The latest piece of short fiction by Flux regular Robert Leeming.
I was drinking a bottle of Sink the Bismarck in one of those bars where supping ale named after historical events and renowned political figures is the thing to do, and I was thinking of Kenneth More getting off with that girl outside the phoney shoe shop in the film of the same name. Anna Maria was drinking a Death of Queen Mary, 1694, an extravagantly morose choice, the brown bottle arriving with its neck dressed in a kind of lacy black ruff, borne atop a leather bound book of English Common Prayer.
“That’s a fine Protestant choice,” I said to her, or something to that effect and she laughed in a half hearted way, which was done only to suggest that she was wiling to participate in the evening not that she found the remark funny.
We slept together that night, for the first time, and I left her flat before dawn with my mind replaying only the more certain elements of the evening. And as I walked, I remember it seemed to come light in leaps and bounds, not gradually like usual, and it felt almost as though I was a stick-man drawing jumping over fences under a pencil sketch sun as someone else flicked the cards.
I spent the next day watching archive video clips, old interviews with Laurence Olivier, in black and white, on reel to reel film projected via my Bolex M-8 onto a white sheet strung across my living room wall and held in place by clothes pegs. Olivier was sitting on the stage of the Old Vic in 1968, talking to Ken Tynan, the interview offering a host of clips and quotes to use in a documentary I was making about Olivier’s life for the Chichester Festival Theatre.
This was one of the few occasions in the fifteen or so years that I had spent as a filmmaker that the given commission actually raised a personal interest. The necessity to eek a reasonable living out of films meant that I spent much of my time putting together presentations to be showed at corporate conferences held in hotel ballrooms.
On the screen Olivier and Tynan were stood up, facing each other, Olivier’s hand was outstretched, his little finger drawing an invisible line down Tynan’s forehead onto the bridge of his nose. “You have a weakness,” Olivier said to Tynan, “right here”. Olivier was recreating a conversation he had had with some old theatrical manager who had identified a particular shyness in his face that hindered his expression at auditions.
I had always admired Olivier. I admired how he carried himself, like the panache of a thousand court jesters was stored between his shoulders. I admired Olivier’s confidence, the way he dressed and how he spoke with equal enthusiasm from one word to the next, appointing his diction with a renewed sense of creativity and vigour at the start of every new sentence.
I liked having dead heroes, because you could impose your own world view on their character and plunder it at will without the deceased saying anything new to cast doubt on your diagnosis or to question your theft. You could piece something together, a cock and bull story from Pathe news clippings and old editions of Picture Parade, a theoretical personal history, that a one-time icon pursued disastrous relationships and sometimes unabashedly thought he was better off alone. And, living in accordance to their philosophy, knowing you had a kindred spirit somewhere in the ether, you needn’t entertain the notion that you were somehow missing out by doing the same, because your one-time icon lived, what appeared to have been a reasonably happy life, and had still been an unrepentant malcontent. And if you neglected to research too far and ruled out of hand any unearthed evidence that proved to the contrary, then your bond would be bulletproof.
They were sitting again now, on my bed sheet screen, Olivier was talking about his performance of Richard III, his characterisation and the opening night. “The second performance was Tuesday afternoon, matinee, for which I was all too ill prepared,” he raised his eyes, as if he was addressing the dress circle, “I approached the footlights, faced the audience and started, and by the middle act, I knew I had them, they say there is a phrase ‘the sweet smell of success’, and I can only tell you, I’ve had two experiences of that and it smells just like Brighton and oyster bars and things like that.”
Anna Maria had a similar malady. Finding an absent hero that inspired her and being jealous of their success made her work harder. She was a fashion designer. A struggling one. And Elsa Schiaparelli was her personal Madonna. She would tell me again and again how Schiaparelli had delivered her first collection at thirty-seven. Anna was twenty-eight and already had more than enough to constitute two but lacked the interest required to reproduce them.
“No work without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece,” she would say at the first sign that one of her pieces was about to attract a hostile reception. She was certainly a fighter when the qualities of her work were questioned. And her work was controversial, but it was based on a controversy from the past, which surely reduced its relevance.
