Primrose Hill Revisited – the complete book online

Primrose Hill Revisited FC

Primrose Hill Revisited BC

primrose hill revisited


by the same author

fiction:

Where the Bodies Are Buried

non-fiction

The Big Lie: the Truth about Advertising

Save the Jubilee Hall! (with Ray Green)


 

primrose hill revisited



Chuck Anderson


Random Thoughts Limited

London


Anderson, Chuck

primrose hill revisited

 

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data

 

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

 

ISBN 978-0-9513573-5-4

 

Copyright © Chuck Anderson, 2012

 

Chuck Anderson is hereby identified as author of this work in accordance with Section 77 of the copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

 

Published in Great Britain 2012

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without either prior permission in writing or a licence permitting restricted copying.

 

Published by

Random Thoughts Limited

Garden Floor

12 Hill Road

London NW8 9QG

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Website: www.randomthoughtslimited.co.uk

 

Designed by

Jon Anderson

 

Front cover photograph: Biba boots,
Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 


 

“Everything happens through the agency of chance and necessity.”

 

Democritus of Abdera

 


chapter one

If you ask me all this kerfuffle about Claudia (unless you’ve been shut up in a reality-TV-show compound in Tasmania for the past few weeks you know WHO I MEAN) is, as my twelve-year-old media-personalitrix-presumptive would opine, WELL O.T.T. I know it isn’t done to speak ill of the dead fashionable, but I didn’t get where I am today — (if you must know, in the kitchen, still in my jimjams, the coffee cold — stale, ashy guilt rising from the stub of the second fag of the day — the laptop on the refectory table scungy with dollops of Kiddylicious Jungle Pasta with Cheese, Tomato and Broccoli hurled in an act of unilateral aggression by The Brat, who is HOWLING) — by jumping on bandwagons.

Okay, Claudia achieved the pinnacle of self-realisation, or as my autodidact boyfriend would say, the Absolute Penultimate: her own personal Magnificat (though the metaphor is misplaced — the text of that evensong being the hymn of the Virgin). She has achieved ONE-HUNDRED-AND-TWENTY MINUTES of fame. I mean, having a movie made about your life is Virtual Reincarnation. It gives you a chance to set everything right, the way it should have been, in front of hundreds of people sitting in the dark and weeping into their hankies and at the end everyone applauds. There was a standing ovation at the première, a little bird told me. A snotty little bird called Publicity Assistant who rang me the next day to find out why I got up and left early. The truth is I thought the film was over. I mean, it usually IS OVER when they start showing the credits, isn’t it? But apparently it wasn’t. (I didn’t tell Little Bird the TRUTH of course. I told her I had to get home before my babysitter found the key to the stash and turned into a pumpkin.)

Who wouldn’t kill for Hollywood immortality, or at least assassinate a few characters? Which is what Claudia did. And the main character she assassinated is Woman. I mean, she was living in the SIXTIES, for God’s sake. (Well, maybe not for His sake, because it was about that time they discovered He might be Her, or most likely was Dead anyway.) But she was right THERE, strutting her stuff in swinging London, when we’re told it all happened. When people wearing long, frilly gear and long scarves and silly hats on top of their long, frilly Pre-Raphaelite hair — both men and women — stormed the universities, the courts and the media, ripped the shibboleths from the flagstaffs of the Establishment and stripped Little England of its pretensions. And invented sex.

It was a time when the world was intoxicated with hope: everyone was young and everything was up for grabs. And what did Claudia do? She became a member of the Resistance. She had a chance to shack up with a gorgeous young hunk who was, by this account, desperately in love with her, and, would you believe, she HESITATED. Because he was fifteen years younger. FIFTEEN years! I ask you. What about Sonny and Cher? I wouldn’t hesitate long enough for the hunk to get his posing pouch off. I MEAN, I would like to know what was going on in her head. When her career ran into the sand she whined and moped and then sold herself to a man she loathed like someone from the pages of a Jane Austen novel. Why not just GET ANOTHER JOB? (Okay, she had a disabled kiddy but there are special schools.) And she was HOMOPHOBIC. When the world all about her was liberating the word ‘gay’.

A hero of the Counter-cultural Revolution? (She would say ‘heroine’, of course.) Don’t make me laugh. She was a pathetic wimp, a professional Victim. You, Sweet Reader, may be more charitable and say she was hard done by. I say, like the 1960s hot pants she wouldn’t have been seen dead in, she came to a sticky end and good riddance. (Did I ever tell you I had that scrummy Jake O’Sullivan in the back of a stretch limo once? Maybe next week.)

— © Dee Dee Twist, Sentinel Newspapers

 

To the Editor:

Dee Dee Twist needs no lessons in character assassination, but she does need a few history lessons.

1. Not everyone was young and foolish in the sixties. Some of us were middle-aged and foolish.

2. Sonny and Cher, whoever they may be, don’t sound like the kind of couple one would have invited to a dinner party in the ‘60s. Particularly if he was wearing short trousers.

3. Get another job? In the late ’60s two women had important jobs in the London media. Claudia and myself. To borrow your strident typography, there WERE NO OTHER JOBS for women. Unless you could type and make tea. We blazed your trail, Dee Dee. You would have had to change your sex (as well as your frivolous name) to get a media job then.

4. We called them — and they called themselves — homosexuals. (The corruption of the useful word ‘gay’ was imported later, as usual from America; the London Gay Liberation Front was not founded until the next decade.) They gathered in a secret, oppressed and oppressive brotherhood, in an underworld atmosphere associated in the public mind with blackmail and treason. Homosexual acts between consenting adults in private were criminal until the passage of the Sexual Offences Act in 1967. Few ‘gays’ stepped out of the closet until much later because professional and social pressures were strong. These remain relevant today in certain spheres, as recent ‘kerfuffles’ in political circles bear witness. Claudia was never homophobic — she didn’t fear anything except failing to get as much as she could out of life. She just didn’t want to share a bed with one.

5. The handful of state schools for children with special needs was poor, woefully underfunded and not yet integrated within the educational system.

6. Hot pants did not come in until 1971. Claudia wore them and jolly fetching she was, too.

7. Little Bird was right. You should have waited until the end of the movie. It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.

— Daphne Boot, formerly Women’s Page Editor, The London Sentinel


chapter two

Glorious Dorset. Slumbering hills awake. A breeze flits through the valley, rousing green limbs to stretch in the sunshine. Abandoned by the night, enchanted rivers of mist curl and vanish into the warming air. In this sweet, sedated land, parcelled long centuries since by low dry-stone walls and deep-rooted hedgerows, disharmony is inconceivable. Sheep graze and cattle munch without troubling to look up at the sky.

Yet, revolution is in the air. It crackles through the ether from offshore pirate outposts. A sea-fret damp with discontent rises out in the Channel, pushing north to obscure the sun. Still, no stout yeomen will arise to mount the watch in our south coast towers and sea-girted forts; no sans-culottes will disembark to scale the crumbling cliffs of Durdle Door and tramp across these green, cow-plopped pastures. Barricades can be hurled up against invasion by an army, but no wall can withstand an idea. The plague of revolution is already virulent within the Englishman’s castle. Sedition stirs in an upstairs bedroom under the unflinching gaze of Che Guevara where a girl lies, legs spread, the brass four-poster vibrating to Radio Luxembourg Fabulous 208, reading one of those books you hold with one hand, the book you shouldn’t leave laying about lest your servants stumble upon it.

Rebellion festers, too, in that dilapidated red-brick semi-detached with the weed-grown garden where a bedsheet hangs from the guttering bearing a red, painted message: ‘Property is Obscenity’. The scent of incense and hash escapes through the gaps in the boarded-up windows to tickle the noses of passers-by and drifts aloft on the tuneless clamour of the Rolling Stones, an incorporeal haze of intellectual pollution spreading on the wings of a perfect English morning.

A leafy lane leads to the gravelled drive of a substantial Georgian house. From the height of the clouds now building over the downs, the forecourt gleams with the multi-coloured metallic shimmer of an expensive Matchbox set — sedate Rovers and snappy Austin Healeys, MGs and Triumphs, crouching Jaguars, an aloof Aston Martin, and resting apart from the others, by the compost heap, a well-loved, scratched and dented Morris Minor. It knows its place.

A large white marquee occupies the walled side garden. Catering staff bustle to and fro. The opposite wing of the gracious, ivy-clad house shelters a cosy private church of sun-warmed stone. In the ground floor of its miniature tower a scowling rural misanthrope tugs a rope, and the church bell a few metres above his head rings out joyously on the bright morning.

Within the sanctuary of the tiny nave the flock of wedding guests is arrayed in the latest fancies of fashion. The men wear their hair long, the women short. The men wear colourful frilled shirts, generously cut, the women stark geometric designs, abbreviated. What’s this? The bride already here, and standing in a rank within the groom’s party? No, it’s a parody of a bride, dressed all in white, a tiny skirt cut half-way up her thighs, a transparent blouse covered by a long, floating tunic, a band of white carnations fastened like a tiara in her dark hair. Her lashes are thick with mascara and her eyes are blackened hollows — Dracula’s virgin bride. This is Belinda. She is twenty-one and might be handsome if she didn’t try so hard to look so scary.

Across from her, on the bride’s side, stands, or rather gangles, Russell, a man in his mid-40s with a distant air. There are tears in his eyes as he removes his spectacles. The earpiece is bound with Sellotape. He has to rub his eyes with the hand holding the spectacles because Hope clutches his other hand with the grip of a lost soul slipping beneath the waves. She is a sunny twelve-year-old, but her jaw is slack and her mouth hangs open. She wears a frilly party dress that is much too young for her. From beneath her other elbow peeps the grinning clown face of a large punch-bag toy.

Also on the bride’s side of the aisle, down in front, is Daphne Boot, a sturdy woman on the wrong side of forty with a mocking light in her eyes. These are now fixed on the groom standing by the altar rail in formal wedding dress. This is Stephen, a smooth-featured, urbane man in his fifties. He still has a luxuriant head of hair, greying fetchingly at the temples.

The church bell has laboured too long. It falters and fails. In the bell tower the bell-ringer rubs the swollen knuckles of his gnarled hands. Within the nave a low murmur arises. The crowd fidgets. With a benign smile, the vicar bows his tonsure to the worshippers, a signal beseeching them to accept the delay as an opportunity for humble mortification. Belinda smirks. Russell sheds another tear. His spectacles now have only one earpiece. Hope remains open-mouthed. Daphne arches an eyebrow. The groom, Stephen, displays only the merest touch of anxiety, revolving an inch or two the top hat he holds by the brim in his hands.

Within the bell tower, the bell-ringer takes a lusty swig from a thermos, wipes his mouth with a grimy handkerchief, and bends his weight once more to the rope. The bell tumbles in its tower, pealing its merry message. But delay has darkened the sky. Heavy clouds threaten and a wind frisks about.

An open-top robin’s-egg-blue Rolls-Royce driven by a uniformed chauffeur pulls into the forecourt. In the rear seat is Claudia, thirty-something and then some, and ravishing in her stunning white gown. But her face reflects no radiance. Clutching her bouquet, she stares stony-faced, not seeing anything around her. Beside her, in full formal dress, sits Roy, a golden-haired cherub in his mid-twenties. The chauffeur opens the door for them. A doddering old crone leaning on a cane at the church door hobbles excitedly inside. She shakes her cane aloft. The organist above crashes out the wedding march. The crowd heaves a collective sigh and relaxes, smiling and expectant.

For a few long minutes, nothing happens. Some of the crowd grow restive again. Heads revolve towards the church entrance. The old crone reappears in the doorway. She aims her cane at Stephen. He moves calmly up the aisle, sending reassuring twinkles and smiles to the guests, who smile back with sympathy and understanding. The formidable matron, Daphne, looks troubled, while a mischievous light dawns in the sooted eyes of the vampire bride, Belinda. The organ music stops.

Outside, the wind gusts, twisting the heads of the white roses massed around the forecourt. Claudia remains seated in the open car, in an apparent catatonic state. Roy stands by the open car door, his arms extended in theatric supplication. The chauffeur occupies himself polishing imaginary flecks off the bonnet of the car.

Stephen appears in the doorway of the church. Roy casts an apprehensive glance in his direction and literally tugs the bride out of the car. She stands awkwardly, swaying slightly, clutching her bouquet — another lost soul, like Hope, about to slip beneath the waves. Stephen crunches across the gravel to greet her, smiling as if to a child. Roy backs away. As Stephen approaches, life flickers in Claudia’s eyes. His top hat is an encumbrance now, so Stephen perches it on his head.

Wedding guests appear on the church steps, jostling politely for a vantage point. Belinda, Daphne, Russell and Hope are among them. A sleazy photographer stands a little apart, unfolding his ancient Speed Graphic. The church bell stops ringing, and as if on cue, Stephen extends both arms towards his vagrant bride. Claudia opens a hand, letting something slip from her grasp. A large envelope flutters to the gravel. Then, with a mighty roundhouse swing, she smashes Stephen full in the face with her bouquet. A flashbulb flares. Stephen is obliterated by a shower of blossom, his head spins and his top hat tumbles off. Along with his toupee.

Hope bursts out laughing and claps her hands with glee. The photographer scurries off hastily with his camera. The wedding guests remain where they stand; curiosity is a powerful adhesive. Within the church tower the horny-handed bellringer refills his thermos from a small whisky bottle, spits on his hands and relaunches himself at the rope. The church bell stutters into peal again.

Raindrops spatter. In the swirling wind Claudia flings herself towards the Morris Minor. Her wedding hat flies off. The matron Daphne sprints after her, followed awkwardly by Russell, towing Hope who hugs her unwieldy toy clown under one arm and holds down her fancy hat with her other hand. She drops her clown, wails, and Russell has to wheel them about to retrieve it.

Stephen stands dazed and alone in the forecourt. Belinda runs up and throws her arms around him. She alone is smiling.

A crack of thunder. The heavens open and the guests, unglued, dash for their cars. The wind captures Claudia’s bridal bonnet, tossing it aloft. The large envelope, too, ascends from the forecourt into the raging skies and disappears into the tempest. Viewed through the streaked downpour from the height of the tormented clouds, a convoy of toy cars streams out of the drive to file down the country lane. The dented Morris Minor leads the way.


chapter three

Spring showers. A light flurry of wet snow filtered through leaden skies as Claudia hurried past drowned daffodils beneath the ancient, leafless plane trees of Berkeley Square. It was that time of year when you never knew what to wear outdoors. She shivered. And wondered at the unsettling image she had seen in her full-length bedroom mirror that morning. Was this little mauve shift of silk twill, popping with white polka dots, just a titch too young for her, as well as being jolly flimsy? On Saturday she had laid a week’s salary for it across the counter at Bazaar. And now she was feeling post-prodigality depression. She could have had the curtains cleaned for that kind of money. But dressing well was part of her job, and she couldn’t wear Paisley curtains.

Claudia paused to set her net bags of groceries down on the wet pavement and switch them between her hands, then quickened her step until her calf-high purple Barbara Hulanicki boots with the zip-up sides, liberated from a photo-shoot so not in the shops yet, were almost trotting through the puddles. Her father had kept a little sign on the desk in his office: ‘Punctuality is the Politeness of Princes’ and that prim assertion had exerted a moral force more lasting than any of the Commandments laid down by the nuns of the Sacred Heart School for Girls. Running late meant you were losing control over your life. But Selfridge’s was the only food shop in miles and when else did she have time to shop?

The first thing she expected to see as she pushed open the door to the cosy, rushing clack of typewriters was Jenny’s pair of twenty-year-old, sheer, white-stockinged legs. They seemed to grow longer every day, or was it that her skirts grew shorter? Claudia thought again of providing Jenny’s reception desk with something that had caught her eye in an office furniture catalogue, an artefact termed a modesty board.

But they weren’t there. Jenny was present, but her legs were not. They were hidden beneath what appeared to be a sludge-coloured horse blanket.

“Stand up,” Claudia shrieked. Jenny obliged with a mocking smile. Gone were the mini-skirt, the skimpy ribbed sweater and the high, laced white boots and white patterned stockings. She was wearing a wide, flowing subfusc skirt that trailed on the floor. Above it sprouted an embroidered jacket of a vaguely military cut, and from around her neck swirled a clutch of long, filmy scarves in a clash of patterns that would have been violent if the varied colours had not been so muted.

Claudia could not keep the astonishment out of her voice. “Whatever are you wearing?”

Jenny twirled a full turn, the hem of her skirt raising dust from the floor, and as it sank back down to clothe her ankles again, announced with a smirk, “The dolly bird is dead.”

Claudia’s first reaction was a fear that Jenny was going to get tangled up in her typewriter. But she used the girl as an early warning system for cultural change. So her second thought was that over the weekend the world had shifted once again without her knowledge. Jenny winked through her heavy smudge of make-up, a sure signal she was one-up in the constant game of wits she played with her boss, and flicked her eyes towards the glass partition that separated Claudia’s office from the open plan editorial room. She pulled a face and thrust a hand in front of her crotch, making a fist and pulling it up and down rapidly. Claudia’s third thought was a familiar pang of worry: had she made a dreadful mistake with Jenny? It was not clever to hire as an assistant a woman who combined so much raw sexual ambition with a natural instinct for what was just about to become fashionable, and wore the protective camouflage of an airhead with a filthy mind. But she was so bloody efficient, anticipating the problems that to Claudia seemed to arrive like motorcar accidents. One of these was Herr Wankler. But for some reason he was not sitting on the decrepit leather sofa in the reception area opposite Jenny’s desk. He habitually sat there because he always arrived early, and, though the seat sagged so low it forced his knees nearly to the level of his chin, he never seemed to mind waiting there. This time he was already standing in her office, and Claudia wondered what, precisely, this might signify in the arcane conventions of Teutonic protocol that she was always hard pressed to decipher.

Herr Wankler’s 45-year-old beer belly bulged in profile against the grey light filtering through the bare branches in the square. He held his long, black, leather storm-trooper’s coat folded over his arm — the one with the black leather glove encasing an artificial hand — and his natty little Austrian hat with the orange feather in the band was still perched on his head. He rocked back on his heels and his lips pursed as he studied the cork wall. It was cluttered with graphic illustrations and covers of Modern Woman magazine, but she knew what he’d be looking at: the framed cutting from the front page of The Stage that seemed to fascinate him so. Under the headline ‘Gurney Wedding Bombs Out-of-Town’ it showed Claudia in her white bridal gown slamming her groom full in the face with her bouquet. Claudia whisked her grocery bags under her desk just before Wankler turned.

Herr Wankler, how was your flight?”

He consulted his watch. “They said you’d be here by lunchtime.”

The bloody krauts never missed an opportunity to be boorish, or was it just the need to be numbingly explicit? They invented the word ‘kindergarten’, after all. Claudia chose a note of frivolous irony. “Lunchtime in Britain is a very ambiguous concept, I’m afraid,” she trilled. “I was at a photo shoot.”

Wankler held out his artificial gloved hand. It gripped the current issue of Modern Woman with its ethereal photograph of a bride wreathed in apple blossoms and its featured cover line: ‘10 Essentials for the Perfect White Wedding.’ He slapped it down on the desk.

“Sales of this issue were down fifteen percent —”

She interrupted. “There’s always a seasonal drop in early —”

He rumbled on through her defences, oblivious as a Panzer. “— month-on-month compared to last year.” He dropped a copy of another magazine down on the desk. It was the latest issue of the American rag, Yin. The cover shot was a hard-glamour photo of a predatory woman with a sultry pout. Not a million miles from Jenny’s schadenfreude smirk.

Wankler posed like an old-fashioned bare-knuckled boxer, folding his arms. “America is where it’s at now.”

“You could never sell that trash to British women.” Claudia was shocked to hear herself actually terminate her remark with a sniffing noise. Just like Sister Mary Eustace, the Latin teacher at the Sacred Heart School for Girls.

“How would you describe our readers, Claudia?”

“It’s how she describes herself that matters. Her self-image. The modern, independent woman. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Julie Christie in Billy Liar. But she’s British through and through. She believes in traditional values. Marriage. Children. Home. Though she dreams of love and romance.”

“How old?”

“If its statistics you want, social groups B,C1,C2 — age twenty to thirty-five.”

“How old are you?”

Claudia stiffened. Now he was playing dirty. “Thirty-eight.”

“Really?”

“The way I’m able to remember is, it’s the same as my bust size.”

That penetrated. Wankler stuttered. “It’s just that . . . you look —”

“It’s part of my job to keep as young as my readers.”

Annoyed now, Wankler flourished the rolled-up copy of Yin like a long-handled German grenade. “Damn and blast! I’ll tell you what your readers want.” He thumped the magazine down on the desk again and, tracing the cover lines with a gloved mechanical fingertip, began to read them aloud.

“Got your eye on a married man? How to get him to cash in his family values.” He paused and glared at her significantly. “I thought he was Prince Charming. He thought I was a mattress.” Pause. Glare. “Can your man get his tongue around cunnilingus?” Triumphantly, his eyes bulged at Claudia. For a horrid instant she thought his tongue might protrude as well. “Yin’s slogan is ‘For Fearless Fun Females’,” he trumpeted.

“Only because they don’t dare put ‘fucking’ on the cover.”

His eyes narrowed to slits. “Yin is launching in the UK in the fall.” Like all the Germans, Herr Wankler used Americanised English.

Claudia faltered. He delivered the copy of Yin into her hands with reverence, then picked up the current issue of Modern Woman and let it fall into the waste-bin — a bomb dropping from the belly of an aeroplane. “We’re not publishing a girl scout magazine. What we need is sex appeal.”

Claudia’s face flushed. She hurled Yin into the waste-bin. “That is not sexy. It’s depraved.”

Herr Wankler stiffened. The sudden thought came to her that he had been a prison camp guard. Then, abruptly, his shoulders slumped, a wary look came into his eyes and a thin smile played on his lips. “I’m only following orders”.

Claudia turned to the wall and rolled her eyes at an absent audience. She was wrong. He had been a trustee. A prisoner who spied on other prisoners. He put his good hand on her shoulder, and she thought it politic to let it rest there.

Fräulein Claudia, I’m trying to help you. The world is getting younger. My daughter . . . If I had talked to my father the way she talks to me . . . he would have had me shot.”

Claudia turned and looked into his eyes, open like begging cups. He wasn’t kidding. She felt a pang of compassion. “You should know,” he continued. “You have a teenage daughter.”

“She’s only twelve.”

Wankler squeezed her shoulder. “She’ll be going out on dates soon.”

No she wouldn’t. Claudia had to search her clothing for a hankie.

“Who knows what they get up to on their dates,” Herr Wankler mused. He chuckled and his eyes swivelled to fix her full-frontal, twin searchlights mounted on a watchtower. “Maybe we should go out on dates.” Claudia grimaced and carefully removed his hand from her shoulder. “I mean,” he added hastily, “people our age. Maybe we’re missing something. It might be worth the risk.”

“What risk?”

His eyes mooned at her again. “Of getting shot.”

The German jollity period was over. Wankler straightened his posture. “I want your new editorial strategy on my desk in four weeks.”

Claudia turned to face him, red-faced and furious. “My readers won’t countenance that degrading American trash, and neither will I.”

Wankler narrowed his eyes. “If that’s your polite English way of saying ‘no’, you’re fired.”

There it was, the final solution. Claudia’s stomach knotted. Her shoulders slumped and she felt her face sag. She heard a gagging, distant voice saying “I’ll need at least a couple of months.”

“Four weeks. I will need time to find a new editor.” Herr Wankler spun on his heel and marched out.

Claudia went to look out the window. Bloody weather. Now the sun was out, but it was pale and cheerless. So this is what unconditional surrender feels like, she thought. And then she thought again. And wheeled and delved into the wastebin, extracted the current copy of Modern Woman, and flipped to the classified advertisements huddled in the back pages.


chapter four

Whenever Russell summoned up those times the images came in black-and-white, like cinema films of the period. All those frenzied cultural revolutionaries: the wide-eyed social anarchists in The Knack, the relentlessly kinky Georgy Girl, the hyperactive urchins of A Hard Day’s Night, the quixotic antihero of Morgan, a Suitable Case for Treatment. Like most rebels the despoilers had been assimilated, or had been overridden by the steamroller of history, and in retrospect seemed merely eccentric. It was not until much later, sometime in the ‘80s — after he became successful — that his memories surfaced in technicolor. Life before then was a monochrome moving picture. What was memory and what was imagination? He remembered things that he could not have witnessed. That was the gift of a poet. In black-and-white a vast, silent crowd filled Trafalgar Square. There, near a stone lion, impervious, that had seen it all, was Belinda, shouting soundlessly, her face contorted in anger, wielding a placard reading ‘Yanks Go Home’. She was wearing her olive-drab urban-guerilla uniform with all the pockets, her lank hair streaming from under her floppy Basque beret. His memory retouched the monochrome film: the beret was scarlet, shining like a red traffic light in the thin, high-key grey light of a brightening spring day. An affrighted pigeon flapped up Nelson’s column and into the sky. It soared up and out of the frame. Over Trafalgar Square, past Centrepoint and the Post Office Tower, across Regent’s Park and Anthony Armstrong-Jones’s new aviary to hover above the children’s kites twisting in the wind over Primrose Hill, where couples strolled, holding their hats against the wind, along the web of paths intersecting at the top of the hill.

He must have been watching the black-and-white television set in Claudia’s sitting room, showing a CND rally in Trafalgar Square, with the sound turned down. In another view he could not actually have seen, unless he’d been standing before a full-length mirror, he stood hesitating in the doorway at the top of the stairs leading from the basement. He could never contrive to enter a room without softly rapping the doorframe on either side with the backs of his knuckles. It gave him pause to think, to prepare to enter, to settle, to observe. Like a hovering benefactor in a Dickens novel.

The tall windows of Claudia’s sitting room looked out onto the budding greenery of the park. Sunlight exposed the neglected varnish of the floorboards, the threadbare patches in the oriental rugs and the worn furniture. To one side, aloof amid this domestic wrack like a disapproving visitor, stood the straight-backed chair, the Rennie Mackintosh antique they had bought one hopeful day.

Claudia sat on the lumpy sofa facing away from him, hair aglow against the window. Hope bent her head over the ‘Snakes and Ladders’ board, in her hand her favourite game token, a tiny, metal top-hat from the Monopoly set. Monopoly was one of the many things she would never be able to understand. But she loved the little silver topper.

“One . . . two . . . two . . .” She placed the silver top-hat on each square. “. . . five . . . four . . . six.” She landed on a snake. Hope burst into tears. “It’s not fair.”

Claudia embraced her daughter. At times like this Claudia wore the same wondering look as her daughter, as though she, too, were a child gazing out at a barely comprehensible world: it’s not fair. “Don’t cry, darling. Maybe the next one’s a ladder.”

The phone rang and Claudia rose to answer it. She was dressed to go out. In a smart new outfit— a bold geometry of primary colours. A walking Mondrian. On very fine legs. It was the kind of frock that girls in their teens and twenties were wearing.

“Primrose 7323.”

Claudia was good on the phone.

“No, I couldn’t possibly. I’m going out.”

Russell imagined her in her office, dealing efficiently with all manner of executive matters.

“There really is no point. Please don’t call anymore.”

That would be Stephen, then. Claudia’s face was tense and she whacked the phone down into its cradle. She consulted the longcase clock, then cuddled Hope again, dabbing at her wet cheeks with a tissue.

“Mummy has to go out now. Daddy will put you to bed.”

Tears threatened anew.

“When will we finish our game?”

“Daddy will finish it.”

“He cheats.”

“I’m sure he doesn’t, darling.”

As she moved to the front hall, Claudia called over her shoulder, loudly, assuming he was down in the basement. “Russell!” He watched her appraise her image in the old mirror they had picked up on an excursion to Church Street market. Perhaps they both tolerated it still because the mirror was kind; its worn, unsilvered patches concealed the flaws encroaching on one’s reflection. Claudia called again, “Russell!”

He rapped the knuckles of both hands twice against the door jambs and stepped into the room. Neither Claudia nor Hope seemed surprised at his instant appearance.

“You wouldn’t know how to cheat, would you, Russell?”

“He does. He always lets me win.”

“You’re going out?” he asked.

Hope chortled. “Mummy has a date.”

Claudia was pulling on her mac. “Strictly business.” She looked Russell in the eye. “Research.”

She didn’t want to hurt him. Even now. But he really didn’t mind any more. That part of him was dead. He smiled at her. “You deserve a bit of fun.”

“Will you give Hope her supper?”

Hope tugged his arm. “Finish the game first.”

Hope took ‘Snakes and Ladders’ very seriously. Russell sat down and studied the position of the pieces on the game board with the gravity he would bring to the board position of a chess grandmaster. Claudia kissed Hope and gave him a soft peck on the cheek. Nina Ricci L’Air du Temps. She had never changed her scent.

“Don’t forget her bedtime, Russell.” The door closed behind her.

“Your turn, Russell.”

Russell gravely picked up the die.

 

Never, never, never would she have anything whatsoever to do with him again. Not a peep out of him for eighteen months. Which suited her down to the ground. She had managed to blot him out of her life. Completely. The letters incinerated in the garden, the photos binned, shutters drawn against the memories. And then it started. First the flower arrangement delivered to her door on the morning of her birthday. Ever so tasteful. A symphony — no a restrained sonata — in dove grey and blue. Cambridge blue, of course, just to give her an ever so subtle hint. Because the card wasn’t signed. Just one word: ‘You’. Another hint, once she’d worked it out. That telegram. The shortest telegram ever sent. Because she had created about the first one he sent after they had had a row, the telegram that said “Love you.” That’s what you say to your theatre chums, not your beloved, she said when he rang. Too casual. It sounded so uncommitted. Meaningless, really. And so he sent her another, the shortest telegram ever transmitted. One word: ‘I’. And so now there was another one-word message. And she was supposed to supply the missing word. The one in the middle. Not on your nelly. Rhyming slang for what? Belly? Nelly Bligh? Nelly Dean? Does anyone still say that? Now they say ‘No way’. Like Herr Wankler. Another American export of bluff vulgarity, and German businessmen are their most ardent disciples.

And now he was on the blower. Let bygones be bygones. Forgiving. Condescending. In that unctuous manner of his. No, she would not meet him for dinner or a drink. Never, never never. Because she was afraid that his charm, pouring over her, poring over her, might somehow ooze through a chink in her armour-plate.

She had been resolute. No man in her life since. He probably knew that. He had ways of finding things out. Things you told no one. He was practically telepathic. But what kind of future was that? No man? No love? No companion to share life? Who would want to share her burdens? Hope — a delight but, let’s face it, a burden. Russell — a treasure but a burden. And now her job was on the line. What she could offer Prince Charming was a dowry of woes.

She caught a glance from a middle-aged man. His snooty wife added an appraisal of a different sort. Was her new short-skirted frock with its bold, straight-edged design in green and yellow and blue just a shade too youthful? As well as, judging by Jenny, already totally passé? Could she really afford to draw so much attention to herself anymore? She had put herself down as early thirties. On a good day she could almost get away with that, and hell, they must expect everyone to cheat a little.

But this was a job of work. Research. The Prince Charming in question, she had specified, was a man in his mid-twenties. Youth was a foreign country, and she had to learn what language they spoke there. The rest of her requirement was the usual hopeful guff: GSOH, interested in art, cinema, the theatre. Oh dear. Apart from the age, that would be Stephen.


chapter five

The demonstrators surged through Berkeley Square and funnelled up the byways to throng Grosvenor Square. Their chants echoed through the red-brick canyons. Shredded by the wind, scraps of shouted protest filtered through the cracks around the loose sashes. The windows were dirty and never opened — one of the strange customs of the wealthy English that he had observed. Spring had arrived outside, but here in the third floor flat the seasons did not change. The heavy folds of the curtains, the velvet swags and the upholstered fabrics that had absorbed the stuffy winter days and gloomy nights now stifled the rhythmic cries flying aloft on the bright, fresh morning. They subsided to a distant murmur, like traffic noise — except it was Sunday.

Jake stood naked except for the bath towel around his waist, waiting while Simon continued to finger a Beatles tune. It was one of his putdown techniques, as if to say I have so many more brilliant things to do than to hold discourse with you. Simon flicked an eye in his direction. Was he going to complain about water dripping on the oriental carpet? Or did he have something else on his mind? Jake had been warned about Simon. “How come it’s only five pounds a week?” he’d asked his friend about the flatshare.

“He hasn’t come out yet. I reckon he wants a straight flatmate to put his parents off the scent. They’re awfully rich, you know.”

The flat was in Mayfair, where even the traffic was hushed, gliding on cushioned tyres in reverence to the glamour and power cloistered here. The quaint, red-brick, white-trimmed buildings were only four or five storeys high — hierarchical layers of the English upper crust. With aristocratic good manners the windows shrouded their eyes, veiling mysteries of opulence and romance — glittering chandeliers, gleaming mahogany and thick-handled silver cutlery. Svelte women in silken dressing gowns reclined on chaises longues. The beds had silk sheets and the men wore silk underpants.

Someday he would wear silk underpants. Already, he lived in Mayfair. The first night, around two o’clock, laughter and brittle shards of crystal English accents drew him from his bed. Beyond the slate roofs and chimney pots, the garret window held a glimpse of a pebbled courtyard. A large, sleek convertible was parked in the shadows — a Rolls-Royce? Turquoise? Around it gathered a small group of elegant women and men wearing tuxedos. Champagne poured. The tinkle of tipsy chatter floated up the airshaft. The bright young things existed still, and their song was this: Mayfair is not a place to be abed alone at two in the morning.

The piano was a Bechstein baby grand and Simon kept a brace of Lamborghinis parked in an alley just across from the Connaught Hotel. Jake had not been invited to sit on the Italian cowhide of the Lamborghinis and, after thumping out the only piano piece he knew, the bass line to ‘Heart and Soul’, had been warned never to touch the piano again. Gradually he came to know his place: not quite a flatmate, more of a fixture. It had become part of his role to answer the phone. Simon liked to play at having a manservant, and Jake didn’t mind. It kept him in touch with what was going on; Simon had some influential friends. Who might create Opportunity.

Jake’s father, a widower, a self-educated agnostic and a failed distributor of agricultural machinery, had enrolled his son in the town library as soon as he was old enough to have a card, and Jake acquired his early cultural conditioning from the first few shelves of fiction, starting with ‘A’. He devoured the woodsmen sagas of Joseph A. Altscheler and got as far as the Leatherstocking Tales of James Fenimore Cooper before he made the football team and almost simultaneously found out about girls. So it was the nineteenth century Unitarian minister, Horatio Alger, rather than Hobbes, Kant or Jesus of Nazareth who swung his moral compass. The boy heroes of Ragged Dick, Luck and Pluck, and Tattered Tom all fulfilled the American Dream by turning Adversity into Opportunity through Self-Reliance. The democratic maxims instilled by the textbooks supplied by the Okoboli, Iowa public school system confirmed these beliefs. Jake was particularly devoted to the principle of Manifest Destiny, a philosophy promulgated in 1845 by John L. O’Sullivan, a zealously demotic newspaper editor. O’Sullivan declared that in the name of self-government of the people, it was the natural right of the United States to expand to the Pacific Ocean (at the particular expense of Mexico). Jake took one sentence to heart and memory: “It is a right such as that of the tree to the space of air and the earth suitable for the full expansion of its principle and destiny of growth.”

In the way that his schoolmates plotted their futures by interpreting star signs, Jake held a mystic torch of unshakeable belief in his personal Manifest Destiny. It was, perhaps, no coincidence that he shared a surname with John L. O’Sullivan and the initials J.O. He had once experimented with changing his middle name from Edward to Lance, but his Pop had objected, and in any case the engines of destiny required no fine-tuning. Already he was living in Mayfair. Someday he would wear silk underpants, with a discreet J.O. monogram.

Anyone growing up in Okoboli, Iowa knew he had to court Opportunity, or else spend his days in the midst of the cornfields. So Jake’s motto was ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained’. He had occasionally ventured his body. It had secured him an agent, some acting roles, and a number of friends who were now just pen pals, but — who knows — might be useful in the future. His conquests were all women. He knew some men admired his body, too, but Horatio Alger was quiet on that subject and, with so many attractive women around, Jake really couldn’t see the point of it. He had never had a homosexual experience — unless you could count the time in the rowboat out on the reservoir when he and two pals had a circle jerk. But they touched only themselves, not each other.

He had got out of the bath to answer the phone. He had stayed, dripping on the oriental carpet, to listen to Simon’s end of the conversation. He remained, moistly, after Simon went back to the piano.

“I thought you had a date this afternoon,” said Jake.

Simon’s eyes strayed once more to Jake’s naked torso. It was the one hold Jake had over Simon and he was not afraid to use it. Simon would not say anything about the carpet. Finally Simon spoke. “I’ve changed my plans.”

“How can you get in touch with her?”

Simon performed a mocking stage ponder, cocking his head, pursing his lips and casting an eye to the ceiling. “I can’t, I suppose. Except by writing to the box number.”

“You can’t just stand her up.” To his own ears his complaint sounded like a wail from a playground.

Simon smiled indulgently at the child. “It’s not as if it were someone I know. It’s just a silly drama school lark. Go on a blind date and pretend to be someone you’re not — a hippie or an ‘Alfie’ or Stokely Carmichael.” He frowned elaborately. “That would be difficult. I’d have to black up.”

Jake heard his Pop’s voice, not his, saying “Standing someone up is just plain rude.”

“How can one possibly offend someone one doesn’t know?”

“You’ve lost your gumption.”

“Bottle, my dear Jakes. We say ‘you’ve lost your bottle.’ And I haven’t. I’ve just decided it would be too boring for words.”

“I wouldn’t do that to my worst enemy.”

“You’re too boring to have enemies, Jakes.”

Simon grew weary of the teasing. With a thundering, dissonant chord he dismissed Paul McCartney. “Tell you what . . . why don’t you pretend to be me? A genuine drama school exercise. Give you a chance to work on your broad As.” Simon’s left hand plumbed three didactic chords. “My aunt. Took a chance. In the bath. Not myanttukkachaynceinnabad.” He riffled a swift descending arpeggio.

“You’re a real bastard, Simon.”

“Proper bastard. Or right bastard. Either will do. They both mean I can do as I please.” Simon pushed a five pound note across the piano, keeping one finger on it and looking Jake in the eye. “Keep the change.”

Five pounds was Jake’s weekly rent. Even after a night out it would keep him in pocket for a week or two. Jake reached for the note as casually as he could, the way he had seen Simon pick up restaurant bills.

Simon’s amused glance told him he had moved his hand too fast. Simon plucked a white carnation from a vase. “You’ll need this.” He gave a languid nod to the magazine rack. “And a copy of the Times.”

The rousing chords of ‘The U.S. Marine’s Hymn’ pursued Jake up the stairs to his room. “Expect the worst,” Simon shouted after him. “It’s April Fool’s Day.”


chapter six

A stream of stragglers, a tributary of the great throng flooding Trafalgar Square, trickled along Primrose Hill High Street. Lank-haired, disaffected youth mingled with well-dressed middle-aged men and women. Some held children by the hand. They were not chanting, just strolling along chatting good-naturedly, festooned with Union Jacks, carrying their home-made placards and packed lunches and thermoses in cloth shopping bags, as if they were on their way to a fête. Claudia gave them a thumbs-up sign and some of them waved back.

There was a spirit of revolt abroad in the land and the people were united. This time the shoe was on the other foot. It was the British revolution against American imperialism. For Bunker Hill read Primrose Hill. She should do a piece about it.

It was all down to that odious little creep in Downing Street. He came in on the promise of helping the poor and all he’d done was to put the economy in hock to the Americans. And the price they exacted was to secure his supine support for the War in Vietnam. All right, he hadn’t sent any troops yet, thank God, but that was probably only because the Americans wouldn’t come up with the right price for a brigade or two. And after selling out the nation’s soul to them the Yanks let him down anyway and he had to impose currency controls and devalue the pound after all. The ‘pound in our pocket’ that he had pledged to defend until the end. Well, maybe this was the end. What kind of a Continental holiday could you have on fifty pounds?

The Americans were taking over our culture, too. Name any British film — Tom Jones, A Hard Day’s Night, Alfie, Georgy Girl — all the takings went to Hollywood. All right, if we can’t afford it a case might be made for funding our cultural activities from abroad. But the price is too high. They impose their culture. That appalling What’s New Pussycat?— a drooling adolescent sex maniac’s daydream — that was a so-called European co-production, which means Hollywood in the driver’s seat, and so was Blow-Up. She had to admit she didn’t have a clue what that was about. And she wasn’t alone. The critics were clearly mystified, though, prostrated before the throne of Michaelangelo Antonioni, few would raise their heads to see that the king was naked. Frankly, she reckoned he’d missed the boat by a few years. All that tinsel about ‘swinging London’ and dolly birds and priapic young upstart photographers – well she did know a few of those — but they were rapidly becoming old goats. The thing was, the mood had changed.

That Time magazine article came out a couple of years ago this month and by that time already you wouldn’t have been seen dead in Carnaby Street anymore. The King’s Road was still buzzing, but both were already tourist clichés. All that outrageous originality was gone. What passed for an iconoclastic gesture in those tourist meccas was a pop-art Union Jack plastered on a wastebasket. You could blame The Who for that. They started the trend for fags dressing up in flags. But it certainly freaked out the Americans. You’d go to prison for that over there. They were very uptight about their patriotic symbols.

She turned through the gates and into the park. The early hint of spring had drawn human swarms out of the villas and blocks of flats and on to the paths. Dogs rambled. Joggers panted by. Lovers held hands. Couples who used to be in love now wheeled pushchairs. Children whined because their dads would not relinquish the helms of the tossing kites. Clouds raced across the sky, a psychedelic sun blinked on and off, but it brought her no exhilaration. I’m already too old for spring, she thought. Wankler was clueless. He was an apparatchik. If his boss passed wind he would salute. Is that how he lost his hand? But he was right about one thing. She didn’t understand young people any more. She didn’t understand Jenny for a start. Oh, she understood her game all right. The signals of untrammeled ambition were as subtle as Belisha beacons. What she didn’t understand was her chutzpah. How could she hope to compete in a man’s world without education, intelligence — well, she had a certain street wisdom — or sensitivity? In a word, she had no class — just a brazen, mocking style, a kind of aura of universal, unfocused resentment. You could almost smell it. It was a kind of heady scent the younger generation exuded, mingled with joss sticks.

They stuffed the emptiness of their minds with garbage. Like the copy of Oz that she carried under her arm. Stephen had introduced her to Richard Neville. He was an amiable bloke with a sort of whimsical line in irony — one of three Australian lads not long out of sixth form, if they had that Down Under — but without the remotest trace of intellectual rigour. He was the Pied Piper of underground philosophy, a sloppy, irrational pudding which he and his mates concocted as they went along. Their magazine was amateurish. They didn’t pay their staff and it couldn’t possibly make money. There was only the occasional ad for sex manuals or a penis-enlarging gel called Magnaphall. It was embarrassing to be seen in possession of Oz. Not out of prudery, but because it suggested you had no analytical faculty. The magazine had neither editorial standards nor competence. It was printed on bog paper in tiny, lines of smudged type splashed with clanging blots of colour slopped out of a paint-pot like a Jackson Pollock. It was laden with those sinuous pseudo-Art-Nouveau drawings which everyone seemed to agree was the art form that acid visions came in, as if they were branded dreams synthesised in the laboratories of Aubrey Beardsley. No one actually read Oz — you’d burn your brain out — it was more of a fashion statement to show you were in the groove. Which was doubtless why the young man she was going to meet had selected it as their mutual identity badge.

Her feet began to drag. Why I am doing this? The truth was it was not just a job. Somewhere deep inside her was a silly schoolgirl. Her stomach began to churn ever so slightly. It would be so simple to turn back. But she would never know the other future that lay on the top of the hill. A certain psychic momentum, perhaps the childhood maxim that you must finish what you’ve started — be it a plate of Brussels sprouts or a Lenten resolution — propelled her into motion again. She walked slowly up the hill. But without resolve. The scenes around her dimmed as if a screen had been drawn over them. The shouts of the children and the barking of the dogs faded. She felt seized by a trance. As on her wedding day, when she sat in the back of Stephen’s Rolls-Royce, turned to stone, gripping that envelope, all the way to the church. As when she sat at her school desk staring at the waves of tender green leaves tossing outside the window. “Considering a vocation, Claudia?” Sister Mary Eustace interrupted her drowsy reverie and the class laughed. She had no intention of becoming one of Christ’s black-robed, chalky-sleeved harem. She was dreaming of the Big Relationship. Unbending, white-faced Sister Mary Eustace seemed impossibly ancient, but had probably been no older than Claudia was now. Her colourless lips were always tightly set, but something must have parted them, because, though already married to the Sacred Heart, she later eloped to Chicago with the local bookie’s runner.

There had been no further news from Chicago and Claudia’s parents were uninformative, so Claudia had to find out about love all by herself. With Russell, she had confused intellectual passion with the other kind. And then there was the tragedy of Hope. Yet the torch still flickered in the tabernacle of Claudia’s heart. And then, suddenly, Stephen appeared at a dinner party, charming, accomplished and powerful. A whirlwind courtship. And then disaster. Now the door to the tabernacle was firmly latched. May the padlock rust.

She was not anti-American. But it was a nation of cruel contrasts. A country that could produce a John F. Kennedy to light a beacon for the world, and ineluctably, a crazed assassin to extinguish it. There was much to admire about the nation. Their egalitarianism, their social legislation, their easy manners showed the way of the future to hidebound, class-ridden, stick-in-the-mud Britain. Their citizens felt free and the equal of anyone. They had big horizons. They recognised no ceilings. They were tremendously ambitious and ferociously energetic. But these were the innocent virtues of children. And like children, they were also immature, insensitive and easily tipped into aggression. Worst of all was the sheer materialism. It was as though they knew no values that could not be preceded by a dollar sign. Worth about four shillings in her childhood and now worth eight.

She’d have to tone it down, of course. Wankler would purse his lips like he was sucking sauerkraut, shake his square head and utter two of his favourite phrases: ‘damn and blast’ — ‘it’s a polemic’. And of course the German board of directors loved all things American. Troy’s homage to Athens. To the Germans we were just a quaint little historical backwater populated by a curious race wielding rolled-up umbrellas and wearing ‘melons’, as they insisted on calling bowlers. We won the war and so preserved our worm-eaten institutions. They started afresh from Ground Zero without any cultural baggage and followed the Americans. And now we’re having to catch up.

America was the fount of the future. Like it or lump it.

It was crowded at the top of Primrose Hill. A knot of foreign tourists gawked at the shimmering skyline where St. Paul’s was now outranked by the NatWest tower. To one side stood a comic strip character, the American L’il Abner — a raw-boned hillbilly hewn with a hatchet by a rustic Michelangelo. He had an honest gaze, a lock of black hair dangling over his brow, and a cheeky grin that pierced right through you. He had presence. But it was muffled in that horrid, shapeless, purple, nubbed Burton jacket, the knitted not-quite-matching tie and the scuffed brown moccasins. These things could be changed. But he was far too young.

