The Biographer’s Moustache
The Biographer’s Moustache
From the reviews of The Biographer’s Moustache:
‘A mischievous piece of work.’
JAMES WALTON, Daily Telegraph
‘Amis’s characters emerge with a truthful clarity. He knows how to tell a story, and The Biographer’s Moustache is as well-structured as a dance.’
KATHY O’SHAUGHNESSY, Literary Review
‘The Biographer’s Moustache has some splendid and wholly characteristic scenes and observations.’
ALLAN MASSIE, The Scotsman
To Catharine and Tim Jaques
‘Darling, who else is coming to luncheon?’ asked Jimmie Fane. He spoke in a voice that had hardly altered since he was a young man half a century before, his full head of silvery-grey hair was carefully arranged and he sat up very straight in his brocaded chair.
‘Sorry, darling, coming to what?’ said Joanna, his wife, though she had heard.
Jimmie’s already high voice rose a little higher. ‘Darling, to luncheon. Surely the usual term for the usual meal taken in this country in the middle of the day.’
Joanna said in a slightly patient tone, ‘Darling, luncheon doesn’t mean the same as lunch any more, just food and people and wine and things, it means a great formal do like a City dinner with a toastmaster and speeches, you know, a, in fact a luncheon.’
‘Oh dear, I wasn’t thinking of anything remotely like that. I do hope you haven’t arranged anything frightfully stuffy like that. You know I hate things like that.’
‘Yes, I do, and I promise not to arrange anything frightfully stuffy ever if you’ll help by calling things by their right names.’
‘Right names? I will, I do. Like lunch in what one does and luncheon is what one does it at or with, or …’
‘Was. Was what one did and what one used to –’
‘Oh, was, was, was, I can’t be expected to heed let alone follow these ephemeral fads of speech.’
Joanna Fane, now a thinnish woman in her early fifties who still showed considerable remains of earlier beauty, had once been famous for her clear blue-eyed gaze. Although no less clear than formerly, that gaze at the moment had begun to show some irritation. ‘I thought you were a great one for words changing their meanings,’ she said. ‘Surely this is –’
‘Darling, could I ask you politely not to lecture me about words? I think I may claim to know a little more about them than you.’
‘Darling, I am married to you already and have been for years and years.’
‘So there’s no need for you to go on trying to impress me with your genius or anything else.’
For a moment Jimmie sat on without any movement, as if turned to stone. Then he shook slightly with laughter. ‘Darling, my advice to you is to reconcile yourself to having married a very impressive man whose impressiveness has not been diminished by the passage of time, in fact if anything enhanced. I just am impressive, I have no need to try. But you still haven’t answered the question I asked you just now, which was and is, who else is coming to … wait for it … luncheon,’ he concluded, facetiously mouthing the word.
‘I truly think I mentioned everyone,’ she said without change of expression. ‘As I said, it’s only a small party.’
‘You mentioned somebody I fancied I’d never heard of, some Scotch name would it have been?’
‘Was it? Who is that, anyway?’
‘I’m sure I said. Gordon Scott-Thompson is a literary journalist, freelance I think. He writes mostly for the Sunday –’
‘Oh, a literary journalist. Should one have heard of him? I’m so terribly cut off these days.’
‘I really don’t know. Quite well thought of, I gather. He was at a party a couple of weeks ago. He said he’d got a proposition he wanted to put to you so I said he’d better come to lunch. He must be about forty-one or -two. Not bad looking if it weren’t for his moustache.’
‘Have you told me all this before?’
Joanna hesitated. ‘No,’ she said.
‘What’s this proposition of his, do you know?’
‘He wouldn’t tell me, at least he didn’t tell me.’
‘He’s not queer, I hope, the enterprising Mr Thompson? Just clearing the ground.’
‘No. At least I shouldn’t think so.’
‘So many of them seem to be these days, especially the ones with moustaches. There must be some reason for it, I suppose. These days all that side of life is quite beyond me. These days I’m told the creatures have the impertinence to call themselves gay, thereby rendering unusable, thereby destroying a fine old English word with its roots deep in the language. You must have heard as much.’
‘Yes, I had noticed. I don’t think this chap’s one of them, he had a rather pretty girl with him, Louise something, a few years younger. He asked if he could bring her along and I said he could.’
‘Really.’ What his wife had just revealed apparently alleviated any gloom that Jimmie had fallen into over the perhaps unrelated matters of Gordon Scott-Thompson and homosexuality. ‘Good. What a good idea.’
‘There’s somebody now,’ said Joanna as the doorbell sounded from downstairs. ‘Have you seen to the wine?’
‘Oh yes. And there’s no actual need to respond to a possible arrival as if it might be that of your Uncle Arthur from Penge. Is my tie all right?’
‘Oh, as usual it’s all … Here.’ She efficiently reduced the dark-purple knot from something the size and rough shape of a baby’s fist to a smaller polyhedron. ‘That’s better but it’s still not right. You’re hopeless when it comes to tying ties.’
Jimmie said with pretended humility, ‘I’m afraid I’ve never managed to learn,’ and might have gone on to say something about the truly neat tying of ties being a body-servant’s skill if Joanna had not been hurrying from the room. Instead he called after her, ‘But then I’ve got you to look after me,’ which was better anyway.’
‘I shouldn’t have thought he was your idea of fun at all,’ said Louise. ‘All those lords and ladies and butlers and what-not.’
‘It was my impression I’m not meant to like fun anyway,’ said Gordon Scott-Thompson seriously. ‘As for lords and ladies and what-not, I can take them or leave them alone. It’s up to him what he writes about anyway, within reason. There isn’t any point getting hot under the collar about Hardy’s peasants as such, before he does anything with them.’
‘You do stick to the point, don’t you, Gordon? It’s a bit off-putting, you know. People don’t necessarily like thinking what they’re saying.’
‘Blame it on my far-off education. Bad timing – another couple of years and the school I went to was comprehensivized out of existence. As it was they taught me how to read and write.’
‘There you go again.’
Gordon had not been far off the mark about his being meant not to like fun. From time to time Louise certainly took that view and would often go on to say he would be well advised to keep that kind of attitude to himself; as he knew, she meant in his dealings with females. He thought she might have had a point there. He would never have said he knew a great deal about women, but he had noticed that one of the many ways in which they could be divided into two classes was along the lines of whether they did or did not show signs of wanting to remake their men to suit them better. According to him, Louise was one of those who did. As if in pursuit of some kind of symmetry, she had once told him he was obviously the sort of man who refused to compromise his standards when dealing with a woman. Though he had had enough sense (for once) not to say so, he interpreted this to mean he refused to palter with the truth or what he saw as the truth no matter what the company, what might be gained by answering any old rubbish a woman might talk with rubbish of his own, etc. He was intermittently aware of the repellent tendency of such an attitude.
Nevertheless, Gordon had had some success with women. He must have been, he felt, reasonably personable, otherwise people like Louise would not have considered being seen with him in public. Women interested him, too, though admittedly more as a series of individuals than, in the manner of his randier contemporaries, as one huge undifferentiated objective to be assaulted wherever it might show itself; after all, perhaps a man did that much better in this field for having a touch of the prig in his character. Even so, Gordon now and then felt dimly that he was missing or had missed something in life by not being permanently on full sexual alert.
There remained the question of his moustache. It was on his face now for a mixture of reasons, starting chronologically with dissatisfaction or boredom with his own unadorned looks as seen reflected in mirrors and such. His grandfather, his father’s father, universally said to have been a striking-looking man, had worn a similar moustache all his adult life. Then he, Gordon, had remembered being secretly rather taken by how he had looked with just such a pencilled-in facial addition in a newspaper photograph. And he had since found it a useful talking point. Anyhow, there it was, establishing itself more firmly every day.
That morning Louise had come to his flat because it was a good point from which to set out for the Fanes’ place near the river. She knew that the lodging across the landing from his own was occupied by a West Indian sound engineer called Emmet Berry, and mentioned him conversationally to Gordon as the two were leaving.
‘What’s he like to have in the same house?’ she asked.
‘I hardly see him. He and I keep ourselves pretty much to ourselves.’
‘Doesn’t he make a lot of noise?’
‘Nothing out of the way.’
‘For a boogie, don’t you mean? For a jig?’
‘If you’re telling me I believe in my heart or somewhere that black people make more than their fair share of noise, I’d have to say some of them probably do. But then some white people probably –’
‘Yes, yes, yes. Christ, Gordon, why have you got to be so bloody balanced about everything under the sun? In your world it’s always on the one hand this, but on the other hand that. I’m sorry, but the effect is most uncool.’
‘You don’t sound very sorry,’ said Gordon mildly, ‘I don’t care that much what the effect is, and whatever it may be I thought everybody had stopped saying things were cool or uncool.’
‘They had, but they’re starting to again.’
In exchanges like this, he could never quite settle in his mind how far Louise was really ticking him off for being uncool and how far satirically recommending conduct calculated to go down well in a trend-crazed society like the present one. A bit of both, no doubt, unless that was him just being bloody balanced again. It was that kind of uncertainty that kept him and her in their separate establishments instead of moving in together somewhere. That and, he had thought more than once, a certain ambiguity in Louise’s appearance, splendid, radiant, starlet-like at a short distance, slightly chubby, sometimes almost lumpish, when seen close to. Well, perhaps his moustache had a comparably unsettling effect on her.
‘Here’s our bus,’ he said.
Quite soon afterwards, seven persons were gathered in the Fanes’ first-floor sitting-room, a place of thick light-coloured rugs, glass-fronted bookcases and paintings and drawings from earlier in the century. Guests for lunch, or luncheon, consisted of an elderly boring peer of the realm and his elderly drunken wife, a lone man in his fifties who looked like a retired boxer but in fact helped to publish expensive books in Milan, and the relatively unknown Gordon Scott-Thompson and his girlfriend. That was anyway how Jimmie would have described her if left to himself, though he understood the contemporary world well enough to be aware that you were not supposed to call people things like that in it. The young couple, whether or not it was all right to call them that, had turned up not long after peer and wife, whom Jimmie instantly abandoned for the new arrivals.
‘Come in, come in,’ he cried as they were doing so, ‘how absolutely splendid that you’re here,’ and he swept up to the girl and rested his hands on her shoulders. ‘Oh dear, I knew your name as well as I know my own until half a minute ago but now it’s completely vanished.’ He removed his left hand to smooth his hair back, thereby drawing attention to its continuing abundance and distinguished coloration. ‘Do help me out, there’s a darling.’
‘Louise,’ echoed Jimmie, his right hand still on her shoulder. ‘Does that mean you’re French? If I may say so you don’t look it.’
‘I’m not. English all the way back as far as I know.’
‘Oh I thought so. But the name did make me wonder for an instant.’
At Louise’s side, Gordon admired the assurance of this while privately questioning some of its substance, and hoped he would be in as good shape when his turn to be seventy-six came round. At the same time he did rather wonder at what stage he might be expected to enter the conversation. His moment came after Jimmie had briefly wondered aloud whether there was such a thing as a characteristic English face without shifting his attention from Louise’s.
‘Do forgive me, you are … ?’
Gordon said, ‘Gordon –’
‘We haven’t met, have we?’
‘No, Mr Fane, but having read I think all your –’
‘Come and be introduced.’
A drink, in the shape of a medium-sized glass of champagne, found its way into Gordon’s hand after he had met two people called Lord and Lady Bagshot and just before meeting a latecomer in a high-necked sweater called Count somebody. The champagne tasted rather nasty to Gordon, but then champagne had never been his drink, and besides this sample of it could not in fact be nasty, because Jimmie Fane was known to be quite an authority on wines, had in the 1950s published a couple of books on the subject. Anyway, for the moment there was no alternative to be seen.
The view that Jimmie’s drinks could never be nasty required some modification over lunch, or luncheon. The meal was taken in a room on the ground floor facing the street. Here on a sideboard were ranged three bottles of still wine, two whites and a red, dl three with their labels facing the wall. They stayed where they were until the first course, a properly made vegetable soup, had come and gone. Then Jimmie went round the circular table pouring the white, his large and efficient right hand continuing to hide the label. As Gordon soon discovered, this wine, unchilled, was dry to the point of sharpness and, he thought, not at all good with the well-done roast beef it was perhaps meant to help down. He drank sparingly of it. So did the other guests, except for the sweatered count, who from first to last had nothing to say of it or of anything else, but drained his glass at a swallow. Was he truly a count? It still seemed perfectly possible.
