The last glass of champagne
[ fiction - november 12 ]
“That’s a very beautiful pen, Amelia.”
“It is, isn’t it?”
“Is it very expensive?”
“Probably. I was given it as a present last night.”
“Your birthday, Amelia?”
“From your boy friend?”
“Just someone I had casual sex with.”
What a hoot, Andrei the waiter will say back in the kitchen she supposes - always such a laugh Amelia, ninety odd years old and always a surprise, she supposes he will say, and imagines that he imagines she was quite wild in her youth, that he wonders what she looked like in her twenties - quite a stunner she thinks he might think, but you can’t tell at her great age. The pen is an antique too, green and beautiful, but a brand she has either forgotten or never known. Like me, she thinks, an antique of a type I have never really known or if I ever did I have completely forgotten. She turns it in her hand and sees dull, distorted reflections on its cracked ice barrel pattern.
“I can’t imagine where they found it.”
But there is a man ‘on the firm’ who trades in fountain pens. Not a known man, not really someone who orbits in the same circles, the little sub groups that break up at the end of meetings and reintroduce the differences that lie beneath the similarities where some go back to the estate and some go back to another kind of estate; no, he is someone she knows vaguely and could easily spend a short while with over a friendly coffee or a few words as they pass in the street, but that’s about it; not one of her group. He would be unlikely to take the initiative himself, but would have been approached by someone who thought an antique pen an appropriate gift, none of your Caran d’Aches or Mont Blancs, none of those social flags that decorate the desks of hideous people in the City. Ben, or Eddie Two-Fisted or even Serena between bridge rubbers, God bless us, it might have been they who held the hat and hatched the scheme: pen, party and all. And then a bunch of others would have heard and put their hands in their pockets and here it is, in her own fair mano, ready to write, but nothing to write about. Some of the contributors would probably hardly know her but would have given, just in the spirit of things. That touches her. She will never know who put their money in the hat. Some of them may have been broke, unemployed – many are these days - but still they would dip into the coins in their Primarks. That is real generosity. That is the spirit of the Firm, bad boys and girls being good for the sake of being good.
“Someone went to a great deal of care. “I’m very lucky to have such good friends,” and she felt the prick of cliché. Yes, they were good friends but was it really true they were good friends, or did she never pause to think in case the truth were a disappointment? Were there no such things as ‘good friends’ in her life, and did she have to delude herself that mere acquaintances were the stuff of eternal friendship, when actually there never was a real soul mate? Are her friends, or rather those friends any better that the friends anyone has? Why does everyone have such special friends? Who are the ordinary friends?
“I was told at school that my handwriting was ugly and I’ve always felt there was a pen somewhere that would magically transform my handwriting into something beautiful.” She must have told someone, because the card said That Pen.
So who else knew about her former pen fixation? Two-Fisted is becoming chief suspect. He’s a businessman: suite of offices by Grosvenor Square, BMW. Pens are important to him too, they’re small badges of his success. And he has that sort of suspicious mind that remembers tiny details in case they might be of use in some future trade-off or sales pitch. He would remember some fragment of conversation they had shortly after the war in Vietnam or last week, whenever. Everything is useful to Two-Fisted. Quite a little squirrel. Two-Fisted knows where all his nuts are buried. And everyone else’s nuts.
“And this is that pen?”
“I’m afraid not. My handwriting is just as awful as ever.”
“You’ll find that magic pen, Amelia.”
“I don’t think it matters now.”
“Ooooh... You don’t look a day over seventy.”
“Just get my coffee, Andre.”
