by Wayne Goodman
“Nice day for a picnic.”
I looked up into the face of a middle-aged gentleman with noticeable sags under his steely-blue eyes made more obvious as he had bent at the waist. That toothy grin seemed amicable enough, but those mutton chops had significant amounts of grey and much of the hair on his head had previously departed.
“Beg pardon, sir?”
He straightened up and repeated his opening remark, “Nice day for a picnic.”
It was May 1895. I had just received notice that my request for employment with the National Gallery had been declined–again–and news of Mr. Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment brought another gloomy cloud over an otherwise gloomy day in London. The front page of Police News showed dramatic “Closing Scenes at the Old Bailey,” and the Evening Standard proclaimed, “The Abominable Vices of Mr. Wilde.”
My time at Oxford would soon be coming to a close and I needed to secure suitable employment. I sat upon the steps of the recently-dedicated statue of Anteros in Piccadilly pondering my fate.
The rather forward fellow bent down again and whispered in my ear, “Are you not Ajax?”
“Ajax?” I responded in a clear volume, “The Achaean? Trojan War and all that?”
“Ssshhhh! Keep your voice down, young man,” he admonished. He looked left and right, as if I had just revealed his secret identity to the world at large.
A moment later, a scholarly-looking gent about my age, height, hair colour and styling passed us and sat on the stairs of the monument a few feet away.
“Excuse me. Sorry for the bother,” my tormentor apologised and scooted off to the newly-arrived man. “Nice day for a picnic,” he began, and the two of them chatted for a few minutes before they walked off together toward Charing Cross.
As I reflected on this odd encounter, I looked up and saw one of my old mates from Oxford. “Algie!” I called and waved. “Algie! Over here!” I stood and greeted my classmate as he stepped up from the street.
“Why you old thing! What are you doing in London?” Algernon Horatio Fitzhugh looked rather dashing in a hound’s-tooth tweed jacket, his raven hair pomaded to the point of drowning. He was a year ahead of me at school and sat Literature.
“Oh, Algie, it’s been tough. My appointment at the National Gallery fell through, and then the news of Oscar.”
“Yes, poor Oscar. We’re all going to have to take more care these days.” He looked left and right, but I couldn’t tell if it was because he was nervous about talking with me or because he was looking for someone. “It’s so good to see you.” He continued to swivel his head about, which led me to believe he was seeking another.
“Algie, the strangest thing just happened. An older fellow came up to me and said, ‘Nice day for a picnic.’” Algie’s head halted in its search. “Have you ever heard of such a thing?” He then turned his eyes on me directly. “He thought I was Ajax or some such nonsense.”
Just then, another, even paunchier, middle-aged gent in a dark grey overcoat approached my friend, doffed his hat and greeted him with, “Nice day for a picnic.”
My eyes bulged at the now-familiar phrase as Algie turned to the newcomer, “Yes, indeed it is. Please give us a moment, sir.” He looked at me and said, “Sorry, but I’ve got to go.” Algie reached into his jacket and pulled out a visiting card. “Here. Pay me a call, and we’ll chat about the old days.” With that he strode off with the very gentlemen. Indeed!
When my composure returned, I glanced at the card: “Mrs. Borden’s Confidential Companions, 12-13 Greek Street, London.” While not familiar with that particular address, I believed it was in the area referred to as Soho, a neighbourhood well-known for its depravity.
With all the misfortune of the day, I decided it might be best to return to campus. I put Algie’s card in my own pocket and began walking toward the station. What kind of business could he be conducting?
In his own Oxford days, we did belong to a special boys’ club, which is how we first made our acquaintance. Due to our empire’s severe laws against any type of sexual relations between men, we had to be very discreet and sworn to secrecy. With the imprisonment of our Oscar, things looked to be getting even worse for men like us.
On the ride back to school, I daydreamed of languorous afternoons in the dormitory, starkers and unabashed with other like-minded fellows. We were far from home, healthy, randy young men who had biological urges that propelled us to have long sessions of sexual expression. At first, we were not sure how to satisfy each other’s passions, but after a few rounds of frigging by hand together, we graduated to using our mouths and lips upon each other. Some of the boys could not acquire a taste for the semen of another, but I relished the unpredictable flavourings. Those who did not preferred to have their partners slide back-and-forth between their legs instead, kissing optional. Some of us developed forbidden feelings, as we had no other outlet for our adolescent emotions. Even at this early stage in our lives, we understood these male-to-male relationships ran counter to society at-large and how the outside world had proper expectations and made unsolicited demands on our particular sex.
