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When I Was 21

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I think The Kingston Trio said it first. But then Frank Sinatra said it more eloquently, moving it from a major key to a minor key.

‘When I was twenty one, it was a very good year.

A very good year for city girls who lived up the stairs.’

And, yes, not only did the city girls live up the stairs, but they also – as Frank observed – had ‘perfumed hair’. (Hairspray, I presume.) And it did come undone – the hair, that is – when I was 21. But we’ll get to that in a moment or two.

Vanessa was a petite blonde, with small breasts and a boyish waist. Alison was taller, bustier, with dark, wavy hair. They were both senior lecturers – assistant professors, I guess we’d call them these days – at University College. And they were my upstairs neighbours.

My flat was the garden flat – which is estate agents’ speak for ‘basement flat’. Somehow, calling it ‘the garden flat’ made it sound less like a gloomy, potentially damp area tucked away below street level. But at least I got a small outdoor space with it. Not an actual garden. But a paved courtyard, big enough for a small table, a couple of chairs, and a few neglected pot plants. (I wasn’t much of a gardener when I was 21.)

The girls’ flat took up most of the ground floor and a large part of the first floor. Beside and above them, there was another large flat which the owner apparently kept as his ‘London townhouse’ – although, in the whole time that I lived in the Cramer Street building, I never actually saw him. Not once.

I first met Vanessa on the day I moved in. ‘Hi, I’m Vanessa,’ she said. ‘I’m your upstairs neighbour.’ She was with a lanky chap whom she introduced as Jack. I later found out that Jack was John Erskine, the composer of film scores. If you’ve ever seen ‘Too Many Mondays’, he’s the guy who wrote the music that makes the opening river scene so haunting. ‘We’ll have to have you up,’ Vanessa said. I assumed that ‘we’ somehow included lanky Jack.

Alison and I met a couple of days later when we both happened to arrive home at the same time. Alison was just about to put her key in the lock as I reached the gate at the top of the iron steps that led down to my own front door. ‘Oh, hello,’ she said. ‘Vanessa said that we had a new downstairs neighbour. Are you settling in OK?’ And then, almost as an afterthought, she added: ‘By the way, I’m Alison. We must get you up for a coffee or a drink or something. Perhaps a cocktail. You’d be a starter for a cocktail, wouldn’t you?’

‘Umm … yes. Yes. Thank you,’ I said.

Back in those days the southern end of Marylebone was pretty sleepy – well, except for Manchester Square, which had both the EMI building (of Beatles fame) and Hertford House, the home of The Wallace Collection. Back then, even Marylebone High Street was nothing like the bright bustling place that it has since become. But there were at least nine pubs in the vicinity. And one of my early missions was to set about seeing which would become my local.

I started with the pub on the corner of George and Manchester Streets, and then, over two or three weeks, I worked my way up from Marylebone Lane, up the High Street, and then zig-zagged my way across towards Baker Street. I seem to recall that The Barley Mow was about eighth on my list of possibles.

Vanessa was standing at the bar, talking to a stocky, balding chap with bushy eyebrows. Or, to be more precise, he was talking to her. Vanessa spotted me as soon as I walked in the door. She waved out. I didn’t intend to crash her party, but the only space at the bar was right next to her, and the barman was looking at me expectantly.

‘Hello,’ Vanessa said. ‘Sam, this is Henry. Henry also teaches at UCL.’

I held out my hand, but Henry ignored it. ‘Look, are we going to go and do it?’ he said, somewhat impatiently.

Vanessa smiled but shook her head. ‘No,’ she said softly.

‘No? But I thought you wanted to.’

‘You have a wife waiting. Remember?’

‘Oh well, I may as well push off then. I’ll see you on, umm, Friday.’

‘Possibly,’ Vanessa said. ‘Depends.’

‘On what?’

Vanessa just shrugged her shoulders.

‘Sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt,’ I said, as Henry departed.

Vanessa smiled and shook her head.

‘Can I get you a drink?’ I asked.

She frowned briefly, but then smiled again and said that she’d love a dry vermouth. On ice. I ordered a dry vermouth for Vanessa and a pint of best bitter for me. ‘So, is this the local, then?’ I said.

‘I guess so,’ Vanessa replied. ‘There’s no shortage of pubs around here, but this is probably the best of the bunch.’

For the next half an hour or so we sipped and chatted, and discovered that we shared a liking for the poetry of Roger McGough and Adrian Henri, the prose of JP Donleavy, and the music of Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, and Thelonius Monk. Not a bad start.

