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I first met Jonathan Williams when he came to Cambridge to read for Blue Room, a poetry society founded by John Wilkinson and run by John, his old school-friend Charlie Bulbeck and the more recently co-opted me. I had the grand title of Blue Room Secretary and was responsible for, among other things, booking rooms in my college for the reading and the guest poet. On this occasion we had two guest poets because Jonathan came with his partner, Tom Meyer.
I don’t remember if we were unaware of this and booked, as usual, a single room, or were aware of it but thought, as young people tend to do, that one small bed would be enough for the two of them. It may even have been the case that the college didn’t offer a double room on the grounds that women weren’t allowed to sleep within its walls. Jonathan took one look at the bed and said to Tom: ‘Well, you’ll have to find somewhere else to sleep tonight,’ in a tone that struck me as playful but, thrillingly for me, not ironic.
Tom was no taller than I was, bottle-blond (though I didn’t know this then), finely built and featured, a fragile adjunct to the solider, bearded, avuncular figure of Jonathan. They’d arrived the morning before the reading and had offered to drive us to a restaurant outside Cambridge for an early dinner that evening. I don’t know whose idea it was to take them to eat kebabs for lunch at the Gardenia, a basement café just off Trinity Lane that’s recently been saved from closure by, among others, Stephen Fry, but it wasn’t a success. I remember Jonathan peering into his pita with a forlorn expression and muttering, ‘Hmm, street food.’
Later that day, Jonathan and Tom drove John and me – Charlie having bunked off by this point – out of Cambridge to a pub that was famous at the time for its irascible owner, his taste for Wagner played loud, and his accommodating, brow-beaten German boyfriend. We drank Adnam’s ale – we had no choice. This was followed by a hotel restaurant that Jonathan had heard, or read, about and wanted to try. Jonathan cared about food in a way that’s utterly normal now but, in late 1973, seemed both luxuriously decadent and pedantic, an attractive though somewhat forbidding mix. I have no memory of what we ate. What I remember is the rather meandering ride home and the way I managed to slump against Tom in the back of the car, my thigh idly – would-be indifferently – pushed against his.
The reading was attended by the usual small group of enthusiasts, but I was too taken by the physical memory of Tom’s leg against mine to be more than summarily aware of what was read; I was also drunk. At the interval, it being my job to make coffee, I darted from the room to fill my kettle and bumped into a friend – Paul Johnstone, now dead – who asked me how the event was going. I think I’m sleeping with Tom tonight, I told him, unaware that every word was heard in the room behind me, where the poets and their audience were seated. John told me later, the following day, that Jonathan had raised an eyebrow but was otherwise pokerfaced. I have no idea how Tom reacted.
The post-reading party was in my room. By this time, I’d been told about my gaffe but, stubborn and optimistic with alcohol, remained undeterred. Half an hour into the party, when Jonathan left, I was sitting in my armchair, with Tom on the floor in front of me, his shoulders between my knees. ‘I’ll see you boys tomorrow,’ Jonathan said, and I imagine Tom nodded and smiled, perhaps wryly, as I did not, not believing my luck. To understand how much in love I was with the man whose head was almost, almost against my groin, you would have to factor in so much that isn’t needed here, where what I want to do above all is to talk about Jonathan’s generosity. The rest of the party faded away quite rapidly after Jonathan’s departure and suddenly Tom and I were alone. ‘Shall I make some coffee?’ I said, and Tom said: ‘Coffee?’ in a way that made me feel both foolish and desired. Five minutes later, he was twisting peach-coloured toilet paper around his contact lenses while I, like a bride, prepared for bed.
They left the next day. We walked with them to the brand-new multi-storey car-park where they’d left the car, talking about Joseph Needham and China, or Ronald Johnson, or Thomas A. Clark, a friend of John’s who’d recently been published by Jargon. Jonathan gave us their address, invited us to visit them in their cottage in Cumbria. As the car pulled off I felt that the end of some essential organ in my body had been attached to their bumper and was slowly, smoothly unspooling. I didn’t know who I was, nor where; with what was left to wave goodbye or with what had been drawn out, away, and gathered up, like wool, by what had happened. Thirty-six hours later, having made up my mind that I could never just go on with my life as it was, which now seemed as false and hollow as I’d become, I was on the road for Dentdale.