And she is embarrassed as he laughs to flag up that familiarity and eternal joy that waiters must provide with the coffee and biscotti, that falseness that always finds a niche of discomfort in her till she is left alone. But thankfully he takes the cue to leave and she turns to Sloane Square and squints into the sun, as she has been squinting into a Sloane Square sun for as long as.. well almost as long as Sloane Square itself it seems. How many squints into the Sloane Square sun has she had in her life, how many times has she peered through English glooms at this square? How many autumns, springs? She prefers the square in the glooms, the glooms that reflect the times when she was a child round here, far enough back for the picture image of that time - of the thirties, the gloomy, depressed thirties, that didn’t seem remotely depressed or gloomy to her - of the streets and people then, the solid cars and telegram boys on their little motor bikes, the picture image that she sees as faded with all colours de-saturated, almost monochrome, although they were colourful times, bright with colour, brave bright blocks of colour some quiet voice from a recess in her mind insists. She consults her memory to confirm that they were colourful times, but there seem to be no images. The data bank has been deleted leaving only a few unfounded convictions and notions; there is no actual memory of anything. The past has gone. For the moment. Someone else’s images are all she seems to have, as if she has borrowed them and kept them and convinced herself that they belong to her, like an old un-returned library book. She supposes these convictions of what her life was like back then come from television; memories of times that she lived through that feel second or third hand. That is what she has. A few fragments that may be fictions, little dramas and narratives that spew out of her but which may be things she has invented. Imaginings. How would I know, she asks silently, and has no answer.
Mama? No, don’t really remember. One is always supposed to remember one’s mother. I have a memory of her face, but do I remember anything? Really remember? Not just think I remember. Nothing before the age of ohhh.. Twenty certainly. My! Twenty. My God she thinks; I’m twenty years older than she when she popped her clogs. Mama seems young from this perspective. She was young. For a moment she regarded her as a very much younger sister and it was a strange thing. How odd, she thought, or perhaps even muttered quietly to the taxis swerving through the Square.
She sighs and surrenders to the strangeness and the void.
That’s what museums do I suppose, they fill in our spaces, the parts of our lives that have drained and are empty. Then they presume they know more about it than we who have lived through it, and I daresay they are right. We experienced it but the tapes have self-erased. All the marks and bruises have gone. History can be remembered but not the experience of living it. Oh dear, she says aloud to the brassy Sloane Square sunlight, it’s probably all tucked away in the passive memory, just waiting for something to trigger it, there but beyond reach, like the things we lose but know are round somewhere if we could only remember where.
The sun shines straight into her eyes. She resents the sun. Nothing interesting at all about the sun, despite the fact that there is a whole industry built around chasing and selling it, idealising it, sun Gods invoked etc., bronzed skin and cancer. The moon changes; the sun is unchanged. Why didn’t Ray Charles sing That Boring Old Sun or That Lucky Old Moon? This square has atmosphere on misty autumn days, in grey afternoons as spring tugs out of winter it shows a neutral gravitas. At night it can be magical. The sun makes it tawdry.
Summers were so much more attractive in black and white, all those films we made with wonderful English skies, Larkin’s ‘high builded cloud, moving at summer’s pace’. God what a queer cove he was, quite sexy with a drink in him, or at least fancied himself to be so, and clever men have a certain sexual threat about them. The ego, I suppose - giving head in a way - the idea that they’re so intelligent they don’t need to care about anyone’s feelings, that feelings are the domain of lower sensate beings and that really you’re just a brief source of pleasure for them and on to the next quatrain. Yes, that has a certain irresistible masochism to it. I suppose we all need to feel insignificant now and again to keep up the drive to regain significance, I suppose it’s how the human race progresses in some obscure, neurotic by-path of Darwin, whipping ourselves on to prove it to some bastard or other, getting even, or one over on him eventually, losing the battle but winning the war, restoring the balance. God I’m exhausted...
She moves in her chair, an old, very old lady looking distressed, and squints up at the top of Peter Jones and feels the inertia of thoughtlessness weigh her down, of how there have been so many times when only cranking up the engine to roll on the thoughts in the gathering velocity of their own inertia has kept the flame from going out in all the millions of lonely hours she has spent down the long tunnel of her time, of how she has come close so often to dying of weariness, and only warded off this awful petering out by unleashing inanity in her mind. Things change of course, she thinks, but it is the connection to everyone that changes most, and it’s all from them, they begin to look at one differently, as if they’re just waiting for some awful final act to start, as if one is no longer entitled to the vividness of life and that one is now a trespasser. One is always aware of that look from those who still own the garden to she who is still in it only by their gracious indulgence and borrowed time. It starts in the seventies as something flickering between eyes, then becoming denser, until everyone looks on one with the same slightly tired tolerance and a tut flickering on the tongue tip ready to be vocalised. It is impossible to be taken seriously after a certain age. One’s full membership has been rescinded without consultation, and one can no longer have a proper conversation, as one is no longer treated as an adult, but as a sort of geriatric infant.