‘Another drink?’ I suggested. But Vanessa smiled, shook her head, and said that it was probably time that I walked her home. And so I did. And, being the gentleman that I was, I walked her right to her front door and waited while she found her key.

‘I assume you’re coming in,’ she said.

‘Am I?’

‘Oh, yes, I think so. You don’t have to be anywhere else, do you?’

‘Umm … no.’ I followed her into the flat and hovered while she put away her coat. I must admit that the first kiss was a bit of a surprise. One moment we were just standing there; the next moment she had her mouth all over mine. Not that I was complaining. It was just … well … a surprise.

‘How old are you?’ she asked. ‘Twenty four? Twenty five?’

‘Something like that,’ I said. (I guessed that she was in her mid-30s, so perhaps I needed to be a little older than 21.)

Vanessa smiled. ‘Oh well, it’s probably time that I tried a younger man. The older ones aren’t doing a lot for me.’ We kissed again, and then she took me by the hand and led me upstairs to her girly bedroom. And, after that, things just … well … happened. I don’t even remember there being much foreplay that first time. We just sort of took each other’s clothes off – most of them, anyway – and got down to business.

I was pretty inexperienced back then. I’d only had one sexual partner. And, to be honest, that hadn’t really been a great success. But with Vanessa everything just seemed to work. We just clicked. Tab A slipped into Slot B as though they had been designed for each other.

Looking back, I realise that the first time was a bit ‘wham bam’. But after we had recovered, we did it again – this time with a little more finesse.

We were sitting up in bed following our second session when the bedroom door opened and Alison came in holding up a magazine. ‘Have you seen this?’ she said. And then she saw me. ‘Oh. Sorry,’ she said. ‘I didn’t realise.’

‘That’s OK,’ Vanessa said. ‘We’re just taking a bit of a breather.’

Alison nodded. ‘Oh. Right. So … how are you, Sam?’

‘Yes. Good,’ I said. ‘Just taking a breather. Apparently.’

Alison smiled. ‘Oh well … good luck. Don’t peak too early.’

On Friday night I made another visit to The Barley Mow. The place was heaving. ‘Is this place always like this on a Friday?’ I asked one of the barmaids.

‘Generally not quite this rock ‘n’ roll,’ she said, with more than a hint of an Australian accent. ‘I gather the HTC blokes have won something or other. A bank, I think. They’ve been going since about three o’clock. Not that the boss is complaining.’


‘You know, Harrison Toomey? The advertising agency?’

‘Oh, right,’ I said. ‘Of course. They’re just around the corner, aren’t they?’ Funnily enough, I’d been offered a job at Harrison Toomey. But, in the end, I had decided to go with an offer from CDP – Collett Dickenson Pearce. They just seemed somehow … well, cooler. Being cool was important when I was 21.

For the next half an hour or so, I sipped my beer and carried on a much-interrupted conversation with the barmaid. It turned out that she was from a little seaside town near Sydney. Her name was Charlene, and she was a student at The Slade. But then her boyfriend arrived.

I toyed with the idea of having another pint, but eventually decided to head off to see if the delicatessen on Marylebone High Street was still open. It had been a long time since breakfast and I quite fancied the idea of a piece of rotisserie-cooked chicken. Happily, the deli was still open. Unhappily, they had sold out of chicken. I was just standing there trying to decide what else might make a satisfactory snack when a voice behind me said: ‘Decisions, decisions?’ It was Vanessa.

‘A bit like that,’ I said. ‘I had my mind set on some rotisserie-cooked chicken; but it’s all gone.’

‘Well, you’ll just have to come and have a picnic with me then.’

‘A picnic?’

Vanessa smiled and ordered three thick-cut slices of Wiltshire ham, some camembert, a baguette, and a pot of coleslaw. ‘Yes, that should do it,’ she said.

Back at the flat, she placed the camembert at one end of a large platter. Next to it she piled up crusty-edged bread slices cut from the baguette. And next to the bread she piled roughly torn pieces of the ham. Finally, she drained some of the surplus dressing from the coleslaw, and replaced it with the juice of half a lemon and a generous pinch of cayenne pepper.

‘Oh. And we’ll need something to drink, won’t we?’ she said. And she took a bottle of cava from the fridge and a couple of tumblers from one of the cupboards. ‘Not champagne, I’m afraid. At least not French champagne. But it’s a pleasant enough drop. And there are bubbles. You can take the platter. I’ll just get a couple of knives and some napkins.’

‘And where exactly am I taking the platter?’ I asked.

Vanessa frowned slightly. ‘The bedroom, of course. Where else would we picnic on a Friday night?’

Where else indeed?

