Primrose Hill Revisited – the complete book online - chapter twenty

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chapter twenty

It was one of those bright sun-scrubbed mornings that are the Londoner’s occasional reward for enduring endless weeks of dull skies and intermittent rain. Claudia’s moods were exquisitely sensitive to the weather, and normally she would have floated down the High Street on her pushbike with a grin on her face, all banners flying, trailing zephyrs of joy. But she had awakened with a scowl. Russell had quickly read the mood, retired to the basement and battened down the hatches; even Hope had divined that it was prudent not to pester, and now Claudia felt both sorry for herself and angry for being such a prune. She could picture the small black cloud suspended over her head pursuing her two-wheeler down the High Street.

He had no right. He was distinctly out of order. He had stepped over the line. She had not led him on. He was Hope’s friend. Or he claimed to be. And in the goodness of her heart she had simply been trying to cultivate him a little. No, cultivate was the wrong word. Acculturate. To give him some acquaintance with culture. To give him some nous. Why? Because he’d never become an actor going around in that ridiculous purple-nubbed Burton’s jacket. And that awful tie. In truth, he had stopped wearing those recently and was looking a bit more, well, ‘cool’. For once she couldn’t think of a better alternative to the ghastly American expression.

But why? Why did she want to help him? Well, he was a friend. Hope’s friend, really, but he’d become her friend, too. That, of course, had been his plan. To win her round. To get her involved in Belinda’s venomous play. And, bye-the-bye, in the would-be playwright’s tasteless language, get into her pants.

And he almost had. The bastard was wilier than he looked. She had mistaken colonial manners — or lack of them —for innocence. She had gradually come to realise that. And he had almost got into her pants. She smelled him now and felt him pressing his bulge hard against her, and tasted his tongue in her mouth, strangely tangy. The Americans used mouthwash, of course. And she would have helped him take her pants off. Her eyes watered with angry pride and self-pity. He was only twenty-five. She had behaved like a lecherous old whore. She had melted. She had lain down and almost spread her legs, just because it had been a long time since a man had wanted her so much. Or seemed to. And she knew, deep in her heart she knew, that somehow Stephen was lurking behind it all. It was obvious. Jake was an actor. Jake was in Belinda’s play. Stephen was producing it. Stephen wanted her, probably just because he couldn’t have her. So Jake was his proxy, his opportunistic Cyrano de Bergerac. The lover with the long . . . Well, it was his nose but we all knew what it symbolised. The nuns had to pretend they didn’t know why the girls were giggling in the back of the class. It was as clear as the nose on your face or the prick in his pants. Jake was one of Stephen’s bum-boys.

The lollipop man held up his sign. It was the usual limping man wearing the drooping white mac and the quasi-military visored cap. Claudia gave him her first smile of the day and stepped down from her saddle. And suddenly the bugger was there. Right next to her. On a pushbike. Clearly not used to it, because he wobbled and almost fell off as he came to a halt. He was not wearing the purple nubbed jacket, but a distinctly trendy candy-striped blouson, and white skin-tight flared jeans cinched with a broad blue leather belt.

“What did I do?”

“Are you stalking me?”

“You won’t come to the phone.”

“I’m busy. I’ve got a life to lead.”

“What about the play?”

“I shan’t be manipulated.”

“Screw the play. The only reason I’m doing it is I want to see you.”

“To screw me?”

There was a prolonged hoot. In a black cab behind them a turbaned Sikh taxi-driver was leaning on his horn. The lollipop man waved them forward. Claudia remounted her pushbike. “I’ve made enough mistakes. You go and make your own.”

She pushed off, but couldn’t resist a sudden afterthought. “With someone your own age.” She hurled the esprit de biciclette over her shoulder, but it was an admonition directed as much at herself as at him.

Jake failed to remount the bicycle. It fell over, leaving him straddling it on the zebra crossing. He shouted after her diminishing figure. “You’re making another mistake!”

A sustained series of horn bursts ensued from the taxi-driver from the subcontinent. Jake swung his leg over the bicycle again, but the lollipop man now loomed up in front of him with his stop sign. A crocodile of tiny tots, uniformed in red jackets, shorts and caps, all trimmed with green, marched onto the crossing. The bicycle toppled again and Jake fell with it, to the heartless mirth of the crocodile.

 

Claudia knew better than to interfere with Patrick while he worked. With every new set-up he would invite her to look through the lens before shooting, but it was merely a courtesy. His taste and judgment were flawless. Her role would come later, selecting from a dozen or more smashing shots. So she hovered in the back of the studio, well out from underfoot, fussing with fabrics.

The androgynous, doe-eyed model had perfect, pearly skin and the obligatory vacant expression. Claudia wondered if Patrick had slept with her yet. Few of his models, most of them girls who couldn’t speak proper, could resist the charm of this good-looking, aristocratic but congenial man, who was not only a leading fashion photographer, but just happened to be the Queen’s cousin. She wondered why he’d never made a pass at her. Too smart to mix business with pleasure? More likely, with all those fresh-faced fillies sniffing around his stall, she was simply past it.