She looks up at Larkin’s high builded cloud over the Dutch-derivative gables that sit loftily above the retail outlets; chimneys and rooftops that no one notices till they’re on the top floor of Peter Jones and all say “My look at those roofs and gables, aren’t they marvellous. And one wouldn’t know” because they never bother to look up. The clouds are a bit vaporous today, and feeble, as if slightly disgusted with London; there is nothing stately about the way their shapes disintegrate and reform. They’re in a hurry to get across the city to Constable’s Suffolk as quickly as possible where they will reform into their full airy plumage and squat powerfully as banks of Constable clouds above the Constable landscape.
Daresay, she thinks, if she were still drinking when she met Larkin she would probably have taken to him in a fashionably biographical manner, the brief affair that crops up in the Sunday papers by writers with nothing to say but who are desperate for journalistic stardom, mythologizing the coupling of culturally iconic figures as having some mystery and depth that sex in the suburbs doesn’t. Hideous thought really when I remember him, she thought, particularly when he was loosened by a couple of drinks. I never knew him as the misogynistic baldy depressed by his odd appearance. He was charming, he was sweet, he was shy, but then he would have a couple too many and... Drink erases what makes the individual individual and reduces him to being indistinguishable from his fellow drunk. I must have been the same, the same boring predictable drunk, whipping them off, as I did, for any half glimpse of attention in my sherry days. Simply an act of kindness in most cases, it seemed ungracious to say no, and no real harm done. Except with the ones who couldn’t get it up. I used to worry it was some imperfection in myself, but it wasn’t; it was the booze or because they were queer and fighting against it as chaps did in those straightforward days, or simply having a funny one, or simply the fact that some days that damned thing just won’t stand up for love nor money. Time has taught me how delicate the conductor’s baton is and how easily he won’t come out even for the most splendid of symphonies. Larkin, like most males after a couple of drinks hinted at it and after a couple more was probably beyond it. Perhaps I should have. It would have been a useful line at some of my third husband’s academic soirees. “It is the simplicity of Philip’s work that appeals, his transformative focus on the ordinary, his capacity to gently lead the reader to a place where everyday things release a numinous experience, and did you know he had a Hampton as long as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.
I loved to ruffle feathers. It persisted for decades: a need to upset, to abuse really, quite sadistic I suppose. Even well into recovery. It was so joyful detesting someone and upsetting them. I regretted giving that up more than drink.
Did I really loathe and detest all those people? When I think of them now I feel sorry that I despised them, but many of them were not remotely aware that I existed, far less that I had an opinion on them. And they’re all dead now, so it all seems a bit pointless. And I can’t remember who any of them were, so it doesn’t really seem to matter.
Dame Edith. I remember her. I loathed her. The self-centred bitch. She was always on the Parkinson show, all whimsy and English eccentricity with the sycophantic Parky drooling at her knee like the kind of pathetic poodle you want to kick. She seemed to bestride life in England at one time, that strange, funny looking old woman with her ridiculous voice. I should imagine no one knows who she was now. Gone and forgotten. A very odd one. They really do not make ’em like that anymore, and for that I have some regret. Something is being lost in the homogenisation of the world. Michael - Michael R, not Michael Parky - told me that onstage one had to keep clear of her in the wings just before she made her first entrance, not just to preserve her sacred concentration, but because nerves brought on lethal attacks of flatulence. Form was important then. Now an actress wouldn’t hesitate to pass wind in front of her leading man, then publicise it as a joke on The one Show. Decorum. No one uses that word any more. I wonder if it still exists?
Why do I think of daddy when I say that word? He trailed such words in his modesty: dignity, reticence, restraint, manners, deference, respect, delicacy, continence, honour. Old words. Un Homme Sérieux. A foreigner to our modern world, which has everyone clamouring to display what idiots they are to the telly lens. Being a fool is a lucrative career choice these days. They have agents for it too: Fools’ Agents.
