Kensington’s Messalina

Short story (I’ve made a promise to myself to write every week)

Jonathan Clary sits opposite the jeweller and gives him that long hard stare that only a mafia boss or lawyer can pull off. The jeweller knows the game, and doesn’t budge. “Five thousand quid.”

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“That’s gone up, Sid.” Jonathan replies, flipping his hand over on the counter to reveal his large, ugly rings. They’re gauche, but that was always the point. The upper classes don’t like those who try to fit in.

“Five thousand. If you don’t like it, see what Harry will take down at Wellingborough’s.” A threat, not a suggestion. No self-respecting starlet would ask for Wellingborough diamonds. Well, none that he would be interested in.

He takes out his wallet and pulls out the wad of notes, tapping them on the counter to relieve them of the white dust. He grins. “Late night at Annabels.” The jeweller looks at him, disgusted. “You should come along sometime, Sid. Get an autograph for the Mrs.”

“Get out.”

“Names, time and amount spent,” Jonathan replies, unfazed. “And mind you don’t go telling any journalists. I’ll find out, mate.” A quick wink and he stands up. “I know everyone.”

Indeed, if Jonathan Clary had been born on the right side of the Thames, he could have been an excellent secret agent. His little black book is legendary, filled with the details and scandals of a thousand foolish men. Every affair, every misguided business deal and every cocaine habit. He has a knack for playing the fool, starry eyed and simple, his mind racing for a profit. He reminded me of a racer snake, beady eyed and soulless in the pursuit of a fat mouse. Jonathan, his assistant would complain bitterly, was in love with money.

The names came through on the inside of an envelope at 4pm, the letter inside blank as usual. Safer that way.

Harry Lionel Willis, 4.13pm, £9800, cufflinks

James Tenslough, 5.39pm, £20,000, diamond bracelet

Lord Buxby, 6.15pm, £600,000, diadem

Jonathan nearly leapt out of his nylon shirt. Diadem. He swore loudly, running has hands through his hair. This was serious. No one buys the bit on the side a tiara. Bracelets, necklaces, trinkets, of course, but if a man buys a woman a diadem on the quiet, the mistress is about to create a vacancy.

He thought back to Lord Buxby’s soiree, the one where flying ants drowned in droves in the champagne and the women demanded ice cubes to cool their necks in the heat. Who was she? Who could she be? The pretty Villiers girl? No, too brash. She’d have gone to the papers by now. He was hunting for a viper, curled under her rock, ready to strike and take down her prey and his diamonds.

She’d been smart to evade him. He never let a smile or lingering hand on a shoulder go undocumented, unseen, unregistered. His mind lingered on the memory of the red wide mouth of a woman as she drank down her glass, merciless to the ants flitting inside. Eyes hard as his. A fellow snake.

He hadn’t bothered to record her. Uninteresting, early twenties, no doubt hoping to go home to her ponies and labrador. Red cheeked and better suited to life in a gillet and wellington boots than pearls and dreary quartets. Stupid, no doubt, he had thought, dismissing her with a thousand other simple gentry girls. But something about her hard gaze at him, unwavering as she drank her prey down, flexed in him.

Her name, what was her name? It wasn’t on the invitation cards, or invite list he had seduced off the housekeeper. He knew all these people, sagging and pouting through lives they loathed. She was absent. He could hardly ask if anyone remembered a red faced girl from last August. Too obvious, too sudden. He might as well call the press and ask them who Lord Buxby bought lingerie for.

No, now he needs to be cunning. If a woman was going to be wearing a diadem, what for, and with what? He glanced over the details of purchase notes. Green square cut emeralds with white diamond pear cut hoops. He grins. A little error, the one indiscretion in her plan. The only colour one can wear with emeralds is green. Silly girl. But then again, all women like that are prone to vanity clouding their judgement. Greed does strange things to people who can almost taste success.

He opens the door to Lisabetha’s casually, hiding his excitement. The thrill of the chase has set deep into him by now, his eyes gleaming in a way that would make men who knew what came next afraid. The girl behind the counter squints at him, biting her lip.

“Hello my love!” he says suavely, winking at her. “I was wondering if you and me could come to some sort of arrangement.” The girl blushes, pushing her glasses up her nose.

“I can’t do discounts sir. I’m part time.”

Jonathan laughs heartily, in a way I think he imagines sounds warm. “No, beautiful, I don’t need anything like that. I need-” He leans forward, pausing for effect. “A name.”

“What?”

“There’s fifty quid in it for you. No strings.”

“Who do you need?”

He grins. Young women are so easily bought. “Who came in ordering an emerald green dress?” The girl flushes, biting her lip in thought so deeply it goes crimson.

“Lillian-” She pauses, running her finger over the books. “Lillian Ruskley.” Jonathan winks, pulling a note from his pocket.

“Sorry about the powder,” he says cooly. “Wild night at Annabels. You should come along. Get an autograph for your Mr.”

The dinner party was the second last of the season. Lord Buxby had spared little expense, save from his wife’s gown. The eighty guests seemed world weary on arrival, bored of the city and ready to go home to the foxes, hounds and housekeeper’s beds. The only snippet of excitement lay in what the new blood would be wearing. At the end of the season, the gossip was always to be found in which unfortunate young creature had been forced to rewear a gown.

All Jonathan has to do now is to lie in wait and confront the viper in the emerald green dress.

He stands against the wall, feigning exhaustion as his reason for not joining in the lulling chatter. Women enter in all shades of black and navy, the occasional foolish child making a statement in beige or off white. You might as well wear a sack of potatoes, Lady Fairbank hisses to a giggling gallery owner. She will come, Jonathan tells himself. There’s money to be made tonight.

Suddenly, his eye captures a young woman with bright red hair and an emerald green dress. It suits her perfectly, her plump frame down several stone since the last August. She turns to him, gaze firm. He marches towards her, trying hard not to make his pursuit obvious.

“I know.” He hisses over her turned shoulder. “I know everything. The diamonds, the diadem, your little liaisons.” The woman turns to him, her face unreadable.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”

“Lillian,” he whispers, lingering on her name, “I can go to the papers now and tell them all about what you’ve done. Maybe the Times, maybe the Daily Mail. How you’ve broken poor Lady Buxby’s heart with your lecherous, greedy pursuit of his wealth and-”

The woman bursts out laughing, surprising him. “Lord Buxby?” She drinks deeply from her glass. “Why would I want Buxby when my fiancé owns half of Alaska?” She smiles at him, unwavering.

“No,” she says, her voice loud enough for the whole room to hear. “If you want to know which little hussy is sleeping with the old fool, I’ll tell you who she is. Gauche little harlot I’m afraid.”

Raising an arm dramatically to the left of her, a woman in an orange gown turns trembling to the hushed crowd. On her head are the green and white diamonds, shaking in the candlelight.

“Everyone!” Lillian crows. “May I introduce my sister, the next Lady Buxby.”

Written by

24 year old with an awful lot to say about everything. Opinions entirely my own. Usually. madelaine@madelainehanson.co.uk

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