The Square on the River

Submitted into Contest #98 in response to: Set your story on (or in) a winding river.... view prompt


Creative Nonfiction Funny

During the early 2000s not long after moving to London from Cardiff, on a rainy, dull Saturday afternoon I sneaked in through the gates of Dolphin Square and found myself in one of the most glorious gardens I had ever seen. I felt sure my friend had made a huge mistake by telling me to get a flat here. This was not for the likes of me - it was - posh. I was convinced if someone saw me in the gardens complete with tourist book in hand I would be marched out of the garden and told not to come back. However, I was persuaded by my friend that this was exactly the right place for me and within a month I had moved into a flat in Collingwood House, Dolphin Square, London.

Dolphin Square comprised a large block of private flats set alongside the River Thames in Pimlico, close to Westminster in Central London. It was built in the mid-1930s and until fairly recently was the most the developed garden square in London. The complex during my time comprised as well as private housing; a swimming pool, several bars (including a champagne bar), brasserie, a Michelin-starred restaurant, gymnasium, and a shopping arcade that had at least two shops dedicated to the purchase of alcohol, small supermarkets, ice cream and sweet shops, and a Tourist Agency. The tennis court and croquet lawn overlooked the River Thames. We also had a bank, a hairdresser, superb beauty salon/spa, and obviously the shirt ironing service and dry cleaners. So you could, should you wish, never leave the Square. The Square itself comprised 13 separate houses, an hotel, and was 9 floors high, the top floor flats usually had their own private gardens. By using the ground floor or the basement you could walk the whole Square without ever leaving the building. For myself this was a godsend, and once when unwell, I got out my sick bed and slipped on my dressing-gown and slippers and within the comfort of the wonderfully warm building, walked through the corridors to the pharmacist in our shopping arcade, bought medicine and then popped next-door to the supermarket for my required essentials. No-one thought it at all strange that I was wandering into the shops in my nightclothes despite being in the middle of Central London. The longer I lived in Dolphin Square the more eccentric I found it - and the more I fitted in. In the basement linking the 13 houses was the launderette and an enormous car park, and lots of mysterious rooms housing many small business headquarters. In the extensive parking garage prominently displayed were large old fashioned notices telling all car owners not to leave their travel rugs in their cars, but instead give them to the Garage Attendant who would ensure the rugs were well-aired prior to the car owner requiring them again. They were clearly 1930s-1950s notices but as they had never been removed I had to assume some residents still demanded the Attendant air their travel rugs. 

Here in the basement was the ‘life’s blood’ of Dolphin Square, the Club Houses comprising the Bridge Club, Chess Club, Wine Club, Book and Library Club and the Dolphin Square Social Club. These Clubs were run by the ‘Old Guard’ who genuinely had names like Puffy, Bonzo, Tuppy or Gussie and Stiffy. The Clubs’ Chairman or Chairwoman was someone with the the grand title of Lady So-and-So or Lord So-and-So - they were never ever referred to by their first names and I think had we any idea what their names might be, they would have been totally shocked at any attempt to say ‘Good morning Cecil’ or ‘Good morning Aurelia’.

So how did I fit in? I fitted in perfectly. Dolphin Square was the epitome of my snobbish and pretentious ego-driven self. I felt I had reached the summit of my slow torturous climb through life. By moving into the Square I immediately achieved the coveted SW1 London address and promptly overnight became a patronising elitist. Yes, I fitted in perfectly, Due to the high ranking church personnel, Government and Intelligent Officials staying in Dolphin Square, when Princess Margaret the Queen’s sister died, prior to any other public announcement at all in the UK, Dolphin Square mysteriously began to fly its Union Jack at half-mast in recognition that a high ranking member of the Royal Family had recently died. Popping through the gardens it was easy to seek out the ‘Old Guard’ who couldn’t wait to share the news of Princess Margaret’s death, and we now simply had the annoyance of waiting for the BBC to tell us something we already knew. Why shouldn’t we know first? We lived in Dolphin Square!