Not everyone chose to abide by the common rules, and some of us managed to maintain our surreptitious activities throughout the terms. I was just reminiscing about the first time I lay with Algie unrigged–and how surprising the enormity of his stiffy–as the train stopped at Oxford station. When I went to stand, I had to put a hand in front of my pants to hide the arousal caused by my reveries.
The subsequent month, once all of my classes had terminated, I traipsed back into London again for yet another disappointing round of interviews with yet more galleries. This began to worry me as my funds would evaporate after a week or so. I do not believe I was ready for the poor house just yet, especially with an Oxford degree in hand!
As I was near Tottenham Court, in Oxford Street and Charing Cross Road, I realised my proximity to the Soho neighbourhood. I pulled the card from my pocket to reacquaint myself with the address: 12-13 Greek Street.
When I reached Soho Square, I meandered along the paved paths, taking the southern way to the top of Greek Street. It seemed plain enough. Stately buildings lined the row, and I strode to the door marked 12-13. A large brass knocker in the shape of a bull’s head dominated the otherwise ordinary slab of wood. I lifted the thing’s head expecting it to moo or snort, but it merely created a loud “thud” when I let it free.
A moment later, the door opened a hand’s-width, and a rather tall woman in a conservative, high-collar frock addressed me through the narrow gap. “May I be of assistance?” Her voice sounded somewhat deep for a woman.
“Oh, yes, please,” I stammered. “I’m looking for a friend of mine who gave me this calling card.” I retrieved it from my pocket and slipped the card to the woman. She snatched it from my fingers, examined it quickly and handed it back. Her expression remained placid, neither acknowledging nor denying that I was at the correct place. “His name, ma’am, is Algernon. Algernon Fitzhugh.”
Her already arched eyebrows raised even higher. “I see. Well. You had better come in then, Dear Heart.” She opened the door fully and walked away along a narrow entrance hall. I have been referred to as “Love,” “Sir,” “Master,” “Mister,” and “Sweetie,” but never “Dear Heart.”
Once inside, I could see that her manner of dress appeared quite odd. She wore neither corset nor bustle, and the puce-colored dress seemed nearly vertical in its lines. Her chestnut hair appeared to have been plopped atop her head and knotted with a grey bow, yet it still managed to cover her ears.
She led me to a cosy sitting room with a few plush high-back chairs and a low table. Pointing her rather large hand, she indicated one of the chairs, and I sat down nervously. As I looked about the dark-panelled room, I could see stacks of ornamented china plates and cups, all in a creamy shade of light blue.
“It’s Wedgwood, Dear Heart,” the woman explained, “Old Josiah himself once lived here and left some of his handiwork behind. Would you care for some tea?”
When I looked into her eyes for the first time, I realised they matched the colour of the china almost exactly. “Yes, ma’am. If you please, ma’am.”
She elevated her chin as if looking for stray dust on the ceiling. “Please do not call me ‘ma’am.’ It makes me feel rather like an old lady. Mrs. Borden is the name, if you please.”
“Oh, as in Mrs. Borden’s?”
“Yes, Dear Heart, the very one.” She disappeared through a swinging door.
What had Algie gotten himself into? This mysterious woman, this mysterious home, this mysterious life. I just hoped he had not fallen victim to the undertow of immorality.
“Here you go, Dear Heart.” Mrs. Borden returned carrying a silver-plate tea tray with two Wedgwood cups. She set it on the low table. “I’ve already taken the liberty of putting milk and sugar in the cup. I know how you Oxford boys like yours sweet.” A hint of a smile wrinkled her face.
“How did you know I attend Oxford?”
The smile broadened. “Because of your acquaintance with young Algernon, of course.” She poured from the teapot a cupful each. “I’m afraid your friend is out on business at the moment, but you’re welcome to keep me company until he returns.”
“Thank you. Thank you very much indeed, Mrs. Borden.” I looked about the room. “Will Mr. Borden be joining us? I don’t want to seem improper.”
The woman’s smile turned into pursed lips, “There is no Mr. Borden.” She stirred using a small silver-plate spoon, which called attention to the size of her hand, especially with the pinkie extended. Two taps on the rim and she set the spoon back on the tray.
“Oh, I am truly sorry to hear that.”
“No, Dear Heart,” she placed the same rough, warm hand with slightly hairy knuckles upon mine. “There never was a Mr. Borden,” and she winked at me. I wanted to pull my hand back but did not wish to seem rude to my hostess, and it remained under her cover until she finally decided to take her tea.
We sat, sipping (and it was mighty fine tea at that), without speaking.