I remember her excitement after meeting the proprietor of a boutique fashion shop on the Portobello Road at a party hosted by two mutual friends. The couple’s professions made for an interesting group of guests, and I spent the evening talking to a London financier who was making much or his recent investments in Mongolia and the advancing economy there. “I suppose a Mongolian boom is our equivalent of a struck match,” I remember saying, feeling like a character in a New Yorker cartoon, while Anna Maria worked the room.
The man from Portobello expressed an interest in her latest collection, in particular the blue chiffon dress she was wearing at the time, with a bee crafted out of mother of pearl and golden thread attached to the left shoulder. If I didn’t care for anything else she made or wore, and I didn’t much, my love for her in the dark blue dress with the mother of pearl bee on the shoulder would make up for any distaste she might detect in me for her other creations. The keeper of the Portobello Boutique thought the same and announced to the party, theatrically, that the bee would be to Anna Maria what sky blue was to Lady Jane Grey, “something to emblazon on a banner and fly above your castle.”
I had of course warned her in the taxi home, amid her rising excitement, that one should never trust a promise made at a party. But boosted and blinded by the sense of self satisfaction one often gets after a compliment, which does much to convince you, for the moment, that you have after all chosen the right path in life, she loaded up her car with dresses, wrapped turbans, Arab breeches and bodices, harem pants and a hat shaped like a French aristocrat’s slipper.
The man on Portobello Road was polite and respectful but declined to stock her line on the basis that he believed people wanted clothes that walked the line between satisfaction and outrage, but consented to purchasing the navy blue dress with the bee on the shoulder. She dismissed his offer and I remember her labelling him a “crazy talker” in the car home with that look in her eye that people sometimes have when they have shown a misplaced streak of hope in public and have since been chastened.
The Olivier film flipped and fizzed it’s way to a conclusion and I grabbed another circular reel tin from a collection I had amassed during my years in film. Leonard Bernstein, another dead hero, appeared on the screen, he was lecturing from behind a wooden desk with a Harvard University crest behind him. I looked into the mirror that hung on the wall behind an old gram cabinet I had bought to play Davy Graham records on. I looked at my reflected image and thought of Olivier’s comment to Tynan, I ran my index finger down the middle of my forehead as I stared. “You have a weakness,” I repeated out loud to myself, Olivier style, “right here.”
On the screen Bernstein was talking about Igor Stravinsky to an audience of rapt music students, their clothes suggesting the encounter took place deep within the 1970s. Still sitting down, but becoming more and more animated, he spoke of the music; “It’s like street vernacular dressed up in white tie and tails,” he said of the Rite of Spring. Stravinsky’s work was second hand he claimed, “Yes, second hand; because the best personal statements are made through quotes from the past.”
I told her I loved her while the crows batted about the bars at the crest of the white Ferris wheel. The sky was grey and Brighton seemed broken, but it still meant the world to me. I had spent two years after university living there, in a dingy second floor flat at fifty-four Denmark Villas, while I worked front of house at an art gallery. It was, at the time, the turn of luck I been hoping for, the position offered a new life in a new town and it was a considerable step up from the first summer job I had held working in the National Trust kitchens at Hampton Court Palace.
When Anna Maria told me she had been invited to attend the unveiling of a new menswear collection, designed by an acquaintance with sway and the willingness to put that sway to good use for the sake of a pretty face, I was only too happy to accompany her and show her around my old stomping ground. In fact it had become something of a tradition to take a girlfriend to Brighton for that purpose. It was always an easy romantic trip to make out of the city, and not far enough for any hiccups to occur, either in transit or itinerary, which may reveal a tiny flaw or niggling trait of character that could sow the seeds of later schism.
The event itself attracted what I had come to call the usual crowd, ironically, because they were far from that. Standing under the Georgian era, Oriental style glass, in the banqueting hall of the Royal Pavilion, I watched the party’s fashionable comings and goings, while cradling a glass of champagne that I sipped, slowly, for fear of finishing too quickly and being stranded without a conversation to engage in.
