Towards the Decent Inn

VIII

By Michael Arram

In the cold December morning, a taxi was ticking outside the house. They hugged Paul out of sight of the street, and warned him not to have any wild parties when they were gone. He looked disconsolate, and made them swear to send postcards.

Then they were out into the morning mist, and headed for the central station. They found their sagging standard class seats facing across a stained table in a dilapidated train. But dilapidated or not, the train got them to the airport direct and only slightly late. Andy got off cursing, he'd been sitting on some discarded chewing gum and his trousers were ruined. 'Shit. Why is there no liquid nitrogen when you need it?'

A toy-like monorail shuttle took them to the airport, a process which Matt found a little exciting. They were entering a world in transit: a sleek and glittering international world of duty free shops, flight magazines and bureaux de change. The cold air was full of the sweet smell of jet exhaust and the airport approaches below them were full of chattering sunseekers and trolleys stacked with cases. A pale sun was low in the yellow sky. They followed the package tourists into the terminal, a little unsure of what to do next. They scanned the battery of signs without finding any clue. At last they found a policeman, a machine gun slung over his shoulder, and nervously asked for the private jets. He looked askance at them; Andy was wearing an aged brown dufflecoat and a black ski hat, with his hair erupting from under it, while Matt was in his ex-GDR battledress. But he'd seen odder things and escorted them round to a side entrance, where they found a marked door.

Inside, a uniformed pilot and a steward were leaning on a counter, talking to an immigration officer. The pilot looked over as they entered, snapped upright and smiled broadly. He offered his hand to Andy and Matt. They were disconcerted to be called 'Sir' in a cosmopolitan American accent by such a cool, tanned and handsome man. Matt at least felt like a little kid next to him. Andy coped better, with his background. After all, his dad owned the plane and paid the pilot. Their bags were promptly and smilingly taken off them by the male steward, who contrived not to look patronising. They were briskly questioned and their passports inspected. Then they were ushered through a further door and directly out of the terminal.

They were in a great windswept space. Somewhere nearby in the misty air jet engines were screaming and roaring as big planes took to the air. The pilot walked them across an apron to where three jets were lined up in front of a hangar. The largest, painted in white with a red and brown stripe and an elaborate logo on the tail fin, had a stair lowered to the ground and they walked up into the cabin.

The boys looked around in suppressed excitement. Everything was brown leather and chrome, wide seats were set along the fuselage, with tables between them. There was an indefinable scent of wealth about the carpeted cabin; everything was new and spotless. A small fitted kitchen was at the back. A bar was towards the cockpit. The captain seated them deferentially and filled them in on the flight details, asking when they'd like dinner served. The steward was already at work clinking glasses and bottles and setting up a drinks tray at the bar. The captain disappeared with a promise to update them as soon as he had a time for take off.

Matt heaved a sigh, 'Well this takes me through Alice's mirror into Wonderland.' This was indeed a different world. He accepted a cold Mexican beer. Andy took an orange juice, the steward removed their coats to a secret cupboard of his own. They looked at the stuffed olives on their table, Matt took one, bit into it and gagged. 'It's vile.'

Left alone they looked at each other, dazed. Andy looked reluctantly pleased with himself. 'You should see first class.'

'So how did you get over there last time?' Matt asked.

'Just scheduled flight. Dad must have got fed up with timetables.'

British and US newspapers had been loaded on to a table, and Matt began to explore the vast bulk of a New York Times. He looked back at Andy.

'I can't believe this. From student poverty to the jetset in just two hours.'

'Yes, and just remember you've still got a nasty hole in that pair of socks you're wearing.'

'Just an idle question. How did the captain know who you were without asking?'

'Ah well, when you've met Dad you'll realise. It's the hair and the colouring. We all look like this, even my half brothers and half sister.'

The captain's deferential voice informed them that they'd been cleared for take off, and he'd be grateful if they fastened their seatbelts. The engines began to whine louder and the plane slowly moved out towards a runway. Take off was exhilarating and as the plane banked they saw the grey mass of Birmingham lying below. Matt pointed out the massive Bull Ring redevelopment. The plane climbed swiftly and levelled out above the thin clouds. Soon they were reclining in a bright sunlit cabin with the airconditioning whispering and the sound of the engines now a low rumble. The intercom gave them their height, flight path and time of arrival in New York.