Daddy did grown up for us all; one felt terribly un-grown up around him, which, I suppose may have partially accounted for my mildly disrespectful attitude. Even in death he stuck to form. He almost died on the lavatory, which would have sent him into that last goodnight mortified. We didn’t notice how long he had been in there; we didn’t notice he had been in there at all. We had no reason to think that evening would be any more significant than any other. I remember the drawing room being rather dark when he came in, and his looking very worried and carrying a Wisden. It was the Wisden that was so disturbing. Daddy had all the Wisdens from the very first on a shelf in his study, but he also kept some duplicates in the lavatory for guests. They never emerged from study or loo, so when we saw him clutching one that night, we knew something was happening. He seemed to float in very urgently, and stared straight ahead at nothing. The room was quite dark. The drapes rose above him like a gloomy stage dressing. He was wearing a deep blue suit and cream Turnbull & Asser shirt, and he arrived in a strange kind of hover. Sally, mother and I were in the room, all watching him staring straight ahead seeing none of us I think, and I don’t know if his final words were addressed to us or to himself, but all he said was, “Thank God for that” and fell down dead.
There have been many theories within the family about what mystery that last sentence cloaked, but I think those last words we ever heard him say were simply an expression of gratitude for being spared the indignity of dying on the lavatory. Lavatory jokes or any reference to that most private of rooms were anathema to daddy. He was fastidious in everything to his last Turnbull & Asser moment, the valediction was a clue how important it had been to complete his intimate needs before the grim reaper called, but by his anxious demeanour one can only speculate how close a call it had been. Dear, dear daddy; dead before the Beatles.
Her coffee arrives.
“Roasting the beans, were we?” But Andre only ever laughs.
“I’m so sorry Amelia, we’re short staffed today”
“That little hussy from Poland?”
“Oh Serbia, well... The Serbs. Very good at starting wars, but hopelessly unpunctual.”
Andre’s entire grammar was around the world being a light and breezy place where laughter and smiles were the only punctuation, and familiarity, admiration and fun the oxygen of life. All negativity was banished from this little kingdom. She sometimes wondered how he might be in his dark moments away from the restaurant and the need to keep up his act. How bitter are you Andre, at the twerps, snobs, jewelled chavs and plutocrats who constitute your customers and remind you of where they are and you can never be, who reinforce with every gesture, nod and finger snap that they are the waited upon and you are the creature that runs to them? Do you hate them, or do you love them? Do you love those under whose heel you are ground? Or like a Conradian revolutionary, do you flatter only to deceive with bombs and death? Do you sexually brutalise young waitresses, bully dyslexic kitchen boys? Which drugs do you take? Are you proud of your cock or embarrassed by it? Can you imagine being old? Or are you actually a decent and happy young man who just loves being a waiter?
A bus swerves very close to the pavement. It frightens her. I’m an old lady you ignorant bastard. These arseholes seem to want to kill someone. They really seem to live in a sullen state of regret that they are not allowed to kill someone on a daily basis. They’re like vampires denied their shot of blood. Or children prevented from torturing animals; destruction junkies on a restraining order. They clearly think they should not be held responsible, that for London bus drivers immunity from prosecution for manslaughter should one of the perks. I’m surprised the union hasn’t demanded it. I’m sure they’d call industrial action if one of their members were sacked for persistent slaughter of pedestrians and define it as a bourgeois assault on democracy. Cyclists, taxis, buses and drivers of German cars; the road is a war zone where humanity fights; the daily attrition nobody wins, the arena of the lizard brain. We can see how humanity has botched the world just by watching how people drive. When you observe the road traffic you realise there is no hope for mankind; we are engaged in a high-speed race to mutual oblivion. Give a man a bit of protection and he becomes a savage.
