I was sitting there, waiting to meet a friend, when all this business happened.
I used to go to that pub quite a lot, in the old days, when the busses had conductors and when you could buy fresh fish from Wainwright and Daughter at the top of Limerston Street. Sometimes I pretended to write, sometimes not. It was an excuse I used to my wife, in the old days.
‘It’s good to get out and see the world, pick up a few ideas. Anyway, I could do with a walk.’
I knew two or three partial reasons didn’t add up to a whole one. Diana wasn’t taken in either.
‘You just want to get away from me and get drunk,’ she said more than once. No half reasons there. I did want to get away from her and I did want to get drunk. I also – sometimes – wanted to write; but that, as one might say, was a different story.
It was a congenial place, the Hanbury, not too empty and not too full; on the corner of the street, as most pubs (and banks, for that matter) tend to be. You could see the world go by if you had a mind, although when you’ve reached the age of fifty-eight and lived through what I’ve had to put up with you’ve probably seen as much of the world as you want to. Possibly this lack of interest was what made me such an unhappy writer, or at least such an unsuccessful one. If you can’t set your own thoughts in order it’s hard to penetrate and describe those of others. My life always seemed to be in crisis, struggling from debt to drunkenness, from death to disappointment of one kind or another. ‘Poor old Derek,’ I sometimes heard people say when they thought I was out of earshot, ‘his life has been such a disappointment to him. Such a terrible disappointment.’ It was true. I don’t know exactly what I expected, or what was expected of me but I always seemed to fail. And here I was, back in the old pub, failing again.
There was a play I wrote called Lost Dance,which has to do with disappointment and also with this story. It never got performed, although once I’d been within touching distance until that blasted Martin Scott had pulled the plug. The main character was called Humphrey Short. My word, he was a disappointed man. His problems were not helped by complicated past relationships which surfaced during the course of the action and frustrated his various schemes. Sometimes I see my relationship with the play as being similar to Humphrey’s relationship with his family. I find it very hard to separate my thoughts concerning myself from those which concern my characters. It’s often hard to tell which I find the more real.
Speaking of writing and writers, I’d run into old Freddie Cutworth a few weeks before, just outside the Brompton Oratory. I use the launderette round the corner from there and there’s also a very helpful Indian supermarket which gives me credit and delivers when I’m ill. Freddie had looked much the same, sleek and well-fed, bowling along like a Spanish galleon in full sail, although there seemed something about him which was different: I couldn’t put my finger on it. We had tried to write a movie together once but it hadn’t worked out.
“Freddie,” I had called out.
He’d seemed surprised to see me: perhaps he’d thought I was dead. Many people must do. We had talked for a while about this and that: old friends, old places, old times. He too, it seemed was a little down on his luck. On closer examination he looked…I still couldn’t place it…disappointed, that was it. That was the word that sprang to mind.
“I go to the Hanbury once in a way,” Freddie had said. He’d seemed keen to move the burden of the conversation onto some vague future arrangement.
“We could meet.”
“The very thing.”
We’d shaken hands and gone our separate ways, me to pick up my laundry, him to God knows what, I hadn’t asked.
So it was that, in fact, I was waiting for a friend that evening. Freddie and I hadn’t actually arranged to meet on that or any other day, hadn’t even met or spoken since but I’d looked in every evening, just in case. I would bring my pen and pad and drink several halves and try to watch the world go by, not that there’s much inspiration to be found in a quiet, shabby-genteel neighbourhood and after-work-drink pub.
It was just gone seven, that dead time when you’re not sure if the place is emptying or filling up. I went to the bar and ordered another half. One precept has guided my drinking habits down the years: always look as if you don’t like the stuff. Sip halves, toy with small measures and you can get away with it all day long. It doesn’t matter if you’re on your own providing you’ve got something to do. I think this may be why I took up writing, which has proved such a convenient cover: like alcoholism, being a writer is something you can achieve, to a large degree, by looking the part. For all these reasons I love pubs and could stay in them all day. I frequently do.
“Quiet tonight, Alan,” I said, passing him my glass.
Alan shrugged. “Neva good, Mondays.”
I raised my eyebrows in polite interest.
He ran bitterly through the other days of the week, each of which seemed to present ever more severe obstacles to the successful operation of his trade. I nodded, trying not to get too involved.
Once back at my seat, I noticed a thin greasy-looking man of about fifty who had sat down two tables away. He was doing several things in rapid and random succession: sipping his drink, playing with his beer mat, checking his watch and – I felt sure – giving me surreptitious looks over the rim of his spectacles. I’m self-effacing and like to keep myself to myself, so I generally notice these sort of things, on the rare occasions when they happen.
