Primrose Hill Revisited – the complete book online - chapter thirty

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chapter thirty

There were compensations. Her cocktail dresses re-emerged from out of the back of the clothes cupboard. And once, when she was trying to confect an evening gown in the hippie style from some odd pieces, a box arrived by taxi from Zandra Rhodes containing an amazing evening coat-of-many-colours that glittered like a Christmas tree. He was keen to show her off. He took her everywhere and everyone fawned over her. She had no job, she had forsaken dreams and she had little self-regard, but she had regained status.

Stephen had worked his Svengali magic. Already she felt a different woman. More sophisticated, more brittle. Her heart had shriveled. She had no volition, needed none. Stephen had re-organised her life. She felt as passive and as impassive as a bottle in a crate: to be picked up, carted about and deposited here and there. An empty bottle.

They got on better, too. This time round she was not gnawed by doubt. She felt no fears, cried no tears, indulged no more in sudden spats of temper. Because she now understood his character and it intrigued her to examine him in context, observing his London theatre world as an anthropologist might sit at a pig-feast in the highlands of New Guinea.

Calculating and self-disciplined. That was the spirit of the man. For example, he was, she knew, deeply envious of Kenneth Tynan. He relished the role of enfant terrible. He would have liked to have been the man of louche reputation who was both a founding father and the despair of the National Theatre and the scourge of the Lord Chamberlain. Stephen had admitted to Claudia that he coveted on his gravestone the epitaph that Kenneth had earned: that he had been the first man to say ‘fuck’ on television. But, he had calculated, revolutionaries rarely reap the rewards of their transgressions; it was the land agents who followed the wagons of the pioneers who acquired power. So, unlike Tynan, his name was not known to the public, yet it was a byword to those in the profession who needed to know.

Tynan had spotted Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at the Edinburgh fringe and brought it to the National, while Stephen had missed it. That rankled, too, and so he prowled the experimental theatre venues. She felt that the only way to enjoy those raw performances was to leave your prejudices and your inhibitions at the door and throw yourself into it with as much enthusiasm as the play-makers, who bared everything on the stage — their souls, their fears, their neuroses, even, these days, their bodies, and, too often, their lack of talent. You’d come out wringing wet, on the flood of an emotional catharsis. Never mind the critical hangover the next day. But Stephen never blinked. He kept his cool. Of course he loved every moment, he would tell them backstage afterwards. Though he never actually produced any experimental theatre, he was always invited. Because, whatever their political agenda, Stephen knew that in their heart of hearts what the play-makers wanted was fame. That could only come with commercial acceptance. Which was what Stephen, with a nod, could give them. Of course he never did. He was not an innovator; his skill was to catch the zeitgeist on the cusp, to identify a trend and turn it into a fad. He was not a rebel; in his tastes he was deeply conservative, but he was the man with the golden wand who could transform a cry of rebellion into a popular entertainment.

How did he manage that? Because he had no beliefs. He had no passions. These are absolutes, anchored in the past. To the man who wants to stay au courant they are impedimenta. And so he was a man without baggage, who could easily step aboard the next bandwagon. In truth his epitaph should be that he was in the first row of every trend. Which betrayed a certain lack of principle. It was an epitaph Jenny could share. A pity she had never introduced them.

So while he had applauded enthusiastically at the surreptitious private performance of Edward Bond’s Early Morning, in which Queen Victoria is a cannibalistic lesbian who kills Prince Albert and has an affair with Florence Nightingale, and signed the public petition against its banning, it was not radical British playwrights who eventually benefited when the Lord Chamberlain’s role was terminated, but Stephen, who had a hand in bringing the irreverent but safe smash hit American rock musical, Hair, and its display of nudity to the commercial stage the day after theatrical censorship was abolished in Britain.

Stephen was a man, not so much of many faces, but of many personalities. It never ceased to amaze her how differently he would behave with different people He was a chameleon who adjusted his voice, his features, his very posture, so that he appeared to become a reflection of their presumptions. With backstage chippies and sparks he was a hearty bloke who spoke the same public house argot. With a dowager duchess he became a well-bred but naughty flirt with a mischievous sparkle in his eye. It was a dissimulation that entitled him to equal footing on other peoples’ personal territory, a masquerade which they indulged, thus allowing him to exert a passive kind of control through the common ties of mateship or polite society. Charm, some people called it, but it was a performance that was only possible, she had concluded, if one felt absolutely no emotional commitment to the person with whom you were engaging. And she could, of course, see him doing it with her.

The all-British musical Vagina Rex and the Gas Oven delivered a structuralist-feminist message that struck Claudia to the marrow: women oppressed by society could only fulfil themselves by creating a language and history of their own. But it was preaching to the condemned; she had already decided to go with the flow. And Hair it wasn’t. So, at the fund-raising party she kept a frozen smile on her face, while Stephen kept one firm hand on her arm and the other on his unopened chequebook

Afterwards, when he had dismissed the chauffeur and drove her home in the wee small hours, the moment Claudia had been dreading overtook her. A man slumped on the bench by the bus stop. A light dusting of snow, reflecting the yellow light of the lamp-post above, merged figure with seat in a composite sculpture. The Rolls Royce moved so quietly that it had come to a stop just across the street before the snowman stirred.

Stephen opened the car door for her. As she stepped out Jake stood up. His eyes fixed on hers. Without a second thought, or even a first one, without a word to Stephen, she walked straight over to him. Why? To avoid a scene, of course. And he looked so vulnerable.