Lord Bagshot spoke up. ‘What is this stuff we’re drinking, Jimmie?’
‘It comes from the prettiest little vineyard you ever saw, twenty miles or so south of the upper Loire.’
‘M’m. It’s only my opinion, I know, but it doesn’t seem to me to go too well with this very nice beef.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘I notice you’re not drinking it.’
‘No,’ agreed Jimmie. Not quite surreptitiously but without attracting much attention, he had helped himself to some of the red wine and replaced the bottle on the sideboard behind him, its label still out of sight. ‘The quack told me to avoid dry white wine with my acidulous stomach. Don’t tell me you’re in the same case, Basil, because if so …’ His voice died away before he could reveal what he might do if so.
‘No, I’m not,’ admitted Lord Bagshot. He forbore from going on to say that, whether acidulous or not, a stomach was apt to welcome what must have been at least a tolerable claret more heartily than a tepid Muscadet with hot roast beef. All he did was push his barely tasted glass away from him, an action perhaps unnoticed by Jimmie, who at that moment was engaged in recharging his own.
Gordon had been placed between Louise and Lady Bagshot. Without trying he could think of plenty he wanted to say to Louise, but little of it seemed sayable then and there, and no amount of trying was ever going to suggest to him anything at all to say to Lady Bagshot, who had one of the largest faces he had ever seen surmounting a human neck and whose spectacles were in proportion. Not that she had the air of someone who wanted to be talked to, being quite satisfied with the companionship of a half-bottle of vodka stowed between times in a beaded woollen bag she kept within her direct reach. Before her stood an untouched bowl of cooling soup and a sparse plate of cooling beef. She was vigorously smoking cigarettes.
On her other side sat the count and beyond him Joanna Fane, who was giving him a full account of a visit to the opera paid perhaps earlier that week, perhaps a decade or two before. As he had been doing, the man nodded and smiled and now and then dilated his eyes sympathetically, drank and had his glass refilled. It might have been that he had had his tongue torn out by an indignant peasantry.
Many things might have been true of him without upsetting Gordon, who got conscientiously on with the task of sorting out impressions. The house, a few doors down from the King’s Road towards the river, was only a room and a passage broad but it ran back some way, and no doubt fell into one or another upper category of posh people’s praise like rather ravishing. Gordon could not have said much about things like lamp fittings and cutlery but he could tell they were expensive here without being either flashy or new. The ceilings had the look of having been the work of somebody in particular and over the sideboard there hung an oil painting of foreign parts that had a distinctly pricey appearance. Yes, but what about the couple who lived here?
A glance in Jimmie’s direction showed him to be looking straight at Gordon. So did a second glance a moment later, with the increment that this time he was frowning slightly and evidently concentrating his attention on Gordon’s moustache, until a great yawn supervened. Gordon could so vividly imagine Jimmie’s high voice asking him to be a good chap and try not to stare in that extraordinary fashion that he lost no time in transferring his gaze to Joanna. She too proved to be looking back at him, while still telling the count about who might well have been, but fairly unexpectedly was not after all, to be seen in the opera-house bar. It occurred to Gordon to wonder what, if anything, the Fanes had said to each other about him and his possible intentions.
This wonderment returned in a sharpened form when the party had finished lunch and moved back to the sitting-room upstairs. Here Jimmie had seized him by the arm and borne him off in stagey style to a narrower extension where books of a more consistently solemn, leather-bound aspect were to be seen. Jimmie at once sat himself down on a comfortable-looking old-fashioned chair, did not invite Gordon to find a seat but made no perceptible objection when he did. After shutting his eyes and perhaps dozing for a few seconds he suddenly said to him,
‘It’s very nice of you to come over today and bring that enchanting little girl with you.’
‘Oh, it’s very –’
‘Joanna, that’s my wife, you know – Joanna tells me you’ve got a proposition you want to put to me.’ Also suddenly, Jimmie reopened his eyes, ‘I confess to you I’m all agog to hear what it can be.’
‘Oh. Well, I was rereading The Escaped Prisoner the other day, and I thought –’
‘Do tell me just what your proposition is, dear man.’
‘All right. I’d like to try my hand at a long article or even a short book on you and your work. It’s been eleven years since the –’
‘Who would publish it?’
‘If it ends up as an article I reckon I could get a couple of instalments into The Westminster Review of Books, they rather go in for length. If it extends to a book it would certainly be worth trying it on your old publisher right away. Somebody there seemed very interested when I mentioned the possibility.’
‘I have to say I don’t think many people today would want to sit down and read a whole book about an old back number like me.’
‘I don’t think that’s true, Mr Fane, and you’re –’
‘Jimmie. I reckon you’re due for a revival and I’m not the only one by a long chalk. Those novels aren’t going to stay away for ever.’
‘I haven’t published a book of any sort since 1987, and that wasn’t much better than a potboiler of snippets and cuttings.’
‘Jimmie, you deserve to be back in the public eye and there are strong signs that you’re moving in that direction or why would I, well …’
‘Bother. Quite so. Yes, I suppose it might be taken as such a sign.’
This was not far out. Or it was a possible way of putting it. A way of putting it closer to Gordon’s view of the matter would have been that, on the literary stock exchange, Fanes had been due for a recovery but for the moment could be snapped up cheap pending a strong reissue. He himself would have said he had no definite opinion of the quality of Jimmie’s writing but saw clearly enough that as a figure of the prewar and wartime years and later, with an admittedly heterosexual but still conspicuous personal history, the old fellow could without undue difficulty be made the subject of a publishable set of articles or even a book. And now, or soon, was the time. What Gordon had been going to say was that it had been eleven years since the appearance of the last book on him. Just the right sort of interval.
Again Jimmie’s attention seemed to focus for a moment on Gordon’s moustache before diffusing itself. ‘I imagine I can’t stop you from publishing practically anything you like.’
Gordon nodded reflectively. ‘No, in a sense that’s true. But I hope to have your co-operation in this case.’
‘Even if I give it you, what’s to stop your writing and publishing anything that comes into your head, however untrue or unpleasant?’
‘Short of recourse to the law, you could stop me by refusing to let me quote more than the odd line from your works, which wouldn’t be nearly enough for what I have in mind.’
‘I think I see that,’ said Jimmie. ‘Of course.’ Then he turned animated. ‘Naturally, my dear chap, I’ve not the slightest reason in the world to suppose that any words of yours would be other than irreproachably veracious and well-mannered, I do assure you.’
‘Well, that’s a relief.’ Gordon ventured a smile. ‘Perhaps we can proceed to the next stage.’
‘And what do you see as the next stage?’
‘Well, just a thorough general chat, working out an approach. I’ll need to do some thinking in the meantime, make a note or two.’
‘You mean we should have a sort of preliminary discussion.’
‘Very well. May I insist we conduct our discussion over luncheon somewhere?’
‘That sounds like a good idea.’
‘I do so adore being taken out to luncheon.’
‘I’m glad to hear it,’ said Gordon bravely.
‘I’m sure you’ll do me reasonably well, better than I did the Bagshots today.’
Gordon found this remark difficult to answer, so he merely nodded his head in a dependable manner.
‘Perhaps I owe you a small explanation. When I was a young man, it used to be said of me, not only in jest, that when I wiped somebody’s eye it stayed wiped. That unspeakable wine I offered was by way of getting back at Bagshot for the vile Peruvian red he gave us the last time we dined with him. He saw that all right, which was why he didn’t make more of a fuss. Oh, and if you’re worried about young Carlo, that count person, he doesn’t care or notice what he drinks. Where he comes from one can’t afford to.’
‘I think now we might rejoin the others,’ said Jimmie, rising to his feet. ‘Give me a telephone call, will you?’
Gordon likewise rose. ‘I will. I’ll also send you my c.v.’
‘Send me your what?’
‘My c.v. My curriculum vitae.’ He pronounced the first word like curriculum and the second like vee-tye.
Gordon said it again and added, ‘Meaning a dated account of what I’ve done and written if anything and where I’ve worked and such. So you’ll have it by you, what there is of it.’
‘Oh, presumably you mean a curriculum vitae,’ said Jimmie, pronouncing the first word like curriculum and the second like vie-tee.
‘Yes, if you prefer.’
‘I do prefer if it’s all the same to you. Since we’re supposedly talking English rather than Latin or Italian. Yes I agree I know what you meant the first time but then one often infers as much from a grunt or a whinny and that’s no argument for conducting one’s discourse wholly or even partly in a series of approximations and lucky guesses. I hope you take my point?’
‘Yes I do.’ Gordon spoke with some warmth. He was relieved not to be called upon to repeat the phrase in its preferred pronunciation slowly after Jimmie.
‘Good. Can I tempt you to a glass of port?’
‘No thank you.’
‘I think I’ll let myself be tempted. I should give it up but I can’t. No – cannot is false; I will not give it up.’ Jimmie gave a smile that only the literal-minded would have hesitated to call charming. ‘We’ll have some fun with this business.’
‘Indeed we will.’
The rest of the company had split into two, or two and a half. The half was Lady Bagshot, who was sitting near but not with Joanna Fane and Louise and was conscientiously working her way through her half-bottle of vodka. Another drink like the one she had just poured herself would get her there with no more than a heeltap left over. Her current drink, as she took a mouthful, looked quite small beside the vastness of her face. By the window the still-vigilant count let Lord Bagshot go on telling him all about somebody’s house, it might have been his own. Gordon went over to Louise and Joanna, who looked up expectantly.
‘Well?’ they both asked, and Joanna added, ‘I’ve been hearing.’
‘The answer’s yes.’
‘I knew it,’ said Louise.
‘Well I didn’t,’ said Joanna. ‘Not his kind of thing at all. It’s not that he doesn’t like publicity, it’s just that he likes to be in complete control of it and everything else. Do sit down.’
‘I can’t see Gordon letting anyone else control what he writes.’
‘Time will show. What’s he agreed to so far?’
‘Lunch and a chat,’ said Gordon.
‘It’ll be your lunch and his chat. Don’t let him flannel you into taking him somewhere madly expensive like Woolton’s or the Tripoli. Make it a little place you happen to know. Where is he now? Did he say where he was going?’
‘To get himself a glass of port, I thought.’
‘He’ll be stretched out on his study couch and fast asleep and dreaming by now. Not a pretty sight.’
But if Jimmie was indeed asleep as his wife spoke he was very soon awake again and re-entering the sitting-room. Any port he carried back with him had come within him, a possibility that on recent form Gordon did not at all rule out. However that might have been, Jimmie seemed in elevated form and at once settled down next to Louise on the little padded couch with its vividly covered cushions and resumed the intimate revue style of their earlier meeting. Joanna cast her eye over Gordon to no purpose he could determine, but he evidently passed whatever muster it might have been. She said,
‘I suppose you’ve written this sort of thing before.’
‘About someone else, you mean. No, I haven’t ever.’
‘If you had, I was going to warn you you’re up against something new this time. I was going to tip you off he’s not like other people.’
Nobody is, thought Gordon rather dully, so this time he made what was meant to be a thoughtful face.
‘You can’t know very much about him.’
‘Only his work.’
‘His what? I thought you were going to write his biography.’
‘That was the idea, or part of it.’
‘Nearly all of it, surely. A catalogue of his principal publications and appointments would hardly get you on to the second page.’
‘I hope to be digging a bit deeper than that.’
‘If you do, watch out, as I said. You probably won’t come to much actual harm, but parts of it won’t be much fun if you do your job properly. You’d better let me talk to you about him to get a rounded picture.’
Gordon knew enough already about Jimmie to know too that he would be actively displeased with any really rounded picture, but he kept this reflection to himself, saying only, ‘Does that mean I’m to take you out to lunch as well – on a different occasion, of course.’
