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

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chapter thirty-five

“So what time is it over there? You’re kidding! We’re just about to go out to dinner. They eat late over here. You wouldn’t believe what a ghastly day. Ghastly. It means lousy. I’m learning the language. First, I lose the credit card he gave me. That is, I thought I lost it and I didn’t want to say anything because he’d do his nut. Like, first he has to take me on this tour. Not in a limo. But his own personal tour, he says. Harrods, I say, then Bond Street. Covent Garden, says he, because it’s just across the road and we can walk there. Well, that sounds kind of cute, holding hands like Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison wandering on the cobblestones. Except the cars are always coming from the wrong side of the road. And when we get to the market I’m in for a big surprise because there’s a lot of really cute shops with gas lamps and stuff like right out of ‘A Christmas Carol’. But he’s like making faces and dragging his ass about because there’s no vegetables. Vegetables. No, he’s not a vegetarian. He just wanted to see some vegetables, I guess. They used to have them there. Remember, she was a flower-seller. Liza. Not Minelli. Liza Doolittle. Nothing to do with Doctor Dolittle. Except that was Rex Harrison, too. So then he drags me away to Soho which is like Times Square without the show business. It’s like really sordid. Prostitutes and motorbikes and Chinamen. We walk there. Dodging the motorbikes. And the Chinamen. And he’s looking for this special place he used to live. And I’m thinking, nobody actually lives in this dump except the bums sleeping on the sidewalks. And we get lost in this bunch of Chinamen. But he sees some people selling dirty vegetables on the street and that cheers him up. And suddenly there it is. What do you think? The Forbidden City? Buckingham Palace? A Hilton hotel? No, it’s a hostel. Not a hotel, a hostel. A kind of home for down-and-outs. Just an old sign on a dirty brick wall and thank Christ it wasn’t open because he was all for dragging me in there. So I’m like putting my foot down and saying we don’t have to fly the Atlantic to go slumming on Skid Row, we can see that in downtown Los Angeles any day and which way is Bond Street, and he gets mad and hails one of those black cabs and says, like, take this lady to Bond Street and I’m like, aren’t you coming, and he says maybe he’ll go up to Primrose Hill, which in spite of the nice name is just some sort of a Dullsville outlying suburb, but I’m like wondering is he scouting for a location, and thinking maybe I’d better go, too, if it’s got anything to do with my career and he says it’s more for atmosphere because it’s not a film but a play, and I’m like there is no way I am going without you, because after all what would be the point without a credit card, though of course I didn’t say that to him, but right then he fishes the credit card out of his pocket and says I found this on the floor. Would you believe? I certainly didn’t. It’s in the red, he says, don’t spend more than a thousand pounds. Which is like, a couple of thousand dollars, which in Bond Street doesn’t get you past the first shoe shop, I can tell you.”

 

Clamorous Covent Garden market in all its ripe, colourful messiness has upped sticks. Turnips and apples have been displaced by Rubik Cubes and handmade jewellery in a tidy, vestigial row of barrows lining the entrance to the central market building that was a landmark to young Charles Dickens and is now thronged with smart boutiques and patrolling tourists. Yet, the oldest restaurant in London, Rules, is still tucked just round the corner in Maiden Lane, though its cooks now have to forage further afield for their fresh vegetables. It doesn’t matter, as, in the English tradition, they boil them to death anyway. Traditional gold lettering on the windows of the restaurant proclaims the seriousness of the task performed within: wild salmon, prime Aberdeen Angus beef, game both feathered and furred: guinea fowl, jugged hare, venison, wild boar and rabbit, and, as on the day it opened in 1798, oysters and meat and fish pies and puddings. The interior remains as Jake remembers it, with its collection of hundreds of period drawings, paintings and cartoons clustering thickly above the red velvet banquettes, unchanged since the day the manager rejected Jake’s application for employment as a dishwasher.

Regrettably, it is not the same man who leads Jake and Lisa to their ground floor table. Not that an institution that had witnessed the conversations of Dickens, Thackeray, Galsworthy, H.G. Wells, and Graham Greene, the theatrics of Henry Irving, Laurence Olivier, Buster Keaton, Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin and John Barrymore, not to mention the amorous appetites of the Prince of Wales and Lily Langtry in the upstairs private parlour, would gasp to see the Hollywood film director de la mode walk through its portals. But it might well have held its steamy kitchen breath in admiration of the kinetic display of Lisa’s swivelling progression in her show-stopping gown. At any rate, the couple are shown to the best table. Jake feels at once at home. Perhaps it is the faint aroma of cooking sauces that escapes from the kitchen, redolent of hardworking nights at La Fontana Amorosa or the look of respectful recognition offered by the maitre d’hotel as he pulls out Jake’s chair. Jake has become accustomed to deference, but is surprised to hear the greeting ‘Buona sera, Signore’ in this paradigm of Englishness. Something has changed after all, even here.

A silence as brittle as the shells of the oysters remaining on their plates continues while they wait for the main courses to arrive. Finally, the vision of Aphrodite opposite Jake parts her mauved lips. “That fucking dago must be swimming to Stromboli for the tuna.”

Jake does what he would do to charm a teenager out of a sulk. She is, after all, almost a teenager. He rises from his seat and ceremoniously presents his companion with an imaginary plate of soup. He does a double-take, pauses, then politely retrieves the phantom dish, inspects the soup, and, fastidiously removes an invisible struggling fly. With elaborated unction he lays the plate down again before Lisa, then spying an imaginary fleck on its non-existent rim, carefully wipes it with his napkin. The fanciful fly returns, buzzing about him with increasing aggression. Failing to brush it away, he ducks and dives, flicking his napkin like a towel in a shower room.