Naturally she smiled. Because she had been thinking about things American and suddenly he rose up out of the ground, young Abe Lincoln. You can’t see your own smile but when she thought about it afterwards she knew it had been a very natural smile. Because she remembered feeling a sudden thrill of pleasure and delight. Because the coincidence was so perfect. And because he was so disarming. So naturally she smiled.

 

It was a smile of recognition from someone he had always known, or always knew that he would know, a smile that seemed to say ‘Thank God, you’re here at last.” It streaked like a ray of sunshine parting the clouds to dazzle his eyes. A less confident man would have cast a glance astern to see if her eyes were meeting those of someone behind him. Jake returned the smile and thumbed the white carnation in his buttonhole. She looked down at her own red carnation and frowned. He held up the copy of the Times. She shook her head and held up a copy of Oz. But she kept smiling. And he stepped forward and suddenly she was right there in front of him.

“I guess I got the signals mixed.”

Something inside her stirred to the sound of his voice — not the raw mid-Western accent, but the timbre, the personality of it, a kind of deep sincerity. Herr Wankler had been right. Claudia had forgotten what going out on dates was all about. Her heart rate fluttered. She felt embarrassed and keen and flighty all at once, like a girl even younger than she had said she was.

“It’s my fault. I’ve never done this sort of thing before.”

“Me neither.”

“Actually, I’m doing a bit of research.”

“It’s really my room-mate’s date.” Ouch. An uncouth put-down. Claudia, no longer in control of the expressions that flitted across her face, knew that she had signalled her chagrin. And then knew that he had caught the signal, because he came in quickly with a serviceable apology.

“An audition came up all of a sudden. He asked me to pinch-hit for him.”

“Your flatmate’s an actor?”

“We both are.”

“You’re American.”

He flashed that easy grin. “I’m working on the accent.”

“What brings a Yank to London?” He glanced at his shoes. He didn’t want to answer that. She lowered her eyes, too. And suddenly the shoes were gone.

A gargantuan young woman had him by the elbow. “Snap!” She poked his chest with a copy of the Times. He was at least six-foot tall, but her greasy, blonde-streaked beehive hairdo towered over him. She wore a bulky jumper the colour of a dribbled breakfast. Pinned to it was a crumpled wad of white paper posing as a carnation. April Fool.

The behemoth dragged him down the hill, chattering a-mile-a-minute. He glanced over his shoulder and threw Claudia a rueful little smile. Just as a balding gent with the bloodshot eyes of a lustful walrus rearing above the brush of a military moustache and wearing a trilby set squarely on his head bounded up to seize her by the arm. He flourished a copy of Oz and wore a red carnation pinned to his fleece-lined suede leather car coat, and had clearly deducted at least twenty years from his age.

 

From kite-height, the two newly-met couples dwindled towards east and west as they descended their separate paths.


chapter seven

From the wireless came the familiar rasp of Jack De Manio. Whilst giving a sermon at St. Giles’ Cathedral the rector of Edinburgh University had resigned because students were demanding the contraceptive Pill, though, being Malcolm Muggeridge, from his woolly rhetoric it was not clear whether he was in favour of them getting it or not getting it. This may have been owing to the poor quality of the sound through the closed bedroom door, though on the other hand, Malcolm Muggeridge had not reached his current position of eminence by being unequivocal. She was awake. He held the tea tray against his hip with one hand and knocked on the bedroom door with the other.

“Come in, Russell.”

He set the tea tray on the floor, pushed the door open, rapped both door jambs twice with his knuckles, retrieved the tray and entered.

She leant forward to kiss his cheek and he smelled the remembered warmth of slumbrous sheets. “Thank you for being my white knight”.

“The man was a proper bounder.”

He had heard the thump of the diesel engine as the taxi pulled up. He had heard the front door open, but it didn’t close. He had stood on the kitchen stool to peer out the high, small window overlooking the outside stair leading up from the basement. Two dark forms swayed against the light of the streetlamp. Claudia was granting a generous goodnight embrace. No, she was struggling. She raised her hand and the man caught her by the wrist, launching his face forward into her bosom. Russell grabbed his cricket bat and stepped out of his door.

The man was heavy-set. He wore a flowing moustache and a trilby. His face glowed pink in the glow of the outside light and as Russell stole up the metal stairs he could hear him growl through his panting. “You act like a headmistress. But I bet you wear naughty red knickers.”

Suddenly he shrieked and doubled over, his hands flying to his groin. Claudia squirmed across the threshold, but the man, still bent at the waist, lunged forward like a rugby prop, and thrust a foot in the door.

Claudia shouted over his head. “Thank you for a memorable evening. Now go home!”

The man pressed his weight against the door, and the sliver of light that escaped into the night widened. Russell stole up behind and gave him a tentative poke in the ribs with the end of the cricket bat. On the third poke, the man turned round and Claudia slammed the door shut. The man wavered uncertainly, then put up his fists and advanced. Russell took a step back into the stairwell.

Overhead, a window sash opened. When Russell looked up, so did the man, and so received Hope’s weighted punch-bag clown full in the face. He tottered and fell down. He got up and kicked the clown. When it bounced back, he took a swing at it, missed his footing and fell again. Russell retreated half-way down the stairwell, forgotten. After a final kick at the clown, Claudia’s date weaved off down the garden path and through the gate.

Russell had watched as the man stumbled and fell against the wing of a parked car. He thumped the bonnet of the car in anger, as if it had collided with him, and not he with it, and then staggered off into the dark. An engine started up and the car moved off through the glow of a streetlight in the opposite direction. It was a Rolls-Royce convertible. Russell had seen the glint of a chauffeur’s visor, but the back seat was empty.

As it was Monday morning Russell had expected to see her already at work, propped up in her bed in her dressing gown, wearing her reading specs, and making notes. But she was lying down in her skimpy pale blue nightie, eyes focused on the ceiling rose, a half-smile on her face. He set the tray down on the night table and poured out two cups of tea. She sat up and he handed her one, and perched on the edge of the bed with the other. Now she was frowning.

“Trouble a t’mill?” The smile came back, as it always did when he talked cod Yorkshire, though now her pleasure was faint, and was swiftly driven away by the returning frown. She made a fist and pulled it up and down over her crotch. Russell nodded. “Wankler?”

“He wants me to copy the worst sort of American drivel. All that in-your-face sex, narcissism and self-indulgence. How to consume. How to claw your way to the top of the dungheap. How to be a super-bitch.”

Russell took another sip of tea and considered that. “Giving women power. It sounds a promising editorial formula. Wankler may be right.”

“A huckster can always attract a crowd by appealing to people’s base instincts. But they’ll drift away if you don’t offer them something more intellectually nourishing. An appeal to their social concerns . . . ” Claudia’s eyes floated to the ceiling rose once more. Russell knew her train of thought had merely paused to take on fuel, and took on another sip of tea himself. “Look”, she protested, “I’m all in favour of the emancipation of women, the freedom we all have now — both men and women — from sexual repression, but there are limits.”

“They have St. Augustine on their side.”

“Who has?”

“The new libertarians. He said the only authority was to love, and so do what you will.”

“Okay, there’s room for debate. As the editor of a responsible journal, my job is to explore the context and consequences of the new permissiveness, not just wallow in it like a pig in shit.”

They were on familiar ground now, so he inserted the trigger words. “The sort of article one might read in Nova, or Queen.”

“Exactly. Take the high ground. An editorial position that recognises women have something between their ears as well as between their legs.”

“Will your readers follow you up to the high ground?”

She moaned. “You sound like Wankler. He says America is where it’s at.”

“What does that mean in the Queen’s English?”

“America is the future.”

Russell took another sip of tea, reflecting. “It’s America or Russia. And America offers the proletariat more enticing illusions. Wankler’s right about that.”

Claudia’s teacup rattled on its saucer. “Will you please stop saying that?”

“Saying what?”

“Wankler is right.”

“We’re certainly not in the game anymore.”

“What game?”

“The future. We tried that. It didn’t work. You could write about that.”

“What?”

“About why the future hasn’t worked.”

 

Russell was right. Nobody believed in the future any more. The brutalist utopian tower blocks that had sprung up all over Britain a few years ago as symbols of a new, modern society were now bleak, decaying, rain-stained sepulchres. Monuments to a misplaced modernism. Ronan Point in Hackney, one of those erections flung up in the false dawn of swinging London, fell down two months after it was completed. A corner wedge of the tower block collapsed, killing five people, injuring ten and leaving bedsteads backing onto the open air on eighteen floors. Is it a symbol of the nation paying the price for the pleasures of self-gratification? The tumbling tower as an image of post-coital depression?

It’s yet another shock to those of us who trusted the men in white coats. After the thalidomide scandal that deformed hundreds of children. After the Torrey Canyon, the world’s largest ‘supertanker’, struck a rock in one of the world’s most familiar seaways and contaminated a hundred miles of coastline with crude oil.

Whatever happened to Mintech and the ‘white heat’ of technology that was to put the ‘great’ back into Great Britain? Remember the dazzling dawn of The Sun? It was supposed to be the new chronicle of a New Age. Keeping us up to date on all the fabulous mod cons of the bright new future: new kitchens, new homes and new cars zooming around the new superhighways that were being built around the new towers for living in the sky, and soon we were all going to be flying about with rockets attached to our backs. (They would have come in useful to the people living in Ronan Point.)

But the gas leaked out of the ballyhoo balloon, and the circulation of The Sun sank back to the level of the old Herald it had replaced. The exposed entrails of the highways wind around the gutted city centres of Birmingham and Manchester. But the only people zooming about in the new Jerusalem are television myths: Patrick McGoohan in his Lotus Elan, Simon Templar in a white Volvo sports car, and John Steed and Emma Peel in their stately vintage Bentley, chasing villains around a futuristic landscape in conspicuous luxury, while Raymond Baxter on Tomorrow’s World cautions the rest of us about those ludicrous breathalyser tests.

What did we ever see of the future? The Post Office tower? A fitting symbol of a nation that worships at the altar of hedonism. The tallest building in Britain is topped by a pretentious penthouse revolving restaurant, created by Sir Billy Butlin, a man knighted for his services as an operator of amusement parks. Its menu is truly excruciating, in the worst possible frenchified manner. All italics and capitalised nouns, braying such exotica as L’Avocado au Fruits de Mer, Le Caneton à L’Orange, Les Choux de Bruxelles, Les Poires Belle Hélène. You even get a cheesy certificate that testifies, over the manager’s printed signature, that ‘the Bearer has dined in orbit’.

Would she have to translate the menu into English for her audience? That would rather ruin the jibe. A familiar, troubling moment of self-doubt. How well did she really know her readers? Perhaps they would squeal with delight at the prospect of receiving a signed Certificate of Orbit to frame and hang on the ‘lounge’ wall next to the flight of wooden ducks.

Wilson had called it a ‘socialist- inspired scientific and technological revolution’. Well, Billy Butlin’s restaurant is still revolving, so the top people can stir their G&Ts without lifting a finger, but everything else seems to be in a downward spiral of economic failure, cultural decadence and the everlasting gloom of a night in your bedsit if you haven’t got a shilling for the meter.

Because that’s the problem. As a nation we’ve run out of shillings. We’re enormously in debt to the rest of the world. Our industries are rusting away, because we won the war and didn’t have to build them all over from scratch. Our unions are hidebound and bolshy. And management is out to lunch. Perhaps at Billy Butlin’s restaurant.

In our vanity, or rather Jim Callaghan’s, we squandered all our sterling reserves trying to prop up the ‘pound in our pocket’ at an unrealistic level, so we imported more than we exported, and then had to devalue anyway. And we’re still trying to maintain the illusion of our derelict empire with an overstretched army, a dodgy currency — and a Royal Mint with a hole in the centre. That last quip was a straight crib from the book by Anthony Jay and David Frost, but it was too perfect to leave out. They’d be grateful for a credit.

It was, the man said, ‘socialist inspired’. So what have the social effects been? Capped wages, roads so full of metal you can’t ride safely on your pushbike, city centres disintegrating, and ethical collapse. The Establishment has abandoned morality to the urges of feckless adolescents. Kim Philby thought Britain so degenerate he fled to Russia and George Blake unpicked whatever technology exists in high-security prisons to flit out of Wormwood Scrubs and join him.

Do you trust the men in white coats anymore? Or do you think they’re coming to take you away?

Even as she pulled the cover over her mental typewriter she could hear Wankler’s protest. Please, Fräulein Claudia, it is polemic. Women are not so interested in big issues. They are interested in personal things. And as a company we cannot afford to be political, how do you say it, to grind our hatchets? And Basil, the ad manager, would climb the wall. Our advertisers are focused on the youth market. This sounds like we’re not a part of it. And what would Butlin’s think? Butlin’s don’t advertise with us, she would reply. And Basil would roll his eyes and say, but they might some day, and I can’t afford to scratch anyone off the list. Indeed not. It would curtail his expense account lunches. And so the article would be spiked. Not by Wankler, not by Basil, but by herself, as sobriety re-infiltrated her brain.

As Claudia heaved a sigh and found herself gazing out the window at the trees swaying in the breeze around Primrose Hill there leapt into her mind the image of a tall, black-haired American rustic with a great smile.

“So, why are you smiling?”, asked Russell, as he collected the tea things.

“There was another man yesterday.”

“Will you see him?”

Claudia shook her head. “He’s barely out of short trousers. Pants. An American to boot.” She frowned. “Wankler has given me a fortnight to get my act together, as he now phrases it.” Then she sighed. “He’s probably not frightfully keen on women anyway.”

Herr Wankler?”

“The American on the hill. He’s an actor.”

 


chapter eight

It was a short speech. The others had read from the script. But it cramped their style. They couldn’t hang loose and let the role take them over. So while he was sitting, waiting, he memorised it. He had a mind like a steel trap, his Pop always used to brag. He would go up without a script. It would make them sit up and take notice, the director and his side-kick slumped in the back row.

It didn’t start well. He was the last to audition and when the guy before him left the stage, the director and his assistant got up to go, too. Jake had to remind them he was there and they sat down again, but they didn’t look enthusiastic.

Once on stage, though, he was flying. It never failed. Once his lines were sealed in the trap, tagged with variations of timbre, tone and rhythm and wired to physical movement and gesture, somewhere in his head a clutch slipped and that part of him — the automaton in the trap — took control. He let the homunculus strut, while he — with the rest of his mind, was free to wander about the audience to study the many upturned faces of that dark monster spread across the stalls, hear its coughs and restless movements and absorb its faint musk of damp tweed and eau de cologne, while calculating the impression he was making, and how much basic equity payments would put in his pocket each week after tax. There was no audience now, apart from the two jurors in the back row, and so his mind’s eye inspected the décor. English theatres groaned with the pomp of the past. His mind’s eye ascended through the cascading skirts of the immense chandelier up to the fresco of painted gods in the cupola from which it hung. A frieze of naked athletes cavorted in a circle at the base of the dome. The boxes swelled from the walls, strange organic growths swathed in a swirling masonry of swooping curtains, antique musical instruments and dangling fruit. Corinthian pilasters of black- and brown-streaked marble framed panels housing relief sculptures of swirling nymphs and supplicants offering up masks. The house lights, only partially dimmed, exposed the shabbiness of the graceful auditorium with its deep curving arcs. The decoration, in dusty pink, pistachio and cream, the colours of a Neapolitan ice cream, was scarred and peeling, the gilt was worn and dull on the baroque plaster swags and the classical figures, centurions and angels that floated on the side walls at the upper circle level had suffered a plague, here a fingertip amputated, there a wing clipped, a nose blunted. This theatre and every London theatre he had seen, was like England itself: trumpeting past glories, cloaked in traditions now discarded and ignored, a dusty mausoleum oblivious of twentieth century theatrical innovation. Such as ample toilets and air conditioning. Jake looked down on himself and wondered whether it had been a good idea to wear his best slacks, the Burton jacket and the knitted tie to the audition. The other actors had dressed as if they were going to play football, in worn rumpled jeans and sloppy shirts. Only the director — a heavy, coarse-breathing voluptuary — wore a suit, a crumpled grey pinstripe, but both he and the suit looked a hundred years old. Perched next to him was a young cherub with golden curls who might have fallen from the plasterwork above. He was enveloped in what appeared to be a garage hand’s overalls, but spotlessly white, with a loose cravat of psychedelic colours flowing from his neck.

The homunculus was speaking: “Truth is what people chalk on pavements. Then it rains.” Jake was pleased with the reading, full of power and dramatic intensity. Like Brando in Streetcar, only with clear articulation. He glanced at his two auditors for corroboration. The casting director sat jackknifed in his seat in a posture of intense concentration, chin resting on his folded hands, eyes closed. His assistant, bright-eyed and agitated, confided a comment into his ear behind a closed hand.

He would find her, the lady on the hill, and invite her to the First Night. She could have stepped out of an Asprey’s advertisement: neat and slender, standing rosy-cheeked and hair-tousled, the bright colours of her skirts flapping in the wind. The lady with the smile that sundered clouds and lit up the sky. The archetypal, stylish English lady, perfectly confident on a breezy hill on a Sunday afternoon or at two a.m. in a Mayfair courtyard with a glass of champagne in her hand. But on stage he could rise to her level. How old was she?

The homonunclus shifted up a gear, a Shakespearean crescendo. The theme was ‘Truth’ and only Gielgud as Lear could rise to the occasion. He was twenty-five when he first played Lear, the same age as Jake. Gielgud as Lear delivered nobly: “What we’re after is the speculative truth. That which might be, could have been, should happen . . . “

What might have been was he could have taken that delightful lady to dinner anywhere in Mayfair on Simon’s five pounds, an embrace afterwards in the taxi, then back to his place or hers. What did happen was a bus ride through miles of South London with the Fat Slag all over him, grasping for his private parts. When a traffic light stopped the bus near a tube station he almost got out and ran. But you couldn’t leave a lady to make her way home alone in a neighbourhood like that. So he let her tug him along endless dismal streets to a gloomy old villa set back from the road behind a high wall. She was wobbly, and it took her some time to unlock the gate, cursing all the while. Finally the gate swung open. She dragged him through and closed it behind them. The front yard was littered with builders’ debris, old tyres and the husk of an abandoned car. The house was dark and derelict.

“I’m dying for a pee,” she said. He started to say his good-byes, but she wrapped herself around him and thrust her tongue into his mouth. It tasted of stale beer and cigarettes. With a free hand he fumbled behind him for the gate. It was locked. She stumbled back, teasing, dangling her keys, and pulled him to the front door. Her key turned the lock but the door refused to open.

“The bastard, he’s bolted it.”

She tugged him around the side of the house and into the shrubbery. To pee or worse? But she pointed to a long wooden ladder lying on the ground with one hand and to an upstairs window with the other, while dancing about crossing her legs.

Despite her bulk she moved up the ladder quickly, with practiced ease. As soon as she disappeared through the window he was off, shouldering the ladder. He had just managed to erect it against the garden wall when the front door opened. She ran up and tackled him around the waist. Then he remembered something she’d shown him. He plunged his hand into her jacket pocket. The ear-piercing wail of her personal alarm pursued him up the ladder, over the wall and obliterated the sound of his running footsteps.

Jake finished his speech with a flourish: “ . . . or at any rate cannot at this moment absolutely be denied.”

The director sat, emotionally gripped, his nose buried into his interlaced hands. The assistant, regrettably, was doubled over, having some sort of coughing fit. He had recovered by the time Jake came up to them. The two men were conferring over notes. At first they ignored him. It was impolite, but that’s the way the English were. They were obviously giving his performance deep thought. Jake waited, still glowing from his effort, smiling confidently. Finally, the sidekick looked up. “Thank you, James. We’ll call you.” Jake had heard this many times, but the smiling cherub was sincere. He even placed a warm hand on his. A secret signal. He would be hearing good news.

Jake felt he could risk correcting him. “The name is Jake.”

The truth was he had expected more. He had put everything he had into that performance. Clearly they were deeply impressed. But the English never showed their feelings. They had matters to arrange, maybe rethink the casting of his leading lady. Jake lingered a bit but thought it would be the English way to leave quietly now. As he reached the shadow of the balcony he heard an excited twitter from the cherub. The director had come to life now and was tossing his arms about, perhaps replaying Jake’s performance. Then the assistant doubled over again in another unfortunate coughing fit.

Jake floated out of the theatre foyer on a gust of physical ecstasy. He leaped into the air and executed his Charlie Chaplin double heel-click. Descending to earth he collided with a middle-aged lady wearing a head scarf and trailing a wheeled shopping basket, who clumped him about the ears with her umbrella.


chapter nine

Like every woman she had ever met in the business, Claudia had started her career as a secretary. This gave her an advantage over most male colleagues, who could neither do shorthand nor type with ten fingers. She preferred to type her own work on her chipped old Royal, which was just as well as Jenny belonged to that new breed of secretaries who called themselves PAs and could or would not take dictation.

Today, her rattling fingers could not pin down her thoughts. She had a title: ‘Fashion Statement’. Cute. And what was more youth-orientated than fashion? For youth, fashion wasn’t just being stylish, it was a philosophical stance. Jenny could not have exhibited her Damascene conversion from dolly bird to sibyl more dramatically had she decided to become a Sufi and wrap herself in bedsheets. The world had spun on its axis, and Claudia, who should be spinning with it, was bewildered. She realised that at some subliminal level she had been seeing this look here and there for some time. Beginning maybe as early as the Alphonse Mucha and Aubrey Beardsley exhibitions of a few years ago. Now suddenly the louche, loose style was everywhere. Fashion had flipped like a weather system. Instead of whirling clockwise, into the future, it had wound back the clock.

These days, fashion was made by the young for the young. And Claudia wondered whether she were still young enough to count herself still in the game after this spin of the wheel. A few years ago, when Mary Quant had abolished middle-age, you had the choice of impersonating a school child or giving up and buying a frumpy, nobbly suit from M & S. Claudia had felt young enough and was supple enough to just limbo under the wire. She had vamped in high-tech monochrome with the seventeen-year-old popsies she supervised at photo shoots. White lace stockings, high white pantomime boots, pvc black mackintoshes, the geometric op-art look. Straight black and white shifts hoisted up to show the knees, and each season, as the pound sank on the international markets, they inched perversely higher.

Or, you could mimic a school uniform in a demure pinafore dress or a skinny ribbed sweater and thick black stockings terminating in white Soho streetwalker’s boots — tiny this time, a leering hint of children’s virginal sandals. It was infantile, Belinda had raged. A paedophile’s wet dream. Of course, women were being exploited by the fashion designers; all women liked to dress up. What mattered about clothing was not what other people thought but the emotions it produced in the wearer. Look at Belinda. She wore olive-drab German army engineer’s trousers, with sagging pockets on the thighs for lipstick and grenades, and a U.S. army combat field jacket with a Sixth Army insignia on the left shoulder, plus a single gold inverted chevron on each sleeve, designating — and this was significant — the lowest insignia of rank, private first class, and a faded white cloth strip above the left breast pocket indelibly inked in capital letters bequeathing her a proletarian identity: GALENSKI. Belinda’s boutique was Laurence Corner, the army surplus store on Hampstead Road, her handbag was a khaki cloth gas mask bag and her face was camouflaged in an outdated Beatnik look: deep-shadowed eyes and pale pouting lips frowning from under a shroud of unkempt hair. All women dressed to send a message and Belinda’s was a message of defiance: I’m a decadent and rebellious representative of the common (wo)man and I’ve stepped off the materialistic roundabout.

Claudia’s own message had been one of self-confidence: I am where a woman’s magazine editor belongs — at the cutting edge of female aspirations. Her hair was Vidal Sassoon, of course. The Shape. Geometric, stark and precise, like the high-tech vortex into which British socialism was marching us all. A classic bob, a short, straight structure frozen in place with hairspray lacquer, like a spacecraft glued with Araldite. This helmet hung long at the sides, swinging in a trim line.

She had brushed her eyelids with white powder above the black eye shadow and black eye-liner around the sockets. She had worn long, false eye-lashes, thick with black waterproof mascara. Thin black arches had replaced her plucked eyebrows. All of this gave her a slightly astonished, wide-eyed look, like an ingènue who had just dropped acid for the first time. But she drew the line at Mary Quant’s ‘Starkers’ ghostly foundation cream and pale gloss lipstick that made your face so pallid against the heavy black eye make-up that the teenagers who used it only had to put on a straw hat and a horizontally striped shirt to pass as a mime. In one of her articles Daphne called them kohl minors.

Now the tide was ebbing, and if the shoddy materials in the space-age frocks and coats hadn’t already perished they would resurface in the second-hand shops up North, where the dolly bird fashion would settle down alongside the beehive hairdo, and linger on for another five years or so. Every day she saw fewer mini-skirts on the streets. Mop-tops had dropped out of sight a year or two ago — except for the Monkees on TV (it probably took time for the news to travel to California). And mods were ancient history. British fashion was as stale as a British Rail sandwich, pushed off the shelves and the clothing racks by another notion imported from the USA: Flower Power.

Her thoughts shaped into phrases and her fingers began to stroke the keyboard: the Beatles have transformed themselves from cheeky chappies, mischievous but essentially clean and normal, into hippies. A 1940s word reworked for the sixties. It comes from hep. Like hepcat. Which, somewhere out in California transmuted into hip. As in hipster. A hepcat by a cooler name. Which used to be hot. But is now cool. Now the Beatles are hippies. Into peace and love, meditation and marijuana. Frivolities which in post-imperial, post-dock strike, post-devaluation Britain, only they can afford.

Style has changed. Stark geometry has yielded to art nouveau resurgent. The Germans called it Jugendstil and that’s what it is once again — the young style. All flowing curves and floral patterns and swooping tendrils in sludgy colours. You know it. It was the style of the wallpaper in your grandparents’ house; until now it’s been kept in dusty corners of the V&A.

It’s a complete reversal of Mary Quant’s op-art style, all those clinical, futuristic shapes you could draw with a compass and a straight edge, like lines on a chart. Because then we knew where we were going. Now we are aimless. It’s a symbol of our lost faith in technology. After the Blue Streak slumped into the sea like a faltering erection. After the thalidomide scandal. The Torrey Canyon disaster. And the loss of empire. All the virile young men who used to know where they were going — to India, to the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, to Happy Valley, to the Hindu Kush — to administer and defend the empire, now have nowhere to go. They drift in circles. They become more sensitive. More like women.

So what are they wearing now? Cast-off British imperial uniforms! Pop into I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet in the Portobello Road. Or, rather, march in. It’s stacked with imperial memorabilia. Racks of military jackets with brass buttons and gold filigree. Everything you would expect to see in a Victorian music hall — on stage or in the audience. Outfitters by appointment to Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

But this time around, a fundamental law of fashion has been breached. Men have always dressed differently from women. Now, as well as middle age, gender has been abolished. Everyone is growing their hair long and curly — both sexes. Men and women are dressing more and more alike. There seems to be a deliberate intention to conceal a woman’s figure. Hipster trousers, in denim or corduroy, are everyday women’s wear. Maxi-dresses and maxi-coats cloak her body down to the ankles. Fight your way into Granny Takes a Trip on the King’s Road. The slim-waisted, chestless waifs crowding into it are androgynous. Male and female sizes are mixed on the racks. And there’s just one changing room.

Sleeves are stretching by the day. The dolly bird wore them short and tight. Now, they’re gathered in long, sinuous shapes, enveloping the elbows, even the hands. Remember drainpipes? Now trousers bottoms look like skirts and short, straight skirts have sunk to the floor. Men’s shirts are frilled and lacy and their collars are growing longer and rounder, mutating into flaps like a dachsund’s ears.

Today’s hip clothing is as sensuous and excessive as the flock wallpaper in an Indian restaurant. There is a strong eastern influence of sari-type wraps and kimonos, and resolute nostalgia for almost any bygone era as long as the style is fussy and elaborate — beaded and patterned flappers’ dresses from the twenties, society gowns from the thirties, brocade waistcoats, and buttons, beads, bells and blossoms in profusion.

Feminists may see the new unisex fashion as striking a blow for sexual equality, but haven’t we lost something if the result is to turn us all, male and female, into eunuchs?

Claudia paused to reflect and decided that she was, on balance, in favour of the change. Compare Mary Quant to Biba. How credible was that Quantum leap into slick futurism now that everyone knew the white heat of technology was just a soggy pile of ashes? On the tidal wave of the new style Barbara Hulanicki’s Biba had slipped its moorings on Abingdon Road and floated into a huge drydock in Kensington High Street, where it lay, a vast, chaotic jumble like an eastern souk. The perky, clean-limbed dolly birds who used to inhabit it had metamorphosised into apprentice vampires, louche and languorous. It was all still sex-driven, but that was just theatrics. The thing that made it work for her was that, unlike Bazaar, Biba wasn’t exclusively for the daughters of the rich and for working women like herself who could afford it. It was genuinely democratic. Everyone went to Biba, even the girls in her typing pool. You could pick up a dress for two pounds, ten shillings, belts and scarves for a few shillings each, a maxi coat for seven pounds. About half the price of anywhere else. For fifteen pounds, the price of a Mary Quant party dress, you could walk out of Biba in a complete new ensemble: coat, dress, shoes, petticoat and hat.

She returned to the typewriter: For the young working girl, and older women, too, Biba has become a way of life — a brand, a temple, a system of belief. But how long will it last? If fashion reflects the times we live in, how long before all those beads and scarves and shaggy wool coats migrate to the market stalls in the wilderness north of Watford?

Then what? Well, a new shop has opened recently just down the road from Biba. Its shelves are stocked with floral patterns, too, the stuff of Victorian revivalism, the spirit of William Morris. But it’s not into Bohemian outrage. It doesn’t have a political agenda. It’s flowery, but gentle and restrained — Home Counties, if you will — and the shop is full of women, both old and young. It’s a timeless style that you can live with for a long, long time. Does the arrival of Laura Ashley on the scene mean that we’re in for a long-term political shift to conservatism?

Only two people would ever open her door without knocking: Wankler or Daphne. From the rustle of stiff fabric and the wave of Chanel No. 5 released into the tiny office, she presumed it was not Wankler, unless he, too had suffered a Damascene conversion.

Looking up, Claudia decided not to ask Daphne for her input on the latest fashion trends. She was swathed in yards of black taffeta. Stiff parapets and embrasures fortified her bosom and hips, creating the illusion of a waisted hourglass shape. Her legs were sheathed in sheer silk black stockings and a tiny veiled black pillbox perched on her head. Her eye sockets were like dugouts camouflaged with kohl. She fairly bristled with armament. Claudia in her simple, black A-line Jean Muir rip-off — a sort of neutral refuge she had retreated to while trying to sort out her fashion sense — was hopelessly outgunned. Attack was the best form of defence, and so she advanced with her rapier.

“You’ve either got a heavy date with a City gent or you’re going to a funeral”.

 

Daphne had to laugh. Claudia’s intuition, as usual, was spot on. “Both. He’s burying his wife,” she admitted. Her costume had been chosen with care. It was, she felt, the precisely correct balance of respectful sympathy and seductive power for the occasion. She brought Claudia up to date with the latest installment of her long-standing private soap opera, now reaching its climax. For twelve years he had been havering about leaving his wife. Now his wife had left him, and the game was afoot.

“It sounds like the Archers without the livestock,” judged Claudia.

“What about your love life?

Claudia snorted. “More like the Crazy Gang. You wouldn’t believe the two cartoon characters I met over the weekend.”

That was news. Claudia had been virtually a nun since the break-up with Stephen. And now a brace in one weekend? But Claudia dismissed her adventures with a wave of her hand. She kicked off her shoes and put her feet up on her desk. “I’ve got work problems.”

“The Bosch?”

Claudia grunted, and pushed a copy of the American magazine, Yin, across the desk with her stockinged toe. “They want to turn Modern Woman into a sex manual.”

“That’s where the money is since the younger generation found out about sex. We should never have told them.”

“I’m not against sex.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

“But why do they have to be so upfront about it?”

“It’s honest.”

“It’s vulgar.”

“Was it better behind the bicycle shed?”

What saved Claudia from being a prude was her sense of humour. “It did have a certain frisson of decadence.” They both laughed. “But my magazine, like your Woman’s Page is about every aspect of being a woman. Not just fashion, home-making, and children, but society and literature . . . Jorge Luis Borges wrote for women’s magazines. He introduced Argentinian women to European literature —”

“When they wanted to meet Alain Delon.”

Claudia ignored her. “— Kafka, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Mann, Schopenhauer —”

“Dirty old man.”

“Borges?”

“Have you read him?”

“His short stories.”

“No. Schopenhauer. He fancied teeny-boppers. And you don’t want your readers to know what he said about women.”

“What?”

“Woman is by nature meant to obey.”

“Forget literature. Politics.”

Daphne snorted. “I don’t seem to recollect Modern Woman’s editorial stance on the Vietnam War Crimes Tribunal.”

“Our advertisers would faint. I mean women’s issues — the Pill, the health service, moral issues —”

“Like? Name one you’ve covered this year.”

Claudia had to think before responding triumphantly, “The topless bathing cossie”.

Daphne flipped through Yin. “This is all about moral issues — like on your first date should you go down on him right away or wait ‘til you’re out of the taxi.”

“My point exactly. It’s a question of good taste. And balance. Why does every activity have to be fraught with sex? I know what the Germans would like to see on my cooking page: ‘Should a hausfrau wear knickers when she’s bending over her husband’s bratwurst, or should she buy an eye-level oven?’“

“How much pressure are they putting on you?

“I’ve got a fortnight to ginger up the magazine.”

“Or?”

“They sack me.”

“What are you going to do?”

“What do you think I should do?”

“I think artistic integrity is priceless. You can’t afford it”.

“I am not throwing an artistic pout.” Claudia threw one of her shoes at the wall. It bounced off the image of Stephen in the framed cutting from The Stage. “I cannot write this American-style rubbish. All that crude sex. I don’t have any time for it.”

Daphne smirked. “I manage to free up an afternoon once a week.”

Claudia pouted. “Women want more than a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am. They want the thrill of romance, the glorious gamble of an uncommitted heart.”

“These days, that’s called not taking the Pill”.

“How have you managed to preserve your editorial integrity all these years?”

“I keep it in my knickers. They’re elastic. Besides, my editors never read the Woman’s Page.” The second shoe dropped to the floor after bouncing off Stephen. So that was the real agenda. Daphne lit a cigarette before engaging it. “That photograph.”

Claudia’s eyes went to the photo on the wall showing her striking Stephen and she grinned. “It was a smashing bouquet.”

“Not that one. The other one.” Daphne paused to exhale smoke. “I almost didn’t send it to you.”

“You did the right thing.”

“Are you sure you did the right thing?”

“Jilting Stephen? Absolutely. I don’t know what I ever saw in him.”

“Power worship.”

Claudia set her jaw. “Never.”

“Not consciously, perhaps. But it’s inbred. If a girl lives in the savannah, where any male can knock you to the ground, you develop a natural preference for the biggest ape.”

“Join the protective custody of the harem?”

“Exactly. So, nowadays, when we’re feeling faint all we want is for a white knight on a charger to come along and sweep us up before we hit the floor.”

Claudia sighed. “And we call it romance.”

“That’s how they sell it to us. To discourage us from developing our own resources.”

“A world without romance would be rather a bore.”

“Forget Sleeping Beauty. Think Joan of Arc.”

“We don’t have much of a choice, do we? Going through life unconscious or being burned at the stake.” The image of martyrdom brought resolve to her expression. “You can’t go through life acting a lie. Which is why I couldn’t marry Stephen and why I can’t bring myself to corrupt my magazine”.

“Our readers are growing younger and we’re growing older. If you can’t relate to them anymore, get someone in who can. Delegate”.

“Some teenager off the street?”

“Do you know how young the editor they hired for the British edition of Yin magazine is?”

“I know. They’ll be sorry, once she starts menstruating”.

Daphne gathered her things. “I’ve got a hearse to catch.” She paused at the door and wafted Claudia an air kiss. “The trouble with women in business is that we take everything personally”.

“I do not!” The copy of Yin that Claudia aimed at Daphne hit the closing door and fell to the ground.

 

Jenny lifted her eyes from her fingernails to observe Daphne’s stately departure. She looked like the back of a London taxi. How could a woman who dressed like a nineteenth century brothel-keeper get to be an editor in the male preserve of Fleet Street? Maybe she was a dominatrix.

The arrogant buzz of the intercom interrupted her musings. After a delay sufficient to replace her nail file in her handbag and indicate that she was nobody’s skivvy, Jenny lifted the receiver.

“Get me the advertising agency,” it squawked.

“You fired the scumbags last week.”

“Did I? Why?”

“You said they were a pack of adolescents.”

“That’s just what we need now. A pack of adolescent scumbags.”


chapter ten

It rained. Water poured off the shop awnings, gurgled out of the drainpipes. Water ran in rivers in the gutters, debouching into sewers until they gagged and coughed it up again, forming pools that spread out over the crossroads. People hurried, buttoned-up in macintoshes, bending under brollies, wading ankle-deep across the rippling ponds, splashed hip-high by the traffic surging by. In the lee of a telephone kiosk a huddled queue of people sought shelter one behind the other. At the front of the queue Jake was able to use the kiosk as a windbreak, but he had no umbrella and he wore no hat. His hair was dripping, rivulets ran down his face and his woollen duffel coat was sodden. Only his feet were dry. He wondered once again why no one in this rain-plagued land, not a single soul apart from himself, wore rubbers over their shoes.

Finally he was admitted into the sanctuary of the booth. The rain drummed on the roof and the windows steamed. He shook a spray of water from his head and lined up a heavy stack of twopenny pieces on the ledge before confronting the enigma of the ‘A’ and ‘B’ buttons. He dialed the number, pushed the ‘A’ button, and waited. Nothing happened. He pushed the ‘B’ button. Nothing. He hung up and fished in the slot for his coin. Nothing.

It was a ritual that seemed to work for everyone else, but from which he, as an intruder from an alien culture where payphones worked simply by dialling, was excluded. He tried again. And once again, each time introducing various permutations into the button-pressing procedure. Someone hammered on the outside of the phone box. A wrathful old woman stood outside in a transparent plastic mac and hood, water streaming off her in rivulets because she had rolled her umbrella to assault the door with the handle.

Jake turned his back. Only two tuppences remained on the ledge. Finally, magically, he got through. “Stephen Gurney Productions.”

Outside the phone box, the remainder of the queue had despaired and dispersed. Claudia, hurrying through the downpour beneath a huge umbrella bearing the blue and red and white stripes of a union jack, booty from a fashion shoot, paused and took her place behind the elderly woman in the transparent mac and hood who stood in the cascade, muttering to herself, a furled umbrella in her hand. Claudia included the woman beneath the shelter of her own umbrella.

Instead of a thank-you, the old lady muttered, “Arrogant bastard.”

“Who?” asked Claudia.

“That cocksucker.” The old dear shifted her head towards the phone box, but the rim of the brolly blocked Claudia’s view. She turned her eyes down the street to make out the numbers on the red buses lumbering forward in elephantine procession.

Inside the phone box Jake’s world collapsed. Not only had he not got the part, Stephen Gurney Productions had never heard of Jake O’Sullivan. All agents had been notified of the casting results. Well, of course, if he had no agent . . .

Jake thrust open the door of the kiosk, eyes already wet before the rain hit his face, and almost lost one of them to a spike from the rim of a huge umbrella with a union jack design that rushed across his path. He shouted with rage and started after it, only to be rapped on the head by the handle of another umbrella. The old lady scuttled into the phone box and wedged her backside against the door. She fished in the coin slot and extracted three twopenny pieces.

The union jack umbrella was about to board a bus. Jake’s bus. He charged after it. Stepping off the kerb he fetched up against the arm of a policeman extending from a yellow poncho, palm forward. A whistle, the policemen beckoned, and a sodden mass of demonstrators wheeled into Oxford Street, splashing through the small lake at the intersection, their painted signs smeared and drooping. Beyond, the union jack furled as the owner of the umbrella stepped on to Jake’s bus and it pulled away. ‘Yank Go Home’ read one of the signs moving past. As Jake contemplated that advice, a great lump arose in his throat and tears threatened to join the deluge streaming down his face.

In the stuffy flat Jake hung up his dripping coat in the hall and, on auto-pilot, headed for the telephone table. Once, after a message had been mixed up, Simon had instructed him to create a register of calls. Jake had obliged with a notepad divided into two columns headed ‘Simon’ and ‘Jake’. On the top page Simon’s column was full of the recent messages Jake had written there. Jake’s column was blank, which meant that either there had been no calls or Simon had not troubled himself to record them. Jake flicked back a page with the same result, then recalled that he was desperate to take a pee, and opened the bathroom door. He rushed in, tugging at his flies, and was greeted by giggles arising to his left. Simon was in the bath, enveloped in clouds of bath foam and sipping from a goblet of champagne. The giggles came from the man who was shampooing Simon’s hair. Jake recognised him. He was the golden-haired cherub in the white garage hand’s overalls. But now he was naked. Jake retreated, shutting the bathroom door behind him.

Simon called through the door. “Come on in, Jakes, if you want to have a slash.”

Another voice chimed in. “It’s all right, Marlon, I’ve got soap in my eyes.”

“I can wait,” Jake shouted back. The pain in his groin could no longer be denied. In the kitchen, the sink was full of dirty dishes. The overflowing wastebin in the hall seemed a bad idea. The elegant vase in the sitting room had an aperture that looked too small. In desperation he marched back into the bathroom, looking straight ahead, flipped up the seat of the toilet and stood over it. Giggles rose from the bath with the sweet scent of bath foam and from the corner of his eye Jake became aware that the cherub’s face was on eye-level with his penis.

Simon introduced them with a smirk in his voice. “Roy, Jake. Jake, Roy.”

Jake couldn’t pee. The pain of the need remained, but no water would issue forth.

“I know you,” said Roy.

Simon laughed. “Recognise something?”

“Didn’t you try out for A Bird in the Bush?“, inquired Roy.

“Roy is very close to Stephen Gurney,” Simon intoned.

Jake could not pee. “Is that why he’s in your bath?”, he blurted.

“Not quite so close anymore,” chirped Roy. “That’s why I’m in the bath.”

“I thought you had to take a pee”, said Simon. “I don’t hear anything.”

Jake stowed his recalcitrant equipment into his trousers. There was no need to flush the toilet. He retreated once again. Laughter followed him through the closed door.

The third floor sash window in the Mayfair mansion block opened as the chauffeur-driven robin’s-egg-blue Rolls Royce convertible swung out of Berkeley Square and pulled up at the restaurant marquee. The rain had not persisted into the evening, and so the liveried doorman left his umbrella in its stand as he ushered forward to open the passengers’ door. A glittering couple emerged. The statuesque figure in the white fur wrap was almost too tall for a woman, even discounting the teetering high heels and the bouffant hairdo of a violent hue unknown in nature except in the deep hydrothermal chambers of the earth’s crust, and reflected in the sparkle of her amethyst earrings. Though the crest of his bald head barely approached the level from which her eyebrows began their arched ascent, the urbane, middle-aged man swathed in the long, blond camel’s hair overcoat took her confidently by the arm. As his companion stepped beneath the shelter of the marquee he paused outside, touched his bald pate, and looked up to see if it had begun to rain again.

 

The telephone rang. Jake had been supporting the faulty window sash with one hand. When he removed it, the window slammed down. He flinched and pulled back and the drape cord twisted violently around his apparatus. Jake howled but a quick check confirmed that he was still a man. He hobbled to the telephone.

Simon called through the bathroom door. “If it’s for me, I’m hors de combat. I’ll call back after the weekend.”

Jake hoisted the phone. “Mayfair 9496.” He began to jot a note on the pad. Giggles and splashing carried through the bathroom door. Jake paused and cast a glance at the door. Then, because the throbbing pain in his penis had rendered him temporarily unbalanced, or because, as The Telegraph leaders were saying, the permissive society had rotted the moral fibre of his generation, or because even a disciple of Horatio Alger can take only so much rejection, he crossed out the notation he had begun in Simon’s column and scribbled a note in the column beneath his own name.


chapter eleven

When Jenny stood up and replaced the phone the mob of supplicants milling outside Claudia’s office surged forward like a crowd of penguins at feeding time in Regent’s Park Zoo. She surveyed them: the boyish adman with a flip-chart and an easel under his arm and a shit-eating grin pasted on his face; the lugubrious art director clutching photographs; the printer’s rep flourishing a poster; the two stage mothers advancing before them like battering rams their two snotty little girls dressed in frilly party dresses; and Basil, the magazine’s pathetic advertising sales manager who couldn’t keep his hands off her bum but was useful for dishing the dirt and who was waiting to introduce a client. Both had drunk too many brandies after lunch. Jenny bent her finger to the adman and admitted him to the office. The others pressed around her to complain.

By the time the twelve-year-old adman with the cheesy grin and the ludicrous name of Kip had made his customary oily observations about the weather, the state of the traffic and the restaurant he proposed to escort her to the next time she was free — which she wouldn’t be — and had set up his easel, Claudia had already lost patience. The first page of his presentation showed a photograph of a handsome young stud wearing earrings with the headline: ‘Think Bold’.

“That’s a man,” she pointed out. The adman stretched his grin a notch wider and nodded vacantly. “This is a woman’s magazine”, she felt obliged to add.

He flipped to the next page: it showed the same photo presented as a magazine cover with the masthead Modern Couples. The adman beamed at her: “At a single stroke, you double the size of your target audience.”

Claudia sniffed. “Men are not interested in fashion and home-making.”

“Modern men are.” As Kip turned the page once more Claudia noticed for the first time that his tie, his socks and the handkerchief perched in the breast pocket of his charcoal gray pin-striped suit were all colour co-ordinated — a sort of dayglo purple. She was seized with the notion that these irruptions blossoming through the gaps in his suit all flowed from a single, one-piece purple undergarment that the youth wore. She choked back a snort and had to pull out her hankie and pretend to sneeze.

The next page of the presentation showed a young couple choosing decorating fabrics. “He’d be at the football game while she schleps around the shops,” Claudia protested.

“You’re falling behind the times, Miss Pickles,” he reprimanded and turned another page. This photograph showed two men looking into a clothes shop window.

Claudia rose from her chair, pointing. “They’re holding hands!”

Kip smirked. “It’s legal now.”

“You want to turn Modern Woman into a fag mag?”

“That’s homophobic.”

Claudia had had enough. “Out! Out! Out!”, she shouted and shooed him to the door. She covered the offending image by flipping the chart presentation back to the first page. The photograph of the muscled stud stirred more anger. “And take your pornography with you.”

The adman hovered at the door. “No. Think about it, Miss Pickles. This is the sixties, after all.”

When he was finally gone Claudia collapsed at her desk with her head in her hands. She had lots of homosexual friends. Well, colleagues really. Most of the artistically gifted men she knew were bent. It came with the territory. She had absolutely no problem with that. But the biggest mistake you could make as an editor was to assume that your personal reactions were the same as your readers. Her attitudes were those of an educated, independent woman living in the centre of the most cosmopolitan city in Britain. To the great suspicious mass of her provincial-minded readers a homosexual was a man who carried an umbrella.

There was a need for education. That was the way to get sex into Modern Woman. Not titillation. Education. A responsible piece about sexual mores. Maybe an entire issue. It was not just homosexuality that confused her readers. The sexual revolution has turned our erotic assumptions upside down — or into any other number of positions. Many of her readers must feel they were living through a turbulent period of moral decadence. She buzzed Jenny to hold her calls and appointments for half an hour and fed a piece of paper into her trusty upright Royal.