‘I expect it occurred to you that he’d do his damnedest to stop you printing the juicy bits. Maybe, but I think someone in your position ought at least to have some idea of what they are, don’t you? And it’s terribly nice of you to ask me to have lunch with you somewhere, if that’s what you were doing, but it would be sure to get back to him, which might be embarrassing at this stage. So I’m afraid that’s not on at the moment.’
‘But if we shared a crust one day when he’s cavorting with his chums at Gray’s, shared it here I mean, then that couldn’t get back to him.’
‘In fact I can’t see why it should get back to anybody, frankly.’
‘Nor can I.’
‘Give me a ring. Between half past eight and nine on a weekday morning is a good time.’
‘Darling, what did you really make of that young man?’
‘Not a lot, darling. Pleasant enough, rather conventional, anxious not to say the wrong thing. The very chap to be your biographer, darling.’
‘It’s to be literary too. A critical study of what I’ve written. I’m not sure he’s up to that. For all I know he may be. I hope he’s been properly educated. He says he’ll send me what he calls his c.v. Fascinating. Do you fancy him?’
‘Darling, please. With that moustache?’
‘I’m sorry, darling, yes. It didn’t look like hair at all.’
‘More like something that’s been turned on a lathe. Anyway he’s about thirty years younger than me. What did you make of little Louise? I saw you firing on all cylinders.’
‘Pretty as a picture but rather stodgy. Filling, like plum duff, you know. Do you think the noble lord enjoyed himself?’
‘I shouldn’t be surprised. He didn’t care for being given wine he didn’t care for.’
‘I hope not. Now he knows how it feels.’
‘I didn’t care for that warm white stuff either.’
‘Yes, I’m sorry, darling. I just couldn’t think of a way of getting a decent drink into your glass.’
After a pause, Joanna said, ‘Lady B sensibly brought her own tipple as usual.’
‘I wonder when those two talked to each other last.’
‘You can’t really expect it of her. She talked to me a bit at one stage but she wasn’t making much sense.’
‘He might as well keep quiet too.’
‘But both of them are positive conversational giants compared with Carlo.’
‘These voluble Italians,’ said Jimmie.
‘Darling, I wish you’d have another go at him about his English. He gets about one word in twenty of what I say to him and one in a hundred of anybody else and apparently he can’t say anything himself.’
‘Not in English. His Italian’s fluent enough.’
‘Why doesn’t he stay in Italy then? There can’t be anything for him here.’
‘Something to do with his tax, as I said. And he likes eating in friends’ houses in London because he hasn’t got to grapple with English as he’d have to in a restaurant.’
‘Can’t he go to an Italian restaurant? There are dozens all over London.’
‘As I told you, he doesn’t like Italian food.’
‘But why do we keep asking him here? Actually I can tell you the answer to that. Because he keeps asking us to that palazzo place of his and we keep going there. After all, he is a count.’
‘Well, if you must hark back to the primordial rudiments of everything,’ said Jimmie in a weary tone.
‘Hard luck on those youngsters, getting let in for two duds and one semi-dud.’
‘Only duds conversationally.’
‘Oh, you mean it’s much more important that they’ve all got handles to their names?’
‘That Scotchman and his bit of stuff would think so.’
‘I can’t see it cutting a single millimetre of ice with either him or her.’
‘Well, what did you really make of that lot at lunch-time?’ Gordon asked Louise.
‘I wasn’t particularly struck by any of them.’
‘Not even by poor old Jimmie? He was doing his best, after all.’
‘Doing his best to what?’
‘Well, to make you feel at home or something of the sort.’
‘If he’d wanted to do that he could have asked us to meet somebody a bit more interesting than his bloody lordship and his piss-artist elephant’s-bum-faced four-eyed boiler of a wife. Oh, and that asshole of an Italian who never opened his mouth except to put food and drink into it. Not that I wanted him to talk. No, poor old Jimmie was showing me and you and Mrs Jimmie and possibly others that there was life in the old dog yet. Some hopes. By the look of him he hasn’t had it up for half a century.’
‘I reckoned he asked those people to impress us with his aristocratic connections.’
‘Fancy that. Well, all I can say is he didn’t impress me.’ Louise spoke sulkily rather than with any heat.
‘Nor me, actually.’
‘If you’re right about him wanting to impress us he’s even more pathetic than I thought.’
‘Yes, I think there is something rather pathetic about poor old Jimmie.’
‘I don’t mean that sort of pathetic. And you must be careful of poor old Jimmie. He’s bad news.’
‘I’m sorry I inflicted him and the rest of them on you.’
‘That’s all right, it was quite an interesting experience considered as an item of social anthropology. A chance to see the British class system in action.’
‘You must mean in inaction. Decline from whatever it may once have been.’
‘Christ, Gordon, after that display?’
‘All … bangs and coloured lights. A hundred years ago, even up to 1939, the thing really had some teeth in it. There was an empire to run and a comparatively barbaric peasantry and proletariat to be kept down. What’s left of either of them today? The, the remnants of that class system operate in the other direction. Dukes and what-not complain that their titles hold them back, get in the way of their careers in banking or photography or whatever it may be. The British class system, as you quaintly call it, is –’
‘I know, it’s dead, which up to a point is a good thing, but beyond that point isn’t so good. Don’t go on about all those dukes who can’t get on in banking because they’ve admitted they’re dukes unless you want me to burst out crying. But anyhow, please don’t lecture at me.’
‘I didn’t mean to. But you must admit things have come to a pretty pass when you get someone like Jimmie Fane hobnobbing with an Italian count who never learnt to speak English. Even fifty years ago one wouldn’t –’
‘Fuck fifty years ago, and it’s time you realized there’s nothing I must do, all right.’ Louise sighed and stretched. ‘Except now I must be going and things like that.’
‘Oh darling, do stay a little longer.’
Gordon got to his feet as Louise had done and grappled with her briefly in an amatory way, at the end of which she disengaged herself without hostility and telephoned for a minicab. Within a few minutes she was being borne away from his flat towards the rather more commodious one she shared with a girl associate. It might have mildly surprised the Fanes to hear that, although the younger couple had certainly done the deed of darkness together, as Jimmie sometimes expressed it, they actually lived apart. Whatever the merits of this arrangement, at times like the present he was more strongly aware of its drawbacks. He doubted if Louise ever felt like that. When the subject of literal cohabitation came up, which it seldom did now, she was liable to say something like she wanted to keep her independence. He had given up wondering what she meant by that and had never asked her how many other chaps she was keeping her independence from.
This apparent tolerance testified not to self-confidence but to unwillingness to imperil their present arrangement, which at times unlike the present suited him well enough. He asked himself occasionally whether he was suited to live with any woman at all. He had so lived in the past, up to and including the point of being married for nearly six years, not counting the interval between his wife’s departure and their divorce. She had departed with a man who worked in a government office on something to do with pensions and who, according to report, was three or four inches shorter and substantially younger than he. These factors had not enhanced Gordon’s self-esteem. His wife had once accused him of not knowing how to help a woman to feel pleased with life or even how to have a good time himself, and quite often and more succinctly of being hopeless. Perhaps he just had a low sex-drive. It was true, to be sure, that he thought or at any rate talked about sex less than his mates seemed to.
An internal twinge smartly followed by an eructation reminded him of the unpleasant wine he had earlier drunk and so of its provider. Someone had told him that Jimmie Fane was one of the most money-conscious buggers in London, but had not reckoned on a demonstration of this quality at his own table. Gordon wished more than ever that he had managed to get a glimpse of the label on that bottle of red. Moving now towards the corner where he kept his typewriter, he thought of what Jimmie’s wife had intimated about the financial dangers of taking him out to lunch, but then she had probably been talking for effect, to impress him with how wild and free and not to be thought of as stuffy and middle-aged she was. However, discussing Jimmie with her was bound to have its points of interest.
Now, by the window that overlooked the gloomy suburban park, he put a sheet of inferior paper into his typewriter and got to work on roughing out his curriculum vie-tee for Jimmie. Experience led him to resist the impulse to get it over in one go and try for a fair copy straight off. Wincing with boredom, then, and x-ing out every other phrase, he set down the facts of his London birth, his sound but beyond all question non-posh schooling, his minimally creditable, non-Oxbridge college course and ‘good’ final grading. None of this, he felt, would impress or even interest any sentient being but it had to be there in its entirety. Couple of years’ drudgery as sub-editor on Barnsley Echo or equivalent before lucky breakthrough to features desk, with special reference to culture, on London daily. Slow and limited ascent to books section on Sunday newspaper. Principal articles. Contributions to publications, to collections. First man to land on Mars 1995, on Titan 1996. The last entry would not survive retyping, but had been necessary to set down in order to ward off terminal coma. Something did that job, anyway, though far from having shown the least sign of private amusement he looked a little guilty at sinking into facetiousness, and hastily x-ed out the offending space fiction with the shift-key down.
Soon he was retyping. A word-processor would have been quicker and the result perhaps more imposing, but Gordon had not got one of his own. Too expensive, he would say, and he had a sort of access to a machine in the office provided he had a good enough story and could persuade the editor’s secretary to let him use it. And this time there was the consideration that Jimmie would probably have learnt to tell apart a processor print-out and something run up on the old steam typewriter and, needless to say, would not have approved of anything in the former category. At the moment it was very likely not needful to say that he would have had no corresponding bias in favour of the latter. Having biases in favour of things, Gordon already suspected, was not something Jimmie was noted for, a trying characteristic in a biographee.
Challenged by somebody like Louise, Gordon would probably have stuck to self-interest, enlightened where possible, as by far his leading motive in writing about Jimmie. But in his mind he would freely admit that he hoped the result would do something more than advance his own career. He had not lied when he said earlier that he had recently reread The Escaped Prisoner, at least on the understanding that by ‘reread’ was meant something like ‘read through to the end with some respect having several years ago looked at the thing and found it intolerably complacent.’ The fuller text captured a youthful observation that the book was silent on critical issues like racial equality and equal rights for women. Well, that was roughly how he saw the matter in retrospect.
His transcription done, Gordon read through the page he had filled, trying to see what was there as a record of events and actions as well as a mere piece of typing with possible errors. Quite soon he stopped reading it and just checked it for literals. As a narrative of the better part of a lifetime it was undeniably thin, lacking in uplift. He now saw without difficulty that his original instinct had been right, and his personal history would not have been improved by including in it mention of the novel of his that had been rejected by fourteen publishers, even less of its successor that remained in rough draft if anywhere outside the mind of God. After some attempted clairvoyance, he pencilled a few words across the top of the sheet and got it ready for the post.
Having done so he felt committed to something, small as it might have been, and about time too.
The day came when Gordon was to take Jimmie Fane out to lunch. The morning of it he filled in at the offices of the Sunday newspaper he worked for. These had once been majestically sited in the area of Fleet Street, but rising costs had compelled a series of moves into humbler quarters, ending for the moment in a dockland semi-wilderness. The building was reachable, or nearly, by a water-bus service that was slow and uncomfortable but at least different from that of the ordinary land bus with its route through miles of houses in silent-screen disrepair apparently occupied by remnants of a dwarfish aboriginal race. Both alternatives had the quality of always seeming a little worse to experience than to remember. This time it was the water-bus that Gordon swore he would never use again. The weather was wet and he had to plod across a kind of mudflat between disembarking and reaching shelter.
‘Nice of you to condescend to drop in on us,’ said the books editor. Originally he had not much wanted to be books editor, but the then editorial editor, the Editor in fact, had not wanted him to be anything else. ‘We appreciate immeasurably being spared some of your attention.’ This man was now nearing sixty and called Desmond O’Leary, though he gave no other sign whatever of having to do with Ireland or any of its inhabitants, past and present. ‘Everybody here understands that you have weightier calls on your time.’ Whatever his origins, O’Leary looked like a kind of bird or lizard above the neck, having no hair at all to be seen on his head, though he was very ready with the assurance that he was like an ape everywhere else. ‘All that we lesser mortals would beg from you in the foreseeable future is a thousand words on this latest piece of New England farmhouse guff, a round-up of female black American guff with some latitude as to space and, let’s see, no, yes, whither the docudrama as seen on TV and film and what, if anything, is literary truth.’ O’Leary laid bare and lit a smallish cigar of rectangular cross-section.’ Actually all I need from you more or less straight away is your next column piece and a word with Harry about our coverage of the Codex Prize. It looks like Latin America’s turn this time round, much to my personal mortification. How did your lunch with JRP Fane go?’
