Nell at Rachel’s
Round the walls of the ballroom were naked white marble statues which embraced each other beneath the frondy wreathes they had been decked with.
Driving up from Oxford in my small and explosive Frazer Nash BMW motor, I had been late. ‘The debutante world ...,’ I wrote, ‘to arrive late at a crowded dinner, to watch the moon from a balcony above Mayfair. Underneath the taxis throng, like darkened glow-worms.
‘The young women wear off the shoulder or deep decolletage fancy dresses. We were accidentally dropping down splashes of champagne onto the heads of those below.’
Robin David, a rakish friend from Monmouthshire, had recently remarked to me about such debutante dances, ‘I feel like a gundog going mad as he finds himself in the middle of a field of plump partridges.’
‘Fiona O’Neil, with whom I am dancing, throws her head back and I do the same and we watch the gilt ceiling whirling majestically above us.’
This was to be my second meeting with Nell, at a dance given for Rachel Rodd at Londonderry House, a Georgian mansion that overlooked Mayfair where the Hilton now giddily towers.
Rachel, according to my journal, was wearing a small black top hat and black cloak, over blinding white lace. ‘In a staccato manner she plays upon a small wreathed hunting horn.’
Standing a few yards from me beneath a white marble statue was Nell, who I did not recognise at once as the young woman to whom I’d shown my bath/bed at Folly Bridge a few months before. Nell was gazing at me with roguish slightly slanting lashes and pouting with shocking salmon pink lips. I went up to talk to her, even though I could not at once recollect where I had seen her before. ‘She is dressed,’ I wrote, ‘in fluffy pink with little black bows. Her breasts are not clamped together by an unfeeling bodice but plump apart and free like a maenaid on a Grecian vase; (X) not manacled but liberated, unchained. She’s a pagan. She’s breathing freedom’s air. She always, she tells me, goes barefoot when she can. She troubles me with her steadfast gaze.’
The pink tongue and pearly lips of this pagan were also soon adding even more to this generally striking effect by offering words of revolutionary freedoms to be won and shackles to be unbound.
‘Where do you live?’ Nell demanded. When I told her, she asked, ‘Are there any secret places there where ammunition could be hidden?’
There is a first time for everything and this was the first time a young woman, or indeed anyone, had volunteered the concealment of ammunition as an opening subject for discussion. Communism was a powerful ideology in the world of that time, and it was probably high time I acquired a point of view about it. Nell’s question indicated from the start that my friendship with her was likely to occupy an unusual niche in my life. Eager to impress, I remembered the cellars prepared by my father in case of air raids or enemy invasion and the underground ammunition dump I had accidentally discovered.
Nell was delighted. ‘Could you lay your hands on four or five places like that?’ she asked. I said I could and invited her to come down to Eye to inspect them. ‘Good. It’s for the revolution, of course,’ she responded.
‘Which revolution?’ I feel a sense of embarrassment now at the extent of my ignorance at that time of matters national and international. I was not aware at that time of any revolution being about to happen.
‘The workers’ revolution,’ replied this radiant and impeccable child of the privileged classes, with only a tiny note of disdain in her voice at her realisation that it was not obvious to me.
The ball we were at would have cost more than most manual workers’ annual salary and, although I did not at that time see things like that, I was not sure whether or not she was teasing me. As our conversation continued I learned that she was on a short leave of absence from a Paris convent where she was learning French, and had recently been accepted as a member of the communist party. Through her revolutionary contacts she’d come to learn that the revolution against the bourgeoisie would be happening much sooner than many people realised.
‘I go back to Paris tomorrow,’ she continued, after explaining this to me. ‘Meanwhile you could keep looking for good hiding places.’ A slight downward gaze beneath long lashes and a winning pout from her pink lips accompanied the innuendo that something as well as the workers revolution might just involved here. That, who knows, circumstances might result in her and me having to share together one of these dark hiding places.
Soon, she continued, her term would be over. In the autumn she would be back in London for good. ‘Why don’t you telephone me then, with news of progress?’ With another pout and a full frontal gaze from her light blue eyes, she added, ‘When the revolution happens, it’s most important to be on the right side, you see. And I know you are, or will be.’
It was later than I had noticed. Withdrawing my entranced gaze from her for a moment I saw that the ballroom was being dismantled around us, the band had packed up and many people were leaving. ‘There’s one further thing to do,’ said Nell, but now I think she was teasing me. From around the garlanded statues she picked up armfuls of roses. ‘These are for camouflage,’ she said, pressing armfuls of the thorny blooms against her breasts. She went out to get her coat and I arrived back at my car to find its back seat had been filled with them.
But can they really have been roses? Possibly they were some less thorny species, especially as Nell’s bare shoulders were only partly protected by a small fur cape. Most of the floral decorations flew off the car as I drove her. The streets were empty of traffic or they might have caused a traffic hazard.
We made a reconnaissance visit to a cemetary, among whose urns and vaults Nell wandered, until she finally paused at a dank vault at the bottom of fern fringed stairs. This she declared, lowering her voice, as a suitable place for ammunition storage.
We sat side by side in the open car. I closed the roof over her. At the edge of the cemetary she lay in my arms. An electric van clattered by. A convoy of geese passed overhead. Her lashes flickered a moment as she turned to kiss me, gazing from eyes that contained the infinite blue of mediterranean skies and fathomless seas.
Then, ‘You must take me home now,’ she said. ‘I promised my father I’d be back by midnight. That doesn’t matter. What is important is that I’ve got to get out of these things and pack my books and catch the morning train to Paris.’
‘I’ll take you to the train.’
‘No, I’d better let him take me. He likes to do that. Just take me back home now. To Eaton Square.’
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