Primrose Hill Revisited – the complete book online - chapter nineteen

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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.