‘Look, Gordon, when it comes to picking up the bill, mind you don’t –’
‘It’s come to that already and I’m picking it up. He virtually made it a condition of coming out at all.’
‘Oh did he? Clearly his hand has lost none of its cunning. Aristocratic sort of old sod, isn’t he? I saw him at some party once and there was nobody there half grand enough for him.’
‘He was quite willing to talk to me.’
‘Ask yourself why. But what’s the attraction as far as you’re concerned? Not your cup of tea as a bloke or as a writer, I’d have thought. And he’s what, he’s passé, over and done with, gone for good, thing of the past, beyond revival even by you.’ O’Leary stared over his half-glasses at Gordon, ‘I happen to think you’d do the job about as well as anybody if it could be done, but it can’t, as you’ll see. Not worth the sweat.’
Gordon shrank from saying that O’Leary himself was something of a relic, specifically in the view he took of Fane’s irrevocable departure as a literary figure. What he did say, no less truthfully, was, ‘He may not be my kind of writer and he’s obviously not my kind of man. That’s an important part of what you called his attraction for me as a subject. I want to see how far I can –’
‘Oh God, it’s the challenge, is it, the fascination of what’s difficult and all that. Some old tit, even older and tittier than JRP Fane, anyway you remember he said when you’ve done something you can do, do something you can’t. Wrong again. Do something you can do and then do something else you can do and never mind if it’s the same thing. No virtue in trying what you find uncongenial because you find it uncongenial. You know that very well, or you would if you weren’t still stuck in that bloody Scottish Presbyterianism you flatter yourself you’ve left far behind you. My own upbringing was – but it’s a little early in the day to be bringing up bygones, I suppose. I shouldn’t really have started on any of this. Sorry.’
‘Oh, that’s all right,’ said Gordon, though he could see little enough to forgive, O’Leary having mostly stuck to his habitual friendly-jeering manner. Well, perhaps what he had said had fetched up a little nearer the bone than usual, ‘In fact it’s a nice change to be treated as an adult. Anyway, with your permission I mean to have a fair crack at showing how decent writing can overcome almost any prejudice in the reader, if that doesn’t sound too pompous.’
Perhaps it did; whether it did or not, O’Leary seemed to pay it small heed. He said, ‘I just hate to see a reasonably competent and successful journalist like yourself thinking it’s about time he did something less perishable and throwing his talents away on a serious book. I wouldn’t mind so much if you were going for something of your own, even a novel, but a critical biography, your phrase be it noted, of a prehistoric old sod like Fane, oh dear oh dear. Right, I’ve said too much already, not that any of it’ll shake your determination to misuse your abilities. You know, Gordon, in this life it’s important to recognize one’s limitations. Mine extend as far as this desk and no further, not my first choice as you may have heard, which goes to show one can sometimes do with a bit of guidance in setting one’s course. Now I mustn’t be late for the Chairman’s conference. He’s become a degree or two less tolerable since he got that bloody knighthood, unless it’s my imagination. Well, show me a pot of ointment and I’ll show you a fly. Give me a call tea-time about the days of the week you’ll be coming in to the office. Don’t forget to talk to Harry before you go. And first thing in the morning will do for your column but no later.’
It had been arranged that, when the time came, Gordon as host-designate should call to collect guest at the Fane residence and he turned up there punctually, indeed with a couple of minutes to spare. A girl of about thirty answered his ring apparently clad in an excerpt from the Bayeux Tapestry. ‘Yes?’ she said loudly before he could speak. Her manner was unwelcoming.
‘I’ve called to pick up Mr Fane.’
‘I’m taking him out to lunch.’
‘Yes, meaning yes, I have a name, and if you ask me nicely I might tell you what it is.’ That was something like what Gordon was tempted to say. But all he did say was his name in full.
‘I’m terribly sorry but I’ve never heard of you.’
‘I exist nevertheless,’ Gordon actually did say this time. ‘Will you kindly tell Mr Fane that I’m here as arranged with him on Monday this week?’
‘Mr Fane is not here.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. Perhaps I could wait for him. May I come in for a minute?’
‘Anything wrong, darling?’ asked a new voice, new in this conversation but in other respects age-old. Gordon had spied its owner, or that person’s head, sticking out of a nearby doorway inside the house a moment before. Now he was to be seen in full, striding up the hallway, a well-set-up man in a dark-grey suit and glasses. As he approached he repeated his question.
‘I don’t really know, darling,’ answered the girl.
‘M’m,’ said the man. He came to a halt in front of Gordon, at whom he still gazed while he said, ‘Could this be the chap, do you think?’
‘Well, he certainly looks and sounds like it.’
Now the man took his glasses off his nose and put them folded into the top pocket of his suit, ‘I think it might be better if you left, old man,’ he said. ‘No hard feelings.’
Gordon moved his arms a little way away from his sides and leant slightly forward, and things looked quite interesting for a moment, but then a distinctive high voice could be heard from the street.
‘Ah, there you are, my dear fellow, I’m terribly sorry I wasn’t here to greet you, I just popped out for some cat-food.’
‘Never mind, Jimmie,’ said Gordon, ‘I’ve been well looked after.’
‘Periwinkle’s been taking care of you, has she? I’m afraid I’m absolutely hopeless at organizing things, especially people. Let’s be off, shall we? I suppose I must have asked them along to give a … That’s Oliver, my son-in-law, back there. I think you could hail this chap. Fancy painting a taxi yellow.’
When they had driven off, Gordon asked, ‘She’s your daughter, is she, Periwinkle?’ He wanted to have it authoritatively confirmed that this was indeed a girl’s name.
‘Not a very friendly creature, I’m afraid, little Periwinkle.’
‘She wasn’t exactly welcoming me in just now. She seemed to think I was a tout or a hawker or something.’
‘She must have got you mixed up with a sort of cadger kind of fellow from Bulgaria did he say, who’s been hanging round the place for a day or two. She must have mistaken you for him.’
‘Yes, different kettle of fish altogether. Horrible-looking broken-down sort of chap. It may seem an odd description of such a person, but what I believe is known nowadays as dead common.’
‘Really,’ said Gordon, remembering to make three syllables of it. He glanced surreptitiously down at his clothes.
‘He did have a moustache rather like yours.’
‘Perhaps that was what confused Periwinkle.’
‘Of course, she’s the child of my second marriage. She’s a funny girl. I don’t think she’s ever kissed me of her own accord. The truth is she’s a howling snob. I can’t think where she gets that from, it must be from her mother. Between ourselves I’ve never greatly cared for young Oliver, what’s he called, Turnbull I fancy. He’s what they call upwardly mobile, or at any rate desirous of being so. He’s also something in the City. Remind me. Just remind me where you’re taking me if you would.’
‘I thought –’
‘And whatever you do don’t please say it’s a little place you happen to know.’
Since that was more or less exactly what he had been going to say, Gordon’s reply was slow in coming. He was thrown off too by trying to remember where he had not long ago heard that very expression, and further still by wondering whether it was the form of words or the likely reality or both that was being interdicted. But in fact it was not at all long before he was saying gamely, ‘Well, it is a rather small place and in the nature of things I do happen to know about it.’
‘Yes yes, no doubt no doubt. What’s it called again?’
‘Really,’ said Jimmie, far outdoing in all respects Gordon’s pronunciation of the word. ‘He’s not an American, I hope, the valuable Cakebread?’
‘Not as far as I know.’
‘Nevertheless I prophesy that his establishment will be full of citizens of that great republic. Hiram and Mamie are just mad about little places they happen to know, yes sir.’
Jimmie’s second sentence here was delivered in what was presumably intended as an American accent, though one that failed to recall any actually used within the nine million square kilometres of the Union. Gordon was at a loss for an answer, so he just smiled nervously.
‘I’m sorry, dear boy, of course I adore Americans and feel at home with everything about them except the way they speak. I can never make out what their rules are for choosing between pronouncing every single syllable, as in tempo-rarily, and swallowing as much of a word as possible, as when Polonius tells Laertes, neither a bore nor a lender be.’
This time Gordon laughed nervously.
‘You remember that Shakespeare wrote borrower, a word no American can pronounce. And all those glottal stops they put at the beginnings of words, as in Deutschland über alles. They’re deeply German, you know, German to their fingernails. That awful Hunnish greeting that uses the bare name, so it’s Tom, Dick, Harry, no hallo Tom, good morning Dick, give my love to your mother, Harry. German through and through. I wonder they don’t all click their heels and wear monocles. Well, thank you for putting up with that harangue, dear boy. Of course, one wouldn’t dream of letting a word of it reach an American ear, they’re so desperately sensitive and nervous of being made fun of, haven’t you found that?’
‘I’m afraid I haven’t noticed.’
‘That’s what they’re like, I do assure you. Now. Where is Citizen Cakebread’s eatery located?’ This last brought a brief and perfunctory return to the Jimmie accent. ‘Hopefully.’
‘A few doors off Edgware Road.’
‘So we’re nearly there.’
If Gordon had set out to tell the whole truth from the start he would have had to add something about not having visited the little place himself for some time, but he decided to keep this fact up his sleeve. In what he intermittently saw as the battle of the lunch, or his attempt to protect what he could of his disposable capital against luxurious Jimmie’s ravages, the defence had made an encouraging start in the circumstances. Gordon’s mind went back to Monday’s telephone conversation. His ring had been answered by a voice he recognized with some relief as Joanna’s.
‘May I speak to Mr Fane, Jimmie Fane?’
‘Oh, isn’t that, isn’t that Gordon? Are you calling him about that lunch you were going to give him? Right, I’ll get him.’
Pause. ‘Hallo, dear boy. Yes, of course I remember. I’m afraid I haven’t really thought where. Oh, would you hold on just a minute?’ Burble burble burble, soon translated without difficulty. ‘Hallo? Er, it’s kind of you to leave the choice of venue up to me, my dear fellow, but I rather think it’s only fair that you should decide that question from your obviously more immediate knowledge than my, er …’
So, unexpectedly, it was not to be the Tripoli or Woolton’s but the joint Gordon had on the spur of the moment recalled from a couple of lunches with Louise’s predecessor. He was not a habitual luncher-out and Cakebread’s, he thought, had been cheap and cheerful and not too bad. Thereafter his sense of adventure had taken over.
The taxi stopped outside somewhere that did not, at first glance, look much like the Cakebread’s of Gordon’s memory, though the name was to be seen in fluorescent tubing. Jimmie sprang athletically out on to the pavement and peered in through the glass door. In an abstracted state Gordon paid the cab-fare and joined him, or more truly followed him into the restaurant. For restaurant it was or had now become, neither cheap-looking nor particularly cheerful. Waiters in little striped waistcoats and bow ties darted to and fro where overalled girls had once moved more slowly, and the menu no longer appeared on a smudgy blackboard but between fat leather covers on every table. The noise was immense. Jimmie put on a good king-in-exile show, holding his distinguished white head high above the rabble, apologizing with gestures for accidental buffets inflicted on him by others. He and Gordon were shown to a table by a side wall and brought drinks.
‘The industrious Mr Cakebread would appear to be prospering.’
‘There have been considerable changes since I was last here,’ Gordon shouted back. He felt he must immediately correct any mistaken impression that this was the kind of level on which he customarily refreshed himself in public.
‘I shouldn’t care to become an habitué here perhaps but it suits my mood at the moment.’
Gordon tried to look receptive.
‘Last night I did something I hadn’t done for what seems like simply decades and probably is quite a long time and dipped into one of those old novels of mine, not The Escaped Prisoner which you were kind enough to mention recently but another, no matter which for the present. And do you know it seemed to me, it seemed not too bad. A little wordy, a little clumsy, really rather embarrassingly clumsy here and there but on the whole not too bad. For the first time for many years I found it not inconceivable that I might one day return to the charge, try my hand at fiction once more. It was, I can’t tell you, it was like being reminded of one’s youth. And I’ve you or your advent in my life to thank for turning my thoughts in that direction. I see they offer natives here, meaning I take it oysters rather than cannibal islanders, offer them at what seems to me a ridiculously inflated price but I’ve long since given up trying to make any sense of such matters. Tell me, er, tell me, Gordon, from your past experience and your present information, do you imagine they would be of a respectable size or something falling a wee bit short of that?’