She has developed a technique for opening the sachets of Splenda that are the norm in so many cafes and restaurants these days, instead of the heaped bowls of sugar or sugar lumps that were familiars on the tablecloths of her twentieth century. She pins one end on the edge of the table under the heel of her left hand and grasps the sachet close up with the other so her hands almost touch, gripping it between the fore and second finger, right up at the join so the knuckles of her right hand press against the knuckle of her left thumb, then she crosses the fingers as much as her arthritis permits, and gives the sachet a twist that has to be violent and involve movement of the whole arm for leverage. But it works, sometimes so well that the packet splits and Splenda explodes over the table like water from a shaking dog. As she cannot stand unsweetened tea or coffee she will apply manual engineering again and again until it is successful, scattering the wasted grains of Splenda from the table onto the pavement or floor in a succession of strained and soft puffs till everything is clear. She is endowed with nothing if not determination and an unabashed commitment to finishing what she has started, but it fills her with shame sometimes. Even the ordinary sugar - which she gave up many years ago - now arrives in packets. Another way of marginalising us, she thinks. Too old for the sachet age. Another signal we are not really wanted.
“Mama, I’m going to meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous.”
“Oh, I don’t think you ought to do that.”
“But Mama, I have an awful drinking problem.”
“Of course you don’t, Amelia.”
That’s how it started. As simple as that and it was never mentioned again at home though it was clear Mummy thought it ridiculous.
“One is permitted to decline things” came out one day à propos of nothing, and Amelia thought that was the final sentence Mummy had regretted failing to attach to the end of their original and only exchange about the problem that dare not speak its name, but which had landed her daughter at different times in police cells and hospitals, and private mental institutions in the Southern Uplands. Obviously mummy had resented failing to find a response that fully made her point, and the final rejoinder remained bottled up for years, like a sort of intellectual indigestion. Then one day it popped out. Now everything that had to be said on the subject had been said and nothing need ever be mentioned again.
She went regularly, did all the things she was meant to do, developed a circle of friends very unlike the clearly defined tribe that was the legacy of her birth: escapologists, former policemen, former bank robbers, doctors who had killed people through drunken negligence, witty women artists from the advertising world, actors and chefs, café owners and trombonists, stockbrokers and card sharps; they were an interesting and lively bunch, but not to be brought home to Mama.. “Oh, who was that I saw you talking to in the street this morning? Some awful little man in a donkey jacket. One of your reformed friends, is he?” said her sister and Amelia mused how justified her urge to drown her when they were little had been.
“Taking buses now, Cecilia? My we are adventurous..” It burned on till Cecilia and all the others became tired of the derision. Cousin Jack, who was arrested twice in Piccadilly after he returned from Ceylon but released after one of Mummy’s friends from the Home Office made a discreet call, told her he thought that what she had done was wonderful and he was proud of her. But he was the only one. He ended up in a long, happy relationship with a gentle, second-generation black juggler from Huddersfield. All the others resented the fact that she had withdrawn from the role of family embarrassment and they had to find some other victim to persecute.
It’s a very pretty pen, not new, not British, or I think American. If I had a magnifying glass I could examine the nib for engravings. That might provide a clue. It was such a fun do last night; there were people there I thought were dead. But they were all well, older, a little more stooped, some a little bent by life, times are harsh after all. For many at least. They are so sweet, this great rabble and mixture of types, all together in one idea, all united, all of us able to nod and understand. It is remarkable really. But I kept thinking of the ones who weren’t there, the ones I knew when I came in and knew for decades as we all got older, and I suppose better: Basket Weave Stan, Escapologist Arthur, Rose the Clothes, and Rick the Tick, the font, the Wise old head who was at the very first meeting in this country, eyeing up the young men arriving hollow eyed and terrified of going mad, knowing that all they had to do was keep it simple and let him put his hand on their knee now and again and they would be fine. And, in the main, they were. The Americans too were always so bracing. It was their invention after all and they had a view of it that was so pure and simple and so very uplifting. I never heard a depressed American speak, not even the ones who were suffering from depression. We Brits love to be down, we love to stay behind, to use modesty as a shield against our own mediocrity. But the Americans wear their underpants outside their trousers and it is so inspiring.
