Primrose Hill Revisited – the complete book online - chapter four

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chapter four

Whenever Russell summoned up those times the images came in black-and-white, like cinema films of the period. All those frenzied cultural revolutionaries: the wide-eyed social anarchists in The Knack, the relentlessly kinky Georgy Girl, the hyperactive urchins of A Hard Day’s Night, the quixotic antihero of Morgan, a Suitable Case for Treatment. Like most rebels the despoilers had been assimilated, or had been overridden by the steamroller of history, and in retrospect seemed merely eccentric. It was not until much later, sometime in the ‘80s — after he became successful — that his memories surfaced in technicolor. Life before then was a monochrome moving picture. What was memory and what was imagination? He remembered things that he could not have witnessed. That was the gift of a poet. In black-and-white a vast, silent crowd filled Trafalgar Square. There, near a stone lion, impervious, that had seen it all, was Belinda, shouting soundlessly, her face contorted in anger, wielding a placard reading ‘Yanks Go Home’. She was wearing her olive-drab urban-guerilla uniform with all the pockets, her lank hair streaming from under her floppy Basque beret. His memory retouched the monochrome film: the beret was scarlet, shining like a red traffic light in the thin, high-key grey light of a brightening spring day. An affrighted pigeon flapped up Nelson’s column and into the sky. It soared up and out of the frame. Over Trafalgar Square, past Centrepoint and the Post Office Tower, across Regent’s Park and Anthony Armstrong-Jones’s new aviary to hover above the children’s kites twisting in the wind over Primrose Hill, where couples strolled, holding their hats against the wind, along the web of paths intersecting at the top of the hill.

He must have been watching the black-and-white television set in Claudia’s sitting room, showing a CND rally in Trafalgar Square, with the sound turned down. In another view he could not actually have seen, unless he’d been standing before a full-length mirror, he stood hesitating in the doorway at the top of the stairs leading from the basement. He could never contrive to enter a room without softly rapping the doorframe on either side with the backs of his knuckles. It gave him pause to think, to prepare to enter, to settle, to observe. Like a hovering benefactor in a Dickens novel.

The tall windows of Claudia’s sitting room looked out onto the budding greenery of the park. Sunlight exposed the neglected varnish of the floorboards, the threadbare patches in the oriental rugs and the worn furniture. To one side, aloof amid this domestic wrack like a disapproving visitor, stood the straight-backed chair, the Rennie Mackintosh antique they had bought one hopeful day.

Claudia sat on the lumpy sofa facing away from him, hair aglow against the window. Hope bent her head over the ‘Snakes and Ladders’ board, in her hand her favourite game token, a tiny, metal top-hat from the Monopoly set. Monopoly was one of the many things she would never be able to understand. But she loved the little silver topper.

“One . . . two . . . two . . .” She placed the silver top-hat on each square. “. . . five . . . four . . . six.” She landed on a snake. Hope burst into tears. “It’s not fair.”

Claudia embraced her daughter. At times like this Claudia wore the same wondering look as her daughter, as though she, too, were a child gazing out at a barely comprehensible world: it’s not fair. “Don’t cry, darling. Maybe the next one’s a ladder.”

The phone rang and Claudia rose to answer it. She was dressed to go out. In a smart new outfit— a bold geometry of primary colours. A walking Mondrian. On very fine legs. It was the kind of frock that girls in their teens and twenties were wearing.

“Primrose 7323.”

Claudia was good on the phone.

“No, I couldn’t possibly. I’m going out.”

Russell imagined her in her office, dealing efficiently with all manner of executive matters.

“There really is no point. Please don’t call anymore.”

That would be Stephen, then. Claudia’s face was tense and she whacked the phone down into its cradle. She consulted the longcase clock, then cuddled Hope again, dabbing at her wet cheeks with a tissue.

“Mummy has to go out now. Daddy will put you to bed.”

Tears threatened anew.

“When will we finish our game?”

“Daddy will finish it.”

“He cheats.”