Anna Maria worked her way around the room from one conversation to the next trying to see as many people as she could, while I watched a portly woman who appeared to be the oldest person in the room, and the worst dressed, wearing an ill fitting brash floral pattern in midwinter. The lady fiddled with a ceremonial chain around her neck and repeatedly told a man in a tight, tailored, double-breasted jacket with trousers with cavalry coloured yellow stripes down the sides, that she was the High Sheriff of East Sussex. “Got to talk to the Rotary Club on Monday,” she said, “in the Plough and Harrow and it starts with a meal,” she emphasised “meal” comically while the cavalry officer laughed politely and eyed an escape route.
I was approached by a woman wearing a petticoat that had wide royal blue and gold stripes running down its fabric, her looks were almost Greek, Mediterranean at least, the kind of beauty you knew would mature into a long and healthy old age, without giving up much to time and worry. The tightness of her petticoat lent her an excellent posture which suggested she believed herself to be riding a Lusitano charger.
“Are you enjoying this?” She asked, expecting, I could tell from her tone, and given my position on the periphery of the room, a scathing response.
“It’s not mine to enjoy,” I replied, eying the crowd again, “but it looks pleasant enough to me.”
She said, suddenly doubting my interest, “You do want to talk, don’t you?”
“Depends on what we’re going to talk about,” I answered, avoiding her eyes, “what do you do?” I asked, “Are you a designer like the rest of them?” I waved my hand, dismissively, in the general direction of the party.
“I assist a designer,” she answered.
“You assist,” I replied, “but you want to do, right? Everybody wants to do.”
“Everybody has to learn, I’ve got ambitions though, like we all have.”
The tone of her voice suggested to me that she thought I could well be a man of means in the industry and that if she offered considered answers then she might well gain a useful contact.
I wanted to go on, but Anna Maria had pushed her way through the crowd towards me, hand in hand with another man.
“That’s Edward Quint,” the petticoat woman said to me, as her body language course corrected towards a greater gravity. “It’s his party,” she laughed realising she had said the least important detail first. “It’s his collection,” she shouted.
“And that’s Anna Maria with him,” I said. “She’s with me.”
A jazz ensemble struck up at the opposite side of the room, the saxophone notes hovering over the crinoline mesh of a stave that drifted through my head. I knew the song; it was light and Brazilian, something, perhaps, by Antonio Carlos Jobim.
Quint was very well dressed in a perfectly tailored black suit, jacket pocket filled with a folded white pocket-square embroidered with green holly leaves and red berries. Anna Maria seemed to be in awe of him, which confused me, because I’d never seen her in awe of anybody, and Quint was so opaque, in my mind comprised only of a chalk outline, with no memory of character or meat to fill the middle.
“Have you always been in fashion, or did you jump into it from a more conventional base?” I asked Quint, in an attempt to start a conversation while Anna Maria made for the bar, which had been covered in wildflowers and was staffed by people wearing colourful paper mâché animal masks. The masks were matched to a t-shirt which bore the name of a Ted Hughes poem, “The Thought Fox” one of them read, “The Owl” read another.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” Quint said without making eye contact.
“Well, I’m a film-maker, but I haven’t always been, I used to work in a National Trust kitchen serving junket to five year olds’, we’ve all scraped the bottom of the barrel for money, haven’t we?”
“I’ve always been quite lucky,” he answered quickly, almost in a whisper, still looking down.
“So have I,” I answered,” becoming more and more irritated by Quint’s ambivalence to my presence, “I haven’t even spent an evening serving drinks in a paper mâché animal mask yet.”
Anna Maria returned with a drink in each hand, the golden chain on her left wrist clinking against the glass as she passed one to me and turned to Quint and said, “I suppose he’s been talking about National Trust kitchens and junket again as he, well I can tell you right now, it’s a load of old rubbish, he worked for a summer at Hampton Court Palace and spent most of his time fucking a tour guide on Anne Boleyn’s bed.”
“He did mention something along those lines,” Quint replied, “don’t worry, Jonathan, I’m more than liable to tell my own tall tales from time to time.”
His confidence had come alive now, like the recovery of a shy child when backed by his mother.
“There’s nothing tall about it,” I snapped.
“Alright, darling, we’re just teasing.”