Dinner was at one, and it was quite superb, at least for two poverty-line nineteen-year-olds more used to Macdonalds and canned beans. The cutlery was hallmarked silver, the napery bright white Irish linen and the plates were Doulton all with the same logo as the one on the plane's tail fin. The steward withdrew after clearing up and they were alone. Andy closed the door on him and asked not to be disturbed until tea at three. They stood and stared down at the blue enamelled sea over 40,000 feet below. Andy thought he saw a ship. Matt hugged him tightly; excited, bothered and quite bewildered.

At three they were sitting chastely in the cabin watching a current DVD on a big screen. Andy was swinging his legs barefoot, a pose Matt always found very erotic, which was probably why Andy did it; he was certainly shooting meaningful glances at him. Andy was always ready for it, and the more danger the better. But tea and fresh sandwiches arrived promptly on a silver tray with a big silver teapot and some obviously expensive porcelain. The sun stayed high, for they were chasing it round the globe. The steward also brought a Fedex package for Andy. When he had gone Andy opened it and found a brief letter from his father, accompanied by a very substantial amount of US dollars and a platinum debit card in his own name.

'Dad wants us to take a few days and see New York. He's booked us a suite at the Seneca because he thinks we'll find it culturally interesting, as we're students.'

'No problem. It's not where I'd usually stay, but I'll put up with it.'

'Haha, Matt.' Andy paused and looked serious. 'Can you just listen a minute. I've lived a not very well off life, probably a lot less well off than you in some ways, and I've felt it more because I know exactly who my father is and what he's done to mum. The best way to deal with it is not to let it get to you. Understand? Weird though it is, this is normal for now, but believe me, it'll soon be over. Once dad has scored his points against mum, I'll be packed off back into obscurity. He's never showed much interest in me except when it was convenient. He's pretty much indifferent to what I do and where I live.'

Matt was silenced, and muttered he was sorry. But Andy stayed silent and withdrawn, his legs drawn up to his chest, clasping them around his ankles.

The pilot informed them that they were approaching the coastline of Nova Scotia. They looked down on the waste of rocks and frozen lakes below; desolate, but with narrow white roads snaking endlessly across the landscape, which must be leading somewhere. After an hour or so the woods and small towns of New England began appearing and at last they arrowed out across Long Island Sound with New Haven far below, a fact the pilot pointed out. In half an hour the grey towers of New York appeared on their right, other distant planes flashing in the sunlight as they got into the landing queue for Kennedy.

The landing was a little more bumpy than Matt liked. He hoped it was just because of the jet being smaller than the big Boeings and Airbuses. But he thanked the crew nicely when they left. The steward had their shabby bags ready as the reached the concrete. He still managed to look unembarrassed about them.

Matt felt like a film star; he only wished he possessed a decent pair of shades. The private terminal was a large lot scattered with many parked corporate jets, some a lot bigger than the Peacher Global 5000. A car was already waiting on the apron; the pilot had radioed on ahead. They drove off through the jets and under one of the main terminals. Curious-looking airport vehicles were moving everywhere. Eventually the car dropped them at an aluminium side door leading into the Immigration Hall. They cleared the formalities quickly; Matt's visa waiver was in order, in fact the steward had helped him with it. A waiting driver at Arrivals with a card displaying the Peacher logo led them out through the concourse to a ramp where a big black BMW was waiting. People turned to stare at them as the driver loaded their bags in the trunk. Soon they were speeding through Queens towards Brooklyn.

The car was brand new and expensively upholstered. It eased through the traffic with effortless power. In New York it was a frosty early afternoon and the horizons were clouded. The East River was a leaden grey below the Brooklyn Bridge. They gasped at the Manhattan skyline and whooped when they saw the Empire State Building. The streams of yellow cabs, the sidewalks crowded with overcoated figures, the steaming subway vents and the glass canyons of the streets were exhilarating. 'I'm in a film! I'm in a film!' thought Matt. The driver was enjoying their excitement and offered a commentary. He took them up the East Side and they gawked at the UN building. Then he circled round through a leafless Central Park and down along Madison Avenue to Midtown. They tipped him fifty dollars and he took it from them graciously.

