light supplied by lamps that appeared to have been placed in the room randomly at first sight. But at second glance these lamps could be proven to have purposes, for they all belonged to a round table each, of which in the room there might have been around eight. And around these, in red leather armchairs, sat the club’s members; men in impeccable white tie of all ages, short-haired and long-haired, bearded and clean-shaven, dark and light.
For close to half an hour conversation had been slow and dutiful about the most mundane subjects, so the arrival of this stranger had all eyes directed at him and the silence only broken by mumbles and whispers. Heads leaned against one another, monocles were lowered, glasses put on, scotch sipped on quietly and cigar smoke blown out slowly.
James Federline – who apparently belonged to no party in the room and still stood alone where he had first stepped in – must have noticed all this sudden attention, but somehow he managed to pretend that he had not. Pursing his lips and inspecting a painting opposite him, he seemed very clueless indeed.
At the table by the corner, occupied by a company of four men in their late 30’s, Charles Carmichael – who, despite his reclined state and the fact that he had not spoken a word in well over ten minutes, would have been obvious to anyone as being the leader of this particular little gang – took a puff of his cigar and said with his low, raspy voice, “Do him.”
Though he was, as everyone else, looking at the young man only we so far know the name of, this was obviously directed at Doyle, the weasel-looking man to his right. For the last hour he had attempted to entertain all who would listen by making Dupin-style deductions about men out of earshot, and he was now about to pay the price.
“Why not?” the perfectly round Ashbless asked as Doyle hesitated a second. “Because you don’t already know him?”
“If I did know him, what would be the point?” Doyle bit back, twisting nervously.
“Exactly”, Bennett broke in. The group’s youngest, he had an impressive mane of curls and a face spotted with freckles. “So why not do him?”
“I haven’t said I wouldn’t”, Doyle sneered.
“So please do”, Charles said with a meaning smirk.
His hair was a glowing red and combed back to perfect straightness, and he had sideburns almost all the way down to his mouth, which as always was a crooked thin line. He was not a tall man but built like one, with spindly legs and thin arms, all as white as snow. Even his chest almost seemed to curve inwards instead of out.
“Fine.” Doyle squinted at the stranger as if to improve his vision. “All right, he is new here. It’s evidently his first time at the club.”
“Evidently”, Bennett scoffed. “Because no one’s bloody seen him here before.”
“Hold on, I’m not done!” Doyle stroked what he hoped would one day grow into a beard. “I also see that he has poor social skills,” he raised a hand to quiet another protest before it could start, “I mean, very poor. I suspect that he has had a difficult childhood, perhaps his father kept him isolated.”
“And his mother?” Ashbless asked teasingly.
“She is of course deceased and has been for some time.” Doyle signed with his scotch glass at the man in question. “No gentleman who’s ever been loved by a woman would look so uncomfortable in perfectly normal clothes.”
Bennett clapped his hands sarcastically and Charles shook his head slowly, smirk intact.
“Just because the poor boy’s a bit shy!” Ashbless said. “Damn you, Doyle, he doesn’t know a soul in here, of course he’s shy!”
“Hear the man out”, Charles said. “Ashbless, obviously this young man has been locked up in an attic by his father, it’s not to joke about!”
Everyone laughed except Doyle, who furrowed his brows, looked at the others and exclaimed, “That’s not what I said!”
“Of course not.” Bennett smiled and leaned over the table, patting him supportively on the shoulder. “You just said he was isolated. It might as well have been in a cellar.”
“Hear, hear!” Ashbless agreed, raising his glass.
Doyle sighed. “Well, whatever the reason”, he said, “he is acting odd.”
“I stand by my original observation”, Ashbless emptied his glass, “which is that he simply doesn’t know anyone here.”
“Gentlemen”, Bennett said with a proud smile. “There is a solution to your problem: ask him.”
Doyle shook his persistently. “No, no way.”
Ashbless pursed his lips and looked thoughtful, considering the idea. “It’s only fair, I suppose. Bennett, will you do us the honour?”
“Why me? No, no, you do it. You’re the one who so desperately wanted to.”
“Do I misremember, or wasn’t that Doyle?”
“Well, I’m not doing it!”
The clink of a glass being placed on the table made them all turn to Charles.
“Please”, he said. “You baboons are boring me to death. Just call him over already.”
He will come to regret this decision. If by some divine intervention he would one day be asked to undo a moment or unsay a sentence, that would be the one he would erase. There would be no hesitation, he would immediately choose the second that he decided to make the acquaintance of James Federline.
