Primrose Hill Revisited – the complete book online - chapter thirty-three

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chapter thirty-three

On the first day of April Jake slung his battered backpack onto the weighing platform at the BOAC check-in desk at Heathrow Airport, while in a village in Dorset near Stephen’s mansion Claudia sat before the mirrored dressing table making tiny adjustments to the luminous image she had created. An oppressive sense of déjà vu hung in the room. Because Stephen’s sense of theatrical presentation demanded that she be delivered to the church in a traditional white dress in the traditional manner, and appropriate accommodation in the area was limited, she had found herself in the same room of the same country hotel that she had occupied on her last wedding day.

Hope’s face appeared in the mirror, trying on Claudia’s feathered headband confection from Biba. Was she a child trying to look silly, or a nascent woman trying to look pretty? A lump rose in Claudia’s throat and she gave her daughter a cuddle.

There was a peremptory knock on the door and without waiting for a reply Belinda entered. For the previous wedding she had costumed herself as a parody of her own father’s child bride. This time she was dressed as an ungainly caricature of a Home Counties bridesmaid, all chiffon and billowing sleeves in Jean Muir shocking pink. Above this confection her agitated face was a pale stew of barely suppressed resentment. She attempted to smile, but merely succeeded in gritting her teeth. “I know you did a deal with Daddy, but I want you to know there’s no hard feelings.”

“You mean about Jake?” Claudia was annoyed. Stephen had pledged to keep his intervention in Jake’s career absolutely secret.

Belinda found it difficult to smile, but she could laugh — a brief, coarse explosion of scorn. “I just wanted to get your attention.”

Wrong track. Belinda meant her own relationship with Jake, whatever that might have been. What deal then was she talking about? Claudia bartered time for information. “I ought to apologise to you. It was just a crazy menopausal fling.”

“It was a lot more than that to him.”

“Why makes you say that?”

“He turned down that overseas tour for you.”

Over the long weeks of winter Claudia had built in her brain a protective screen composed of the shreds of silly dreams cemented with dried-up tears. Thoughts of Jake penetrated that screen less and less frequently. Now, that flimsy structure lay in tatters and her heartbeat faltered. “He’s not going?” She could not keep a quaver out of her voice.

“According to Roy. And I don’t mind about the play.”

Claudia was dazed. They were at cross-purposes. “Jake’s tour?”

Belinda’s voice sharpened with irritation. “My play. Don’t pretend. Daddy told me. Dropping my play was your price for marrying him.”

“You’ve got totally the wrong idea.”

Belinda was fighting back tears. “I’ve decided if it makes Daddy happy it’s all right with me.” Her vindictive anger finally bubbled to the surface. “Mumsy.”

Belinda flounced out, and the door slammed behind her. In the mirror Claudia saw pain creeping into her eyes. On a rationale level she knew full well that she had agreed to marry Stephen for reasons of economic practicality. But the emotional strategy that had sustained her in that decision through these last awful weeks, while acid doubts and bitter regrets etched at the steel shutters of her closed mind, was the belief that she was doing this for Jake. To avert the foolish tragedy of involving himself with an older woman and to give him a start on his career. She sometimes indulged in a sorrowful, rewarding vision of herself as a maiden sacrifice, her naked body stretched across a stone altar as the priest, wearing a horrific jaguar mask and pendulous jade earrings prepared to sink his flint knife into her left breast and remove her beating heart. And now the brutal, callow youth had refused her offering. Claudia tightened her jaw and in the mirror saw age lines spread from the corners of her mouth. Enough romantic tosh. It was time to grow up. She was doing this for Hope and because there was no other future for herself. Still, she couldn’t help wondering where Jake was, and what he was doing right this minute.

 

Ninety-five miles to the northeast, Jake knew approximately where Claudia was. He gazed towards the southwest, chin in hand, through the rain-streaked window of the plane. He imagined her sitting at a dressing table, staring at her own tear-stained image, and wondering where he was. On the intercom system the Captain announced there would be a further delay. With a sly wink a mincing steward approached with a glass of orange juice.

 

Claudia woke from her reverie. Hope was tugging at her sleeve. “When is Jake coming, Mummy?”

“He’s not coming today, darling.”

“But you’re going to marry Jake.”

“No, darling. I’m going to marry Stephen.”

Hope stamped her foot. “It’s Jake’s turn.”

Claudia hugged her daughter. “What made you think it was Jake?”