The hotel was a bit too self-conscious of its literary past they thought, but comfortable enough. The lobby was a mass of tiny Christmas lights, running up the heavy Edwardian pillars and netting the potted plants. The Peacher name called up great reservoirs of deference to young Mr Andrew. And the need for deference was underlined by the presence of a young, suited executive of his father's New York office waiting at the desk to make sure Andy had arrived comfortably. They shook hands and he welcomed them to New York. He left his card and what he called a cell phone, for Mr Peacher's use. Porters competed discretely to take their bags up to the suite. Andy had to decide on the appropriate tip, and it was obvious from the porter's face that he had undershot considerably, 'But it would have fed us for a fortnight,' he protested to Matt.

They sat on Andy's bed surrounded by snacks summoned from room service, watching the cheesy wonders of US television till they fell asleep on each other's shoulders, fighting jetlag as long as they were able. Matt woke in the early morning, with Andy curled up next to him and the TV still on. He splashed his face in the bathroom, turned off the TV and then sneaked through to his own room, and tried to sleep again, listening to the hum of night traffic and howl of sirens in the streets below.

A priority was shopping. Neither of them was all that fond of it, but Andy knew what he liked and knew what they had to get and couldn't have afforded in Britain. He also had that useful public schoolboy quality of politely, but obviously, expecting people to fall in with his wishes, which made him formidable to shop workers. It made Matt envious sometimes. So they hit the shops of Fifth and Madison Avenues, with no thought of economy, determined to test Andy's card to the limit. They bought dark and very expensive winter coats for New York and summer and formal gear for California; Matt was particularly keen on pairs of American-style board shorts Andy had found. They also stacked up on tee-shirts, designer jeans and many other items, a lot of them intended for Paul. New sunglasses, shoes and trainers and some decent and capacious extra luggage with wheels completed their purchases. There didn't seem to be any limit on Andy's new card. They could look at the most elite labels in Barney's without flinching.

The sky was now a brownish grey low over the spires of Manhattan, and a gritty snow began whirling down as they took a taxi back to the Seneca, stinging their faces as they got out. As they sat sipping English tea in the art-deco lounge, they watched the snow filling the streets of the great city outside, churned up to a grey mush by the grinding traffic. Andy had bought a peaked hunter's cap with ear flaps, which he was playing with, in between Elmer Fudd impersonations. Matt was writing a stack of post cards to Paul and to his family, with a pile of stamps reception had given him. The staff smiled at them, and were attentive. Guests sat next to them and chatted. They were as charming as only young British men can be, and older ladies seemed to find them perfectly irresistible.

At the manager's recommendation they had booked into a restaurant high above Sixth Avenue. They dressed up in their best new clothes and Andy summoned a limousine. The snow had stopped and the clouds had lifted. The vast grid of the city lights spread out on every side. The stars were hard and brilliant in the black sky high above the city lights. It was a stunning sight, and they had a window seat. Dinner was sumptuous and they thought they recognised several faces on the other tables, but couldn't put names to them. Andy showed the bill to Matt as he signed it, and giggled. Two days earlier they had been thinking of a curry as an occasional extravagance.

'You know, this is our first proper date,' said Matt. 'Just like Sleepless in Seattle, innit?'

'What, you mean that bit when Meg Ryan realises she's engaged to the wrong man?' laughed Andy. They gazed across at the Empire State Building, not too far away, red lights blinking.

The next day they spent the morning in the warmth of the Met, but hardly got seriously started on the galleries. After an excellent lunch they took the subway down to Wall Street, which seemed weirdly small scale and European, apart from the Stars and Stripes everywhere. They picked up the ferry to Liberty Island among the crowds at the Battery, and Matt was astonished that the Statue of Liberty was a sickening bright green. 'It's copper,' Andy said. 'I thought everyone knew that.'

'I always assumed it was stone. Statues are stone. It's a rule.'

'I'm not sure you've got that right. Anyway this one's green.'

'Perhaps they painted it green,' said Matt hopefully. He was disappointed that it was closed and they couldn't climb up, so they strolled round the island park though the melting snow admiring the looming skyline of Manhattan across the harbour as the lights came up, and decided that it was one of the more impressive sights this world can offer. The sun was red and low, so they headed back across the dark and choppy waters of New York Harbor, chatting happily with the other tourists.

The same car was waiting outside early next morning, and a respectful call from the desk summoned them to the lobby.