The good news is that we’ve discovered sex. We’ve liberated ourselves from Victorian repression. We can enjoy sex again, like 18th century libertines, but without the pox. Once again it’s the Americans who are showing the way. With naked people writhing on stage, would you believe, in that ‘tribal love-rock musical’ Hair. A celebration of the human spirit and the human body. But you’ll never see it here. Not while the Lord Chamberlain still determines what’s fit for us to see.

Ten years ago the Wolfenden report wisely recommended that the state should stay out of the bedroom. Only public sexual behaviour should be regulated, which basically means outdoors on Hampstead Heath or the back alleys of Soho. Do what you must, but don’t frighten the horses. They called Wolfenden ‘The Pansies’ Charter’, because it proposed that homosexual acts between consenting adults should be decriminalised, so long as they took place in private and not where the horses could see. Stephen had called it ‘The People’s Charter’ because it meant that the state should no longer presume to define and enforce morality. At a time when every tabloid reader associated ‘queers’ with bribery and treason, the Macmillan government shrewdly concluded that legalising homosexuality was political suicide, and all it did was to pass a law that swept streetwalkers into lodgings.

Yet, rather suddenly, the new Sexual Offences Act has changed all the rules. Though Stephen was quick to point out some amusing peculiarities. Men can fuck each other in England and Wales, but not in Scotland or Ulster. Merchant seamen on the high seas have to keep their hands off each other, but passengers and the crews of foreign-registered vessels are fair game.

In the same way, the Pill has unchained female sexuality. And everyone will tell you the Pill has encouraged rampant promiscuity. And if it fails you can get an abortion legally now.

So, the ’60s are a Sex Maniac’s Charter, right? Well, not necessarily. The Pill is only now becoming generally available. She’d read somewhere that fewer than one in ten single women has ever used it. According to a recent survey most teenagers are still virgins at age nineteen. And the average age of marriage has fallen from 25 twenty years ago to 23 now. It seems young people still want families, not unbridled sex. Perhaps the sexual revolution isn’t taking place all over Britain as we fear, in bedsits and the back seats of Minis, but in the newspapers, which lubriciously retail the exploits of a few wealthy or celebrated British youngsters.

But how did she know? The only indisputable fact was that she wasn’t sharing it.

Jenny knocked and slipped in with her dictation pad. “The heavy breather rang. Twice.”

“I am never in to Stephen.”

“I told him to stick it in his bumbag. Twice.”

“Anyone else?”

Jenny made a wanking gesture. “He’s coming. Over.”

Herr Wankler? It can’t be Friday yet. Not even in Germany.”

Jenny put on a stage German accent. “’Zyust ze sozyial call,’ he said”.

“So, no panzers.”

“And a call from Perfect Romance Limited. You’ve not been using a dating agency?”

“Actually, I have.”

“A dildo gives you more kicks. And afterwards you can put it away in a drawer.”

“Research. For an article.”

Jenny arched an eyebrow. “So, what was he like? A wimp or a sex maniac?”

The girl was too clever by half. Claudia couldn’t let her get away with that. “Actually, he was dead gorgeous. But American, regrettably. And maybe just a bit immature.”

Jenny smirked. “How young?”.

Claudia was finding it difficult to return Jenny’s knowing gaze and so was almost relieved when Herr Wankler goosestepped into the room uniformed in leather overcoat, leather briefcase and natty little leather Austrian hat. “I was just passing through. I thought I’d pop in to see . . .” He broke off and she followed his gaze to the large photograph of the young stud on the easel with the headline ‘Think Bold.’ “Is that it? The new strategy?”

A split-second of panic gripped Claudia as she moved to block the easel. But her strength, she had always felt, lay in improvisation and, while still holding Jenny’s amused, ironic gaze, inspiration came. She wheeled to face Wankler with sudden confidence.

“Young men”, she announced, and started pacing around her desk. Wankler revolved like a panning cine camera to follow her movements and Jenny had to keep dodging out of the way. “Young men attract women of all ages. Girls drool for them and older women want to mold them. We’re in the throes of a sexual revolution. Our readers can regain their youth by tuning in to the younger generation. Modern Woman shows them how.”

In a literal if unconscious gesture of appreciation, Wankler removed his saucy hat. “I want you to present this to the board. Next week.” He discovered his hat in his hands and clapped it back on his head. “I want you to know I’m right behind you on this,” he said, before exiting through the door as abruptly as he had arrived.

“I’d rather have you in plain sight”, Claudia hissed through gritted teeth and instantly regretted it. More ammunition for Jenny to store away in her war chest. Some day she would have to sack Jenny. But right now she needed all the help she could get, so instead she said “We need a brainstorm meeting.”

“You want me to send an all-staff memo?”

“I want you to rally the fucking troops to the front line. Now.” Claudia replied, and flopped into her chair.

 

As Herr Wankler elbowed his way through the crowd of impatient supplicants and disappeared out the main door. Jenny climbed onto a stool. She faced the labourers in the editorial room and cupping her hands around her mouth, shouted “Action stations! Grab your socks and hold your cocks!” The two mothers clapped their hands over the ears of their two little girls and made for the exit, now blocked by the advertising space salesman, who had produced a bottle of brandy from the company liquor cabinet and was pouring a shot for his client. Both were unsteady on their feet and as the clucking brood pushed past they fell over.


chapter twelve

Soho was deserted at ten-thirty on a Sunday morning. On Dean Street a solitary milk float passed noiselessly from door to door. The Lorelei boasted a marquee but it looked too small for a conventional theatre. Pussy in Boots was the production on offer. A metal gate extended across the entrance, but it was unlocked and partly open. Jake pulled a note from his pocket to check the address before passing through into the narrow, rubbish-strewn foyer.

The tiny, dark theatre held no more than two dozen armchairs, covered in faded red plush, soiled on the seats and threadbare on the arms. A woman squatted on the edge of the little stage. Army surplus camouflage overalls hung loose on a scrawny frame and a saucy red beret spattered with a random handful of brass gold stars perched on a tangle of dark hair. Bare arms poked out of a many-pocketed photographer’s waistcoat tunic. On one arm a tattoo of a red dragon breathed fire; a blue-and-yellow butterfly spread its wings on the other. She was young, barely in her twenties and looked unwashed. She was rolling a cigarette and looked up to throw him a quick, annoyed glance.

“No matinee today, squire. You’ll have to go buy a copy of Penthouse.” She bent her dark straggling hair over her roll-up again.

“Are you Belinda?”

“Who wants to know?”

“I’m Jake.”

“That’s jake, Jake. Now buzz off.”

“I’m taking Simon’s place.” She met his eyes for the first time. They simmered with anger. Could she see through his deception? “Didn’t he phone you?” he stammered.

“You’re American”, she said, sniffing as if she had discovered horse manure in her tobacco.

Jake remembered Simon’s mantra: My aunt. Took a chance. In the bath. “Where’s the rest of the cast?” he asked with an ‘a’ so broad it left his mouth hanging open.

“It’s a two-hander.”

“Who’s - “

“Me. And I’m the writer and director, too.”

“A student project?” Jake’s voice sagged. So this was what he’d pinched off Simon. Served him right.

She read the disappointment in his voice, and somehow this put them on the same side.

“Which is why Simon brushed me off. But what the precious bastard doesn’t know is a West End producer is coming to this reading.”

Jake’s spirits arose from the floor. Belinda found the switch for the stage lights and he got up on the tiny platform with a copy of the script. In the glare of the bright lights he could barely make her out. She was a shadowy presence in the dark of the rear row of seats. He read and she responded. She needed no script; she knew it all by heart. But she said her lines mechanically, giving him no help at all. As eleven o’clock came and went and then twelve and the West End producer failed to arrive the timbre of her voice hardened from anxiety to anger.

After one lengthy speech into which he threw everything he had, she didn’t answer. Total silence. There was no dark figure within the shadows of the back row of seats. She must have slipped out, without so much as a by-your-leave, to cast an eye up and down the empty Soho street or to make a call to the famous West End producer — if he existed. The door at the back of the room opened and closed again. Jake skipped to the last page of the scene.

“Good-bye,” said Jake from the stage.

Belinda’s voice supplied the dialogue from the dark at the back of the room. “I’ll send my solicitors around for the goods and chattels. You can keep the Afghans.”

“We can still work together,” Jake responded.

“I could live with your lack of talent. It’s your lack of money I despise.”

“We can still be contemporaries.”

The door at the back opened again. A figure stepped in and took a seat next to Belinda. Voices murmured. Jake paused and waited uncertainly.

 

Belinda was furious. “You’re unspeakably late.”

“Sorry, darling. Show business.”

“On Sunday morning?”

Stephen shrugged and flashed his most ingratiating smile. “We never close.”

“I’ve only booked this fleapit for two hours.”

“Send me the bill.”

“There’s not enough time now. They’ve got a show at noon.”

“A theatrical licence on Sunday?”

“A strip-show.”

Stephen patted her knee.”I already know the plot, darling. I lived through it.”

Belinda summoned up tears. “You said you wanted to hear it.”

“I know it’s good, baggage. Because you’re a splendid writer. And I want to produce it. But —”

“But.” Belinda repeated the word with a full stop.

The Yank playing Brendan suddenly declaimed in a voice loud enough to shake the gods, had there been balconies, “We can still be contemporaries.”

Belinda called out. “Brendan, can you do the soliloquy, again please? Act one, scene two, page 15. A titch less volume.”

Stephen hadn’t looked at the stage before. Now he said, “You want an American to play me?”

“The first prick dropped out when he realised it was just speculative. He sent his flatmate.”

On stage, Brendan launched into his soliloquy. “Sixty lovers is not so many. Some people claim they’ve had hundreds . . .”

Belinda sulked. “Have you even read it?”

“I read it a couple of months ago.”

“I mean the latest version. It keeps evolving.”

“One of the things a writer has to learn, poppet, is when to stop writing.”

“I can’t stop reacting to life. As my experience grows so do my insights. And stop calling me poppet.”

“I think it’s got real potential. That’s speaking professionally, and not as your father.”

“But. Speaking as the great smarmy . . .”

“Herself might not approve. She could start a libel action.”

“What did she say?” Stephen didn’t answer. He seemed to be focused on the stage. “You did see her?” she persevered.

“She’s being awkward about meeting.” They both watched Brendan in silence for a moment before Stephen picked up the thread. “I don’t want to cause her unnecessary grief.”

“You’re not going sweet on her again?”

Her father pursed his lips in a prelate’s pious smile. “You can’t go through life hurting people gratuitously.”

“She’s hurt you enough, Daddy.”

A frown of resignation replaced the faint smile. “I can’t back your play unless she gives her consent.”

“So I have to go and see her?”

Stephen beamed at her. “What a splendid idea! We all have to understand each other completely on this. Ask her out to dinner – the three of us. At The Ivy.”

Belinda pouted. “Candlelight? Champagne? Are you sure you want gooseberry along?”

“It’s all about you, baggage.”

Stephen gave the stage his professional attention for a minute or two. “What’s his name?”

“If you’ve read the play you’d know. Brendan.”

“The actor.”

“I don’t know. Jake something.”

“He’s got presence.”

“He’s a bimbo. You want to meet him?”

“Not just now. Go and see her. Take him along to read.”

Her father had a knack of engineering complications that confused Belinda. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing? She’ll eat that hunk of meat raw.”

Instead of an answer she got a quick peck on the cheek. “Must fly, darling.” Just as Brendan was reaching his crescendo. She could see now that the performance was good. Her father had unerring judgement. Suddenly the seat next to her was empty. Belinda sprang up and rushed after Stephen. The door slammed behind her.

On stage, Jake was working himself into a crescendo. “Some word you spell with an initial capital. Honour, Loyalty . . . or Sexually Transmitted Disease.”

There was no polite applause, no thank-you, no sound at all. Jake squinted against the bright stage-lights into the dark. The last row was empty again.


chapter thirteen

Claudia could not work without surrounding herself with total chaos. The long refectory table had submerged beneath papers, magazines, photos and artwork. She sat in a small cleared space at one end frowning over her portable typewriter. She had not typed a line since finishing her lunch. She would be tetchy. Russell softly collected the lunch dishes at her elbow and placed them on the tray. He hovered behind her to steal a glance at the page. She would never ask for his help, but sometimes he was able to slip in some ideas. He was unseen, but not unnoticed.

“Russell, do you mind?” Claudia groaned and threw up her hands.

He backed off. Immediately repentant, she reached out and took his hand. “I’m sorry, love, but my career is at stake. And I don’t believe what I’m writing.” She put on her wistful little girl face. “Russell, what do women want?”

“Men?”

“Try harder. You’re a poet.”

“Love?”

“Yes, but not just making love.” She thrust a magazine at him. American. It was called Yin. “If you believe this trash, a woman thinks with her vagina.”

“That’s not quite right.” Russell pondered for a moment, then it came to him. “They think with their wombs.”

Claudia stared at him, her eyes widening. He had struck a nerve. “Of course! Women are maternal. Our destiny is to preserve the species. That’s what we mean when we say make love, not war. Not a series of one-night stands. Women are the appointed guardians of eternity.”

“You’re going to have to make that sound a bit more like fun,” suggested Russell.

Claudia wailed. “I know. But how?”

The grandfather clock tolled four times. “Hope!” Claudia shouted, and got up and left the room. Russell edged up to the typewriter. He studied the text, then stood for a moment thinking about it. Finally, he put down the tray, sat down and began to peck at the keys, one finger at a time.

 

Hope was hiding behind the sofa.

“Hope, will you come out, please?”

“I hate her.”

“She’ll want to see your new dress.

“No she won’t.”

Claudia placed the tea tray on the low table in front of the sofa. “Well, in case you change your mind, your tea is on the table. With shortcake biscuits.”

The doorbell rang. Belinda stood on the threshold. She was actually smiling.

“Sorry we’re late,” she recited, more or less as a single word, without a soupçon of sorrow.

Claudia’s eyes flew up to the figure behind her. It couldn’t be. There, in his purple, nubbed Burton jacket and not-quite-matching knitted tie, stood the virile young man from the hill. Which must, of course, be the reason Belinda was smiling.

She felt a sudden lump in her throat. How could the sight of a man, a boy-man at that — give you a sore throat?

“This is Jake,” Belinda added without the enthusiasm Claudia had expected. The American youth locked delighted eyes on hers, a great goofy grin spreading across his face from his mouth, which hung open like a trap door. Claudia recovered her hostess smile. The dumb ox grinned even more inanely. They held each other’s eyes just a fraction too long.

Belinda’s antennae quivered. “Do you two know each other?”

For a frozen instant Claudia returned his happy stare while her mind raced. Belinda would jump to the obvious wrong conclusion — that she was reduced to going out on blind dates — a gift for Stephen to humiliate her with. His mouth opened to speak. God, he was going to blurt it all out.

They spoke simultaneously.

“No, it’s just that I didn’t realise you were bringing someone,” said Claudia.

He stammered “Belinda didn’t tell me . . .” But he was smart enough to interpret the signal flashed from Claudia’s eyes, and closed his mouth again.

For the first time in a hundred years or more, Claudia felt her cheeks burning and was at a loss for words. And so they stood there, just staring at each other, she with her eyes a little too wide and he with his beaming, lop-sided grin.

Belinda cut in. “Tell you what?”

“Anything, really.” His voice was that of a much older man, firm and resonant. How old was he anyway?

Belinda’s customary scowl had returned, deepened by a furrow of concentration. She had to be thrown off the scent.

“I’m pleased to meet you, Jake. I’m Claudia.”

Jake put out his hand. Claudia hesitated. Because she had been brought up not to shake hands with men? No, the Germans had long ago put paid to that delicacy. Or was it because until now he had been merely a figment of her imagination? To touch him would make him real and that was somehow disquieting.

He said nothing. Mute in the glow of mutual astonishment? Or because he was cowed by Belinda, the Alpha female? Whatever — his silence and Claudia’s instant of hesitation had thrown the she-wolf another pungent scrap of carrion.

“Jake’s American,” Belinda sniffed. “I hope you don’t mind.”

“That he’s American?” Yes, she bloody well did mind. Bloody Americans. They were destroying her culture, attacking her professional career and now, goddamit, intruding into her personal life

“That I brought him along.”

Why had she brought him along? To show off the hunk who was balling her? Or had he already told her all about it? Would their windswept brief encounter on Primrose Hill turn up in one of her goddamn plays?

“I suspect we’re all going to have to learn American ways,” said Claudia. She had not intended to be tart. Perhaps she was a little flustered. Only after Belinda gave a snort of impatience did she discover that she was still holding his gaze. It was Belinda who led the way through and Claudia found herself trailing them both into the sitting room. She nodded towards the sofa and raised her voice. “Hope is considering whether she wants to join us for a biscuit.”

 

Mummy’s favourite, the Mackintosh chair, started to move. The man was moving it, and she said to him, “You’ll be more comfortable on the sofa, Jake.” And the man put the chair back where it had been and his trouser legs came and he sat down on the sofa almost right on top of her. The women’s legs went to the chairs. Belinda put a knapsack on the floor and her hand went into it and pulled out some papers. Hope could hear Mummy pouring tea and she and Belinda talked. The man didn’t say anything.

“I’ll be straight with you Claudia. All writers draw on personal experiences.”

“Milk?”

“I take it black. But it’s dramatic fiction.”

“Sugar?”

“It’s not personal so far as you are concerned.”

“I see you’ve changed our names.”

“I’ve asked Jake along in case you’d like us to read it.”

A cup of tea came down on the table near the sofa and a plate with two shortcake biscuits. The man’s hand took up the teacup.

“So you’re an actor, Jake?”

Nobody saw Hope snatch the two biscuits.

“This role could give him his start.”

“Has your father read this script? Another biscuit, Jake?”

The plate went away and came back again with two more biscuits.

“Daddy wants to produce it.”

Hope took the two biscuits. Mummy stood up, but not because of the biscuits.

“Jake, would you excuse us for a moment? Belinda and I have something to discuss privately. Have some more biscuits.”

The man’s hand took up the empty plate. It came back with two more biscuits on it. Then Mummy went into the kitchen and Belinda followed her. The door slammed. The man’s trouser legs left, too. Hope took the two biscuits and while she was eating them peeked around the edge of the sofa. The man was listening at the kitchen door, but then he gave up and turned back towards the sofa and she had to duck down again.

The trouser legs came back and the man’s hand took up the empty plate once more. Then a funny thing happened. The trouser legs and his feet disappeared upwards. And what came down was his face. Hope was a little frightened even though her Mummy was in the next room because the face was looking straight at her and it was upside down. And then the face smiled. Its eyes came together to look at the end of its nose. And then it stuck out its tongue and waggled its ears.

It made her laugh out loud.

 

Claudia’s arms refused to unfold. It was terrible body language, but they would not rest in any other position. “I shan’t pretend I’m thrilled by the idea of having my emotional lingerie hung out to dry on the public stage.”

“It’s not about you. The theme is universal. We’ll read it for you.”

Claudia’s tongue was insubordinate, too. It could not resist a bit of sarcasm. “I am torn, Belinda. I would very much like to know if your nice young man is not a mute. But I don’t want to relive those days with your father.”

Belinda’s hands flew to her hips. “So you’re going to be a bitch?”

The kitchen door opened. Russell stepped in and opened his mouth to speak, but after one glance he backed out hastily.

“I won’t stand in your way, Belinda. And I hope your play succeeds. I really do. But don’t expect me to buy a ticket.”

“Will you tell Daddy that?”

“We’re not on speaking terms.”

“He’s worried you might take legal action.”

“If I had been the litigious bitch you describe in your play he wouldn’t be driving around today in a purple Rolls-Royce.”

“Robin’s-egg-blue. And he should have sued you, for breach of promise.”

“You should ask him someday why he didn’t.”

“Because he’s forgiven you. He thinks the three of us should come to an understanding. Over dinner at the ‘Ivy’.”

Claudia felt the blood draining from her face and the skin tightening over her skull. ”I would sooner break bread in a Wimpy bar with Judas Iscariot. No, Belinda. Absolutely not.”

 

With eyes shut tight Hope prayed, moving her lips silently, the die clenched in her fist. Jake cocked his ear towards the kitchen door, but could hear only erratic bursts of unintelligible sound. He smelled sweet tobacco fumes and looked up. A lanky, middle-aged man wearing a dull green-and-brown wool cardigan hovered above them, smoking a pipe and solemnly observing the match.

Hope rolled the die. It wobbled, about to come to rest on five. The man suddenly reached his arm in and snatched it up. He inspected the die carefully, holding it up to the light, then shaking it next to his ear. Finally, he tested it between his teeth. With an approving nod, he replaced it on the board. Where it read two. Hope moved her little silver topper two places. She landed on a ladder and clapped her hands with glee.

Jake put out his hand to the man. “I’m Jake.”

The man took his hand solemnly, as he appeared to do everything. “Pleased to meet you.”

Jake nodded towards the sunlit window. “Nice weather.”

The man nodded towards the kitchen. “Storm brewing.” He raised a finger to his lips, tiptoed to the door leading down to the basement, and after a final wink, exited.

“That’s Russell”, Hope said, a proud and possessive note in her voice. “He cheats.”

Suddenly the kitchen door thrust open and Belinda stormed through it looking more than usually angry. Claudia emerged behind her and stood, arms folded, in the doorway. Belinda swept past Jake, took up her manuscript and stuffed it into her knapsack.

“We’re going”, she commanded Jake.

“What about the play?”

“She just blew it out.”

It was a moment of decision. He couldn’t let his big chance fall apart just because two women couldn’t get along. He had to win Claudia over. What would Horatio Alger do in a fix like this?

Hope tugged at his hand, wailing. “We haven’t finished! It’s your turn, Jake.” Ah! Hope was the key.

Claudia crossed to her daughter. “They have to go now, darling.”

“It’s not fair.” Hope kicked the game board flying and burst into tears.

Claudia cuddled her. “Look what a lovely day it is. Let’s go for a walk.”

Hope sobbed eagerly through her tears. “Can Jake come?”

Jake seized the moment. Making a mock flourish with his arms, he stepped up onto the seat of the straight chair, put his second foot on the top of its back and as the chair tipped over, kept his balance, riding the chair smoothly to the ground, as it deposited him right at Hope’s feet. Repeating his flourish, he bowed deeply. Hope giggled with glee.

Claudia seemed wildly impressed. “That’s a Rennie Mackintosh!” she cried.

Jake grinned. “Nope. Donald O’Connor. From Singing in the Rain”.

Then everyone went a bit funny in the way the English sometimes do. Claudia seemed upset, clenching her fists and turning her back to him. Hope came up and gravely, almost protectively, took his hand. Belinda shot arrows from her eyes at the three of them.


chapter fourteen

For once, Claudia craved Belinda’s company. She did not want to be alone with that sophomoric hunk of testosterone. Trust Belinda to be perverse. She simply dumped him on her and hailed a taxi. Something about him made Claudia uncomfortable. He seemed an innocent, without side. But he was pushy. Was he playing up to Hope or was he simply childlike? Remember what Stephen said about actors: nothing, but nothing, is more important to them than their careers. They would put their grandmothers on the game if it meant a juicy part. They are always on the make. The supreme egoists. He should know.

The three of them set off through the gates of the park, Claudia trailing behind. Jake broke into a silly walk, a kind of loping hop — Groucho Marx riding an invisible hobby-horse. Hope, hooting with delight, took his hand and they tried it together, Hope stumbling in happy confusion.

The best strategy was to regard him as Hope’s playmate. Having allotted him a role as child-minder, a weight lifted from her shoulders and her vague unease vanished. He could serve his original research purpose, too — to bring her up-to-date on the youth market.

Why had youth suddenly taken over the world? It all started a few years ago when, as Macmillan liked to remind us, we never had it so good. Suddenly, even youth had money. They had jobs and they bought things: transistor radios, records, clothing, motorbikes, and grooming products. They went out dancing and drinking and, unlike their elders who had given up films because television meant you didn’t have to get up off the sofa except to change channels, they flocked to the cinema. For traditional reasons. They didn’t have their own sofa to snog on.

Youth became big business, and teenage magazines sprang up to exploit that business. Not the old Beano and Dandy. New mags deliberately targeting girls, with names like Romeo, Mirabelle, Valentine, Boyfriend, Honey and 19, and they sell lipstick and bras and sexual advice. The lads’ modest literary needs, like their fathers’ are serviced by enthusiast magazines about cars and bikes and train-spotting, plus the ones the newsagents kept on the top shelves.

So a youth market grew that had not existed before. But somehow, when she wasn’t looking, the children had taken over the nursery. Why is everything now not only aimed at youth, but driven by youth? Today, young people design clothes and own the boutiques that sell them, and staff the youth magazines that advertise them. They run vertically integrated businesses. They not only perform pop songs but write them themselves. Mind you, being able to sing doesn’t make you write like George Gershwin, but they’re big hits anyway. Maybe because youth also start the record companies that distribute them. So they collect the royalties and set the style every which way. Youth starts all the fashion trends and they’re directed at youth — not just in clothing, but in music, art, photography, home decoration, furniture design —

Hope shrieked. Claudia was used to it, but other heads turned. She was almost a woman now and her cry sounded like a woman in peril. But it was only a prolonged squeal of childish delight as Jake, arms outstretched as a Frankenstein monster, stumbled rigidly towards her.

Okay, you get the point. Teens and twens are in charge. Not in politics yet, not in the financial world, not at the controls of economic power. But in anything to do with culture or the media, youth is in the driver’s seat.

Fine. I’m easy with that. One hundred per cent. It’s fresh and it’s challenging and it’s democratic. I have only one question. Where are they leading us? Because youth seems to be all about things. This generation, from the day it could stand, reach up a grubby paw to the sweet counter and say ‘I want’, has bought things.

They don’t aspire to self-improvement, as their parents did, only to self-aggrandizement. Average church attendance, even once a year, is plummeting. The new Meccas are the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition, the Motor Show and the Boat Show, where attendance rises every year. And the things they want us to buy are less and less durable. Our parents bought, or even made, clothing and furniture that was meant to last. Now everything is expendable. Paper clothes. Inflatable furniture. Disposable nappies. Everything is subject to the fleeting fits of fashion. Car of the year. Flavour of the month. Record of the week. Catch of the day. Man of the hour. Spur of the moment.

Now Hope was the knee-locked monster and Jake was doing an athletic impersonation of a fear-stricken chicken.

Carefree, sybaritic youth gambolling through life with a limited span of attention is a fun image, but it’s all about instant gratification: I want it all — right now. So we’ve become a nation addicted to the never-never. Neverland, you will recall, was where Peter Pan came from, the land of eternal youth. I hope it has a better international balance of payments position than Britain. Because, as you read the headlines, don’t you get the feeling that the era of abundance is over? That it was over even before Labour took office — although they were afraid to break the news to us — because in the run-up to the election Reginald Maudling simply made a grab-bag of his last budget?

And while free-wheeling self-indulgence is a great strategy when your gliding downhill with the wind behind you, climbing up a cliff-face into a howling economic gale requires a group effort, where more communal values are required: co-operation . . . and compassion.

God, she was writing a sermon. Was it even possible to take a long-term responsible perspective these days without sounding like your own grandmother? And who was she kidding? Wankler would crucify her. Consumerism paid all their salaries. The company owns one of those teen-age magazines that teach twelve-year-olds how to snag (and snog) a man. And we advertise Johnson & Johnson disposable nappies. Half of her readers swore by them, the other half thought the first half weren’t proper mothers. She didn’t have a view on that herself; Russell looked after that sort of thing when Hope was an infant.

It was a circle she couldn’t square. She wasn’t spiritual — not the least bit since her Saint Theresa phase at boarding school, which was cured by sneaking over the fence and down to the cinema during Saturday afternoon walks — but she was a humanist, and people like Hope had no place in the materialist society her own magazine was propagandising — and something was desperately wrong with that.

The three of them stood at the top of Primrose Hill. Hope was holding a lolly in one hand and the hand of her new friend in the other, watching people strolling over the intersecting paths, and she said something remarkable.

“It’s just like ‘Snakes and Ladders’.”

“How do you mean, darling?”

“People go up and then they go down.”

Hope slipped Jake’s hand and danced away to some private rhythm, sucking her lolly.

Claudia spoke almost to herself. “Sometimes she comes out with the most amazing insights.”

“Then, she’s improving?” asked Jake.

Claudia shook her head. “There was an accident. Hope will always be a child.”

And then he completely wrong-footed her. Men can’t handle other people’s emotions. She had expected him to mumble ‘I’m sorry’. What he said after a moment’s reflection was “In a way, maybe that makes her a very privileged person.” He didn’t smile; he was absolutely serious.

They both regarded the London skyline. He was civilised enough not to enquire further, yet forthright enough, standing where a couple of weeks ago they had been transfixed by each other, to bring up what they had both avoided. “So, how was your date?”

She temporised. Awkwardly. “My date?”

“We were standing right here.”

His look was too candid. She dropped her schoolgirlish pretence. “You were just about to tell me what brought you to Britain.”

“And then, wham! I was bushwhacked.”

“You were hesitating. You didn’t want to tell me.”

He scuffed a toe in the gravel before answering. “The war.”

“You’re a draft-dodger.” He hung his head and kicked an imaginary stone. An actor’s stratagem or a childish guilt? It was only polite to give him the benefit of the doubt, and she responded like a parent. “Bully for you!”

“I’m not very proud of it.”

“It takes more courage to stand up for your principles than to serve warmongers.”

“Principle didn’t come into it.”

“That war is obscene.”

“I had to get on with my career.”

“Your government is slaughtering innocent people every day.”

“When Richard Burton was my age he was acting Laurence Olivier off the stage.”

“It’s neo-imperialism.”

He raised his head finally and met her eyes. “Well, I suppose you can’t just let the Commies take over the world.”

She felt her face flush with anger. “My God! Who trained you? The Actor’s Studio or the CIA?”

They walked on in silence for a little while with Hope trailing after them until he broke the silence. “For a minute there, when we met back there on top of the hill, I thought I’d got lucky.”

Here it comes, a great crude American put-on. Put him back in his cage. “I hope I haven’t disturbed your relationship with Belinda.”

“I don’t have a relationship with Belinda.”

Lying sod. He was on the make. “Your part in her play, I meant.”

“I’m sorry you didn’t like it.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“I think it has a lot of artistic merit.”

“I have no opinion on it one way or the other.”

“So, why did you turn it down?”

Claudia stopped and confronted him. His open gaze was disconcerting and, as before, she found herself speaking more sharply than she intended. “Do you know why Belinda came to see me about the play?”

“As a potential backer?”

“Is that what she told you?”

“She didn’t tell me anything.”

His bovine placidity was so patently disingenuous that she found herself working up into a lather. “My God, are you some sort of empty milk bottle, to be carried about in a crate from threshold to threshold? Don’t you ask why?”

“Okay. Why?” He was incapable of taking offence, which was infuriating. She didn’t like herself for it, but it increased her contempt.

“It’s about me.”

“Oh,” he said and she could read his mind in his face — leafing through the pages of the playscript, transforming the malevolent character of Belinda’s antagonist into her own form and face and spirit, with particular attention to the love scenes.

He frowned. “And she needs your permission to dramatise it?”

“She wants my co-operation. And I’m afraid I can’t give it.” His head hung and he was scuffing the pavement with his shoes again. Loafers, the Americans called them. She was being too hard on him. “I’m sorry for you, if you’ve been counting on it.”

“Maybe if I spoke to Belinda, I could get her to change what you don’t like. Is it the seduction scene?”

Bingo! She could read his transparent mind. “I don’t think it would help for you to get involved, thank you. I’m sorry.” She touched his arm, then withdrew her hand hastily. Touching was a hateful, ingratiating habit she thought she’d broken.

He produced a bright smile. “Chances come and go. Just like ‘Snakes and Ladders’.”

Oh really? An opportunity to test his mettle. “So, if you want to get on, you’ve got to load the dice in your favour.”

To her surprise he shook his head like a solemn child. As if she’d questioned the existence of Father Christmas.

“As we say in Okoboli, cream always rises to the top of the bottle.”

“Maybe that’s how actors get ahead in Oklahoma . . .”

“Okoboli. Iowa.”

“Over here they nick the milk bottle off the doorstep.”

Hope had trotted halfway down the hill. They started after her.

“Mind if I ask you a personal question?” he blurted.

She did mind, of course, at the instinctive level. But at some other level she wanted to know what it was he wanted to know about her. So she compromised on a verbal slap in the face: “Americans always do.”

Unfazed, in the American way he went straight to the point. “If you’re married, why are you going out on blind dates?”

“Research.” One word. That was all she had to say because it was none of his damned business. But then to her distress she found herself adding “And I’m not married.”

The radiance that brightened his face showed that was a Great Big Mistake. Hope ran up. She was not above using Hope, who could not contradict her, to get herself out of pickles. They had already had tea so “It’s time for her bath,” was the excuse she invented, and looked at her watch without registering the time. She removed the used-up lolly stick from Hope’s mouth and wiped her hands with the packets of moistened tissues she always carried with her on their walks.

“Can we go to the zoo?”

“Some other day, darling.”

“Can Jake come?”

Jake squatted down beside Hope and took her hand. “What about next Sunday?”

The bastard. The bloody opportunist. Hope did a little jig. “Please, Mummy, please.”


chapter fifteen

“What did she say about me after I left?” Belinda’s forefinger traced swirling art nouveau patterns in the spill of red wine on the table. It drew attention to her gnawed fingernails. It told people that she didn’t give a damn what they thought about her appearance. And if they didn’t like it they could lump it.

“Nothing. Only that she hoped she hadn’t disturbed our relationship.”

“We don’t have a relationship.”

“That’s what I told her.”

Belinda rolled a fag. Why Claudia? Stephen could have his pick of women. It was the usual male need to dominate. He was obsessed with Claudia because she had rejected him. The cow. All right, she was attractive, in a conventional sort of way. She had a good brain and a career. She could have been a feminine role model. But she was so . . . uptight. So middle class. So mired in the past. Why should she give a toss what other people thought of her? She didn’t deserve Stephen. But she did seem to have a strange, magnetic effect on some men. When the Yank saw her his eyes were out on stalks.

“You two seemed to hit it off right away.”

“What has she got against Americans?”

Vietnam, for a start, thought Belinda. And Montgomery, Alabama and chewing gum and Hollywood and wall-to-wall carpeting and air conditioning . . . but why strive to enlighten the invincibly ignorant?

“What did she say about the play?”

“I didn’t realise it’s about her.”

“It’s a drama. Fiction.”

“But she is the heroine.”

“I just borrowed the plot. Like Shakespeare.”

“Who is that man she lives with?”

The chump. He was smitten. And suddenly she had a revelation. It was another proof of her father’s genius. It had been his suggestion to take the Yank to meet Claudia. He was the bait. If Claudia fancied him, he might bring her round. So typical of Daddy not to let her know of his scheme, but just let her go ahead, knowing it would happen. Well, she was her father’s daughter. She didn’t need it spelled out, and she could help it along. The Yank, like any man, like her father even, was attracted by what he couldn’t have. He was already jealous of Russell, for Christ’s sake.

“You’ve got the hots for her.” He actually blushed. “You have, haven’t you? You fancy Claudia. Something rotten.”

“I just wondered why the guy was living with her. Down in the cellar. She said she wasn’t married.”

“Why don’t you ask her?”

“I didn’t think it was proper.”

“Try being a little improper. She fancies you.”

He shook his head. “She was very critical.”

“Trust me. That’s Claudia. She’s just testing you. To see what you’re made of. She wouldn’t bother if she weren’t interested, would she?” A gleam of hope came into his eyes. She was right. He was hooked. She blew a smoke ring at him. He turned his head, eyes watering, and coughed. “You do know what an opportunity this is for you, don’t you? I mean it’s not every day an unknown actor gets his start with a starring role in a West End play.”

He nodded. “Yes, I’d really like to do the part”.

“You’ve got to work on her. She fancies you. Tell her what a big break it is for you. Ring her up and ask her out. Bell her and ball her.” She laughed at her own wit. She’d use that somewhere.

He shook his head. “She wouldn’t. Not with someone my age.”

He was right. Claudia would be too concerned about her image. “I’ll think of some excuse to get you two together. Then it’s up to you to talk her around.”

The Yank flashed his lighthouse-beam smile at her. “I promised to take Hope to the zoo on Sunday.”

Belinda assessed him with fresh eyes. Was he, in fact, not as clueless as he seemed? Her lip curled. “Claudia will have you for breakfast.”

“You mean like . . . staying overnight?”

“No dum-dum. It’s an expression. It means devouring you. In your language, she’s a man-eater. And a hungry one.”

“You really want me to do that part?”

Belinda forced herself to smile her father’s smile.

“Who else?”

 

As they walked back home over Primrose Hill Jake was pretending to be a monkey, then an elephant. Then both of them at once, having a squabble. Claudia had to laugh. Jolly good he was. Probably something they taught in drama classes these days. Hope scampered delightedly behind him, guffawing like an open drain. As she’d explained to Daphne, that alone was reason enough to have him around. He and Hope were playmates. On top of that, he was putting her in touch with the youth market. He was by no means stupid, just ingenuous. All he needed was, well, a little cultural coaching to smooth off some of the rough edges.

“So he’s a hunk?” Daphne had asked.

“I suppose that’s American for attractive,” Claudia countered.

“Sort of.”

“He has absolutely no romantic appeal, but, yes, he is good-looking in a clean-cut, varsity sort of way, if you like that type.”

“I like them cut a bit dirty myself.”

“Daphne, he’s a cub scout.”

“I hear they reach puberty early on the other side of the pond. All that good nutrition — bananas and hot-dogs.” She winked.

“It was your idea I should get in touch with the younger generation. And Hope adores him.”

“So, if you don’t mind my asking, what’s in it for him?”

“I’m house-breaking him.”

“A dangerous game. Galatea might wake up.”

The syllabus of the Sacred Heart School for Girls had not been strong on Greek mythology, so she had had to look it up. Of course. It was the Pygmalion story — the nuns had approved of Shaw because he was Irish — and Galatea was the statue Pygmalion carved, brought to life by Aphrodite. As far as history related, and unlike Shaw’s couple, they lived happily ever after.

The biggest divide between generational attitudes, of course, was sex. So, after the monkey had sent the elephant fleeing, trumpeting, back towards the zoo, it was logical for her to inquire of him, for professional reasons, “Have you seen Belinda?”

“We’re rehearsing the play. I’m not sure it’s going to set the world on fire.”

“Belinda is very talented.”

“So she keeps telling me. Have you read it?”

“Bits.”

“At the end — nothing has changed. Everybody is just as miserable as they were in the first place.”

“It would never play in Okoboli.”

“A happy ending is an American birthright.”

“Belinda needs a little happiness in her life.”

“You mean all she needs is a good screw?”

Claudia winced. She had never heard him use a casual vulgarity — Belinda was clearly soiling his innocence. She was surprised, too, by his shrewdness: that was exactly what she had meant. Which, of course, she denied. “I simply meant that if she had some joy in her own life, I think it would change her artistic outlook. She might grant her characters some decency.”

“Do you want me to get her to change the play? Would you play ball, then?”

“I’m wretched at games.”

“Well I feel like a shuttlecock. You don’t like what she’s written —”

“I don’t give a damn about her play.”

“— and she wants me to chat you up. To talk you into letting her do it.”

“I’ve told her I won’t object.”

“She says you’re being difficult.”

“She’s asked me to get involved with . . . someone I don’t want to get involved with.”

They walked on in silence, he as light-hearted as ever. Rejection, disappointment, failure — they all seemed to wash right over him. It was absolutely infuriating. She had to take the resentment on herself. It made her feel guilty. His nonchalant attitude was a kind of passive aggression.

“I know it’s a lost opportunity for you. I’m sorry.” A sharp edge to her voice that she didn’t really intend completely eviscerated the sentiment.

“Fair dos. I’ll get along.”

His easy assurance irritated. “Jake, you may be a good actor. You may be the next Richard Burton. But it’s just not enough to be good at what you do.”

“I know. You need the lucky breaks.”

“Life’s not fair or easy. It’s tooth and claw. You’ve got to make your luck.”

“You mean lie, cheat and steal?”

How had this come about? She found herself arguing in favour of the opportunism she believed he was trying to put over on her. “A bit of embroidery, if necessary,” she huffed.

“I could do that. I could do that with you right now. But I might lose something if I did.”

“What might you lose?”

“My self-respect. Call me American, but I don’t like being manipulated.”

“Nor do I. That’s why I won’t get involved. So you understand. So, if you’re not trying to manipulate me, why are you here?”

That stumped him. But only for a few seconds. “For the English lessons,” he beamed. “And because I like being with you.”

“And Hope.”

“Both of you.”

“You’ll get another break. You’re young.”

His shoulders slumped. “When Richard Burton was my age he was acting Gielgud off the stage.”

His hubris was breath-taking. This hick from the desolate plains of middle America. He was an oick. No class at all. But did class matter in the arts anymore? Gielgud was well-connected: Kensington, Westminster School, RADA, related to Ellen Terry. But Burton was a poor boy from the valleys. It was all the rage now to have working class roots and to speak like a chippie on the 159 bus. The fashion photographer is the new trend-setter. There’s Lord Lichfield and Anthony Armstrong Jones, of course, who speak perfectly, but Terence Donovan, David Bailey, Brian Duffy — they’re all macho, attractive, young men proud to display their proletarian habits. And it doesn’t half pull the birds. From every level of the social hierarchy.

It wasn’t class they had, but style. Style has plunged down market. So alongside Lord Snowdon, David Bailey includes Charlie, Reggie and Ronnie Kray as icons of style in his classy photography book, Box of Pin-Ups. The Kray brothers are murderers. Talk about dead fashionable. And their parents may be working class, but you can be sure the brothers have never done an honest day’s work in their lives.

Jean Shrimpton is a convent school gel from a well-off Buckinghamshire family. But the ‘Face of 1966’, Twiggy, the clueless, gawky, gum-chewing fifteen-year-old daughter of a woodworker from Neasden, was invented by Nigel Davis, a hairdresser, who calls himself Justin de Villeneuve because it sounds classy.

The other day, the Hickey column in the Daily Express declared that we’re in a new era of classlessness. The 14th Earl of Home has yielded the reins of the Tory party to Mr Ted Heath, the designers of men’s fashion have decamped from Savile Row to Carnaby Street, Liverpudlian pop stars weekend at ducal castles while Dukes go out to work, the ancient universities welcome the bright sons and daughters of horney-handed workmen. Privilege is smashed. Meritocracy displaces aristocracy. And a new, classless Britain is born. The hardworking lower classes have imposed their own values: open, egalitarian, invigorating.

But is it a triumph of the working class, or merely the upper classes going slumming again? The Stones and Beatles hobnob with upper class figures like the Old Etonian art dealer Robert Fraser, Old Etonian antique dealer Christopher Gibbs and Tara Browne, the Guinness heiress. The Beatles wouldn’t have known these people existed, so guess whose private secretary picked up the phone first? And as they got accustomed to the territory, Jagger and McCartney abandoned working class values (if they ever had them anyway — Jagger’s background was privileged enough to gain him entrance to LSE and Paul was a lower middle-class kid, who rubbed up against working class roughnecks like Lennon). They’ve adopted the attitudes of the upper classes. Every last one of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones has bought an elegant London residence or a sprawling country house. Bill Wyman is officially Lord of the Manor of Gedding and Thormwood, a title that came along when he bought Gedding Hall in Suffolk, built in the 15th century. It’s just another wave of parvenues mimicking the manners of their betters, like the upstart factory-owners of the industrial revolution.

The perfect metaphor of the new society was Sybilla’s. London’s most fashionable state-of-the-art discotheque. All mirrors and shifting lights, with an Australian arriviste, Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman, as the DJ. A media concoction for the new high society. The swinging young admen who dreamt it up said it was supposed to be the stamping ground of ‘the new boy network’ of brash, talented young people from every background, people who qualified because they were good at what they did rather than who sired them — artists, photographers, pop musicians, film-makers, models, journalists and media personalities — and pointedly including the ‘hairy brigade’ of working class invaders from the East End. Sybilla’s credentials were impeccably downmarket chic. It was run by a twenty-four-year-old ex-bookmaker’s clerk from Bethnal Green who went to primary school with Ronnie and Reggie Kray and worked for them in the meat market at Spitalfields. According to Stephen, as a kind of dark background to enhance the display of glittering names on the membership list, there also appeared the anonymous pseudonyms of most of London’s top gangsters.

Stephen had taken her to the opening. Mary Quant and Alexander Plunkett Greene were there, as well as all four Beatles and most of the Stones with their new wives or crumpet, David Bailey, Terence Donovan and Celia Hammond, Michael Caine, and — Claudia gasped like a schoolgirl when Stephen introduced her — a shimmering Julie Christie. Apart from Stephen, and, very possibly, ‘Fluff’ Freeman, Claudia was the oldest person in the room. And she was impressed. Those young stars had hauled themselves into the limelight by their own bootstraps. They were the new aristocracy. Yet, most of the couples prancing in their tiny white boots and black elastic-sided boots and puffing on Gauloises or something more exotic were the same old Chelsea Chicks and Hooray Henrys with the double-barrelled names, the scions of the old aristocracy. To complete the metaphor of social evolution, one of the swinging young admen who started Sybilla’s jumped off a building in Chelsea soon afterwards without ever explaining why, the glitterati moved on and of course it’s closed now.

It could make a think-piece. Call it ‘The Mirage of the New Classlessness.’ No, it wouldn’t do. Her readers didn’t want to know the black-and-white realities about their heroes. They wanted endless confirmation and reconfirmation of the technicolor Hollywood story: Talent will out. Success rewards virtue. The aristocracy has been sent packing, anyone be she ever so humble can rise to the top. The Krays are lovable rogues with hearts of gold who take mum to church on Sundays and dispense honest rough justice throughout the East End the rest of the week. The chic have inherited the earth, you can buy the same clothes they do and, generally speaking, these days you can do whatever you want. You can reach for the stars and even rub up against one. All you need is love.

They had reached the top of Primrose Hill once more and stood watching grey weather lumbering over the Sussex downs to obliterate the South Bank.

“I wonder what Richard Burton would do in my place?” he mused.

With those burning eyes and rolling Welsh vowels he would have had his wicked way with me the day we met, she thought. What she said was, “I think he would hang on in there with Belinda. Maybe you can put some joy into her writing.”

His eyes rekindled. “Would it change your mind if I did?”

“No. But if her play doesn’t work out, she’s still a very good contact for you.”

“I’m not sure I like her very much.”

Good judgement, thought Claudia. “You can hide that. You’re an actor.”

“I’m not sure she likes me very much.”

Of course not, thought Claudia. In storybooks romance always begins with two people hating each other. She appraised his well-shaped figure and his face with its honest, open features. “You can eat her for breakfast. Just remember to keep reminding her that she’s got a tremendous talent.”