Hope’s eyes watered. She took a rumpled envelope from her little handbag. The envelope bore the logo of Gurney Productions. But the handwriting was Jake’s. Inside was a card. It read: ‘See you April 1st. No joke. I love you. J.’

“Can you read this, darling?

Hope put on her defiant face, thrusting out her lower lip. “I didn’t open it. It was already open.” Tears began to flow down her cheeks.

“It’s all right, darling.”

Hope blubbered. “I can read ‘I love you.’”

Claudia crouched to dab her tears away with a tissue. “I have to marry Stephen, darling.”

“Why?”

“Because . . . well, it’s best for all of us. For you, for your Daddy.”

“I hate Stephen. So does Russell. And you love Jake. Russell says so. Don’t you?”

Claudia’s eyes returned to the mirror. Her mascara needed attention. Another knock on the door and Stephen entered, resplendent once again in his grey top hat and tails.

“I’m off to the church, petal. I’ve asked Simon to escort you down the aisle.”

Hope balled her fists in the air and cried out, “It’s Jake Mummy loves, not you.”

Stephen ignored her. He planted a kiss on Claudia’s cheek, seeming not to notice that it was moist. “I half expect that benighted fool to gallop up on a white charger.” Claudia was unable to smile, but Stephen’s ego required no support, not even recognition. “You were never lovelier,” he assured her before leaving.

 

Lost in the bitter-sweet pathos of his daydream, Jake recoiled as the fey steward returned. “Sorry for the delay,” he simpered. “We’re just about to close the doors now.” He reached down to fuss with Jake’s seatbelt. It was, Jake realised another Defining Moment. What he did now, or failed to do, would change the direction of his life forever.

In a surge of events so rapid and so unpremeditated that in retrospect they all seem to happen in a continuous flow of the present tense, Jake leaps from his seat, knocking over the glass of orange juice. The steward shrinks back, shrieking. Jake brushes past him and bolts down the gangway. He runs frantically up to the taxi rank and jumps into a taxi. In the driver’s seat, by chance, is the only Sikh taxi-driver in London. He rolls his eyes but puts the taxi into gear and it pulls away at speed.

As the taxi comes to a halt in the forecourt of Stephen’s country house Jake leaps out and dashes into the marquee that has been erected in the garden. He bursts into the wedding reception, where guests are dancing. He recognises only Belinda and Hope. He rushes about knocking over tables and creating alarm, but the places at the head of the wedding table are empty. When Simon stands up to grapple with him, Jake hurls him into the drinks table. The table collapses. Jake rushes out of the marquee and into the house.

He bursts into the upstairs bedroom. Stephen and Claudia are lying in bed. Stephen wears monogrammed pyjamas and is talking on the telephone. Claudia wears a seductive negligee and is reading a book. Jake scoops Claudia’s warm body up in his arms and runs out, leaving an open-mouthed Stephen who starts to howl like a baby. As Jake staggers towards the waiting taxi with Claudia swooning in his arms the sound of the wailing infant pursues him.

Jake started from his daydream. The crying issued from the mouth of a small child who was standing up on his seat glaring at him over the back of it in a red-faced tantrum, as senselessly enraged as the baby the Duchess held who turned into a squealing pig. Jake was stepping back through the looking glass now, leaving this anarchic realm with not much more than he had brought to it. He counted out a fistful of heavy British coins, so heavy he had holes in his trouser pockets, but not worth enough to buy the flowers that at the last minute he’d thought of sending, to say nothing of a taxi ride to Dorset, round-trip. What could he have written on a card to send with the flowers? Something ironic in the stiff-upper-lip British manner? Something sentimental in the American way? Something banal: ‘Thanks for the memory’? His memories indeed were valuable currency: what he had learned from his British experience. He knew now that he had been right for the wrong reasons to flee America. The Vietnamese War was wrong, very wrong indeed. The domino theory held that if Vietnam falls, all Asia will go communist. But what if it’s just another national struggle for self-determination, like the American Revolution? And what if communism might be the right answer for that society at that point in time? He saw now that governments deceive and manipulate the people they claim to serve and use the flag as an excuse. No wonder the British feel no shame in reproducing the Union Jack on waste-bins.

