It was 2017 and Harlequin was bored. He put aside his mask and carnival clothing and changed shape for fun.
Sitting in a Knightsbridge Costa, he checked over the girls chattering around him. Two blondes in Pashminas, long boots and flicking hair; No. A brunette; hair dye too dark, faux fur coat; constantly on her I-phone; No. The girl with red hair? She arrived carrying her Latte and searched for a seat. He looked up and smiled, moving along the bench seat to make room. At first, she glanced elsewhere but he had chosen carefully and kept space on his table. With a diffident smile, she sat down carefully placing her china mug on the table. He glanced at his Times and then caught her eye.
“Busy time–have you enough room?”
She murmured something in reply which he didn’t catch. He noticed her hands were long and thin and the way she held the drink, as if a precious thing, so delicate that it might break if she put it down.
“Much better in a china cup, don’t you think? I hate those plastic beakers!”
She looked at him for a second and nodded but she said nothing.
He lent forward, not too far but, just enough to engage her attention and try his best smile–the one he used to show his sincerity. His blue eyes gazed straight into her eyes.
“Can I ask you a question?” He spoke gently and he waited for her reply.
“What is it?” She looked back, curious.
“I have the feeling you are a musician,” he said, he held up his hand and smiled again–“don’t tell me yet! I want to know if you find that too intrusive.”
“I don’t mind,” she said and put the mug down on the table. “I’m just working in the Art Gallery in Montpellier Street, I’m no musician.”
He put on a grimace, showing his even white teeth as he bit his lip. “Oh Dear! I know you are artistic but certain you were musical!”
“How would you know that?”
“Because I’m a natural!” he laughed and ran his hand through his wavy blond hair. “I’m never totally wrong. You must have some connection with music.”
“Well, I sing in a choir at home but not down here.”
“I knew it, will you allow me to boast, if I say I was part right at least?”
She laughed and he noticed how the corners of her mouth lifted as she smiled exposing her neat white teeth and heart shaped lips.
He moved to leave. It was time to go; first step done. He folded his Times and stood up. She didn’t see him slip a paperback book onto the floor near her feet. He smiled again, said goodbye with a wave and made his way out into the Brompton Road. He moved away swiftly once he left the coffee bar, to make sure she could not catch him and return the book on the spot. That would be annoying. He had left his mobile number and assumed name on the fly leaf to set up the next move.
The afternoon went by slowly. He sauntered through Harrods, noting the glitzy displays and vulgarity which he deplored. Once or twice he marked an admiring glance from the glossy women as he wandered from one department to another but his mind strayed to the girl in the coffee bar. It would be more fun to corrupt her than spend time with some rich socialite accustomed to the vices he habitually abused. Sometimes he longed for the bawdy life of the Medici Popes and their rowdy catamites and licentious cardinals. These modern times were tame, but interesting.
On Friday of that week he spent the morning in the Art Galleries of New Bond Street, away from Knightsbridge, but full of the latest trends in expensive art. He bought catalogues for several upcoming exhibitions and studied them. At the Albemarle, he gave one of his cards to the receptionist.
“Yes Mr Harlekan, we will be open for you on Friday, of course.” He nodded and left.
On Monday, he scanned the Costa to see if she had returned. She had not rung him to return his book and he wondered if she might have missed it. He went in and sat at his usual place. The clientele seemed identical. He wondered if there was some time warp at work; the blondes and the covens of smart ladies chattering appeared to be the same. Then she walked in. Her auburn hair pinned up on top of her head and her long neck accentuated by pearl earrings. She looked round and saw him and smiled shyly. He waved to her to join him and she hesitated but gathered up her cup and came over.
“I wanted to catch you,” she said,” I found this book under the table last week. Is it yours?”
“Thank God! I am reviewing it for the Guardian,” he lied “I have a deadline!”
He asked her whether she had read it and she shook her head. She blushed and lowered her eyes in confusion. His eyes glinted with malicious delight as he saw the effect he created.
“No, I didn’t forget,” she said “I hoped to find you here again, so here it is.” She handed over the book without another word.
“Does this mean you forgive me for my intrusive questions?” He laughed and grinned easily to relieve her embarrassment. “Look, I am thrilled you thought of me and so kind of you to return the book yourself. You don’t know how much it means.”
