Chapter 67: Silk Pyjamas and Lies About Agas
London to Peterborough
A strimmer buzzed on the Redbridge roundabout and it smelt of hot cut grass. Decapitated doc leaves and dandelions were strewn across the cycle path. Their fragrance gave the scene a thicker, juicier smell than you normally get from cut grass. I noticed a needle in the shadow of the curb and on one of the pillars of the bridge it said “I hope you never fit in.”
It was August and a Thursday and I was headed for Norfolk. I’d never hitchhiked from Redbridge before. In fact I’d never caught a ride inside the M25. I wasn’t sure it could be done but I’d studied the map carefully and decided this was the best place for it. There was a nearby train station too should it all go wrong, that’s always reassuring. But as usual, I needn’t have worried.
The car cut from the outside lane straight to the hard shoulder. It thread a narrow line through the traffic. I chased it down. It wasn’t the first to stop but it was the first going the right direction. The driver said he was going to Nottingham. It wasn’t Norfolk but it was good enough for now.
Julian was a young man. He wore a T-shirt vest and pinstriped trousers and his long hair fell over his ears. His silver jewellery caught in the sunlight. “I saw you there and asked myself, ‘What would my mum do in this situation?’” He laughed, “She would definitely stop!”
We fell into conversation easily, as if we’d known each other a while. He was on his way to Nottingham from his place in East London. It was a journey he made often, his family was based there and they had a business together which had been his father’s before he passed. They made dressing gowns.
I’ve always loved dressing gowns. There’s something so beautifully leisured about them. It’s perhaps indicative of my time at university that I had more dressing gowns than jumpers. I took Julian through my collection with great pride. My Mongolian del kept me warm on cold mornings and my Uzbek silk gown was better suited to the daytime. The shorter cotton towelling number meanwhile was ideal for the bedroom-shower commute. I’ll never forget being shouted at for wearing the Uzbek one to Tesco one languid afternoon. The woman was gobsmacked then livid at the sight of someone holding a pizza in the bread aisle standing in their dressing gown. The outburst so shook me my collection has remained firmly inside ever since. Probably, in all fairness, where they belong. Sadly pokey London rented rooms aren’t their proper environment. It’s rare any get worn these days.
Julian’s dressing gowns were proper dressing gowns. Beautifully crafted pieces with swirling patterns and gorgeous drapes, handmade from silk jacquard, cashmere, velvet, satin or any of the other fine fabrics. They’ve been worn by many a great, royalty and Elton John included.
The company had been set up in the 80s by his father. Julian told me about him reverently and he sounded like a fascinating man. He was born in Ireland to a mother who was impregnated by a doctor on an operating table. The details were unknown because the child was adopted by a bishop and his wife. It was a colourless existence for the most part, the bishop and his wife wore grey jumpsuits during the week. Julian thought they probably ate nothing but mash and peas. But on the weekends, they’d open the cupboards and take out these beautiful tunics, gold laced and emerald green, roman purple and regal red. There had been a magnificent ritual to it. The unlocking of the cupboard, the undergarments, sliding on the ring. It was a ceremony. It’s little wonder he went on to make dressing gowns. They’re the closest thing to episcopal tunics a layman could wear these days.
We were on the M11 driving north, only a few miles from my parents’ house. I’d driven this stretch of road countless times. There was a brown sign to Wimpole Hall and Julian said he’d always wanted to go. I said confidently I knew the area like the back of my hand. “Nice,” he replied, “is it just round here?” - “Err,” I said back, suddenly realising I didn’t actually know. We came off the motorway anyway and followed the signs. We thought we’d check it out, we just wanted to see the front. I did my best at being tour guide, “I think it was Robert Walpole’s house…” I said but it turned out it wasn’t.
We couldn’t see the house from the car park so we got out to try and catch a glimpse from the visitor centre. Julian grabbed a black denim jacket draping it over his shoulder and we ambled up to one of the stewards. She said we couldn’t just look at the house, we needed a ticket. They were £18. We thanked her and casually sidled away to the side of the visitor centre, disappointed our detour had come to nothing.
Behind the centre was a black metal fence. We approached it chatting away. Then we stopped, looked at each other, and without hesitating nimbly hopped over it. The steward hadn’t seen a thing. I confided I’d never broken into a National Trust property before. Neither had he.
We saw the front of the house and bought two coffees and bananas from a van by the stables. The man didn’t normally sell bananas but he had them for crepes so didn’t mind. As we went Julian told me about his music career. That was his real love. He’d been a sound engineer in the past and was a guitarist too.
He played with an artist called Sínead O’Brien and had for several years. She used to be a fashion designer and was only 24 when she became a senior designer for Vivienne Westwood. She was a poet at heart though so quit to pursue it. During lockdown, she’d send lyrics to Julian who’d work on licks to play behind. They’d made two albums together. The second had just come out and they’d spent the year on tour. At one point they were supporting Jules Holland. “It was kinda weird,” he remembered, “You’d be in the dressing room and he’d come in and chat and you’d be like, ‘Am I dreaming?’”
Julian’s unlit cigarette was hanging heavily in his hand. He’d been trying to smoke it for over an hour but neither of us had a lighter. We thought we’d try the gift shop for matches. There were tweed caps, jigsaw puzzles and pots of fancy marmalade, but there were no matches. The ladies behind the till said he couldn’t smoke around here anyway. It had been hot and most of the lawns were yellow and dry. “I wasn’t going smoke,” Julian said sweetly, feigning innocence, “I, err, needed them for the stove back home…” - “Ooo,” the ladies replied excitedly, “That’s old fashioned, a stove you need matches for!” Refusing to give away he just fancied a fag, Julian ran further into the story and before he knew it was waist-deep in an elaborate lie about Agas, about which, it turned out, the two ladies knew a great deal.
We extricated ourselves awkwardly and went back to the car. Julian unpacked the boot on the tarmac and found a lighter. As he did so he showed me a couple of beautiful silk pyjama sets. They looked more like suits and he said he often wore them on stage.
I decided Peterborough was the best place to be dropped so we set off out the car park. “Well,” Julian summarised, “I’m glad we scratched that itch…I guess. I mean it was a pretty meaningless itch but never mind!” Neither of us were in a rush.
Julian played Sínead O’Brien on the stereo and we passed songs back and forth as we went. He told me about his photography too. He did a lot and was always taking pictures of his friends. He told me about an ex-girlfriend whom he’d met at a music festival. He’d eaten some mushrooms and remembered seeing her wearing this green hoodie and he thought she looked like some sort of alien. She was in a band called Wet Leg and they were up and coming at the time. They didn’t go out long, only six months, and it was tricky going out with a musician riding a breaking wave. “It was a crazy time of my life man,” he reflected. He didn’t have any regrets. They both knew from the start the relationship would be difficult. Her manager knew it too and told her so.
Nevertheless, he left a small mark on the band. It was his photograph they used for their album cover - a flash shot of the two band members arm in arm. If you look inside the cover you’ll find his name. He laughed at the thought. “Yeah, I mean it’s kinda crazy to think about,” he said again slightly bemused. They were on tour at that moment with Harry Styles. “When you see Jimmy Fallon holding up your photograph, it’s pretty surreal…!”
We found the junction I was looking for. I’d been at the same place a few months before when hitching through the Fens. I’d caught a ride that day and I hoped I would again. We said goodbye and promised to stay in touch. Before I went he got me to sign a cigarette pack. I drew a bad cartoon of a thumb and scribbled my name with my green whiteboard pen.
“Man I feel like we had a lot in common,” he said as we shook hands, “It was great hanging.” We wished each other luck and went our separate ways.
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