Four men in their thirties had also come in and were settling themselves at a nearby table. The tallest went up to the bar while the others arranged four piles of typescripts. Eventually they all sat down and began to discuss the documents, pointing, flicking pages, comparing references. Perhaps they were about to have a play reading; or even worse, perhaps they were about to perform a play, here, now. Stranger things have happened in SW10. The most unlikely people seem to have their disjointed pornography performed nowadays. When I think of what could have been made of Lost Dance if only that damn fool director hadn’t changed his mind about it at the last minute, just before contract. Twenty years on and it still seems as fresh to me as it ever did. I re-read it now and again – every week or so – and wonder if I’ll ever write anything that good again. In fact, I wonder if I’ll ever write anythingagain. You see, I add to it, of course. Well, why on earth not? A play is a living thing, isn’t it? It certainly is to me.
It’s a story of disappointment, betrayal and revenge. I’d be dishonest if I said there wasn’t something of me in it. Sometimes I find scenes acting themselves out on the stage of my own life. Without warning, I might hear the footfalls of familiar characters, or the echoes of carefully phrased regrets and recriminations. Is it a blessing or an affliction to have your creations spring to life? I couldn’t be sure but it has happened to me and could do so again at any moment.
I shot another glance at the young men with their documents. What, for instance, were they up to? One of them, the tall one, struck me as similar in some ways to my vision of the dissipated Robbie, Humphrey’s nephew in my Lost Dance. I found myself watching him closely, searching for familiar mannerisms from my acute memory of hundreds of imaginary performances. I must have stared a little too hard, because he caught my eye. I looked away in confusion.
I looked up. The middle-aged stranger was standing over me, an unlit cigar in his hand. I tried to smile but I have a weak, rodent-like face and the result seldom does justice to the intention. Not that I felt much like smiling at him. It was just something to do.
“Do you happen to have a light?”
“I’m sorry. I don’t smoke.”
“Oh, I thought…” his voice trailed off. “I see.” He made no move. I smiled again.
“Oh , it doesn’t matter.” He put the cigar in his top pocket with a fluent, dismissive gesture, as if the matter of the light had never really been on the agenda at all. The thought flashed through my mind that he was connected with the theatre, I don’t know why. I glanced again at the four young men, still deep in their discussion.
“Writers,” the stranger said, his tone almost expressing envy. “Everyone in this pub seems to be a writer.” I looked down at my pad, the first page blank. I glanced round the bar but there seemed little to justify this last remark, unless he had been alluding to a state of mind. I was more concerned with where the conversation was leading and how it could be brought to a close before it got there.
“You, for example, write,” he stated.
“I knew it.” He punched the palm of his left hand as if this had been a particularly clever piece of deduction. “The fact is, I think I know you.” He flashed me a smooth smile.
This surprised me. I certainly didn’t know him, beyond my instinct that he was a theatrical type. Then again, there were so many of them hanging round Chelsea pubs these days, living off exaggerated memories of reflected glory.
“Yes…Derek – am I right or am I right? Derek…” he clicked his fingers.
“Ransome,” I said quickly.
He beamed at me. “Of course. Derek Ransome.” It was all a bit much to take, him standing over me like that and me with my blank sheet of paper in front of me. I felt at a terrible disadvantage.
“Won’t you sit down,” I said formally, “Mr, er…”
“Smith.” He sat down quickly, preferring the adjacent maroon plush banquette rather than the stool I’d indicated. I found myself drawing in like a tortoise. “Rupert Smith,” he added, almost whining. “Surely you remember…in the wild old days, when Martin Hebthorne was at the old RC down the road?”
I had never heard of Martin Hebthorne, nor the old RC, by which I presume he meant the Roman Catholic Brompton Oratory. I tried, without success, to imagine the social life which might have centred on this second-rate thespian and the shadowy Martin Hebthorne, perhaps a Catholic priest now dead or – given the reference to the ‘wild old days’ – defrocked. And how old were these old days? Ten years ago? Twenty? It was impossible to guess.
We fished unpromisingly for a while in the sluggish waters of reminiscence, eventually agreeing a link between us through Freddie Cutworth ‘back in the old days.’ I never heard a man talk so much about the old days. He reminded me in that respect of Humphrey Short, my character in Lost Dance: he was always lost in the past, searching for reasons for his hatred of Maggie and her scheming brother, the actor-manager Lawrence Lambert. With an effort I jerked myself back to the present and discovered, to my great surprise, that Rupert was inviting me to dinner.
“It’s just round the corner, quiet place…discreet. And there’re a couple of people who’d like to see you.”
“Who?” I asked: but he avoided the question with nods and winks and other outlandish gestures of mysterious familiarity.
It was clear that for some private reason he was determined to spring a surprise. As a rule I don’t like invitations at short notice but I couldn’t think of any reasons why I shouldn’t go. The chance meeting with Freddie, perhaps, had engendered in me a sense of as yet unfulfilled variety in my life; or maybe I had drunk just the right amount that day. I certainly couldn’t think of anything else to do.
“I’m sure Freddie won’t be turning up,” Rupert Smith went on.
“Oh, he might,” I said ineffectually.
Rupert Smith shook his head. “No, no.” He seemed quite certain on this point. “No.”
There was an unrestrained burst of laughter from the writers; possibly, I reflected bitterly, resulting from some contrived piece of business involving a comically dead body, a risqué pun and an uninvited dinner-party guest.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” the tall man said.