She sipped her coffee and looked up at him for the first time. He liked her large green eyes and how the light from the room caught the deep red tints in her hair. She really was a prize.
When she got up to leave, he offered to walk with her the few hundred yards as far as Montpellier Street. They spoke about her work in the gallery and the exhibition on show there.
Look” he said “Can we meet some time this week? I’d like to show you a Paul Klee I’ve seen on the Albemarle Gallery, which I like. Would you come?”
“To buy?” She said.
“Yes, I have a small collection and enjoy adding to it.” He spoke as if it was a matter of minor interest and noted the effect when she opened her eyes with surprise
“Do come” he said “can you make Friday afternoon?”
“Well, yes I suppose. I could get away at about four.”
“It’s a date.” he said. “I’ll come round to the gallery and collect you. I’m James Harlekan, by the way”
They exchanged mobile numbers and he took her hand as he left, just a moment’s contact, but enough to signal his interest. She gave a brief wave and he walked away. The smile on his face was not one he wanted her to see.
Friday morning he chose some expensive jeans and a cashmere polo neck for the occasion. He spent the late morning and lunch at his club and decided to walk through Green Park to Montpellier Street. It was a warm day and the silky air reminded him of other times. Like the day he seduced the Duchess of Alba in 1576-or was it 1578?–and killed the Duke in a duel the following morning. The summer days with Nero at his palace with the Nubian Princesses; what fun there had been and such fearful consequences! Modern times were much quieter but still, there were pleasures to be had.
She was waiting outside the gallery when he arrived. He hurried forward.
“I walked through the park and forgot the time, I’m so sorry!” “Well, we close early on Friday. Most people have gone away for the week end.” People, meant the wealthy Knightsbridge crowd.
They took a taxi to Piccadilly and chatted on the way about favourite painters. She adored Hockney and disagreed about Francis Bacon and they arrived at Albemarle Street in a few minutes. A young man was waiting for them. “I hope we haven’t kept you. Most people want to get away on Friday afternoon.”
Harlequin offered his hand and the smart-suited fresh faced young man semi-bowed.
“We always have time for an enthusiastic client.” He said and showed the way into the gallery. It was carpeted with fine rugs and the room breathed a mellow atmosphere of luxury. Fine French empire furniture mixed with a few modern pieces decorated the floor and they were conducted through into the gallery itself where an elderly man with a goatee beard awaited them. He wore a grey suit and a Hurlingham Club Tie with its purple garish colours. As if he had known him for years, he greeted Harlequin, pressing his arm in a familiar way.
Champagne and canapes were laid out on a Pembroke table and they were helped to them by the younger man. It was amusing to see the antics of these mortals with their minor cupidity, prostrating themselves for money. Under soft spot light, two paintings, mounted on easels, caught the eye with dazzling colours splashed across the canvas.
“So fine,” said the elegant older man, “he took several years to recover from the war, you know.”
“But his output was prodigious,” said Harlekan, “I prefer his later work and I’m looking for smaller late pieces for my collection.”
The old man nodded sagely, “Yes, I understand, so much more sophisticated, would you say?”
“Agreed.” He turned to Jane “What do you feel from these two? Do they resonate with you?”
She said “They are museum pieces, not for a small private collection, if I am allowed to say so.”
“Of course you can, dear lady, you show a very wise judgement, if I may say so.” The old man smiled at her with gritted teeth.
“Anything later?” Harlekan dismissed the two masterpieces with a wave of his hand.
“Well, we are sure to have something to intrigue you within the next few weeks.”
Harlequin smiled at this. He recalled the old men in the souks on Casablanca used the same phrase when they had nothing appealing to sell.
“By all means let me know while I am in London.” He offered his hand and wished them both good day.
“What conceit!” he said as he escorted Jane across Piccadilly. “Let’s wash the taste away with tea in Fortnum’s”
She laughed and was relieved that he had valued her opinion and agreed with it. Soon they were chatting freely and time passed quickly.
“I suppose you have plans to go down to the country this week end?” he dangled the prospect of further meetings with a smile which quickened her heart.
She blushed and Harlequin noted the charming colour that came to her cheeks. For a single second he felt a twinge of compassion for this immaculate young woman, but the impulse to torment and win was too strong to resist. He took her hand and held it gently. ”
I can’t imagine what is happening to me” he said “I feel as if we’ve known each other for a long time, yet there are so many things I want to learn about you.”