Jenny, however, was losing no opportunity to make an impression. She prowled about like a long-legged panther in a swirling blur of skirts, wearing a carmine gypsy blouse cut down to the navel. Claudia had banished her to the reception area, but she kept coming up with excuses to penetrate into the inner sanctum of the studio. Approaching Claudia, she brushed past Patrick as he busied himself over the camera. Did the big feline actually rub up against his legs? She may not have actually touched him, but he certainly would have inhaled her; the perfume she trailed behind reeked of the muskier cages of London Zoo. “Mrs Guevara is here to see you,” she teased. And Belinda invaded the premises in her field uniform.

She was still angry. “You’re old enough to be his mother.”

“He’s Hope’s friend actually.”

“That’s because she’s never going to challenge him intellectually.”

“Both Jake and Hope think that life should be fair. That’s why they get on so well together.”

Belinda raised her voice a notch. “You fancy him something rotten.”

Claudia’s voice rose to the same level. “I’m not sure he even likes women.”

Patrick looked up from his camera and aimed a reproving glance in their direction. “Scurrilous gossip,” he said and winked at Jenny. Out of the corner of her eye Claudia saw her P.A. manufacture a girlish blush and practically curtsy — a kind of sycophantic visual giggle. The nubile model saw it too and Claudia caught the tart glare that suddenly animated the empty planes of her face. Yes, Patrick had slept with her.

Claudia responded in the name of all the sisters. “You will I’m sure be relieved to know, Patrick, that for once you are not the man we women are talking about.”

Belinda would never make a good playwright. Too self-absorbed to take in the signals of the subtle human interplay swirling around her, she persisted with her mission. She smirked at Claudia. “He likes women. You want a blow by blow description?”

“Really, Belinda, I find that hard to believe. How would he ever get your bandolier off?”

With the most elegant smile, Patrick shooed both of them out into the small reception area so gently that it was not until the door closed behind them that Claudia realised Jenny had remained in the studio. Belinda simmered down and tried another tack. “This could be his big break.”

That wouldn’t wash. Not any more. That game was up. “Surely Stephen can find his protégé another play.”

Belinda dropped her guard. She seemed genuinely perplexed. “Jake hasn’t even met Daddy.”

Claudia must have let her surprise show in her face, because Belinda became conspiratorial, matey even. “You fancy him. My play’s your chance to develop a relationship.”

“He’s a different generation, Belinda. As you say.”

“He’s old enough to have erections.”

“I daresay.”

“You haven’t forgotten how, have you?”

“There’s more to a relationship than sex.” A pathetic response. Had she become one of those neurotic women whose complex sensitivities men boorishly but with devastating accuracy dismiss with the diagnosis: ‘all she needs is a good fuck?’ Well, she hadn’t had one, good or bad, for a long time.

“No there isn’t.”

“When you get a bit older —”

“It’s a struggle for power. For domination. And the battlefield is sex. Don’t you see that? He draws his sword and plunges it into you and slices you in two and makes you scream. He’s an aggressor. And you’re an occupied country. Even if you say ‘Yes, yes, I can’t get enough, give me more now, harder’ — you’re his victim. He keeps on plunging it in and out until he’s satisfied. He’s totally in control.”

“I find trying to put out a woman’s magazine is quite enough strife for me, thank you very much.”

“If he makes you pregnant you become his slave. Take my advice. First chance you get, gobble him.”

“Beg pardon?”

“Swallow his sword. Your mouth is the scabbard. Don’t let him unsheath it. And make sure you gobble him. So he can’t impregnate you. That way you’re in control. You choose the moment and you suck his power out of him. You tell him you’re completing him. But you’re draining him dry. His sword crumples in your mouth. He’s exhausted and you have it all. You win. What more do you need?”

“A toothbrush?”

“What do you want? A rose-covered cottage or a few satisfying rounds of sexual combat? Have a fling. You owe yourself.”

Claudia hesitated. Belinda’s challenge swam before her eyes as a trashy cover line from Yin magazine. But if there was one thing the younger generation seemed to have got right it was that sex didn’t seem to have to have anything to do with love after all. And she was still young enough to experiment. Belinda looked hopeful. And vulnerable. Claudia might have been looking in a mirror — a somewhat smudged and dirty mirror — because that’s just how she felt, too. Hopeful and vulnerable. And irresponsibly girlish.

She had left Jenny in the studio with Patrick far too long. She opened the studio door. Jenny was looking through the camera. Patrick’s head was touching hers and his hand was on her shoulder. Claudia called out. “Jenny, could you bring us all some tea, please?”

 

Another brilliant morning, and this time Claudia was in a mood to match it. As she approached the zebra crossing the lollipop man limped out to stop the traffic. She stepped down from her saddle. But there was no one crossing. The lollipop man turned. It was Jake. Grinning his enormous grin.

“Belinda thought you might be free for dinner.”

“Tonight?”

A horn hooted behind them. A line of motor cars had built up and the first in the queue contained the Sikh taxi-driver. Claudia mounted her pushbike and as she pedaled away she couldn’t stop smiling. Jake stood in the road, a goofy expression on his face, watching her legs pump the pedals to a concerto of discordant horns until the lollipop man rushed up to take the sign and wave the traffic through. Jake returned his white mac and visored cap and pressed a pound note into his hand.