The marvellous paradox was that though they were as a nation, deeply conservative at heart, they shrugged off any attempt to impose values: the sanctity of the flag, the significance of religion, the morality of Mary Whitehouse. The enduring achievement of the counter-cultural revolution of which he had been a foreign observer was to smash the apparatus of social censorship, culminating in the dismantling of the office of the Lord Chamberlain, which, though it was not otherwise distinguished, his own British theatrical career had witnessed. He had learned about class. It had not particularly been an obstacle to him, because as an outsider he was a social enigma beyond the reach of its obsessive, finely tuned categorisations. The only snobbery directed at him had been anti-American. And though he detested the idea of unearned privilege, he admired the British tolerance that transcended class barriers. In America the class divide was brutal: you were a success or you were a failure. And you could never be successful enough, because somebody might overtake you, and that’s failure. In Britain you could step off the concentric merry-go-round and become eccentric, like Russell, and still be valued as a person. That’s why in American firms everyone took two-week vacations, from the office boy to the president, for fear someone would take over their desk, while in Britain, as they climbed the ladder they took more and more holidays — four, five or six weeks — because there are other things to do with your life. Except for actors, of course, who anywhere in the world worked whenever they got a chance.

So the lessons he’d learned in Britain were political scepticism, freedom of artistic expression and social tolerance — all concepts which Horatio Alger would have found suspicious, if not downright un-American. One lesson he had rejected was to moderate his aspirations. The British had low expectations. Opportunity was his birthright, and against all the odds he had, through his own perseverance, almost miraculously achieved a plum role in an internationally touring production of a successful West End comedy. Who knew where that might lead? So long as he kept footloose and fancy free. Claudia had almost entrapped him. No, that was not fair. He had almost trapped himself. From now on he would take as his motto George Washington’s advice to his fledgling nation in his Farewell Address: ‘Avoid entangling alliances.’

Jake picked out one coin from the fistful in his hand. A half-crown. He would keep it to remind him of this wisdom, acquired in England. He inserted it into his wallet and dropped the rest of the coins into the seat pocket. As the BOAC flight climbed through the clouds he had a fleeting glimpse of a green circle resembling Regents Park, and perched on its head a perky green bonnet that might have been Primrose Hill. He remembered a sudden, brilliant, welcoming smile and a bitter lump choked his throat. The smile had seemed to burst out of the clouds, up here where he was now, looking down at the past. That smile proved to be everlasting; its amazing radiance would pierce his thoughts often in the years ahead, a souvenir that carried a bittersweet pang of regret and rustled a host of memories. He reburied them now under scraps of speculation about his future. His career was well and truly launched with this international tour. First stop, the British Council, Addis Ababa.

 

The open Rolls-Royce crunched into the forecourt just as the last, belated wedding guests scurried into the church. Only Simon remained, standing by the church door as erect as a Royal Horse Guardsman, formally, though more drably, attired and sporting a winning smile. He descended the short flight of steps as the chauffeur opened the door of the car for Claudia. Simon took her arm and escorted her across the forecourt while the chauffeur busied himself affixing a ‘Just Married’ sign to the boot.

Simon flashed his expensively maintained teeth. “I asked Stephen for the privilege of escorting you. I want us all to be very good friends in the years ahead. The three of us.”

Claudia had a sudden, swaying vision of the yawning church door as the mouth of a long, black tunnel stretching away to infinity. She halted.

“Then tell me just one thing, Simon. Absolutely straight.”

Simon favoured her with an ironic smile. “I’ll try.”

“Is Jake straight?”

Now the smile was indulgent. “Of course. How else could he be so square?”

“He was living with Roy.”

“And me. Roy was my chum. But I couldn’t take him home to meet the aged Ps, could I?”

He steered her forward and they began to ascend the church steps. Claudia couldn’t think clearly. A haze was enveloping her. She stopped them again.

“I thought he was . . .”

“You made that up in your head. It was an excuse. Because you thought you were too old for him. But an age gap doesn’t matter. Not if you really love someone. Look at me and Stephen.”

Somewhere in Claudia’s soul a massive door swung open admitting a brilliant, blinding light. She raised her hand shield her eyes. This was, she realised, a Defining Moment. She could continue like a beheaded chicken hanging from a hook in a factory line, to be drained of blood, plucked, trussed and stuffed. Or she could act.

She half-swooned. Simon moved to catch her. She caught her balance and thrust the bouquet into his outstretched hands. “Here! You marry the beast.”