'Good stay, sirs?' asked the driver, and he really seemed interested. They returned to Kennedy where the jet was already waiting to take off. The same captain smilingly ushered them up the steps. He assured them that they'd be in Santa Barbara within seven hours.

'Everyone's so nice to you when you're rich,' Matt reflected.

'It's what you pay for. The trick in life is to get everyone to be nice to you when you aren't rich.'

'Not so easy, I think.'

Andy looked sidelong at him, 'People are nice to you, Matt.'

'I hadn't noticed that they were.'

'You've got a lot of friends back home, you just sort of acquire them in your Matt-like way. It's not a gift I've got, I know. It's your looks, Matt; that's your currency. It buys you a head start in any relationship. People just want you to smile at them. It's devastating when you do. The first time I caught your smile, I went weak at the knees. Receptionists just swoon when you lean over their desk. That dowager in the Seneca all but fainted when you gave her a hand with her bag.'

'Maybe. You get less welcome attention too, believe me. I daren't go near a public loo.'

'There are disadvantages if you're rich too. They knew who my father was when I was at school, and just how rich he was. You couldn't have a normal relationship with any other kid there. Most of the nice ones were distant, they didn't want to seem as though they were toadying up to you. But the ones who did suck up to you, you couldn't trust. I only felt on equal terms when I was on the soccer field. The teachers were no better. Some of them were nasty to me just to prove that they weren't intimidated by my dad's wealth.'

'My poor Andy.'

'It really will be poor Andy if it ever gets round the university, believe me. I've been there and done that, and I don't want to go through it again.'

This flight they spent mostly glued to the cabin windows, as they watched all of America unroll below them. They found a big US atlas in the cabin and used it to attempt to follow their course; it was more fun than asking the pilot. It was clear skies once they had crossed the Adirondacks. The captain invited them into the cockpit as they crossed the great Mississipi at St Louis. Matt achieved a childhood ambition and sat in the co-pilot's seat and learned the controls. They profusely thanked the crew, which seemed very pleased at the politeness. Matt wondered if Mr Peacher senior was as polite. He began feeling nervous about the coming meeting.

But it was exciting as they came down over the arid Santa Ynez mountains and saw the blue of the Pacific with the mountainous Channel Islands on the horizon. They had already changed into summer gear in flight: shorts and light sweaters. At the municipal airport they walked out of the plane and into the fragrant warmth of southern California's perpetual summer. Tall palms, like upright giant dishmops, and high coastal mountains loomed everywhere. The sky was a glorious blue. Sunglasses protected their eyes from the piercing light.

'Dad lives up there.' Andy pointed at a line of large sprawling mansions in the brush-covered hills above the city.

They were walked across the apron, the steward and co-pilot carrying their bags. A car with a uniformed driver was waiting close by, and they were swept up to the hills above the beautiful city. Elaborate iron gates opened when a security man had checked their identity, and they climbed up a short conifer-lined drive paved in brick. They came out on a plateau high over the city, with a big blue pool to one side and a long low Spanish-style mansion on the other, with a ravine to the east. The neat green lawns were bordered with box and privet. The line of the Pacific spread out to east and west with the red roofs of the city below. Three brown, white-haired kids were running round the pool, shrieking. They stopped and stared when the car stopped, there was a shout of 'Andy!!!' and they ran up. Matt smiled as the younger pair, boy and girl twins of about nine, hugged their big brother round the waist. The other hung back a bit. There was a definite resemblance between all four siblings, particularly in the sheafs of blond hair and the bright blue eyes.

'Hi!' smiled Matt. 'Hi!' the eldest replied shortly. Andy gave him a hug, and he submitted to the attention, although not too happily. He must have been going on for twelve, and perhaps felt he was too old for the kid treatment.

'Matt, these are the twins, Edward and Harriet, my brother and sister'

'Ed and Harry!' they contradicted in shrill young American voices.

'And this is Peter.' Hmm, thought Matt, Peter Peacher; a name to suffer from. Perhaps he had a middle name.

Peter said, as the eldest present and in command, 'Dad and mom are going to be back at three. Carlos knows where you and your friend are to sleep. Ed, go and get Carlos.'

The younger boy skipped off, to be followed back by a short man in a black coat who ushered them into a cool marble hall, with an incongruously large sculpted fireplace which Matt doubted was ever used. It looked like it had been salvaged from a much older building. A tall lit-up Christmas tree was in one corner, and hundreds of lights were artfully placed round the big room.