An evening of surprises for all of us, I thought wryly. My drink was almost finished and Rupert was shifting nervously, rolling his unlit cigar along his fingers. He pretended to look out of the window but all the time he was staring at me out of the corner of his watery eyes.
There’s a scene in Lost Dance, just before Lawrence Lambert comes back in from scheming with the loathsome Maggie in the garden. Humphrey is talking to his nephew Robbie, whom he distrusts. Robbie is trying to persuade Humphrey to invest in his and Lawrence’s new theatre and is playing on Humphrey’s feelings for Maggie, which he supposes to be warm. Robbie, of course, has his own interest in Lawrence’s daughter, April, about which he wrongly believes his uncle to be ignorant: while Humphrey still believes Robbie to be involved with Maggie. The crucial point, of course, are these gaps of awareness, which I thought worked rather well.
It interested me that Rupert Smith was here using exactly the same trick with the cigar as I had written for Robbie while he was waiting for Humphrey’s decision. I had tried to get it all down in the stage directions but it’s very hard to convey, in words, how maddening the gesture is. In one way I was satisfied that the piece of business I had picked had proved to be so psychologically correct but the irritation it caused me – coupled with my surprise that Rupert Smith should have been doing it at all – eliminated all other thoughts from my mind.
“Well,” Rupert was saying, “we should be off. They’ve probably started.”
I shrugged, as if to indicate that as the outing had not been my idea I could not be expected to be enthusiastic. We stepped outside. I hate leaving pubs before closing time, it seems such a waste of companionable solitude. The evening was chilly and I drew my coat around me.
We crossed Fulham Road. As we did so I heard a squeal of breaks and the tinkle-crash-thud of a road accident. I looked to the left and the right but couldn’t see any sign of it. If anything the road seemed suddenly very deserted, apart from a number 14 bus which had just passed us suddenly pulling up. We made our way along the other side of the road in silence, then turned down a side street, then right again, then left. Familiar though I was with the area, I was lost. Was this Elm Park Gardens up ahead? Just when it seemed we were going round in circles, Rupert ducked under a crimson awning which concealed a flight of dimly-lit basement steps, which we descended. As he pushed open the door, I caught the name Magnolia Club on a tarnished brass plaque.
Now this was strange, because ‘Magnolia Court’ is the name of Humphrey’s house where the action for my Lost Dancetakes place. He named it after his wife Kathleen, who had died – or so it seemed – in the car accident a few months before when Lawrence Lambert had been driving her up to London, an accident from which Lawrence had escaped with nothing worse than a partially severed finger. A scene floated into my mind:
Humphrey: (turning towards the French window) Do you see that magnolia tree?
Robbie: (following him) Yes. (pause).
Humphrey: That’s Kathleen’s.
Humphrey: Yes. It was in flower the first day I brought her here…pale, pink flowers, like her silk dress. She went outside – it was June – and picked one for my button-hole. That was the first time we kissed. (pulls at his drink.) And, do you know, it’s not flowered since, not since the accident. Not properly. Oh, a flower here, a bud there but not the complete cascade of colour, not the full scent of summer.
Robbie: (moving downstage) I’ve always thought the smell rather sickly. (pause). I often wonder about that accident of Aunt Kathleen’s. About Lawrence…about what he said that night.
Humphrey: (turning sharply to face him) Good God, what do mean?
Rather neat, I always thought, rather moving. Then, of course, what follows is the first twitch upon the thread, the first unravelling of the truth.
During these thoughts we had, I gradually noticed, made our way through an unlit hallway and into a deserted bar area which smelled damply of stale cigar smoke and, more faintly, of cats. The counter itself and the several low tables and large armchairs which dotted the far side of the room, seemed almost lost in the gloom, strange islands in a subterranean fog. There was an air of the afternoon drinking club about the place that called to mind the rather austere comfort of the 1950s but had a distinct air of being down on its luck. Perhaps it was out of season, although it was impossible to guess what the season for such an establishment might be. Conceivably the shabbiness was cultivated, calculated to soothe the minds of dispossessed European nobility, poorly-pensioned retired military men and other proud and loyal customers fallen on evil times. It was this last suspicion that made me feel an affinity to the place, one certainly not the result of my having been here before. I was quite certain I hadn’t.
Rupert was guiding me across the room, towards a door on the far side. I could see a chink of light under it and from beyond a low murmur of voices. He solicitously gestured me forward and pushed open the door.
The room was smaller and more brightly lit than the bar. There were no more than half a dozen tables but only one was set. At this four people sat, with three empty places. There were two men and two women. One of them men I recognised at once: it was Freddie. What on earth was he doing there, tucking into champagne and oysters in this strange basement? He nodded at me, his mouth full, his jaws working furiously.
