Valentine was adjusting his tie whilst standing in front of the mirror in the parlour of the house in Clerkenwell. As ever, he looked impeccable but I wondered, not for the first time, how old he was. Twenty nine? Early thirties? It was difficult to tell and he was always rather evasive on the subject. In younger people that's usually a sign of wanting to appear older and, of course in the old, the reverse is true but he didn't particularly seem of an age when it would matter - or the type to care anyway.
Rudge, his valet, bustled in with the drinks tray. He winked at me in that slightly insinuating way of his. I disliked him on instinct. He related to me as if I was a source of some amusement or as if there were some complicity between us.
"Thanks old man"
Valentine turned from the mirror and took a glass from the proferred tray.
"Why not have one yourself?"
He grinnned knwingly when he said this and the valet looked slightly sheepish. Nevertheless, after offering me a glass he set the tray on the antique sideboard and poured himself one too.
We clinked and drank.
Suddenly, I realised Valentine was looking me up and down.
"You're not going out dressed like that are you old sport?"
I bristled slightly
"Er, yes, why not?"
"Oh, it will never do my dear. The place we are going is very particular, very particular indeed and besides..."
He paused delicately.
"Streetware is all very well for Clerkenwell Road and Shoreditch and all that but we'll look a fine pair with me done up to the nines and you looking so..."
He paused again, searching for the right word.
"...so ahem, hip"
"Well I haven't got time to get home to change now - we'll be late"
"Oh, don't worry about that old sport, We'll fix you up - won't we Rudge?"
I could sense rather than see Rudge smirking behind him.
"Of course , we will Mr Rose, of course we will!"
Valentine could tell I was put out but remained firm.
"Now come on, Pilgrim, finish your drink - in fact, have another - "
he signalled to Rudge
" - and then we'll have you spick and span in an instant"
He turned back to the mirror as if the matter were settled and began to fix his tie pin. I had to admit he looked beautifully elegant and I was acutely aware of the contrast of the creases and fluff and general unkemptness of my own attire. I gave in.
"Oh Fuck it, ok then"
He looked at me via the mirror and grinned. I finished my drink. Rudge put the glasses back on the tray, walked to the door and held it open for me.
We walked down the stone flagged passage to the stairs and climbed to the first floor. On the way we passed Valentine's gallery of ancestral paintings and I noted again how strong the resemblance was between him and his forbears - even the women shared his aquiline features and slightly other-worldly look. But I also noticed something else - something that had never struck me before. Rudge saw me looking and stopped.
"Was that a family tradition - to have their portrait painted at a certain time in their lives?"
I indicated the painted figures
"They're all the same age aren't they?"
He appeared to be about to splutter with laughter.
"Well, yes, I suppose you could say that sir!"
We climbed to the second storey. There was dark wood on the floor and less panelling than the storeys beneath but there were the same high ceilings and large windows. At the end of a passage through double oak doors lay Valentine's bedroom. I was intrigued to see this room where he slept, dressed, undressed, presumably made love and was at his most private. I suppose I was expecting something exotic - a boudoir perhaps - but in fact, the room was rather simple. There were a few items of old furniture with the odd modern piece here and there and a few objects scattered around - a dog's skull, a single lace glove, an old fashioned hypodermic syringe, the bust of a young girl, a pair of embroidered slippers, a painted ostrich egg covered in spidery hand writing - curious things. By the bed there was a small writing desk with a large diary lying open and on a shelf above were a few of Valentine's ubiquitous travel books. The bed itself looked impeccable - almost as if had never been slept in.
Rudge beckoned me to a corner where there was another door. Through this was the dressing room. This was really more of a corridor leading to what looked like a bathroom at the far end with tall dark doors lining the walls. Rudge opened a few of these and inside I could see rails of clothes in the velvet lined interior. They gave off a pleasant, luxurious smell and I thought briefly and painfully of the mountain of discarded worn items in the corner of my own bedroom.
One particular closet seemed full of fancy dress clothes - albeit extremely expensive ones: a restoration era cape; a Victorian top hat; an ancient cane; riding boots - even what looked like doublet and hose. I reached out to touch.
"Er, no sir"
Rudge coughed and put his arm firmly between me and the outfits.
"Mr Rose, doesn't mean these things."
I looked at him slightly startled. He winked that wink of his.
He held out a couple of jackets. They were sixties style, mod cut, single breasted with a ticket pocket. They were beautifully made in expensive fabric and seemed my size. I chose the darker and tried it on. Rudge helped me - his hands darting here and there, straightening, adjusting, brushing me down. Seeing the liver spots on his skin and thinking of my earlier reflections, I suddenly asked him:
"Rudge, how old are you?"
He paused a moment
"Oh getting on sir, getting on"
"Yes, but how old exactly?"
He looked up reluctantly.
"About seventy five"
"What? You are not. No way. Come on - tell me the truth."
He looked down again.
"Maybe I'm even older."
He seemed sincere and I was astounded.
"Well you don't look it. I never would have had you a day over fifty"
"Thank you sir."
"Well what did you do before you were with Mr Rose?"
"Before Mr Rose sir? Oh that was a very long time ago!"
"Well he's about the same age as me right? So it can't have been that long ago - were you around when he was a child or something?"
"A child sir?"
He laughed as though the very thought were ridiculous.
"Well then, when?"
"Oh Mr Rose was quite grown when we met sir, quite grown"
I found his evasiveness and hints more and more irritating. He bugged the hell out of me and even though it wasn't really appropriate, I thought I would just keep pressing until I got something definate from him for once.
"Ok. Very specifically then. Tell me. How.. do .. you .. know .. him?"
He picked up two ties from a rail and flicked away an imaginary piece of dust from one. I waited. He handed me the tie.
"Very well sir"
He looked drectly at me.
"He's my great grandfather."