‘Because I know of very few minor disappointments as keen as that of expecting an oyster to fill the mouth in that agreeable way and then finding it just too small to do so, and this not once but a dozen times over. So to be on the safe side I think, yes, I think I’ll order eighteen and then if the worst comes to the worst quantity will have to do duty for quality. Yes, I think that’s the best solution in the circumstances.’
Holding his voice steady with an effort, Gordon said, ‘I’m sure if we asked them nicely they’d fetch a couple of specimens to the table so that you could –’
‘No no, dear boy, too much of a fuss and bother and certain to cause incalculable delay. Talking of which, they don’t seem to be positively falling over themselves with anxiety to take our order, do they? Oh well, it gives us time to catch up with our reading.’
With that, Jimmie brought up an eyeglass on a fine silvery chain through which he proceeded to study the menu. Or to pretend to, to look effective while apparently so doing. Did it just happen that what he fancied turned out to be the most expensive dish to be had? Or had he quite consciously set out to sting his host as painfully as practicable? Or was his motive somewhere in the capacious territory between the two? In search of an answer, Gordon observed Jimmie’s full-collared silk shirt and boldly clashing tie, side-parted silvery hair worn long for a man of his age, green-bordered handkerchief ‘carelessly’ pushed into jacket-sleeve, antique cuff-links. He would have observed the cut of the seasoned-looking dark suit if he had ever learnt to tell one sort of cut from another. Then Jimmie glanced up from the menu and round the room with an expression of tolerant superiority on his face that seemed to go with details of clothing and stuff. Old Jimmie Fane saw himself as an artist of a far-off time when artists were special people and looked special and of course ate lots of oysters. Any moment now he would be calling for a bottle of the Widow.
There were perhaps elements of the ridiculous in this picture, but Gordon felt no disposition to laugh, not even internally. He felt less like it than ever when a waistcoated waiter arrived and after appreciatively taking an order for eighteen natives asked what was to follow and got an inquiry from Jimmie about the available sizes of lobster. Gordon stopped listening for a while and did his best to put aside his copy of the menu. He swallowed the last of his gin and Campari – why had he ordered that? – and saw that after paying this bill he must simply go home and take to his bed and stay there until the end of the following week, when his monthly bit of salary would reach his bank. He would use the period of bodily inactivity to square his accounts with God and such matters.
Quite calm now, Gordon watched while Jimmie nodded approvingly at a bottle of no doubt expensive wine brought for his inspection, chewed an intervening mouthful of crust of bread, coughed thoroughly, drank fizzy mineral water, gulped a large mouthful of the wine poured out for him to try, followed it with more mineral water and after a short interval in which he sat stock-still, made a loudish noise that sounded like a kind of indrawn belch, but proved to be the first of a tremendously long and sort of well-entrenched series of hiccups. At first he stared at Gordon and held up his hand as if calling for a silence he failed to produce. Soon the waiter returned with a glass of still water and Jimmie sipped at it fast, slowly, from the right side of the glass, from the wrong side of the glass, to wash down any crumbs or other extraneous matter that might have been lingering in his throat, vaguely. Nothing happened, or rather he continued to emit belching sounds a dozen times a minute. Possibly these had acquired a new sonority, because now a partial silence did descend, though not on Jimmie. With the glass of water put aside, he pulled out a handkerchief, not the one tucked into his cuff, and stuffed it over his mouth, a manoeuvre that muffled his noises but failed to make them anywhere near inaudible.
Two managers, or perhaps one manager and one deputy manager, appeared and bent over Jimmie, partly screening him from view. Gordon found he was quite looking forward to the spectacle of the venerable artist swallowing his eighteen natives one by one between hiccups, but as yet no food, nothing further, had reached their table. Then Jimmie moved his face into sight. It had gone rather pale.
Take me home,’ he said tremulously, and clapped his handkerchief back just in time.
There will be no charge for anything,’ both managers said.
Gordon did not try to persuade Jimmie to stay. Watched by several of those near by they reached the street door and hurried through it to a corner past which taxis could be expected to cruise.
‘Sorry I’ve made you miss your lunch,’ Jimmie managed to say.
‘That’s all right, Jimmie. As a rule I just have a sandwich.’
After a minute or two watching for taxis Gordon felt a tap on his shoulder and turned to find Jimmie smiling at him in an almost spiritual way.
‘There should be one along any minute.’
Jimmie was shaking his fine head. He looked now as if he was listening to heavenly music. He said nothing for the moment.
‘My God,’ said Gordon.
Now Jimmie nodded. ‘They’ve gone. I’ve had these fits of the hiccups before and sometimes they just go away after a few minutes and don’t come back. I wish I knew what I do to make them stop. Stopping trying to make them stop is what does it, perhaps. Let’s get a move on – my appetite’s come back with a rush. Ah, I think we’re going to be all right. Yes, that’s our chap, isn’t it? Waiter!’
‘Oysters and lobsters and some crêpes suzettes that were really quite well done. I’m afraid I rather over-indulged myself there. I seemed quite unable to stop eating them. Little Mr Thompson couldn’t keep up with me. Well really, he didn’t try, he said he’d had enough to eat.’
‘Was it very expensive?’ Joanna put a large dark Belgian-made chocolate into her mouth.
‘What? I didn’t do any sums and wasn’t shown the bill. Perhaps it did cost a little by Mr T’s standards. I must say, darling, it was really quite funny.’ Jimmie produced a brief cracked laugh, an old man’s laugh. ‘He was consternated when he saw the place was slightly more what he no doubt calls up-market than he’d remembered. I only had to mention oysters to fill him with horror. He put on a great show of being frightfully concerned when I was having my hiccups but he couldn’t hide his glee at the thought of not having to pay. And then when I recovered … well …’
‘What did he have to eat himself?’
‘I didn’t notice much, I blush to admit. Some kind of soup, I fancy, and cheese or something. Why? I mean, should I have …’
‘It sounds as if you chose the priciest dishes on the menu.’
‘Not as such, they were what I fancied eating. Are you saying I should have lunched off a sardine and half a tomato out of consideration for Mr Thompson’s pocket?’
‘No, but you needn’t have caned him as ruthlessly as you did. No doubt you managed to force down a bottle of wine or so?’
‘Yes we did, but before you ask on behalf of your Uncle Arthur from Penge it was quite a decent Chablis but not even premier cru.’
‘How many bottles?’
Speaking with less urbanity than before, Jimmie said, ‘Darling, I can’t think why we’re having an inquisition. The answer to your latest question is one, one bottle.’
‘Which you had most of.’
‘If I did it was to save leaving half of it for the waiters to swill at their leisure. I don’t think your precious Mr Thompson is used to wine. He’d obviously have felt more at home with a nice tankard of wallop.’ Jimmie paused and eyed his wife. ‘And if you ask me whether I drank any brandy I might get rather cross,’ he said, giving the last word an old-fashioned pronunciation. ‘To put your mind at rest I refrained, out of kindness not to my host not to myself. I’d had quite enough to eat and drink and I didn’t want to run the risk of stirring my insides up. And I must say, darling, I find it a teeny bit boring of you to tell me I’m not to ask that fellow to take me where I want to go for luncheon and then when I manage to get a tolerable meal after all to haul me over the coals for eating and drinking what I fancied.’
‘Well done,’ said Joanna, looking for another chocolate but for the moment not settling on one. ‘Your capacity for –’
‘I was going to say, your capacity for putting other people in the wrong seems if anything to increase from day to day.’
Immediately the telephone began to ring downstairs on the ground floor, there being from Jimmie’s repeated prohibition only the one instrument in the house. On hearing it now he laid his hand energetically across his forehead like a figure in high drama expressing the ultimate dissatisfaction with fate. ‘Oh, that damned contrivance, don’t tell me it has no mind of its own, it knows just when to ring to cause the maximum … Well, I’m glad to hear that some faculty in me is increasing against the general trend. Answer that thing, would you, darling, there’s a sweetheart, it’s certain to be for you.’
But when Joanna came back again from downstairs soon afterwards she said, it’s for you.’
‘Oh God. I hope you –’
‘The second Mrs Fane. She’s hanging on.’
‘That bloody woman. I thought I’d made it perfectly clear …’
Saying no more, Jimmie dashed from the room like somebody half his age. Joanna followed him as far as the door, then moved quietly to the stairhead. After a moment she heard a clink and a clash as Jimmie noisily rang off, and was sitting reading a fashion magazine and eating a chocolate on his return to the room.
‘How sure are you there’s a book in it?’ asked Brian Harris a couple of mornings later.
Gordon Scott-Thompson answered without hesitation. ‘Sure enough to sign a contract specifying a delivery date.’
‘What delivery date have you in mind?’
‘Oh, I haven’t got as far as that yet. I’d need to think about it.’
‘So think about it, my old Gordon. Anyway, you seem a good bit surer now than you were this time last week.’
‘This time last week I hadn’t talked to him much and I hadn’t realized what a lot of stuff there was in the archives here for a start. You’re going on as if you’re a good bit keener on your side of the fence.’
‘Yeah, we are, I think it’s fair to say.’
Brian Harris used the plural pronoun out of no delusion of grandeur or of anything else but in general reference to the publishing firm in whose offices the two were sitting. His own office in these offices, partitioned off from them with man-high sheets of lavatory glass, had no special publishing look about them, except perhaps for the presence of rather more books than even a literate stockbroker, say, was likely to have installed where he worked. But then Brian Harris was not, in dress, hairstyle and accent, at all the kind of youngish fellow most people might have supposed to be a director of a publishing house, and a rather old-fashioned house at that, one that occasionally published works of literature.
‘So you’ll be commissioning a book on Jimmie Fane’s life and works by me,’ said Gordon now.
‘Quite likely, yeah.’
‘Under a contract.’
‘I clock you,’ said Brian, thoroughly scratching an armpit.
‘With an advance.’
‘I shouldn’t be at all surprised, though of course that’s off the record.’
‘What about an advance on that advance?’
‘You mean, you mean I go and give you some money, just like that?’
‘Why not, you want to know. Why is what I want to know, among other things.’
‘I had to pay for this rather stiff lunch for the two of us.’
‘You were telling me. I thought you were supposed to have an expense account on that paper.’
‘Yes, that’s right.’
Gordon thought it would take too long to explain that his boss on the paper was opposed to the Fane project and might not look favourably on a submission for the refunding of expenses incurred in its furtherance. So he said, ‘Louise has been spending money like water recently, my money.’
‘What, without you there? Would a couple of hundred quid be any help?’
‘Yes, it would. So you’re paying me an advance on my advance after all.’
‘I’ll send it on to you. It’ll be out of my own pocket actually, and before you say thanks a lot but no thanks it’ll actually be the firm’s money which I’m borrowing from them so when you pay me back I’ll use what you give me to pay the firm back, and before you ask me just out of curiosity how I can be so sure you’ll pay me back on the nail I’ll say you’re enough of a cunt to pay your own grandmother back if you had to cut your foot off to do it. I hope you understand I say that without the slimmest possible sliver of reluctant admiration or any crap like that. You don’t deserve an expense account, you don’t. On a paper that size?’
After giving a couple of upward nods in lieu of imprecations, the publisher recrossed his blue-clad legs on the hard chair he had pulled up to rest them on, and joined his hands behind his head. Uncharacteristically, he hesitated before speaking again. Gordon clearly had nothing to say for the moment.
‘I told you we were thinking of reissuing some of the Fane works to coincide with your own effort.’
‘Still only the novels?’
‘At the moment. They seemed the obvious ones.’
‘M’m. All of them at once, some then some later, or what? You hadn’t decided when you and I talked before.’
‘We still haven’t. Most likely it’ll be two at the time and then if they catch on the others the following season. Nothing fixed yet, though.’
‘I’ll be saying quite a bit about the novels. I’m going to feel, well, hampered, restricted, if some of them are still out of print.’