The other man looked familiar and unwelcome: I had the impression of a man much aged since our last meeting. A thin, hooded face, a good but well-worn suit hanging off gaunt shoulders. For some reason I noticed he was left-handed. One of the women was middle-aged, well-dressed and formidable but looking drawn and strained; the other was younger and pretty and seemed hopelessly out of place in this setting. There was quite a long pause. Everyone seemed to be appraising me according to some secret criteria. After a moment Rupert ushered me towards one of the empty seats.
“Well – here we are. Late, I’m afraid, but still…Now – oysters: are there any left? Freddie, surely you haven’t eaten them all, dear chap?”
The phrases sounded hopelessly out of date, like an actor reciting lines from another age.
Freddie made a flamboyant gesture, indicating that if Rupert wanted more oysters he only had to ask: the prodigious resources of the kitchen were his to command. Rupert had, however, lost interest in oysters, as he had earlier done with the cigar and was pouring two glasses of champagne. He handed one to me.
“There now, old man – I told you you’d be meeting old friends.” He smiled encouragingly, as if the statement were self-evident. There was another pause.
“Derek,” the thin man said, “how are you keeping? In fact, I know, I’ve heard…various things…” his voice trailed off as if, like Rupert Smith, he was finding concentration on any one subject difficult. Despite this, there was an air of suppressed excitement in the room, which sat ill with the shabby atmosphere.
“I’m sorry,” I said, dredging from the thickets of my memory a casual reaction to social awkwardness, “but I don’t seem to remember your name.”
The man gave a thin, rattling laugh, which managed to be both sinister and desperate. The older woman shot him an anxious glance.
“Oh, I’m sure…” she began. Her voice had a strange quality, as though she were a medium transmitting the words of someone not known to me in this life.
The man waved the objection aside. “It’s quite possible he doesn’t remember. Quite possible” He smiled, revealing bad teeth. The man seemed on the point of disintegration. “It was some time ago. The Royal Court, mmm?”
Suddenly, I remembered – Martin Scott, the man who had rejected Lost Dance all those years ago. My God he’d aged a bit since then. Despite all the drink and disappointment, I like to think I’ve kept in better shape than him. I was glad also that my memory had not completely abandoned me. Martin Scott – well, well.
“Yes, I see you remember. I’m Martin Hebthorne.”
“You remember now, you see,” Rupert put in, “at the old RC. What times we all had! In the wings, in the shadows.” He giggled. I turned sharply to face him. “We were all there, all the time, in spirit, you might say,” he went on, still giggling like a damned fool.
The thought crossed my mind that Rupert Smith was drunk.
“Things didn’t work out there, I’m afraid,” the man who was calling himself Martin Hebthorne went on. He shook his head sadly, then made an effort to brighten up. “Have you met my daughter? Derek, this is June, June Scott, my daughter.”
June smiled at me.
“Hang on – you were called Scott, then. Weren’t you?”
He shrugged. “It was a name I used.” He sounded like a secret-service agent, blandly playing around with identities in a society drawing room while war erupted across the border. “Yes, I seem to think I did. A sort of nom de guerre, if you like.” He rattled again. “It was actually my wife’s name.”
I looked at him, then at the two women, then at him again. I couldn’t get this straight at all.
“And this is my sister, Maggie. Maggie Frobisher.”
The woman slowly looked up to meet my shocked gaze, her eyes limpid pools of unknowing recognition. I felt my brain turn to ice. Freddie quietly got to his feet and vanished from the room.
“Your sister,” I managed to say at last.
“Yes.” There was another long silence, during which several dramatic events and carefully phrased exchanges of dialogue straggled across my mind like refugees from an unexpected catastrophe.
“I’m sorry to hear about your accident,” June said unexpectedly. For a moment I was unsure who she was talking to: then I realised it must be me. What wasshe talking about? With surprising calm, I sat down and drained my glass of champagne.
“That’s right, you see,” said Rupert, “all old friends together.” He took the seat opposite me and refilled my glass. “So…”
At that point the door of the kitchen swung open, revealing Freddie and a waiter with a huge roast suckling pig. Its flanks glistened with dripping fat which sizzled as it stung the elaborate silver tray, a relic from bygone days of excellence at the Magnolia Club. The mouth gaped, the dead eye sockets swam with grease, the apple which had slid from between its jaws rolled back and forth like an abandoned planet as the load was steadied and carefully deposited in the centre of the table. Martin Hebthorne licked his thin lips, smiling wolfishly at me all the while. He picked up a carving knife and fork and motioned the waiter to withdraw.
“Now,” he said, suppressing a further rattle, “to meat.”
The room was suddenly silent. Hebthorne paused for a moment, then drove the knife into the flanks of the pig. A river of hot fat gushed out over the tray and onto the table. The more he cut the less meat there seemed to be, and the more fat.
I looked round the table, at us all sitting there. Once again, a scene from my Lost Dance floated into my head. This is where Robbie has taken the family lawyer, Mr Tulkingham, into his confidence and has persuaded him to make some indiscreet revelations about his aunt’s will by saying that the police were thinking of re-opening the enquiry into her death. It turned out she made three wills, each of which would have benefitted interesting combinations of the main characters. Robbie takes these to provide evidence of his aunt’s state of mind in the weeks before the accident.
