Primrose Hill Revisited – the complete book online - chapter twelve

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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.