I went up the stairs to Vanessa’s bedroom, and I was still standing there, wondering where to put the platter (all available surfaces seemed to be covered with either books or girly stuff), when Vanessa arrived with the wine and the napkins. ‘Just pop it on the bed,’ she said.

When I was 21, I hadn’t had a lot of experience of bedroom picnics with city girls who lived up the stairs. I placed the platter on the bed. And waited for my next … well … instruction, I suppose. It was not long in coming.

‘Be a good chap and open the wine, will you please, Sam?’ Vanessa said, as she kicked off her shoes and slipped out of her Mary Quant-inspired dress.

I hadn’t had a lot of experience of opening bottles of sparkling wine either. But I managed to remove the cork without spilling a single bead of the yeasty-smelling wine.

‘You’ve had practice,’ Vanessa said, with what I took to be a look of approval.

‘Not really.’

Vanessa just smiled her enigmatic smile and, now dressed only in her chocolate brown bra with deep pink trim, and matching knickers, she settled herself on the bed beside the picnic platter.

I handed her a glass of cava.

‘Cheers,’ she said. ‘Here’s to Friday nights. I don’t know about you, but I’m famished.’

Even with the lingering taste of best bitter on my tongue, the cava was very nice – refreshing, toasty, and with a hint of both apples and lemon zest. ‘This is nice,’ I said.

‘Try it with a piece of the ham.’ And to demonstrate, Vanessa tore off a strip, threw back her head, and dropped the delicate pink and white morsel onto her tongue. ‘Mmm. Perfect,’ she said. ‘Not too salty. It’s hard to beat a nice bit of Wiltshire cured ham. And I like the way in which the cava balances the fattiness.’

She was right. They went together perfectly. ‘And how do we eat the coleslaw?’ I asked.

‘Any way you like. You can use your fingers. I can get you a fork. Or, like me, you can just scoop a bit out with a piece of the bread.’

I gave the bread method a try. And, yes, it was another great choice. Creamy and crunchy. And then with a little rush of citrus, and finally the lingering heat from the cayenne. The perfect prelude to another mouthful of the chilled cava.

It may have been my first duvet picnic, but I hoped that it would not be my last. It was fun!

‘So, are you going to take your clothes off?’ Vanessa asked.

‘Am I?’ (The cava was beginning to work.)

‘I hope so. Well, at least some of them anyway.’

‘My boots?’

‘Oh, yes.’


‘Definitely. I’ve never understood why some men think it’s OK to keep their socks on while having sex. Women, stockings, yes. You like stockings, don’t you, Sam? But men, socks, no.’

I nodded. To be honest – and call me naïve – but I hadn’t been that sure that we were going to have sex. Yes, we had done it earlier in the week. But when I was 21, I didn’t really take anything for granted. I took off my shoes and socks, and my red plaid trousers.

‘Have you had enough for the moment?’ Vanessa asked.

‘I think so,’ I said. (I assumed that she was talking about the picnic.)

‘In that case, I’ll put the platter over here in the corner. We might feel peckish later.’

As I started unbuttoning my shirt, Vanessa went over to the chest of drawers and fished out a rather skimpy suspender belt and a pair of stockings. The suspender belt was also chocolate brown with deep pink embroidery decoration and looked as if it had been part of the same set as the bra and knickers. Off came her knickers, and on went the suspender belt, followed by the stockings. ‘There. What do you think?’

‘Pretty nice,’ I said. ‘In fact, very nice indeed.’

Vanessa glanced at herself in the full length mirror and smiled her little smile. ‘Yes. I think so too.’ And then she threw back the duvet, stacked up some pillows, lay back, and spread her legs. ‘There’s a nice spot for you just here,’ she said, patting her blonde-furred pussy. I didn’t need a second invitation. I knelt between her stocking-topped thighs and put my tongue to work exploring her pink crevice. ‘Oh, yes,’ she said. ‘Oh, yes, yes, yes!’

As I’ve already said, prior to meeting Vanessa, my sexual experience was rather limited. Discounting three or four girls who I had sort of finger fucked, there was only Chrissy. And Chrissy wasn’t much into cunnilingus. She never said why. I just assumed that I wasn’t doing it properly. And yet, with Vanessa, there I was doing the same thing and getting serious sighs and squeals of delight right from the start.

After about 15 minutes, however, my jaw was starting to ache and I thought that I was going to have to take a little break. I gave her one last serious tongue-tickle. And, somewhat to my surprise, that was all it took. The next thing I knew, Vanessa was pushing my head into her crotch while squealing and laughing and shuddering. I think it would be safe to say that we ‘got across the line’. ‘Oh, fuck, yes,’ she said.