They left their bags on the steps outside, Andy had fallen insensibly into the role of super-rich kid with servants to worry about such things. They would handle the unpacking. And Matt suddenly realised, as he should have done long before, that this was exactly what Andy was. However stingy and alienated Andy's dad was, and however disadvantaged Andy was now, there would come a time when his incalculable wealth would descend on his children, and Andy was his eldest son. It was not a reflection that Matt liked to dwell on. It gave a taint of mortality to their relationship.

Dad and the Stepmom, as Andy called her, arrived a little late driving in a big white Mercedes, which drew up at the door with a great crunching of gravel. Matt and Andy were at a long picture window overlooking the city and ocean with an iced tea brought them by Carlos. Andy's Dad was a burlier version of his son, with receding but still blond hair. When he shook Matt's hand and welcomed him, Matt was surprised to hear a still intact standard English accent. His present wife was by contrast unmistakeably American, a tall and very elegant woman in her mid thirties. They were both expensively dressed, and had apparently been to a charity function in the city.

Andy and his father were fairly friendly but did not hug, and like his American siblings Andy called him 'Sir'. The Stepmom, whose name was explained to be Ellie Marquesa Peacher, was actually more physical, gaving Andy an embrace and a warm double kiss, and soon had them at ease and laughing. Andy's father's name, which he urged on Matt, was Richard. Matt looked the twelfth richest man in the world over carefully. He was clearly a man of some intellectual intensity. He was determined to explain at length the urban development of Santa Barbara from their vantage point, and he did not seem quite to understand his wife's playful and subversive allusions, although he was tolerant of them.

The adults were to go out to dinner at a seafood restaurant on the boardwalk. There was apparently a dress code, but Richard Peacher didn't think that Andy and Matt, being British, would be penalised. Andy explained that they had slacks, ties and jackets with them, an announcement that seemed to please his father as it was taken to be evidence of forethought and efficiency.

Matt and Andy spent a couple of hours in and around the pool, being regularly splashed by Ed and Harry. Peter had disappeared. At six-thirty they were waiting as the big car drew up and the driver held the doors open. Matt was in the back with Andy and the Stepmom. Richard sat in the front, busy with his cell phone. The restaurant was on a converted pier off the boardwalk. They were welcomed into the lower floor and escorted past a short queue. Inside Richard greeted numerous diners as he passed through the tables, introducing Andy to a variety of tanned, overweight middle-aged men and their thin, younger wives as his son, currently in university in England.

They were seated at an open window, with the calm Pacific pale blue in the sunset, the Channel Islands purple on the darkening horizon, the last of the sun red on the tops of the mountains. A cool and fragrant breeze blew in off the sea below them. Yachts of all sizes rocked at their moorings. The meal was amazing, as Matt had to admit, even though he wasn't that keen on seafood. Matt and Andy amused the Stepmom very much with tales of student squalor in England. Her laughter rang out delightfully over the hum and clink of the restaurant. Matt caught her out once looking appraisingly at her husband, but he couldn't work out the significance of the look.

It was dark, and dim stars were visible as they left the restaurant and found the car and driver patiently waiting. In the hall, they separated and said their good nights. Matt furtively kissed Andy at his door, and retired alone. It was unspoken but agreed that they would be celibate for the next week.

The week passed agreeably enough. A car would take them down into the city, and they would wander the streets between the boardwalk and the university, sampling the bars and cafés. The beach was amazing, and they watched a pageant of tanned beauty and tight butts strolling, cycling, jogging and skating along the boards laid across the sand. Late one evening, Andy dragged Matt into a gay strip joint they had spotted, circled round and dared each other to enter. They furtively paid the admission price, and lurked at the bar as a procession of oiled and muscled Californians stripped, pouted, and simulated sex. They felt very daring, but the drinks were exorbitant. Two young Santa Barbarians in tight tee shirts and shorts attempted to chat them up, screaming with amusement at their cute accents: 'You girls Australian?' They were not tempted.

