Primrose Hill Revisited – the complete book online - chapter twenty-six

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chapter twenty-six

On the Great Plains fall arrives suddenly. One morning you wake up and you can see your breath. Outdoors the air is crisp and clear. Kids toss footballs about instead of baseballs and smoke curls up from piles of burning leaves. The sky is still blue but summer is gone.

In London the seasons seep into each other beneath unchanging gun-metal clouds. Jake knew it was autumn only because it began to grow dark early and tidy mounds of fallen leaves appeared on the streets of Mayfair. He tramped through the piles practicing his Charlie Chaplin sideways spring with the double heel-click. He invented a new flourish, cocking his arm at the peak of a leap and throwing an imaginary forward pass downfield. What a class act that would have been in the Okoboli High School varsity backfield.

His classmates wouldn’t recognise him. Okay, they had voted him ‘most likely to succeed’. But they couldn’t imagine living in Mayfair. No burning leaves, no backyards, no barbecues, no supermarkets. They called cinemas theaters. They could not imagine a stage that didn’t also serve as the high school assembly hall and gym. And they would be struck dumb if he introduced them to Claudia, the classic English gentlewoman of the Asprey’s advertisements in the New Yorker. Which they wouldn’t have seen. The closest female they could imagine would be Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. Which they had put on in the high school gym. He played the Cary Grant part, but the wilful and elegant Tracy Lord was played by a sturdy farm girl who walked like she was carrying a hayfork and didn’t understand why Tracy chose not to marry the successful and righteous prig, George Kittredge.

Claudia was now as elusive as his Big Break into the theatre. Jake slowed his steps and scuffed through the leaves as forlorn as a school-bound child who hadn’t done his homework. Did he love her, the Asprey’s lady, really love her the way Russell described? Or was he just using her as a pass-key to some sort of personal fulfillment, defining himself through a relationship, the way women often do? A newsstand display caught his eye — Claudia’s magazine was now called MW formerly Modern Woman. The headline leaped out at him, ‘You’re never too old to fall in love again.’ Was she trying to tell him something? He bought a copy and paged through it. He paused under a streetlight and read the story about a blind date carefully, but received no personal illumination.

Across the street from the mansion block a figure wrapped in a duffle-coat, scarf and a flat cap huddled on a bench in the shadows, staring at the lighted windows of the third storey. It was Roy.

“Do you want to come in?”

Roy sniffled and shook his head. “He’s got a new boyfriend.” Jake saw himself maintaining his own lonely vigil outside Claudia’s house. He gave Roy a warm hug before crossing the street.

In the doorway an elderly gent bent over a cane and traced a finger down the short row of door bells. He was dressed like a character from an Oscar Wilde play — or a member of the original audience — in a black homburg and black overcoat, over evening wear and black patent leather shoes, with a long, white silk scarf dangling from his shoulders. A baby’s eyes of watery blue peered out of his sagging pink face. He smelled of talcum powder.

“Simon’s flat?” he demanded, in the abrupt way the English address strangers.

“Number three. I’ve got a key.”

A knowing glint sprang into the innocent eyes. “Oh, have you, my dear?”

And then Jake remembered where he had seen this gent before. At the audition. He was the casting director Roy had been sitting beside. Jake offered the old boy an arm but he waved it away. He heaved his mortal husk up the three flights of steep, narrow stairs, and Jake loitered behind, prepared to catch him. They didn’t speak again. At each landing the old boy paused, breathing hard, eyes bright with lust, before labouring onwards and upwards.

Pop music filtered down from above, its volume increasing as they ascended, until on the final landing, the ceiling vibrated. The old boy leaned against the wall gasping, and closed his eyes. Jake moved past him and up the last few steps and pushed the door open.

He was immersed in smoky warmth, throbbing music and underwater gloom. A tide of deep bass chatter surged like pebbles jostling on the ocean floor. Dim orange light bulbs glowed in the lighting fixtures. The flat had been lavishly redecorated. Persian rugs hung from the walls and large tasselled cushions lay in the corners. Men crowded the hall, the sitting room, the library and the staircase. Men of all ages. Men in suits and ties. Men in evening wear. Men wearing Arab dishdashes, faces bronzed in stage make-up. A few bright-plumaged women were also men. Slim, teen-aged boys wafted through the crowd bearing trays filled with brimming glasses of champagne and orange juice. They wore turbans on their heads, bangles on their wrists and sarongs on their hips; their bared upper bodies glistened with oil.