Marylyn, what fun it was to despise her, and how easy she made it silly girl. Dead for sixty years, she would be an old boot like me had she survived the murderous side of her own nature. Always late, giving Larry a nightmare, always being buttered up by that Strasberg hag; in fact Marilyn was fragile and much brighter than we all liked to admit. Much brighter. She was a drinker too, and that makes sense of all the other twaddle. I wonder if she picked up on the contempt I had for her, or if it passed her by? I was jealous I suppose, and also, I suppose something about her reminded me of me – not the over-inflated glamour - indeed there was an inflated quality to her; had she survived one imagines her struggling with weight, spending a fortune on voluminous dresses and endless rehabs for overeating, drinking and pill addiction. What a blowsy old thing she would have become. Much too sensible for that: drop off just as you’re turning. Clever girl. Yes I suppose I must have resented her because there were qualities of panic and self-obsession that mirrored my own insecurities, despite the brocade of my English upper class imperturbability. What a bore the expectations for the family of a right honourable are. I despised her for all these subtler reasons and also for the usual human reasons of envy and jealousy. But all the same she was a cunt who destroyed everything around her, and finally herself. Larry couldn’t cope. It was a real clash between extrovert American neurosis and introvert British neurosis. Larry had his own problems dressed up in good manners and cufflinks like the rest of us. God he could be a funny bugger as well.
A talent to abuse..? That was Osborne. Another one they liked to crucify, but a sweetie actually. As long as one didn’t get involved.
Sex, dear oh dear. It drives everything it seems. I had to stop it to realise it.
Larkin. Stuck up there in Hull, hiding from everything including himself and of course death. But Death knows where Hull is, perched on a forgotten edge of England. So self-conscious; it was such a strain around him. He was watching you all the time, trying to read what you were thinking as if he were in a game with you and was trying to anticipate your next move. Life must have been an awful effort. God. I only remember him in black and white. But he had the most arresting blue eyes. I think.
How many, how manys?
She struggled to remember the last time the whole family was together and experienced a few painful seconds of panic as she recalled nothing, as if the family and every experience she ever had, had suddenly wiped from her. She couldn’t think of a face from any nook or cranny of her time and feared the first numbing stings of Alzheimer’s had got her. Then a gallery of faces, smells and noises faded in like a film scene and she sipped her coffee in relief.
Funeral? Wedding? What was it? A christening - the last time the entire family was congregated. In a church definitely, yes, she remembered, a congregation of daughters, silent sons, some showing the hot flush of hot livers and stomachs folded into belts that are too tight, where trousers and waistcoats strain to contain the expansion of age and appetites. Yes all of them were there together for the last time, catching up on each other, confirming their feelings for each other. Hats and sprays, so a wedding..? Whose? She can’t remember. But she has a vivid notion of the scene with all its gay tensions, real and insincere smiles, and the floods of family spreading across the church, dozens of them it seemed, all teemed from a few withered wombs long decomposed in Northamptonshire.
Her daughters nodded to each other across the pews, all senior ladies now, with several divorces and deaths behind them, difficult children, good children, the mix of grandchildren, mostly adult, some already going off the rails. And then there is Sacha the trophy Muff Diva with someone far too young for her and the occasion. “Still lowering the drawbridge”, sighed Charlotte to her daughter Perdita, of her masculine sister. “Portrait of Doreen Gray” came the riposte. Then there was Jeremy: young, confused Jeremy, turned down for Oxford - turned down by everyone - and now working for Channel 5. God knows what he can be doing there. Nothing of any importance. But then most of what everybody in London does is of absolutely no importance.
Amelia drifted from the church back into the present in Sloane Square and became aware of the blue hazes of pollution rising up in the sunlight, and pictured a cloud of mud exploding up from the base of a fish tank decelerating and thinning as it reaches the surface. Fish tank, yes, she thought, that’s what we live in, glassed in, swimming around pointlessly, hovering, rippling our fins and floating a little backwards then suddenly darting forwards at what? Water. Water in water.