Dolphin Square was within walking distance to both Houses of Parliament - House of Commons and House of Lords. I worked in the City and the route to work passed Westminster Cathedral, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace and St James Park. Occasionally I would catch the number 86 bus which would travel alongside the River Thames and then pass the headquarters of the intelligence agencies, MI5 on the north side of the river, and directly opposite was MI6 (the fictional offices of James Bond and M). In Dolphin Square I knew we had some high ranking Intelligence personnel but these were well guarded secrets and just not talked about (except in very whispered tones!). As I had always thought that MI5 and MI6 were highly secret agencies the shock of catching the 86 bus for the first time and hearing the driver shouting at the top of his voice ‘MI5, MI5, anyone for MI5?’ and watching open-mouthed as half the bus would empty. Were all these shuffling people in very smart suits - spies? Was that Miss Moneypenny? Excluding me not one person seemed to take any notice that we were watching the MI5 Intelligence Agency clocking in for work. It also turned out that the Tourist Agency in the Shopping Arcade frequently did bookings for MI5 and MI6. Armed with this knowledge I have never been able to regard James Bond in the same way knowing, that had he existed in real life, the exotic locations the spy was sent to would quite likely have been booked by ‘Gay Mark’ in Dolphin Square. All the Old Guard who had been in the Square for many years apparently were aware of everything going on within the Square, and as far as I could tell, were privy to half of the country’s intelligence and government secrets. It seemed that whilst playing bridge, chess, or getting sloshed in the Wine Club secrets were shared and exposed. 

Hidden from obvious public view, in the middle of the Square extending over 3.5 acres, were the most stunning Grade II listed communal gardens.  From my 4th floor window my flat looked at the Dolphin Fountain which was placed centrally and surrounded by fixed benches and peopled by at least a scattering of personalities. Not a day passed that I didn’t revel that I overlooked one of most wonderful views in the centre of London. The gardens were a mixture of formal and informal planting with a fabulous expanse of lawn, and were constantly cosseted and pampered by the gardeners. On a hot, sunny day there was almost not a blade of grass to be seen. It seemed that the residential entirety of the Square had abandoned their flats and were now part of the tableau entitled ‘Human at Play’ which used every section of the huge garden. By coming together we depicted one of the strangest cross-sections of wacko eccentrics happily sitting cheek by jowl with pretentious neighbours who proudly displayed the many traits of unprogressive traditionalism rife within Dolphin Square.  Most residents happily lived out their days in a by-gone era ranging from the 1930s - 1990s but stopping short of the 2000s. Once in the gardens many of the ‘youngsters’ (in my early 50s so here I include myself) laid flat out on blankets or sun loungers, whilst the Old Guard provided their own luxurious garden chairs and divans. The ‘hip problem brigade’ tended to sit on the numerous fixed benches around the gardens. Picnic Baskets clearly marked ‘Harrods’ or ‘F&M (Fortnum and Masons) which must have been acquired in the 1930s when the owners were considerably younger would appear; whilst others carried their picnics in a variety of supermarket plastic bags. There were two or three cafes within the shopping arcade of the Square and these would happily deliver soft drinks and ice creams. The residents sprawling in the gardens either represented the recovering alcoholics, some newly released from The Priory, and now safely back home to the loving arms of Recovery Towers (as Dolphin Square was often affectionately known); whilst at the other end of the scale were residents who were some the heaviest drinkers I have ever seen. These residents with their cut-glass accents were perfectly behaved and capable of standing, backs erect and legs sturdy, despite the mammoth ‘picnic’ session of booze and could march across the lawns, avoiding those ‘sleeping it off’, and return without mishap to their respective flats. Whatever had been imbibed, be it water, coca cola, wine, beer, or the big favourite of the Square Pimm’s No 1 (a gin liqueur), all of the residents seemed extraordinarily courteous and considerate of others and the main noise throughout the hot, sultry afternoon would have been one of happy conversations and laughter frequently peppered with quite loud snoring. At the end of the afternoon there wasn’t a scrap of rubbish, empty bottles or beer cans anywhere to be seen as all took a pride in the magnificent gardens. We all knew our gardeners and our porters and as they treated us with exaggerated respect - in return we treated them as almost equals! 