Andy suggested that they should dance; he liked dancing, he was coordinated and did not have Matt's hangups about looking silly. This once, Matt couldn't think of any reason why not, so they stood up and Andy led him by his hand on to the floor, where other male couples were smooching. It felt weird for a while, but as long as the music was intimate and slow, they fitted together, and Andy moved well against him, his head on his shoulder. Matt found himself enjoying the experience a lot more than usual. When the beat increased they sat down, smiling shyly at each other. Somehow, a boundary had been crossed, although Matt couldn't quite work out what it had been.

They hired cycles and pedalled out to UCSB on its promontory at Isla Vista, looking to compare the American university experience.

'Fancy being in a university where it never rains and it's always summer?' asked Matt.

'They get fog, a lot. But it hasn't rained here in ten years. Dad's neighbours were burned out by a bush fire only last year. Some idiot threw a cigarette off his patio, and the next thing anyone knew twenty-foot flames were roaring back towards the house. The guy only had time to save his cat. If the wind had been in the other direction it would have been Dad's place that went.'

'Suddenly drizzle seems attractive. I think I'd rather risk bronchitis than be burnt alive.'

'Yeah, and think of all the skin cancers these people are incubating.' Andy looked enviously at a particularly well-muscled and beautiful student who was roller blading past, his shirt shoved into the waist band of his shorts, his long hair streaming.

'Narcissism plus nature equals carcinoma'

Andy was so pale he burned red in half an hour without sun screen. His nose was already peeling. 'And he bleaches his hair,' he added, disgusted by would-be blonds.

On Christmas Eve they toured the mission district and were asked to take Peter with them. Peter was always Peter, never Pete. He decided that he was the guide for the day, and took charge of their education in the early days of Spanish California. Andy and Matt listened good naturedly and tried to ask intelligent questions, but soon realised it was their job to listen and marvel. Plainly Peter was modelling himself on his father. Matt realised that Andy may have won out on their parents' separation in at least one way. Throughout their stay Peter showed no interest in either his brother's life, company or opinions.

Matt expressed a wish to go to midnight mass. Andy did a double take. They had somehow not discussed religion.

'You're Catholic?'

'Don't say it like you want to burn me at the stake. With a family my size, what would you expect?'

'Sorry. It didn't occur to me to ask.' Andy didn't want to come, but the Stepmom, Ellie, was more than happy. It turned out that she was associated with the church of St Ignatius Loyola. She drove them both down in a low slung sports car. She clearly had been to the church before, and addressed the priest by name. It was a full church, but few were Hispanic. It was the white congregation in town, Ellie said, as if that explained everything. Matt did not take communion; he knew his Church's views on what Andy and he did together. But his abstinence was not remarked upon.

Christmas Day was a lavish affair, with the presents expensive beyond guessing and obviously well-selected by Ellie. Matt was included and he found himself thanking Ellie profusely for a pocket computer. Amongst other things, Andy was given an airline pass for British Airways valid for as many flights as he wanted to take, wherever he wanted to take them, over the next five years. Matt looked it over longingly. Even Peter was having a good time, laughing and playing with the twins. Christmas dinner in the tall dining room was a formal affair, with shirts, jackets and ties, for all the males present, kids included. Ed was continually scratching at his shirt collar. He spent most of his days in a swimsuit, and sometimes not even in that if his nanny couldn't catch him. Dinner was English traditional, despite the temperature outside being high in the twenties. The air conditioning kept things tolerable.

It was as Matt was saying goodnight to Andy that he couldn't resist giving him a thorough Christmas kiss in the corridor outside his room, sucking tenderly at his lower lip with his own, licking it and then thrusting enthusiastically between Andy's teeth. He was in seventh heaven until the movement of a door further down made him jump away and pretend to be inspecting what looked like and was very probably a Lely portrait. Peter came out in his pyjamas and threw them a suspicious and calculating look. Matt looked at Andy, who shrugged.

The next day, they all drove inland over the mountains in the Mercedes, with the smaller kids behind in an SUV with their English nanny and a security guard. They had lunch in Solvang, the Danish capital of America as it called itself; a clean little city where ham and smogersbord were eaten in apparently great quantities and even the factory units were half-timbered. They hired four-seater pedal bikes, and Peter triumphantly took the seat next to his father, while Andy and Matt had the twins on theirs. Ellie took a seat and had a cold drink in a café. It was great fun pedalling round the narrow streets chatting inexhaustibly with the little kids, although Peter and his father soon disappeared ahead. They appeared to imagine that they were in a race.