“And what do you think of my Anna Maria’s work,” I interrupted, but Quint ignored me, again, instead he clasped her by the arm and said “Anna-Maria, bees to you are what strawberries were to Desdemona, something to embroider on a handkerchief to stir a jealously. “
Anna Maria and Quint were flirting with each other, and even though I knew this was, on her part more than likely, done simply with an eye on business, I was, nevertheless, filled with an anger that gripped me from time to time, but rarely provoked public ill temper.
I grabbed her by the arm, “What do you think of our Anna-Maria, Eddy?” I repeated, putting emphasis on every word, like Laurence Olivier at the end of The Entertainer.
“Rather beautiful isn’t she? Could almost be one of your models,” I paused, “we’ll maybe.”
Anna Maria laughed uncomfortably and tried to break my grip.
“She has a weakness though, don’t you think, Eddy, right here?” I lent towards her and ran my little finger down Anna-Maria’s forehead and she winced, “Like all her cares and woes are being stored up, right here, and creasing her, don’t you think, Eddy, don’t you think?”
I’m not sure why those words in particular came to mind, at a moment when I found it necessary, in anger, to relate something that would shock and puzzle, in an attempt, a silly attempt admittedly, to gain some intellectual superiority, or some superiority at the least, over the situation. It had been a few months since I had heard Olivier saying the same words to Ken Tynan on the stage of the Old Vic, in the very early days of my relationship with Anna Maria. Perhaps because I had caught them out of context the words had refused to leave me, it certainly wasn’t exhumation for the sake of clarity, if Anna Maria had wanted to know what I had meant, I couldn’t tell her, it was just an attempt to hurt in anger.
Anna Maria’s face dropped and Quint took a deep breath inwards, and I could almost see the smoky air drifting down his see-through windpipe in his see-through chest.
“Am I in the middle of something?” He said weakly, his eyes dipping to graze the floor before rising to meet Anna Maria.
“Nothing,” I said softly, “you’re in the middle of nothing, that’s the problem.”
I had been outlandish and rude, I think I was drunk, but Quint had annoyed me, inexplicably, and the fact that Anna Maria could have any truck with him made it worse, it devalued my opinion of her, whatever her motives.
Stating the obvious again and again, she didn’t seem to understand that I got the fact that I had embarrassed her. That had been the point. And I was not remorseful. What she didn’t seem to understand was that she had embarrassed me, again and again, with company I was unsure of, yet she continued with her lecture.
“I’ve got to admit, I spend most of my time these days wanting to be on my own,” Anna Maria shouted at me when we got back to our hotel room.
“Then have it your way,” I snapped.
She paused and sat down on the bed, she was crying now. “What do you mean, a weakness, what the hell was that supposed to mean?”
My head was banging so I grabbed a bottle of water from the mini-bar and then turned around to face her. “It didn’t mean anything, it was just, something I heard, it wasn’t really even directed at you.”
She laughed, sardonically.
“It was just something I said, well, to baffle, to confuse, to say something that Quint wouldn’t understand, he was being a rude bastard to me all night, all night, but I guess you didn’t notice that.”
She sat quietly, with a look on her face that seemed to suggest forgiveness rather than hopelessness, but then she stood up again, her bristling anger still in tact.
“Would it kill you to say one original thing, even your insults are stolen,” she shouted.
On that count I was defenceless and I approached her and attempted to put my arms around her, but she pushed me away.
“I want to be on my own when you’re around, you’re a drag, being with you is a drag, trying to placate your conversation is a constant drag, your endless…..”
I grabbed her by the elbows realising her list would continue as she became more and more hysterical.
“Yeah, yeah, a drag,” I snapped, “change the record, can’t you see that all I do is support you, that’s all I do, I follow you around to these things, that I hate, situations that I don’t feel comfortable in.”
“Brighton’s just a nostalgic fuck for you, that’s all, you wouldn’t be here otherwise.”
“Well yeah, maybe it is,” I shouted, “and if you carry on like this you’re going to kill every decent memory.”
She called me a self centred bastard and threw the telephone at me, which I dodged, before she lectured me on how success in life and finding love were not, in her eyes, interdependent. I disagreed with her, although I didn’t doubt Anna Maria’s tenacity and capacity for hard work, I did doubt her sense of knowing when to stop and call it a day.
