Primrose Hill Revisited – the complete book online - chapter thirteen

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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.