Jake ventured into the exotic circus, seeking a familiar face. A coffee-coloured, half-naked boy held up a tray. Jake took a glass of champagne and the waiter flashed a seductive smile at him. Jake flinched and, stepping backward, passed through a beaded curtain into a black void thudding with music. He was inside a tent. In what had been the dining room. There was a pungent odour of burning sandalwood. A faint, red glow outlined the silhouettes of male couples moving slowly in close embrace.

He bolted through the curtain of beads and moved into the sitting room, where a Bacharach tune floated above the disco thump. Simon, in evening dress, was at the piano. Jake drained his glass and took another from a passing tray. Someone gave him a swift, deep goose. Jake whirled. The surrounding faces ignored him, but seemed caricatured and charged with menace, like a street scene in a German Expressionist silent film. Jake shouldered through the press of bodies to join a semi-circle of half-a-dozen men grouped around the piano. He put his back to the wall and tried to be inconspicuous.

An outrageous figure detached itself from the piano. It was outfitted for a safari with jodhpurs, riding boots and crop. “Must fly, darlings. I’ve got one hanging up at home.” The riding master flounced down the line towards Jake, dispensing theatrical farewells and kissing each man in turn. Jake watched, glass half-raised to his mouth, feet nailed to the floor. He was enveloped by a stale, tweedy scent. The grotesque face was heavily rouged, its eyes thick with mascara, the creased mouth lipsticked.

“What’s your name?” the riding master teased.

“Jake.”

Before Jake could move — to where? do what? — a plump kiss was planted full on his lips. There followed a playful tap of the whip on his cheek.

“Do you ride side-saddle, pardner?”

Jake was unable to speak. With a flutter of eyelids, the riding master pranced off. Jake gulped down his glass and pulled out his handkerchief to wipe his mouth. As if summoned by signal, a benevolent genie in a smart pinstriped charcoal suit appeared at his elbow. The man shook his head. “Quentin Crisp. Outrageous theatrical old queen.”

He looked an absolutely normal, boring businessman, balding, with soft features and a soft manner. Jake sensed an immediate bond, as if he had met an English speaker in a foreign land. “That kind of guy gives the theatre a bad name,” he agreed.

The businessman signalled to a passing waiter who refilled both their glasses.

“My daughter’s in the theatre.”

A businessman with a daughter. A dead boring heterosexual. Jake’s anxiety fled. “You’re married,” he concluded.

“You’re an American.”

No matter how he tried, some Brits could always spot it. “I’m working on the accent.”

“How do you find living over here?”

A mundane pleasantry. No irony. No hidden agenda. Jake sighed and confided, “It’s a hall of mirrors. Nobody says what they really mean. Nobody is what they seem.”

The man in the pinstriped suit cocked an eyebrow. “In England we never seem to mean entirely what we say.”

“You believe that, too?”

Jake’s companion chuckled. “Not entirely. But tell me about the hall of mirrors.”

To Jake, now a bit fuzzy with drink, this seemed one of those gnomic Alice-in-Wonderland replies beloved by sophisticated Brits, but the man was clearly good-natured. Jake exchanged his now empty glass for another from a passing tray and poured out his pent-up frustrations. “A girl I know writes a play. Dramatic fiction. But it’s really about her father’s ex-girlfriend. Totally vindictive. Out of spite.”

Jake’s new friend nodded with sympathy. “All experience is grist to the artist’s mill.”

“And this ex-girlfriend, guess who she’s got living in her basement?”

The businessman’s eyes were merry. “Doctor Josef Mengele?”

“Her ex-husband.”

“You disapprove.”

“She could have told me straight up. She keeps leading me on, then shutting me down.”

“That’s the job of a playwright. To keep one in suspense.”

“Not the playwright. The woman she’s writing about.”

“Perhaps she likes exercising control over people.”

“She’s a cock-teaser.” The instant he said that he felt a sharp stab of remorse. He had drunk too much too quickly, but his tongue had taken control and the words continued to pour out of him. “And this guy in the basement. He makes up stories that she publishes in her magazine as true case histories.” Jake flourished the copy of MW magazine.

The man smiled. “Now that is very, very naughty of Claudia.”

“I mean, I ask you . . . “. Jake felt confused and unsteady. “You know Claudia?”

The man in the pinstriped suit laid his hand on Jake’s arm. “Playing hide-the-sausage with Claudia is not a good career move, Jake.” A murmur of well-ordered words proceeded from his lips, which parted barely enough to permit them to emerge; yet his diction was precise. Jake marvelled once again at the fluency of the English. How they could transform thoughts into a smooth river of speech without hesitation or diversion. Perhaps because they left out the emotion as well. “You’ve chosen a difficult career. It can be a lonely and unfulfilling life. It’s not like having the security of a permanent job. Very few actors have any kind of security, even in a repertory company. When you’ve finished one job, once again you’ve got to go out and bare your heart and soul in front of strangers to get the next. And the next. And the next. There’s no end to it. You’re always vulnerable. You need friends. You need to be accepted within the great company of the profession. There are people who can help you. People like these, some of them, here. We can help you. I can help you. Join the brotherhood.”

