Primrose Hill Revisited – the complete book online - chapter eight

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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.