Towards the Decent Inn

XX

By Michael Arram

LAX was as scruffy as they remembered it. It was an odd airport to be the gateway to the capital of glamour. But it welcomed them with that same scented air they remembered from their last expedition to California, and so they forgave it. Matt sat nervously at the wheel of a rented Lexus in a lot, the engine ticking over and the airconditioning roaring. Andy couldn't drive in the USA for the next four years. Matt was tired from the flight, and wary of driving on the 'wrong' side of the road, especially as his experience of driving in Britain was not all that extensive as yet.

'So what happens with roundabouts?'

'There aren't any. The problem is turning on crossroads. In California you can go right if there's no oncoming traffic. Left turns are the really scary ones for Brits. But don't worry, I'll scream and have hysterics if you make a wrong turn, so you'll know if there's a problem. Confident?'

'What d'you think? Thank God it's an automatic.'

'Just take it easy.'

The air conditioning had reduced the internal temperature of the car to a level where human life was possible. They eased out on to the streets round the airport with Andy navigating. After a while they came to a shabby residential area with desolate and bare front yards: none of the sprinklers that you found in the well-heeled suburbs. Matt turned into it and drove round and round several blocks until he felt more confident in driving on the right. Finally they hit the Santa Monica Freeway and joined the streams of traffic up into the hills towards Pasadena. Matt found this part easier, although the number of lanes was intimidating. Andy navigated them to their hotel without too much trouble; their car was parked for them and they checked in with some ceremony. Andy had decided that they would live in a hotel till Matt returned from England in October, so he had taken the penthouse suite and they were employing a letting agency to find a suitable house for the rest of the year. The manager himself was waiting to show them round, with a team of porters and clerks on hand.

'Strangely, and this will surprise you, it was quite a bargain this suite', said Andy when they were on their own. They looked out over the downtown area to where there was a hint of mountains through the yellow afternoon smog.

'Surprise me.'

'To take it for a month led to a 75% saving on the daily rate. I don't think they get many people who want it, normally.'

'It's nice, very glamorous.' The suite was more like a self-contained apartment. It was split level, with fantastic balconies looking west and east, rooms in their own right. They were standing looking east over the street grid to the mountains.

Andy excused himself, wandered off into the interior and checked in with his father in Santa Barbara. He had the longest conversation he'd ever had with him. At one point, Matt heard Andy laughing from the balcony. He caught his eye, and they grinned. Andy mouthed, 'My mother!' By the end of the conversation it was settled that Andy would got to his father's for a few days. 'I'll go on my own,' he told Matt. 'Why? I don't want you frightening the Stepmom. If she's any sense she'll be scared rigid of you. You don't understand how awesome you were on that day at Burnett: an angel of vengeance. But let's see if we can attain something resembling a normal family relationship for a few days.'

'OK. I have confidence in you. Go for it. But don't drink anything she gives you, and eat the green side of the apple if she offers you one. In the meantime, let's see how long we can stay awake before we collapse.'

The next morning, still feeling a little woozy from the flight, Matt drove Andy back to the airport to catch a shuttle to Santa Barbara. This being California, they enthusiastically kissed goodbye at the barrier. No one gave them a second look. It was the first time they had separated in nearly three months.

Matt made a decent and leisurely breakfast at a bagel house, reading the New York Times, watching downtown Los Angeles go by in the sunlit street outside, and sipping a strawberry frap through a straw. He felt Britain disappearing behind him, and he was for now very glad of it. He marvelled at the fact that he was alone again and was half-ashamed that he felt just a little bit liberated. He loved Andy desperately, but was finding that his love had matured to the point that he could tolerate and even welcome the idea of being separated from him for a little while without much guilt. He drove back up the freeway to find the Huntington Library, analysing his feelings as he went. He wondered if Andy felt the same and he had a feeling that Andy did. If so he welcomed it, because it proved to him that they were no longer lovesick teenagers, and that their relationship had found a new and mature core.

It took a while, but eventually he found the gate to the library and talked his way past the security barrier, for it was closed to the public in the mornings and readers were supposed to have passes. He discovered a temporary parking space and stood in the appalling heat on the melting tarmac to admire the San Gabriel mountains, which had appeared momentarily in all their morning glory. Provincial Britain seemed a very long way away at that moment.