But he did not know that as he observed, smilingly, Ashbless turning around, raising his arm in the air and calling, “You, over there!”
The young man flinched and stared at him, blinking in confusion. Ashbless nodded – was it really so hard to believe that it was he they were talking to? – and signed for him to come over, and Bennett chuckled “Oh god” into his scotch.
“I’m not taking responsibility for this”, Doyle said.
“Nonsense, Doyle”, Charles murmured. “I do.”
James Federline was now walking towards them, looking both as if he was still getting accustomed to a new pair of legs and had no idea what to do with his arms.
“He moves like a giraffe”, Ashbless laughed. Reminding the others that he had spent time in Africa had now become so second nature to him that he did it subconsciously.
The young man stopped by the table that had become quiet, and looked for a few seconds almost as if he would bow to them. But evidently he changed his mind, because instead he just nodded and tried to give them a confident smile.
“Good evening, gentlemen”, he said.
His voice did not match his soft and almost feminine appearance, it was harsh, rough and lower than even Charles’, whom the others could never imitate for long without hurting their throats. And while it sounded a bit inexperienced, like a voice never before used, it was not by far as nervous and twitching as the speaker’s face.
“I hope you don’t mind”, Bennett said, taking charge of the situation, “that we called you over, but you looked so dreadfully alone and lost over there.
“Much appreciated.” The stranger smiled gratefully and lowered his eyes. “My name is James Federline.”
And that, is the second the man with that name was born.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance.” Bennett started signing towards the others. “This is Doyle, Ashbless, Carmichael, and I’m Bennett. Please take a chair and join us.”
Looking more than unsure of himself, Federline turned around. In a second all the other faces in the room turned the other way, as if they had not all been looking at him, and he smiled more smugly than apologetically as he pulled out the closest empty chair and the men at that table pretended that they were not even aware of his existence.
Doyle reluctantly moved a little to the side to give him room, and Federline placed his chair between him and Ashbless, who suddenly remembered to say, “Haven’t you got anything to drink yet? Unacceptable, barkeep, we need another scotch over here!”
Federline sat down stiffly and with his back perfectly straight, as if he already had a conviction of how to sit in a chair and could not be convinced to do it any other way even by everyone else’s slumped positions. “Thank you.”
“You must forgive our curiosity”, Doyle said, smiling awkwardly, “but it is your first time at the club, is it not?”
Federline was just receiving his glass and took a second to reply to instead thank the barkeep, but then he nodded. “Yes, it is indeed.”
Doyle stretched out, deeming his work done, and Ashbless and Bennet looked at each other to determine who would continue the conversation. Around them everyone else had lost interest in the stranger and turned back and resumed their own discussions. Federline sipped carefully on his scotch in the silence, making a small grimace of disgust. Charles, the only one who seemed to notice, tilted his head slightly and observed him amusedly.
“So”, Asbless said eventually. “How is it that a young gentleman such as yourself has never been at the Savile Club before?”
“It’s actually my first time in London too”, Federline said, as if it was an embarrassing thing to admit. “And in England, as it happens.”
Though he spoke slowly and sounded as if he pronounced every word very carefully, his accent was obviously English and he could not have been a foreigner.
“By god”, Charles said. “Don’t say you’re from the colonies.”
Federline smiled at him more warmly than he had at the others. “I was born in India. My father had a plantation there, but he recently passed away and I decided to come here to try my luck.”
“Doyle, that doesn’t count!” Bennett exclaimed.
The confused Federline furrowed his brows at him, but he offered no further explanation and Doyle just snorted and continued drinking.
“Pray forgive us”, Charles said with a tone of his voice as if he was not apologizing at all. “I’m afraid we were quite silly to try to amuse ourselves with trying to think like Augustine Dupin.”
“Augustine Dupin?” Federline echoed. “Who’s that?”
“You know Poe?” Ashbless did not ask, he assumed. “He wrote a few stories about this American detective-“
“He’s French”, Bennett interrupted.
Ashbless frowned. “No, he was an American living in France.”
“I know Poe was American”, Charles said, disinterested, whirling his scotch. Discussions of Frenchmen rarely interested him.
“But Dupin was French”, Doyle snapped. “It was the partner, the narrator, who was the American living in Paris.”
“Wasn’t Dupin himself the narrator?” Ashbless asked.
“You hear it on the name!” Bennett said. “Dupin isn’t an English name!”