What he doesn’t realise is that Mr Tulkingham has also told Humphrey about a fourth will, made just before the last one and revoked within days, which left everything to Robbie; although there now seemed to be a doubt about its validity, a fact Tulkingham shares with Maggie, though not Lawrence. Again, you see, the gaps of awareness. It is from this point on that we come to suspect that there was more to Kathleen’s death than met the eye.
The moment which Martin Hebthorne’s carving of the greasy pig called to mind was when Humphrey has invited Robbie and Lawrence and Lawrence’s beautiful daughter April, the actress, down to his house to announce his final decision about the funding of their theatre company. Mr Tulkingham is there to lend legal support; also there, much to Robbie’s surprise, is Lawrence’s sister Maggie. The whole cast, in other words, gathered round a dining table ostensibly to discuss the theatre company; actually, of course, are probing the question of Kathleen’s death, each examining the situation and questioning others according to the various obsessions, insights and misapprehensions. At one point, as Humphrey is carving the meat, he turns to Robbie:
Humphrey: I suppose you feel disappointed you weren’t in a position to be able to start this company on your own?
Robbie: What do you mean?
Humphrey: You know perfectly well. I’m talking about your aunt’s will.
Robbie: I was expecting nothing from Aunt Kathleen. Anyway, I…
Humphrey: (Ignoring him) I imagine there are a few other people who felt the same. (Looks round the table.)
Lawrence: Look, old chap, Kathleen was a very wealthy woman. No one here begrudges you your good fortune.
Humphrey: Good fortune! I was her husband, for Christ’s sake! Even if she had made another will…(pauses)… I could contest it – and win.
Tulkingham: Possibly…possibly win.
Humphrey: I hardly think there’s any doubt about this one, wouldn’t you say?
Tulkingham: There’s always doubt.
Robbie: There speaks the lawyer.
Humphrey: Doubt? What kind of doubt?
April: Wills have been contested before.
Maggie: And wills will be contested in the future.
And so matters start to unravel: and, all the while, Humphrey is carving the meat; cutting, if you like, the carcass of his hopes and expectations and offering it to those sitting round his table. Rather a neat image, I always thought.
Much the same thing was happening in the Magnolia Club as Martin Hebthorne finished his assault on the pig and began sliding slices of pale oily meat onto the ornate plates. These were handed round by Rupert Smith.
“This little piggy went to market,” he said as he handed one to Maggie. “Round and round the garden,” he added. Which was, of course, what Kathleen used to sing when she was weeding her beloved flower beds. A sour, warm Chablis appeared, as did a bowl of drowned cabbage and another of potatoes. Finally everyone began to eat.
I didn’t have much of an appetite. The meat tasted rank, pungent and rubbery and after a few mouthfuls I pushed the plate away and poured more wine. Everyone else was attacking their food with gusto, forcing heaped forkfuls of meat into their mouths as if this meal might be their last on earth. For some time there was little speech. I also noticed that the large clock on the far wall had stopped.
“Well, Derek,” Martin Hebthorne said at last, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and pushing his chair back from the table. “What do you think of our little gathering? Quite the old-timers, aren’t we? Apart from June, of course.” June smiled thinly. She had said nothing since I had arrived, indeed looked as if she might be slightly simple.
I didn’t know what to say.
“The old days,” Rupert Smith began. “How one yearns for them. Down at the old RC…” I still wasn’t sure if the old RC was the Royal Court or the Roman Catholic Brompton Oratory.
“We think we should start again.” Maggie said. Her voice sounded crisp and cool, yet curiously distant as if coming from some way underground.
“Let bygones be bygones,” Martin Hebthorne explained.
“Sleeping dogs, in other words,” Rupert Smith said with a giggle.
“Make a new start,” Freddie put in.
“It’s the best time, oh yes,” Rupert Smith went on in his furtive way. “Never better, never better.” He laughed again. Martin Hebthorne rattled, Freddie smiled, Maggie raised her eyebrows, June looked down at her plate.
“So…” I began.
“In short, we’ve decided that we want to have a stab at yourLost Dance,” Martin said.
“A reinterpretation,” Freddie suggested.
“A new way of looking at it,” said Maggie.
“New, yes, yes,” said Rupert.
“Yes,” said June.
“A marvellous work in so many ways,” Martin said.
“A challenge,” Freddie said.
“Ground-breaking,” Martin said.
“A new landmark,” Freddie suggested.
“Yes,” said June.
I really didn’t know what to say, or think, or do. I grabbed for my glass and, in my excitement, knocked it over into the fatty lake which surrounded the remains of the pig. The wine sunk to the bottom of the mixture, a bloody sludge in the depths of my memory.
“Well, that’s excellent…”
“Yes,” Martin Hebthorne said smoothly. “But there are some problems.”
“Legal problems,” Freddie said.
“Legal,” Rupert Smith explained.
“Legal?” I asked. I could feel my joy evaporating.