Another British institution Jake had not heard of. “You mean, like the Freemasons?”

The man flashed an urbane smile. Jake caught a sweet whiff of eau de cologne as he extracted a wallet from his pinstriped jacket and handed Jake a business card. “I’m casting a new play for the West End. There’s a part you might fancy.” Jake tried to focus on the card in the dim light. His new friend put out his hand. “Stephen Gurney.”

Jake took his hand. His mind teetered like a wobbling gyroscope. “Belinda’s father. I’m already cast for Belinda’s play.”

“Forget it. What I have in mind for you is understudy to Richard.”

“Richard the Second?”

“Richard Burton.”

Jake’s mouth fell open. He was holding the hand of the famous impresario, Stephen Gurney. Who had just offered him the world. But his mind, somewhat fuddled, remained fixed on Claudia. “Why is Claudia so afraid of you?”

“She could ruin your career, Jake. Leave the naughty slut to me.”

The piano stopped. Out of the corner of his eye Jake noticed Simon making his way towards them, a worried frown creasing his brow, not because of something Jake had done, like spilling wine on the carpet, but because of something he might do. Never before had he seen Simon looking apprehensive. It gave him power. It gave him, for the very first time, a lofty feeling of superiority over Simon. A Beatles’ record blared: ‘I want to hold your hand.’ Stephen Gurney was still holding Jake’s hand. He nodded towards the passion pit behind the beaded curtain. “Shall we dance?”

Jake recognised his Big Break. A scene that would replay in his mind as the defining moment of his life. The spine of a watershed from which the course of life flows irreversibly towards opposite points of the compass. As Iowa sunders the Missouri from the Mississippi. From the peaceful pastures of old age he would look back at this point of no return with content or regret. Simon’s face appeared behind Stephen’s shoulder. A waiter passed by. Jake removed his right hand from Stephen’s grasp and took a second glass from the tray.

Stephen gave him an amused, affectionate glance. “You already have a glass, Jake.” Stephen Gurney was calling him by his first name. The man who had called Claudia a slut. Was that a worse slur than cockteaser? He was deeply ashamed of how he had spoken of her to this man. And then he knew. He really did love her. The way Russell said he should.

Jake raised the glass he held in his left hand. “This one I’m going to drink.” The second glass, in his right hand, he hurled into Stephen’s face.

The background chatter halted at once. The Beatles wailed in piercing isolation as all eyes turned towards Stephen’s dripping face. Jake glared without flinching. He was prepared for a physical response, but not for the cold-eyed malevolence, the stare of a cobra, that met his eye and it unnerved him. Simon moved between them to dab at Stephen’s face with a handkerchief. Jake drained his other glass and stumbled off through a sea of silent staring faces, some aghast, others amused, all hostile, parting from the leper’s path.

The chatter resumed, the music boomed and the laughter took on a manic edge. Pushing through the hands reaching out for the trays of canapés and the slim, bare-breasted mahouts who bore them swivelling and giggling through the crowd, Jake saw himself as a figure targeted in a trailing spotlight. Up the staircase he plunged past smooching male couples and flung open the door of his bedroom, half-expecting to find lovers stacked in layers on his bed. It was neatly made and empty, just as he had left it. He closed the door and leaned back against it. The door had a keyhole but there was no key to the lock.

Someone wheezed. A chill gripped Jake’s spine. In the straight chair opposite sat the elderly casting director, still wearing his black overcoat and white scarf, and still with a lewd gleam in his eyes. Jake seized him by the shoulders, bundled him out the door and slammed it behind him. Then he had to open it again. The old boy stood where Jake had put him, his eyes watering. Jake thrust the homburg into his hands.

“Thank you, my dear.”

Jake closed the door again. In childhood, drawing on Riflemen on the Ohio, by Joseph A. Altscheler, Jake had worked out a survival strategy in case of an attack by Iroquois. He would drag his wardrobe to block the bedroom door and escape by lowering himself out the window on knotted bed sheets. The window was out of the question, it was three storeys above the pavements of Mayfair, but he leaned a shoulder against the wardrobe. It was too heavy to shift easily. Besides, Simon would find it unutterably silly, and perhaps an insult to his friends. Punishable, perhaps, by eviction. Jake propped the back of the straight chair under the doorknob instead.