Over the chatter and argument Charles Carmichael saw himself above, he looked at Federline. To a start he looked mildly uncomfortable to be between Doyle and Ashbless, but as he seemed to realize that they would not throw themselves at each other over him he slowly allowed himself to relax. He looked back at Charles, who threw out his arms as much as he dared – one holding a cigar and the other a glass – and made a look of What can you do? Federline gave him an amused smile, and he realized contentedly that he must be his favourite.
“Gentlemen”, he said, effectively quieting the others. “Does it really matter where he’s from?”
“No”, Federline said with surprising confidence, still with his eyes fixed on him. “Only where he goes from there.”
This time Bennett’s hand clapping seemed more sincere.
“Hear, hear!” Ashbless exclaimed, raising his glass.
Charles did the same, looking at no one but Federline. He nodded almost unnoticeably, but Federline repaid the gesture.
“To where one goes from there”, he said ceremoniously.
“To where we go from here”, Federline replied.
It was a few days until their paths crossed again, on the Westminster Bridge. Charles had just left the palace and parted the crowds with his walking stick; he moved for no one and had his mind elsewhere either way, the rest of London might as well not have existed to him. But suddenly in one stream of people, going the opposite direction, a man bumped into his shoulder.
“Excuse me.” He sounded as if he was in a rush, but genuinely apologetic.
Vaguely irritated, Charles spun around to look up at him, and under a hat a very happy-looking face was smiling down at him.
“Why, what a coincidence.” Now there was a hint of nervousness in his voice. “Carmichael, isn’t it?”
Charles furrowed a brow before he recognized him. “Indeed. And you’re Federline.”
Federline tipped his hat. Into him people bumped their bags and arms as they walked, and muttered about how he stood in the middle of their constantly moving wave, as if something in his appearance showed that he would tolerate such behaviour – which he, Charles noted, passively did.
“Are you getting accustomed to London yet?” Charles asked.
With a chuckle Federline directed his eyes away. “Slowly, but surely.”
Charles smiled. The initial intrigue had disappeared now, it had happened already that evening at the club. He had been the first one to grow bored with Federline, who spoke only when asked questions and even then very briefly, and leave. He had not shown up at the club again after that, and Doyle had said that he had left soon after Charles.
“I should get going”, he said now. “I was on my way to lunch.”
“Oh”, Federline said. “Are you eating at a restaurant?”
“May I come with you?” His interruption seemed to come from a fear of not actually being given a chance to speak.
“Weren’t you going the opposite direction?” Charles asked doubtingly.
“I’m going any direction”, Federline said. “I don’t know the city at all and I’m looking for a decent place to eat.”
Because he had no interest in arguing with this man on the street and his stomach was starting to rumble, Charles shrugged his shoulders. “Why not? I know of a lovely place.”
He had been looking forward to a nice and quiet lunch alone, but there was just something in Federline’s walk that reignited the initial interest that had gone lost. A giraffe, Ashbless had called him. Charles was hoping for something else.
He continued striding across the bridge, Federline staying obediently at his side.
“Why are you having lunch in white tie?” he asked smugly. He was wearing black tie himself.
“Uh.” Federline scratched his arm. “I lost all my luggage on the trip over here. Practically all I have is what I’m wearing.”
Carmichael chuckled amusedly. “Poor thing, that’s horrible.”
“Yes, it’s inconvenient.”
Charles shook his head to himself and was silent for a few seconds, sneaking an occasional peak of Federline, who looked strangely determined now. Just as they left the bridge he turned around and looked at the palace in the distance, Big Ben about to strike its two o’clock in not too long.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
Federline nodded breathlessly.
“It’s all right.” Charles gave it a brief glance over the shoulder. “You grow used to it. You grow used to most things, I’d say.”
There was bitterness in his voice, bitterness he had not intended. He continued walking, not waiting for his companion to follow. He knew he would, and only smiled when he made out his distinctly heavy steps among the rest.
“It’s right over here.” He pointed his walking stick in the direction of the Marriott Hotel, a gigantic grey stone building right by the river.
“Beautiful that too”, Federline said.
“Now, now, don’t exaggerate.”
They entered the hotel, past the lobby to the right, into the restaurant. It went in gold and light blue, and the marble walls and ceiling were all beautifully ornamented, except for the wall that was a big mirror. From the ceiling hung a chandelier and around all the tables sat nicely dressed people, silverware was clinking and a pleasant smell of different foods hung in the air.
Federline looked bewildered, his eyes were big and wide and his mouth open, but slowly starting to smile. Charles leaned towards him and whispered, “Don’t look quite so inexperienced in my company, good sir. I have a reputation to uphold.”