It was time for Hope’s tea. As they said good-bye she wondered why she had gone to such lengths to get Jake into bed, literally, with Belinda. A relationship with Stephen’s daughter could work wonders for him. But if she was merely giving good, friendly advice, born of guilt, why did she feel a sweet stab of self-mortification in the pit of her stomach? It was just the sad, proud ache she used to feel when she denied herself a pudding in the school dining room during Lent.

 


chapter sixteen

Jake took another peek through one of the oval windows set at eye-level in the swinging doors. He had two worries. One, that they had come to make fun of him — take the mickey, as they would say — and two, that they would make a scene — create a row — be rowdy, break the crockery or refuse to pay the bill — and Giuliani would fire — sack — him because they were his friends.

They had been half-cut when they came in, and after a round of drinks and two bottles of Chianti they were rolling about. But Giuliani bustled about the table professionally — attentive, humble, obscure — flourishing a genial smile. They were, after all, the only diners that night. Jake’s second worry was displaced by a fresh one: if trade didn’t pick up not only would he strapped for cash — he was paid mostly in tips and free meals — he might lose his job altogether. Giuliani, as he was fond of saying with his enthusiastic but irregular grasp of the English idiom, would put him in the sack.

He was joined behind the swinging doors by his companions, Mario — short, tubby and maniacally cheery — and Luigi, Mario’s polar opposite. Jake pushed open the swinging doors and they pranced into the small dining area bearing their silver salvers and singing La donna è mobile at the top of their voices.

Belinda looked up with a scowl; her liver seemed to transmute alcohol into pure vitriol. Simon wore an expression of reserved amusement. As for Roy, booze seemed to transform the world into an amusement park. While Belinda glowered and Simon smirked, Roy was the perfect audience. He found the waiters’ performance hugely entertaining and literally fell about laughing and applauding wildly.

With practiced dexterity the three waiters served, made their bows and turned away. Belinda tugged at Jake’s long white apron.

“Sit, Rover” she commanded. Jake appealed to Giuliani, who opened the palms of his hands in genial benediction, and Jake sat down. Belinda talked loudly, slurring her words. “Jake is a turncoat. He marched up Bunker Hill — Primrose Hill — and joined the enemy.” She turned to Jake. “Roy has agreed to direct.”

Roy sent a camp wave and a wink across the table.

Jake’s antennae tingled a warning. ”And Simon? What’s his role?”

Simon answered with a tipsy smile. “I’ve got the credit card.”

“So the play’s going ahead?

“In the West End. With you as the male lead. As soon as you get into her pants, Jake.” She gave his wrist three deliberate slaps. “Must . . . try . . . harder.”

Roy found this, like everything else throughout the course of the rest of the evening, wildly amusing. When Simon’s card had passed through the machine and Jake’s friends had stumbled off into the night, Giuliani gave Jake an appreciative pat on the shoulder, though the frown of the struggling small businessman had replaced the welcoming smile of the gracious host.

 

She was keen to test him on art. Nothing divides the generations so fiercely as modern art. Lots of opportunity for involving younger readers with groovy illustrations. And for confirming hackle-raising prejudices amongst the older readers. The young will embrace anything, so long as it’s outrageous and involves cocking a snook at the establishment. Or at anyone over thirty.

Although she now found herself on the wrong side of that divide, her sympathies lay with the younger generation. The new art was frightfully exciting. It was not about pictures sitting passively in a frame for you to gaze at; it challenged you to a debate. Claudia loved its mocking, iconoclastic spirit. As an art student she had cut her teeth on the Whitechapel Art Gallery and the late fifties’ mantra of Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi and she could pour all that into the article.

The new art is demotic. It’s accessible to everybody. That’s why they call it pop art. It’s not meant to hang patiently in august marble halls for connoisseurs to study over the centuries. It’s here and now, as transient and expendable as a comic strip. It’s cheap, easy and quick to make. It can even be mass-produced. It winks at you with wit and a knowing nudge. It’s sexy — full of tricks and surprises — as gimmicky and glamourous as a game show hostess. Above all it is young. It’s created by youth for youth, and you have to be young (at least in attitude) to dig it.

Like the rest of the older generation, politicians are so out of touch. While Harold Wilson and Wedgwood Benn and the odious George Brown focus on the future, prattling about building a New Jerusalem with their shining bright technology, youth has already turned away from high-rise tower blocks that spring leaks and fall down and rocket missiles that fizzle and is saying ‘never mind about tomorrow’.

“I love this,” he said. It was a picture of an artist’s studio. A very classy studio, somewhere in St. John’s Wood or Hampstead probably, with tall windows looking out onto a garden. Not unlike her own sitting room, and just about as disordered. The artist was painting a semi-dressed woman.

“Is it the woman you admire or the place she’s in?”

“Both. The jewel and its setting. Her surroundings tell me who she is. Her style. The milieu she moves in.”

“That’s not art appreciation. It’s class envy.”

Hope sat on the bench watching them, a dreamy expression on her face.

“I could fall in love with the woman in that room.”

“Sheer possessiveness. It’s an estate agent’s ad.”

“Maybe it’s because I don’t own anything myself.”

“You’ve got the best asset there is. Youth.”

He made a pose of scanning the painting over his thumb — an actor’s visual shorthand for painter. “I reckon the house would be worth a lot less without her in it.” He looked directly at her. “Looks a bit like your place, don’t you think.”

Claudia flushed. “How very American. Putting a price on everything.”

He flashed a mischievous grin. “She’s priceless.”

The clumsy pass stiffened her back. “Do you know anything about art?”

“Just enough to know I shouldn’t say I know what I like.”

“Let me guess. Frederic Remington. All those cowboys and Indians.”

“It’s the horses I like most.”

“Grant Wood. Those stoic farmers and their barns.”

“Yes.”

“Edward Hopper. Those lonely hotel rooms.”

“The boats are lonely, too.”

“I didn’t know he did boats.”

“Sailboats suspended in a timeless sea. The same empty mood.”

“Norman Rockwell. Those homely Saturday Evening Post covers.”

“I was wondering when you’d get to him. No. Not really. I like the sentiment, but he’s an illustrator. A marvellous, sentimental illustrator. Like N. C. Wyeth.”

“Who?”

“Newell Convers Wyeth. He illustrated Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, The Last of the Mohicans, Kidnapped, Robin Hood . . . all the books I read as a kid.”

“So, you like pictures that tell a story.”

“Yes, but an illustrator just depicts. An artist makes connections with other ideas. His son is an artist.”

“Who?”

“Andrew Wyeth. Snoopy’s favourite artist — after Van Gogh.”

“Snoopy?”

“The dog, Snoopy. In the Peanuts comic strip. He kept a Van Gogh in his doghouse, and when it was destroyed in a fire he replaced it with a Wyeth.”

“You’re losing me.”

“Wyeth does rural landscapes and portraits. Realistically detailed. Maybe not your thing. You’d probably like his son’s work better.”

“Whose son?”

“Andrew Wyeth’s son, Jamie. His style is a bit looser.”

“Three generations of painters?”

“There’s more. His sisters, Henrietta, Carolyn and Ann. And their children.”

“You’re having me on.”

“No. Really.”

“I’ve never heard of any of them.”

“It’s a different culture.”

“Bewildering.”

“So, now you know how I feel most of the time.”

He was a youth from another planet, totally out of touch with the art movement of his generation. “They’re all representational, I suppose, the Wyeth tribe?”

“Obsessively,” he acknowledged. “But with Andrew there’s a deep emotional pull, a subtle symbolism, and even a kind of undercurrent of abstraction.”

Well, he knew what he liked, all right. He was a brazen sentimentalist, unformed in his tastes, though not exactly ignorant of modern trends and so sure of himself it was unsettling.

Once again they seemed like two playmates. Hope sat cross-legged on the marble floor, bent over her sketchpad and laying down colours with serene detachment. Only the tip of her tongue poking out of a corner of her mouth showed the intensity of her concentration. From time to time she would raise her head and take a quick look at the painting she was copying, a chaotic assemblage of op-art —all jagged lines and fuzzy blobs of shrieking colours, a grenade attack in a sweet shop. Jake sat beside her, oblivious to the obstacle his long legs presented to passers-by, handing her the crayons she demanded and restoring those she discarded to their places in the box as professionally correct as a nurse producing instruments in an operating theatre. Apart from the excruciating fact that he was chewing gum. They probably don’t allow that in the Royal Academy, or if they ever thought anyone would be so crass as to do it, they certainly wouldn’t allow it.

Inevitably, of course, like anything that seizes the popular imagination, the new art had become Big Business. As Marcuse points out, the Establishment reacts to generational revolt by stealing its clothes — although what he probably said was something like ‘absorbing its signifiers’. She would have to get Jenny to find out what it was he actually had said. The new artists take the mickey out of the 1950s consumer society, the aspirations of the masses, the mass-market packaged goods and mass communications ephemera, and a fortnight later the admen and the designers and the media strike right back by appropriating the wit and the irony and the cynicism and turning it into tea-mugs and T-shirts and jokey TV commercials. Bridget Riley’s eye-battering designs were ripped off for clothing fashions and curtain fabrics. You could buy the wares of radical materialism right here in the gallery gift shop. They even displayed Campbell Soup cans containing real soup, manufactured to resemble Andy Warhol’s images of the Campbell Soup Company’s manufactured cans. Manufacture imitating Art imitating Manufacture. So the freshness of pop art is already beginning to wilt. It now seems cheesy and doubly derivative, like a joke heard too many times.

She had to admit that none of the pictures that hung on her own walls had been painted later than the turn of the century. Partly it was a matter of finance; she had inherited most of them, largely Victorian landscapes in heavy wood frames, from her parents. But also because, somehow the new art, though really interesting, just didn’t seem restful enough to form a part of one’s home. This was something she had felt somehow inadequate about — not living up to her intellectual convictions — but perhaps it was just as well. Because now the innovative works that had thrilled her a few years ago all seemed so forgettable.

Also troubling was the confusion between artistic ambition and publicity prank. To keep ahead of their capitalist imitators the avant-garde galloped on to indulge in ever more outrageous antics designed simply to shock — to self-advertise. Deconstructed self-expression could no longer be contained within picture frames. Now there were experiments, text interpretations, performance art, body art, solemn psychedelic light shows, and ‘happenings’ — vaguely theatrical events inspired by the random musings of the Dadaists and intended to make some sort of nihilist statement. Much of it seemed an exercise in boredom. Andy Warhol’s movie of the Empire State Building shot with a fixed camera might convey some meaning over eight seconds, or maybe even eight minutes. But eight hours?

The whole point about this ‘conceptual’ art was that you only had to hear it described to be outraged. You didn’t actually have to witness it. Like wheeling a nude woman around the convention hall in a wheelbarrow behind a kilted bagpiper at that writers’ conference a few years ago. Doubtless a jolly jape and it had achieved an effect — it got the writers banned from Edinburgh in perpetuity — but what was the artistic point, apart from self-promotion?

And none of this conceit was actually new. The rot started when Marcel Duchamp scrawled ‘mutt’ on a urinal and entered it into the famous New York Armoury Exhibition of 1913. He originated the philosophy: ‘Art is what I say it is.’ Dali embellished the movement with his playful sculptures, which had the virtue at least of being a bit more witty than a pencilled pisspot. At the Whitechapel, Anthony Caro had asserted that sculpture could be anything. And then took the hump when his pupils took him literally: showing heaps of found objects, digging holes, taking banal and badly focused photographs, even sloping off for a stroll and calling that sculpture, too.

But surely this line of thought had run into the buffers with the angry young Piedro Manzoni. If you could can ninety tins of your own shit, label it, and circulate it to the top museums in the world as an ironic gesture to expose the gullibility of the art market — and have it accepted — clearly some sort of limit had been reached. What next — an exhibit of Christine Keeler’s stained bed sheets after a night in the sack? Or was she just getting old, a hardening of the cultural arteries turning her into a Philistine?

She was all in favour of free creative expression. A political agenda, as imposed by Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, could only stifle art. But what if the artist imposed his own political agenda? She had noted with disquiet that even Kitaj had taken to including words — polemical slogans — in his paintings. And, not much less obviously, almost all the new art seemed to be making a political statement. Art, she felt, should pose questions, not provide solutions. Art explores the mystery of human existence but withholds judgement. Once it starts to formulate a programme for the improvement of man (or woman), when it sets out to promulgate a system of belief or disbelief, it becomes something else: propaganda.

Was there anyway out of this cul de sac? Maybe Peter Blake was pointing a direction with his innocent, unthreatening and unashamedly English references to folk art and Victorian romanticism. His style teetered on the verge of kitsch, but his album cover for Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was amusing and enormously popular. Ken Tynan had called that album “a decisive moment in the history of Western Civilisation.” A trifle over the top perhaps, but both the music and the art might signal the beginning of a whole new national mood. A mood of whimsical nostalgia. An elegy for the British Empire. Mind you, that’s sort of giving up, isn’t it?

She had a sudden inspiration. Someone stood up from the bench in the centre of the hall and Claudia took the seat and pulled a pen and pad out of her bag to jot down the thought. Appreciating modern art was like religion. The old verities had been abandoned. There was no proof. You had to take it on faith. And you might be conned.

She looked up to watch Hope under the Op-Art painting, as intent on her task as she was on hers. Hope didn’t have any playmates. The girls her own age ignored her or made fun of her. Those of her own mental age were frightened of her size. The children in her special school lived too far away or were, frankly, strange. Claudia pulled out a tissue to dab at her eyes.

Jake was standing over her. “You’re crying.”

Someone else got up and Jake sat down beside her.

“I wanted to teach her. About art. About everything. But she’ll never be able to appreciate our world.”

He gave her his handkerchief. Large white polka dots on a red background, an Italian waiter’s handkerchief.

“We can learn to appreciate hers.” An amazingly mature observation. Claudia was shocked. Through her sniffles she stole a look at his profile. It was intelligent. If only he weren’t chewing gum.

Hope stood in front of them, a grave and apprehensive expression on her face, presenting her drawing. Not to her mother, but to Jake. He considered it, holding it first one way, then carefully turning it to view it upside down. Hope laughed. It was, in truth, as arresting, at least in spirit, as the original.

Jake stood up with the sketch book and wandered about the room, pretending to look for a suitable place to hang it, consulting with Hope as she trailed behind him, giggling. Occasionally she would dart a happy, conspiratorial glance back at her mother.

Claudia dried her eyes and folded the red spotted handkerchief into her handbag. An imperious voice rang out. “Please do not touch the exhibits.” Oh, God, now what had he done? But she had judged too hastily. The severe matronly guard was reprimanding a pair of hippies, probably because they were hippies.

Jake and Hope came up. Claudia had not congratulated her daughter on the drawing, so took the sketchpad and opened it. The drawing was gone. Hope had her hand over her mouth, her eyes wide with suppressed mirth.

Jake took Claudia’s elbow. “Shall we see what’s in the next room?” he muttered. He was no longer chewing gum. As they passed the sturdy female guard Hope could contain herself no longer and burst out laughing. She drew a scowl and a reproving “Shhh!”

After they had gained the next room, Jake guided Claudia back to the doorway and signaled with his eyes. Behind the cross-armed lady guard an information placard was mounted on the wall. And stuck on it was Hope’s drawing. A middle-aged couple stooped to examine it.

The pathetic clown. She felt her face flush, turned away and lowered her head like a suspect being led away by the police. As she followed, Hope tugged at her mother’s arm, dancing, her face full of pride and merriment and Jake shrugged and flashed his goofiest grin as if to say, ‘See? Anything goes.’

Claudia had to smile, in spite of herself. “That doesn’t prove anything, except that you’re a philistine.”

“Don’t you think there have to be some absolutes, some kind of artistic discipline?” Jake retorted.

“I believe art has to be liberated from convention. As a young artist yourself you must agree.”

“So you agree with Belinda.”

“Not very often. What about Belinda?”

“She hangs out with that crowd from Hornsey Art College. They’re having a sit-in to liberate themselves from conventions. Do you know the conventions they have in mind? Did you read their manifesto?”

Claudia shook her head. He was obviously working up a speech.

“No entry requirements for art school. Anyone should be able to walk in off the street. No graded assessments of any kind. Examinations are elitism, they say.”

“They have a point. Examinations apply the values of the past. They preserve the status quo.”

Jake snorted. “No report cards — that’s Nirvana for any lazy student. They want to choose what subjects to study, following their own whims, without any oversight from tutors. Basically, they want complete freedom to do whatever they want whenever they want. At the public expense.”

She was disappointed. Jake clearly did not reflect the opinions of his age group. She felt she had to defend his cohort against his prejudices. “I think flexibility is essential to art.”

“I’d call it playing hookey. And art school is the softest touch there is. There are more art colleges in London than any other city.”

“Are you sure of your facts?”

“And they attract all the layabouts. They can’t draw. But that doesn’t stop them spouting about art, or slashing a white canvas with a ballpoint pen and calling it art.”

“What do you know about art?”

“There’s one thing, though that they’re very good at. They don’t have to study and they don’t go to classes much, so they’ve got plenty of time for rehearsals. British art schools are producing some of the best music in the world.”

“You’re raving.”

“Not just pop, but rhythm and blues and now psychedelic rock.”

It was expedient to turn to motherhood. Claudia fussed with the bow in Hope’s hair and put her sketchbook and box of crayons into her handbag. “We’ll go home for tea now.”

“Is Jake coming for tea?”

“Jake has to go to his own home now.”

Claudia found Jake’s red spotted handkerchief in her bag and turned to him. “I can wash this for you.”

“Can Jake come and live with us?”

“No, I want it just the way it is.” He smiled that great cheese-eating grin and took the handkerchief and put it to his nose and sniffed it.

Hope would not shut up. “He could live in your room. Like Russell used to.”

Claudia strangled a gasp into a ladylike cough. Jake seemed not to have heard. Why did it matter? Why had she never told him about Russell? To show she was available? To tease him? Why? She busied herself stowing Hope’s crayons in her Paddington Bear satchel. She was dying to see his expression, but dared not meet his eyes for fear she would giggle.

Later Jenny reported that Britain had more art schools per head than any other country in the world. And reminded her that the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd and John Lennon were all art school drop-outs. And yes, the fanciful Wyeth art clan did exist, and she really should have heard at least of Andrew.


chapter seventeen

No chalk lies in the earth beneath Chalk Farm. Once there was a farm and fields where gentlemen fought duels. But beneath is only London clay and it has been wrenched up to brick the district over. Chalk Farm is now a sooty, ochre graveyard, tenements of grimy brick leaning over ramshackle second-hand shops, colossal mounds of mouldering brick warehouses smelling of damp, decapitated brick arches, the sopping brick linings of the canals, dripping bricks lining the tunnels driven through the London clay from which they came for the North-Western railway more than a century ago. A miasma of rotting odours and ashy grit seeps from the deep, bricked sewers and the piles of rubbish stacked on the slippery cobbles. Squatting amidst the desolation like an abandoned round brick oven from a giant’s kitchen, the mouldering red-brick Roundhouse is the focus of this abandoned district. Later, the turntables where locomotives were turned around were housed in conventional rectangular buildings, but when the railways were young, roundhouses really were round. This one was bound in cast iron, and wrought iron girders swept up to support its domed roof of slate. When the Roundhouse was new there were bowers for reading and smoking scattered around the surrounding tea gardens at Chalk Farm, according to the young author, Charles Dickens. Smoking persisted now within the Roundhouse, the exotic aroma of burning hash permeated the gloomy interior. The locomotives departed long ago. Under its big dome, the building had slumbered through the turn of the century as a bonded warehouse for Gilbey’s Gin and was then abandoned until just recently, when Arnold Wesker established Centre 42 here — deriving from Article 42 of the trade union movement, which states that the arts should be for everyone.

It was now a crucible of the performing arts for the alternative society, a furnace where the iconoclasts roared defiance: Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Peter Brook. Stephen had escorted Claudia here to Richard Neville’s ‘fun revolution’, the launch party for Oz magazine. Antonioni arrived with his star Monica Vitti, because Antonioni had just done Blow-up, and Paul McCartney came dressed as an Arab. The Roundhouse was the venue, too, for The Dialectics of Liberation Congress. R.D. Laing, Herbert Marcuse, Alan Ginsberg and Stokely Carmichael all took the stage in this vast, damp, leaky underworld of exposed brickwork to disembowel civilisation and read its entrails. The squat, brick building was just a short walk across the bridge that crossed the railway track that still divided grotty Chalk Farm from the more genteel decay of Primrose Hill. It was a symbol, literally a hub, of the new, liberated classless society. It was the natural home of agit-prop theatre.

“I’ve got a gig for you,” Belinda had said.

“It’s a speaking part,” Roy chimed in.

“You’re perfect for it,” said Simon.

“Why me?”

“You’re built for it,” Roy cooed.

“They need someone who can really fill a jockstrap,” Simon explained. “Except you won’t be wearing a jockstrap.”

“What will I be wearing?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

Grotesque images slithered up the brick wall into the gloom like giant multicoloured amoeba, gently transforming in endless mutations of drifting shapes. Stroboscopic lights froze dancers in spasms of moody movement. Thumping erratic rhythms reverberated throughout the vast chamber, but the musicians gyrating under the spotlights seemed disconnected somehow, doing their own thing in their own space. There was a great feeling of peaceful unity. Everyone in this draughty black cavern — the players, the dancers, the figures sprawling on the ground or wandering around the makeshift stalls — all were bound together by the deafening music, the swivelling beams and stabs of light, and the sweet, thick sandalwood scent of hemp and incense that curled through the atmosphere like unspooled rope. The mixed sensations, the constant throb, the disconnectedness, the sapping of energy, the lazy suspension of will — it must be like taking dope, thought Jake. The effect was not mind-expanding, but a dulling of sensation, a stifling of emotion. He felt like an observer from Mars, immersed in the ambience, but with possibly the only clear head in the house. Yet he was the only one who was stark, bollock naked.

His speaking role came later. Well, a shouting role. For now all he had to do was to walk around the amphitheatre and smile at everyone he met. He felt no embarrassment. Most of the audience played it cool and directed their eyes above hip level. With broad, vacant grins. His only fear was that he would have an erection. But that had not been a problem. As he paraded around the vast auditorium, he passed through shrivelling eddies of chill like dipping into cold pockets of water in a lake. And parading in public, where everyone else was fully dressed, dampened all eroticism. Claudia’s house was just around the corner. He could pass by afterwards and steal a glance through the lighted windows. After he got dressed.

The music ended. People stopped dancing and stood, wavering. Six or eight bearded men and lumpy women, white, black, brown and merely swarthy, dressed in black loose-fitting shirts and trousers, with long colourful scarves floating from their necks or twined about their heads as turbans, had been chanting lyrics to the music — words he couldn’t make out. Now they suddenly leapt from the stage. Shouting abuse, they stamped through the audience, confronting the punters, screaming in their faces urgent calls to fight the system. This was his cue. Jake leapt on a box in the midst of the audience and shouted his lines. “You’re all boring, bourgeois fuckwits. While you deny your naked primal selves and your thirst for liberation you are helping enslave the whole world.” After that he was free to improvise on the theme, words pouring out unbidden, his face contorted with anger. Unfortunately, the promised spotlight never found him; his naked primal self was unseen and in the general cacophony, the rant from his fellow actors and the clatter of fold-up wooden chairs collapsing and falling over, his phrases flew up unheard to the grime-encrusted girders in the vast loft of the former engine shed. In any case most of the audience were heading for the doors. Jake took a breath, stopped his harangue and looked about him. The incendiary protest fizzled out, apart from a face-to-face shouting match between an irate audience member and one of the bearded actors. Marshals intervened. The aroused spectator was bustled off and the actors retreated to the stage, hurling scattered taunts like a retreating band of school children in a snowball fight. As the music began to thump again, only a few people remained in the central seating area, spaced out druggies or die-hard masochists.

Jake stepped down from the box and wandered off into the darker margins in search of his clothes. Someone pinched his buttocks. Figures sprawled on the ground like the fallen trunks in a petrified forest, lifelike but immobile — each in its private reverie turned to stone. Belinda was sitting on the holdall containing his clothes. She patted the cobbled paving next to her.

“Can I have my clothes, please?”

“We like you just the way you are” Roy simpered.

“Feeling the draught?” another voice cackled from the gloom.

“No. He’s dodging the draft.” That was Simon. Everyone laughed.

Belinda refused to move, but pushed a piece of cardboard across the grimy stones and Jake squatted on it. With unfocused eyes, she muttered to no one in particular. “Fascists. Pigs.”

“Right on,” one of the prostate figures croaked, a male voice Jake couldn’t identify. “They repress us. They gag us. They draft us.”

“Who?” asked Jake.

“The establishment.”

That was the name of the basement club in Greek Street where the mocking satirical group ‘Beyond the Fringe’ had performed. What it had to do with fascist repression, except to mock it, was a mystery. “You mean Peter Cook and Dudley Moore?”

“The British fucking establishment. They depress us. They shag us. They draft us.”

Jake took offence. “You don’t have any draft here.”

Roy cackled into life. “That’s why he’s over here. Overhung and over here.”

Jake went on. “And you can say almost anything you want. Look at Speakers’ Corner.”

Belinda spoke again, forming her words slowly. “Pigs. It’s fascist repression.”

Jake raised his voice. “What repression? You don’t live in Eastern Europe or Spain or Alabama. What have you got to rebel against in England?”
“Fucking British society,” someone growled.

Belinda shouted. “I’m not talking about fucking British society. I’m talking about the alternative society.”

“Hang on,” drawled Simon. “That’s us, isn’t it?”

Roy laughed. Belinda sneered. “It’s supposed to be a working class movement. And it’s undemocratic.”

A new male voice arose from the depths. “We’re totally democratic. We’ll fuck anyone.” Laughter and sniggers followed.

“It’s totally sexist,” Belinda declaimed. “You’re not offering any alternative for women.”

“Well, there’s on your back, on your knees, on top . . .” someone growled and then ran out of imagination.

“You want to overthrow society. But you’re still the bosses. We’re still the typists. Good for rolling joints, for nodding our heads, for fucking and putting the kettle on.”

“So,” said Jake, “why do you buy into it?”

“I should buy into this materialistic society instead? Buy a washing machine? Put on a pinny? Make some snotty-nosed kids?”

“You don’t need this brainwashing. You’re creative enough to think up your own philosophy.”

She couldn’t think of an answer to that right away. It pleased her that he had acknowledged her creativity, and what he said appealed to her. And it was of cosmic significance. If she followed his advice it would change the course of her life. But who was he to lecture her? So she said “Fuck off.” That seemed inadequate, and so left a residue of dissatisfaction with herself, which discharged into resentment. “Fucking Yank,” she added.

Simon passed her a joint. “Here, I rolled this for you. And I’ll put the kettle on next time.”

“Don’t you dare fuck her,” screeched Roy in falsetto.

Belinda took a drag and passed it up to Jake. He delivered it straight on to Roy. Belinda eyed him with a look that was probably meant to have been contemptuous but, because she was stoned, was merely vacant.”You don’t smoke?”

“I’m working.” A bottle of wine was passing the other way. He gave it to Belinda.

“You don’t drink?”

“I’m working. Besides, I think the world is comical enough the way it is.”

Belinda shifted her gaze.

“Simon, you should take him in hand.”

Roy camped it up. “Oooh, I’d be so furious.”

Simon replied without opening his eyes. “Jake already has a headmistress.”

Belinda turned her empty gaze back to Jake. “You do fuck, don’t you?”

“You know, for a lady, you’ve got a dirty mouth,” Jake replied.

Belinda stuck out her tongue.

“You don’t know where it’s been.” Suddenly she launched herself on top of him. She licked his lips like a dog. Roy, Simon and the other hangers-on hooted with amusement. Jake pushed her off and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“If you really want the part, try that on the wicked witch.” Belinda waggled her tongue at him, a dog lapping water. “After you get her knickers off.”

 

Why did she always talk dirty to Jake? Because he pissed her off. He was politically unconscious. She wanted to prick his complacent ignorance. The ignorant prick. And yet when the actress ran up and grabbed his hand and pulled him to his feet it put her out of sorts. Maybe it was not his ignorance that disturbed her. Maybe it was his pendulous prick.

They were doing a riff on Antonin Artaud’s piece, The Theatre and Plague. Well, that’s asking for it, she thought. When he performed it himself in a hall at the Sorbonne in the 1930s almost everybody walked out. Anäis Nin was one of the handful who stayed to the end, which tells you something. It was supposed to be a seminar and he was arguing the idea that the during the great plague there had been a burst of intense artistic activity. People had become obsessed with their own mortality and so had sought immortality or sublimation through creativity in the arts and theatre. Then, in the middle of his presentation, Artaud abandoned his discourse and began to act out what it was like to die of plague.

He was in agony, Nin reported, his face contorted, screaming, dying slowly and deliriously. At first people gasped, then they began to laugh, and then they got up and left, hissing and booing. Nin says he wanted to give his audience the raw experience, to shock and awaken them to the futility of their pretensions. Because they did not realise they were totally dead. All right, he was a diagnosed schizophrenic and an opium eater, but he had a point. The modern plague was bourgeoisie indifference to art. The human spirit died slowly, agonizingly, from the corrosion of mediocrity and commercialism. Artaud wanted to make them aware that they were dying and force them into a state of transcendence. The hostility that he aroused only proved his point.

His error was that he lacked an instinct for drama. A man standing up in the middle of a meeting and feigning the convulsions of death could be mistaken for somebody choking on a polo mint. That’s farce, not tragedy. The trick, she appreciated, when the performers, now naked, began to move like zombies into the audience, is to multiply the experience. Replication and repetition: the oldest of stage tricks, the reason we have corps de ballet, the Greek chorus, synchronised lines of chorus girls and twenty violins in a symphony orchestra, and why adverts at Christmas always show manic shoppers descending on shops in droves. One person’s performance is always personal; a group acting in unison makes a universal statement. Together, the actors began to die, acting out prolonged, agonized, writhing deaths. One by one, they dropped like dominos and lay as stiff as spears in deep rigor mortis.

Some members of the audience were profoundly affected. Like zombies themselves, in the silence and the gloom they drifted from their chairs, stripped off their clothes, and lay down alongside the actors. They knew what to do because we had all read the reviews in Oz or the International Times. The common interpretation was that the mass dying represented the Holocaust. Which would mean Artaud was something of a visionary. Although in Vienna it was interpreted as some kind of mass, universal orgasm. Well, they would, wouldn’t they, in Freud’s home town. In America, the audiences felt they had to go and comfort the dying. Americans don’t dig the finality of death, but they wallow in the sentiment of the deathbed. There is a meaningful artistic distinction here. Comforting the performers is a way of sharing human values, but it retains a sense of separate roles: the chasm between the dead and the quick cannot be bridged. The act of sharing death, on the other hand, completely refutes the duality between actor and audience. It’s a healing ritual celebrated by a monastic community of souls — audience and actors — embracing within the womb of the theatre. It implies that there is nothing further to say, nothing more to do except express human solidarity. Dying with the performers is the ultimate expression of audience commitment.

She realised with distaste that some members of the audience were not accepting the terms of the performance. People heading for the exits deliberately poked dead actors with their feet. A girl bent over and tickled one bloke and he had to laugh. Another dimwit was flicking a cigarette lighter in the face of a dead actress. Her hair was frizzy and suddenly it caught fire. She screamed and someone threw a blanket over her. But what was performance and what was audience reaction? That was the thrill of participatory theatre.

In the commotion other actors came out of the shadows. They began to lift the rigid bodies by the shoulders and feet and carry them on to the stage where they stacked them in layers. Slowly a funeral pyre grew on stage under revolving blobs of coloured lights. Some audience members joined in. Two teams of volunteer pall-bearers crossed in front of her. A door opened and they carried their prone cargoes out into the cobblestoned alley under the night sky, with the apparent intention of depositing them in the Grand Union Canal. This is not just mischievous. This has to be interpreted as a hostile act.

Belinda watched the building heap of bodies begin to writhe and moan. The trouble with sex is that it means surrendering your identity to someone. But that pile of twisting limbs is a community in which the individual retains her anonymity. She moved towards the stage, undressing to the pulsing rhythm as she went, skipping the light fandango, turning cartwheels ‘cross the floor.

 

The actress was naked, breathing hard, her squat, fat-dimpled body glistening with sweat. She tugged him to the stage, where disco lights played upon a wrestling match. Climbing onto the stage, still holding her hand, he saw it was a different kind of sport. A pile of naked bodies writhed in a multi-coloured tangle of limbs and heads, a Medusa’s maggots’ nest. Some people in the audience were shaking their fists, eyes popping with rage; others were hugging or kissing each other; a few opportunists were stripping off and urging unlovely bodies forward to join the scrum. Jake’s companion launched herself on top and pulled him in afterwards. He was engulfed by wet flesh, assailed by a wave of odour of unwashed bodies, clumps of hair releasing swampy methane mingled with the sickly sweet smells of the ground floor of Selfridges. What could Horatio Alger do in a case like this? Or, for that matter, Hawkeye?

A wide-hipped mottled buttock crossed with peeling sticking plaster pressed against his face. He swivelled his head and inhaled the garlicky breath of a grinning upside-down bearded face. He felt a sharp pain in his ribs. Gasping for air, he caught a glimpse of a familiar tattoo, the spread wings of a tattooed yellow and blue butterfly, as it burrowed into the heaving, soggy layers of ill-smelling flesh. Something closed around his limp penis — a hand, a cleft, a mouth? He started to get an erection.


chapter eighteen

It was a stirring sight. Across the chimney pots of London a great, silver albatross rode the thermals, its stiff wings reflecting the sun that was pulling it upwards, its beak tilting down so its eyes could scan the city below. Concorde, on a test flight, roared like any other aeroplane, but its progress was stately, its carriage noble. The strange airship gave Claudia a start. It recalled a childhood terror — the winged fleets of Armageddon spotlit in the night sky — and a present reality: the daily threat of nuclear annihilation. But Jake’s view was fixed on the future. “Someday I’ll fly on that,” he said.

Claudia smiled. “Back to the States?”

“To Broadway.”

This time Claudia kept her smile to herself. He was an exhibit in a museum of natural history: the American male, a confounding mixture of arrogance, innocence and dogged belief in the inevitability of his own destiny. Well, all males, really, except for sensitive ones like Russell. If she dropped the word ‘American’ she could use that line as the lead-in to her article on feminism. It’s that benighted male assumption that they are born to succeed that allows them to keep us more realistic, more hesitant souls in our place: at the kitchen sink. We all recognise those despairing housewives in those TV dramas. She was fed up to the back teeth with them. They are depressing, outdated, infuriating. Today’s women will not be fobbed off with a telephone, central heating and a wee new fridge. They want to compete in the world outside the house on equal terms. They want to own their own cars, drive buses too, drink beer — not Babycham — and be served in a pint mug just like the lads. They want to push up to the bar and buy a round (and have the expense account to pay for it). They want men to take the Pill. They don’t want to be sent off to cut sandwiches and make tea for the cricket team. They want to play cricket, and football — and rugby, too, those women that don’t mind having their ears chewed. They don’t want to be invited to the Club on Ladies’ Night or shunted off out of the action onto the Club social committee — they want to run the Club.

We live in revolutionary times. In Paris, youth tears up paving stones to hurl at the ranks of charging flics. There was a moment when it looked like they could have seized power. But they only want the power to criticise. Not the power to take responsibility, to run an orderly society. They couldn’t run a public convenience. According to Daphne, who saw it, after all those earnest students were finally cleared out of their long sit-in occupation of the Sorbonne, the place was covered in shit.

It is not street rioting but the deep undercurrent of social revolution that is changing our lives. Revolutions are not just about big political issues. Yes, we owe a lot to the suffragettes of fifty years ago: the right to vote and the right to a higher education. We don’t have to chain ourselves to the gates of Parliament any more and throw ourselves under horses. But revolution is about setting the little things right, too. We’ll fight our fight in the media, where we’re beginning to have some influence now. And we’ll only achieve equality when we have swept aside all the little social barriers that separate the boys from the girls.

She was not a radical feminist. She did not believe that women are exploited by the pain of childbirth. She did not want to put motherhood in a test-tube. Parenthood is a burden which should be equally shared. But men cannot have babies, which is their misfortune. Childbirth is what makes us female. It’s a privilege and a blessing, provided it doesn’t sneak up and surprise you. And nowadays contraception takes care of that anxiety. The Pill is becoming more and more available, and blokes can actually get condoms in Boots now, and not just in barber shops.

She still liked men to hail cabs for her and to notice what she was wearing. Which is what first attracted her to Stephen, who was a card-carrying modern liberal on every issue, but also enjoyed playing the role of an old-fashioned gentleman.

The woman she saw herself as was Julie Christie, swinging carefree and footloose through the lanes of London. More sophisticated than the wide-eyed ingenue, Liz, of Billy Liar, but not as sexually voracious as Diana Scott, the heroine of Darling. And okay, a bit older. But it’s the attitude that matters: emancipated, spontaneous, life-affirming, emotionally honest.

And yet, and yet . . . that image was already a cliché. In the film Diana Scott had exploited the p.r. and media men who sold images, and in real life the freebooting style of this fictional character was now being exploited to sell clothes and music and cosmetics. To people like me. Well, maybe a bit younger.

Of course, even trendy liberals like John Schlesinger and Fredrick Raphael couldn’t let Diana get away with it in the end. She was a woman who wanted to escape from the kitchen sink. She didn’t want to get married, she didn’t want to have children. What did she want? Everything. Just like Joe Lampton in Room at the Top. But while it was perfectly okay for Joe to contract a loveless marriage with the boss’s daughter, Diana was condemned as a greedy slut for sleeping her way to the room at the top. She was promiscuous and only men can be that, so she had to be punished for it. She had to pay the price for ambition and end up lonely, vacuous and . . . despairing. The wages of sin lead straight back to the emptiness of a kitchen sink. It wasn’t an anti-feminist position; it was movie mentality: the message had to be redemption or damnation. Like Diana, Joe Lampton and Alfie lost their souls, too. Yet, none of them were totally condemned as they would have been in a film made in Hollywood. There was something to admire in their characters, too.

In spite of her predictable end, Diana showed that there was room for women to grow. They could make money, they could beat men at their own game and they could earn self-respect. Which is why the film was a success. As Daphne had said when they came out of the cinema, it didn’t turn out all bad — at least she could afford to pay someone to clean the kitchen sink now.

But for God’s sake, girls, let’s not throw away all our advantages: the curves, the frills, the coquetry, the tenderness — all the things that make men our slaves.

“You think I’m aiming too high?” He was looking at her with the imploring eyes of a basset hound.

“I didn’t say anything.”

“That’s how I know. You think Broadway is a childish delusion.”

It gave her an opportunity. “How old are you, Jake?” She deliberately aimed low to underscore the gap between them. “Twenty-one?”

“Twenty-five.”

“Young enough to still believe in hope.”

“How old are you?”

Claudia felt her cheeks grow warm. “Is that how they chat up birds in Oklahoma?”

“Okoboli. And you’re old enough to know better than to lose hope.”

How presumptuous. Unfortunately Hope ran up just as he said it and before she could frame a frosty reply. Hope’s eyes were moist. “Don’t lose me, Mummy.” She came between them and took each of them by the hand. Her hands were sticky from her lolly.

“Who could ever lose you, sticky fingers?” said Jake. He took Hope’s hand and she reached out to Claudia with the other. Jake pressed tightly up against Hope, and Hope pulled her mother tight against her. Off they walked glued together and laughing, until a red balloon skittered across their path. With a whoop of delight Hope scampered after it and when she left there was an emptiness. It was as if there had been a bond between the two of them which was now broken.

Jake must have felt something similar. He held up his hand, palm outwards. “Is your hand sticky, too?” Claudia nodded, laughed, and reached for the moist tissues she always carried, but he reached out and took her hand, and his was sticky too and she didn’t pull it away because somehow it seemed the natural thing to do. He was Hope’s friend and therefore he was her friend and there was nothing wrong with two friends sticking together. She washed his hands with the tissues. They were large and strong with vigorous black hairs sprouting from the second joint of the fingers. When she had finished she took out a fresh tissue to clean her own hands but he smiled and took it from her and gently cleaned them for her. Then he presented both his hands for inspection, first palm up, then palm down, as children do, and insisted that she do the same. They both laughed and she felt it would be somehow rude to pull her hand away when he took it lightly when they started to walk again.

“Who’s that guy who cheats at Snakes and Ladders?” he asked suddenly.

“Oh, Russell.” She was not sure what game she was playing now, but as a good gin rummy player, her instinct was to keep some cards in reserve. And so she simply said, “He looks after Hope.”

Two men approached, both wearing colourful waistcoats. They both had moustaches and they were holding hands, too. It was not something you saw often, even now after Wolfenden. It was perfectly all right, of course, but it was strange. Something you used to see only in eastern lands, where customs are different. Claudia was so struck that she wondered whether she had, in fact, ever seen two Englishmen holding hands before.

Jake must have remarked it, too. “He’s not a . . . “

“Russell? Homosexual? Hardly.”

The male couple passed by on a wave of light, tweedy fragrance, with a complicit smile towards the couple holding hands just like them. It was perfectly all right, of course. Something we would see a lot more of.

“Not so long ago, that would have landed them in the slammer.” It was not clear from Jake’s tone whether he thought the current legal arrangements were a good thing or bad. Of course, he was an actor.

“The man you live with,” she inquired, “didn’t you say he’s an actor, too?”

“A great guy. Very . . . ” He hesitated, seemingly unable to find words worthy enough to describe the virtues of the great guy, until finally alighting on one: “ . . . rich.”

“So, why does he need a flatmate?”

This seemed to stop him cold. Until now he had seemed almost pathologically casual. Now he was definitely . . . flustered. When he finally spoke, it was with a strangled voice. “For the company, I guess.”

The matter was straightforward enough and it had to be settled. “I don’t want you to misunderstand me. I have nothing against homosexuals —”

He jumped in. “Oh, no. Me neither.” The speed of denial was revealing, though it did not reveal whether he was or he wasn’t.

“I have homosexual friends,” she offered.

“Me too. Lots of them.”

Why lots? She would have to tread carefully. But the issue had to be faced. Even if he was just a friend, Hope’s friend really, she had to know where she stood. Where he stood, she corrected herself. “It’s just that I knew a man once. I almost married him. Until I found out he went both ways.” Well, there it was, the unvarnished truth. Maybe a bit too confrontational. And too personal. So, with a laugh, she added a bright varnish of humour. “Just think of all that competition. Not just fifty per cent of the world. Everyone.”

Jake nodded as if to shake his head off. “The theatre’s the same. You really can’t get anywhere unless . . .”

He just trailed off into silence. Out of embarrassment? A chivalrous regard for delicacy? Guilt? But he had said enough to put her on a fresh trail. Something quivered her nostrils, infiltrating her brain: the scent of an unpleasant truth. It would explain the sudden appearance of this mystery man in her life, this wholesome or loathsome Jake: was she being set up?

She released his hand and swung her arms independently, like Julie Christie. “You’ll forgive me for being direct, Jake. It’s something I’ve picked up from you. But you’ve never mentioned a girlfriend.”

“Women are not my first priority.”

“Oh.” It escaped her involuntarily, the last gasp of a spent balloon.

And then he said, a little too hastily, “I mean I don’t want to get involved right now. My career comes first.”

“How long have you known Stephen?”

“Stephen who?”

This stumped her. He looked genuinely surprised and it was an answer she was not prepared for. “He’s producing Belinda’s play.”

“I’ve never met the producer.” It was such a big lie that it just might be true. Moreover, Jake did not even seem interested, he was tracing a scent of his own. “This guy you stood up at the altar then — that’s me. I mean Brendan. My character in the play.”

“Yes, it’s based on him.”

“But Brendan’s not a bisexual. There’s nothing about that in the play.”

“No, and I’m glad there isn’t. But everyone will know it’s me, and they’ll put two and two together and come up with five. I don’t want my name dragged through the mud.”

“The theme is universal. Aren’t you taking it too personally?”

“I have a reputation to uphold with my readers.”

“That play makes a profound point.”

“I’d be a laughing stock.”

“It deserves to be heard.”

“I could lose my job.”

“Don’t you think art matters more than your personal vanity?”

“You’re trying to manipulate me.”

“I’m appealing to your artistic consciousness.”

She was glad to be given an opening. Until now she had been on the back foot. “You mean artistic conscience. I’ll ask you again. If you’re not trying to manipulate me, why are you here?”

“I told you. For the bloody English lessons.” They had both raised their voices. Hope trotted up in alarm and seized Jake’s hand protectively. He squeezed it. “And because sticky-fingers invited me.”

By that time they had arrived at Marine Ices and although long suppressed conflict had broken out there seemed no reason not to buy the ice-cream cones they had come to get. Claudia insisted on her feminist right to pay for them.

They returned in silence. It was not until they had regained the top of Primrose Hill that she softened. “You’ll get another break. You’re young.”

“At my age —”

“— Richard Burton was acting Olivier off the stage.” They both laughed and peace was on the verge of breaking out.

He shrugged. “Anyway, I’m a very good waiter. Maybe it’s good enough to be good at whatever it is you do.”

That didn’t ring true. That’s not how actors were. “I don’t think you’ll hear Richard Burton talk like that,” she said. And then the penny dropped. “You’re manipulating me again.”

For the first time he seemed to lose his cool. “I’m the one who’s being manipulated. By Belinda. By you.” Hope, always upset when people raised their voices, whimpered and reached out for his hand. His quick rage fizzled into a wry moan. “Even Hope can wind me around her sticky little finger. I don’t think I know what’s going on with all of you.”

He was acting. She wasn’t going to let him off. “Life is a lot more straightforward in Okoboli, I should imagine. Nothing to do on Saturday nights but drive around the block.”

The jab hit and his anger flared once more. “You condemn the play without even hearing it. That’s not fair. You could at least let us read it for you.”

Hope, close to tears, tugged at Claudia’s skirt with the hand holding her ice-cream cone. Her other hand was still enveloped in Jake’s big paw. “It’s not fair, Mummy.” Her ice-cream started to drip over her knuckles and she whimpered. Jake put his own ice-cream cone into Claudia’s free hand and, pulling a large red, white-spotted handkerchief from his pocket, stooped down to clean up Hope. Mrs. O’Sullivan had certainly brought up her boy well. Or was he still acting?

“Belinda thinks you’ve got a brilliant future. She says all you need is a start.”

“She never said that to me.”

“And I’m the mean bitch who won’t give you the chance.”

He shook his head. “If it matters to you, it matters to me. I respect your decision.”

Both of the ice-cream cones in her hands were beginning to drip. She licked her cone and held out Jake’s. “Your cone is dripping.”

Still fussing with Hope, he swivelled his lighthouse smile at her. “Help yourself. If you like.”

Claudia licked her own cone, and then Jake’s. Twice. Then, deliberately, contemplatively, though it was no longer dripping, she put out her tongue and licked his cone a third time. Jake stood erect and she handed it back to him. They had finished their cones before she spoke again.

“All right. I believe you’re sincere. Unless you’re a much better actor than I think you are. But I make absolutely no promises. And you can tell Belinda for me that if Stephen shows up I walk.”

His smile was as broad as the Atlantic.

“I’m tired of walking,” said Hope.

“I’ve got a better idea,” said Jake. At large section of grass at the lip of the hill had been cordoned off with string. He tugged Hope up to it.

