Primrose Hill Revisited – the complete book online - chapter eighteen

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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 They are depressing, outdated, infuriating.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?”