 The environs surrounding the Square were highly agreeable and advantageous to all residents. We were a short walk to Pimlico Tube Station which allowed us to skip from one end of London to the other in minutes, numerous buses whose routes took us through some of the most famous tourist sites London has to offer; and the London black Hackney Cabs buzzing round looking for fares. For the religious there was a large beautiful church, for the gambler numerous ‘betting’ shops. This was an area that regularly featured on the front of all national and international newspapers or magazines as Princess Diana worked here at the children’s nursery prior to her marriage to Prince Charles. Hence on a Saturday and Sunday this area was full of tourists doing the ‘Princess Di walk’. Close by is the very famous Tate Art Gallery, not only known for its amazing collection of pictures and statues but also its restaurant and cafes. My very first and last internet date took place here. The only attributes required I felt was a good sense of humour and at least some slight appreciation of the arts - but my date spent a solid hour complaining about the state of the world before I was even allowed to open my mouth!

To live in the Square was to love it and I slowly began to stay within its gates for longer and longer periods. My horrendous job had me working at least a 60 hour week in the City so I always looked forward to staggering home to the easy comfort of the Square. I had a strong infatuation for the very flirtatious man who lived on the opposite side of the gardens to me. Romantically we first met in the launderette, he in his dressing gown meticulously folding and ironing his sheets. From there we kept bumping into each other in the gardens and slowly began to share a regular smoked salmon picnic. It didn’t last that long but I still have fond memories of sitting in those fabulous gardens with the man of that particular moment. Dolphin Square provided lots of friends, entertainment, picnics and loads of social events provided by the Dolphin Square Social Club. 

The biggest event was the Annual Summer Evening Party and usually a member of Royalty was invited to open the event. On this particular occasion we had the Countess of Wessex who prior to her marrying Prince Edward - the Queen’s youngest son, had worked for a PR company that had some tenuous connection with Dolphin Square. Coming home from work late but determined to at least show my face, I bumped into a friend who said: 

‘Don’t go in. There’s a problem’.

‘What do you mean don’t go in - I live here’

‘Avoid the gardens’.

I was intrigued and immediately went into the gardens. At one end of the garden where the spectacular raised Italian Gardens were, a huge number of people were assembled thoroughly enjoying the evening event. There was massive quantities of booze and food. The women from all eras and all ages wore clothing appropriate to their history. I was always fully expecting to see at least one wearing a tiara. Some of the men wore military uniforms and frankly looked like Prince Philip but everyone was happily mixing with everyone. Other residents - such as the musicians who invariably chose the ‘ripped and filthy jeans look’ - happily mixed alongside the actors, jewellery and hat designers, and all other attendees. For me arriving straight from the City found without difficulty my grey suit easily fitted in with the other sea of suits and ties. Whilst being served some hot food, I remember furiously trying to wave and smile at Lady So-and-So or whoever I thought the most important. It was a joyful, yet peaceful party with everyone chatting and laughing. It was only when I turned and looked at the far end of the garden did I notice the 20 or so uniformed police officers, a small white forensic tent and yellow police tape cordoning off an area. Seeing I was wearing an expression of obvious curiosity someone began to whisper in my ear and told me what had happened. Apparently one of the High Court Judges who lived in the Square, a very famous Judge known for presiding over many infamous criminal trials, must have suddenly decided during the Party he'd had enough and walked the short distance to his large flat which provided a magnificent view of the whole of the garden in all its glory. All this beauty was unfortunately not enough and the Judge threw open his sitting-room window and jumped - and was dead on impact. The police presence was there to ensure that he had jumped and had not been murdered by one of his ex-criminals. The forensic tent stood for hours whilst the investigation took place. So at one end of the garden the party became increasingly more animated and ebullient as the booze flowed and flowed; whilst at the other end of the garden lay the body of the ex High Court Judge waiting to be taken to the mortuary, and not once to my knowledge, during the party did one single person mention the tent at the other end of the garden.

Not long after this event my life began to change dramatically particularly as the recession began to take a grip and it finally looked as if I could leave that dreaded job in the City. I could never imagine leaving Dolphin Square but once redundancy notices were being handed out I chose to go to China for initially three months - and basically never really returned. During that summer, which seems so long ago, I packed and prepared to sadly leave. Wandering into the gardens I ensured I said goodbye to the gardeners, the porters and my friends sitting in the garden eagerly anticipating the next Dolphin Square Evening Party.

June 18, 2021 02:50

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