After several minutes, she turned to me and inquired, “Do you have your affairs in order?”
“I’m not sure what it is you are asking, Mrs. Borden.”
“It has come to my attention that many of the recent university graduates are having difficulties procuring positions at this time.”
Given that I had just finished another set of unsatisfactory interviews, she might have been reading my mind. Or, perhaps, my face.
“Yes, Mrs. Borden, many of my schoolmates are finding it difficult to procure proper employment at this time.”
“Are you one of those?” Her eyebrows arched higher again.
I decided to be candid with her because I frankly saw no advantage in prevaricating. “Yes. I had hoped that an Oxford degree would speak for itself. Up until now, it has remained rather hoarse.”
She smiled a little. It could have been my slightly humorous remark or a passing thought. “I don’t know if your Algernon mentioned this to you, but I do provide rooms for young men like yourself.” Her eyes seemed to examine me in a watchful way similar to a job interview. Or, perhaps, an audition of some sort.
“Mrs. Borden,” I set down my teacup, “while this appears to be a rather nice home, and I’m sure the rooms are top-notch, I am afraid that I could never afford the tariff as such.”
“Tariff?” She seemed surprised or taken a-back. “There is no tariff here, Dear Heart.” She slurped some of her tea.
“You mean I would be able to live here without paying you anything? That seems rather generous.”
She smiled and lowered her chin. “Case in point, you would earn money while you reside here.”
If I had had some tea in my mouth, it might have accidentally sprayed forth like an atomiser. What kind of rooming house pays you to stay there? “Are you suggesting I become part of your house service staff, Mrs. Borden?” What else could she have been hinting at?
“No, Dear Heart. We don’t have service staff here. I am proprietor, business manager and scullery maid-of-all-work rolled into one.” Her tight smile hinted at courtesan flirtation.
Again I had to wonder what kind of rooming house. Oh. Wait. That kind of rooming house. I reminded myself we were in Soho and took some more tea straightaway. My heart raced and I could hear the pulsations in my own ear.
“We serve only the cream-of-the-cream. You would receive a percentage of the fee plus whatever gratuities your clients determine. It’s all discreet and very hush-hush, you know.”
“But I never —”
“No, none of us ever, Dear Heart, but there comes a time in a young man’s life when he has to make some very difficult decisions regarding his future.” Her eyes lingered on my face, searching for an answer to her unspoken query. She drummed the fingers of one hand in sequence across the side of her cheek. “Such opportunities present themselves only fleetingly.” She stood and began walking to the entryway, as if preparing to usher me out to the street.
A thousand conflicting thoughts criss-crossed my mind like a train round-about at high speed. What if my parents found out? Where could something like this lead? Would this have kept me from obtaining a bona fide position? When would I receive an honest job offer? How would I have been able to pay for my next meal? “Wait!” I blurted. Mrs. Borden returned to the chair. “Would I have to be… you know… um… intimate… with these gentlemen?”
“Why Dear Heart, what do you think this is, a brothel?”
I looked around the rather comfortably-appointed room, with its dark, plush furniture, china rails, mahogany highboy, and ivory statuettes. A bit of butter-upon-bacon, if you ask me. Yes, it did give one the air of a bordello.
“Well, I can see where one might arrive at the incorrect impression; however, no intimacy–as you put it–occurs here under my roof. If a gentleman wishes a thruppenny-upright, he can find that sort of thing in Gropecunt Lane.” She pointed in a generally westward direction. “And, besides, if that’s all he wants: he’s no gentlemen. I only provide companions for the well-to-do: MPs, titled nobles, and the sort.” Her face shifted to a self-satisfied sneer. “My clients are select, discreet and proper.”
“I must confess, Mrs. Borden, that given the recent bad turn for Mr. Wilde we must all be cautious with our affairs, and I am currently attempting to procure proper employment with a local gallery.”
“My boys are all university-educated and well-bred. No laws are broken; although, some might be temporarily bent.” She giggled to herself. “As it so happens, I have a vacancy at this time. You shall be taken care of very well, and you can still pursue your scholarly interests.”
As if responding to a cue line from a play script, my mid-section grumbled its desire for nourishment.
Wayne Goodman has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area most of his life (with too many cats). He and his fiancé, Richard May, host a reading series called “Perfectly Queer,” which holds monthly events in San Francisco and Oakland. Goodman also hosts a quarterly ‘In-Conversation’ series called “Queer Words.” When not writing, he enjoys playing Gilded Age parlor music on the piano, with an emphasis on women, gay, and Black composers.