There was snow, and the last lift dropped me some way from the house. I must have called from a rural phone-box because Jonathan came in his car to collect me. I can’t remember now if I’d let them know that I was coming or, fearful of rejection, had simply presented myself as near as damn-it to the house, giving them no choice other than to take me in.
Tom had a cold. He didn’t seem pleased to see me, or not pleased; I wasn’t certain he knew who I was, although that, surely, was impossible after only two days. More than anything, I imagine now, he must have been uncomfortable, perhaps even peeved. He’d had no idea what he’d mean to me when he chose the easy option of my room, more for Jonathan’s comfort than for his own, as if I were the by-product of his own generosity towards his partner. He’d never considered that I might think I’d fallen in love with him, his New York past, his neck. He cooked for us while Jonathan showed me round, my head a whirl of names: Kitaj, Ginsberg, Hockney, Bunting, but soon after eating he went to bed. Alone with Jonathan, in the part of the house they worked in, filled with books and records, each desk with its own electric typewriter, I wondered what would happen. Jonathan asked if I’d ever had a sauna. I hadn’t.
In the sauna, outside the house, we talked about my life, my future. It hadn’t occurred to me until we were both naked and aching with the heat that I might want to have sex with Jonathan – I was, after all, in love with Tom! – but it seemed entirely natural, and right, that after the sauna and a glass or two of single malt we should go to my bedroom, a small room with walls painted burnt orange next to the room in which Jonathan and Tom normally slept. It hadn’t occurred to me, either, how scared I was of what I’d done, and was about to do, until I was lying on top of Jonathan and snivelling into the hairs of his chest. Jonathan stroked my back, then scratched it gently. ‘You like that, don’t you?’ he whispered. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘You’re a brave boy,’ he said. ‘Am I?’ I said.
The next day Jonathan called the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco and arranged a job for me. I can’t afford the fare, I told him, but Jonathan smiled and said that didn’t matter; he’d pay for my ticket. That evening, Tom still in bed with flu, he drove me down to the local pub. Jonathan was a local celebrity – I imagine he was always that – and the people he introduced me to, bank managers, store owners, family doctors, treated me with a mixture of respect and contempt I’d never experienced before; respect for Jonathan tinged with contempt for me. It was understood that I’d become a protégé. Someone, cattily, wanted to know where Tom was. By the time we were back at the cottage and it was clear that, this evening, I’d sleep alone, I knew that I didn’t want to go to San Francisco at all. I wanted to pick up my own life once again and make it fit. Jonathan, to his credit, understood.
We wrote to each other a number of times afterwards and only lost touch when I really did leave Cambridge, at the appropriate time, with a degree, but I never saw Jonathan – or Tom – again. In his letters, Jonathan gently upbraided me for what he must have seen as a failure of will, hoping that I’d found my ‘Firbankian’ pleasures on the banks of the Cam. I’ve never felt Firbankian in my life, but I was certainly as ill-equipped for life as Firbank had been, and it’s to Jonathan’s credit that he gave me the chance to risk a little and then retreat. He was generous with his time, and his body, a difficult man, superb in the Italian sense of not brooking mediocrity, with that pinch of arrogance that all snobs need to survive. I’ve never regretted my weekend at Dentdale. My only regret is that it was never repeated, and now, that it never will be.
Englishman Charles Lambert is the author of a novel Little Monsters, and a collection of short fiction The Scent of Cinnamon and Other Stories. The story 'The Scent of Cinnamon' received a 2007 O. Henry Prize. Lambert has lived in central Italy since 1980. 'A Night in Cambridge' appeared on Lambert's blog A Place for Everything that Doesn't Fit Anywhere Else.