‘Oh, better than OK,’ she said. ‘In fact much better. OK doesn’t even begin to describe how that feels.’

For a few minutes we both just lay where we were – she reclining on the pillows; me with my head between her thighs – recovering, I suppose. But then it was time to get back to business.

‘Right … now I want you inside me,’ Vanessa said. ‘And I want to watch.’ And with that, she got up and picked up an oval wooden-framed hand mirror from the bedside table. ‘Are you ready?’ she said. She got onto to her hands and knees – well, her knees, anyway – and one hand – the other hand was holding the mirror – and she presented me with her pulchritudinous posterior.

I got to my knees and gave my half-hard cock a couple of encouraging pumps – probably more than a couple, if I’m honest. The manual stimulation and the sight of Vanessa’s beautiful pink pussy surrounded by her now-plump blonde-furred outer lips did the trick. I was ready to go.

‘Oh, yes,’ she said. ‘That looks good, so good. Your lovely cock. My wet and waiting pussy.’

‘Ready?’ I said.

‘What do you think?’

Vanessa was right: it did look good. Slowly, I pushed the head of my cock into her lubricious cunt. And when I withdrew it, a few moments later, it glistened with pussy juices. On my next thrust, I went a little deeper. And after that, a little deeper again. Until, after several leisurely strokes, I was going balls deep. ‘Still looking good?’

‘Oh, yes,’ Vanessa said softly. ‘Fucking fantastic.’ (And it felt fucking fantastic too.)

The following morning, just as I was about to head for home – downstairs – Vanessa gave me a sisterly little peck on the cheek. ‘That was … umm … fun,’ she said. ‘We should do it again sometime.’ I was half expecting her to say something like: ‘Come up this evening. About seven o’clock. Don’t be late.’ But she didn’t.

‘Yes. We should,’ I said, trying to sound suave and sophisticated. (I spent quite a lot of time trying to sound suave and sophisticated when I was 21.)

I didn’t see Vanessa at all during the week. But then, on the way home – well, sort of – on Friday night, I slipped into The Barley Mow for a quick pint. Charlene was just pulling me a pint of Pedigree when Vanessa suddenly appeared at my elbow. ‘Oh, good. I’m glad I found you.’

‘Was I lost?’ I said.

‘Vanessa smiled her little smile. ‘You know what I mean,’ she said.

‘Can I get you a drink?’

She looked at her watch. ‘Umm … yes. Thank you. A Campari and soda. But then we must get down to the deli. I asked them to keep us a small rotisserie-cooked chicken.’

And so began our little Friday night ritual: a drink – sometimes two – at The Barley Mow; a detour via the High Street deli for some finger food; and then back to the upstairs flat to eat, drink, and enjoy some great sex. In the morning, I would go downstairs to my garden flat. And it would be all over for another week.

One Sunday morning, about six weeks into the ‘relationship’, I was about to head off to have Sunday lunch with my aunt in South Kensington, and on the way I thought I’d drop off a new Ted Hughes book that I had mentioned to Vanessa. I pressed her doorbell and, after about thirty seconds, a crackly voice said: ‘Oh, hello. Come in.’ The street door clicked and I went in. Vanessa, dressed in her wrap-around bathrobe, was standing at the door to the flat.

‘Oh, gosh. I hope I didn’t wake you,’ I said.

‘No, no. We were just reading.’

I nodded. ‘I’m just on my way over to have lunch with my aunt, and I thought I’d drop in this Ted Hughes book we were talking about.’

‘Oh, great. Thank you. Have you got time for a quick coffee?’

‘Well, yes. Just a quick one. Thank you.’ I followed Vanessa into the kitchen and watched and chatted while she made three cups of Nescafe instant coffee.

‘We’ll take them upstairs,’ she said.

I followed her up to her bedroom where I was surprised to see Alison sitting up in bed reading a book with a distinctive Olympia Press cover.

‘Oh, hello, Sam. You’re out and about early.’

I explained that I was on my way over to South Kensington to have lunch with my aunt.

‘Is she a good cook?’ Alison asked. ‘Or is this family duty.’

‘Both,’ I said. ‘So, not quite the onerous duty that it might be.’

Alison took a sip of the coffee that Vanessa had handed her, and then reached across and put the mug on the bedside table. As she did so, the duvet fell away, revealing her ample – and naked – breasts. I tried not to stare. And I tried not to seem surprised when Vanessa took off her bathrobe and slipped her naked body under the duvet next to Alison’s (presumably) naked body.