“Are we allowed to step on the grass?”

“It doesn’t say you can’t lie on it.” He lay down on his back, beneath the string. Hope giggled and lay down just above him. He turned on his side and started rolling down the hill, faster and faster. Hope squealed with delight and rolled after him. She had to push with her hands, but finally gathered speed and they sprawled at the bottom laughing together.

Hope shouted to her mother at the top of the hill. “Mummy! Come on!” Jake beckoned and called out too, the catch phrase of that TV programme, “Hi-dee-ho!”

Oh, what the hell. She was not going to be an uptight old bag, and she lay down in her Ossie Clark ‘Diffusion’ trouser suit and rolled. Down and down, the long, fresh green grass and the blue sky revolving and smelling the damp earth until she came to rest, laughing like a drain next to Jake, still lying on his back and hooting with laughter while Hope danced happily around them. She had not felt like this for a long, long time, sprawled there with the sun in her eyes and there was only one word for it: radiance.

Something blotted out the sun. Someone. Claudia squinted. Not for the first time did she regret that Belinda lived in nearby Chalk Farm.

Belinda displayed her trademark smirk. “Shall we make it a threesome?”


chapter nineteen

The church had been disused since bombs had destroyed most of its East End parish. The parish had been rebuilt; tower blocks now blocked the steeple’s access to heaven. Inside, though, it seemed lofty; the choir stretched into infinite blackness. A bench had somehow survived up here and from this vantage the view down into the nave was like the desolate prospect from the battlements of a ruined city. Heaps of fallen masonry, splintered wood and abandoned rubbish littered the flagstones. In the centre of the polygonal apse an oasis was clear of debris. A few sagging pews stood here, near a mattress and a circle of sticks arranged like the spokes of a wheel, their charred tips pointing inwards. People had stopped here recently, or lived here still. The air smelled of incense and damp plaster and ancient smoke. Dark descended all around like the roof of a tent, shading into semi-gloom around flickering pools of light surrounding an array of candles placed on the tops of the pews and on the floor. On the sooty walls beyond the fractured altar graffiti declaimed in ghostly paint: ‘Guevara doesn’t talk, he shoots’ and ‘Power comes out of the barrel of the gun’. All else was blackness.

Belinda sat amidst the dim footlights in her urban guerrilla costume on a sagging pew smoking a spliff, with an open bottle of cheap wine at her side. A door creaked open somewhere and Jake entered warily, as if approaching a cornered animal.

“What’s this, a séance?”

“No electricity.” She held out the wine bottle.

Jake shook his head. “Just a glass of water, thanks.”

She looked about vaguely. “No water.” She blew some smoke at him. “So what’s your problem with my play?”

“No plot.”

“I’m a dramatist, not a fucking story-teller.”

“Unless I’m missing something, I don’t see what we’re supposed to take out of it.”

“Fuck me. You want a Catechism?”

“There’s plenty of conflict. But unless there’s some kind of moral the characters don’t have any motivation.”

“So, how did you like the penmanship?”

“My copy was typewritten.”

“You reckon my play is plotless, pointless and played by puppets. You forgot poor penmanship.”

“I think you have a tremendous talent —”

“No, no, no!” Claudia erupted from the obscurity of a pew in the back and strode forward gripping a copy of the playscript. “He’s smarmy. Oleaginous. He doesn’t mean a thing he says. So when he says ‘I think you have a tremendous talent’, the subtext is he thinks you’re a piece of shit.” She oozed the line: “I think you have a tremendous talent.”

Belinda bristled but Jake shot her a beseeching glance and she stifled her resentment. Claudia was oblivious. Intensely engaged in the scene, she leaned forward, stretching out her hands as if to coax the performance out of Jake with beckoning fingers. Jake obliged, leaking oil: “I think you have a tremendous talent.”

Claudia nodded her approval and subsided to crouch on her haunches on the edge of the circle of candlelight as Jake sat down beside Belinda on the listing pew to continue his speech: “But maybe you could lighten it up a whisker —”

Claudia jumped to her feet again.”He would never, never, never sit like that.”

“Like what?”, Jake asked.

Claudia threw herself sprawling onto the pew, spreading her legs wide. Her mini-skirt hitched up towards her hips, her hands on her exposed thighs pointed towards her crotch. “Like Stanley Kowalski.”

Jake took a long look. Claudia, swept up in her irritation, continued, apparently insensible to the direction of his gaze. “If he acts like a navvy instead of a gentleman, you lose all the sinister menace of the man.”

She scissored her legs closed, got up and returned to her crouching position. Belinda glowered, a volcano about to seethe. Jake, adjusting his posture, quickly repeated his line: “But maybe you could lighten it up a whisker —”

Belinda restrained her anger sufficiently to slip back into character, not a huge step. “You want me to do a soft-shoe shuffle in the second act? I don’t do Hollywood. Real life doesn’t have plots and morals and happy-ends. It’s a fucking hall of mirrors. What the artist can do is express the emotional pain. We have to hunt for meanings for ourselves.”

She knocked back a slug of wine from the bottle and once more offered it to Jake. He shook his head.

“You don’t drink?” He shook his head again.

Belinda held up her spliff. “You don’t smoke?”

“I think the world is amusing enough the way it is.”

“You do fuck, don’t you?”

“You know, for a lady, you’ve got a dirty mouth.”

“You don’t know where it’s been.” Belinda launched herself upon him, protruding her tongue and licking his lips like a dog. Jake pulled away.

Claudia sprang up again and advanced upon him. “No! No! No! You don’t step backwards into a love affair. You seize it. You’re an opportunist.”

The embers ignited in Belinda’s eyes and she folded her arms across her olive-drab U.S. army combat jacket with GALENSKI stencilled over the breast pocket. ”If that bitch wants to rewrite history she can write her own play.”

Jake held his palms up to Belinda in a calming gesture. “Take it easy.”

Claudia riffled through the pages of her playscript. “Stop! Stop! Stop! Where are we?”

Belinda shouted at Jake. “If you want this play to go ahead you’ll have to control her. Get into her pants.”

“Calm down,” Jake pleaded.

Belinda was in full, unstoppable rant. “You won’t, you know. She’s a ball-buster.”

Claudia looked up from the script and threw up her arms in exasperation. “Wait, wait, wait! Where is all this?”

Belinda thrust her face into Claudia’s. ”Must you say everything three times?” Then she spun on her heel, grabbed her coat from the end of the pew and stalked off. The church door was heavy, with rusting hinges; with an effort, she managed to close it behind her with an emphatic groan, if not a conclusive slam.

Claudia stared after her. “What’s got into her?”

Jake touched her shoulder. “You were saying . . . about that clinch.”

Claudia turned her face towards his. “She’s got it all topsy-turvy, of course. It’s he who is the aggressor. What’s the line?”

Jake prompted. “You do fuck, don’t you?”

Claudia responded. “You do fuck, don’t you?

“You know, for a lady, you’ve got a dirty mouth.”

“You don’t know where it’s been.” Claudia stepped out of the role. “Then, you call her bluff.” She took Jake by the elbow and pulled him forward while stepping back herself. “You step forward. And I step back.”

Jake stepped forward, took Claudia in his arms and kissed her. It was a long kiss. Finally Claudia pushed him away. She retreated a few steps, brushed her hair from her eyes and looked at the script. “Then . . . what next?”

Jake grinned. “I do that again.”

“I don’t think that’s in the script.”

Jake put his hands on her shoulders and looked into her eyes. “Belinda’s put me in a bind. If I try to tell you how very special you are to me, you think I’m trying to manipulate you.”

Claudia raised her hands as a shield, but he did not relinquish his hold and she did not pull away. “Jake, I’m old enough to be your . . . ” Her voice faltered, and then she concluded, “. . . older sister.”

“If you were my sister I’d never have left Okoboli.”

“That’s incest.”

“Whatever . . .”

Jake leaned forward and kissed her chastely. On the forehead. On the cheek. On the neck. He embraced her. He danced with her and she relaxed in his arms. Near the mattress, he stopped and kissed her again. Not chastely. She yielded. Joined together, they subsided slowly onto the mattress. But only for an instant. Claudia pushed his face away from hers and searched his eyes.

“Tell me the truth about you and Stephen. Are you his . . . protégé?”

“I told you. I never met the guy.”

“Then how did you get into Belinda’s play?

“My flatmate put me on to it.”

“Actors don’t give roles away. I don’t believe you.”

Claudia pushed him away and stood up, dabbing at her eyes. She strode into the darkness surrounding the pews. Jake sat up on the mattress, his hand reaching out to her, but she was gone. The creaking door groaned again.

Jake gathered up his things, splashed wine from Belinda’s bottle over his fingers and one by one extinguished the candles by pinching their wicks. Then he, too, went to the straining door. The faint ambient light from the street outside winked on, then off again as he closed it firmly behind him.

A match rasped. In the total blackness of the choir above the dank, empty church a small flame flared. In the murky, yellow halo of light Stephen took a deep puff from his cigar.

 


chapter twenty

It was one of those bright sun-scrubbed mornings that are the Londoner’s occasional reward for enduring endless weeks of dull skies and intermittent rain. Claudia’s moods were exquisitely sensitive to the weather, and normally she would have floated down the High Street on her pushbike with a grin on her face, all banners flying, trailing zephyrs of joy. But she had awakened with a scowl. Russell had quickly read the mood, retired to the basement and battened down the hatches; even Hope had divined that it was prudent not to pester, and now Claudia felt both sorry for herself and angry for being such a prune. She could picture the small black cloud suspended over her head pursuing her two-wheeler down the High Street.

He had no right. He was distinctly out of order. He had stepped over the line. She had not led him on. He was Hope’s friend. Or he claimed to be. And in the goodness of her heart she had simply been trying to cultivate him a little. No, cultivate was the wrong word. Acculturate. To give him some acquaintance with culture. To give him some nous. Why? Because he’d never become an actor going around in that ridiculous purple-nubbed Burton’s jacket. And that awful tie. In truth, he had stopped wearing those recently and was looking a bit more, well, ‘cool’. For once she couldn’t think of a better alternative to the ghastly American expression.

But why? Why did she want to help him? Well, he was a friend. Hope’s friend, really, but he’d become her friend, too. That, of course, had been his plan. To win her round. To get her involved in Belinda’s venomous play. And, bye-the-bye, in the would-be playwright’s tasteless language, get into her pants.

And he almost had. The bastard was wilier than he looked. She had mistaken colonial manners — or lack of them —for innocence. She had gradually come to realise that. And he had almost got into her pants. She smelled him now and felt him pressing his bulge hard against her, and tasted his tongue in her mouth, strangely tangy. The Americans used mouthwash, of course. And she would have helped him take her pants off. Her eyes watered with angry pride and self-pity. He was only twenty-five. She had behaved like a lecherous old whore. She had melted. She had lain down and almost spread her legs, just because it had been a long time since a man had wanted her so much. Or seemed to. And she knew, deep in her heart she knew, that somehow Stephen was lurking behind it all. It was obvious. Jake was an actor. Jake was in Belinda’s play. Stephen was producing it. Stephen wanted her, probably just because he couldn’t have her. So Jake was his proxy, his opportunistic Cyrano de Bergerac. The lover with the long . . . Well, it was his nose but we all knew what it symbolised. The nuns had to pretend they didn’t know why the girls were giggling in the back of the class. It was as clear as the nose on your face or the prick in his pants. Jake was one of Stephen’s bum-boys.

The lollipop man held up his sign. It was the usual limping man wearing the drooping white mac and the quasi-military visored cap. Claudia gave him her first smile of the day and stepped down from her saddle. And suddenly the bugger was there. Right next to her. On a pushbike. Clearly not used to it, because he wobbled and almost fell off as he came to a halt. He was not wearing the purple nubbed jacket, but a distinctly trendy candy-striped blouson, and white skin-tight flared jeans cinched with a broad blue leather belt.

“What did I do?”

“Are you stalking me?”

“You won’t come to the phone.”

“I’m busy. I’ve got a life to lead.”

“What about the play?”

“I shan’t be manipulated.”

“Screw the play. The only reason I’m doing it is I want to see you.”

“To screw me?”

There was a prolonged hoot. In a black cab behind them a turbaned Sikh taxi-driver was leaning on his horn. The lollipop man waved them forward. Claudia remounted her pushbike. “I’ve made enough mistakes. You go and make your own.”

She pushed off, but couldn’t resist a sudden afterthought. “With someone your own age.” She hurled the esprit de biciclette over her shoulder, but it was an admonition directed as much at herself as at him.

Jake failed to remount the bicycle. It fell over, leaving him straddling it on the zebra crossing. He shouted after her diminishing figure. “You’re making another mistake!”

A sustained series of horn bursts ensued from the taxi-driver from the subcontinent. Jake swung his leg over the bicycle again, but the lollipop man now loomed up in front of him with his stop sign. A crocodile of tiny tots, uniformed in red jackets, shorts and caps, all trimmed with green, marched onto the crossing. The bicycle toppled again and Jake fell with it, to the heartless mirth of the crocodile.

 

Claudia knew better than to interfere with Patrick while he worked. With every new set-up he would invite her to look through the lens before shooting, but it was merely a courtesy. His taste and judgment were flawless. Her role would come later, selecting from a dozen or more smashing shots. So she hovered in the back of the studio, well out from underfoot, fussing with fabrics.

The androgynous, doe-eyed model had perfect, pearly skin and the obligatory vacant expression. Claudia wondered if Patrick had slept with her yet. Few of his models, most of them girls who couldn’t speak proper, could resist the charm of this good-looking, aristocratic but congenial man, who was not only a leading fashion photographer, but just happened to be the Queen’s cousin. She wondered why he’d never made a pass at her. Too smart to mix business with pleasure? More likely, with all those fresh-faced fillies sniffing around his stall, she was simply past it.

Jenny, however, was losing no opportunity to make an impression. She prowled about like a long-legged panther in a swirling blur of skirts, wearing a carmine gypsy blouse cut down to the navel. Claudia had banished her to the reception area, but she kept coming up with excuses to penetrate into the inner sanctum of the studio. Approaching Claudia, she brushed past Patrick as he busied himself over the camera. Did the big feline actually rub up against his legs? She may not have actually touched him, but he certainly would have inhaled her; the perfume she trailed behind reeked of the muskier cages of London Zoo. “Mrs Guevara is here to see you,” she teased. And Belinda invaded the premises in her field uniform.

She was still angry. “You’re old enough to be his mother.”

“He’s Hope’s friend actually.”

“That’s because she’s never going to challenge him intellectually.”

“Both Jake and Hope think that life should be fair. That’s why they get on so well together.”

Belinda raised her voice a notch. “You fancy him something rotten.”

Claudia’s voice rose to the same level. “I’m not sure he even likes women.”

Patrick looked up from his camera and aimed a reproving glance in their direction. “Scurrilous gossip,” he said and winked at Jenny. Out of the corner of her eye Claudia saw her P.A. manufacture a girlish blush and practically curtsy — a kind of sycophantic visual giggle. The nubile model saw it too and Claudia caught the tart glare that suddenly animated the empty planes of her face. Yes, Patrick had slept with her.

Claudia responded in the name of all the sisters. “You will I’m sure be relieved to know, Patrick, that for once you are not the man we women are talking about.”

Belinda would never make a good playwright. Too self-absorbed to take in the signals of the subtle human interplay swirling around her, she persisted with her mission. She smirked at Claudia. “He likes women. You want a blow by blow description?”

“Really, Belinda, I find that hard to believe. How would he ever get your bandolier off?”

With the most elegant smile, Patrick shooed both of them out into the small reception area so gently that it was not until the door closed behind them that Claudia realised Jenny had remained in the studio. Belinda simmered down and tried another tack. “This could be his big break.”

That wouldn’t wash. Not any more. That game was up. “Surely Stephen can find his protégé another play.”

Belinda dropped her guard. She seemed genuinely perplexed. “Jake hasn’t even met Daddy.”

Claudia must have let her surprise show in her face, because Belinda became conspiratorial, matey even. “You fancy him. My play’s your chance to develop a relationship.”

“He’s a different generation, Belinda. As you say.”

“He’s old enough to have erections.”

“I daresay.”

“You haven’t forgotten how, have you?”

“There’s more to a relationship than sex.” A pathetic response. Had she become one of those neurotic women whose complex sensitivities men boorishly but with devastating accuracy dismiss with the diagnosis: ‘all she needs is a good fuck?’ Well, she hadn’t had one, good or bad, for a long time.

“No there isn’t.”

“When you get a bit older —”

“It’s a struggle for power. For domination. And the battlefield is sex. Don’t you see that? He draws his sword and plunges it into you and slices you in two and makes you scream. He’s an aggressor. And you’re an occupied country. Even if you say ‘Yes, yes, I can’t get enough, give me more now, harder’ — you’re his victim. He keeps on plunging it in and out until he’s satisfied. He’s totally in control.”

“I find trying to put out a woman’s magazine is quite enough strife for me, thank you very much.”

“If he makes you pregnant you become his slave. Take my advice. First chance you get, gobble him.”

“Beg pardon?”

“Swallow his sword. Your mouth is the scabbard. Don’t let him unsheath it. And make sure you gobble him. So he can’t impregnate you. That way you’re in control. You choose the moment and you suck his power out of him. You tell him you’re completing him. But you’re draining him dry. His sword crumples in your mouth. He’s exhausted and you have it all. You win. What more do you need?”

“A toothbrush?”

“What do you want? A rose-covered cottage or a few satisfying rounds of sexual combat? Have a fling. You owe yourself.”

Claudia hesitated. Belinda’s challenge swam before her eyes as a trashy cover line from Yin magazine. But if there was one thing the younger generation seemed to have got right it was that sex didn’t seem to have to have anything to do with love after all. And she was still young enough to experiment. Belinda looked hopeful. And vulnerable. Claudia might have been looking in a mirror — a somewhat smudged and dirty mirror — because that’s just how she felt, too. Hopeful and vulnerable. And irresponsibly girlish.

She had left Jenny in the studio with Patrick far too long. She opened the studio door. Jenny was looking through the camera. Patrick’s head was touching hers and his hand was on her shoulder. Claudia called out. “Jenny, could you bring us all some tea, please?”

 

Another brilliant morning, and this time Claudia was in a mood to match it. As she approached the zebra crossing the lollipop man limped out to stop the traffic. She stepped down from her saddle. But there was no one crossing. The lollipop man turned. It was Jake. Grinning his enormous grin.

“Belinda thought you might be free for dinner.”

“Tonight?”

A horn hooted behind them. A line of motor cars had built up and the first in the queue contained the Sikh taxi-driver. Claudia mounted her pushbike and as she pedaled away she couldn’t stop smiling. Jake stood in the road, a goofy expression on his face, watching her legs pump the pedals to a concerto of discordant horns until the lollipop man rushed up to take the sign and wave the traffic through. Jake returned his white mac and visored cap and pressed a pound note into his hand.


chapter twenty-one

How long should she wait? She had arrived at ten past the hour, expecting him to be already there, waiting. Now it was a quarter past. Well, almost. It was the right restaurant. Jake had an unerring eye for kitsch and the ‘La Fontana Amorosa’ was the quintessential Soho Italian seduction parlour: red-and-white-checked tablecloths, candles in dumpy Chianti bottles in wicker holders and fishnets with cork floats suspended from the ceiling, ready to entangle the prey. The proprietor had received her like the Queen Mum, bowing so low that for an awkward moment she thought he was intent on kissing her hand. He introduced himself as ‘Signor Giuliani’ and led her to ‘Signor Jake’s’ table in a corner. So, he was a customer regular enough to be known by his first name. How many girls had he wooed in this nook, before post-prandial nookie? Giuliani would know. She, of course, was not a girl. Perhaps that’s why he had treated her as if she had come in on a free bus pass.

She had declined a drink on the transparently silly notion that she would need to keep her head clear, when her presence here had absolutely nothing to do with her head. She toyed with the cellophane-wrapped breadsticks. Hope adored them. Now it really was a quarter past. This was no way to treat a lady, not even in America. She reached for her handbag; she would take the breadsticks home.

The swinging doors to the kitchen burst apart and three waiters marched in, wearing flowing red shirts with billowing sleeves and long, white aprons cinched with red sashes, bearing silver salvers aloft and singing ‘La Donna e Mobile’ at the top of their lungs. One of them was Jake.

The first waiter, the lugubrious, lanky one, opened the dome of his salver to reveal a savoury heap of pepperonata which he dispensed onto two plates and laid on the table. The second waiter, the jolly, fat one, disclosed an immense macaroni pie before returning it to a warming trolley. Jake knelt and opened his salver to reveal a vase containing a single, long-stemmed rose. A beaming Giuliani appeared with two bottles of Chianti, red and white. He untied Jake’s apron, removed it and pulled out a chair for him opposite Claudia. It was all too, too terribly operatic. But then, that was exactly the stuff of which her readers’ dreams were made. And she did like opera.

Claudia decided to relax and let it all wash over her. He was a good listener and she unburdened herself about her problems at the magazine. By the time the waiter collected the remains of the macaroni pie the smile on her face was genuine.

“I’ve got Belinda to thank for this evening,” she said.

“This is not a put-on. I’m not here because of her.”

“I agreed to withdraw my objection to her play.”

“The only reason I wanted to do it was to see you.”

“I’m not going to interfere any more.”

“But you’ll come to rehearsals.”

“No.”

He grinned. “I’ll miss your interpretation.”

“I don’t care if she’s exploiting me.”

“She is. I’m not.”

“I’ve decided I don’t give a damn.”

“That’s jolly decent of you.”

“Don’t get too English. You shouldn’t have to change who you are to get where you want to go, and if you do you might not recognise who you are when you get there.”

Jake nodded. “You’ve still got a lot to teach me.”

I don’t want to be your goddamn schoolmistress, she thought. What did she want to be? “So you don’t have to pretend anymore.”

“Pretend what?”

“That you have the vaguest interest in a woman who was born too soon for the counter-cultural revolution.”

“I can generate a few false emotions, but I’m not that good an actor to suppress real ones.” She could not fault that reply and so when he placed his hand on hers she accepted it.

“So, now that we’re friends again, what did I do wrong?”

Claudia shook her head. “Not you. Me. Remember that man I told you about. The one I stood up at the altar?”

“Because he was a homosexual.”

“Bisexual. That was Stephen. Belinda’s father.”

A frown crossed his face. “I told you I never met the guy.”

“I know.”

Presented with the temptation of the dessert trolley, with its endless tiers of towering cakes and profiteroles and tiramisu, Reason shook its head, but down below the unsatisfied beast within her stirred, shrugged its coils, and stretched her finger towards the gooiest confection. And then, because she felt guilty for doubting him, or because she’d had a little too much wine — no, because she damn well felt like it and why not — her hand did not return to her lap but pressed on his. Russell’s knuckles bore a faint blonde fuzz. So did his chest. Stephen’s chest was smooth and hairless, like the top of his head. Jake’s knuckles sprouted black hairs like a werewolf. It was not possible that she was in love with him. It was laughable to think she might be drawing strength from him, as women do, seeking their own identity in a relationship. It was just a lark. An affair Belinda would embark upon without stopping to think. And, then a shadow crossed her mind. Had she? He interlaced his fingers with hers.

“Maybe that’s why she’s hung up about sex,” he mused.

“Who?”

“Belinda. Because of her father. She’s so upfront about it, it makes you wonder.”

“Wonder what?”

“It’s like the guys in high school. The ones that were going on about it all the time weren’t getting any.”

“Surely you would know.”

“You think . . .”

“Belinda believes in the battle of the sexes, and she takes no prisoners. I don’t see how she could overlook you.”

“She told you that?”

“I infer.” Jake hesitated and averted his eyes. “It really doesn’t matter,” Claudia began, but thought, well it does matter. She was damned if she was going to accept the cast-off lovers of a self-absorbed child. But Jake was rescued by Giuliani who took Jake’s gaze around the room as a signal to bring the bill.

Her hand was in his when they left the restaurant, their backs to the Rolls-Royce parked in the shadows opposite, daubed purple by the orange glow of the Soho streetlights. Though the night sky was clear, as far as it was visible through the ruddy reflected dome above London, a subdued roar like continued, distant thunder throbbed along the pavements. It came from the north and as they headed up towards Oxford Street it grew louder.

As they drew closer the thunderous roll achieved a rhythm. “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh” rose from a thousand throats. Oxford Street was a river of marchers — a light-hearted, burbling stream of people holding hands and chanting. Aloft, a colourful flotsam of banners and placards swept irresistibly westward on the human tide.

Claudia was drawn to the tumult. Her eyes lit up and she hastened her steps, fairly tugging Jake along. He pulled them both up at the kerb, casting about for a passage across, but Claudia leaned forward like a suicide hovering on the brink of a rushing waterfall. A hand reached out from the crowd and in an instant she was gone. Jake plunged in after her but she was swallowed up amongst the heads and shoulders ahead that rose and fell like rapids in a rolling river.

A placard was thrust into his hands: ‘Yanks Go Home!’ And then he spied her, at the end of a rank a few yards ahead, arms linked with a bearded man, exercising her lungs and assaulting the air with her free hand. Jake battled his way to her side, grabbed her free hand and offered her the placard. When she unlinked her other arm to take it, he pulled her out of the march. She stood flushed, eyes glazed, like a kid who’d had too much circus. She urged him back towards the throng, but he embraced her and planted his lips on hers.

That was intrusive. That’s what she wanted. She wanted him to intrude. They walked all the way home through Regent’s Park. Embracing in the heavy scent of the darkened rose arbour, they pulled apart only when the placard fell over with a clatter.

“It’s a perfectly simple question. Have you had sex with her?”

“It depends what you mean by sex.”

“Yes or no. Not that it matters in the least, but —”

Was his expressive face tortured with doubt or was it just a teasing grin? There was not quite enough light to make it out. “I’m not sure.”

“You were drunk?”

“There were other people around.”

“Other people? How many?

“Two dozen maybe.”

“You were all having sex?”

“A love-in, they called it.”

“And it got out of hand.”

That facial contortion again. “The opposite, actually .”

“And?”

“And what?”

“How did it end?”

“When the overhead lights came on at the Roundhouse. We were all covered in embarrassment. And goose pimples.”

“So, I’m wrong about Belinda?”

“Belinda was . . . enthusiastic, but I bet she’s a virgin. She’s all mixed up about sex. Maybe because of her father.”

“I wonder if she even knows. She’s put him on such a high pedestal. I don’t think she could bring herself to recognise that he has any human . . .”

“Weakness?”

“Susceptibility, I was about to say.”

They passed no-one after that. The park was empty and when they came to the tall iron gates at the north end they were shut and locked. There was nothing for it but to climb over. Jake boosted Claudia over the top, then climbed up himself. The placard was an encumbrance and as he balanced himself on the spiked crest, it slipped and dropped back inside the park. On the ground outside, contemplating the gate, he was wondering whether to climb back inside to retrieve it when Claudia reached in and pulled it through on edge.

They wandered along a path at the foot of Primrose Hill, murmuring together and when they stepped into the puddle of light under a lamp-post they embraced, and each lamp-post after that stopped again to kiss in the luminous pool, but quickening their pace in between until they were skipping, half-running, so leaving the park they failed to see the Rolls-Royce convertible parked in the lane across from Claudia’s house.

Russell saw them coming. He peered through the sitting room curtains, a glass of water in his hand. Hope stood at the top of the stairs in her now too small Paddington Bear jim-jams, rubbing sleep from her eyes. Russell withdrew quickly, trotted up the stairs to give Hope her water and bundled her back into bed. He hurried back downstairs, dimmed the lights and exited to his basement flat, just as Jake and Claudia burst in through the front door.

Before they had their jackets off they were entwined, and they continued to disrobe each other as they moved across the sitting room, until they stood, mostly naked, in the hall leading to Claudia’s bedroom. Jake pinned Claudia against the wall. Her tongue writhed deep inside his mouth. He bent his head to kiss her breasts and then he took her, penetrating between her legs and filling her and lifting so he was deep inside her and her legs were wrapped around his hips. And then he walked, with her astride him, coupled together at groin and mouth and she moaning in ecstasy and crying with laughter at the same time.

She removed her searching tongue from his mouth long enough to cry out, “What — wherever did you learn that?”

“Okoboli Junior High.”

He nudged the bedroom door open with his elbow and as he walked through, carrying her inescapably secured, his key in her lock, she put out a hand and closed it behind them.

While the longcase clock in the hall ticked, Claudia’s groans penetrated the closed door: “Oh! Okay! Oh! Okoboli!”

When it was quiet, the door from the basement opened. Russell double-knocked the door jambs and entered the sitting room. After a cautious glance up the stairs, he tiptoed about gathering up the scattered clothing. He folded the apparel neatly on the chair in the hall leading to Claudia’s bedroom, removed the ‘Yanks Go Home’ placard on the sitting room floor, carried it into the front entrance hall, opened the cupboard and propped it up in a corner behind the coats.


chapter twenty-two

It was a fine, blowy day, like the day they first met. The kite lifted off the ground, soared above the fringe of tall buildings on the horizon, and tossed and bucked at the end of the string — an exotic, hooked gamefish lunging for freedom. Claudia applauded. Hope danced, clapping her hands with anticipation. Jake passed the spindle into her hands and made sure she had a good, tight grip before joining Claudia standing by her pushbike.

He took up where they had left off. “So, why can’t we use your place?”

“It’s Hope’s home. If you came there, you’d become part of her family. And she couldn’t bear it afterwards — when it’s over.”

“When what’s over?”

“Our relationship. Our affair. Whatever it is. When we break up. Children hate change. They always think things are supposed to go on forever.”

“Are you talking about Hope or yourself?”

Claudia smiled to herself. He’d rumbled her. Once again she’d underestimated his sensitivity. She must remember he was an actor. He had a kind of intuition about people.

She sighed. “This is a fairy tale. It can’t go on.” She raised her lips to his ear and put an arm beneath his jacket, squeezing his waist, and whispered, “But I’m going to enjoy every single minute of it.”

He tried to kiss her, but she averted her cheek. Hope was looking their way. He frowned. He was so easily hurt. So, she added, “So what about your place?” That seemed to be a problem — his frown deepened. “Your flatmate doesn’t object to having women around, does he?”

“No. It’s just . . . I should give him a ring first.”

“I’ll get a couple of steaks and a bottle of wine. Give me your keys.”

He was still uneasy. “Let’s go together.”

“I’ve got to get to the shops before they close. You take Hope home.”

“I’ll wait for you at the flat.”

Hope stood a little way off, rooted to the spot, not moving her arms, nor running about like the other children who were flying kites, but gripping the spindle tightly, as she’d been told to, and staring into the sky. She was enraptured.

“She’s going to take some coaxing.” Claudia held out her hand for his keys. “By the time you get there, I’ll have dinner ready.”

She could see worry creep into his eyes. Something was clearly amiss. She realised now why she was being persistent. Yes, she wanted to make love again. But she wanted more. She wanted an affair, a Relationship. And she knew hardly anything about him. If this were going to be a proper affair, she needed to know how he lived. And why he was so guarded about his flat. And his flatmate,

“They might be in the bath.”

“They?”

“‘Hey,’ I said, ‘he might be in the bath’.”

“I only have eyes for you, pet,” beamed Claudia, keeping her palm extended. He gave her the keys. She rewarded him with a peck on the cheek and hopped onto her pushbike.

Jake watched her free-wheeling down the hill, her skirt billowing about her fine legs and her hair flowing in the breeze. He smiled to himself. She looked so carefree and young, like a schoolgirl on the first day of her summer break. He waited until she disappeared around the curve at the bottom of the hill and then, galvanized, ran to gather up Hope. She shook her head and railed and stamped her feet and when he grabbed her hand she lost the kite string. The liberated, flying beast bolted, careering the unreeling spindle across the grass, then lifting it into the air. Hope howled and tears cascaded down her face.

Jake tugged her along, scrambling down the hill, his head craned to the sky as the kite took flight towards Sussex. He gave up the chase and turned for Claudia’s house, tugging a sobbing Hope behind him, deliberately dragging her feet. And then she shouted and pointed. The shifting winds had returned the kite. Hand in hand, they followed it about, craning their necks, as it gradually lost altitude until, after some minutes it settled lazily into the top of a small tree.

Hope stood below fretting and egging him on. He risked removing one hand from a branch, stretching as far as he could reach, and dislodged the kite. It tumbled to the ground and Hope seized it, just as the whistle blew. A young policeman, younger than Jake, stood at the base of the tree, motioning him down.

When they arrived at Claudia’s house, there was no answer to the doorbell. Jake fretted and kept checking his watch, while Hope played hop-scotch on the garden path. Dusk had descended by the time Russell came up the path laden with grocery bags. Jake leapt up, thrust the kite at him and bolted for the garden gate. A whimper from Hope brought him to a halt. She held out her hand. “Thank you for a very nice day.” She gave him a big hug before going inside with Russell. As the door closed, Jake set off at a run, vaulting the garden gate.

The phone in the kiosk had been vandalised. As he picked up the receiver the black box lurched to one side. The earpiece emitted a dial tone, but the wretched A and B buttons were inert when he pressed them. He slammed down the receiver and the black box crashed off the wall. He was already running out of the kiosk as the same young policeman came up. The bleat of his whistle pursued Jake through the dusk as he ran full tilt into Primrose Hill park towards the dark border opposite. What would Hawkeye do in a case like this? Once, when fleeing from a farmer who had discharged a shotgun over his head, Jake had borrowed a trick from the hero of the Last of the Mohicans. He lowered himself beneath the surface of a pond and lay on the bottom, breathing through a hollow reed. Twenty minutes later he emerged, dripping cowshit, but with his schoolbag full of sweetcorn. Alas, there was no pond in the vicinity of Primrose Hill.

As the young policeman puffed out of the park gate the street before him lay empty. He did not continue up the rise, and after poking about in the shrubbery for a bit, retraced his steps. A minute later a taxi came around the corner. Jake dropped down from a tree, hailed it and hopped in. In the rear-view mirror the taxi-driver gave him a suspicious look. He wore a turban.

 

The darkened flat smelled of stale bedding. Claudia’s hand found the hall light switch. The narrow kitchen was straight ahead, just an extension of the hall, really. She dumped the grocery bags on the counter, and searched in a broom cupboard. She had to remove a mop and set it to one side before she found a frilly apron. She put it on and began to open and close cupboard doors, looking for cooking utensils.

“Are you the new Mrs Mop?”

“Roy!” She felt her mouth drop open. The last time she had seen Stephen’s bumboy (or ex-bumboy as rumour had it) she had been wearing a wedding gown and he had been a worried putto, a fallen angel in top hat and tails, pleading with her to step out of the Rolls-Royce. He posed in the kitchen doorway, swathed in filmy wraps and veils and extravagantly made up as a voluptuous Arabian houri. He pirouetted and peered at her over the veil.

“Do you think it’s a bit over the top?” He primped before a mirror.

“Do you always go around like that?”

“It’s for our anniversary party. We’re doing Lawrence of Arabia.”

“You broke up with Stephen.”

“So did you.” He extended his hand, palm down, to show her a large ring. An opal set in silver. “We’ve been together three months.”

“Who has?”

“My new boyfriend and me.”

Claudia felt bile rise in her stomach. And when she was impelled to be censorious she always heard herself speaking like a pedant. “With whom have you been together for three months?”

Her tone of voice, in precise received pronunciation, was a tactical mistake. Roy was sensitive about his minimal education and became petulant. “Whom do you think?”

Claudia held up the two raw steaks she had bought. “The man I was just about to make dinner for.”

“He likes his steak well done.”

“He likes it rare.”

“Well done.”

“Rare.”

“Well done, I promise you.”

Claudia hurled the steaks to the floor, tore off the frilly apron and draped it over Roy’s veiled head. “You’re right. You’ll make him a much better housewife.”

She stormed past him and out of the kitchen, knocking over the mop as she went. Roy bent down and gingerly picked the steaks off the floor. He called after her, “Mrs Mop! You haven’t done the floors”

“Happy anniversary!” she shouted back and the door slammed behind her.

As Jake’s taxi pulled up, Claudia’s pushbike disappeared around the corner. He jumped out without paying and ran shouting in pursuit, but she was soon lost in the traffic. Jake stumbled to a halt. The taxi-driver leaned on his horn.


chapter twenty-three

Something had recalibrated Claudia’s emotional thermostat. Russell had just finished tidying her study when she burst into the room and assaulted the worktable, scattering the neat piles of papers, photographs and books like a petulant tornado. By the time he had returned from the kitchen it was a mare’s nest.

A truculent Hope, trailing behind her mother holding a soccer ball, was not improving her mood. “You promised,”she whined.

Claudia shouted, “Can’t you see Mummy’s busy?” Then she turned on him. “Russell!,” she called unnecessarily, as he was standing right behind her. “I can never find anything after you’ve tidied my desk.”

He found the folder he knew she’d be looking for and put it on the table in front of her. She sat down and delved into it. She started reading, and laughed. Then frowned and looked up at him. “I didn’t write this.”

Russell permitted himself just a flicker of pride in his voice. “Just a vagrant notion.” Claudia devoured the next few pages as he contrived a degree of nonchalance, all the while observing the reactions passing over her face: amusement, bewilderment, consternation. He kept a wary eye, too, on Hope, who was kicking the soccer ball around the room.

Claudia discovered the cover lines he had written and read them out loud: “‘My date with Mister Wrong.’ ‘100 ways to keep the wolf outside the door.’ ‘Your blind date strategy: eyes wide open and legs crossed’.”

She looked at him, her own eyes wide with the thrill of inspiration: “Why not a whole series on my readers’ blind date experiences? With an emphasis on youth? Heartache and horror story, fantasy meets fact — Brief Encounter with a bit of bodice-ripping.”

This was the Claudia he adored — brimming with childlike enthusiasm. He smiled. “I knew you’d be able to make something of it.”

“But there’s no time,” she wailed. “By the time we advise our readers, collect their experiences . . .”

“There’s your own blind date experience, for starters. And one can imagine what might happen to the others.”

Claudia paged through the papers. “I know my readers. How they think. I can voice their thoughts on important cultural matters.”

Then he was forgotten. She sat down with the papers and took out her thick blue pencil. She was not writing, but editing the material he had written. Russell smiled with pleasure. The soccer ball slammed onto the desk, upsetting the tea tray. Claudia was too engaged to look up. “Russell!” she called. He set about collecting the soccer ball, the tea things, and a fractious Hope. The doorbell rang. He went to the window. Jake was on the doorstep below. Russell turned to Claudia, crouching over the worktable now, a blur of movement with scissors and paste-pot, cutting, pasting and assembling.

“Whoever it is, I’m not here,” she said without looking his way. He was about to open his mouth when she added,”Especially not Jake.”

Hope jumped up and down. “Can I go out and play with him?”

“Of course, darling.”

“You come, too. Please.”

“Mummy’s busy.”

 

When she called herself ‘Mummy’ she was very serious and it was best not to bother her. And then she stooped down and took both of Hope’s hands and looked right in her eyes, which meant she was saying something very important. And what she said was “I’m afraid Mummy’s not going to be able to go out with you and Jake anymore.”

“Not ever?”

“Not ever. You run along and have a good time.” And she kissed her and went back to her papers.

Jake was wearing a different face today. Not the happy face he usually wore. And he didn’t say hello. He didn’t even look at her. He looked at Russell and he was angry and sad at the same time.

“Why won’t she speak to me?” Jake asked.

“She’s very busy,” Russell answered.

Well, that was true and it wasn’t. She wasn’t just busy, she was ‘creating’, which was what she called it when Hope was unhappy about something and making a fuss. She was never too busy to come out to play with Jake and so she was unhappy. And so was Jake. And it was going to be a miserable day.

So she wouldn’t hold his hand and didn’t even walk with him as they went along the path. She trailed behind, carrying the football. He didn’t even notice. He didn’t even know she was there. So she stopped to see if he would notice, and he didn’t. He just went on walking. He wasn’t even looking after her. Anyone could come along and kidnap her and he wouldn’t know. So she got angry and she put the ball down and kicked it after him. And just then he turned and he saw the ball coming. Only it was going off the path and was going to miss him by a mile-and-a-half, but he ran across and stood just in front of where it was going and opened his legs wide and the ball went right through them. And he had his happy face on and he jumped up and pumped his fist up in the air and shouted “Goal!” and everything was all right after that.

Well, not all right like always. They were friends again and they held hands now, like always, but when he wasn’t actually talking to her he had a funny, sad face on. And he didn’t walk lightly the way they always did, almost dancing, but he moped along with heavy steps and it made her tired stomping along like that too. And so she tried one of their funny walks and she didn’t get it right, but he started laughing and they skipped away together and then he jumped up sideways into the air and clicked his heels together twice and she tried it and of course she couldn’t but he caught her so she didn’t fall on the ground and they were both laughing together now. So she knew she could make him feel better if she really tried.

From the top of the hill it was just like ‘Snakes and Ladders’. People walked up the paths and they went down again. Sometimes the children ran down, just like sliding down a snake. Jake had gone up a ladder and was making Mummy happy so she went up a ladder, too. And now Jake had slid all the way back to square one. And Mummy had slid down a snake, too. And so they all pulled her down a snake too and it wasn’t her fault. Stephen had been right at the tippety-top and then he had slid down the biggest snake of all and right out of the game. And Mummy slid down that time, too. Before she and Jake went up a ladder together. Belinda was always sliding down snakes. Only Russell never seemed to mind good luck and bad luck, but he cheated.

All the children were flying kites and she wished she had brought her kite because all she had was the football and Jake was tired of playing with that and he was just standing there staring into space and it was getting boring. So she didn’t know what to do and then she thought of the ball and she just kicked it as hard as she could and it was a good kick and they both watched it and it didn’t stop but just kept on rolling until it went into the long grass at the bottom.

She might as well go down a great, big snake. Hope lay down on the grass on her back. “Can I roll down the hill?”

“Why do you want to do that?

“Because it makes me feel better.”

He nodded and she closed her eyes and folded her arms across her chest just like the ladies who slept in the graves in the churches underneath the brass that you rubbed to make pictures of them.

“I need a push.”

He gave her a good push and she started rolling down the hill and she went faster and faster, just like the ball, and she opened her eyes and the sky was whirling overhead and then the grass and then the sky again and she was getting a little dizzy and maybe sick and she wondered if she would hit a tree except she knew there were no trees there and Jake would never have pushed her if there had been but maybe she would never stop but just keep rolling and rolling out into the road although the ball had only gone as far as the long grass, but it seemed a long, long way. And then she heard Jake shouting her name but it was all right now because she was slowing down and she came to a stop and she was laughing because she wasn’t frightened any longer and it was great fun and she had gone so far. And she looked up and heard him shout again. He was way up the hill behind her and he shouted “Hi-dee-ho” which is what they always shouted on that television program and then he got down and started rolling too and she got up on her feet so he wouldn’t roll over her and here he came, whirling and whirling, face and black hair and face and black hair, and then he was there and they were both laughing and that’s how she had given him his happy face again.

So they were both happy now and they lay on their backs, side by side, watching the kites dancing in the sky. So now was a good time to tell him what was bothering her.

“Mummy says she can’t come out to play with us anymore.”

“You mean never?

“Never, ever. That’s what she said.”

“Did she say why?”

“Russell fibbed. She’s not busy. She’s creating. And sometimes she just sits doing nothing. Just looking out the window. For a long, long time.” And then, because he was asking about Mummy, she thought maybe she knew why Jake was so sad. “Do you love Mummy?”

He didn’t answer right away the way he usually did. And when he did, he didn’t give her a proper answer, but he just said, “That’s a big, big word.”

“It’s only got four letters.”

“Some little words have a great big meaning.”

“Same as my name. H-O-P-E. It means when you want something very, very much.”

“What do you want?”

“I want Mummy to be happy. Sometimes she cries and it makes me feel sad.”

“That’s all you want?”

Yes, that was all she wanted and so she nodded her head and the more she nodded it the more sure she was.

“I bet you want an ice-cream, too,” he said.

“That’s different.”

“Sometimes when you want two things very much, you’ve got to make a choice. I want to be the best actor in the world. Can I love acting and love your Mummy, too?”

She sometimes wondered what it would be like to have a brother and sometimes she wanted one and other times she thought he would be a great nuisance, but she’d always thought about a little brother. A big brother would be different and she would definitely like that if it could be Jake and he could be part of her family.

“Do you love me?” she asked.

“Yes. I love you just the way your Mummy does.”

“I love you, too. But not so much.”

“Why not so much?”

“Because Mummy loves you more.”

“Did she say that?” he asked very quickly. He had turned on his side and was looking straight at her. He wanted her to tell the real truth.

Well, no, she never had said that, so after she thought about it Hope shook head. “I just know,” she said.

“I think I love her, too.”

“Then you can come and live with us.” She thought about the arrangements. She wouldn’t want to have to share her own room, and Mummy used the other bedroom as a study. “You can sleep in Mummy’s room. Like Russell used to.”

Jake suddenly sat up straight. “Russell sleeps with your Mummy?”

“Not anymore. He stays in the basement now.”


chapter twenty-four

Wolfgang Wankler woke with a start, his mind freighted with anxiety, striving to recapture the fraying tendrils of a dream that was fleeing back into his subconscious. He had been in a whorehouse. In that sordid little street off the Reeperbahn, the Herbertstrasse, walled at both ends, both walls penetrated by passages offset as in a labyrinth. The street was full of men, a silent throng shuffling aimlessly up and down between the old brick houses like a herd of captives. An air of menace rose like a miasma from the cobbles. There were no women in the street; they sat in the ground floor windows. The flotsam of the city swirled around those windows — low-life and workers from the wharves, Turkish gastarbeiters, Orientals from the kitchens of cheap restaurants, and drunken Western tourists — leering at the statuesque women posing in the windows in their filmy pink, black, red and ivory negligees. The windows were sealed and the women stared out over the heads of the crowd, dropping their glance to meet the eyes of the men only when one approached. Then they would open their red-painted lips into a rictus and move a hand to stroke a bulging breast or meaty thigh. No one talked. Except for the monotonous tread of shambling footgear on the cobblestones, the street was quiet. Now and then, without a word or gesture, a man would disappear through one of the doors lining the street. Wolfgang slipped inside and presented his business card. They took an enormous amount of cash from him, two hundred marks, and led him down a corridor, through another door and out into a yard where dawn was breaking over the Elbe river. The door closed behind him. He was alone in the courtyard, a deep and urgent sexual need unsatisfied. He hammered on the door with his steel fist. They had kept his card. They knew his identity: Wolfgang Wankler, Dipl. Verkaufsmann.

All was well. He was not in a dismal courtyard behind the Herbertstrasse. He was in his comfortable apartment, one of only four in a substantial purpose-built villa in Schenefeld, practically within the district of Blankenese. He had only been to the Herbertstrasse once, and it cost twenty marks, which was rich enough, but not two hundred, and they don’t ask who you are.