“It’s just like nothing I’ve seen before”, Federline said with a blush. “Good sir.”
“A table for two”, Charles told the head waiter that approached them. “I think we’d prefer to sit by the window.”
“Very well, Mr Carmichael.” He bowed his head.
They handed the head waiter their hats and got a table in the middle of the room, right next to the window. Just beside them the Thames glittered in the sunshine. Once again Federline was sitting like a boy at a school bench, quiet and well-behaved, while the people at the tables all around them sat however they pleased and laughed loudly.
Charles placed his walking stick against the window. “Don’t say they didn’t have places like this in India”, he said, leaning back into his chair.
Federline tore his gaze away from the window. “Yes, of course. But-“ He looked down at the table. “My father was rather eccentric. I never knew much of life outside home.”
Charles nodded and opened his menu, deciding in silence that he would never let Doyle know this. Federline followed his example. He seemed to do that a lot, Charles noted. He found that he more than enjoyed it.
“I’m afraid it won’t be a long lunch”, he said. “I need to get back to Westminster in not too long, work.”
He peered at Federline from behind the menu. He looked much occupied with going through all the options.
“Oh”, he said with obviously fake disinterest. “Are you an MP?”
“You didn’t know?”
“I did not.”
Charles closed up his menu and chuckled. “I thought the others would have told you my whole life story as soon as I left the room. They usually do. Are you ready to order?”
Absent-mindedly Federline nodded and he waved for a waiter. They made their orders, or rather, Charles made his order and Federline smiled and said, “I’ll have the same.”
“Are you a liberal?” he asked when the waiter had disappeared.
Charles, who had just taken a sip of the water they had been given, coughed.
“God, no!” he laughed. “I’m a conservative. And you should be more careful with such words, around here liberal is often taken as an insult.”
Federline looked right into his eyes, his face was suddenly more serious and his voice lower as he said, “I hope you did not. The last thing I want is to insult you, good sir.”
Charles swallowed some water and let his tongue slide over his smiling lips.
“I’m sure you can think of a way to make it up to me.”
The pace of his heart went up as he observed Federline grin mischievously out the window, as if sharing some dirty secret with the river. He waited impatiently; the next move was Federline’s. Finally he looked back at him.
“I believe I need to use the washroom”, he said.
Charles smiled contentedly. “I believe it is back past the lobby to the left.”
Federline nodded and stood up. He seemed much more confidence in his walk now, he almost sauntered out the room, and painfully slowly too.
Charles reached up and stretched his arms above his head, counting the seconds slowly going by. He thought 60 at first, but as he reached 30 he found that he could go no further. The numbers seemed to jumble up and mix together, so he pushed back his chair to get up.
“Carmichael?” a voice said behind him.
He closed his eyes and cursed under his breath, before he turned in his seat with a smile.
“Why, if it isn’t Lord Primrose.” Charles gripped the edge of the table with a hand.
Lord Primrose had even longer sideburns than him, was rounder than Ashbless and redder than Doyle at his angriest. He was smiling broadly, and opposite him sat a young woman that was not the grey-haired, hawk-nosed Lady Primrose but a girl who looked barely legal. She was pretty though, fair, blushing and with big, blue eyes.
He was not, then, likely to tell anyone of this encounter with Charles.
“I’m still expecting a dinner invitation, you know”, he said and hit him jokingly on the shoulder.
Charles’ grip around the table tightened and his smile strained.
“It’s on the way, I promise”, he pressed out between gritted teeth.
“So, how are things?” Primrose smiled, not with compassion, but gloat.
“Things are-“ His knuckles were white now. “They are well. Things are well, thank you.” Charles coughed, covering his mouth with his free hand, preparing for the counterattack. “How is Lady Primrose?”
Primrose grinned. “She too is well, thank you.”
“Good”, Charles said. “Good.”
He glanced out the window, trying to make out what time Big Ben said it was. He was not doing it discreetly.
“Are you in a hurry?” Primrose asked.
“If I let you escape this conversation”, Primrose tilted his head forward and raised his brows, “you will be in debt to me.”
“Yes. I will-“ Charles took a deep breath and kept his eyes closed for a second too long when he blinked, “I will owe you.”
“How about you name your firstborn son after me?”