‘I shouldn’t let that worry you. After all, you’ll be saying more than quite a bit about other items in the Fane story, I hope.’
During these exchanges Brian had produced a small oblong tin with a green-and-goldish design on its lid. It proved to contain cigarette makings and their owner was soon demonstrating his skill with them. In this second pause Gordon fancied he could detect traces of actual embarrassment. He wondered a little what was to come.
Now Brian put between his lips a sort of cigarette of about the girth of a stout toothpick, and lit it. A faint narcotic odour became perceptible. ‘Your book’s going to have two kinds of stuff in it, call them critical and personal, what old Fane wrote and what he was or did. By definition, right? I’m sorry to say, but not all that sorry to say, more people are going to be interested in the second than the first. From what I know of you, my old Gordon, you’re likely to be more interested in the first than the second. Fine. We’ll work it out, we being you on one side and us on the other. For now I’d just like to ask you to remember that we’re obviously very pleased when one of the heavy papers buys something out of one of our books to liven up its review section, and also, like you to remember too, none of them gives a toss about any of your critical or literary stuff. That’s all for later. It has a bearing, but it’s for later. What counts for the review editor is the personal angle, and Fane’s on his fourth wife, okay? Now if you could let me have a specimen chapter and a synopsis by the end of next week we’ll all be laughing. Nobody’ll look at what you turn in, but they like to know it’s there.’
Ten minutes later, Gordon was waiting for a bus in Baker Street. To do so was not at all pleasant on this autumn morning, but to go where he was going by Tube would have meant a longer walk at the distant end. He wished he could have dealt half as easily with the problem presented just now by Brian Harris, or more truly brought into the open by him. When Gordon had first thought of writing about Jimmie Fane he had had in mind a sort of working subtitle, something to be imagined as coming after the subject’s name and a colon on the title-page, something no livelier or more inventive than Neglected Genius and not even to be committed to paper. Then as soon as he started looking to any purpose he had glimpsed something like Sexual Adventurer looming up on the other flank. Both phrases, he foresaw, would eventually seem appropriate in some measure, but he wanted to work all that out for himself, not be influenced by any pressure one way or the other. Well, there was one consolation, that the time for making up his mind about such matters was not yet.
These reflections lasted him till his bus came and he was climbing into it, at which point they were superseded or shoved out by a closer sight than before of the legs belonging to a girl of student age and general appearance just in front of him. It was not that the rest of her was specially attractive, nor even that the legs themselves were, it was simply that they did seem to extend a very long way upwards. No, he must mean he could see a very long way up them. How their owner stood the weather apparently wearing nothing between foot and crotch but a pair of tight tights was not his present concern. That was to do with Jimmie, had been suggested by thinking of Jimmie. Gordon settled himself in a seat from which he could see only the student’s back view and only as far down as her shoulders and went on with the same line of thought.
Jimmie had presumably come to puberty in the late 1920s or early ’30s, the golden age of the female leg, as was testified by many things, including films and mildly erotic calendar drawings of the period. By the 1940s, the decade of Gordon’s own birth, the focus had shifted to the breasts and the pin-up, often emphasizing the nipples, which could not then be shown or seen in public. By 1960 anything went, or had started to go, and not long after that had come the golden age of everything or else nothing in particular. Gordon was just old enough to remember the departure of the brassiere along with its contents, and it happened to be no comfort to him among many others that behind all this the old female bottom had continued jogging along on its way undisturbed.
In a thin drizzle Gordon’s bus made its way along Knights-bridge. He found that when he tried to call up an erogenous image of Louise in his mind he got little more than a blur. That might have been the result of defective sexuality on his part. Or more remotely of the kind of changes in socio-erotic history he had been trying to assemble. Or the fact that he was in a bus on a chilly, damp morning.
When the time came he got out into the middle of it. Not far to walk, though, towards the river but not all the way. To identify the house, ring its bell and wait called for no unusual powers. On the first floor above his head a window was opened, but by whom he could not see. The next moment a small metal object dropped through the air and tinkled on the pavement near by and the window slammed shut. The object proved to be a latchkey. While approaching and climbing the stairs within, Gordon called to mind his observations on legs and dates, but forgot them again on entering the first-floor front room and being greeted by the Hon. Mrs Jimmie Fane. He had reckoned that she was eleven or twelve years older than he, though he had to admit she looked less, today at any rate. She had on a snuff-coloured pullover with ribbing at neck and cuffs and a royal-blue skirt of smooth but non-shiny material. Apart from an unmemorable ring or two she was wearing no jewellery.
‘Would you like a drink?’ she asked Gordon.
The sort of drink that he would have liked was a cup of tea or coffee, but he felt he could not very well ask for such a thing here, it’s a bit early in the day for me,’ he said.
‘It’s a bit early in the day for anybody, but would you like one?’
‘To be honest I’d rather not.’
‘Fine, I’ll keep you company and not have one too.’ She smiled in a friendly way. ‘Come and sit down. It’s warmer up this end where the heating is. Jimmie went off to Gray’s as advertised. He’s lunching with a couple of earls and a marquis so he might as well be in Timbuctoo as far as we’re concerned.’
Joanna smiled again. He thought to himself she had obviously been a very good-looking woman when younger. Then he thought his use of the pluperfect might look or sound ungallant, so he amended his first thought to signify that she was still a good-looking woman now, at that very moment. He could have sworn his expression had remained constant throughout this interior shift, but when she smiled for the third time it was not the same.
‘Rather a waste from one point of view,’ she said, ‘don’t you think?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘I gather he took a pretty flashy lunch off you the other day. I got him to let you choose the place but he didn’t want to and you wouldn’t have been able to influence what he ate and drank.’
‘Did you ever get the feeling he was choosing the expensive stuff on purpose, just because it was expensive?’
‘Now you mention it, I did once or twice.’
‘Good for you. But I don’t think he was just enjoying the simple pleasure of getting somebody else to spend money on him, though perhaps one shouldn’t put that past him in general. No, I think what he was doing was showing you who was master, coming out on top in a battle of wills. I’m sorry, Gordon, aren’t you going to take notes?’
‘I’ve a very good memory. As long as I write a few things down afterwards I’ll be all right.’
‘Did you write down how much that lunch cost you?’
‘I didn’t need to.’
‘I can’t help feeling I ought to reimburse you for what you had to cough up.’
‘Don’t worry about that, Joanna, I’ll get it off expenses and anyhow I couldn’t take your money.’
‘How Scottish are you, darling?’
‘M’m? Oh, only by descent. All my grandparents were born in London and I’ve no particular connections with Scotland. Why do you ask?’
‘Oh, I just wondered. Look, er, isn’t it time we got down to business? How are you on the early years of the great man?’
They quickly established between them that James Reginald Pruett Fane had been born in 1918 in Cheltenham, the son of the comfortably-off but not rich second son of a baronet who had made a study of country houses. JRPF had attended a small public school in Shropshire, where he had shown a precocious talent for painting in watercolour.
‘Has any of that stuff survived?’ asked Gordon.
‘No. He renounced painting for ever when he went up to King’s and made a bonfire of all his work, all he could lay his hands on anyway. He doesn’t mind people knowing he used to paint but he’s never tried to trace what he sold, not that there was much of it.’
At Cambridge 1936–39 JRPF had vocally supported the Nationalist side in the Spanish civil war, though he had not himself visited Spain at that time.
‘Rather brave of him, wasn’t it, coming out for Franco then?’ asked Gordon.
‘Not at Cambridge, at least among his mates, or the chaps he wanted to be his mates, you know, posh chaps. He was a bit of a Catholic then, or says he was.’
‘But you mean he’s renounced that too.’
‘Just let himself lapse.’
Also at Cambridge JRPF had become known as a poet. In those still early days he had contributed to some of those journals and anthologies that were hostile or indifferent to the quasi-Marxist stance of contemporary poets in Oxford and elsewhere. His first volume had been published in 1939.
‘What did he do in the war?’ asked Gordon, ‘I can’t make out. His Who’s Who entry just says he was in government service.’
‘That’s as much as he’ll say when you ask him, all he’s ever said to me anyway, he worked for the government. If it were somebody else that might mean he was to do with something hush-hush, so hush bloody hush in fact that he can’t tell you about it fifty years after the event, and I did meet a queerish buffoon not so long ago who owned up to having helped to snatch a Nazi general in Crete but wouldn’t say which one. But anyway I’d give a small sum to know what the old man’s work for the government amounted to.’
Just before or just after saying that, Joanna had changed position in her chair in a way that brought to notice her legs, which were enclosed in a pair of dark-blue stockings or tights that went well with her royal-blue skirt. Although not himself a great leg man, as indicated earlier, Gordon could see perfectly well that they were very good, shapely legs. It crossed his mind straight away that this fact was ultimately connected with Jimmie’s preferences and their likely root in the period of his puberty. Other considerations could be deferred for later thinking over.
‘I’ll see what I can find out,’ Gordon assured Joanna.
As his first wife JRPF had married the daughter of a newspaper owner in 1945. That wife had run away with an amateur jockey early in 1950. Later that same year he had pot married a second time, to a less pretty girl who was also not all that well off but was a viscount’s daughter. The 1960s had seen a third marriage, this time to the undoubtedly handsome daughter of a very rich commoner, and in 1975, at the age of fifty-seven, JRPF had married the then thirty-three-year-old Joanna, daughter of a very rich nobleman.
‘If anybody wanted to be nasty about him,’ said Joanna, who had supplied some of the details, ‘they could say he hit the jackpot on his fourth try – money and pedigree, but that wouldn’t be quite fair. All his wives, including me, have been the sort of people he mixed with socially, especially number three and me and I’m pretty sure he was pally with number two’s brother at Cambridge. Perhaps he oughtn’t to have gone around with nobs so much, but I can’t see him downing his pint in the public bar because it’s more real there or something. He knows I think he’s a bit of a joke with his nobbery, but I got my nobbery as a sort of christening present, if you see what I mean.’
‘M’m. Who’s Who mentions one s. one d. by, er, number one and one d. by number two.’
‘Number one took her descendants off and they haven’t been seen for donkey’s years. Number two’s d. turns up occasionally, I’m sorry to say. Another thing I can’t see him as is a proud father, caring father, anything father.’
Gordon waited a moment and said, ‘Had you been married before?’
‘Only once. He drank himself to death, but I may say he was already doing that when I came into his life. I didn’t start him but I didn’t stop him either, as you see. Talking of which, I don’t think we’d be breaking any law of God or man if we had a drink after all that work.’
‘I’d like to finish this lot first if you don’t mind.’
‘My, what a little stickler you are.’
‘Just as well, perhaps.’
‘Oh well, point taken.’
JRPF had been employed in the books department of the Daily Post from 1945, its literary editor 1949–63, James Cadwallader Evans Award 1961, Hon. DCL, Hove University 1978, FRSB 1980, Chairman, Carver Prize Committee 1981. Principal publns: three books of verse, Collected Poems 1970, six novels, last in 1965, two vols, on wine, etc., one vol. coll. journalism, etc.
‘There’s not much either of us could add to that,’ said Joanna.
‘Certainly nothing I can.’
‘It’s quite a complete list except for committees he’s been on which he doesn’t think are worth mentioning.’
‘How can you be so sure?’
‘I was his secretary at one time.’
‘When was that?’
‘Oh, I forget. Just the last Who’s Who thing to do.’
Recreations: visiting churches in Tuscany and Umbria, good food, conversation.
‘Anything to add to that?’ asked Gordon.
‘I’ll say. And to subtract too. I’ll tell you in a minute. Can we have that drink now?’
‘I suppose so. I mean thank you, I’d love one.’
‘What would you like? I have vodka, and tonic, and vodka and tonic.’
‘I’d like vodka and tonic with not much vodka, if I may.’
‘I don’t see why you may not,’ said Joanna, giggling a little with what sounded genuine amusement. She had got up and gone over to a costly-looking marble-topped chiffonier on which bottles and glasses stood.
‘What’s the joke?’ Gordon had no desire to be told, but it was easy to see he was meant to ask something like that.
‘Well, the way it was absolutely certain you’d ask for a small one if you got half a chance. Then …’ Instead of continuing she came back and handed him his drink.