Wolfgang Wankler, Dipl. Verkaufsmann, got up. At the foot of the bed he met his wife who was coming from the other side and shook hands with her. While she padded off to the kitchen to prepare his coffee he stepped out of his pyjamas and slipped on his exercise thong. How did she ever get so pudgy? He had married a slim girl with long blonde hair but soon he’d found out the hair wasn’t really blonde and later she cut it off anyway because she said women of her age cannot wear long hair and now it was brown and frizzy and the shape of her body was the same as the dumplings she made in her steamy kitchen. When she stepped into her sensible black skirt and struggled into her red jersey and set her little brown pork-pie hat on the top of her head to go out shopping she looked like every other middle-aged woman in Hamburg, as stolid as the solid colours they wore. He reproached the image of his own stomach in the mirror, pulled it inwards, and started his stretching exercises.

One of the good things about living in Schenefeld, which was almost like living in Blankenese except that it wasn’t actually on the river and the houses weren’t traditional and not so outrageously expensive, was that you could always get a seat on the S-bahn in the morning. Wearing his own jaunty Austrian hat and his long black leather coat he took his customary seat, stared unseeing through the window, and resumed the interrupted sexual pursuit of the early morning hours. This dream, which he could order for himself, took place in London, where the women all wore such short skirts, just daring you to flick them up a little higher. He pictured himself in the magazine office, choosing the low leather sofa so that he could look up the tiny skirts that wafted past. The scene shifted to Claudia’s office, behind the closed door, where the phantom in his mind sitting in Claudia’s chair deliberately crossed her long, slim legs, offering him a glimpse of red panties. Why did the English call them knickers — so inelegant, so unsexy? He flipped the ridiculous ribbon of skirt above her hips. The tights women wore nowadays were a nuisance. Getting them off was so clumsy. So in his fantasies she never wore tights. He just pulled down her panties — not knickers — bent her body face-forward across her desk and ravished her from behind. The black leather briefcase perched on his knees concealed his stiffening member. Soon, in an hour or two, he would see her in the flesh, touch her flesh — shaking hands certainly — and perhaps she would lean her face forward and brush his cheek with hers in the French way, as she sometimes did, enveloping him in the musk of her scent, teasing him, he was sure, and he could touch her lightly in the small of the back and perhaps, in parting, tease her, negligently grazing, with his good hand, just a little bit further down the curve of her rump. He hoped she would be wearing a mini-skirt, and not one of those floor-sweeping blankets she had unaccountably taken to wearing recently.

But when Claudia arrived at his office in mid-morning, he was disappointed. She had come alone.

“You did not bring Miss Jenny?”

“She did particularly want to come, but then I was mindful of your recent memo about expenses.”

What was that English curse? Damn and blast! “But I was expecting her.”

“Why?”

“It would be good for her to meet the Board.”

“Why?”

Did she suspect, as Sherlock Holmes would say, that a plot was fattening? He would have to tread carefully. He put on his blandest smile. “To introduce the team.” As ever, the best way to reassure her of his good intentions was to appeal to her national prejudices, so he added with a self-deprecating chuckle. “We Germans believe in teamwork.”

“Jenny is simply my P.A. She’s very good at picking up after me and doing her nails, but if you want the Board to meet the team I’d have to bring along the editorial staff who do the work and leave Jenny in London to answer the phone.”

Too much about Jenny. He would have to backtrack fast. Wolfgang Wankler, Dipl. Kaufmann engineered a stiff grin. “That is a very good idea. Maybe I should put that to the Board.”

“If I still have a team after this presentation.”

“Of course you will. I have every confidence in the future of the magazine.”

The magazine must continue. Otherwise, it would be difficult to justify his job. Modern Woman would have to be relaunched and brought into the second half of the twentieth century. But was Claudia the one to do it? Was she young enough to empathise with a younger audience? Her heart, in any case, was in the past. He’d had to force her to restyle the magazine and she’d refused to disclose anything about her new concept in advance of the presentation. He knew all about it, of course, from his clandestine dinner date with Jenny in London, who clearly thought Claudia’s ideas were rubbish. He couldn’t judge. He was too out-of-touch with the younger generation, and in any case it was not his job to make editorial judgments. It was his job to keep the magazine afloat and that’s why he had accepted with genuine pleasure the alternative proposal that Jenny had prepared with some of her friends. It lay now locked in his cupboard so that if Claudia’s presentation were to be rejected, he could quickly present the Board with a new solution — and a new editor.

He had no editorial judgment. That wasn’t his job. His job was to survive. But of course, to please Jenny he had said her ideas were very interesting. That night she had obligingly worn one of her short skirts and he placed his hand, his good hand, on her silken knee in an encouraging way. Her flesh felt strangely cool. Perhaps because English ladies shave their legs? His hand lingered and she did not remove it, and so the gesture transgressed the vague border between an affectionate pat of encouragement and an acceptance of further intimacies and thus emboldened he was about to stroke gently upward when, damn and blast, the waiter arrived with the bill.

When Jenny became editor, of course, there would be many opportunities for business lunches and dinners. Herr Direktor Stutzmann liked to go to London and was inevitably accompanied by his Sekretärin, Fräulein Irme. If revenues picked up with the relaunch, it might not be difficult to persuade the Herr Direktor of the value of acquiring a company flat, perhaps somewhere near Harrods, which he always visited to pick up a gift for Frau Stuzmann. Which, of course, would save on his own hotel bills as well when he was in London, which was good for the company.

While Claudia set up her presentation on the easel in the boardroom, Wankler prowled around the long table. The rosewood glowed and he caressed it, absorbing the power of the business through his fingertips. Each place was furnished with a fresh notepad, a sharpened pencil and a water glass and in the centre stood unopened bottles of water and one of schnapps, which was broached only on social occasions, such as the retirement of a Board Member. He considered his choice of seat carefully. Normally, as Claudia’s immediate superior, he would have positioned himself at the bottom of the table, where she would stand, to lend support to her presentation. But today he would be careful to put some distance between them. He deposited his leather handbag on a seat just above the midpoint of the table, where he would be positioned within the psychological territory of the Herr Direktor, though out of his direct view, and from which he would have a close sight of his reactions.

Apart from the occasional uninformative tremble of his fleshy jowls, Herr Direktor Stutzmann, as grey as the suit he wore, betrayed no emotion throughout Claudia’s crisp presentation. But his general demeanour was dour. The coy pink carnation he wore in his lapel seemed like a souvenir from a weekend party that he had forgotten to remove. The other grey-suited executives, Wankler included, swivelled their eyes between the two ends of the table, antennae searching for the direction their opinions should take. But the Herr Direktor didn’t get where he is today, thought Wankler, by letting people know what he was thinking. He wondered if Fräulein Irme could read the mind of her boss. The only woman in the audience, the wide-hipped, fifty-year-old spinster perched at his side, pencil poised, her face as prim as a prune above the cascading flounces of her silk blouse — pink, matching the carnation — that disguised her voluptuous bosom. What secrets did Herr Direktor Stutzmann burble to her as he buried his face in that scented nest? The Herr Direktor was near retirement age. What tricks did she play with her painted lips to raise his pecker from entropy?

Wankler felt an erection stiffening in his own trousers and sought to distract himself from Eros by drawing a series of severe, rectangular boxes on his notepad as Claudia delivered her Relaunch Idea. He now recalled with alarm that it was actually his idea. He had suggested, just joking, that maybe she should go out on dates. Now, the key part of her new SEW strategy (nothing to do with needlework — the old home-making features would be jettisoned — it stood for Sexual Empowerment for Women) was a continuing series of blind date experiences, many of them exploring the mores of the younger generation. Wankler pressed himself back in his seat and avoided her eye, praying that she would not catch his eye and give him credit for her inspiration,

The Herr Direktor had a weakness for the amusing frivolities of American businessmen. His latest executive toy, a kind of scaffold from which a row of silver metal balls hung suspended on strings, sat before him on the table. He flicked it now with a thick finger and the balls began to click. It was as effective as a megaphone. All eyes swivelled towards the top of the table.

Wankler had converted one of the squares on his notepad into a scaffold. Now he suspended a noose from it. Finally the little balls stopped clicking. The Herr Direktor glowered at Claudia. “These stories are amusing. Are they absolutely genuine?” Twelve pairs of eyes swivelled back to Claudia.

“Absolutely.”

The executives reverted to the Herr Direktor. “They seem like fairy tales,” he growled.

As one man the executives nodded and turned their faces to Claudia. She nodded, too. ”They are like fairy stories. A miraculous chance to find true love. What every woman aspires to.”

She turned to the last page of her chartpad. It was an outsize reproduction of a magazine cover with the headline: ‘My Blind Date: You’re never too old to fall in love again.’ Wankler didn’t need to look; Jenny had already shown it to him. He kept his eyes on the head of the table. And so was the only executive to see the faint, proud blush that swelled Fräulein Irme’s cheeks, the sweet, sidelong glance she offered to the Herr Direktor and the furtive dab of her lacy handkerchief to her eyes. Damn and blast, winced Wankler. The old goat has probably had his hand up her skirt throughout the entire presentation.

The executives held their breath, waiting to discover what they thought. Finally, Herr Direktor Stutzmann nodded twice, his jowls bouncing, and gave his executive toy an enthusiastic prod. He smiled, the executives exhaled, the little silver balls clicked away merrily and, as though the blinds had been drawn, sunny warmth flooded into the room. Claudia’s face beamed above slightly sagging shoulders as the executives got up and moved to congratulate her. A thousand times damn and blast — Wankler anguished through the artificial smile he had pasted on his face — if he had been sitting in his usual place they would be shaking his hand, too.

“Ein prosit!” commanded the Herr Direktor.

Leaping to reclaim his dominion of the magazine, Wankler was the first to grasp the schnapps bottle. Smiling, he poured glasses all around. Together, the executives raised the toast. ”Zum Wohl!”

“Zum Wohl!” the Direktor replied. “And to victory before the Americans arrive.”

Claudia and Fräulein Irme knocked back their schnapps in a single draught with the rest of them. Wolfgang Wankler pushed his way through his fellow executives to Claudia and grasped her hand with his good hand. He beamed at her, eyes alight with complicit joy. At times of stress his usual firm grasp of English idiomatic structure loosened. “Congratulations. I knew you would pull a rabbit out from under your skirts.” He leaned forward and murmured in her ear, “I’m getting a big rise for you.”


chapter twenty-five

In the German way, the event had to be marked, of course, with a formal celebration. So that night they all went out on a jolly. If you can so call a ceremonious dinner for eight (Claudia and six solemn German men who laughed only on cue from the seventh) in the stately dining room of the Vier Jahreszeiten hotel, followed by a night at the opera. Not the Marx Brothers film, which might have relaxed her, but the real thing. They knew she liked opera and perhaps that’s why they had chosen this form of after-dinner entertainment, but all she wanted to do now was fly back to Blighty and throw herself into the relaunch of the magazine. After getting a good night’s sleep. Instead, she sat in the front row of a full house at the rebuilt Hamburg State Opera House, a splash of colour in the centre of a rank of seven grey suits. The audience, on average, was of pensionable age: wealthy, respectable, respectful, over-dressed, culture-obsessed burghers of the ancient Hanseatic city. They had been her age when the war started, and somehow they had survived it. She couldn’t possibly nod off. They would probably send her to a special camp for cultural re-education. Herr Wankler aimed a grimace at her over the programme he clutched in his artificial hand. It was the smile of the guard who twists your wedding ring off your hand as you clamber down from the freight train.

After a rich dinner, a day’s labour of making bright conversation to humourless apparatchiks and too much celebratory wine, not to mention the schnapps for afternoon tea, Der Fliegende Hollander was a soporific blanket. Heavy Wagnerian chords surged about storm-laden seas. The scenery was painted in the colours of mud and lead. The bulky prow of a huge ship oppressed the stage. Stout singers weighed down in thick oil-slickers or coarse peasant dress dragged about bemoaning the burdens of their hearts. Even the curtains were heavy.

The story, though, was wonderfully romantic. The young maiden, Senta, has fallen in love with the captain of the vessel, The Flying Dutchman, who has been condemned to sail the seven seas until Judgment Day, unless he should find a woman who will love him faithfully unto death. He thinks himself forsaken by Senta, and rushes off to his vessel. She has been faithful to him, but is held back. By others. By society. By the doubts and suspicions this dashing foreigner stirs from her own cultural prejudices. How tragic. How like her own tawdry affair with Jake. Even the age gap. Though that was reversed, and there was no suggestion that the Captain was a bisexual.

 

Young people nowadays claim not to believe in romance. The magazine was going to have to be a lot more hard-boiled. And yet, she wasn’t sure whether, at heart, they weren’t the same as any other generation. What did they believe in? Young people despised religion, of course, which they saw as just another form of institutionalised privilege. A fair point, considering that two-dozen bishops were members of the House of Lords. Youth was too independent-minded to bow its head to the rituals of the established church. Well, she had no quarrel with that; she had rejected her own faith because she couldn’t square it with reality. But while she just muddled along, trying to work out what was honest and fair — what might be the most civilised course of action in any individual case — youth shackle their independent minds to belief systems far more bizarre than the amiable pieties of the Church of England. The children of privilege, favoured by a university education, wallow in the juvenile mysticism of fairy stories dreamt up by slightly cracked Oxbridge dons about quasi-religious quests. The Beatles sit at the feet of gurus and make gnomic pronouncements full of eastern promiscuity. And just about everyone believes in horoscopes. Which had been a big fad three centuries ago before the dawn of the scientific age. No, that wouldn’t do — the magazine carried a horoscope column. Jenny ran her social life by it.

Youth searches for inner understanding and personal karma and individual self-expression, but does transcendental meditation fortify against materialism, like some mystical Sanatogen? Or is it just another kind of packaging to sell colourful clothes and cheap smellies and hallucinatory record albums?

Young people always feel neglected and disenfranchised until they grow old enough to be admitted to the Establishment. But now, youth is in the driver’s seat. An image from an art school slide lecture swam into her vision. Like the icy-eyed, blonde Aryan pilot at the centre of Diego Rivera’s monumental mural in the Palacio de las Bellas Artes in Mexico City, youth has its hands on the controls of the future. The media is fixated on youth and with a disapproving, disingenuous mixture of outrage and prurience, has assisted in popularising a youthful counter-culture: the psychic cult of the individual — self-absorbed, self-indulgent, self-dramatising, self-mutilating.

Auden predicted this outcome in that poem in which Herod pulled off the implausible feat of justifying the slaughter of the innocents. Our latter-day innocents have not been sent off for slaughter in a World War. They have been permitted to thrive. And, so, as Herod prophesied — more or less — the rule of reasoned intellect is trampled by rude untutored instinct. Facts dissolve into subjective feelings induced by drugs or paranoia. Inspiration into the ultimate meaning of life arises from the dreamy patterns of coloured bubbles in the transparent tubes of lava lamps. Resentment displaces idealism as the wellspring of art; artistic intention trumps artistic talent. Random scatterings of paint blobs are valued more highly than Old Masters. Aspiration is displaced by irony. Young men mock patriotism by wearing the kind of brocaded uniform jacket their grandfathers died in. Youth has torn down all the statues. Men mounted on horses, generals, statesmen, wise men and heroes now serve only as targets for stage farce and television satire. In their place new idols are presented to us to worship, untarnished by breeding or accomplishment. Divine origin is assigned to flying saucers, straight lines in the desert and schizophrenic outbursts. Steeped in vinegarish bathos, the rod of justice corrodes and dissolves all guilt. The sociopath rejoices: I can do as I please because it pleases God to forgive me and that suits me down to the ground. Sin has been abolished along with judgement, reason, and ambition. The new aristocracy are victims and idiot savants; the new role models are the weak and insecure: the promiscuous child-mothers, the patricides, the fog-brained drop-outs on speaking terms with dahlias. The new philosophy of youth holds that if you melt your own brain in mystical belief all the problems of society will vanish as well.

Or something along those lines. Russell would know exactly what it was that Auden had meant.

Why was it that whenever she got on the subject of youth culture she began to sound like a Fascist with a bus pass who wanted to send them all to Dachau, or at least into two years’ obligatory National Service? She, a good card-carrying Primrose Hill liberal? Well, she did draw the line at communist or fascist oppression of the individual. And all this new claptrap parroted in the citadels of middle class Marxism like the Institute of Contemporary Arts and the British Film Institute sounded suspiciously like the old mantras of the 1950s Hampstead New Left wing of the communist party. That’s the dialectic trick, you see, to outrage you so much you step into the caricature they’ve drawn of you. And isn’t it ironic that a political system that regards the individual as a dispensable cog in the tractor wheel of destiny is now selling the philosophy of individualism? And youth is lapping it up.

Take the Beatles. Cheeky, talented young lads from Liverpool, but essentially decent. It was the early Beatles that she and most other people loved. Free, irreverent, questioning and tuneful. But now music has become introspective and threatening. It has all gone frightfully cosmic. All these musical entertainers are taking themselves so seriously and they know nothing — like those solemn, hare-brained diatribes by Tariq Ali in Black Dwarf. We all used to love the Beatles. But the weirder the Beatles have got, as they’ve descended into obfuscation with the Magical Mystery Tour and the Sergeant Pepper album, the more remote they’ve become. She wasn’t opposed to their urge towards artistic development; it was the arty, pseudo-intellectual, gong-rattling their efforts produced. They seem to be getting more and more popular with fewer and fewer people. They’re almost a cult. She had an image of future generations of youngsters who’d never known the Beatles filing in procession down to the EMI studios on Abbey Road to lay wreaths. It’s salutary to bear in mind that the entire youth counter-culture is a minority taste. Britain’s most popular performing artist has never been the Beatles, but Cliff Richard. For all the hype it wasn’t the Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields single that made number one in the charts, but the anodyne, romantic ballad Release Me by the darling of the working mens’ club concert rooms, Engelbert Humperdinck. And more people bought the Sound of Music record album than ever bought Revolver or the raddled musings of Sergeant Pepper.

Claudia’s head jerked. Twice. Her powerless eyelids hung like the steel shutters of a shop window, a mere slit above the pavement. She dug her fingernails into the palms of each hand and her eyelids nudged upwards. She tethered them by hoisting furrows in her brow. The end was in sight. The captain reveals to Senta who he is: the wretch condemned to wander the sea for all eternity. He thinks that will terrify her and he casts off. But he does not realise the true depth of her love. She leaps into the sea. At this demonstration of her faithful love, the phantom ship sinks and somewhere in limbo the lovers embrace. And sing another long duet.

Struggling to suspend the ballast of her eyelids, Claudia had the distinct impression that, as they sang, the ample soprano confined within the tight-fitting bodice of a quaint Norwegian dirndl and the baritone resembling a walrus in an oil-slicker were rising several feet above the stage and descending again. Alternately. Her head jerked forward once more.

 

Jake woke with a start. He was cold and wet and cramped. His back ached. A wet mist drifted down from the black sky, glittering in the pool of light from the street lamp by the bus-stop. Jake stood up and took a turn around the bench, thumping his arms and dancing to warm his blood. He sat down again, yawned and rubbed his eyes. A single window was still alight in the upper storey of Claudia’s house.

He must have dozed again for an instant, because he didn’t hear footsteps approaching. Suddenly the policeman was standing in front of him. Jake’s hand made an involuntary jerk to touch his jacket pocket.

The policeman blinked at him. “The bus doesn’t run after midnight, sir.” He was very young, younger than Jake. The same one who had chased him out of the phone booth.

“I’m — waiting for someone to pick me up.”

“Soho Square would be the place for that, sir.”

Jake stumbled for words. “A car. For an early shoot.”

The young policeman blinked again. He pointed his truncheon towards the bulge in Jake’s jacket pocket. “You don’t happen to have a firearm about you at the moment, do you sir?”

Jake slowly withdrew the binoculars from his pocket. “Bird-watching.”

“Owls, sir?”

All known species of birds fled his mind except the most familiar. “Pigeons.”

“That would be Trafalgar Square, sir.”

A downstairs light winked on in Claudia’s house. Jake’s eyes flew to it and the policeman followed his glance. He tapped the binoculars with his stick. “I’d be mindful where you pointed those, sir.”

Jake nodded and the policeman moved off. Wide-awake now, Jake forced his tired eyes to focus. A light winked on. Then another. Jake rubbed his eyes. Finally, every window in the house was alight. To make sure he wasn’t dreaming, Jake stood up.

A hand came down on his shoulder. Jake turned with a start. It was Russell.

“Fancy a cup of tea?”

Russell’s tiny bachelor pad, entered from the outside basement stairs, was obsessively neat and austere — a bracing contrast to the cosy jumble of Claudia’s sitting room above. Apart from the visually disturbing op-art paintings hung on the walls, it could have been a monastic cell. Russell put the kettle on, went to the foot of the stairs and called up.

“You can turn all the lights off now, love. And hop right back into bed. Nighty-night. Sleep tight.” Russell turned to Jake with a smile. “She got very worried when she saw the policeman come up.”

“Claudia?”

“Claudia’s in Hamburg. Confronting the Hun.”

Jake panicked. “Did you say ‘becoming a nun’?”

Russell shook his head. “That wouldn’t suit her at all. I’m the monastic. Which is why, ultimately, we were incompatible.”

Jake received his tea. “You’re employed to look after Hope?”

“I don’t seem to be employable anymore. I look after Hope and write poems.”

“You’re a lodger.”

“More than just that, I hope.”

“A friend of the family?”

“It is my family.”

“You’re Hope’s . . .”

“Father.”

“And Claudia’s . . .”

“Ex-husband.”

“She didn’t tell me.”

“Didn’t she? I wonder why.”

“Why did you — I mean, weren’t you happy together?”

Russell took a long sip of his tea. “That’s hard to say. Happiness. Happenstance. Haphazard. Hapless. They’re all from the same Greek root. The Greeks felt happiness meant being favoured by the gods. Something over which you have no control. Today, we think it’s a state of mind. Something we can achieve. But it seems to me that some people are naturally more disposed to be happy than others. They keep their eye on the doughnut. Others see only the hole. I think one’s default position on the emotional scale between optimism and pessimism is genetically rooted. Mine has always been on the dark side. My aspirations are low, so I don’t feel unhappy. But I feel a lot of sadness. My poems are quite depressing.”

“I’d like to read them.”

“I’ve not been published. Unless you count the greeting card verses. But if you’d like to hear one . . .”

Jake nodded. Russell closed his eyes and recited, like a man speaking in a trance.

 

“Love strikes without reason

In the summer season.

Summers pass, flowers die

The love that lasts

Comes bye-and-bye

Growing, out-of-season”

 

Russell’s voice choked. Jake studied his tea while Russell wiped his eyes and found his voice again. “I wrote that poem the day Hope had her accident. I used to take her to the swimming baths. That day we were there alone. She was in the shallow end and I was writing. And I was absorbed when she lost her bananas.”

“She lost her mind?”

“Her flotation device. A belt of yellow wooden floats, like bananas. She got out of it somehow and it floated off and she went after it. And I didn’t notice until suddenly I realised it was very quiet and I saw her, face down, at the bottom of the pool. It was only a few seconds — and it destroyed her life.”

“I’m sorry.” Jake wanted to say more than that, but could not find the words.

“I was responsible. The marriage was already doomed. It was an arranged marriage.”

“Arranged by your parents?”

“Arranged by society. You go to university. You get a job. You’re expected to get married. Have children. It was what one did. Sleep-walking. Claudia married me because I shared her romantic dreams. But she didn’t realise quite how — uninterested — I am in women. Nor did I, really, until I tried it. I’m not homosexual. It’s just that I’m not very interested in — that sort of contact with people. And after the accident, our relationship just collapsed under the immense burden of guilt. I got depressed. I felt worthless. I couldn’t concentrate anymore. Couldn’t do a proper job of work. I was guilty, but she felt guilty. Because she wasn’t there when she was needed.”

“You’re divorced?”

“I insisted on it. To give her another chance.”

“But you still . . . live together.”

“Hope needs looking after. And I come in useful to scare unwelcome men away.”

“I didn’t know. She never told me you’re her ex-husband.”

“Maybe she didn’t want to scare you off.”

“Does that bother you?”

“Claudia is a lusty woman. I don’t mean that just in a sexual way. She is passionate about so many things. Truth. Justice. Knowledge. Politics. People. She has a great appetite for life. And part of that is she needs a man who can challenge her. It pains me that it’s not me. But I love her. And I know that she has a lust — there’s no other word for it — a lust for fulfilment that I could never supply. I love her in a different way.”
“That’s what your poem’s about. The difference between romantic love and — something deeper — how would you describe it ?.”

“I just did. What kind is yours?”

“I don’t know. I just . . . love her.”

“Do you have difficulty sleeping?”

“Yes.”

“Loss of appetite?”

Jake nodded. “I’m losing weight.”

“The world is a different place because of her?”

“Everything’s in technicolor.”

“You think of her all the time?”

“Nothing else.”

“The balance of your mind is disturbed. You sit on a park bench in the cold all night to try to catch a glimpse of her.”

Jake nodded.

“Jealous?”

“Of every man she sees.”

“There are two-and-a-half billion women in the world, but you only want to be with her.”

Jake nodded again.

“Have you felt like this before?”

Jake squirmed. “A few times.”

Russell smiled. “So, it will pass. It’s an illness. Like a virus. No, a kind of mental illness.” He threw Jake a sharp glance. “Where do you stand on the Scopes trial?”

Thanks to the determination of the courageous Miss Simpson, science teacher, Darwin’s theory of natural selection had been admitted to the curriculum of Okoboli High School and to the town library and Jake knew what answer Russell wanted: “Scopes was right.”

Russell nodded. “I have a theory that romantic love is in our genes. It’s clearly illogical to be swept up by the obsession that just one person is the only one for you. It’s not a sound evolutionary strategy to restrict your choice of mates. Still, it might have an evolutionary purpose: to bind two people together long enough to have offspring. They generally cool off afterwards.”

“Did you feel like that about Claudia?”

“As you say, everything was in technicolor.”

“And now?”

“Now I love her in a different way. The way I love Hope. The way I should love the human race.”

“I love her that way as well. That’s why it’s different this time.”

Russell grunted. He poured himself another cup of tea. “She can be very bossy, you know.”

“I know.”

“Bitchy, even.”

“When she’s feeling got at.”

“You don’t ever want to let her take you for granted. She thrives on challenge.”

“Is there anyone else?”

“No. She’s hard to please.”

“But she goes out on blind dates?”

A touch of pride welled up in Russell’s voice. “I make those up. For the magazine.” He poured Jake another cup of tea before continuing. “Claudia is a great romantic. She feels romantic about you. But she’s afraid you’re bisexual.”

“I can explain that.”

Russell shook his head. “Women think differently than men.”

“You have a theory about that.”

“I do. They think more with their brainstem. The primitive reptilian part that gives rise to emotions. Fear. Need. In Claudia, it’s in constant opposition to the logical brain.”

“That’s a problem we all have to deal with.”

“Claudia’s emotions are stronger than her reasoning.”

“Who’s to say which should guide your life?”

“Not me.”

“She found out I live with a homosexual. He hasn’t come out. He uses me for cover. The first thing he did was to take me down to Sussex to meet his parents.”

“Roy.”

“Simon. Well, Roy’s there most of the time.”

Russell was puzzled. “She said it was Roy. Roy was Stephen’s boyfriend.”

“The man she left at the altar.”

“Belinda’s father. You know him, of course.”

Jake shook his head. “I’ve never met him.”

“He’s producing her play. Didn’t you ever wonder why?”


chapter twenty-six

On the Great Plains fall arrives suddenly. One morning you wake up and you can see your breath. Outdoors the air is crisp and clear. Kids toss footballs about instead of baseballs and smoke curls up from piles of burning leaves. The sky is still blue but summer is gone.

In London the seasons seep into each other beneath unchanging gun-metal clouds. Jake knew it was autumn only because it began to grow dark early and tidy mounds of fallen leaves appeared on the streets of Mayfair. He tramped through the piles practicing his Charlie Chaplin sideways spring with the double heel-click. He invented a new flourish, cocking his arm at the peak of a leap and throwing an imaginary forward pass downfield. What a class act that would have been in the Okoboli High School varsity backfield.

His classmates wouldn’t recognise him. Okay, they had voted him ‘most likely to succeed’. But they couldn’t imagine living in Mayfair. No burning leaves, no backyards, no barbecues, no supermarkets. They called cinemas theaters. They could not imagine a stage that didn’t also serve as the high school assembly hall and gym. And they would be struck dumb if he introduced them to Claudia, the classic English gentlewoman of the Asprey’s advertisements in the New Yorker. Which they wouldn’t have seen. The closest female they could imagine would be Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. Which they had put on in the high school gym. He played the Cary Grant part, but the wilful and elegant Tracy Lord was played by a sturdy farm girl who walked like she was carrying a hayfork and didn’t understand why Tracy chose not to marry the successful and righteous prig, George Kittredge.

Claudia was now as elusive as his Big Break into the theatre. Jake slowed his steps and scuffed through the leaves as forlorn as a school-bound child who hadn’t done his homework. Did he love her, the Asprey’s lady, really love her the way Russell described? Or was he just using her as a pass-key to some sort of personal fulfillment, defining himself through a relationship, the way women often do? A newsstand display caught his eye — Claudia’s magazine was now called MW formerly Modern Woman. The headline leaped out at him, ‘You’re never too old to fall in love again.’ Was she trying to tell him something? He bought a copy and paged through it. He paused under a streetlight and read the story about a blind date carefully, but received no personal illumination.

Across the street from the mansion block a figure wrapped in a duffle-coat, scarf and a flat cap huddled on a bench in the shadows, staring at the lighted windows of the third storey. It was Roy.

“Do you want to come in?”

Roy sniffled and shook his head. “He’s got a new boyfriend.” Jake saw himself maintaining his own lonely vigil outside Claudia’s house. He gave Roy a warm hug before crossing the street.

In the doorway an elderly gent bent over a cane and traced a finger down the short row of door bells. He was dressed like a character from an Oscar Wilde play — or a member of the original audience — in a black homburg and black overcoat, over evening wear and black patent leather shoes, with a long, white silk scarf dangling from his shoulders. A baby’s eyes of watery blue peered out of his sagging pink face. He smelled of talcum powder.

“Simon’s flat?” he demanded, in the abrupt way the English address strangers.

“Number three. I’ve got a key.”

A knowing glint sprang into the innocent eyes. “Oh, have you, my dear?”

And then Jake remembered where he had seen this gent before. At the audition. He was the casting director Roy had been sitting beside. Jake offered the old boy an arm but he waved it away. He heaved his mortal husk up the three flights of steep, narrow stairs, and Jake loitered behind, prepared to catch him. They didn’t speak again. At each landing the old boy paused, breathing hard, eyes bright with lust, before labouring onwards and upwards.

Pop music filtered down from above, its volume increasing as they ascended, until on the final landing, the ceiling vibrated. The old boy leaned against the wall gasping, and closed his eyes. Jake moved past him and up the last few steps and pushed the door open.

He was immersed in smoky warmth, throbbing music and underwater gloom. A tide of deep bass chatter surged like pebbles jostling on the ocean floor. Dim orange light bulbs glowed in the lighting fixtures. The flat had been lavishly redecorated. Persian rugs hung from the walls and large tasselled cushions lay in the corners. Men crowded the hall, the sitting room, the library and the staircase. Men of all ages. Men in suits and ties. Men in evening wear. Men wearing Arab dishdashes, faces bronzed in stage make-up. A few bright-plumaged women were also men. Slim, teen-aged boys wafted through the crowd bearing trays filled with brimming glasses of champagne and orange juice. They wore turbans on their heads, bangles on their wrists and sarongs on their hips; their bared upper bodies glistened with oil.

Jake ventured into the exotic circus, seeking a familiar face. A coffee-coloured, half-naked boy held up a tray. Jake took a glass of champagne and the waiter flashed a seductive smile at him. Jake flinched and, stepping backward, passed through a beaded curtain into a black void thudding with music. He was inside a tent. In what had been the dining room. There was a pungent odour of burning sandalwood. A faint, red glow outlined the silhouettes of male couples moving slowly in close embrace.

He bolted through the curtain of beads and moved into the sitting room, where a Bacharach tune floated above the disco thump. Simon, in evening dress, was at the piano. Jake drained his glass and took another from a passing tray. Someone gave him a swift, deep goose. Jake whirled. The surrounding faces ignored him, but seemed caricatured and charged with menace, like a street scene in a German Expressionist silent film. Jake shouldered through the press of bodies to join a semi-circle of half-a-dozen men grouped around the piano. He put his back to the wall and tried to be inconspicuous.

An outrageous figure detached itself from the piano. It was outfitted for a safari with jodhpurs, riding boots and crop. “Must fly, darlings. I’ve got one hanging up at home.” The riding master flounced down the line towards Jake, dispensing theatrical farewells and kissing each man in turn. Jake watched, glass half-raised to his mouth, feet nailed to the floor. He was enveloped by a stale, tweedy scent. The grotesque face was heavily rouged, its eyes thick with mascara, the creased mouth lipsticked.

“What’s your name?” the riding master teased.

“Jake.”

Before Jake could move — to where? do what? — a plump kiss was planted full on his lips. There followed a playful tap of the whip on his cheek.

“Do you ride side-saddle, pardner?”

Jake was unable to speak. With a flutter of eyelids, the riding master pranced off. Jake gulped down his glass and pulled out his handkerchief to wipe his mouth. As if summoned by signal, a benevolent genie in a smart pinstriped charcoal suit appeared at his elbow. The man shook his head. “Quentin Crisp. Outrageous theatrical old queen.”

He looked an absolutely normal, boring businessman, balding, with soft features and a soft manner. Jake sensed an immediate bond, as if he had met an English speaker in a foreign land. “That kind of guy gives the theatre a bad name,” he agreed.

The businessman signalled to a passing waiter who refilled both their glasses.

“My daughter’s in the theatre.”

A businessman with a daughter. A dead boring heterosexual. Jake’s anxiety fled. “You’re married,” he concluded.

“You’re an American.”

No matter how he tried, some Brits could always spot it. “I’m working on the accent.”

“How do you find living over here?”

A mundane pleasantry. No irony. No hidden agenda. Jake sighed and confided, “It’s a hall of mirrors. Nobody says what they really mean. Nobody is what they seem.”

The man in the pinstriped suit cocked an eyebrow. “In England we never seem to mean entirely what we say.”

“You believe that, too?”

Jake’s companion chuckled. “Not entirely. But tell me about the hall of mirrors.”

To Jake, now a bit fuzzy with drink, this seemed one of those gnomic Alice-in-Wonderland replies beloved by sophisticated Brits, but the man was clearly good-natured. Jake exchanged his now empty glass for another from a passing tray and poured out his pent-up frustrations. “A girl I know writes a play. Dramatic fiction. But it’s really about her father’s ex-girlfriend. Totally vindictive. Out of spite.”

Jake’s new friend nodded with sympathy. “All experience is grist to the artist’s mill.”

“And this ex-girlfriend, guess who she’s got living in her basement?”

The businessman’s eyes were merry. “Doctor Josef Mengele?”

“Her ex-husband.”

“You disapprove.”

“She could have told me straight up. She keeps leading me on, then shutting me down.”

“That’s the job of a playwright. To keep one in suspense.”

“Not the playwright. The woman she’s writing about.”

“Perhaps she likes exercising control over people.”

“She’s a cock-teaser.” The instant he said that he felt a sharp stab of remorse. He had drunk too much too quickly, but his tongue had taken control and the words continued to pour out of him. “And this guy in the basement. He makes up stories that she publishes in her magazine as true case histories.” Jake flourished the copy of MW magazine.

The man smiled. “Now that is very, very naughty of Claudia.”

“I mean, I ask you . . . “. Jake felt confused and unsteady. “You know Claudia?”

The man in the pinstriped suit laid his hand on Jake’s arm. “Playing hide-the-sausage with Claudia is not a good career move, Jake.” A murmur of well-ordered words proceeded from his lips, which parted barely enough to permit them to emerge; yet his diction was precise. Jake marvelled once again at the fluency of the English. How they could transform thoughts into a smooth river of speech without hesitation or diversion. Perhaps because they left out the emotion as well. “You’ve chosen a difficult career. It can be a lonely and unfulfilling life. It’s not like having the security of a permanent job. Very few actors have any kind of security, even in a repertory company. When you’ve finished one job, once again you’ve got to go out and bare your heart and soul in front of strangers to get the next. And the next. And the next. There’s no end to it. You’re always vulnerable. You need friends. You need to be accepted within the great company of the profession. There are people who can help you. People like these, some of them, here. We can help you. I can help you. Join the brotherhood.”

Another British institution Jake had not heard of. “You mean, like the Freemasons?”

The man flashed an urbane smile. Jake caught a sweet whiff of eau de cologne as he extracted a wallet from his pinstriped jacket and handed Jake a business card. “I’m casting a new play for the West End. There’s a part you might fancy.” Jake tried to focus on the card in the dim light. His new friend put out his hand. “Stephen Gurney.”

Jake took his hand. His mind teetered like a wobbling gyroscope. “Belinda’s father. I’m already cast for Belinda’s play.”

“Forget it. What I have in mind for you is understudy to Richard.”

“Richard the Second?”

“Richard Burton.”

Jake’s mouth fell open. He was holding the hand of the famous impresario, Stephen Gurney. Who had just offered him the world. But his mind, somewhat fuddled, remained fixed on Claudia. “Why is Claudia so afraid of you?”

“She could ruin your career, Jake. Leave the naughty slut to me.”

The piano stopped. Out of the corner of his eye Jake noticed Simon making his way towards them, a worried frown creasing his brow, not because of something Jake had done, like spilling wine on the carpet, but because of something he might do. Never before had he seen Simon looking apprehensive. It gave him power. It gave him, for the very first time, a lofty feeling of superiority over Simon. A Beatles’ record blared: ‘I want to hold your hand.’ Stephen Gurney was still holding Jake’s hand. He nodded towards the passion pit behind the beaded curtain. “Shall we dance?”

Jake recognised his Big Break. A scene that would replay in his mind as the defining moment of his life. The spine of a watershed from which the course of life flows irreversibly towards opposite points of the compass. As Iowa sunders the Missouri from the Mississippi. From the peaceful pastures of old age he would look back at this point of no return with content or regret. Simon’s face appeared behind Stephen’s shoulder. A waiter passed by. Jake removed his right hand from Stephen’s grasp and took a second glass from the tray.

Stephen gave him an amused, affectionate glance. “You already have a glass, Jake.” Stephen Gurney was calling him by his first name. The man who had called Claudia a slut. Was that a worse slur than cockteaser? He was deeply ashamed of how he had spoken of her to this man. And then he knew. He really did love her. The way Russell said he should.

Jake raised the glass he held in his left hand. “This one I’m going to drink.” The second glass, in his right hand, he hurled into Stephen’s face.

The background chatter halted at once. The Beatles wailed in piercing isolation as all eyes turned towards Stephen’s dripping face. Jake glared without flinching. He was prepared for a physical response, but not for the cold-eyed malevolence, the stare of a cobra, that met his eye and it unnerved him. Simon moved between them to dab at Stephen’s face with a handkerchief. Jake drained his other glass and stumbled off through a sea of silent staring faces, some aghast, others amused, all hostile, parting from the leper’s path.

The chatter resumed, the music boomed and the laughter took on a manic edge. Pushing through the hands reaching out for the trays of canapés and the slim, bare-breasted mahouts who bore them swivelling and giggling through the crowd, Jake saw himself as a figure targeted in a trailing spotlight. Up the staircase he plunged past smooching male couples and flung open the door of his bedroom, half-expecting to find lovers stacked in layers on his bed. It was neatly made and empty, just as he had left it. He closed the door and leaned back against it. The door had a keyhole but there was no key to the lock.

Someone wheezed. A chill gripped Jake’s spine. In the straight chair opposite sat the elderly casting director, still wearing his black overcoat and white scarf, and still with a lewd gleam in his eyes. Jake seized him by the shoulders, bundled him out the door and slammed it behind him. Then he had to open it again. The old boy stood where Jake had put him, his eyes watering. Jake thrust the homburg into his hands.

“Thank you, my dear.”

Jake closed the door again. In childhood, drawing on Riflemen on the Ohio, by Joseph A. Altscheler, Jake had worked out a survival strategy in case of an attack by Iroquois. He would drag his wardrobe to block the bedroom door and escape by lowering himself out the window on knotted bed sheets. The window was out of the question, it was three storeys above the pavements of Mayfair, but he leaned a shoulder against the wardrobe. It was too heavy to shift easily. Besides, Simon would find it unutterably silly, and perhaps an insult to his friends. Punishable, perhaps, by eviction. Jake propped the back of the straight chair under the doorknob instead.


chapter twenty-seven

Claudia pedalled south down the outer circle of Regent’s Park with the wind streaming her hair and the low morning sun in her eyes. So she didn’t have a love life. Worse things happen at sea. She might never have a love life again. Not in that perfect sense: those exquisite moments of delight with someone you love, trust and above all respect. Almost anybody could supply the bed thrills. She smiled as she remembered how Jake had supplied them and she felt a sudden little ache, strangely not in her genital area but in her heart. It was not just the horny bits; she wanted to share her entire being with someone who believed in what she believed and aspired to what she aspired. Jake came from another planet, but he was a quick study.

Worse things happen at sea. She had Hope who loved her unquestioningly. She had Russell who was the most chivalrous friend anyone could ever have. They had a nice home in Primrose Hill, an area which the estate agent ads were beginning to describe as gentrified. She had a good career job, well-paid now thanks to the rise that she got with the relaunch of the magazine. And she loved what she was doing. The blind date series had turned the trick. Now she could engage her readers in serious subjects, while keeping their interest, and without offending advertisers, because the topics she chose to write about — modern art, class consciousness, consumerism, feminism, the false promise of technology, the frivolity of fashion, the decadence of mass culture — would be explored within a little romantic playlet about two strange people meeting and trying to impress each other, with the unspoken agenda of getting a leg over. Naturally, they would talk of the pressing cultural issues of the day. She had described her idea to Daphne with some pride as a kind of Socratic dialogue between two people feeling each other out — before they felt each other up. Their conversations justified her own opinion piece at the front of the mag on the themes they discussed, but it was based on the views of real people. Well, they would be real people if they existed. The sooner they did, the better. Every day brought mailbags full of readers’ experiences, but, honestly, the drivel they wrote about. Meanwhile circulation was trending upward, MW was gaining a reputation as a forum for thinking women and no one, not even Herr Wankler, had made any complaints.

She felt confident enough now to tackle racism. Enoch Powell was scaremongering, of course, in his ‘river of blood’ speech. Nobody believed his extravagant claim that by the end of the ‘80s you’d be able to count immigrants and their children and grandchildren in the millions and they would amount to almost one person in ten by the end of the century. But you could not deny that he had the keenest mind in government and if it turned out anything like those figures, Britain would be unrecognisable.

Powell had lurched away from the mainstream of the conservative party into lunacy. At the last party conference he had called for a revolution: halving income tax and slashing public spending, dismantling the welfare state, selling off the state owned corporations — British Steel, British Rail, the utilities and the communications services — to the private sector, yielding British business and industry to rampant capitalism. Never, not in a million years, would that constitute an agenda for the Conservative land-owning gentry. The man was obviously a lunatic.

On the positive side, racial discrimination was now criminalised and in general the ordinary British public had exhibited their customary tolerance. The overall reaction to mass immigration was not unsympathetic. The problem was Enoch, who was stirring things up. That Gallup poll showed that three-quarters of the population agreed with him about the possible future consequences. And a thousand East End dockworkers had marched on Parliament to support him, shouting and brandishing their evil placards: ‘Back Britain not Black Britain’. The dockers were supposed to be a traditionally copper-bottomed Labour constituency. Not so surprising, on reflection. Enoch Powell is, after all, Alf Garnett’s favourite politician. There’s always a gap between what the people in Parliament and the posher streets of Primrose Hill think and what the people in the country feel in their guts. She herself had to admit to a twinge of nostalgia for the Britain she had grown up in. It was all mixed up with a sad sense of loss of empire, a diminution of greatness, a regret for past glories. She hoped her feeling was patriotism, not racism.

At lunchtime, when Claudia returned from a meeting shaking the raindrops from her hair from the sudden squall that had descended on Mayfair, Jenny avoided her eye. So it was a total surprise to find Herr Wankler standing against the window in her office, from which he would have watched her cycling across the square. Why had he come unannounced? Why wasn’t he sitting where he customarily waited, in the low leather sofa outside her office facing Jenny’s desk? Why hadn’t Jenny tipped her the wink? Why was he scowling like an executioner?

The guillotine fell before any words could tumble from her mouth. “You lied to Herr Direktor Stutzmann. You have invented all these stories. We know.” Wankler brought his steel fist down on her desk with a thump that set the coffee cups dancing. “You are sacked. I want your desk cleared by the time we get back.” He glared at the heaped surface. “It will be the first time I have seen it clear.”

Through the doorway behind him Claudia caught a glimpse of Jenny before the mirror, marshalling the boas strung around her neck into her long afghan fur-trimmed coat that smelled of hashish and camel dung. Bizarrely, what bubbled Claudia’s anger to the boil, what forced tears up to the brim of her eyes, was that the smirk that was never far from Jenny’s lips was now gone. She had completed a passage. She was no longer an outsider, needing to demonstrate her resentment. The carping rebel had joined the Establishment. Her face was set in a pleasant half-smile that Claudia recognised as her own. Claudia screamed into Wankler’s face. “Why are you taking that strumpet to lunch?”

Her attack unsettled Herr Wankler’s idiomatic control. “She is not the one who blew the trumpet on you. We know it from other sources. And it is none of your business. You are an ex-employee.” The coffee cups rattled again as he gave her desk another mighty whack with his artificial hand, clapped his perky Austrian hat on his head with the other, and left.

The magazine Claudia hurled after him, the one she formerly edited, hit the slamming door. Instantly it re-opened. Wankler’s face was purplish, engorged with pumping blood. Claudia shrank backwards. Was he going to administer the final solution with his steel paw? No, there it was lying on the desk. Wankler retrieved his false hand and departed again with as much dignity as he could muster.

Claudia fought back her tears all through lunchtime. Her staff dropped in, one by one, to bid their awkward farewells. She mourned the future of her magazine under the stewardship of a woman who believed that the most significant event of May, 1968 had been that in the middle of the student uprisings in Paris, Balenciaga had closed his haute couture house. She went through her desk and files and found a number of things she had been looking for for some time and now no longer needed. Most of it she chucked onto the floor, leaving the desk totally clear. She left the office carrying her briefcase and a clutch of folders that would not fit into her pannier. She would have to take a taxi and return for her pushbike. Out in the street she suddenly felt a forlorn, ridiculous figure. Nobody walks around London with folders in their arms unless they’ve just been sacked. And try hailing a taxi with your arms full. As she walked the fierce anger had subsided to a dull, aching pain around her heart. She needed a friend. Daphne would be in a tizz now, fighting to meet her deadline. Besides, she needed more than a consoling mate. She needed someone who loved her.

‘La Fontana Amorosa’, which in her reveries she remembered as their private, hidden rendezvous, empty and shadowed in candlelight, had transformed into a bustling trattoria clattering with lunchtime trade. Waiters darted about like kamikaze pilots, but none of them was Jake. Suddenly Giuliani was at her side, his face etched deep in mourning.

“I had to put him in the sack, Signora. I am very sorry.”

“Why?”