But strangely, that day provincial Britain seemed very keen to remind him that it existed. He sat in a waiting room in the administration suite next to another British postgrad, a very pretty second-year medievalist from York called Rhiannon who was starting a two month scholarship. She was dreadfully excited and very interested in Matt. After they'd got their passes and signed off all the many required forms, they walked downstairs to a waiting room which had a coffee machine. Matt quite admired her, especially the beautiful cascade of fair hair down her back. She had a certain elegant poise, but was by no means remote. She wore a fashionable short sweater that showed her midriff and a pierced navel, but her abdomen was trim and muscular enough to show her to advantage, unlike most women who had adopted the fashion. Her voice was a light and throaty contralto, and even Matt found it quite sexy. He was quite sure that Katy would have hated her.

'There's a lot of Brits here, my supervisor said. There aren't many historians like us, but a big crowd of literary people, especially Shakespeare scholars. They're supposed to be a bit of a clique. I expect that means we had better watch out for ourselves.' She grimaced as she sipped the coffee, as awful as machine-made coffee anywhere. 'Where are you staying?'

'Oh, I'm in a hotel temporarily until I can find an apartment or a house or something. How about you?'

'They put short-term students up in postgrad dorms in Caltech. It's very comfortable, although it's not easy to get here from there. I don't drive and that's not something that figures in American calculations. I suppose I'm going to have to investigate the Greater Los Angeles transit network.'

The sound of very British voices made them look around. A group of three older men, in shirts and light jackets, breezed into the waiting room talking very loudly about the deficiencies of English university funding and looking round to see who was watching them, or so it appeared to Matt. One of them caught Matt's eye. He gave his usual No. 1 friendly smile, but it bounced off the older man's stare. He turned back to his friends and led them loudly out of a door into the subtropical gardens. Interesting, Matt thought. There are status games going on here which I don't understand. So this is what academe is like.

He turned back to Rhiannon, 'Do you think that was the clique?'

'I'm willing to put money on it. They didn't seem very friendly, did they?'

'What's York like as a university?'

'Great if you're a medievalist. It's a beautiful old city. Some people don't like the university. A guy I know in Sheffield says that York poses as a northern suburb of Oxford. It's just envy, I'm sure. Everyone seems pretty normal there to me. They say that your place is pretty good for history, although it's not cheap to live in: too close to the M4 and the outer London green belt.'

'I was lucky, my dad bought a house for me to live in while I was there. It didn't work as a place to rent out, but it was OK for me, and he tells me the house price rise means that he's made a packet on it even in two years.' His euphoric mood suddenly bubbled up to the surface again. He was thousands of miles from home, Andy was happy and he was about to start the greatest intellectual adventure of his life. He sat up and stretched like a cat, grinning all over his tanned, Pre-Raphaelite face. 'Isn't this just the greatest thing? Here we are, in the sun, in the most glamorous place on earth, with our time at our own command and no one to bug us or set essay deadlines. I love this. This is freedom you cannot buy.'

Rhiannon could not but be fascinated at this quite unselfconscious apparition of male beauty which had just manifested itself in her life. As usual, Matt had forgotten the impact he had on those around him. Rhiannon fell beneath his chariot wheels, as so many others had, and he didn't even notice the bump as he went over her.

He then made it worse by asking Rhiannon some more personal questions. 'So, er, did you leave anyone behind when you came here? Excuse me for asking, and I don't want to seem nosy at all.'

Rhiannon looked a little curious and indeed hopeful at the question. 'No. I had a live-in boyfriend when I was doing my first degree, but we broke up when we graduated, and he went off to work in the City. I hear he's doing very well for himself. Since then I've sort of buried myself in my work.'

Matt nodded and said he knew the feeling. He was suddenly aware, all too late, that the conversation was going down an avenue that he didn't want to pursue. Rhiannon might be interpreting this as softening her up for a pass. He asked her when she was leaving that day and offered her a lift to her dorm. Then he realised his caution was too late, there was that look in her eye that Matt was at last beginning to recognise: it was when men and women were calculating the chances of getting him into bed. He saw it a lot. Oh dear, thought Matt, she's in for a bit of a disappointment. What a fool I am. Katy would have given me a good kicking at this point.

He explored the manuscript reading room and library, and was impressed. But he wished he'd brought a sweater; the air-conditioning was fierce, and every metal surface crackled with static. He was trying to remember whether he'd packed a jumper of some sort when he almost bumped into the loud Englishman he'd seen earlier.

'Do mind out, please,' he snapped.

'Sorry.' Matt replied.

'Oh, you're English.'

'Yes.'

'Postgraduate student, I suppose.'

'That's right.'

'Subject?'

'History.'

'Good God, they seem to let anyone in here.'

Matt hoped that was intended to be some sort of joke.

'Matt White,' he introduced himself. 'PhD student at ...'

'Dr Anton Matusiak. St Johns. I expect I'll be seeing you around. Good day.'