‘So … what are you reading?’ I asked Alison.

‘Oh, just some smut. It’s not that good actually. A bit predictable. I’m almost finished. You can borrow it, if you like. I’ll drop it down to you sometime.’

‘Thank you,’ I said. (Oh, yes. I was quite the man of the world – when I was 21.)

In the early days of our ‘relationship’, I used to wonder how it might develop; but the longer it went on, the more I realised that it just was what it was. In my mind, I could picture Vanessa and I, in four or five years’ time, still following our Friday night routine and then living more or less separate lives from Saturday morning until the following Friday. But I should have known that nothing stays the same for ever. And one Friday night, towards the end of September, when Vanessa was riding my cock cowgirl-style, she quietly announced that she was going out to Australia.

‘Oh. How long for?’ I asked.

‘Not sure,’ she said. ‘I’ve been offered a temp position at The University of New South Wales. But if it all works out, it could become permanent.’

‘I see. When do you have to go?’

‘Not for another three weeks.’

I must confess that, for a few days after that, I did consider whether perhaps I too should go out to Australia. We had a couple of Aussie guys working at CDP, and they certainly made it sound like a great place. But then I thought: If Australia is that great, what are these guys doing here in London? No, moving to Australia wasn’t really an option. Not a serious one. The Vanessa chapter of my life was going to have to come to an end.

And if it was going to come to an end, at least it should come to an end on a high. It should end in style. I made a Friday-night booking for two at Scrivano’s, the Michelin-starred restaurant in the then not-so-fashionable Notting Hill.

‘Will I have to wear a tiara?’ Vanessa said.

‘Well, up to you,’ I said. ‘My only suggestion would be: don’t wear knickers.’

‘It’s a deal,’ she said.

In some ways, dinner at Scrivano’s was not that different from supper at Vanessa’s. We started with a couple of glasses of Veurve Clicqot. (Vanessa chose it for the dark yellow label.) Then we moved on to some oysters, followed by calf’s liver with sweet and sour onions and polenta. To wash it down, a glass or two of schiava.

‘I’m going to miss our Friday nights,’ I said.

‘Yes. I’m sure that I will miss them too. But life is life, and life goes on. And, anyway, I’m sure that you will find someone else with whom you can picnic on Friday nights.’

In the back of the cab, on our way home from the restaurant, Vanessa sat prim and upright, looking out the window as though she was seeing London’s West End for the very first time. She also discreetly reached out and took my hand, which she placed between her slightly parted thighs. I had forgotten all about ‘no knickers’ – until, that is, my fingers discovered unguarded access to her soft, furry honeypot.

Back at the flat we made sure that we got our money’s worth from the oysters – starting with a frantic fuck up against the wardrobe door. (It seemed a pity not to take advantage of the height-equalising properties of Vanessa’s high-heeled shoes.) And then, the following morning, Vanessa and I took the train to Gatwick.

‘You don’t have to come,’ she said. ‘I’ve been on aeroplanes before you know.’

‘I do know,’ I said. ‘But I’m sure that you’ve never had this much luggage before.’

Vanessa just smiled her little smile.

The following week was all go at CDP. We had two big new business pitches going on; and, somehow, I had managed to get involved in both of them. We had late nights on Monday and Tuesday, and on Wednesday night I didn’t even manage to make it home. But, by mid-afternoon on Friday, it was all over. About a dozen of us headed off to The Duke for a restorative ale and a bag of crisps. And then, somewhere about five o’clock I walked back over to Marylebone.

My intention had been to go home and maybe even go straight to bed. But, probably out of habit, I ended up popping into The Barley Mow. There was no sign of Charlene, but the new girl, Morag, seemed nice enough. I ordered a pint of Pedigree and set up camp at one end of the bar. I’d probably been there for the best part of three-quarters of an hour when a voice behind me said: ‘Oh, good. Vanessa said that I’d probably find you here.’ It was Alison.

‘Hello,’ I said. ‘Can I get you a drink?’

‘Thank you. A white wine spritzer. Yes. That would be perfect. Oh, and by the way, I picked up some Quiche Lorraine and some potato salad. I hope that’s OK.’

Quiche Lorraine? Potato salad? Why was she asking…? And then the penny dropped. Vanessa had said that she was sure that I would find someone else with whom to picnic on Friday nights. ‘Yes. Yes, perfect,’ I said. ‘I’ll pop into the off licence on the way back and grab a bottle of wine.’

Yes, Frank, you got it spot on.

‘When I was twenty one, it was a very good year.

A very good year for city girls who lived up the stairs.’

When I was 21.

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