“Legal,” Martin Hebthorne said firmly, as if the rest of us had been hunting for the right word and he had just found the only possible one. “Legal. The question of ownership, for one. It seems that Diana has a claim.”
Shortly after I had finished writing my Lost Dance and seduced into an intoxication of self-importance by an accountant, I had discussed making over the rights to my then wife Diana to ease the tax burden when the money started to roll in. My nephew Ralph had also somehow been dragged into it all. Meetings were held and preliminary documents signed but then the matter had lapsed. Was it possible that I had, after all, assigned the rights of Lost Dance in my confusion? A terrible fear gripped my heart at the thought.
“Yes. And your nephew Ralph, too, might need to be involved.”
“I don’t think so,” I stammered. This was a terrible shock. I almost wished they’d never mentioned the matter at all if it were going to come to this.
“And the old RC,” Rupert Smith put in.
“Ah, yes, them too, of course.”
“And the Treasury,” Freddie said.
“Yes, yes,” Martin said, turning to Freddie and nodding in a glad-you-mentioned-that kind of way. “They’re the worst. Armies of lawyers working on it, so I’m told.” He gave a thin, wolfish smile. “Fierce opponents. Never let go, the Treasury Solicitors. Once they get their teeth and claws into something, it’s…well…” he made a gesture of hopelessness.
“And there’s me, old chap,” Freddie said apologetically, before I could ask what the Treasury Solicitors had to do with my Lost Dance..
“You?” I asked. How on earth could Freddie have a claim on the work?
“It’s all down in black and white,” Martin said.
“Where?” I asked.
“It was when you were writing that film together, wasn’t it, Freddie?” Martin prompted.
“That’s right. There were quite a few scenes in Lost Dance which…well, which…” Freddie coughed twice. “A lot of similarities.”
“Which ones?” I asked.
“We’ve had the whole thing looked into, old chap,” Martin Hebthorne went on. “Top to bottom, head to toe. Quite the very devil to sort out. But I’ve found an excellent chap…” here he broke off into another rattling cough. “…quite the best man in his field. I think he can unravel the whole thing if anyone can. He’s been working on it for an age. Very complex case. Tricky.”
“Yes, yes,” Rupert Smith put in.
“In fact, he’s coming along today. He believes that he’s finally cracked it, seen a way through – there, that’s a piece of good news, isn’t it?” I didn’t know whether to agree or not. “He’s going to lay the whole thing before us, head and tail, guts and bones, flesh and blood, so we can get it all straightened out today. Set the seal on the whole affair.”
“Wind it up,” Freddie said.
“Be done with it,” Maggie said.
“Start again,” Martin Hebthorne said.
“Like the old days,” Rupert Smith said.
“Yes,” said June.
“Of course,” Martin went on, “the bills will be steep. Very steep. It’s been a long job for him, as I said. Years.”
“Years?” I asked.
“Oh yes. He says he’s never seen anything like it. Tied up like anything in all kinds of confusions and what-have-yous. He’s nearly dead with the work on it. But I’ve got him to waive some of the fees in exchange for a share of the royalties.”
“But…it’s my play!” I said.
“That’s exactly and precisely the nub of the whole problem, old boy. It seems as if it isn’t any more, or mightn’t be…or some of it might be,” – here he nodded to Freddie – “and some of it mightn’t. Or different parts, depending on…on various matters, considerations. Circumstances and so forth. All depends on Turlingford, the lawyer, what he can come up with. You see what I mean? It’s the very devil of a thing. That’s what we’re trying to sort out. I must say,” he went on, adopting a hurt tone of voice, “I’d have thought you’d be grateful. As I said, it’s been all uphill and we’ve been working our fingers to the bone trying to find a way through. And it’s not as if,” he added, “we didn’t have anything better to do.”
“We’ve got better things to do than just sitting around talking about the old days,” Freddie said.
I muttered something inaudible.
“Mr Turlingford should be here any minute,” Martin said.
“Any minute,” Rupert Smith said.
I put my head in my hands. From one moment of pure joy when Martin Hebthorne had made his announcement, everything had now sunk into a nightmare. The whole thing was quite ghastly.
“Any minute now,” Freddie said.
Of course, at the end, Lost Dance comes down to a matter of deception. It isn’t until the scene on Midsummer’s day that it becomes clear Kathleen and Lawrence Lambert have been conducting an affair. Humphrey also discovers she has been assigning her portion of their joint assets to various companies, some of which she and Lawrence owned; worse still, in all this she was assisted by Mr Tulkingham, his trusted family solicitor. Even the ownership of Magnolia Court is in dispute. In the middle of this despair, Humphrey receives another shock, concerning the circumstances of the car accident. Police investigations have revealed a fault in the braking system which could have been created deliberately:, furthermore that, according to an unspecified witness, Humphrey was seen doing something underneath the car on the afternoon of the crash, a claim he denies.
Humphrey: But the whole thing’s insane! I couldn’t do a thing like that! Everyone knows that! You believe me, don’t you? (Robbie shrugs and turns away.) Oh, for God’s sake…Who’s saying this anyway?