He knows he has an audience. He noted the sudden silence that blanketed the dining room as he rose from his chair. And now laughter replaces hushed shock, driving his mime to fresh fantasies, though he fails to comprehend that Lisa’s head is bent like a martyr meeting her destiny, a rosy natural flush rising to overwhelm the artful pallor of her complexion.

Finally, he mimics the assembly and testing of a weapon, and coolly brings down the fly with silent but convulsive anti-aircraft fire. He tracks it spiralling down to the table, blesses the abstract corpse, and carefully mimes spooning it into the soup, then grinding pepper over it. Bowing, he again presents the imaginary dish. Only when the other diners applaud does Lisa raise her head and let the inflammation drain from her cheeks.

The Italian-speaking headwaiter taps Jake on the shoulder. Lisa reddens again and buries her face in her napkin. However, he has not come to bring Jake his hat, but a telephone on a long cord. It is Jake’s American-speaking P.A.

“Sir Stephen’s had to postpone.”

“What’s the bastard up to now? I fly all the way over here —”

“Make nice, Jake. He’s had a death in the family.”

Jake makes no answer

“Jake? Are you there?”

“Lady Gurney?”

“I suppose that’s what they call her. It seems she took an overdose.”

Jake’s whole face sags. The light goes out of his eyes. He starts to cry.

At the other end of the telephone connection the anxious P.A. raises her voice “Jake, are you all right?”

Lisa is not amused. The gaze of the other diners, the London society she believes they represent, the spotlit attention of the known civilised world — is focused on Jake’s emotional display. She pokes him with her elbow.

“Lisa’s not acting up again, is she?” comes the concerned voice through the earpiece.

“I heard that!” snaps Lisa. And in a frosty rage she stands, throws her wrap around her shoulders and stalks out of the room. The attention of the audience follows her now, as she swivels past the bowing waiters and the uniformed doorman who ushers her out into the night.

In the shadowed corner of the stage she has vacated Jake sits numbly, tears welling down his face. The headwaiter returns and gently removes the telephone from his grasp. Then he puts a hand on Jake’s shoulder. Jake looks up, then stands and throws his arms around him, sobbing.

“Giuliani!”

 

When he leaves the restaurant Jake turns left up Maiden Lane towards Bow Street. Across the street a male figure detaches itself from a shadowed doorway and follows him. Opposite the Royal Opera House Jake enters the Marquis of Anglesey public house. At the crowded bar he orders a large neat brandy, knocks it back, and signals for another. Someone taps him on the shoulder.

“I believe it’s my round, Jakes.”

Jake turns and sees a ghost. There are deep grooves already on his youngish face. His clothing is seedy and his eyes blurry. “Simon.”

“I have been known to buy the occasional round. Not so often recently perhaps but . . . “

He trails off as the barman arrives with Jake’s brandy. Simon nods to him with a nervous blink and says in a slurred voice, “I’ll have the usual, Harry angel.”

The barman shoots an inquiring glance at Jake, who nods and reaches for his wallet.

Simon relaxes. “I loved your last film. That playboy character. You based him on me, didn’t you? I would have been perfect for that part.” The barman delivers a double whisky and Simon takes a swig. His tone downshifts to mournful. “Jakes, why didn’t you ever call me?”

Jake locks eyes with him. “How’s Roy?”

Simon furrows his brow. “Roy?” Is he acting? Or a case of early onset nominal aphasia? “Oh, the little faggot. Last seen playing Widow Twankey in Wigan panto, I believe. I don’t suppose you’ve followed my career.” Simon drains his drink. “Jakes, I don’t suppose you could lend me a couple of hundred.”

Jake’s glance is flat and empty, and Simon averts his eyes. Finally, Jake speaks “Why do you always call me Jakes?”

Now the old sarcasm surfaces. “My dear, you haven’t twigged yet? It’s pure Shakespearean. A jakes is a khazi. A bog. A loo. In your parlance, the john.” This time Simon holds Jake’s gaze, unflinching. ”You have heard, haven’t you? Your old squeeze has shuffled off. Overdose. The bitch.”

“How much to give you a poke?”

Simon flashes an arch grin. “I thought you’d never ask.”

Jake hits him as hard as he can. Simon falls, toppling a bar stool as he goes, and sprawls flat on the floor beneath it. The standing drinkers draw back, clearing a space around him. Jake takes out his wallet and lets fall a shower of notes. Simon, his eyes refocusing, rubs the bruise on his chin with one hand and feels for the notes with the other.

“And this is for Roy.” Jake dribbles a fistful of coins over Simon’s face. One or two fall into his mouth. He gags and spits them out as Jake turns on his heel and leaves the pub. Simon finds a heavy coin in his hand — a half-crown, no longer legal tender.

 

In Claudia’s house the ‘Snakes and Ladders’ board game lies open on the coffee table, ready for play. In the hall mirror the image of a woman in her mid-twenties, slack-jawed but with the innocent eyes of a child stares out at Hope. She adjusts her black hat and veil and fetches her coat from the cupboard, revealing, propped up in the corner, a makeshift placard on a stick. It reads ‘Yanks Go Home’.

 

Jake rushes into the forecourt of the Golder’s Green crematorium, his eyes on his watch. A black-suited member of staff directs him towards a chapel. As he crosses the courtyard a line of cars pulls away behind him. In the window of a black limousine Hope, her black hat sharply askew, raises her veil from her tear-stained face while her jaw loosens even further.