I dodged the flying bedroom door that would have hit Al Bowlly square in the forehead and killed him outright, as the grand, supernatural explosion of light hit the room, the death of a relationship, amid the usual blaze of anger and malice, as love and fine memories caught flame like kerosene. I felt like burning our letters in the fireplace as one last act of defiance. Then I remembered we hadn’t written any letters.
After the initial blast no shrapnel metal even grazed my shoulders, and I left the rubble, skewed and twisted, to be explained away by somebody else.
I’ve always wanted to be a man of letters, to have a handful of different correspondents around the globe I could write to with little anecdotes, updates and observations about the progression of my life. And this wasn’t really because I enjoyed writing letters, rather I could imagine my foreign correspondents gathering together one weekend after my death, perhaps on a Sunday afternoon in Mayfair, and pooling their collections of crumpled blotting paper filled with my treasured ruminations. And then, or so I would dream, they would club together in order to publish a four hundred to five hundred page collection of my writings with a title that emphasised the prolific nature of my wit.
I had never once written to Anna Maria, there had never been much point; we had always been at close quarters. Actually, I had never once seen her write, only sketch, in charcoal or coloured pencil, the outlined silhouette of her latest creation on blue notepaper. I had seen a writing pad, lying on top of a pile of old Italian Vogue Magazines in her workshop, its pages edged with purple butterflies, but there were no indentations on the top page to suggest that it had ever been used.
One of my long-suffering correspondents, a girl I certainly had numbered among my imaginary Sunday afternoon circle, was Alana McCray. We had been to university together in Ulster and had met in a film club, united by our love for Pier Paolo Pasolini.
I had happened to mention Pasolini in passing during a conversation we had about Italian film after the group had watched Michelangelo Antonioni’s Eclipse. Pasolini had captured my attention for a week the summer previous and I had the tenacity, more out of vanity than obligation, to recommend the St. Matthew’s Passion to her as a good starting point to begin the appreciation of his oeuvre. During the next meeting she tapped me on the shoulder and announced, with a certain degree of pride, that she had watched the film and found it “charged” and if I remember correctly, “rather satisfying”.
This came as something as a surprise, because in all honesty, I had found the St. Mathew’s Passion to be a drag and had given up half way through, but everyone had to have a favourite director, and for the sake of the film club, Pasolini was mine.
Nevertheless, Alana and myself suddenly had a shared interest, a charade admittedly, but a shared charade, which I always considered was the best kind. On the back of this we went for coffee, and I had talked about my favourite Passion scene, the baptising of Christ at the River Jordan, happily twenty five minutes in, and she talked about hers, the public flaying of Jesus in front of Pontius Pilate, which, I guessed, is somewhere near the end. And I showed her the horrific picture of the murdered Pasolini lying on a Roman beach on my iPhone, his brains dashed out and his face flattened by a car wheel and she seemed to tear up briefly and then we had brownies.
Our brief affair was interrupted by her move to Harvard, on a yearlong placement as part of her social sciences course. She completed the year, and decided to quit the course and stay in the United States. We remained in touch, eschewing email at my insistence, in favour of letter writing; I labelled it a romantic gesture and claimed we could be like George Bernard Shaw and Mrs Pat Campbell.
The letters came and went, I looked forward to them from time to time and opened them as soon as I saw them behind the door, and other times, when I was seeing Anna Maria, or when I was working on a film, the letters were left unopened for weeks, on top of my dresser, with sometimes four or five arriving before I managed to dispatch just one. I think she missed them, and when I did read her letters she didn’t appear to be having that much of an interesting time, her tone becoming more and more agitated the longer her notes were left unanswered.
And then, a few months after I last saw Anna Maria in Brighton, Alana was back, working for an independent publisher on Old Brompton Street. We arranged to meet in writing, in two short letters postmarked just a day apart. She signed off “can’t wait to see you soon” and I signed just “Jonathan”.
We arranged to meet in Berkley Square and I sat for fifteen minutes on a wooden bench facing what appeared to be a deconstructed statue of Alf Ramsey, either that or a shattered Pegasus, I wasn’t sure, and I couldn’t believe that the distant figure who had spent so long thinking of me whilst writing her letters would soon be sat next to me and the thought of what I would say first, and not knowing what that would be, made me nervous.