Robbie: (Pause) The police don’t want to say. They’re making enquiries, they say.
Humphrey: But I have to know who’s accusing me…God. (He buries his face in his hands.)
Robbie: They haven’t charged you yet.
Humphrey: How do you know about this?
Robbie: They’ve been interviewing me all morning.
Humphrey: All morning…what did you tell them? (Shouts) What did you tell them?
Robbie: I told them…
At this point Maggie comes in, leaving open the question of whether it was Robbie who made the accusation. Maggie wants to discuss her brother Lawrence; but not in front of Robbie, whom she believes is playing a double game. Robbie is unwilling to leave his uncle and Maggie together lest they turn the tables on him; he also suspects Humphrey is scheming to marry Maggie to reclaim the assets Lawrence and Kathleen cheated away from him. In fact, Humphrey is starting to doubt that Lawrence was as guilty as he at first supposed and half suspects that his wife may in fact have all along been in league with Robbie to despoil him of his fortune.
So it goes on, you see, duplicity laid upon duplicity, confused motive upon frustrated scheme, fatally entangling the lives of all the characters. I know it seems complicated – but on the stage it is…it would be very clear. Very clear indeed. Ideally, of course, there would be no interval, so as to allow the full impact of the growing horror to build up.
It seemed that something of this nature was happening to me in the Magnolia Club.
“He should be here soon,” Martin Hebthorne said again.
“Do you know Mr Turlingford?” Freddie asked me in a conversational tone of voice.
“He’s a first rate man,” Martin said.
No further food appeared. There was nothing more to drink. No one came to clear the plates. The stench of fatty meat hung about the room, which seemed ever more to be sinking into gloom. No one said anything. We all just sat there, waiting for Mr Turlingford to arrive.
Humphrey: So we all just sit here, do we, waiting for Mr Tulkingham to arrive?
Lawrence: There’s nothing else to do. (Long pause).
I don’t know how long we sat there. It could have been five minutes or an hour or a month; sitting there, Martin Hebthorne, Maggie Frobisher, Freddie Cutworth, Rupert Smith, June Scott and me, all waiting for Mr Turlingford to arrive.
You see, it actually turned out that Lawrence and Kathleen were going to fake Kathleen’s death and get their hands on Humphrey’s money. Robbie had discovered this and was blackmailing Kathleen: but then the real accident happened – or did it? The car caught fire and it now seems possible the body was not Kathleen’s at all: in which case, is Kathleen still alive? It then transpires that Kathleen and April conspired to kill Robbie but that he turned the tables on her and was thus – perhaps – responsible for the car accident. Kathleen and Lawrence discover this and decide, partly to confuse Robbie, to make it look as if Kathleen really had died. Lawrence could then blackmail Robbie with what Kathleen knew about Robbie’s plot to kill them.
Do you see what I mean? Sometimes I feel myself going slightly mad when I think about it all. I think this bit was particularly neat. You see, in fact…
… in fact Lawrence double-crosses Kathleen, or plans to as soon as the will is proved and form an alliance with April to get his revenge on his sister Maggie, whom he suspects of having an affair with Humphrey. Furthermore, he is starting to suspect that Humphrey is only encouraging this idea of the theatre company so he can later sabotage the project and leave Lawrence desperate for further funds. These, so the plan goes, Humphrey and Maggie can then provide for Lawrence – but on theirterms.
“He really should be here by now,” Martin Hebthorne said out of the deepening gloom to my right. “He’s a very punctual man as a rule.”
“He’s very punctual,” Rupert Smith whispered back.
“Yes,” said June.
April is now emerging as a far from passive character in the drama. She is also trying to ensnare Lawrence in a three-way split of the theatrical company, a plan she claims to have formulated with the agreement of Mr Tulkingham. She sees her aunt Maggie as the principal obstacle in the path of her grander plan, that of taking over the whole of Humphrey’s estate by persuading Humphrey to adopt her as his daughter.
The permutations really are endless: like life itself. Sometimes I am left almost breathless with excitement as to how six characters could be capable of so much deception. Looking around the Magnolia Club I wondered whether my companions’ lives had been half as interesting.
I found myself thinking about the increasingly sinister Mr Tulkingham. It becomes clear separately to Humphrey and Robbie that he knows more about Kathleen’s death than he is prepared to admit. It also transpires that the old lawyer is himself involved as a shareholder in one of the companies established – or so it appears – by Kathleen and Lawrence. All of this leaves open the question of whose best interests Tulkingham is trying to promote.
The crisis for Lawrence comes with the proving of Kathleen’s will. An investigation of both Humphrey’s and Kathleen’s estates now seems likely which will expose further unpleasant details about the lives and activities of all the characters. Each person is now lobbying Mr Tulkingham individually or in shifting alliances, trying to ensure that any investigation focuses on, or ignores, certain aspects of the affair.