Matt looked after the youngish but already balding don, as he disappeared briskly between the stacks. Suddenly Dr Faber seemed remarkably normal.

He met up with Rhiannon at closing time in the extremely well-appointed reading room, she was packing up a box of what Matt took to be medieval charters. He was fascinated by the ancient and dirty pieces of parchment with their chipped and broken seals. She was explaining her project to him as they walked out of the library. She clutched his arm as they were about to leave.

'Look!' she hissed, 'At reception. Wow. It's that actor, the science fiction one. He's a lot shorter than he looks on the screen. This really is Los Angeles. I love it.'

The mountains had disappeared once again behind their veil of smog. Rhiannon directed him to the Caltech campus, and they smiled at each other as she got out.

'See you tomorrow, Matt.'

'Bye.'

The next day Matt brought his laptop and set up in the reading room. He caught some sideways stares from nearby readers checking out the make and model of his machine. He almost laughed. It was a top of the line Apple with a ceramic finish, and the stares had all been approving, or envious. Status games and competition. This was what academe was all about.

He soon lost himself in the beginning of his book search. It took him by surprise when Rhiannon appeared at his shoulder and asked if he was doing lunch.

'Lunchtime? Sure. Do you know where we go?'

'The readers go sit outside under the palms in the gardens, unless there's a "brown bag seminar", whatever that is.'

They found an outside sandwich bar and tables, cool under lush palms and foliage. Strange and colourful birds hopped around the ground picking up crumbs of food. The tables were occupied by a variety of scholars, staff and volunteers. Rhiannon and Matt sat together on a table only a little distance from Dr Matusiak and a large circle of US and British scholars. It was not too difficult to work out that they were Renaissance and Baroque literary scholars. They were talking about what Matt guessed to be contemporary art cinema, and again seemed to be looking round to see who was watching them.

Another young girl, an American, asked if she could join them. They were welcoming. She introduced herself as Katherine from Wisconsin-Milwaukee and was charmed to be talking to two Brits. She was researching culinary manuscripts of the eighteenth century. She had been in London the previous semester, and was surprised that Matt and Rhiannon hardly knew the place and had never been in the new British Library, which she greatly admired. She asked if they knew Dr Matusiak and his circle. They said they'd only just arrived.

She leaned toward Rhiannon, 'You watch out, girl. That guy has a real predatory reputation, you ask the staff. Thinks he's God's gift to the female race. The odd thing is, he scores more often than not. Me, he gives the creeps.'

Rhiannon looked faintly disgusted. Katherine continued, 'You guys coming to the reception Friday?'

Rhiannon looked a question: 'It's the one for new scholars and fellows. The trustees and the director give us a glass of wine and a few bites, while they make long speeches about scholarship and mission, and you mingle with the great and good of cultural California, who get a decent meal out of it.'

Rhiannon said, 'I got a card ... so did you Matt.'

'I did?'

'It was in the welcome pack. Dress formal.'

'Was it RSVP'

'No,' said Katherine, 'it's worse: DTNC.' They looked uncomprehending.

'Don't Think of Not Coming'.

'Then we'll be there,' said Matt.

'How's the apartment search coming on, Matt?'

'Oh, not doing anything at the moment.' Matt's conscience was troubling him. He thought that perhaps it was time to alert Rhiannon to the true state of affairs and remove any doubt, 'I'm waiting for my boyfriend to get back.'

'Ah,' she said, as the significance of the remark sank in. She rallied magnificently. 'Is he an academic too?'

'Nope, just an ordinary guy.' Which was perhaps as big an understatement as he had ever made.

As they were going back to the library Rhiannon's curiosity brought her back irresistibly to the subject. 'How long have you and your boyfriend been together?'

'Two years now, we met up in university, and just sort of clicked.'

'Where is he at the moment?'

'He's got family up the coast.'

'So is he American?'

'No, he's a Brit. Tell me Rhiannon, did you reckon I was gay when we met?

She smiled a little wistfully. 'Actually I didn't. Some gays I've met are so obviously not into women that the temperature drops, and others are a narcissistic performance.' She smiled, 'But you Matt, are a nice guy. No, don't smirk. You are nice. Kind too. Although now you mention it, you do have the hair thing.'

'What do you mean?' Matt was intrigued.

'It's something women notice. Gay men spend more time on their appearance than most straight men. It's not necessarily vanity. I just think that you're more sensitive to the impact of your looks. I bet you go to get your hair done more regularly than the average man, and spend more time on it than your average straight. It's nice by the way. Long hair suits you.'

'Thanks. Hair, eh? I'll remember that. Now we've got that out of the way and without any chance of misinterpreting the gesture, can I take you out for dinner tonight?'