Snow perched lightly on his woolly cap, but the shoulders of his pea jacket were soaked. “I want you to tell me what’s going on,” he said. He threw a gaze of raw hatred over her shoulder. He leaned forward, straining at an invisible leash, on the edge of violence. Only now did Claudia glance back at Stephen. He leaned back against the car, taking a cigar from his case, an advertisement for nonchalance.

She took Jake’s elbow. It was trembling. “Let’s go up the hill.” Their footsteps made light tracks in the snowdust, the thickening flakes filling them in as they walked. By the time they arrived at the top of the hill the traces of the outset of their journey would no longer be visible.

It was a slow walk up to the mount of Golgotha. Very soon the sixties would be over and she would be forty. It was the end of an era and she felt cheated. Its promise had not been fulfilled. Had the world changed? Obviously there had been a sexual revolution, according to the tabloid newspapers. But sexploits sold papers. The shenaningans of pop stars and the deliberate assaults on morality by the underground culture filled the newspapers. It’s an article of faith that the avant-garde should be quick to hop into bed. But did it represent a vast shift in the sexual morality of the British public? Hard to say. In Britain only the louche and uninhibited would talk about it. As she suspected was the case in America, too, where the 1950s Kinsey Report had seemed to take its data from some deeply debauched sources.

Some social issues had been successfully separated from immorality: thanks to David Steel’s Abortion Act, a woman could now terminate an unwanted pregnancy, and even get it on the NHS. And if the reform of the divorce law had been undertaken at the beginning of the decade, Russell would not have had to go through that ignominious charade with a prostitute in that Eastbourne hotel. It was so good of him to insist on taking the blame. The new permissivity had brought other social advances too: the abolition of the death penalty, the legalisation of homosexuality, once practically a synonym for subversion and treason. Ordinary working people had more money and could afford the new technology: washing machines, telephones, motor cars, indoor lavatories, central heating. Men had stopped taking women for granted; more women worked outside the home and they had more economic power. One of her advertisers — when she had a magazine and it had advertisers — had told her that for the first time more shampoo was now being sold in bottles than in individual-use sachets. Because girls and women could now afford the capital outlay of half a crown. And, despite its blundering the Wilson government had managed to withdraw from the vestiges of empire overseas without getting dragged into Vietnam by the Americans. This was the end-of-the-decade piece she would write — if she had a magazine. This was the sort of thing she could discuss with Stephen, not that it would interest him in the slightest, but he would nod and make constructive comments. But Jake? His educational credentials seemed to have culminated in Okoboli High School. He kept his eyes open, he picked up ideas with astonishing speed, and had strange moments of adult lucidity that were almost spooky, but he was a child, and children are too self-absorbed to provide any sort of intellectual companionship. And actors never grow up.

He didn’t say a word until they stood on the top of the hill. He took no notice of the moon rising in a clearing sky over the sleeping city. “You said you loved me.”

“That was in bed.”

“I believed you. And I love you. What more is there?”

“There’s Hope, there’s even Russell to consider, but most of all there’s you, Jake. You’ve got a life of your own ahead of you.”

“I want to share it with you.”

“Are you working, Jake?”

“You can’t get a real job unless you have a permanent address.”

“So where are you living?”

“In Soho. In a hostel.”

“Do they take women and children?”

He kicked at the snow, like Hope when she was denied a sweetie. “So, why are you seeing him again?”

“He’s a friend.”

“Are you sleeping with him?”

“Don’t be childish.”

“Are you going to marry him this time?”

“He’s just a friend.”

“I love you.”

“Will you still love me when I’m sixty-four?”

“I’ll be forty-nine.”

“That seems a great age to you. I’m almost in my forties now.”

He seized her shoulders. “Marry me.”

She pushed his arms away. “Giuliani thinks I’m your mother.”

“Stephen is a homosexual.”

“Bisexual.”

“Aren’t you afraid of getting . . .” He broke off.

“I take the Pill.”

“I didn’t mean that.”

“What did you mean?”

“Getting some sort of disease?” She slapped his face. Because, yes, she was afraid of something. Not disease, exactly. Why should homosexuals be more vulnerable to STD? It was disgust she feared. Jake did not flinch. He put his hand to his cheek, as if caressing the touch of her hand. Snowflakes fell and melted on his open lips. “Do you love him?”

His voice demanded honesty. “No.”

“How can you humiliate yourself like that?”

“It’s the only practical solution.”

“Because I’m a failure.”

“I’m the failure, Jake. You’ve got your future ahead of you. Remember? Some day you’re going to fly in Concorde.”

“It was on this spot that I saw you for the first time. And we didn’t even make it to our first anniversary.”

Claudia eyes misted. “April Fool.”

Jake took her face in his hands. This time she did not resist. His voice trembled. “I’ll be standing here on April Fool’s Day. In case you change your mind.”

“It’s not my will. It’s circumstances.”

“Circumstances change.”

“Will you go back home?”

He gave a rueful smile. “You wouldn’t want me to serve in that obscene war.”

“Are you going to auditions?”

“When I hear about them.”

“I know things are hard for you just now. But you have genuine talent. I think you ought to stick it for just a little while longer. And seize every opportunity.”

“I’ll stick around. I’ll come up here to the top of this hill every April Fool’s Day. And one year, if I don’t turn up, then you’ll know I’m dead.”

She kissed him. “You’re so beautifully young. I do love you. That’s why I’m letting you go.”

Then she turned and walked down the hill. It was harder than she had thought. Tears streamed down her face. She really was in love with the young fool. She did not look back, but she kept forever in her mind an overhead view as from the height of a kite: the moonlit white pasture, the tracery of frozen tree branches and, along the lamplit lacework of empty paths, two dark sets of melting footprints leading in opposite directions.