The four of them disembarked and joined the Stepmom for cold drinks. Andy wandered off with the twins in search of ice cream.

'So Matthew, do you like California?'

'It's amazing. I love it: the heat, the colour, the scents on the air. What's Los Angeles like?'

'LA is a big and dirty city, with big and dirty problems. But it is exciting and it certainly is hot. How long have you known Andy? Did you know him at school in England?'

'No. We became friends at university. He shares a house with me now.'

'You seem to get along very well. Richard and I are very pleased that he has someone he can be friendly with; someone he can trust. You have to realise that his position could get very difficult at university. I don't need to tell you about the British papers, and the way that some of them can create stories where none exist. Andy could easily become a target, and he is so vulnerable. I'm sure you know about his mother.'

'A little.'

'Richard of course would like to help, but the position with his ex-wife is very difficult. She was able to close him out of Andrew's life completely as a boy. She has effectively turned him against Richard.'

'I can't...'

'Of course, it's no concern of yours, I understand. But I want you to remember we're here, if things begin to go wrong. I doubt Andy's mother will be much help.'

'Of course, certainly, I understand...'

'Here's my card. The number on the back will reach me anytime. Richard of course can't be seen to be involved. But put it away and remember it, if there's anything you think we need to know. We do have his best interests at heart... Andy, dear, and the twins. You've been running, come into the shade, and where's your cap Ed... ?'

Richard and Peter finally reappeared looking hot and disgruntled and blaming them for getting lost. But it was an enjoyable day, as well as their last in California. The next day a limousine awaited them and their bags on the drive. Andy disappeared into the study with his father for a final interview. When they emerged, Richard was holding his son's shoulder and looking – to Matt at least - a little affected.

Matt had begun to sense an inconsistency between Andy's view of his father and the man himself. He thought he detected someone who was genuinely fond of his eldest son, but was just one of those whose ability to express affection was limited. So he felt well disposed towards Richard, he warmly shook his hand and got a half smile in return. Ellie provided all the missing grace and generosity. Matt too was hugged and kissed by both her and the twins. Peter just about managed a nod and a handshake. Richard and Ellie held hands and the boys were told they were expected and welcome back in the summer, if it could be arranged.

The car pulled away and began its twisting drive down the mountain to the coastal highway. They drove east towards Los Angeles, passing nodding-donkey oil pumps on piers out in the sea and long empty beaches under brown cliffs of clay; they were driving through legendary places, Carpinteria, Ventura, Malibu and Pacific Palisades. The yellow smog descended at Santa Monica and they lost sight of the mountains. At LAX they unloaded and began their journey back to the real world. This time they had to load up their own baggage trolleys and join the check-in queues, which were long even for first class. Then they had a tedious wait in the transit lounge, where they read USA Today and tried to find the sense in showing CNN on the monitors with the sound off.

The first class seats on the British Airways 747 were wide and leather, but Matt said with affected annoyance that it was like being packed in like sardines, while the service was terrible. Andy had been muted since they left Santa Barbara and barely acknowledged the irony. Matt left him to his thoughts. Somewhere over North Dakota Andy asked him how he'd liked his Christmas.

'I liked it very much. I admit your family's hard work, but they seem OK for rich people. Well possibly Peter is a pain, maybe even a major pain. But he'll soon hit puberty and disappear up his own backside for five years, or get into drugs or something, and end up in rehab or an urban guerilla movement. You never know with these rich kids.'

Andy smiled. 'Dad wanted me to stay on and go to Aspen with them for another week. He has a big house there. You weren't invited.'

Matt's heart lurched but he rallied quickly, 'Well, you could have. Don't mind me in the circumstances.'

Andy gave a lop-sided grin. 'I think he really did want me to go. He got all stiff when I said that I needed to get back to my studies. But he said he respected that. He wanted me to keep the debit card, but I gave it back. He said that was just pride, but funnily enough he didn't insist. I think he knows what my mother would have said.'

Matt picked up a flute of complimentary champagne, 'To poverty then!'

'To holes in our jeans!'

'One thing.'

'And what's that?'

'Well, I didn't give back that wad he sent us in New York, and hardly spent any of it. So we are now worth over 9000 dollars, or sterling equivalent, after commission.'

'Blimey.'

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