'Oh Matt, that'd be great.'

'Excellent. We're here in the USA, in an exciting city, let's start getting excited. Bars, restaurants, clubs. Let's begin with Old Pasadena, and see what it has to offer to twenty-somethings on the razz. Let's use our freedom. Maybe I can set you up with that nice guy you're looking for.'

'What? Is it that obvious.'

'No. But I'm going on a theory of my friend Katy that all beautiful and unattached females are on the lookout for that perfect man... or woman. I forgot to ask if you were a lesbian, by the way. Sorry about that, can't think what came over me.'

Rhiannon shook her head, but had to laugh, 'You walk on dangerous ground, Matthew. Behave.'

'It's a good idea going out with a gay man. I'll be like the pot of jam that attracts the wasps. If they eye me up they're gay and won't be interested in you, so you won't waste time on them. If they give me the evil eye 'cos I'm with you, then they're straight, and they'll be fair game for you. Neat strategy, huh?'

'Something tells me there's a problem somewhere in that strategy, but I can't put my finger on it at the moment.'

He rang Andy on the cell phone late that evening, leaning on the penthouse balcony in the cool of the evening, the lights of the great city kindled below him. He told him about Rhiannon, his night out and the hair thing.

'Poor girl. You really are a heart-breaker. We know why they're attracted to you. Moody dark looks, pouting sensual mouth, lovely little arse.'

'Who's moody? I have a very cheerful demeanour and an open, friendly smile which is much admired. What about the hair thing?'

'Well, I suppose she may have a point. You are keen on your hair, and you do spend a lot of time on it. More than I do, incidentally. On the other hand, we're hardly big into dressing up. And when did we ever go for a manicure?'

'How're things with Cruella de Vil?'

'She's just left. Apparently the United Nations needs her to solve the problem of world peace. Either that or she's got word of a potential source of dalmatian fur coats. That gives me an idea for a Christmas present for her.'

'You wouldn't! It'd just make trouble, don't think about it. How're the kids?'

'Twins send their love. Peter ... doesn't. Not much progress there unfortunately. But I'll keep trying,'

'And how's your dad?'

'Ah, there's the big change. We've just had a long, long chat about mum, and me growing up in Nuneaton, and why it was it all ended the way it did. He's a different man, or maybe he's the same man but I've just come to realise what a great man he is. He said he thought he was losing me last year, and he couldn't bear the thought. He's very enthusiastic about you. He says you've done miracles with me. He may adopt you. Anyway he's going to give me a lift down to LA on Friday. He's got some charity function and he'll drop me off.'

'Cool. Paul'll be here at the weekend.'

'What, really?

'Yup, I got a text. He and Rachel have succeeded in completing their transcontinental bonk - as he put it - and they're at her home in Oregon. Paul's coming to stay and will fly back to the UK with us for the start of term. He's taking a bus down to LA.'

'Hope he survives.'

'We'll have to do something special. I'll ask around.'

On Friday afternoon, Matt dressed as formally as he could bear, but feeling insecure, he went for expense. Chinos and his Armani blazer, tailored shirt, new suede Rockport casuals, a chunky gold TAG Heuer watch that Andy had bought him in London, and a Milan silk tie from a day spent in Paris. 'Fuck you, Dr Matusiak,' he thought as he looked in the mirror. His hair was indeed longer these days, over his ears, thick and curling at the ends. His even white teeth and unblemished brown skin were just right for LA; he didn't look at all English.

He picked up Rhiannon in what she called her M & S graduation frock. She looked him over with interest and great approval. 'How can you be gay? There is no justice. Love the gear, it must have cost a fortune. What do your parents do?'

'Dad's a jobbing builder in Northampton.'

'Then your mother must be a very successful international jewel thief.'

Matt laughed, but he did no more to satisfy her curiosity.

The director's reception was held in a cool marble hall in the museum. The literary types congregated snootily together by the free bar, sipping Zinfandel and nibbling olives. Matt went to get Rhiannon a glass. Matusiak encountered him as he tried to get to the table.

'Excuse me, young man. Really, this is the second time you've pushed past me. Perhaps you need to get your hair cut to see where you're going?'

A retort about at least having hair to cut occurred to Matt, but he was British, so instead he said he was very sorry, and took two glasses handed across to him by a sympathetic waiter. He looked around. The literary scholars were jawing away happily. One or two gave him curious glances, and a younger one gave him a very obvious once over. Matusiak gave Matt a sidelong sneer, and shepherded his group quickly away.