For a second Primrose looked dead serious about this suggestion, before he pushed his head out towards Charles and started laughing boomingly. Charles realized that he was being mocked. He stared into his eyes and laughed too, aware of how mad and high it sounded. He almost lost control of it now, it almost got out of hand and became too much. But then he managed to stop himself, as Primrose did the same and dried away a tear from under his eye.
“I will make sure to remember that”, Charles said, standing up.
“It’s Richard!” Primrose called after him as he tried to walk fast without seeming to eager.
In that moment Richard was the ugliest name he could have thought of, but he was not much concerned with it any more.
Back past the lobby, to the left. Charles pushed the door to the washroom open. The colours were the same as in the restaurant, the walls and floor marble. In the middle of the room stood a square of four basins and conjoining mirrors, reaching all the way from the floor to the ceiling. Behind it, at the other end of the room, Federline stood leaned with his back against the brown wooden door to the last booth. At the sight of Charles he straightened up.
“Bloody hell, I got caught up”, Charles said. He was already walking towards him, his shoes clicking pleasantly and rapidly against the tiles of the floor with every step.
“So you were”, Federline said with a smile. “I was considering actually using the washroom.”
Charles pushed him into the booth and pulled the door closed behind them, making sure to lock it too. Federline came at him, grabbing him by the suit and flinging him back against the wall so hard his skull almost cracked against the cold marble. For a few seconds he just stood close and grinned down at Charles, knowing very well that for the first time, he was the one in control. But he said nothing more.
He sunk to his knees, pulling his hands down along Charles’ body as he did. Charles was already panting, fumbling with both hands along the wall to find something to hold on to. Federline buttoned up his trousers with calm and slow movements, freeing his hard length. There might have been a moment of hesitation, or that was only in Charles’ impatient head. Then Federline took him inside his mouth all at once and started moving his head back and forth.
He did it mechanically, as if after a pattern, and did not adjust it after Charles’ groans and moans. He just repeated the same motion time after time, not slowing down or going faster. Charles could not care, but faster was how he needed it now. He grabbed his hair and held him still as he got up on his tiptoes – because Federline would not go lower either – and thrust as hard as he could into his mouth.
Big Ben struck once and he squealed, Big Ben struck twice and he finished with a half-suppressed “Christ!”
There was a quiet and still second when he was still inside his mouth, starting to go soft, and tried to steady his breathing. Then Federline swallowed and he pulled out. As Charles started putting himself back into his trousers he stood up and stretched out his legs. He did not meet his eyes or say anything before he unlocked the door, got out, and closed it behind himself.
Charles waited for only ten seconds this time, until he heard the washroom door close, and then he got out and walked up to the basins. He washed his hands, straightened his clothes and fixed his hair, making sure he looked presentable. He looked at himself in the mirror, and he did.
Primrose and the young girl that was not his wife were gone when he came back, but Federline was waiting by their table, leaned back with his legs stretched out.
“The wine came”, he said as Charles sat down opposite him. He was already drinking it.
“Is it good?” Charles took his own glass.
Federline ran it through his mouth as if parodying a wine taster, and nodded. He swallowed it with a smack of his lips.
Charles tried a sip himself. “White and light”, he said.
“White and light”, Federline echoed approvingly.
They both looked out at the river, where a sailboat size small was just passing them by. Someone on board waved enthusiastically at anyone on land who might wave back, but Charles saw no one but Federline slowly raise a hand.
“Listen”, he said before he had even brought it all the way back down, “I need to ask you a favour.”
A favour for a favour, Charles thought.
“Ask away”, he said, his tone indicating that he might not perform it anyway, which he was not sure he would.
“Could I perhaps dine with you this evening?” Federline looked at him and Charles raised a suspicious brow. “It’s only, god, it’s complicated – but with all that luggage I lost was also my passport, and now I have no identification to prove that I am the one who purchased the flat I’ve bought.” He shook his head, irritated even by the thought. “So I simply cannot get inside it, but after all this time at sea I’m just dying for some home-cooked food.”
Charles nodded and sipped on his wine as he considered it, brows furrowed. If he took long enough to reply, maybe he would not have to do it at all.
“I mean”, Federline said, “it’s not much. It’s just a dinner.”
Charles looked at him from the corner of his eye and slowly bought the glass away from his mouth to the table. Would he be offered nothing in return?
“I suppose it’s only fair”, he said eventually.
Federline smiled gratefully, and this time Charles could swear he saw something more in that smile too. But it was not something he could name.
“Thank you”, Federline said. “I will, of course, make it up to you for that too.”
Charles scoffed and looked back out the window. “That was what I hoped.”
That was what he required.