She looked into his wide blue eyes and left her hand in his while he spoke.
“Could we meet again soon?”
“I don’t know what to say” she said, “we are strangers; I suppose yes,” -here she looked down–I would like that too.”
He held her hand for a second then released it.. He busied himself with the tea things, making sure he was inept so she would take over. Predictably, she enjoyed the simple task and he smiled appreciatively.
“Well, am I too pressing if I ask, would like to go to see the new film at the Academy tomorrow night?”
She smiled, “I’d love to. I wanted to catch it and haven’t had a chance.”
“That’s wonderful,” he said and dropped the subject for the moment.
They talked about her family in Wiltshire; Daddy at the stud farm and mother as a JP in the local magistrate court. Then he told her lies about his foreign background and banking interests which kept him travelling most of the year. She accepted all of it and he enjoyed the fantasy as she gazed at him with innocent credulous eyes. When the time came to leave, he hailed a taxi and she gave her address in South Ken. On the way, he made arrangements to pick her up at seven for the show at nine p.m. He gave her a peck on the cheek as she left the cab and she waved as he pulled away.
He was comfortable. Pleased with progress, he gave the cabbie instructions to drop him at Shepherd’s Market off Park Lane. This was an area he had known since Georgian Times. Of course it had changed! But the gambling houses and high class brothels still flourished. Just the clientele was different. Instead of dandies in silken hose and blowsy tarts, there were Arabs with limitless cash and their entourages. The girls were different too; cleaner and more luxurious.
He knocked at the door of number *** and a black man opened the door carefully, then he smiled broadly.
“Welcome back Mr Harlekan. Good to see you! Your usual table?”
“Thank you Bob, can you get me some company?” He spent the rest of the night with two beautiful Russian girls and plenty of white powder to sustain him. Strangely, in the still moments of the highs, he felt it was all too familiar, too repetitive and stale. He left at three o’clock and made his way back to Albany off Piccadilly to sleep a dreamless sleep. He awoke at four in the afternoon and ruminated on what to wear and how to arrange his evening entertainment. His flat had been furnished to his taste. He had always enjoyed the voluptuous silks and colourful drapes from the Ottoman palaces of Persia. They brought back memories of exotic nights, wild escapades and perfumed women, captives for pleasure. He ordered new sheets of silk and chilled champagne for the evening. Then he bathed and chose his clothes with care.
At seven precisely, he arrived at her door, a single rose in his hand. She stood in the doorway and held it like a precious jewel marvelling at its glowing colour.
“It’s a summer rose from Provence,” he said “I sent specially for you.”
She smiled and offered her cheek shyly as gesture of thanks.
His heart gave a strange skip. What was wrong? He ignored it.
She wore a simple dress of plain blue with a belt of black leather around her slim waist. Her hair was loose and as she moved it flowed around her pale face in a glossy wave. He handed her into the cab and he watched her graceful figure as she sat besides him. Something was wrong. His fingers tremored as he sat alongside her; he gripped the door handle of the cab to steady himself. She chatted excitedly about the film and never noticed how silent he was. When they reached The Curzon, he got out first. He felt better as he touched the ground. Nothing to worry about, then.
The film was a black comedy created by some avant-garde Italian director. She laughed in all the right places and he enjoyed the fact that they both saw the crux of the film in unison. At I one point, she rested her head against his shoulder and her soft scented hair brushed against his cheek. It was a gesture he had never felt before–a natural touch, not a deliberate move as he had done a thousand times before. Something strange and yet exciting. Again, the little throb made his heart beat out of time. He became a little dizzy and sweat gathered on his forehead. He wiped it away and sat upright. She touched his hand, concerned,
“Are you alright?” she said, “you seem uneasy?”
“No. I’m fine. It’s just a little hot in here.”
It soon passed and they enjoyed the rest of the film. As they left, she took his arm naturally and he sensed the warmth of her body next to his as they strolled towards Piccadilly. It felt good and he returned her smile as they made their way among the Saturday night crowds enjoying the late summer evening. “Where are we going?” She asked “I thought you might like a bite to eat at Albany, it should be fun on a warm evening.”