Matt rejoined Rhiannon and Katherine and a couple of other grad students. Introductions were made and soon there was a lot of laughter from their end of the room. Others joined them, and Matt found himself at the centre of a fascinating gathering of American, Canadian and Japanese students. He learned more about international scholarship in half an hour than he could have discovered in a year in England. He learned that US universities were not all vastly wealthy, but that most of them were as underfunded as those in Britain and jobs were scarce; that there were American conferences in History and English so vast that the programmes were as thick as telephone directories; that the key date for an American with hopes of a job in history was the week after Christmas when the AHA met, and most job interviews were held in hotel rooms, with hopeful grad students queuing in the corridor outside.

'Would you think of a job here?' he asked Rhiannon.

'There's no brain drain in history, Matt. The Americans have got enough historians of their own not to need to import them from Britain. But given a chance, I might. For all that these guys are moaning, there's not so much of a feeling of depression and hopelessness here that you get in the UK. If these people aren't going to get a job, they at least are positive about wanting one.'

After half an hour a door opened and the director and his principal guests appeared. Matt almost dropped his glass: one of them was Richard Peacher. Hardly surprising; he would be a dream trustee for any cultural institution: academic, entrepreneur and multi-billionaire. Richard caught his eye, and smiled in his direction.

Rhiannon prodded him, 'Who's the short fair-haired man, who smiled at you?'

Matt stalled, 'Oh, umm, he's ... probably mistaking me for someone else. Maybe he's a pervert who's trying to hit on me.'

Rhiannon was not fooled, 'You're getting more mysterious by the minute, Matt White. What's ...'

The director began his little speech of welcome. Perhaps he had given it several times before, but he spoke elegantly and was appreciated by a ripple of applause around the room. He then talked about the massive contribution made to the library and museum by its trustees and patrons. He was especially delighted to have with them today a great friend of the library, Mr Richard Peacher, who had recently financed the purchase of the unique Namur Book of Hours, the new glory of their liturgical book collection.

'So that's who he is!' whispered Rhiannon. 'It cost three million dollars, and he outbid the British Library. He's the fifth richest man in the world, or so they say.'

'Oh,' said Matt innocently, 'I'd heard that he was number twelve.' She looked at him suspiciously.

The director finished, and there was a polite surge of guests in the direction of the trustees, with Anton Matusiak in the van. Richard was moving down the room when he was buttonholed. Matt heard the braying tones, 'Oh Mr Peacher, could I introduce myself: Matusiak, Oxford. I think you know my friend Sir Frank Williams, one of our fellows, he worked with you at Manchester ...'

Richard Peacher half turned and gave him a decisive brush-off, 'Very nice to meet you Mr, er ... Matusiak, but do excuse me, I see an old friend I must say hello to.'

Matusiak's mouth flapped as the great man sailed past him, gripped Matt's hand and threw an arm around his shoulder. He grinned broadly.

'Great to see you Matt. I was hoping you'd be here. Hey, Otto!' The director came running. 'Let me introduce you to Matthew White, a family friend from England. One of the most promising young historians in Britain. Do you know he published his first professional article at nineteen!'

'It was twenty, sir. Don't exaggerate.'

Richard bellowed with laughter, 'Whatever. He's brilliant. It's a great asset to the library to have him. I know you'll take the best possible care of him.' The director smiled and shook his hand, saying he'd like to meet him next week some time if he was free.

Matt didn't dare look round. He could see that Matusiak had gone white with shock. Matt dared not blush, he knew every pair of eyes in the place was on him.

'Sir, could I introduce you to Rhiannon Pierce, from the University of York. Don't curtsey, Rhiannon.' She giggled and Richard was absolutely charming to her. Matt introduced Katherine, and as many others of the grad students whose names he could remember. Richard chatted very happily amongst them for twenty minutes, while the Matusiak gang hovered hopefully round the fringes. Finally he apologised and took Matt alone out into the gallery.

'Son, I knew you were a good man when I first met you. I'm never wrong about these things... though sometimes I should pay more attention to my instincts, I'll admit. The difference in my boy is amazing; you did full credit to my confidence in you. You've brought him back to life. I can never thank you enough. You are welcome in my home any time. Any time, remember that. I hope we'll see a lot of you while you're in California.'

'Sir, I hope so too. Where's Andy now.'

'Back at the hotel, waiting for you.'

'Then I'll be off. Could you do me a favour?'

'Just ask.'

'Could you give Miss Pierce a lift back to Caltech. I've got to go.'

'No problem, she's a very attractive girl and it'll be a pleasure. Goodbye son. That was fun, wasn't it?' He winked.

'Yes sir, it was hilarious.' He disappeared out to the car park, and he was indeed chuckling all the way to the car.

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