He shrugged his shoulders and made a helpless gesture that encompassed his thriving empire. “Business. Somehow he offended a very important customer. A man who brings a lot of trade here. I couldn’t refuse.”

Though brimming with her own despair, Claudia’s heart still had room for compassion. Poor Jake! Her face fell even further.

Giuliani smiled sympathetically. “He’s a very talented boy, your son.”

It was not until then that Claudia burst into tears.

 

The afternoon wore away in an endless foot-slog. First there was the problem of where to leave his backpack. In his journeys to auditions in Soho theatres he had often passed a plaque identifying the West End Reception Centre for Men. It was affixed to a grimy building near the top end of Dean Street where in a Victorian typeface the rubric ‘Male Hospital’ was still chiseled in the red stone above the doorway. But, day or night, the doors had always been padlocked. Needs must. Jake walked around the block and discovered the entrance was in the back, in Great Chapel Street. That, too, was locked but a sign promised it would open at 8pm. You can’t interview for a job wearing a knapsack on your back so Jake walked up to Euston station and invested sixpence in a left luggage locker. He stuffed what he needed overnight into a plastic bag. Returning to Soho, he made the rounds of the shopfronts advertising unskilled catering jobs. He knew that to get a regular job you needed an address, and he soon found out that the West End Reception Centre for Men wouldn’t do. Darkness descended on the skirts of a cold wind. The shops began to close. People hurried home. It would be naff to stand outside waiting for the hostel to open so he walked around Soho, visiting the churches and reading the placards in the cinema lobbies. When it started to drizzle he repaired to the warmth of Piccadilly Circus tube station and studied the advertisements until well past the appointed hour, determined not to be the first homeless applicant on the doorstep of the West End Reception Centre for Men. As a result he was last in the queue of shabby, rain-soaked old men that stretched around the corner of Great Chapel Street into Carlisle Street, and when he got inside the soup was cold and he had to sleep on a mattress laid out on the dinner table, his arm linked through his plastic bag of belongings to prevent it wandering off during the night.


chapter twenty-eight

Russell stood on a stool at the window, trying to re-engage the curtain cord into the slide of the railing mechanism, while Claudia sat on the settee with the sitting room curtains across her lap.

“Somehow Herr Wankler found out,” she said. “You didn’t tell anyone, did you?”

“Nobody. Apart from Jake.”

“Jake? Why?”

“Sorry. It just slipped out. That night you were in Hamburg.”

“Jake doesn’t know anybody at the magazine.”

“He wouldn’t do anything to harm you. He’s besotted with you.”

“Wankler gave me the lunch hour to clear my desk.”

From his elevated height Russell looked down upon her like a sad stone angel hanging on the wall of a church. “It’s all my fault.”

“If I were ten years younger, I could just thumb my nose. But I’m the oldest female editor in town. I’m competing with twenty-five-year-old tarts.”

Russell pulled on the curtain cord and the mechanism jammed tight. He gave a great, mournful sigh. Russell often sighed and so she ignored it. “Maybe I am losing touch. My idea of how women should lead their lives seems to be distinctly out of fashion.”

Russell attempted to force the cord out of the railing glider. She found she was twisting the curtain fabric into knots and smoothed it out on her lap. “There’s no one I can turn to. Except Stephen.”

He sighed again. “I should do something useful. Get a job.”

“Your responsibility is Hope.”

“I’m a burden to you.”

She was conscious of Russell engaging in some other activity for a moment or two, but she was engrossed in her thoughts and took no notice. She went on talking to him, as she often did, as a way of talking to herself. “And can I really sacrifice my dignity, just for an easy life? Just when I was beginning to believe again that life is for pursuing your dreams.”

There was a sudden clatter from the basement. Claudia looked up. There was no one at the window. She was alone. The stool was gone. She glanced at the curtain in her lap and then up at the curtain rail. The curtain cord was missing, too.

“Russell!” she screamed, jumped to her feet and bolted to the door to the basement.

As she flew down the stairs Russell’s trouser legs came into view first. He was standing on the stool, with an end of the curtain cord dangling off his shoulders. In a moment he would kick the stool away. She flung herself into the room and threw her arms around his legs.

“Don’t!”

She saw Russell looking down, bemused. His head was bent over at the ceiling. There was not enough height to hang himself. And nothing to hang himself from. And the cord would probably break.

Claudia was confused. “What are you doing?”

He pointed to his kitchen window curtain rail. “Trying to figure out how this thing works.”

“God, I thought — you wouldn’t ever, would you?”

Russell stepped down from the stool. “Who would look after Hope?”

Claudia threw her arms around him, hugging him close. “Oh, Russell. Sometimes I think the worst mistake I ever made was divorcing you.”

Russell stroked her hair, the way he often did with Hope. He spoke without passion or regret, but as he always did, just analysing the situation. “Our kind of love is not enough for you. You need to be in love. You were never in love with me. Jake. That’s the man you need.”

“He’s just half a loaf.”

“He told me that chap he lives with just uses him as cover.”

Claudia’s heart skipped a beat, telling her she would like to believe that, but it was all too late. “He would say that, wouldn’t he.” Besides, now she had grown-up problems on her mind. She would have to speak to Daphne.

 

‘Bluesology’ was the name of the group, according to the legend on the face of the drum, although no drummer had as yet surfaced. Claudia hadn’t known seedy upstairs Soho drinking clubs ran to bands in mid-afternoon. If you could call it a band. Two dark, epicene young men stood on the small dais — a plodding guitarist and a saxophonist who swayed like a willow in the wind — and behind the upright piano sat a podgy, sandy-haired bespectacled teenager who seemed to have been left behind by a school group outing. The band produced a languid, wandering wail perfectly attuned to the melancholic gloom, relieved by soulful riffs of melody from the piano. The tunes didn’t so much conclude as expire eventually without anyone noticing. You knew they had finished because you could hear a low hum of conversation from the few drinkers in the bar, but there was not one isolated hand clap. The audience was otherwise engaged on the depressive business of post-lunchtime drinking.

When the porky pianist with the innocent face stood up, she half-expected him to be wearing short trousers. He thumped a few angry chords, said “Shit” loudly and slammed down the piano lid, and the band sloped off into the darkness. A man at the bar stepped aside to let them pass. A fit-looking man in his thirties, of medium height, with regular features and closely cropped hair, he was dressed in a conservative business suit, and wore a white shirt with a firmly knotted plain tie — the protective camouflage, she knew, of the most violent villains, like the Kray twins. He seemed to be engaged in a lengthy negotiation, apparently trying to persuade the dubious, blowsy landlady to buy an unframed canvas painting that was propped up on the bar. Or to accept in lieu of an unpaid bar bill? You would not take him for an artist. And indeed, when, finally unsuccessful, he wrapped up the painting again and she caught a glimpse of his face and of the portrait at the same time, it did appear to be someone else’s work. Because the man’s own pale, anxious face stared out of it, straining through a vortex of strangulated colours. A few minutes after he left, a bulky man in his sixties came in and had a glass of white wine and a few words with the landlady. His fleshy face was heavily made-up and beneath the hem of his black leather Gestapo overcoat his calves were sheathed in fishnet stockings. As he left, Daphne bustled in past him, with a wave to the landlady.

“Sorry I’m late.”

“Was that Francis Bacon?”

“Probably. He practically lives here. It’s the bloody Irish. We’re putting out an extra edition on the civil rights demonstrations.”

“This place is the pits. Why couldn’t we meet at your office?”

“I’m meeting someone here later. Besides, where else can you get a drink at four in the afternoon? And you need a drink.”

The landlady put a large whisky in front of Daphne. Claudia declined another spritzer.

“I need a job.”

Daphne sighed. “I’ve tried, love. But everyone’s downshifting like mad. And the word is out about you all over Fleet Street.”

“What are they saying?”

“You make things up.” She patted Claudia on the hand and gave her a bright smile. “Have you thought about going into p.r?”

“They want chicks young enough not to laugh when the client drops his trousers.”

“The press, p.r. — the only other trade I can think of that would give a woman a job over a man is a massage parlour.” Daphne lit a Gauloise. “You need big money?”

“I’ve got a big mortgage. Huge overdraft. Hope’s specialist school fees. My pension is peanuts. Russell’s incapable. What if I fell under a bus? She’d go to an institution.”

“What about that novel of yours?”

“Romantic fiction is dead. The battle of the sexes all takes place below the neck now — raw sex and violence.”

“Love is eternal. It’s the same story with shorter words and a brasher cover.”

“Try telling that to the publishers.”

“I liked it. You should dust off that manuscript and give it another try.”

Claudia sighed. “It’s such a long shot. A strategy of desperation.”

“You’re really desperate?”

Claudia looked her best friend in the eye and said, “Yes”.

Daphne took a long pull from her whisky. “You know, when that sleazebag brought in that photograph I thought long and hard before I sent it to you.”

“I’m glad you did.”

“One should never interfere in other peoples’ love lives.”

“You did the right thing.”

“Now I’m not so sure.”

“What are you trying to say?”

Daphne put her hand over Claudia’s once again. “Would it be so bad really? Lots of wives look the other way.”

Claudia’s voice rose an octave. “But with a man? I can’t compete with that. It makes me feel so . . . worthless.”

“It would be a cushy life.”

“I could never love Stephen.”

“What’s love got to do with it?” A too-wide smile suddenly appeared pasted onto Daphnee’s face. She had spied someone coming in the door. “Christ, what time is it?”.

Claudia peered into her drink. “Too late. Whatever time it is. It’s too fucking late.”

A man bounded up to Daphne and gave her a wet smack full on the lips. He turned to leer at Claudia. “Why, hello.” He teased out the two syllables in a sing-song innuendo like a fey TV game show host. It was the moustached ex-Squadron Leader, or so he had claimed, whom she had met on her blind date on Primrose Hill.

Daphne arched an eyebrow. “You know each other?”

“That would be telling,” oozed the odious ex-Squadron Leader.

Claudia ignored him and spoke straight to Daphne. “N.S.I.T.”

Daphne was uncomprehending. So was the former warrior. “If you girls are going to talk in code, I’d better go fetch the drinks.” He went to the bar.

“Explain,” said Daphne.

“It’s how debs’ mothers used to describe unsuitable suitors. Not Safe In Taxis.”

“You forget I never came out.”

“Then there was VVSITPQ.”

“I give up.”

“Very, Very Safe In Taxis, Probably Queer. And between them they just about sums up the problem with men.”

“What’s a girl to do?” Daphne knocked back the rest of her drink and glanced towards the bar. The ex-Squadron Leader was nowhere to be seen. “I thought he was going to fetch us a drink.”

“He went into the gents.”

“I’m a heavy date. He’s probably trying to figure out how to jimmy the condom machine.”

“Why waste your life on men like that?”

Daphne sighed. “I know.”

“Sex?”

“I know. They either go at it like a barnyard animal or you have to use an air pump.”

“Who needs it?”

“I know. It makes you feel like an unpaid psychological therapist.”

“It can’t be for intellectual stimulation.”

“I know. They only read the back pages of the newspapers: the stock market, cricket, football and the television listings.”

“Companionship?”

“I know. They’re not in the same world, even if you’re in the same bed.”

“So? Who needs them?”

“We do.”

“Like a horse needs a saddle.”

“I know. I’m like an old actress who can’t keep off the stage. I need someone to put on a performance for. Men are an addiction.” Daphne held up her empty glass. “Like this stuff. Maybe I’ll give it up.”

“The booze?”

“Heavens, no. The bad hats. But you were offered it all on a plate. Sex. Intellectual stimulation. Companionship.”

“I’m not sure about intellectual. We were working on that.”

“Stephen’s not intellectual enough for you?”

“I thought you meant Jake.”

“I mean Stephen. Forget Jake.”

“They’re two of a kind anyway.”

“Except Stephen can offer you the one thing you need most now.”

“I know.”

“From what you tell me, Jake is a naif.”

“I know.”

“Unemployed.”

“I know.”

“American.”

“I know.”

“You’re beginning to sound like me.”

“How’s that?”

“I know,” Daphne mimicked. “Self-aware but addicted. Here comes my poison.”

The ex-Squadron Leader arrived with drinks on a tray. “Shall I ring a chum?” His teeth flashed at Claudia from under his moustache. They were too even. They were probably false. He winked. “Or shall we make it a threesome?”

“I warn you,” said Daphne, “his idea of foreplay is to tell smutty jokes.” The Squadron Leader beamed as if he’d been awarded a medal and started to tell one.

Through the grimy windows the coloured lights of Soho had begun to flash seductively. The drink had already made her head light, and she fancied another one. Unless she made a move now it was going to be a long slide into oblivion.

The Squadron Leader was half-choking with suppressed laughter. “So, anyway, on the last night Goldstein bursts into the bedroom and he’s wearing a cowboy suit. ‘I don’t care vot you say, dahlink —’”

Claudia stood up. “My God, Daphne. How can you cheapen yourself?”

The Squadron Leader twisted his lips from a leer to a scowl. “What’s your price, darling?”

In the ladies’ lavatory Claudia inspected her face. Her fingers pulled the skin around her eyes taut. As soon as she relaxed them the wrinkles reappeared. Another face hovered above hers in the mirror. It was a stunning young girl, almost too tall for a woman, with an amazing violet wig on her head. Amethyst earrings dangled beneath it. Claudia gave a start. It was a youthful image of herself; apart from the colour, she had exactly the same hair bob.

The young woman’s voice was rusty. “Which twin has the Toni?” she quipped, applying purple lipstick to her mouth. The face disappeared from the mirror. Claudia heard her enter a stall and, too soon, there was the splash of peeing. Claudia turned and looked. Beneath the stall door she saw the heels of the purple pumps. Claudia sighed. Back in the mirror the abject face of surrender stared out at her. She felt as compromised as any Jane Austen heroine. Romance was for teenagers. It was time to grow up.

The ‘Bluesologists’ had resumed their funky meanderings in the bar. The ex-Squadron Leader was pawing Daphne, who wore the patient mask of a martyr tied to a stake. She would apologise tomorrow. She had been projecting her own self-loathing on to a loyal friend who had helped her to set her mind straight. Claudia went to the bar counter and asked the blowsy landlady if she might use the phone.


chapter twenty-nine

The newsstand board shrieked ‘Queen’s Honours List: Again No Knighthood for Noël’. Stephen averted his eyes. The Stage would be on his desk after lunch. If he paused to pick it up now one of the paparazzi would very likely leap out of a doorway and snap him in flagrante high dudgeon. Twirling his rolled black umbrella he marched past the newsstand and into The Ivy.

He sat alone, but of course not unrecognised. The maitre d’ hotel and the waiters made their customary homage, and as they led him to his usual table at the far end of the room he exchanged a word, or a nod and a smile, with half a dozen acquaintances or those who would like to become acquainted. He had a commanding view of the door, well of almost everything really, which meant, of course, from the perspective of his audience, he was stage centre.

 

Claudia halted at the newsstand as if she’d been smacked in the face. Her eyes opened wide and her jaw dropped. There was the latest issue of Nova. On its cover a young woman wearing a matching three-piece orange outfit — wide-legged trousers and T-shirt with a loose cardie hanging softly from her shoulders — leaned full-length along the left-hand edge of the frame. Her eyes were closed, her face pensive, and she held a hand on an elbow, a favourite pose of Claudia’s. A slim brunette, with long hair curling to her shoulders, she looked like the dynamic heroine of The Avengers, Emma Peel, in a rare reflective moment. Next to her, an extended block of large type traced the contours of her profile:

 

‘I have taken the Pill.

I have hoisted

my skirts to my thighs,

dropped them to my ankles,

rebelled at university,

abused the

American Embassy,

lived with two men,

married one,

earned my keep,

kept my identity and frankly . . .

I’m lost.’

 

Claudia’s intestines twisted in a long, silent scream. There it was. Her idea. The magazine she had wanted to produce. The authentic predicament of the modern woman. Her eyes began to moisten, and as she moved on slightly dazed she knew it was more than that. It was her story. Her predicament.

 

When, from the corner of his eye, he glimpsed Claudia entering, Stephen made an elaborate study of the menu. The ebbing ripple of hard, bright chatter, displaced by silence as she approached, allowed him to gauge her progress towards his table. For Claudia, marching behind the maitre d’ hotel, it must have been a long, long walk. When she finally arrived at her Calvary you could hear the clink of a spoon in a teacup.

At the scent of her perfume, Nina Ricci L’Air du Temps, Stephen rose instantly. She was exquisitely dressed, looked absolutely magnificent and greeted his charming smile with another equally theatrical. The audience held its breath, waiting to see if they would kiss, and so of course he kissed her on both cheeks. Only then, as a chair was pulled out for her, did the flood of ambient chatter creep back into the room.

“Sorry I’m late,” she said, barren of the slightest sign of distress.

“What’s eighteen months between chums?”

She launched the first thrust at once. “I’ve changed my mind about Belinda’s play. You can do what you like. I shan’t interfere.”

“That’s extremely generous of you.”

“Provided you reinstate Jake in the role.”

“My dear, I haven’t the slightest intention of putting on Belinda’s play. Never have had.” That put a spoke in her wheel.

“I thought you liked it.”

“It’s not without merit. But you don’t really think I could bear dragging up all that gossip about you.”

“And you.”

“We understand each other.”

“Poor Belinda.”

Her sympathy seemed genuine. Stephen glided off the troublesome topic of his daughter. “But that’s not what we’re here to talk about, is it?”

A waiter appeared. Claudia was finding it difficult to concentrate on her menu. He was in control, but he would have to tread carefully. There was a lot of hurt and rage welling up inside her. She pushed the menu away. “You order for me.”

Submission. “Like old times,” he said, with genuine warmth, and ordered for both of them without referring to the menu.

Over coffee they got down to cases. “It would have been an open marriage,” he said, a twinkle in his eyes. “I thought you understood.”

“I was blind.”

“Love is blind.”

“So is panic.”

“You know, it’s much more civilised to go through life seeing only what one chooses to see. I would place no demands on you. Hope would be looked after somewhere.”

That was a mis-step. If Claudia had had a spoon between her teeth it would have snapped. “I would never put Hope in a home.”

Stephen retreated. “Then a flat for her and Russell perhaps.”

Claudia shook her head. “I don’t want her to leave her home.”

“Keep it. A second home.”

“There’s a mortgage.”

Stephen smiled and touched her bare arm. “You’re worth it.”

She withdrew and crossed her arms. “Why do you want a wife?”

Like any subject that really mattered, this was to be treated airily. “We have now entered an enlightened age, thank God, on sexual matters. But the news does not seem to have trickled through to the palace.”

“Why me?”

Before answering Stephen took a moment to survey the room, bestowing a benevolent glance on one or two familiar faces in the audience. Then he leaned forward and gazed into her eyes.

“You’re the one who got away. I want everything to be the way we planned.”

“The way you planned. You always told me what to think.”

“Only because I love you so much I can’t bear it when you think differently from me.”

“I’ll be buried alive.”

“You can have anything you fancy. Except, of course, your American lover.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t make a pass at him.” She paused, her napkin halfway to her lips as he took a modest sip of his Beaumes de Venise. The cloth fell onto her plate and her eyes widened. “You did, didn’t you. You wanted both of us.”

Her lips tensed and her hand tightened around her wine glass. Stephen flinched. Would she toss the wine in his face? No. The stakes were too high. Her knuckles loosened their grip.

Stephen sought and held her eyes. “The foolish boy is as romantic as you are. You’ll have to give him up. It would all end in tears.”

The wrong metaphor. She dropped her gaze and looked as though she were about to weep right now and that would be unpleasantly vulgar. When a woman cries in public the man is always degraded. But when her head came up again her eyes were dry and her voice was cold.

“Is this a marriage proposal?”

Stephen covered her hand with his. She did not resist.

“I’ll put it all in writing,” he said.

Claudia looked away, seeming to acknowledge the surreptitious glances of the nearby spectators seated in the round about her for the first time.

“On one condition,” she haggled. “You give Jake a break.”

Stephen permitted himself a dry chuckle. “A British Council tour to Siberia, perhaps?”

“A big break. I’m absolutely serious.”

Stephen sighed. “‘Yanks Go Home.’ How I wish he would.”

“That’s what I admire about you. You can arrange anything if you really set your heart on it.” She had not removed her hand from beneath his. Now she added her other hand to cover his and raised a cool glance to his eyes. “Darling,” she added, with a knowing half-smile.

Her voice was emotionless, like a judge delivering sentence. But he was not entering into this relationship to warm his heart. There would be good times. She was an attractive woman and in bed he knew he could rouse her so that passion conquered her head. And now that the terms of engagement had been made clear, their constantly stimulating battle of wits would be disputed only with light armaments. He nodded. The contract was agreed. And this time she would honour it because she had no choice. He had always admired her mind, which he could outwit only because she was not entirely governed by logic. It had been very remiss of him not to put her in full possession of the facts in the first place.

“I shall never love you,” she said.

“I’m touched that you consider my need. But I can do without substance.” Stephen raised his glass to the contract. “What really matters is style.” They both drank. He swept the house with a satisfied smile, half-anticipating the dimming of lights and an appreciative burst of applause.


chapter thirty

There were compensations. Her cocktail dresses re-emerged from out of the back of the clothes cupboard. And once, when she was trying to confect an evening gown in the hippie style from some odd pieces, a box arrived by taxi from Zandra Rhodes containing an amazing evening coat-of-many-colours that glittered like a Christmas tree. He was keen to show her off. He took her everywhere and everyone fawned over her. She had no job, she had forsaken dreams and she had little self-regard, but she had regained status.

Stephen had worked his Svengali magic. Already she felt a different woman. More sophisticated, more brittle. Her heart had shriveled. She had no volition, needed none. Stephen had re-organised her life. She felt as passive and as impassive as a bottle in a crate: to be picked up, carted about and deposited here and there. An empty bottle.

They got on better, too. This time round she was not gnawed by doubt. She felt no fears, cried no tears, indulged no more in sudden spats of temper. Because she now understood his character and it intrigued her to examine him in context, observing his London theatre world as an anthropologist might sit at a pig-feast in the highlands of New Guinea.

Calculating and self-disciplined. That was the spirit of the man. For example, he was, she knew, deeply envious of Kenneth Tynan. He relished the role of enfant terrible. He would have liked to have been the man of louche reputation who was both a founding father and the despair of the National Theatre and the scourge of the Lord Chamberlain. Stephen had admitted to Claudia that he coveted on his gravestone the epitaph that Kenneth had earned: that he had been the first man to say ‘fuck’ on television. But, he had calculated, revolutionaries rarely reap the rewards of their transgressions; it was the land agents who followed the wagons of the pioneers who acquired power. So, unlike Tynan, his name was not known to the public, yet it was a byword to those in the profession who needed to know.

Tynan had spotted Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at the Edinburgh fringe and brought it to the National, while Stephen had missed it. That rankled, too, and so he prowled the experimental theatre venues. She felt that the only way to enjoy those raw performances was to leave your prejudices and your inhibitions at the door and throw yourself into it with as much enthusiasm as the play-makers, who bared everything on the stage — their souls, their fears, their neuroses, even, these days, their bodies, and, too often, their lack of talent. You’d come out wringing wet, on the flood of an emotional catharsis. Never mind the critical hangover the next day. But Stephen never blinked. He kept his cool. Of course he loved every moment, he would tell them backstage afterwards. Though he never actually produced any experimental theatre, he was always invited. Because, whatever their political agenda, Stephen knew that in their heart of hearts what the play-makers wanted was fame. That could only come with commercial acceptance. Which was what Stephen, with a nod, could give them. Of course he never did. He was not an innovator; his skill was to catch the zeitgeist on the cusp, to identify a trend and turn it into a fad. He was not a rebel; in his tastes he was deeply conservative, but he was the man with the golden wand who could transform a cry of rebellion into a popular entertainment.

How did he manage that? Because he had no beliefs. He had no passions. These are absolutes, anchored in the past. To the man who wants to stay au courant they are impedimenta. And so he was a man without baggage, who could easily step aboard the next bandwagon. In truth his epitaph should be that he was in the first row of every trend. Which betrayed a certain lack of principle. It was an epitaph Jenny could share. A pity she had never introduced them.

So while he had applauded enthusiastically at the surreptitious private performance of Edward Bond’s Early Morning, in which Queen Victoria is a cannibalistic lesbian who kills Prince Albert and has an affair with Florence Nightingale, and signed the public petition against its banning, it was not radical British playwrights who eventually benefited when the Lord Chamberlain’s role was terminated, but Stephen, who had a hand in bringing the irreverent but safe smash hit American rock musical, Hair, and its display of nudity to the commercial stage the day after theatrical censorship was abolished in Britain.

Stephen was a man, not so much of many faces, but of many personalities. It never ceased to amaze her how differently he would behave with different people He was a chameleon who adjusted his voice, his features, his very posture, so that he appeared to become a reflection of their presumptions. With backstage chippies and sparks he was a hearty bloke who spoke the same public house argot. With a dowager duchess he became a well-bred but naughty flirt with a mischievous sparkle in his eye. It was a dissimulation that entitled him to equal footing on other peoples’ personal territory, a masquerade which they indulged, thus allowing him to exert a passive kind of control through the common ties of mateship or polite society. Charm, some people called it, but it was a performance that was only possible, she had concluded, if one felt absolutely no emotional commitment to the person with whom you were engaging. And she could, of course, see him doing it with her.

The all-British musical Vagina Rex and the Gas Oven delivered a structuralist-feminist message that struck Claudia to the marrow: women oppressed by society could only fulfil themselves by creating a language and history of their own. But it was preaching to the condemned; she had already decided to go with the flow. And Hair it wasn’t. So, at the fund-raising party she kept a frozen smile on her face, while Stephen kept one firm hand on her arm and the other on his unopened chequebook

Afterwards, when he had dismissed the chauffeur and drove her home in the wee small hours, the moment Claudia had been dreading overtook her. A man slumped on the bench by the bus stop. A light dusting of snow, reflecting the yellow light of the lamp-post above, merged figure with seat in a composite sculpture. The Rolls Royce moved so quietly that it had come to a stop just across the street before the snowman stirred.

Stephen opened the car door for her. As she stepped out Jake stood up. His eyes fixed on hers. Without a second thought, or even a first one, without a word to Stephen, she walked straight over to him. Why? To avoid a scene, of course. And he looked so vulnerable.

Snow perched lightly on his woolly cap, but the shoulders of his pea jacket were soaked. “I want you to tell me what’s going on,” he said. He threw a gaze of raw hatred over her shoulder. He leaned forward, straining at an invisible leash, on the edge of violence. Only now did Claudia glance back at Stephen. He leaned back against the car, taking a cigar from his case, an advertisement for nonchalance.

She took Jake’s elbow. It was trembling. “Let’s go up the hill.” Their footsteps made light tracks in the snowdust, the thickening flakes filling them in as they walked. By the time they arrived at the top of the hill the traces of the outset of their journey would no longer be visible.

It was a slow walk up to the mount of Golgotha. Very soon the sixties would be over and she would be forty. It was the end of an era and she felt cheated. Its promise had not been fulfilled. Had the world changed? Obviously there had been a sexual revolution, according to the tabloid newspapers. But sexploits sold papers. The shenaningans of pop stars and the deliberate assaults on morality by the underground culture filled the newspapers. It’s an article of faith that the avant-garde should be quick to hop into bed. But did it represent a vast shift in the sexual morality of the British public? Hard to say. In Britain only the louche and uninhibited would talk about it. As she suspected was the case in America, too, where the 1950s Kinsey Report had seemed to take its data from some deeply debauched sources.

Some social issues had been successfully separated from immorality: thanks to David Steel’s Abortion Act, a woman could now terminate an unwanted pregnancy, and even get it on the NHS. And if the reform of the divorce law had been undertaken at the beginning of the decade, Russell would not have had to go through that ignominious charade with a prostitute in that Eastbourne hotel. It was so good of him to insist on taking the blame. The new permissivity had brought other social advances too: the abolition of the death penalty, the legalisation of homosexuality, once practically a synonym for subversion and treason. Ordinary working people had more money and could afford the new technology: washing machines, telephones, motor cars, indoor lavatories, central heating. Men had stopped taking women for granted; more women worked outside the home and they had more economic power. One of her advertisers — when she had a magazine and it had advertisers — had told her that for the first time more shampoo was now being sold in bottles than in individual-use sachets. Because girls and women could now afford the capital outlay of half a crown. And, despite its blundering the Wilson government had managed to withdraw from the vestiges of empire overseas without getting dragged into Vietnam by the Americans. This was the end-of-the-decade piece she would write — if she had a magazine. This was the sort of thing she could discuss with Stephen, not that it would interest him in the slightest, but he would nod and make constructive comments. But Jake? His educational credentials seemed to have culminated in Okoboli High School. He kept his eyes open, he picked up ideas with astonishing speed, and had strange moments of adult lucidity that were almost spooky, but he was a child, and children are too self-absorbed to provide any sort of intellectual companionship. And actors never grow up.

He didn’t say a word until they stood on the top of the hill. He took no notice of the moon rising in a clearing sky over the sleeping city. “You said you loved me.”

“That was in bed.”

“I believed you. And I love you. What more is there?”

“There’s Hope, there’s even Russell to consider, but most of all there’s you, Jake. You’ve got a life of your own ahead of you.”

“I want to share it with you.”

“Are you working, Jake?”

“You can’t get a real job unless you have a permanent address.”

“So where are you living?”

“In Soho. In a hostel.”

“Do they take women and children?”

He kicked at the snow, like Hope when she was denied a sweetie. “So, why are you seeing him again?”

“He’s a friend.”

“Are you sleeping with him?”

“Don’t be childish.”

“Are you going to marry him this time?”

“He’s just a friend.”

“I love you.”

“Will you still love me when I’m sixty-four?”

“I’ll be forty-nine.”

“That seems a great age to you. I’m almost in my forties now.”

He seized her shoulders. “Marry me.”

She pushed his arms away. “Giuliani thinks I’m your mother.”

“Stephen is a homosexual.”

“Bisexual.”

“Aren’t you afraid of getting . . .” He broke off.

“I take the Pill.”

“I didn’t mean that.”

“What did you mean?”

“Getting some sort of disease?” She slapped his face. Because, yes, she was afraid of something. Not disease, exactly. Why should homosexuals be more vulnerable to STD? It was disgust she feared. Jake did not flinch. He put his hand to his cheek, as if caressing the touch of her hand. Snowflakes fell and melted on his open lips. “Do you love him?”

His voice demanded honesty. “No.”

“How can you humiliate yourself like that?”

“It’s the only practical solution.”

“Because I’m a failure.”

“I’m the failure, Jake. You’ve got your future ahead of you. Remember? Some day you’re going to fly in Concorde.”

“It was on this spot that I saw you for the first time. And we didn’t even make it to our first anniversary.”

Claudia eyes misted. “April Fool.”

Jake took her face in his hands. This time she did not resist. His voice trembled. “I’ll be standing here on April Fool’s Day. In case you change your mind.”

“It’s not my will. It’s circumstances.”

“Circumstances change.”

“Will you go back home?”

He gave a rueful smile. “You wouldn’t want me to serve in that obscene war.”

“Are you going to auditions?”

“When I hear about them.”

“I know things are hard for you just now. But you have genuine talent. I think you ought to stick it for just a little while longer. And seize every opportunity.”

“I’ll stick around. I’ll come up here to the top of this hill every April Fool’s Day. And one year, if I don’t turn up, then you’ll know I’m dead.”

She kissed him. “You’re so beautifully young. I do love you. That’s why I’m letting you go.”

Then she turned and walked down the hill. It was harder than she had thought. Tears streamed down her face. She really was in love with the young fool. She did not look back, but she kept forever in her mind an overhead view as from the height of a kite: the moonlit white pasture, the tracery of frozen tree branches and, along the lamplit lacework of empty paths, two dark sets of melting footprints leading in opposite directions.


chapter thirty-one

Regent Street. Implacable winter weather. It had begun to rain during the Christmas sales. On St. Valentine’s Day it was still pouring. And now it was March that roared in the stoney wilderness of the West End, its cold spittle pouring from cornices, swelling across pavements before windy gusts, rushing through gutters and gurgling back up again from blocked drains. An army struggled down these streets, undaunted legions of shoppers defying the grey barrage to advance upon the ramparts of the spring sales under a bright jostling armour of multi-coloured umbrellas. Their ragged progress was as relentless as the weather; the weak and the cowardly forced to take refuge in doorways and under awnings, stragglers pushed out over the kerbs to splash into the puddles spreading beyond the margins of the march. From one of these ponds an amphibian family emerged — a sturdy young middle-aged couple and two querulous offspring — dripping under soggy newspapers held over their heads. They blundered past the young man standing on the corner bearing a placard on a pole stuck down the back of his pea jacket, pausing just long enough to envy the novel sheltering device mounted on his head — a small but locally efficient umbrella — and to read the wording on his sign: ‘Spring Umbrella Sale — 50 Yards’. Turning, they bent eastward into the downpour along Great Marlborough Street in the direction commanded by the red arrow on his sign.

Beneath the sign Jake crossed his arms and hugged himself and stamped his feet, reflecting on the semiology of his new employment. The last sign he had carried, though non-professionally and with a sense of mockery, had read ‘Yanks Go Home’. It was neither philosophy nor argument, merely a complaint, but at least it possessed a clarity of message. Whereas the posters of protest devised by the would-be red warriors of the LSE and the Hornsey art College were idle gnomic whimsy. ‘Revolt or Fester.’ ‘The shit heap is smoldering.’ ‘Don’t just stand there — wank.’

The British liked to turn serious issues into games. Through long practice in negotiating the intricacies of their social class system they were naturally drawn to obfuscation and he could appreciate their reluctance, faced with the complexity of moral choice in a dying empire, to commit themselves to any course of action whatsoever. They didn’t want to ban progress exactly — except for the bomb — they just didn’t want it to be so efficient. They preferred to muddle through. Hence, the implausible idiosyncrasies of their cranky telephone system, the non-absorbent toilet paper and the mathematical absurdities of their currency. Though he appreciated the ambiguities of morality, on balance, he preferred direct, pragmatic signification that could attain a result: his red arrow would lead the rain-drenched family to a solution.

And so, muddle-headed, they turned to drugs. Not the soaking wet family, but the art school drop-outs of his generation. This was the panacea that would purge their parents’ guilt of empire-building and their own envy of imperial glamour and purpose, and inure them to the dull mundanities of the world they had been bequeathed. Using this magic substance, intoxicated with a sublime sense of the commonality of humanity, they could reach out a finger, like Adam, and touch the eternal mysteries of life. But the prize remained tantalisingly elusive, like the golden ring on the merry-go-round — sorry, roundabout — grasped for, but unseized, and which you knew was really brass anyway, and good only for another free ride on the circuit of delusion. When the drugs wore off it was like emerging from a vivid dream. The illusion of omniscience, of having penetrated to the inner meanings of hidden truths, dissipated like fog in the sun, leaving only a dull pain of regret, like a morning hangover, and a few gleaming shards of memory, portentous symbols or cryptic phrases that had seemed of cosmic significance, now meaningless. Drug-taking was a dead-end street entered through a mirror. And it was bad for your health. Horatio Alger would not take that path.

Youth culture was the sort of thing Claudia loved to discuss. Another reason for loving her. Nothing to do with sex or romance. But because she was a genuine, concerned human being. Love is another opiate. All you need is it. Well, yes, that’s fine and dandy, if you’re talking about being in love with one particular person. But, as Claudia pointed out, you also need money, a home, a job, a career plan, a future — and if you’re in love with Claudia — the ability to support a retarded child and an ex-husband. But what the drop-outs meant was loving the whole world. Which was a bit difficult since you hadn’t met most of them and some at least were held to be deeply unpleasant. They would say you didn’t need to know anything. If your heart was filled with love for all humanity, everything would turn out all right. Which is to ignore a few basic facts: the heart can’t think, it has historically poor judgement, no recording apparatus, not even a very good memory. The power of love to recreate the world was in fact, an idea that was old hat even in Okoboli. The public library shelves had held a whole series of books for girls about Pollyanna, an orphan girl who went about making everyone feel glad because she was so sweet-tempered. It was so syrupy he only read one of them. And there was a silly board game based on the book. Hope would love it. Maybe he could find one somewhere.

What, really, was the result of the underground counter-cultural movement: the protests, the provocative sit-ins, the agit-prop theatre, the outrageous magazines that cocked a snook at the bourgeoisie? Was any of it going to change society? A lot of it seemed to be about kids having fun at their elders’ expense. It was hard to believe that protests so playful and frivolous could have any real impact on social changes that were evolving anyway from deep-running economic and historical causes. You could argue that poking the bourgeoisie in the eye with a burnt stick actually retarded liberal progress by outraging the generally fair-minded British public. The counter-cultural movement may have brought some issues to the fore, but not all publicity is good publicity.

In any case, you don’t change who runs the country or who owns it by changing the culture, just by putting on plays that break all the rules. You’ve got to load a musket. Which the Brits should have learned when they lost the American colonies. Where the Marxists got it wrong with their structural theories was believing that political power, economic ownership and public morality were all congealed in the same ball of wax. They saw art and language as instruments of political oppression, the proselytising catechism of capitalism. Because that’s the way it worked in Russia, where you were not allowed to express yourself. The state ensured that all artistic expression served propaganda purposes. So they believed if a vanguard of enlightened students dismantled the culture, the workers would throw off their chains and capitalism would collapse. But in Britain, the Queen’s subjects, thought not qualifying as citizens, were not exactly robots. If you attacked the values imposed on them by their society, the discontented and the disenfranchised would not run out into the streets with Molotov cocktails. Agit-prop theatre folk hurled abuse at conventional ways of doing almost anything, attacked American imperialism and did their physical utmost to convert stolid middle-class theatre-goers into radicals through sheer embarrassment. What happened? Some people wrote irate letters to the Times, and a few mad parliamentarians, from the safety of their parliamentary privilege, said the offenders should be hanged. But the workers at the Ford factory in Dagenham did not close ranks with the privileged whingers of the art colleges and throw up barricades in Pall Mall. The working classes, in fact, are the staunchest defenders of traditional political arrangements such as the monarchy.

A sudden deluge swamped his shoulders. His sign had poked up into an awning and dislodged a waterfall. He stamped about, trying to shake the water from his clothes. His arrow followed, now directing the shopping hordes towards Regent’s Park and magnetic north.

The protestors devoted a lot of energy to mocking consumerism. The dazed protest of the flower children against a plastic world, imported from Hashbury, San Francisco had been a shock to British parents only recently emancipated from household drudgery by the wonders of melamine and nylon. Their be-ins and love-ins and smoke-ins haven’t changed anything but the demonstrators. The ambitious ideals, long hair, way-out music, and weird costumes are just so much advertising. Most of the protestors, most of the time, seem to have their tongues lodged in their cheeks when they aren’t probing each others private parts. There is nothing spiritual about unbridled hedonism, nor about promiscuity as an appropriate refutation of bourgeois repression. And very quickly the rebels sell out. There’s cash to be harvested from these illusions: in drugs, in the gear, in the creative affectations.

Since he’d come to Britain the bourgeoisie had stopped wearing bowler hats, so that John Steed in The Avengers was already an ironic anachronism. But the same people Anthony Sampson had catalogued in the Anatomy of Britain were in charge. There was no sign of an economic revolution, no hint of a political revolution. The proletariat was still watching television, perhaps because they had been elevated to starring roles in Coronation Street, Steptoe and Son and Till Death Do Us Part. The class structure remained intact. Apart from a more relaxed attitude towards sex, mainstream culture was unaffected, and language, though it was more forthright now, had not been deprived of its cultural associations.

The general mood of the British people remained unchanged. They did not take their culture seriously. He could think of only one dramatic work that had effected social change. That was the television play about a single mum who was evicted and had her children taken away. Cathy Come Home, directed by Ken Loach, had led to the founding of the charity, Shelter, for homeless single mums. In general, the British preferred nostalgia to current issues: they watched Upstairs, Downstairs and The Forsyte Saga, Dad’s Army, The World at War, and endless exhumations of the spirit of Dunkirk and retellings of the blitz; their poets were Philip Larkin and John Betjeman, celebrants of the unchanging mundane and unadventurous Metroland, while, at the pop level, the Kinks sing about the ‘Village Green Preservation Society.’

The counter-cultural movement was a fizzle. In its ashes it had left a depressed and cynical generation. The alternatives now seem to be to abandon your ambitions and drop out and live in a wigwam, or put your ideals on the back burner, shave off your ‘tache and your beard, and apply to join the rat race.

A huge golf umbrella decorated in wedges of primary colours like a pie chart appeared before Jake. Beneath it was Roy. He shouted over the whistle of the wind and the dampened roar of the traffic, “I heard you got a job in advertising.”

“You still working for Stephen Gurney?”, Jake shouted back.

“I’ve been demoted to general ‘Teasmade’ and ‘Step-and-Fetch-It’.”

“At least you get tea. You could be in advertising.”

“I’ve come to step-and-fetch you to audition for a role.”

“That bastard wouldn’t give me a roll in a breadbasket.”

Behind Jake the umbrellaless family returned, much moister, took fresh bearings from his sign, and scuttled north up Regent Street.

“He’s putting together a touring company for ‘A Bird in My Porridge’.”

“What about Simon?”

“It’s an overseas tour. You couldn’t pry Simon away from Stephen with an oyster knife.”

“Stephen Gurney hates my guts.”

“In the theatre a true professional rises above the personal level.”

Roy had never sounded quite so pompous. Where was his irony? Jake could expect nothing from Stephen Gurney’s camp but humiliation. Yet, his ego had already collapsed. He now lay stretched out and drained on the floor of himself. Their darts could not puncture him. What’s more, auditions were held indoors. In warm, stuffy theatres. With the chance of a cup of hot tea.

When the bedraggled family returned, still streaming under the negligent protection of The Daily Telegraph, to inspect Jake’s sign again, it was propped up against the railings, its arrow aimed at the raging heavens.

Roy left him in the lobby. “I’ve got to go be tea-lady. Break a leg, Jake.”

The casting director was the white-haired satyr Jake had last seen when he threw him out of his room in Simon’s flat. The other actors trying out for the part called him Mr Woolley.

Jake was the last to audition. It was the same part he had read for in this same theatre, to this same man, almost a year ago. But he had lived a year in Britain since. Now he understood the speech. His interpretation on stage was nuanced and ironic. “Truth is what people chalk on pavements. Then it rains. What we’re after is the speculative truth. That which might be, could have been, should happen, or at any rate cannot at this moment absolutely be denied.”

Afterwards he made the long walk up the aisle to Mr Woolley, who was absorbed in doodling on his clipboard. Jake sneaked a look. Mr Woolley had a fair drawing talent. His pad was covered in homoerotic drawings.

Mr Woolley was oblivious of him. “Next, please,” he called out. Into silence. Apart from the two of them, the theatre was empty.

Jake was too tired and exasperated to be polite. “So?” he said.

Mr. Woolley replied without looking up. “The part’s already filled.”

Jake found he could still rise to anger. “You goddamn fairies have got it all sewn up, haven’t you? There’s no way you can get anywhere in the theatre except on your knees.”

Now Mr Woolley looked up, but without a hint of recognition. “I like spirit in a young man. What did you say your name was?”

“Jake O’Sullivan. Remember it, pansy.”

Mr Woolley narrowed his eyes, then pursed his lips, and opened the jacket of his heavy, wool pinstriped suit. A gust of stale perfume and sweat pursued the slip of paper withdrawn from his inside pocket. Mr Woolley glanced at it and then looked up.

“The part is yours.”

Jake’s deflated ego rose from the floor, inflating but befuddled.

“I don’t understand.”

Mr Woolley gave his hand a warm squeeze. “Somebody up there likes you, love.”

 

He never did get a cup of tea, but in his tiny office off the lobby Roy poured a bottle of warm bubbly into two paper cups. He passed one to Jake and raised the other in toast. “What did I tell you? Mother knows best.”

“When do I leave?”

“First of the month.”

Joy fled from his face. “I can’t.”

“What do you mean?.

“I’ve got a date.”

“You’re joking.”

“I’ll catch them up later.”

Roy shook his head. “No way. Not for Olivier in spangled tights.”

“Then I can’t accept the part.”

Roy smote his forehead. “You’re bonkers.

“You got an envelope?”

“You going to write a suicide note?” Roy shook his head in wonder as he passed Jake an envelope. “Think it over. Then come and see me. Next week at the latest.”

Jake inspected the envelope with a frisson of irony. It was imprinted ‘Stephen Gurney Productions’. He took a card out of his inside breast pocket, slipped it into the envelope and started to write an address on it. “I don’t suppose Stephen Gurney Productions could lend me a stamp?”


chapter thirty-two

The silver top hat always lost. It lost to the silver boot. It lost to the little silver car. And thought it wasn’t really fair, when she played it against a plain, ordinary button, it lost then, too. Mummy didn’t have time to play anymore and Russell always made her win and so the only fair game was if she played both pieces herself. The silver top hat was always somebody good, like Jake or Mummy and the other piece was somebody bad like Stephen or Belinda or the mean children at school and yet the silver top hat always lost.

She knew every letter that came into the house, because she had long ago appointed herself postmistress. Twice each day except on Saturday when there was only one delivery and Sunday when the postman went to church, she went to the door when she heard the letter slot clack and the post was all higgledy-piggledy on the floor. It was her job to collect it and put it all in order. Sometimes there was a package or a special delivery and then the doorbell rang and she got to open it and say hello to the postman but Mummy or Russell had to come and sign for it. She always arranged the letters and the cards and the magazines in her own special way on the sideboard in the hall. Now she waited on the sofa because she wanted to see what Mummy would do when she came back from shopping and saw the letter she had put all by itself in the centre. It was from Jake because he had shown her how to make the dot over the ‘i’ so that it looked like a little round face.

She rolled the die and moved Jake four spaces and he landed on a snake and slid all the way down to the bottom row. This is what happened and there was nothing she could do about it. Jake had disappeared down a big snake. He never came around anymore and Mummy did not want to talk about him. She rolled a die and moved Stephen three spaces and he came to a ladder and she was so angry she wanted to cheat but you couldn’t do that but she did count out three spaces again just to be sure and that was better because although he didn’t hit a snake this time he landed on the square just after the ladder. But he was still at the top row but one and Jake was down at the bottom.

She did not know why Stephen had come back all of a sudden. For a long time he was gone and Mummy did not want to talk about him. Now Stephen was back and Jake was gone and Mummy did not want to talk about him. Stephen was bad and she did not know why Mummy wanted to have him back in the game. He never played with her and they didn’t even go for walks on the hill anymore. Instead Stephen took them to places in his big car, to the Festering Hall that looked like a fort to listen to music and to his theatres to watch the pantomimes. That was great fun and they all laughed but it still didn’t make Stephen a good person because he didn’t talk to her and play games the way Jake did but only took her along because of Mummy. And they never walked anywhere anymore. Even when they went to Marine Ices to get ice-cream the man in the uniform drove them in the big car even though you could easily walk there and back and up and over the hill, too.

But if Stephen could come back all of a sudden then so could Jake. If she kept on playing the game maybe he would come back. Stephen had been gone for a long time so it might be a long, long time before Jake came back. It could be years and years. Or it could be tomorrow. You never knew what was going to happen. That is why she liked to wake up every day, because you never knew what was going to happen that day. Maybe something good.