“Where’s that? I haven’t heard of it. Is it a restaurant?”
“Well not exactly, just the most special place that few people in London know about.”
He smiled his special dazzling smile and tucked in her arm protectively.
“Wait and see.”
The Albany is set back from Piccadilly in a courtyard with elaborate gates away from the bustling street. Built as apartments in the early nineteenth century, it remains, perhaps, the most exclusive address in London. A uniformed porter saluted as they came in to the oval courtyard and Jane wondered how she had missed the elegant building which she must have passed a hundred times. Lights gleamed from behind doors of mahogany and glass; beyond were Persian carpets and gleaming brass fittings.
Jane stiffened a little as she wondered at the luxury of the scene. She had imagined some dining Club with a noisy society crowd but this was all in exquisite taste but so silent and dignified, a little daunting.
“Come and see where I live.” He said and threw open the door to his apartment. They walked in and she gazed at the opulent drapes and bright colours of the room with some surprise. It was exotic and luxurious at the same time; as if she had passed out of modern London into a world of Arabian Nights.
“It’s fascinating,” she said and he took her arm and guided her to one of the sofas arranged around the fireplace.
“I can be lonely here,” he said, “but it suits me, I have to write, you know.”
He spoke as if it was a burden that weighed him down, “Deadlines can be a curse!
” He took up a phone on a side table and rang for room service. Without consulting her, he ordered cold salmon with mayonnaise and thin white bread.
“Are you hungry?” he smiled and kissed her hair as he passed by on the way to the kitchen. She felt nervous but excited.
“Yes, I’m famished!”
He returned with a bottle of dry sherry, cold from the fridge and poured two tall glasses of the pale yellow wine. They drank and discussed the film while waiting for the meal. Gradually, she relaxed and began to enjoy the ambience of luxury and isolation which the apartment provided. When the meal arrived, they both ate with appetite and laughed a lot.
Harlequin joined her on the sofa as he filled her glass a second time and helped her to more food. She sat close to him and afterwards, he played a little on the piano in the alcove of the room. She told him how much she enjoyed it and asked him to play something romantic.
“Will you come and sit beside me, to inspire me?” He said and he recalled a night when he had seduced one of Edward the Seventh’s mistresses in this very apartment with the same ploy. He had to leave London for a season as a result, but the scandal had been worth it.
She did sit next to the piano stool and he had the chance to see her in the warm lamplight. Her hair was soft and waved in a natural way unlike the sophisticated styles of the women he was used to. Her skin was radiant, but with a glow of good health and her green eyes reflected the light in such a way that he saw his own reflection clearly in them.
He began to play something he recalled but could not remember its name; she got up and danced, moving gently to the rhythm. “I know this,” she said “It’s Ivor Novello.”
He watched her as he played, her feet tracing a delicate pattern across the carpeted floor; she was enchanting. She had the grace and a lightness of spirit which only existed in an innocent soul and was spellbinding. He played on with some difficulty but his mind began to falter. He gasped for breath and his fingers would not follow his commands.
She stopped dancing immediately and ran to him. He stumbled from the piano and she helped him to the sofa. His face was ash grey and he sat back against her arm as she cradled him. “What happened?” She cried “Is there something I can do?”
He shook his head, although his mind was in turmoil. He knew what the trouble was affecting him. “You must go,” he said, “Forgive me, I have to be alone tonight. Can you ask the porter for a cab?”
“But I must stay; I can’t leave you like this!”
He moaned, with every word she said. He writhed with pain and she trembled as she held him in her arms, feeling desperate to do something to help. He knew that every minute she stayed would be like a torment. Her innocence and untouched beauty was like a caustic poison scorching his soul. He turned his face away and felt the transformation begin.
“Go! I said go!”
He looked down and the shame of deceit welled up inside him. She hesitated, uncertain how to deal with this stern unexpected order. Gathering all his strength, he stood and turned towards her.
“Now GO! The Comedy is over!”
She shrank at the sight of his face. A mask covered his eyes and his face was a pallid narrow shape with painted lips and pointed teeth. His head was covered in a black skull cap and he stared with a luminous glare. Then he crouched down on the floor and sobbed.
He knew that whatever pain he inflicted, he suffered eternally; knowing pure innocence was sublime and unobtainable.