“I’m sure he doesn’t, darling.”

As she moved to the front hall, Claudia called over her shoulder, loudly, assuming he was down in the basement. “Russell!” He watched her appraise her image in the old mirror they had picked up on an excursion to Church Street market. Perhaps they both tolerated it still because the mirror was kind; its worn, unsilvered patches concealed the flaws encroaching on one’s reflection. Claudia called again, “Russell!”

He rapped the knuckles of both hands twice against the door jambs and stepped into the room. Neither Claudia nor Hope seemed surprised at his instant appearance.

“You wouldn’t know how to cheat, would you, Russell?”

“He does. He always lets me win.”

“You’re going out?” he asked.

Hope chortled. “Mummy has a date.”

Claudia was pulling on her mac. “Strictly business.” She looked Russell in the eye. “Research.”

She didn’t want to hurt him. Even now. But he really didn’t mind any more. That part of him was dead. He smiled at her. “You deserve a bit of fun.”

“Will you give Hope her supper?”

Hope tugged his arm. “Finish the game first.”

Hope took ‘Snakes and Ladders’ very seriously. Russell sat down and studied the position of the pieces on the game board with the gravity he would bring to the board position of a chess grandmaster. Claudia kissed Hope and gave him a soft peck on the cheek. Nina Ricci L’Air du Temps. She had never changed her scent.

“Don’t forget her bedtime, Russell.” The door closed behind her.

“Your turn, Russell.”

Russell gravely picked up the die.

 

Never, never, never would she have anything whatsoever to do with him again. Not a peep out of him for eighteen months. Which suited her down to the ground. She had managed to blot him out of her life. Completely. The letters incinerated in the garden, the photos binned, shutters drawn against the memories. And then it started. First the flower arrangement delivered to her door on the morning of her birthday. Ever so tasteful. A symphony — no a restrained sonata — in dove grey and blue. Cambridge blue, of course, just to give her an ever so subtle hint. Because the card wasn’t signed. Just one word: ‘You’. Another hint, once she’d worked it out. That telegram. The shortest telegram ever sent. Because she had created about the first one he sent after they had had a row, the telegram that said “Love you.” That’s what you say to your theatre chums, not your beloved, she said when he rang. Too casual. It sounded so uncommitted. Meaningless, really. And so he sent her another, the shortest telegram ever transmitted. One word: ‘I’. And so now there was another one-word message. And she was supposed to supply the missing word. The one in the middle. Not on your nelly. Rhyming slang for what? Belly? Nelly Bligh? Nelly Dean? Does anyone still say that? Now they say ‘No way’. Like Herr Wankler. Another American export of bluff vulgarity, and German businessmen are their most ardent disciples.

And now he was on the blower. Let bygones be bygones. Forgiving. Condescending. In that unctuous manner of his. No, she would not meet him for dinner or a drink. Never, never never. Because she was afraid that his charm, pouring over her, poring over her, might somehow ooze through a chink in her armour-plate.

She had been resolute. No man in her life since. He probably knew that. He had ways of finding things out. Things you told no one. He was practically telepathic. But what kind of future was that? No man? No love? No companion to share life? Who would want to share her burdens? Hope — a delight but, let’s face it, a burden. Russell — a treasure but a burden. And now her job was on the line. What she could offer Prince Charming was a dowry of woes.

She caught a glance from a middle-aged man. His snooty wife added an appraisal of a different sort. Was her new short-skirted frock with its bold, straight-edged design in green and yellow and blue just a shade too youthful? As well as, judging by Jenny, already totally passé? Could she really afford to draw so much attention to herself anymore? She had put herself down as early thirties. On a good day she could almost get away with that, and hell, they must expect everyone to cheat a little.

But this was a job of work. Research. The Prince Charming in question, she had specified, was a man in his mid-twenties. Youth was a foreign country, and she had to learn what language they spoke there. The rest of her requirement was the usual hopeful guff: GSOH, interested in art, cinema, the theatre. Oh dear. Apart from the age, that would be Stephen.