For the second time, Claudia fled. She flung herself down the steps and across the courtyard to the open-top Rolls-Royce, where the door stood open, inviting her in, as the chauffeur tied tin cans onto the rear bumper. She hopped into the driver’s seat, turned the ignition key and roared off leaving the chauffeur sprawling in a hail of gravel,

Her fanciful wedding bonnet flew off her head and bounced back towards the church. As she drove down the leafy lanes, in her mind’s eye, Claudia saw what happened next. The distraught wedding guests emerge to stand on the top of the church steps. Stephen elbows through them to stare open-mouthed at his disappearing car. In a rage, he kicks the flimsy bonnet, then stamps the pretty thing into the ground with both feet. Hope laughs out loud and some of the wedding guests have to put hands to their mouths. And, in a perfect world, a humongous wedding cake would then fall from the skies to engulf Stephen.

Claudia laughed until she cried. It was so easy. So ridiculously easy. The huge obstacles that block your path, the insoluble problems that blight your life, the agonising dilemmas — they can be resolved in an instant, at the flick of a mental switch. It’s like snagging your skirt on a hook. If you keep pressing forward, you’ll never get free without tearing it. Back up a step and it falls free. All you have to do is change yourself. Uproot your ingrown attitudes, your acquired beliefs, your encrusted prejudices. Your parents fuck you up. They bequeath you a mindset. And so do your playmates, your teachers, religious indoctrination. Discard it like the husk of a chrysalis and you are reborn, with a fresh, new skin, an unshackled mind, an unwritten page. You can follow your heart. Claudia had been taught that expressing what you want is rude; that was to be left for others to infer. Now she was going to grab what she wanted with both hands. Okay, there are still hard facts, like lack of money, but you can get round those, too. From the right perspective, facts dwindle. Like Micawber, people muddle through somehow.

Gloriously, the heavy, open touring car raced down the open road. As she left Hook astern on the A3 it began to rain buckets. Claudia drove on, her hair streaming in the wind and wet. Topping ninety miles an hour, the Roller flashed past a patrol car parked in a lay-by. But it never appeared in the rear-view mirror. Claudia imagined the two amazed coppers inside their car as she roared past. One of them reaches for the key to start the ignition. But his mate switches it off, and they return to their embrace.

Was she paranoic? She saw homosexuals under every bush, when clearly that only happened on Hampstead Heath. Another revelation came to her like the stroke of sunshine now breaching the dark clouds rolling off the London skyscape. Her dark fears about Jake — that he might be bisexual, that he was American, that he was so frightfully young — all of that was classic Freudian displacement. The ogre that controlled her brain, that set up barriers against the impulses of her heart, was sturdy, old-fashioned British class prejudice. Jake was unsuitable because he was different. Golden light gleamed off the rain-slicked highway, and with tears flowing freely, she cast the ogre from her mind and pressed her foot down on the accelerator pedal racing towards the bright future that lay beyond Sunbury, Twickenham, Richmond and Wandsworth on a green hill north of the river precisely under that raw beam of sunlight that streaked down from the clouds.

In London the rain stopped. Where Grove End Road turned into Abbey Road traffic was held up. A photographer stood on a ladder in the gutter, and four blokes were messing about on the zebra crossing. Claudia leaned on her horn and drove on through, scattering them. One of them, who was barefoot, gave her two fingers.

Stormy clouds reassembled in the sky above Primrose Hill. Claudia abandoned the Rolls-Royce on a double yellow line, freshly painted under the new Parking, Loading and Waiting Regulations, and ran up the hill. All the way to the top where all the paths intersected. She saw no-one. There was no-one on the top of the hill, nor anywhere in sight. The park was empty. It started to rain buckets again. An aircraft engine droned overhead. Claudia lifted her head. An aeroplane drifted upward through the gloomy clouds above the chimney tops. Jake was on it, taking with him the whole romantic generation of the 60s, flying into a cynical future. The decade was drawing to a close. What happened? Nothing. There had been no revolution, no storming of La Bastille, no violent Tea Party in Boston harbour, no assault on the Winter Palace. Undermined by history, certainties collapsed of their own weight. Youth ran about looting the ruins of culture, inhaling the smell of wet ashes, amongst other substances. But now a new faith flickered from the embers of the old civilisation — ironic, commercial, materialist. Youthful illusions lay sputtering in puddles like spent fireworks. She felt an exquisite sorrow, a requiem for Pan. His flute was stilled, and with it adolescent fantasies, butterflies broken on the wheel of history. Claudia tasted salt water mingling with the fresh torrent streaming down across her lips.

 

FADE TO BLACK

 

ROLL END CREDITS AND MUSIC

 

The swelling MUSIC in a minor key suddenly groans to a halt.

The CREDITS waver, then abruptly fast-reverse off the screen.