Into the middle of this comes the news that Kathleen left another will, unbeknown to anyone else, which was lodged with another solicitor. Mr Tulkingham agrees to visit the company and check the document, before bringing it back to Magnolia Court. So it is that Lawrence and April Lambert, Maggie Stavin, Robbie Temple and Humphrey Short are waiting in the living room, saying nothing to each other, staring out across the crumbling estate; sitting there, waiting for Mr Tulkingham to arrive.
Well – that’s where I’ve got to so far. To be honest, I’m not sure how it’s going to end. I always say it’s finished, that it’s been finished for years but somehow it never seems to happen. Each twitch upon the thread unravels ten times as much wool, twisted in unexpected ways. Every possibility has to be explored, every avenue of doubt or confusion marked carefully on the map. That’s just the way it has to be.
What else is there for me to do, anyway? I suppose you could say that I’ve been working on it for years, solidly. For twenty years. I add a bit here, add a bit there, another scene here, another scene there, so it keeps on growing; like life itself, I suppose. Other people’s lives, at any rate. I know it’s long – I know that – but that should never have been the reason not to…it could go on forever, night after night, day after day. My life is filled up with it, countless sheets – why not everyone else’s? How long would it take to perform? Straight through, with no intervals? A week, perhaps. A month. Maybe more. But that’s not long! Most lives last a thousand times longer than that. But of course, it isn’t finished yet.
They’re all sitting there, you see, waiting for Mr Tulkingham…
Suddenly I know that Mr Tulkingham isn’t going to arrive; that nothing will ever move on or get resolved; that all the characters will fade away into the grey scenery and never be seen or heard of again in this world. I no longer have any control over it, you see. I just knew that he wasn’t going to turn up. It was going to be bad news.
“He’s not going to turn up,” Martin Hebthorne said. From somewhere he had produced a telephone which he was just hanging up. “Bad news, I’m afraid.”
I knew then that Mr Tulkingham has been killed in a car accident on the way back from the other solicitors with the only copy of Kathleen’s will.
“I’m afraid that Mr Turlingford has been killed in a car accident,” Martin Hebthorne said slowly. “Christ, that’s torn it. He was the only one who…”
Humphrey: (Hanging up the telephone) I’m afraid that Mr Tulkingham has been killed in a car accident.
Robbie: Christ, that’s torn it.
Maggie: He was the only one who…
Lawrence: Well, what do we do now?
April: What ever is there to do?
Humphrey: (Moving centre stage: the other members of the cast start to drift away during this speech) What ever is there to do? To strut, to prance, to do our best or worst, confounding those we claim to hold most dear with stratagems, confusions, snares to trip the foot and twist the mind – vile policies to split a lifeless grin from ear to ear: whatever can we do, where nothing signifies beyond uncertainty and fear? How can we gauge endeavours, measure our deceit but by a reckoning of evil – at worst, self-ruinous; at best, discreet? Flattery, ambition, possessions dearly bought – all live in jeopardy, no matter how they’re wrought. I stand before you now a man who, in my prime, thought pride a virtue, honesty a crime: that fear could bring forth honour; hatred mother hope; that vengeance could be cheated by fine judgement, by knowing how to dodge the tightening of the noose, the heavy chain or greasy hangman’s rope. What else is left to say? When all of life’s ambition’s stripped away, when no stain of lust or power or avarice remains, there’s left a hollow shell; a wobbling, jellied lake of nothingness, an empty pool, by whose banks a fool might happily spend the relic of his days engrossed in nothing in a million empty ways. Thus I find myself – now expecting nothing. And yet I was not all-through bad, nor hopeless, nor always cursed by such a sign: men often spoke of qualities and virtues that I had, of some simple good; of kindness shown at unexpected times, when they least thought I would. But before I leave, I ask you yet to think on what you see: not hopelessness nor sorrow for a life miscast, nor tears for evil born in days now, gladly, past. Just this – a nothingness, a tree without a root, with nothing blossomed, nothing budded, nothing brought to fruit. So here, in all this honesty, please have the time to take one fearful glance, to know me while you can: an empty soul, a weather-beaten ghost; in short, a disappointed man.
And – although that wasn’t the way I ever thought it was going to end – that, I thought, was about that.
“I’m sorry,” Martin Hebthorne said, his hand on my shoulder, “that’s the way it is.”
“We’re all in the same boat,” Rupert Smith said with a giggle. “Very much the same boat now.”
“Yes,” said Freddie with a sigh.
“Yes,” said June.
“And so it goes on,” said Maggie.
“And on,” said Martin.
“And on,” said Freddie.
“Yes,” said June.
I allowed my head slide down onto the table, resting on my arms. The vapour of greasy pork was all around me, the heady stench of failure and regret.
“It’s just the disappointment,” Martin Hebthorne said. “We’re all…”
“Oh yes,” Rupert Smith interrupted, “we’re all disappointed.”
Disappointed? I was dead. That bloody 14 bus. Dead – and you don’t get any more disappointed than that.
Then I thought back over what I could remember of my grey, pointless life and smiled slightly. Dead. You don’t get any more disappointed than that. Or do you?