‘Cheers. What was that last bit again?’
‘Oh right. Italian churches, good food and conversation, wasn’t it? I’ve never known him go near a church anywhere, though he might literally venture near an Italian one if it was next door to a kosher palazzo that had a proper duchessa in it he could chat up. His Italian’s quite fluent, actually, and of course bits of Italy like Tuscany sound right, or did when he said that about himself. Yes – good food; he likes expensive food, as you well know, but that’s about as far as it goes. I don’t think he’s much of a taste-buds man, do you? As for conversation, well yes, again on the understanding that the chaps he’s conversing with are either rich or well-born, preferably both but if it has to be one or the other then give him rich every time. I suppose it sounds pretty awful of me to be saying some of that, and I suppose it is in a way, and I do think that side of him’s a bit of a joke, but I don’t … I don’t feel superior to him or resent the way he goes on. I realize I might one day but as yet I don’t. Now we’ll just drink these up and give ourselves another small one and then we’ll totter down and have something to eat. Mainly a chicken salad, which I’m afraid won’t be very warming, but there’s a pea soup to begin and I know you like soup.’
That evening Gordon noticed that Joanna’s ultimately lenient attitude to Jimmie was not shared by Louise, or at least was not shared by her that evening. Earlier, starting about three-thirty when he got home, he had heroically beaten off drink-induced lassitude and written up his notes for that day. These had contained not only biographical details and dates but less starkly factual information, given over lunch, about Jimmie’s dealings with such persons as priests and peers. Much of the latter material had not shown him in a particularly favourable light but the facts had gone into the notes anyway, regardless of whether Jimmie might sooner or later veto their publication. When Gordon had satisfactorily finished the job, he had brewed himself a very strong pot of tea and made the first of several unavailing attempts to telephone Louise, finally getting hold of her at seven-twenty or so.
She sounded full of beans. ‘How did your lunch with Her Grace the Honourable Lady Joanna Fane FO go?’
‘Oh, some quite funny bits. If you’ll come out to dinner with me I’ll tell you about them.’
‘Can’t do dinner this evening, I’m afraid.’
‘Oh,’ said Gordon, and added rather mechanically, ‘Some other time, then.’
‘But I am dying to hear. Are you going to be around later tonight?’
‘I might be.’ This time he spoke cautiously.
‘So might I be. Start trying to ring me about a quarter to eleven.’
Then Louise disconnected and Gordon admitted to himself he was quite glad in retrospect she had been booked for dinner, because in the heat of the moment, such as it had been, he had forgotten how hard up the great Jimmie lunch had currently left him. After some thought he heated up a tin of soup in his kitchen, not so nourishing it proved as the pea and ham concoction Joanna had fed him, but followed with cold sausages, which when smothered with mustard, spicy sauce and tomato ketchup turned out to be distinctly tastier than the chicken salad supplied earlier. To wash it all down he recklessly put away a nine-ounce can of a Dutch lager that, had he known it, had come second from bottom in a table of alcoholic strengths of imported beers in a recent Sunday-magazine survey. To offset these indulgences he read seriously in his copy of The Escaped Prisoner, Jimmie’s first novel and by common consent his best, published in 1959.
Its story told of a young man, brought up in conventionally well-off and well-connected circumstances somewhere in the north of England, who had reacted against his upbringing to go and be a schoolteacher in the more proletarian parts adjacent to his native heath. As time went by he came to doubt the wisdom of having done so, found his new companions ignorant and coarse and his new girl trivial-minded and finally went back whence he had come. At the time and later there had been some disagreement whether the hero was to be thought of as having permanently escaped from the prison of working-class life or only temporarily from the patrician bondage to which he voluntarily returned. It surprised Gordon to find several of the posh characters effectively presented as disagreeable, even snobbish, and the story seemed to veer now and then between one interpretation and the other and back. He wondered if Jimmie might have had something to say on the matter and made a note to ask him about it some time.
The time was just after ten forty-five. Gordon telephoned Louise, who answered after two rings. She sounded distinctly less full of beans than when he had talked to her earlier, but agreed that he should come and see her as soon as convenient.
‘I’d only just that moment got in when you rang,’ she told him as soon as he arrived.
‘Sorry,’ he said, feeling it was somehow required of him.
‘I suppose you couldn’t tell,’ she grudgingly conceded.
Things had improved, but not much, by the time they were sitting in the area reached by her electric fire with mugs of hot decaffeinated coffee in their hands. When she asked him to tell about his midday dealings with Jimmie’s wife it was not in the unguardedly friendly spirit she had shown before.
‘What sort of line did she take?’ Louise asked. ‘Was she against the old monster, as she’d have to be to pass as a human being herself, or was she on the whole for him, trying to make out he wasn’t too bad?’
‘Well, just a minute. Even if she’d felt like it she wasn’t going to denounce the man she’d been married to for twenty-odd years to a fellow she didn’t know existed until just the other day. Be reasonable.’
‘Gordon, I’m being reasonable. Jimmie sodding Fane is a, well, if not a monster then a monument of old-fashioned, passé class superiority and sheer snobbery. If his wife doesn’t have the least inkling that that’s what he is, then as I see it she’s tarred with the same bloody brush.’
‘Look, hold on, dear.’ It had already occurred to Gordon that Louise’s new-found hostility to Jimmie and all his works, as opposed to or further than a semi-genial rallying scepticism about poor old Jimmie, originated less in any kind of revision of the facts that in something that had happened in her own life. (Like having been stood up for dinner, it occurred to him later, though not then.) He said pacifically, ‘She’s got more than an inkling that old Jimmie’s got a pretty stiff dose of the sort of prejudices you’d expect from somebody his age and, well, class, I suppose.’
‘You suppose!’ Louise answered at once and perhaps a shade predictably, if he’s really out of the top drawer I don’t see what you’re doing writing about him in the first place, you being you, and if he’s a phoney you just, you shouldn’t, I mean you’ll have to expose him in whatever you write about him, and you told me he can prevent you publishing what he doesn’t like. That’s unless you simply …’ She shook her head about and made various impatient noises.
‘He’s the genuine article all right, uncle a baronet, went to school –’
‘Spare me the sordid details, for Christ’s sake. Well: it sounds to me …’
‘It sounds to me as though you’ve been won over.’
This challenge irritated Gordon, but he did his best to swallow any such feeling. ‘Granted I’m to write something substantial about this chap,’ he began, but got no further.
‘You clearly grant it. I don’t.’
They went on in their respective strains until an inadvertent lull brought the chance to say experimentally, casually too,
‘Where’s that flat-mate of yours this evening?’
‘She’s away,’ said Louise in a tone that precluded further discussion of the matter.
He now asked, without much thought, ‘Oh, where did you have dinner?’
This caused perceptible confusion. After hesitating for a full second, she said, ‘Somewhere in Soho, I can’t remember the name, I was taken there. Why, what of it?’
‘Nothing of it, I was just trying to change the subject.’
‘All right. You were going to tell me about lunch with her nibs. Especially the funny bits.’
He started on a pedestrian report of that event, thinking to himself meanwhile that to have failed to remember the name of a restaurant, any restaurant at any time, was most unlike Louise. Whatever she might now have been thinking to herself, she seemed not to be listening to what he said. Before he had managed to get to a funny bit she interrupted him.
‘Did she make a pass at you? I don’t mind if she did but I would love to know.’
‘Nothing of that sort happened at all.’
‘Because she was well and truly looking you over the day we were both there. Almost as if she was having trouble keeping her hands off you. I call that bloody cheek at her age.’
‘She couldn’t give me all that many years, and what do you mean, at her age? You make her sound about a hundred and ninety.’
‘She’s an old bag. An old bag.’
‘On a purely objective, unemotional, factual plane, Louise, she’s not, Joanna Fane is not an old bag. Middle-aged, if you like, if you must, but –’
When, not much later, Gordon was making his way out of Louise’s flat in a sexually unsatisfied state, he was reflecting that what she had just said about having to make an early start in the morning might well have been true as well as decisive. Nevertheless he could not help feeling that he might not have been forced to leave in such an unceremonious fashion if he had handled things a little differently, if for example he had concurred at once with her view of the aged Joanna Fane. As he put the point to himself on his way home, when there was nobody to overhear, you could get it right, or you could get it away.
The telephone was ringing when he got back home, which circumstance made that place seem much less bleak and comfortless. ‘Gordon Scott-Thompson,’ he said into the instrument, wishing strongly for the moment that he had a less cumbrous name.
‘Fane here,’ said a recognizable high male voice. Its owner took some time to assure himself that he was connected whither he wished, but having done so he spoke quite freely. ‘You will of course have dined,’ he said.
‘I’ll have what? Oh yes, I’ve dined.’
‘I too. Rather well, in fact, as perhaps you’ve already inferred. I’m speaking from, where am I speaking from, yes, of course, I’m speaking from my club. There’s been a slight difference of opinion here, not to say an argument, which you may be able to settle. Now. How would you, how do you pronounce T,I,S,S,U,E, as in the kind of paper?’
‘Well, tissue, to rhyme with, er, miss-you, for instance.’
‘I understand. Not like,’ and here Jimmie paused for so long that Gordon thought he must have moved on elsewhere, perhaps in search of a taxi, until he came back on the line to say, ‘Not like atishoo, the comic or fanciful representation of a sneeze. Just so. I’m greatly obliged to you, my dear Gordon, and good night.’
‘Is that all?’
‘Oh my dear fellow, I do hope I haven’t got you out of bed, have I?’
‘No no, I assure you. I was just wondering what the argument was about.’
But Jimmie had disconnected before Gordon had done more than start his second statement.
‘I was just wondering what the argument was about,’ said Gordon to Jimmie again. This time he said it not over the telephone but face to face or near enough, in the hall of Gray’s club. Not wishing on the whole to have to go in search of Jimmie all over the building, which he had never visited before, Gordon had told the porter who was expecting him and had himself waited here in the hall.
At least he had hoped the fellow was the or a porter. There had been a moment of slight and wordless misunderstanding when, meeting some difficulty with the glass door from the street, Gordon had seen through the pane a man coming towards him who looked no older and was better dressed than he and whom he had briefly taken for a member of the club on his way out. From the change in this man’s demeanour at Gordon’s inquiring reference to Mr Fane, it was easy to guess that he for his part revised any first impression that the newcomer might have been some artisan or workman, arrived at the club to repair its dishwasher, say. All was quickly well, and no more than a couple of dukes or millionaires had put their heads round the corner to look him over when Jimmie himself arrived, full of total memory of who Gordon was and what he was doing there. After some irresolution on both sides Gordon had reminded him of the recent telephone-call.
‘Oh good God yes,’ said Jimmie amiably, ‘I should have explained there and then but I didn’t want to take up your time. I’d dined here, rather well as perhaps you inferred, and Johnnie Wessex and I and one or two others had got into some sort of barney about language and pronunciation, a prime concern of mine as you must know, Gordon. I won’t bore you with an account of their rather unthinking points of view but I was taking the line that the old natural way of speaking, among reasonably well-educated and thoughtful people, was being, how shall I put it, was becoming eroded by creeping pedantry. Creeping pedantry,’ he repeated, making no move in the direction of the inner parts of the club where food and drink were presumably to be found. ‘Whenever I turn on the wireless or the television I hear the announcer putting in glottal stops in places where they’ve no business to be, they talk about the I R A,’ said Jimmie with a little explosion of breath before the name of each letter, and I expect they call it the R A F,’ similarly enunciated, ‘and in no time every English word that begins with a vowel or vowel sound or looks as if it does will begin with a confounded glottal stop. Have I told you all this before, dear boy?’
Gordon hesitated. ‘No,’ he said, it’s true you’ve mentioned glottal stops before, but then they were part of an attack on Americans.’
‘Yes. You said it went to show how German they were.’
‘When was this supposed to be?’
‘It was in the taxi on the way to Cakebread’s. That restaurant.’
‘An excellent place, let it be said.’ Jimmie spoke strongly, as if contesting disparagement. ‘Excellent, what I had was first-rate.’
‘I’m glad you enjoyed it.’
‘You did get my note thanking you for the occasion?’