She did not know why good people slid down snakes and bad people went up ladders, just as in the game. When she grew up and became a Mummy she would put it all in order the way it should be.

Mummy had just gone out and she was supposed to stay on the sofa because Russell was in the basement working, so when the key turned in the lock she knew it must be Stephen. Why did Stephen have a key while Jake and the postman had to ring the bell? There were so many things that she would not understand until she grew up. Stephen said ‘Hello’ with all his teeth showing and she said ‘Hello’ but pulling back as she always did because he frightened her. He hung up his hat and coat and then he went to the sideboard and straightaway picked up the envelope that was addressed in Jake’s bold, black handwriting.

“That’s Mummy’s letter.”

“Can you keep a secret?” She didn’t know what to say. She liked secrets and of course you were supposed to keep them, but she didn’t trust him when he smiled and showed all his teeth. So she didn’t say anything but just looked at him. He put a finger on the printed heading on the envelope, but she couldn’t read words she didn’t already know. “It’s from me,” he said. “A surprise for her wedding day. Okay?”

Without wanting to, she nodded. It wasn’t okay, because the letter was from Jake, but he was an adult and Mummy let him do anything he wanted. He put the letter into his jacket pocket.

“Is Mummy going to marry Jake?”

Stephen brought all his teeth down to her level. “You’re coming to the wedding, aren’t you?” She nodded, this time because she wanted to. “Well, suppose we wait and see who turns up.”

He had some wine bottles and he went straight into the kitchen with them. Hope went and hid in her safe place behind the sofa to wait for Mummy to come home. She was just in time because just then Stephen came out again and went to the cabinet and poured himself a drink. He took the letter out of his jacket pocket and opened it. There was a card inside. He just took one quick look at it and then threw the whole lot into the waste-bin. And then he reached down into the waste-bin and she thought he was going to see her, but he didn’t. His hand lifted the newspaper that was in the bin and put it down again so that the letter was buried down inside.

He was a thoroughly bad hat. You were not supposed to open other peoples’ mail. It was just about the worst thing you could do. She should rescue Jake’s card and the envelope with the little face for a dot over the ‘i’ from the wastebin and give it to Mummy. She should tell Mummy what Stephen had done. But Mummy never wanted to talk to her about Stephen. And she had promised him to keep it a secret. Telling secrets when you had promised not to was almost as bad as reading other people’s mail.

 

Jake sat in the warmth of the Westminster Library in Charing Cross Road leafing through the latest issue of The Stage. A photograph of Stephen leapt to his eye from beneath the headline: ‘Gurney Wedding Show— A Revival.’ He scanned the short news item and marched straight to the theatre.

Roy poured out two paper cups, not champagne this time, but lukewarm tea from a thermos. ‘Stephen’s getting married,” he said.

“I know.”

“Same woman.”

“I know.”

“It’s no fun gossiping with people who already know everything.”

“I just don’t know why.”

“Security. Women always marry for security.”

“But why does Stephen want to get married?”

“It’s as plain as your face. You know he’s supposed to be up for a knighthood?”

“So? They give knighthoods to a lot of villains.”

“Villains, yes. But queers? I mean, Queenie can’t be embarrassed by giving a gong to another Queen. But of course, if you’re married . . . People never believe married men can be queer.”

“How could she?”

“On April Fool’s Day. More fool he. I don’t suppose you’ve been invited?”

“No.”

Roy winked. “I just thought, maybe that’s why you turned down the tour.”

“I suppose it’s too late to change my mind?”

Roy pulled out the top drawer of his desk and held out a BOAC ticket folder. “My dear, I knew you’d change your mind.”


chapter thirty-three

On the first day of April Jake slung his battered backpack onto the weighing platform at the BOAC check-in desk at Heathrow Airport, while in a village in Dorset near Stephen’s mansion Claudia sat before the mirrored dressing table making tiny adjustments to the luminous image she had created. An oppressive sense of déjà vu hung in the room. Because Stephen’s sense of theatrical presentation demanded that she be delivered to the church in a traditional white dress in the traditional manner, and appropriate accommodation in the area was limited, she had found herself in the same room of the same country hotel that she had occupied on her last wedding day.

Hope’s face appeared in the mirror, trying on Claudia’s feathered headband confection from Biba. Was she a child trying to look silly, or a nascent woman trying to look pretty? A lump rose in Claudia’s throat and she gave her daughter a cuddle.

There was a peremptory knock on the door and without waiting for a reply Belinda entered. For the previous wedding she had costumed herself as a parody of her own father’s child bride. This time she was dressed as an ungainly caricature of a Home Counties bridesmaid, all chiffon and billowing sleeves in Jean Muir shocking pink. Above this confection her agitated face was a pale stew of barely suppressed resentment. She attempted to smile, but merely succeeded in gritting her teeth. “I know you did a deal with Daddy, but I want you to know there’s no hard feelings.”

“You mean about Jake?” Claudia was annoyed. Stephen had pledged to keep his intervention in Jake’s career absolutely secret.

Belinda found it difficult to smile, but she could laugh — a brief, coarse explosion of scorn. “I just wanted to get your attention.”

Wrong track. Belinda meant her own relationship with Jake, whatever that might have been. What deal then was she talking about? Claudia bartered time for information. “I ought to apologise to you. It was just a crazy menopausal fling.”

“It was a lot more than that to him.”

“Why makes you say that?”

“He turned down that overseas tour for you.”

Over the long weeks of winter Claudia had built in her brain a protective screen composed of the shreds of silly dreams cemented with dried-up tears. Thoughts of Jake penetrated that screen less and less frequently. Now, that flimsy structure lay in tatters and her heartbeat faltered. “He’s not going?” She could not keep a quaver out of her voice.

“According to Roy. And I don’t mind about the play.”

Claudia was dazed. They were at cross-purposes. “Jake’s tour?”

Belinda’s voice sharpened with irritation. “My play. Don’t pretend. Daddy told me. Dropping my play was your price for marrying him.”

“You’ve got totally the wrong idea.”

Belinda was fighting back tears. “I’ve decided if it makes Daddy happy it’s all right with me.” Her vindictive anger finally bubbled to the surface. “Mumsy.”

Belinda flounced out, and the door slammed behind her. In the mirror Claudia saw pain creeping into her eyes. On a rationale level she knew full well that she had agreed to marry Stephen for reasons of economic practicality. But the emotional strategy that had sustained her in that decision through these last awful weeks, while acid doubts and bitter regrets etched at the steel shutters of her closed mind, was the belief that she was doing this for Jake. To avert the foolish tragedy of involving himself with an older woman and to give him a start on his career. She sometimes indulged in a sorrowful, rewarding vision of herself as a maiden sacrifice, her naked body stretched across a stone altar as the priest, wearing a horrific jaguar mask and pendulous jade earrings prepared to sink his flint knife into her left breast and remove her beating heart. And now the brutal, callow youth had refused her offering. Claudia tightened her jaw and in the mirror saw age lines spread from the corners of her mouth. Enough romantic tosh. It was time to grow up. She was doing this for Hope and because there was no other future for herself. Still, she couldn’t help wondering where Jake was, and what he was doing right this minute.

 

Ninety-five miles to the northeast, Jake knew approximately where Claudia was. He gazed towards the southwest, chin in hand, through the rain-streaked window of the plane. He imagined her sitting at a dressing table, staring at her own tear-stained image, and wondering where he was. On the intercom system the Captain announced there would be a further delay. With a sly wink a mincing steward approached with a glass of orange juice.

 

Claudia woke from her reverie. Hope was tugging at her sleeve. “When is Jake coming, Mummy?”

“He’s not coming today, darling.”

“But you’re going to marry Jake.”

“No, darling. I’m going to marry Stephen.”

Hope stamped her foot. “It’s Jake’s turn.”

Claudia hugged her daughter. “What made you think it was Jake?”

Hope’s eyes watered. She took a rumpled envelope from her little handbag. The envelope bore the logo of Gurney Productions. But the handwriting was Jake’s. Inside was a card. It read: ‘See you April 1st. No joke. I love you. J.’

“Can you read this, darling?

Hope put on her defiant face, thrusting out her lower lip. “I didn’t open it. It was already open.” Tears began to flow down her cheeks.

“It’s all right, darling.”

Hope blubbered. “I can read ‘I love you.’”

Claudia crouched to dab her tears away with a tissue. “I have to marry Stephen, darling.”

“Why?”

“Because . . . well, it’s best for all of us. For you, for your Daddy.”

“I hate Stephen. So does Russell. And you love Jake. Russell says so. Don’t you?”

Claudia’s eyes returned to the mirror. Her mascara needed attention. Another knock on the door and Stephen entered, resplendent once again in his grey top hat and tails.

“I’m off to the church, petal. I’ve asked Simon to escort you down the aisle.”

Hope balled her fists in the air and cried out, “It’s Jake Mummy loves, not you.”

Stephen ignored her. He planted a kiss on Claudia’s cheek, seeming not to notice that it was moist. “I half expect that benighted fool to gallop up on a white charger.” Claudia was unable to smile, but Stephen’s ego required no support, not even recognition. “You were never lovelier,” he assured her before leaving.

 

Lost in the bitter-sweet pathos of his daydream, Jake recoiled as the fey steward returned. “Sorry for the delay,” he simpered. “We’re just about to close the doors now.” He reached down to fuss with Jake’s seatbelt. It was, Jake realised another Defining Moment. What he did now, or failed to do, would change the direction of his life forever.

In a surge of events so rapid and so unpremeditated that in retrospect they all seem to happen in a continuous flow of the present tense, Jake leaps from his seat, knocking over the glass of orange juice. The steward shrinks back, shrieking. Jake brushes past him and bolts down the gangway. He runs frantically up to the taxi rank and jumps into a taxi. In the driver’s seat, by chance, is the only Sikh taxi-driver in London. He rolls his eyes but puts the taxi into gear and it pulls away at speed.

As the taxi comes to a halt in the forecourt of Stephen’s country house Jake leaps out and dashes into the marquee that has been erected in the garden. He bursts into the wedding reception, where guests are dancing. He recognises only Belinda and Hope. He rushes about knocking over tables and creating alarm, but the places at the head of the wedding table are empty. When Simon stands up to grapple with him, Jake hurls him into the drinks table. The table collapses. Jake rushes out of the marquee and into the house.

He bursts into the upstairs bedroom. Stephen and Claudia are lying in bed. Stephen wears monogrammed pyjamas and is talking on the telephone. Claudia wears a seductive negligee and is reading a book. Jake scoops Claudia’s warm body up in his arms and runs out, leaving an open-mouthed Stephen who starts to howl like a baby. As Jake staggers towards the waiting taxi with Claudia swooning in his arms the sound of the wailing infant pursues him.

Jake started from his daydream. The crying issued from the mouth of a small child who was standing up on his seat glaring at him over the back of it in a red-faced tantrum, as senselessly enraged as the baby the Duchess held who turned into a squealing pig. Jake was stepping back through the looking glass now, leaving this anarchic realm with not much more than he had brought to it. He counted out a fistful of heavy British coins, so heavy he had holes in his trouser pockets, but not worth enough to buy the flowers that at the last minute he’d thought of sending, to say nothing of a taxi ride to Dorset, round-trip. What could he have written on a card to send with the flowers? Something ironic in the stiff-upper-lip British manner? Something sentimental in the American way? Something banal: ‘Thanks for the memory’? His memories indeed were valuable currency: what he had learned from his British experience. He knew now that he had been right for the wrong reasons to flee America. The Vietnamese War was wrong, very wrong indeed. The domino theory held that if Vietnam falls, all Asia will go communist. But what if it’s just another national struggle for self-determination, like the American Revolution? And what if communism might be the right answer for that society at that point in time? He saw now that governments deceive and manipulate the people they claim to serve and use the flag as an excuse. No wonder the British feel no shame in reproducing the Union Jack on waste-bins.

The marvellous paradox was that though they were as a nation, deeply conservative at heart, they shrugged off any attempt to impose values: the sanctity of the flag, the significance of religion, the morality of Mary Whitehouse. The enduring achievement of the counter-cultural revolution of which he had been a foreign observer was to smash the apparatus of social censorship, culminating in the dismantling of the office of the Lord Chamberlain, which, though it was not otherwise distinguished, his own British theatrical career had witnessed. He had learned about class. It had not particularly been an obstacle to him, because as an outsider he was a social enigma beyond the reach of its obsessive, finely tuned categorisations. The only snobbery directed at him had been anti-American. And though he detested the idea of unearned privilege, he admired the British tolerance that transcended class barriers. In America the class divide was brutal: you were a success or you were a failure. And you could never be successful enough, because somebody might overtake you, and that’s failure. In Britain you could step off the concentric merry-go-round and become eccentric, like Russell, and still be valued as a person. That’s why in American firms everyone took two-week vacations, from the office boy to the president, for fear someone would take over their desk, while in Britain, as they climbed the ladder they took more and more holidays — four, five or six weeks — because there are other things to do with your life. Except for actors, of course, who anywhere in the world worked whenever they got a chance.

So the lessons he’d learned in Britain were political scepticism, freedom of artistic expression and social tolerance — all concepts which Horatio Alger would have found suspicious, if not downright un-American. One lesson he had rejected was to moderate his aspirations. The British had low expectations. Opportunity was his birthright, and against all the odds he had, through his own perseverance, almost miraculously achieved a plum role in an internationally touring production of a successful West End comedy. Who knew where that might lead? So long as he kept footloose and fancy free. Claudia had almost entrapped him. No, that was not fair. He had almost trapped himself. From now on he would take as his motto George Washington’s advice to his fledgling nation in his Farewell Address: ‘Avoid entangling alliances.’

Jake picked out one coin from the fistful in his hand. A half-crown. He would keep it to remind him of this wisdom, acquired in England. He inserted it into his wallet and dropped the rest of the coins into the seat pocket. As the BOAC flight climbed through the clouds he had a fleeting glimpse of a green circle resembling Regents Park, and perched on its head a perky green bonnet that might have been Primrose Hill. He remembered a sudden, brilliant, welcoming smile and a bitter lump choked his throat. The smile had seemed to burst out of the clouds, up here where he was now, looking down at the past. That smile proved to be everlasting; its amazing radiance would pierce his thoughts often in the years ahead, a souvenir that carried a bittersweet pang of regret and rustled a host of memories. He reburied them now under scraps of speculation about his future. His career was well and truly launched with this international tour. First stop, the British Council, Addis Ababa.

 

The open Rolls-Royce crunched into the forecourt just as the last, belated wedding guests scurried into the church. Only Simon remained, standing by the church door as erect as a Royal Horse Guardsman, formally, though more drably, attired and sporting a winning smile. He descended the short flight of steps as the chauffeur opened the door of the car for Claudia. Simon took her arm and escorted her across the forecourt while the chauffeur busied himself affixing a ‘Just Married’ sign to the boot.

Simon flashed his expensively maintained teeth. “I asked Stephen for the privilege of escorting you. I want us all to be very good friends in the years ahead. The three of us.”

Claudia had a sudden, swaying vision of the yawning church door as the mouth of a long, black tunnel stretching away to infinity. She halted.

“Then tell me just one thing, Simon. Absolutely straight.”

Simon favoured her with an ironic smile. “I’ll try.”

“Is Jake straight?”

Now the smile was indulgent. “Of course. How else could he be so square?”

“He was living with Roy.”

“And me. Roy was my chum. But I couldn’t take him home to meet the aged Ps, could I?”

He steered her forward and they began to ascend the church steps. Claudia couldn’t think clearly. A haze was enveloping her. She stopped them again.

“I thought he was . . .”

“You made that up in your head. It was an excuse. Because you thought you were too old for him. But an age gap doesn’t matter. Not if you really love someone. Look at me and Stephen.”

Somewhere in Claudia’s soul a massive door swung open admitting a brilliant, blinding light. She raised her hand shield her eyes. This was, she realised, a Defining Moment. She could continue like a beheaded chicken hanging from a hook in a factory line, to be drained of blood, plucked, trussed and stuffed. Or she could act.

She half-swooned. Simon moved to catch her. She caught her balance and thrust the bouquet into his outstretched hands. “Here! You marry the beast.”

For the second time, Claudia fled. She flung herself down the steps and across the courtyard to the open-top Rolls-Royce, where the door stood open, inviting her in, as the chauffeur tied tin cans onto the rear bumper. She hopped into the driver’s seat, turned the ignition key and roared off leaving the chauffeur sprawling in a hail of gravel,

Her fanciful wedding bonnet flew off her head and bounced back towards the church. As she drove down the leafy lanes, in her mind’s eye, Claudia saw what happened next. The distraught wedding guests emerge to stand on the top of the church steps. Stephen elbows through them to stare open-mouthed at his disappearing car. In a rage, he kicks the flimsy bonnet, then stamps the pretty thing into the ground with both feet. Hope laughs out loud and some of the wedding guests have to put hands to their mouths. And, in a perfect world, a humongous wedding cake would then fall from the skies to engulf Stephen.

Claudia laughed until she cried. It was so easy. So ridiculously easy. The huge obstacles that block your path, the insoluble problems that blight your life, the agonising dilemmas — they can be resolved in an instant, at the flick of a mental switch. It’s like snagging your skirt on a hook. If you keep pressing forward, you’ll never get free without tearing it. Back up a step and it falls free. All you have to do is change yourself. Uproot your ingrown attitudes, your acquired beliefs, your encrusted prejudices. Your parents fuck you up. They bequeath you a mindset. And so do your playmates, your teachers, religious indoctrination. Discard it like the husk of a chrysalis and you are reborn, with a fresh, new skin, an unshackled mind, an unwritten page. You can follow your heart. Claudia had been taught that expressing what you want is rude; that was to be left for others to infer. Now she was going to grab what she wanted with both hands. Okay, there are still hard facts, like lack of money, but you can get round those, too. From the right perspective, facts dwindle. Like Micawber, people muddle through somehow.

Gloriously, the heavy, open touring car raced down the open road. As she left Hook astern on the A3 it began to rain buckets. Claudia drove on, her hair streaming in the wind and wet. Topping ninety miles an hour, the Roller flashed past a patrol car parked in a lay-by. But it never appeared in the rear-view mirror. Claudia imagined the two amazed coppers inside their car as she roared past. One of them reaches for the key to start the ignition. But his mate switches it off, and they return to their embrace.

Was she paranoic? She saw homosexuals under every bush, when clearly that only happened on Hampstead Heath. Another revelation came to her like the stroke of sunshine now breaching the dark clouds rolling off the London skyscape. Her dark fears about Jake — that he might be bisexual, that he was American, that he was so frightfully young — all of that was classic Freudian displacement. The ogre that controlled her brain, that set up barriers against the impulses of her heart, was sturdy, old-fashioned British class prejudice. Jake was unsuitable because he was different. Golden light gleamed off the rain-slicked highway, and with tears flowing freely, she cast the ogre from her mind and pressed her foot down on the accelerator pedal racing towards the bright future that lay beyond Sunbury, Twickenham, Richmond and Wandsworth on a green hill north of the river precisely under that raw beam of sunlight that streaked down from the clouds.

In London the rain stopped. Where Grove End Road turned into Abbey Road traffic was held up. A photographer stood on a ladder in the gutter, and four blokes were messing about on the zebra crossing. Claudia leaned on her horn and drove on through, scattering them. One of them, who was barefoot, gave her two fingers.

Stormy clouds reassembled in the sky above Primrose Hill. Claudia abandoned the Rolls-Royce on a double yellow line, freshly painted under the new Parking, Loading and Waiting Regulations, and ran up the hill. All the way to the top where all the paths intersected. She saw no-one. There was no-one on the top of the hill, nor anywhere in sight. The park was empty. It started to rain buckets again. An aircraft engine droned overhead. Claudia lifted her head. An aeroplane drifted upward through the gloomy clouds above the chimney tops. Jake was on it, taking with him the whole romantic generation of the 60s, flying into a cynical future. The decade was drawing to a close. What happened? Nothing. There had been no revolution, no storming of La Bastille, no violent Tea Party in Boston harbour, no assault on the Winter Palace. Undermined by history, certainties collapsed of their own weight. Youth ran about looting the ruins of culture, inhaling the smell of wet ashes, amongst other substances. But now a new faith flickered from the embers of the old civilisation — ironic, commercial, materialist. Youthful illusions lay sputtering in puddles like spent fireworks. She felt an exquisite sorrow, a requiem for Pan. His flute was stilled, and with it adolescent fantasies, butterflies broken on the wheel of history. Claudia tasted salt water mingling with the fresh torrent streaming down across her lips.

 

FADE TO BLACK

 

ROLL END CREDITS AND MUSIC

 

The swelling MUSIC in a minor key suddenly groans to a halt.

The CREDITS waver, then abruptly fast-reverse off the screen.


chapter thirty-four

If you ask me everything’s gone to ratshit since about 1980. Yes, I know some of you weren’t EVEN BORN then. Well, that’s your hard luck. Because you’ve never known GLAMOUR. It passed away sometime around Black Thursday — or was it Black Wednesday? — anyway, one of those Bad Hair days in the stock market in the ‘80s when the world as we knew it ended. Back then, to be a STAR, mere charisma and a degree in Media Studies was not enough. You also had to a) be good looking, b) know how to wear clothes, c) speak English properly, and d) tell a soupçon from a soup spoon. Now that every snotty-nosed school leaver is a TV presenter and every Sloane Street slut a Meeja Personality, Di is dead and Asprey’s has been bought by the Arabs, most people think glamour is getting pissed and dropping your drawers in a window seat at the local Slug and Lettuce. Now, where was I? Oh yes, 1980. Remember I told you I had that dreamy Jake O’Sullivan in the back of a limo once? Now that was glamorous. Did I mention that he invited me up to his hotel room? The Savoy, natch. The only slight hitch was he had his Constant Companion with him at the time, the lissome Lisa Lindstrom, whose legs started at about the top of my head.

He flew in on Concorde, of course. “What’s that?” did I hear a slow reader ask from the back of the room? It was an aeroplane, dear. It flew at about twice the speed of sound so while it moved you about it lengthened your life. You could arrive in New York before you left London and have breakfast meetings twice a day. And it was GLAMOROUS. That was in the days before Hello magazine, so to find out what celebrities were up to the masses used to flock to the arrival gate at Heathrow. I was there to interview Jake, but first Elton John and his entourage came along and the crowd went berserk. (Once upon a long time ago, I was sent to interview Elton John when he was just an unknown wannabe playing with a no-hope group called ‘Bluesology’. Shome mishtake shurely, I thought and after a good lunch and a fumble in my Filofax found myself instead interviewing a certain John Elton, who was the Chairman of Alcan Aluminium UK, to our mutual mystification.)

So when Jake and his seven-foot-tall animated Barbie Doll came through into the hall nobody noticed. And when I say ‘nobody’ I do mean ‘nobody’. She was a gargantuan middle-aged woman with what a charitable observer would call an unprepossessing manner. You and I would call her a FAT SLAG. A greasy, blond-streaked Afro surrounded her head like a second-hand halo and she wore a bulky jumper the colour of a vomited full English breakfast. All the other punters were gaping at Elton John and his camp followers, but FAT SLAG only had eyes for Jake O’Sullivan. She screamed and started to clamber over the barricade. And here’s my point. While she was grappling with the security guards, and showing every sign of being about to overpower them, J.O. gave her a smile (in my notes I recorded an astonished smile — at any rate it seemed really genuine) and a gracious little nod of recognition, AS IF HE ACTUALLY KNEW WHO SHE WAS! And she fainted dead away, bringing down two security men with her. That, children, was GLAMOUR.

The man has class. He invited me to join him in his stretch limo and so there I perched on a jump seat, the knees of my cargo trousers brushing THOSE KNEES all the way to the Savoy. He kept looking out the window, those flashing eyes alight, grinning like a grockle on a double-decker tour bus. And I didn’t get a single question in — because he was interviewing me, about everything that had changed in London in the past dozen years. Which was before my time in the Big Smoke, so I had to invent a little. The Barbie Doll had never been to London and wasn’t sure she’d like it, and to make sure she wouldn’t she kept her nose in an American fashion magazine. And then he invites me UP TO HIS SUITE and pours me a single malt whisky WITH HIS VERY OWN HANDS. The Barbie Doll meanwhile is posing by the window with an immense view of the hippest city in the world spread out at her feet, leafing through British Yin and consecutively lighting fags as if she’s entered some kind of Guinness Book of Records contest. Which gives me a slim ray of hope that in a few minutes she might die of accelerated lung cancer and leave me alone with the hunk. But I knew that as long as she was sentient she would tune in to every word that was said.

Now this was more than a quarter-of-a-century ago but I was at an impressionable age, so most of it is seared into my brain, and the rest I made up. (Well, I am a columnist, aren’t I?)

I sit as seductively as one can in a pair of £4.99 cargo pants from Top Shop and a T-shirt with ‘Frankie Goes to Hollywood’ written on it and turn on the gush. “So what advice could you give to a young person following in your footsteps today?

He laughs, showing those brilliant teeth and adorable little creases around the eyes. ”I wouldn’t advise that at all. They’d spend a lot of time going around in circles.”

Meanwhile Miss America starts wandering about puffing like the little engine that could, doing her nails, pouring herself a coffee, humming something tuneless — anything to attract attention to herself. Oh, you won’t believe this — it’s ‘I Did It My Way’, for God’s sakes.

I soldier on. “But you’ve had a meteoric career. You’re still only what — mid-thirties?”

I know damn well he’s thirty-seven. I didn’t get where I am today (as you can probably guess, still at my kitchen table, picking the caked sediment of a Domino Pizza from the interstices of my computer keyboard, squinting eyes raw from the chlorine fumes of the soiled nappy bucket the Crawling Scion has just tipped over) without doing some research. And — this is the kind of guy we’re dealing with — he tells me the truth.

“Bless you. Thirty-seven. But a Hollywood career is not a simple progression like climbing the ladder in any sensible profession. There are lots of snakes lurking about, too.”

“You mean, like critics?” You shouldn’t be witty to interviewees, because they like to make all the jokes, but I did want him to notice I WAS A WOMAN WITH A BRAIN.

He didn’t, particularly. He joins his hands behind his head so I know he’s launching into some practised speech that’s probably been printed in a dozen articles, so I know I can ignore it and think about having him in my shower instead. “You know that children’s board game, ‘Snakes and Ladders?’ It’s a perfect metaphor for a career in films. Maybe for life in general. So much depends on the random throw of the dice. One day you get lucky. You get offered a good script. You meet a producer with taste, intelligence and money.”

At the mention of these desiderata Herself wafts by in a cloud of smoke and fondles him. “Or a beautiful, talented actress,” he reacts on cue. After all, he used to be an actor. He holds her hand briefly and presses it to his lips (ugh! - think of the nicotine odours) before she drifts on through her personal mist. Shall I compare thee to a summer miasma, thinks I, emerging somewhat damp from my shower fantasy.

Meanwhile he’s still stuck on his metaphor. “You climb up the ladder. The next throw of the dice, somebody pulls the plug on a project. Down you slide into the snakepit. Where nobody returns your calls.”

Time to suck up. I bet she doesn’t give him any of this kind of massage. “But it’s not just luck, is it?” fawns I. “You would never have got to the top without bags of talent and dedication and personality.”

“That and a thousand dollars worth of dental work will get you a job parking cars in Hollywood.”

“So, it it’s all a game of chance, what’s your advice to young people starting out in the film industry?

“Play with loaded dice. Seize every opportunity. Even if it belongs to somebody else. That’s how I got my start. Because someone cut a deal for me. Someone very smart and practical.”

“And very cynical.”

“Oh, no. She was one of those rare people who actually enhance life. But she knew the score.”

I checked out the lovely Lisa. Sure enough, this OTHER WOMAN IN THE PAST was going down like a DIY hysterectomy. He, being a man, didn’t notice. Or — fond hope surged in my breast — didn’t give two figs? “Listen, there’s a thousand wannabees in California alone that can put ‘bags of talent, dedication and personality’ on their resumé.”

“Resumé?”

“Oops, that’s American.”

“French,” I chastised with a smirk, trailing my linguistic sophistication before him like a trace of musk.

He just smiled. “C.V. is what you say over here.”

“You actually got your start here in England.”

He gave me that charming grin. “I speak both languages”.

“In the London theatre.”

He nodded, so I cut to the chase. “And has it come full circle? The rumour is that you’ve come back to direct a stage play.”

“That’s all a bit vague just now. I can’t really tell you anything about it.”

“But Sir Stephen Gurney is involved, isn’t he?” (In those days he was London theatre.)

He tried to wriggle out. “I am going to meet him, but basically I’m here on vacation — holiday — to show Lisa around.” This was her cue to emerge from the vapours, sit down beside him and take his hand.

“Wasn’t it Sir Stephen who gave you your opportunity in Hollywood?”

Wrong gambit! His mouth puckers as if I’d just offered to give him a root canal job without Lignocaine. “I guess you could say that, in a way.”

He’s vulnerable here, thinks I, and poise for my rapier thrust, when Aphrodite Airhead chooses precisely that moment to display. ”This is all too boring for words.” She actually ASSAULTS ME, laying a hand on my knee. “Your readers will fall asleep over their tea and crumpets.” She wags her BIG HAIR at Jake. ”Why don’t you tell her, honey?”

He’s grumpy. “Nothing’s settled.”

“So, it’s gossip,” she trills, placing that treacherous kitten’s paw on MY SHOULDER. “That’s what you want, isn’t it, hon.” She’s winking at me, so I suppose I’m Honey as well as he. He meanwhile, looks like he’d like to put Duck Tape (that’s what the phonetically-challenged Americans call Duct Tape) across her flapping red lips. And of course she drives him off the sofa, just when my knees were about to touch his. He gets up and pours himself a drink while she settles down for a girlish tête-à-tête-cum-pawing session.

“Jake has written a play,” she confides through me to the world. “About when he lived in London. Coming of age. And Sir Stephen wants to put it on.”

Jake O. speaks through a mouthful of nails: “He’s expressed interest, is all.”

“He adores it,” she interprets. “It’s called ‘Primrose Hill’. Somewhere up in north London? And there’s a part in it for me. One of the love interests.”

He shrugs. “Absolutely nothing is settled yet.”

“Only I don’t get to get the guy.” She gets up and wraps herself around him. “Which is all right with me. So long as I’ve got him in real life.”

This terrible actress is, I divine, trying to tell me something cutesy. “So, you have some gossip for me about your personal life?”

She gives me a gruesome, coy smile. “What’s London famous for?”

I play dumb. “Theatre? The Tower? Carnaby Street?”

“I’m talking Bond Street.” She thrusts her hand out, extending her ring finger. It is unadorned. “There’s lots of jewellery shops in Bond Street.”

“So you’re engaged? You’ve hooked the most eligible bachelor in Hollywood?”

She fluttered her eyes towards Jake, who was standing with his back towards her, looking out the window. “Let’s just say engaged to be engaged.”

This seemed to be news to him, because he turned right testy. “The only engagement we have is for dinner tonight. And it’s time to get ready. Can we bring the interview to a close?”

So, just after I got the CELEBRITY SCOOP that nearly ended my career, I got shown the door. I footled about in the hall for a while, pretending to search through my handbag while I put my ear to the door. Well, actually it was safer to stand a couple of feet away. Because that door was RATTLING with the high-pitched hysteria of Lisa Lindstrom. Nothing I could print in this Family Newspaper. But in terms of domestic equilibrium, well off the Richter scale. I know she’s not getting the parts these days, Poor Thing, but there’s a job for her any morning at Billingsgate. Jake O., dear lamb, didn’t say a word.


chapter thirty-five

“So what time is it over there? You’re kidding! We’re just about to go out to dinner. They eat late over here. You wouldn’t believe what a ghastly day. Ghastly. It means lousy. I’m learning the language. First, I lose the credit card he gave me. That is, I thought I lost it and I didn’t want to say anything because he’d do his nut. Like, first he has to take me on this tour. Not in a limo. But his own personal tour, he says. Harrods, I say, then Bond Street. Covent Garden, says he, because it’s just across the road and we can walk there. Well, that sounds kind of cute, holding hands like Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison wandering on the cobblestones. Except the cars are always coming from the wrong side of the road. And when we get to the market I’m in for a big surprise because there’s a lot of really cute shops with gas lamps and stuff like right out of ‘A Christmas Carol’. But he’s like making faces and dragging his ass about because there’s no vegetables. Vegetables. No, he’s not a vegetarian. He just wanted to see some vegetables, I guess. They used to have them there. Remember, she was a flower-seller. Liza. Not Minelli. Liza Doolittle. Nothing to do with Doctor Dolittle. Except that was Rex Harrison, too. So then he drags me away to Soho which is like Times Square without the show business. It’s like really sordid. Prostitutes and motorbikes and Chinamen. We walk there. Dodging the motorbikes. And the Chinamen. And he’s looking for this special place he used to live. And I’m thinking, nobody actually lives in this dump except the bums sleeping on the sidewalks. And we get lost in this bunch of Chinamen. But he sees some people selling dirty vegetables on the street and that cheers him up. And suddenly there it is. What do you think? The Forbidden City? Buckingham Palace? A Hilton hotel? No, it’s a hostel. Not a hotel, a hostel. A kind of home for down-and-outs. Just an old sign on a dirty brick wall and thank Christ it wasn’t open because he was all for dragging me in there. So I’m like putting my foot down and saying we don’t have to fly the Atlantic to go slumming on Skid Row, we can see that in downtown Los Angeles any day and which way is Bond Street, and he gets mad and hails one of those black cabs and says, like, take this lady to Bond Street and I’m like, aren’t you coming, and he says maybe he’ll go up to Primrose Hill, which in spite of the nice name is just some sort of a Dullsville outlying suburb, but I’m like wondering is he scouting for a location, and thinking maybe I’d better go, too, if it’s got anything to do with my career and he says it’s more for atmosphere because it’s not a film but a play, and I’m like there is no way I am going without you, because after all what would be the point without a credit card, though of course I didn’t say that to him, but right then he fishes the credit card out of his pocket and says I found this on the floor. Would you believe? I certainly didn’t. It’s in the red, he says, don’t spend more than a thousand pounds. Which is like, a couple of thousand dollars, which in Bond Street doesn’t get you past the first shoe shop, I can tell you.”

 

Clamorous Covent Garden market in all its ripe, colourful messiness has upped sticks. Turnips and apples have been displaced by Rubik Cubes and handmade jewellery in a tidy, vestigial row of barrows lining the entrance to the central market building that was a landmark to young Charles Dickens and is now thronged with smart boutiques and patrolling tourists. Yet, the oldest restaurant in London, Rules, is still tucked just round the corner in Maiden Lane, though its cooks now have to forage further afield for their fresh vegetables. It doesn’t matter, as, in the English tradition, they boil them to death anyway. Traditional gold lettering on the windows of the restaurant proclaims the seriousness of the task performed within: wild salmon, prime Aberdeen Angus beef, game both feathered and furred: guinea fowl, jugged hare, venison, wild boar and rabbit, and, as on the day it opened in 1798, oysters and meat and fish pies and puddings. The interior remains as Jake remembers it, with its collection of hundreds of period drawings, paintings and cartoons clustering thickly above the red velvet banquettes, unchanged since the day the manager rejected Jake’s application for employment as a dishwasher.

Regrettably, it is not the same man who leads Jake and Lisa to their ground floor table. Not that an institution that had witnessed the conversations of Dickens, Thackeray, Galsworthy, H.G. Wells, and Graham Greene, the theatrics of Henry Irving, Laurence Olivier, Buster Keaton, Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin and John Barrymore, not to mention the amorous appetites of the Prince of Wales and Lily Langtry in the upstairs private parlour, would gasp to see the Hollywood film director de la mode walk through its portals. But it might well have held its steamy kitchen breath in admiration of the kinetic display of Lisa’s swivelling progression in her show-stopping gown. At any rate, the couple are shown to the best table. Jake feels at once at home. Perhaps it is the faint aroma of cooking sauces that escapes from the kitchen, redolent of hardworking nights at La Fontana Amorosa or the look of respectful recognition offered by the maitre d’hotel as he pulls out Jake’s chair. Jake has become accustomed to deference, but is surprised to hear the greeting ‘Buona sera, Signore’ in this paradigm of Englishness. Something has changed after all, even here.

A silence as brittle as the shells of the oysters remaining on their plates continues while they wait for the main courses to arrive. Finally, the vision of Aphrodite opposite Jake parts her mauved lips. “That fucking dago must be swimming to Stromboli for the tuna.”

Jake does what he would do to charm a teenager out of a sulk. She is, after all, almost a teenager. He rises from his seat and ceremoniously presents his companion with an imaginary plate of soup. He does a double-take, pauses, then politely retrieves the phantom dish, inspects the soup, and, fastidiously removes an invisible struggling fly. With elaborated unction he lays the plate down again before Lisa, then spying an imaginary fleck on its non-existent rim, carefully wipes it with his napkin. The fanciful fly returns, buzzing about him with increasing aggression. Failing to brush it away, he ducks and dives, flicking his napkin like a towel in a shower room.

He knows he has an audience. He noted the sudden silence that blanketed the dining room as he rose from his chair. And now laughter replaces hushed shock, driving his mime to fresh fantasies, though he fails to comprehend that Lisa’s head is bent like a martyr meeting her destiny, a rosy natural flush rising to overwhelm the artful pallor of her complexion.

Finally, he mimics the assembly and testing of a weapon, and coolly brings down the fly with silent but convulsive anti-aircraft fire. He tracks it spiralling down to the table, blesses the abstract corpse, and carefully mimes spooning it into the soup, then grinding pepper over it. Bowing, he again presents the imaginary dish. Only when the other diners applaud does Lisa raise her head and let the inflammation drain from her cheeks.

The Italian-speaking headwaiter taps Jake on the shoulder. Lisa reddens again and buries her face in her napkin. However, he has not come to bring Jake his hat, but a telephone on a long cord. It is Jake’s American-speaking P.A.

“Sir Stephen’s had to postpone.”

“What’s the bastard up to now? I fly all the way over here —”

“Make nice, Jake. He’s had a death in the family.”

Jake makes no answer

“Jake? Are you there?”

“Lady Gurney?”

“I suppose that’s what they call her. It seems she took an overdose.”

Jake’s whole face sags. The light goes out of his eyes. He starts to cry.

At the other end of the telephone connection the anxious P.A. raises her voice “Jake, are you all right?”

Lisa is not amused. The gaze of the other diners, the London society she believes they represent, the spotlit attention of the known civilised world — is focused on Jake’s emotional display. She pokes him with her elbow.

“Lisa’s not acting up again, is she?” comes the concerned voice through the earpiece.

“I heard that!” snaps Lisa. And in a frosty rage she stands, throws her wrap around her shoulders and stalks out of the room. The attention of the audience follows her now, as she swivels past the bowing waiters and the uniformed doorman who ushers her out into the night.

In the shadowed corner of the stage she has vacated Jake sits numbly, tears welling down his face. The headwaiter returns and gently removes the telephone from his grasp. Then he puts a hand on Jake’s shoulder. Jake looks up, then stands and throws his arms around him, sobbing.

“Giuliani!”

 

When he leaves the restaurant Jake turns left up Maiden Lane towards Bow Street. Across the street a male figure detaches itself from a shadowed doorway and follows him. Opposite the Royal Opera House Jake enters the Marquis of Anglesey public house. At the crowded bar he orders a large neat brandy, knocks it back, and signals for another. Someone taps him on the shoulder.

“I believe it’s my round, Jakes.”

Jake turns and sees a ghost. There are deep grooves already on his youngish face. His clothing is seedy and his eyes blurry. “Simon.”

“I have been known to buy the occasional round. Not so often recently perhaps but . . . “

He trails off as the barman arrives with Jake’s brandy. Simon nods to him with a nervous blink and says in a slurred voice, “I’ll have the usual, Harry angel.”

The barman shoots an inquiring glance at Jake, who nods and reaches for his wallet.

Simon relaxes. “I loved your last film. That playboy character. You based him on me, didn’t you? I would have been perfect for that part.” The barman delivers a double whisky and Simon takes a swig. His tone downshifts to mournful. “Jakes, why didn’t you ever call me?”

Jake locks eyes with him. “How’s Roy?”

Simon furrows his brow. “Roy?” Is he acting? Or a case of early onset nominal aphasia? “Oh, the little faggot. Last seen playing Widow Twankey in Wigan panto, I believe. I don’t suppose you’ve followed my career.” Simon drains his drink. “Jakes, I don’t suppose you could lend me a couple of hundred.”

Jake’s glance is flat and empty, and Simon averts his eyes. Finally, Jake speaks “Why do you always call me Jakes?”

Now the old sarcasm surfaces. “My dear, you haven’t twigged yet? It’s pure Shakespearean. A jakes is a khazi. A bog. A loo. In your parlance, the john.” This time Simon holds Jake’s gaze, unflinching. ”You have heard, haven’t you? Your old squeeze has shuffled off. Overdose. The bitch.”

“How much to give you a poke?”

Simon flashes an arch grin. “I thought you’d never ask.”

Jake hits him as hard as he can. Simon falls, toppling a bar stool as he goes, and sprawls flat on the floor beneath it. The standing drinkers draw back, clearing a space around him. Jake takes out his wallet and lets fall a shower of notes. Simon, his eyes refocusing, rubs the bruise on his chin with one hand and feels for the notes with the other.

“And this is for Roy.” Jake dribbles a fistful of coins over Simon’s face. One or two fall into his mouth. He gags and spits them out as Jake turns on his heel and leaves the pub. Simon finds a heavy coin in his hand — a half-crown, no longer legal tender.

 

In Claudia’s house the ‘Snakes and Ladders’ board game lies open on the coffee table, ready for play. In the hall mirror the image of a woman in her mid-twenties, slack-jawed but with the innocent eyes of a child stares out at Hope. She adjusts her black hat and veil and fetches her coat from the cupboard, revealing, propped up in the corner, a makeshift placard on a stick. It reads ‘Yanks Go Home’.

 

Jake rushes into the forecourt of the Golder’s Green crematorium, his eyes on his watch. A black-suited member of staff directs him towards a chapel. As he crosses the courtyard a line of cars pulls away behind him. In the window of a black limousine Hope, her black hat sharply askew, raises her veil from her tear-stained face while her jaw loosens even further.


chapter thirty-six

Capricious new-born weather. A fierce wind descends from cloudy skies to pour cold drizzle down Regent Street, rattle awnings, sway estate agent boards, and wrap long winter skirts around scurrying legs. People turn their coat collars up and their backs to the wind and it rushes past, leaving them grasping the exposed skeletons of shucked umbrellas. The sun suddenly appears, shards of silver glint from the pavements and the wind, like a frisky colt, pauses and forgets its purpose. The temperature leaps. People unbutton their coats and admire the blue sky. In the west the black clouds of another squall approach.

The advent of spring provoked a vague ache of nostalgia in Jake. And then, as a sale sign in a shop window arrested him in his tracks, he realised why: ‘April 1. But there’s no fooling about these prices!’

He hailed the first taxi that came along. Ghosts were rising all over London. The taxi-driver gave him a piercing glance. He was a Sikh and his hair was wrapped in a turban — but his eyebrows were grey. “Primrose Hill?” he asked.

It started to drizzle again as Jake made his pilgrimage down the High Street. Cosily wrapped in nostalgia, he ignored the rain. He recognised many of the same shops and restaurants, but overall the street had smartened up — as if a glossed with a new brush. The traditional red telephone kiosk which he had fled with a policeman on his heels had been replaced by a pastel-coloured space-age booth, perhaps an upgrade for Dr Who’s police box. Jake checked his watch and made a call to his hotel.

A fortunate benefit of Lisa’s short attention span, coupled to a narrow focus on her immediate needs, was that angry outbursts quickly subsided into a normal mood of general resentment, which was tolerable and which could be relieved by shopping. Jake kept the phone to his ear while she prattled on about her purchases, not hearing, and then forgetting her completely as another ghost wandered into his vision.

Russell, scarcely changed, ambled down the street in a familiar jumper, now out at the elbows. Jake broke into a huge grin and stepped out of the cubicle, leaving the phone dangling, to embrace him.

“You’ve heard?”, asked Russell, without preliminary, as if he’d seen Jake only yesterday.

“I’m so sorry.”

“She never got what she wanted out of life. She wanted too much.”

“How is Hope taking it?”

Russell scratched his head. “Very strangely. After the funeral she couldn’t stop smiling.”

“Smiling?”

“Very odd, that.”

“Do you know, it’s twelve years to the day since we met. I guess I never stopped loving her.”

Russell gave him a curious stare. “Whom exactly do you think we buried yesterday?”

“Lady Gurney, I suppose I have to call her.”

“No. ‘The Honourable’ is the term we use.”

“Well, she was his wife.”

“Daughter.”

“Belinda?”

“Claudia never married Stephen.”

Jake seized Russell by the shoulders as if to squeeze twelve years of history out of him. “Where is she?”

“Same address. Not mine though. Claudia can afford a nanny now. From her steamy romantic novels. But Hope’s in a wheelchair. Psychosomatic, maybe. I live in a rather grand house of my own. I write pop songs. It seems I have an unsurpassed talent for banality.”

Jake started for the house. Russell grabbed his elbow, pointing him in the opposite direction, towards the park. “She never goes up on the hill anymore. But today Hope insisted on dragging her up there.”

Jake’s feet backed him towards the park. “I love you”, he shouted, and he turned and set off sprinting down the High Street.

Someone was shouting over the phone. An American woman. “That’s just another four-letter word to me. Jake? Are you listening to me?”

Russell rapped twice on the sides of the phone booth before stepping into it and putting the phone to his ear. “Hello?”

It was raining steadily in the park and trees bent in the breeze. Jake met no one as he ran to the top of the hill. He spun about, searching. The paths were empty. And then he spied them. A pair of women sheltering under an umbrella emerging from beneath a clump of trees. Claudia was pushing Hope in a wheelchair.

Jake shouted. “Hi-dee-ho!”.

Claudia and Hope looked up. A ray of sunlight streaked down out of the clouds to spotlight them. Claudia’s face beamed. Hope stood up from the wheelchair and took a step forward. Jake flew down the hill as fast as his legs could carry him. Halfway down he leapt into the air sideways and double-clicked his heels. He slipped on the grass, fell and then just let himself go on rolling and rolling.

 

FADE IN:

 

EXTERIOR WEST END CINEMA – NIGHT

 

It is a premiere gala. ‘Primrose Hill Revisited’ is on the marquee. The crowd is held back. The motor cars tell us it is the present day. Except for a 1960s’ robin’s-egg-blue Rolls-Royce convertible that glides up. A trio emerges onto the red carpet and enters the cinema. JAKE is a young 60s and CLAUDIA a young 70s. HOPE, now 40, links arms between them.

 

RUSSELL (Voice Over)

Love strikes without reason

In the summer season.

Summers pass, flowers die

The love that lasts

Comes bye-and-bye

Growing, out-of-season

 

HOPE starts to skip. JAKE gives a little Charlie Chaplin sideways hop into the air and clicks his heels. Just once.

 

FADE OUT.