When she did arrive, she walked from the direction of Mayfair, not Green Park, which impressed me.
“Hi,” I said and kissed her on the cheek. She said “Hi” and a silence followed and to fill it I said something along the lines of “this is where the nightingale sang, isn’t it?” Gesturing towards the park.
“What?” she replied, she didn’t know what I meant and furrowed her brow.
“In the song,” I said, and she laughed, and I loved the fact that one night, maybe that very week, I’d be able to play it for her on an old Frank Sinatra record I’d found in Oxfam, and she would hear it for the first time and fall in love with it and think of me every time she heard it.
We saw each other on quite a regular basis from then on, usually at night, sometimes sleeping together, sometimes not, always at my place, because I found it difficult to actually sleep in a bed that wasn’t mine.
I kept an English Book of Common Prayer on my bedside table to use as a coffee mat, one of those free copies that had, at one time or another, supported a Death of Queen Mary, 1694. And with Alana sleeping next to me I thought of Anna Maria. Funny old Anna Maria, she would have known where the nightingale sang, who wrote it and the location in Le Lavandou where it was first performed, and I couldn’t decide if her knowledge was a credit or a drawback.
About ten weekends after our reunion in Berkley Square myself and Alana made the traditional trip to Brighton, although I didn’t tell her the recent personal history that had played itself out there, I did show her my old flat and the cafe on the seafront where I had once spotted a frail Laurence Olivier, Lord Olivier of Brighton by then, and his wife Joan Plowright, having a cream tea by the seaside. I knew he had always loved Brighton and had made it his home for many years, but I was still surprised to see him. I wanted to go over to say hello, but I decided to leave them be and take in the moment privately. He died a few weeks later.
It was good to be back, I felt much more settled then than I had done when I had visited with Anna Maria. My Olivier film was finished and had received a good reception, with more work promised, and now I had Alana, who wasn’t Anna Maria, but she was more reachable.
Alana spotted what appeared to be a ramshackle clothes boutique on Foundry Street called “Miraculous Champion”. On two floors, the shop was the kind that yells thrift from the outside but on the inside stocks nothing in double figures. And I idled casually by a mirror starring at my reflection, playing with my scarf in Harvard colours, while Alana flicked through the rails and admired everything that she saw.
“I love this,” I heard her shout behind me, “but it’s so expensive,” and I caught her holding a blue dress to her thin frame in the mirror, with a shimmering creature on the top left breast, before she disappeared behind a red curtain to try it on. I immediately thought of a bee, but doubted Anna Maria’s disparate sense of style would ever appeal to Alana, or that Anna Maria would have had the luck or business acumen to get her line into a store like that.
I told the shop assistant to tell Alana that I had gone to wait outside for her, and she appeared fifteen minutes later, with a blue crate paper bag, talking of how the expense was bearable for such a beautiful thing and she said the dress leant an extraordinary silhouette to an ordinary figure, and mentioned the mother of pearl bee that shimmered on the left shoulder as if it were in flight.
I told her that her figure was far from ordinary, but she was already walking with a spring in her step, like one does when one makes a spur of the moment purchase and is proud of the proven decisiveness. Alana mentioned that she had seen the designer’s name mentioned in one of those thick, high brow fashion magazines one often finds lying about on cabinets in boutique art galleries, on a list of names to watch, and I said that I couldn’t wait to see her wear it, and I meant that, sincerely.
Jumping up on the rail which separated the esplanade from the beach below, I shouted towards the sea, “I don’t like the look of the mist Mr Redburn!” quoting the first lines of Act Two of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd. I jumped down and kissed Alana.
“Do you smell that? That’s the sweet smell of success right there,” I said, looking into her eyes, as the grey sea lapped upon the grey beach.
She breathed the sea air in then placed her hand around my waist and looked back at me, puzzled.
“What does success smell like, to you?” She replied, thinking my comment original and sensing an imminent proposal of persistent adventure.
“To me?” I replied, “To me, success, smells just like Brighton.”