‘I must have done.’
‘Oh dear, these days I’m quite capable of having forgotten to post it. I’m afraid I’ve always been scatterbrained in such regards and of course in recent years I’ve deteriorated even from what I was. Which is not to say I make no sense any longer. On the contrary, let me remind you that we were talking of pedantry in pronunciation and I was saying I come across it whenever I switch on any broadcasting device. Any moment now I expect to hear somebody talking about whenever or how-ever. The traditional way of saying such words is I should have thought quite sufficiently comprehensible, don’t you agree?’
‘Yes,’ said Gordon. He did agree. More than that, if Jimmie wanted to talk about ways of saying words it would have been impolitic and almost certainly useless to try and prevent him. On the other hand, something seemed to be needed to shift them from the kind of padded pews that, still in the hall, they had settled companionably down on. At that moment he caught sight of a youngish man, doubtless heir to a fortune or a marquisate or both, who had evidently come to peer at them. More to the point, he held a drink in his hand, a reasonably powerful-looking one, and it was not every day that Gordon felt he could do with a drink, but today was such a day. He swallowed furtively.
Jimmie had been going on, ‘I take as part of the same undesirable phenomenon that it’s becoming fashionable in ordinary speech, not just in song to give unstressed vowels their full value, not only Manchester and observer but, well, caramel and condom and no doubt plenty of others. I say, would you fancy a drink perhaps?’
‘Yes, I rather would.’ Gordon tried to sound unequivocal without seeming to have no room for any other thought. ‘What a good idea.’
‘Oh. I’m terribly sorry, my dear fellow,’ cried Jimmie, ‘I do so clearly see that on a day like today you would be feeling in particular need of a wee tassie.’
Since the day was neither particularly cold nor rainy nor windy, in fact rather clement for the time of year, nor yet the notorious anniversary of the battle of Flodden, say, Gordon could not fully understand what was meant. He made a vague noise designed to show that there was no ill feeling on his side at least.
‘How very thoughtless of me. We must repair that discreditable oversight with all speed.’ Jimmie looked at his wrist-watch, a piece that displayed its merit by being large rather than small. ‘However it might be easier if I just rounded off this point while it’s fresh in my mind. Fowler remarks somewhere that when reciting a sentence like, for instance, Hunt has hurt his head – m’m? – it’s as important not to pronounce the initial H in has and his as it is to pronounce it in Hunt, hurt and head. Yet we hear trained actors bleating of their inamorata that they love her and villains growling that they must kill him. Years ago, much farther back than they remember, their ancestors decided to proclaim that they knew how to speak proper …’
As a conscientious but exhausted watchman might strive to keep awake, so Gordon fought to go on taking in what Jimmie was saying, and failed. He was beset by longing less for a drink than simply to be elsewhere, not necessarily far away, the next room would do, even at a pinch some unoccupied corner of this one, but it was not to be. What was to be took place quite soon after all.
‘… not a very momentous sound-shift, but I think it is starting to happen,’ said Jimmie. ‘And now we simply must have that drink. You’d have got it earlier if you hadn’t been so patient with me when I was going full tilt on my hobby-horse, or one of them. Ridiculous of me. Anyway, what will you have?’
They stood now in the bar, which was rather more like an immensely spacious and well-appointed cupboard than anything Gordon understood by a bar. He mentioned gin. Two elderly men had hurried out as they arrived; two others in dark suits studied them from some feet away. Or rather they seemed to be studying him, Gordon; in some puzzlement, as he thought. None the less, with his drink in his hand he felt bold enough to bring up tissue again.
‘What? I’m sorry, I don’t understand you.’
‘Tissue,’ said Gordon, pronouncing the word now in Jimmie’s preferred style.
‘Of course, of course.’
‘We never quite got to what I was going to ask you just now.’
‘Fire away when you’re ready, then.’
‘You remember my saying when you rang up that I pronounced the word to rhyme with miss-you? Well –’
‘Oh yes, Johnnie Wessex had had the barefaced cheek to say he didn’t believe any English person, anybody born in England pronounced T,I,S,S,U,E in any other way than the way he and I pronounced it. So then …’
‘So then,’ said Gordon, ‘you thought of me as someone sufficiently far gone in creeping pedantry to pronounce the wretched word in what we’ll call my way, and that was enough to enable you to win your argument with Johnnie Wessex.’
Gordon would have said he had pitched the foregoing at a tolerably low level, though would have had to admit that his tone when uttering the name Johnnie Wessex had not carried a favourable view of that nobleman. It seemed at least that he had spoken nevertheless loudly or warmly enough to cause the nearby elderly men to look sharply at him and then at each other before doing a fast shuffle out of the room. The barman glanced up from a list he was checking through, but only for a moment. Jimmie seemed a little troubled or vexed, though in no way conscience-stricken. He said,
‘I suppose all of us speak much as those around us do, or used to early in our lives. But I suggest that’s enough on the subject. Well, Gordon, have you made a start on your book about me? Good God, how pompous that sounds.’
‘I’ve been reading through your works and making notes which I’ll be using later. In the meantime I’ll be asking you the odd question about your earlier life, as something occurs to me if that’s all right. I don’t want to subject you to long interrogation sessions like a –’
‘My dear boy, you may ask me any question you think proper at any time within reason and I’ll answer it. I’ve thought about it and I can see no virtue in my making things difficult for you. If I find I’ve told you too much and want you to take out something I don’t want made public, I’ll tell you when I come to it in your manuscript. Oh, and I’m making some notes of my own which I’ll pass on to you in due course, as they say.’
‘Very good; fine; agreed. Here’s a question to be going on with. When you met –’
‘I think if you don’t mind we’ll finish these and proceed to luncheon. They turn somewhat reproachful if one arrives at what they consider to be an inopportune hour. In fact I’d have suggested to you that we should go straight in to where one eats if it didn’t sound such a dismal notion, and a mean one. Sounds a mean idea? Nay, it is. Are you ready?’
They mounted a single turn of the fine staircase and went through a sort of outer dining-room into a sort of inner dining-room beyond it. Both were full of men in suits vigorously talking, eating and drinking. Several of them looked up at Gordon as he went by, making him feel like a spy in an old-fashioned film. Jimmie led the way to a vacant table laid for four near the back of the room. They had hardly settled into their chairs before two additional men in suits came out of the middle distance and took the spare seats at the table. Jimmie introduced them as Bobbie something and Tommie something else, both these surnames denoting some county or other portion of the land area of the British Isles. Gordon was unsure at the time, and was never able to establish afterwards, whether these two arrivals had been invited or had invited themselves. They treated Jimmie as their host throughout, but what with one thing and another there was no certain indication there.
‘So this is the great man’s biographer, Tommie,’ said Bobbie, and Tommie nodded and smiled. Both of them continued to look Gordon over in a considering and also greedy fashion, as if they had half a mind to eat him later. ‘You mustn’t mind us,’ Bobbie went on, ‘but you are called Gordon, aren’t you, I mean that is right, I hope?’
‘How do you do. I mean it is marvellous that you’re here, isn’t it, Tommie?’
‘You’re very young, aren’t you, to be taking on a demanding job like writing Jimmie’s life?’
They were so friendly, or at least were smiling at him and at each other so much, that Gordon found it hard not to go along with them. Jimmie gave no lead, showed no more sign of being disconcerted than of being gratified at their presence. For the moment Gordon could see no alternative to reciting dull facts about himself, dull to him at least, though Bobbie and Tommie listened in seeming fascination. This phase lasted until a man too active-looking and speedy in his movements not to be a club servant appeared and gave out menus, a service unremarked by any of the three club members present. His own menu, Gordon saw, had no prices on it, no doubt to remind him that he could choose whatever he fancied – fancy that! And fancy another thing, already becoming clear, that Jimmie was going to have to pick up the bill for all four lunches, including the wine, which Bobbie and Tommie were now engaged in vociferously choosing from the list. Gordon told himself that what prevented him from ordering oysters followed by lobster, and so tit-for-tatting Jimmie, was not any form of compunction but simple dislike of those dishes. But when his preludial slice of melon arrived in front of him and he started on it under Bobbie’s observant eye, he had to admit internally that the real deterrent had been the prospect of that eye turned on his unpractised attempts to deal with oysters and such.
The meal progressed without resort to violence. The conversation between Jimmie, Bobbie and Tommie was mostly about the doings or condition of men referred to only by names similarly terminated. So Gordon had to say little and had little to say. He had meant to take the opportunity of seeing how far Jimmie had meant what he said about answering questions, but that now seemed to be ruled out. Tommie and Bobbie were chattering away with Jimmie nineteen to the dozen, as if they had lost interest in the fourth member of the party, but something in their occasional glances or his imagination suggested that they would come back to him when they felt like it. Both were drinking what he would have thought of as a fair amount of wine.
His moment came. The three others shared a sort of end-of-chapter laugh and collectively turned towards Gordon, who started to concentrate on sitting still in his chair. Both Bobbie and Tommie showed a friendly curiosity, though it struck him as a little excessive too. Jimmie was more non-committal, as if he was being told by Lord Bagshot about a delightful little place for lunch in the hills above Rome, now unfortunately closed down. At last Tommie said,
‘Well, Gordon – it is Gordon, isn’t it? – you haven’t had much to say for yourself for the last half-hour or so, have you?’
Gordon made gestures indicating that that was indeed the case.
‘I don’t suppose you know very many of the people we were talking about just now. Not very polite of us, I’m afraid. Perhaps never even heard of most of ‘em, eh?’
‘I have heard of the Prince of Wales.’ Gordon tried to push all expression out of his voice. ‘Not many others, it’s true to say.’
A single yelp or bark of laughter broke from Bobbie, who had just refilled his own glass and Tommie’s, vigorously waving away with his free hand the proffered attention of a servant. Jimmie raised his eyebrows in a further demonstration of impartiality. Tommie pressed on.
‘Yes, it was rather naughty of us to go on chinwagging about our cronies in that fashion, but Jimmie here is always bursting to hear the latest gossip, and we don’t seem to see him as often as all that.’
‘Oh, that’s all right,’ said Gordon.
For a moment Tommie looked at him in a new way, one accompanied by a small frown of puzzlement. ‘Didn’t we meet at Henley a year or two ago? Or was it, er, you know, Cowes?’
‘I’ve never been to either place.’
‘M’m. I must be mistaken. You may remember my saying when we met just now, Gordon, how young you seemed, I meant young to have taken on the job of writing up the life and works of an old josser like Jimmie here – I should add hastily that I’m a good year older than him. Anyway, I know I said something of the sort.’
‘Yes, you did.’
‘Well, it strikes me now, how shall I put it …’ Tommie spoke with a short silence between each phrase and the next and Gordon fancied that Bobbie started listening with heightened intensity, ‘I don’t know whether … of course I should have explained that I only heard about this … this project of yours a short while ago, just before you …’
‘I merely happened to mention it in passing,’ said Jimmie, as one who exculpates himself.
‘I haven’t had time to … think very deeply about what’s involved, or …’
‘Get along with you,’ said Bobbie, with some roughness in his tone as well as his words. ‘What did you say to me as soon as Jimmie had told us a little about our young friend here?’
‘I don’t think we need actually …’
‘What did you actually say? Come on, Tommie old bean.’
‘All right, I said something to the effect that his earlier life, his background, Gordon’s background probably hadn’t often brought him into contact with the kind of people Jimmie had been, well, brought into contact with.’
Tommie made to face Gordon again, but Bobbie broke in. ‘All right, as you say. All right. If you feel you somehow ought to water it down, all right.’
‘I was simply –’
‘All right, all right.’
Now Tommie did say something to Gordon, it’s quite straightforward. Obviously you and Jimmie have had different sorts of upbringing and, and life. Nothing mysterious about it.’
‘No,’ said Gordon. ‘Nothing mysterious at all.’
Aware that Bobbie looked like breaking in again, Tommie hurried on. ‘What I’m getting at, what we’re getting at is just that you can’t, you wouldn’t want to write any sort of book on Jimmie without, er, seeing him in the company of the people and the kind of society he grew up in and has, well, been in ever since, and it’s not the same as the kind you grew up in, am I right?’
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