Something drained out of her and she felt brittle and feeble, a shape that could snap with nothing more powerful than a thought. She knew this dreadful and vulnerable place and how dangerous it was, how close she was to being broken in two or into a desiccation of human clutter and dust; it had hounded her many times and she would sit through its awful visitations like a plague sufferer wondering if the pestilence will pass over and she will survive, because her life story was rising out of her like the pollution fumes escalating upwards in the Sloane Square warmth, an exhalation from her racing up to a near empty sky with thin, spare clouds shifting shapes of nothing into new shapes of nothing. Nothing is her word. Her most intimate knowledge. Nothing is her known terrain, her area of expertise, the companion who never leaves, only retreats modestly for while and returns like Bergman’s figure of Death in that film with Max Von Sydow. It was nothing that arrived at her side throughout her life, and when it appeared, she dipped and something released from her. It had arrived again and a soul of sorts was releasing itself from her earthly self again – it was not the first time, there had been many incremental escapes, and in some rare moments she knew this was not her real soul giving itself up, but a release of some parasite impostor that had inhabited her and encased and smothered whatever passed for her real soul. Like a neglected child her little real soul wailed for mummy, don’t leave me any more mummy, I’m over here, please come, and she was left in these moments with an old and overwhelming sensation of shame.
She sat in it. It had its own buzz and high in a peculiar way, and during it she was able to come to the ineluctable truth about her life, a life that was hardly empty, but felt as if it were, a life that felt empty enough for her to need to fill it with Marylins and Philip Larkins, and love affairs with famous men she had never met and careers she had never had in glamorous industries she knew nothing about, of losses of things she never actually possessed, to have created a panoply and pomp of fictions that burned out the banality of her privileged but conventional and empty existence. The theatre in her head had many stars and she was clever enough to keep to the edges and let the great ones strut their stuff while she crouched in the shadows and watched. Her significance was simply in her position of the observer, the bearer of narratives of long gone great ones, the ageing vessel of witness in which the dead still live. But she had never known these great ones. Her war work had been in charity: teas and bridge evenings to raise money for Spitfires, not working for Colonel Turner’s film crew soldiers building and organising decoy planes to dupe the Germans into harmless strategies. There had been no drunken nights of abandon with Philip Larkin, nor had she been a distraction for David Lean when his sexual interest in whatever wife he was with at any particular time had run out like bath water. Nor had she ever brought Olivier a stiff whisky and watched him hunched over his dressing room desk defeated by Marylin’s antics, nor had she once found that Rock Hudson was not entirely gay. She had been born to wealth and privilege where the great expectation was that there should be no expectations beyond the defence and development of that privilege, and that had not been enough for her. But in her universe of inherited convention and conduct, polished by generations of practice, she never quite found the courage to bunk off over the wall.
I have forgotten almost everything, except those things I have made up. One must have memories and if one has lost them in the long passage of time, then surely it is healthy to create some for oneself? One must have something to look back on or one merely looks back on a void, and one cannot live with a void.
These were her private reassurances, but there were days when these arguments were notable only for their speciousness. It had started with a single lie in her early days because she was too embarrassed by the emptiness of her ordained life and felt there was nothing interesting about her. So many of the others in the meetings had been disasters on legs, but they had narratives that would have caught the world. She had nothing, but for a few police cells and short stays in exclusive homes for the bewildered. So she made a little something up, sprinkled a tiny bit of spice on her own well-heeled blandness. But that demanded a couple of other little sprinkles to sustain the first embellishment and the whole thing began to move under the inertia of its own deceit until it was accelerating out of control and a matrix of lies and fibs and hints grew exponentially until there was no turning back. The great deceits had been birthed from a fear of admitting to a deep sense of insignificance.
She breathed it all in and out for a while and each succeeding breath seemed to sink her a little lower into a familiar heaviness. And then, slowly it stabilised, and finally she calmed again.
She must have known these trees in the Square when she was a child, but she cannot remember. She has a past that is embedded in a rich vein of time, she has lived in history, in the depression, through the Blitz and the victory, through the other wars, hot and cold, she witnessed the awakenings and insolence of the sixties and all the excitations of a nation in confusion and conflict with itself, and yet there is almost none of this great pageant that she can recall. Not because she is dotty, or senile, but because forgetting is part of living, and the longer you live the more you forget. You think you remember, but you don’t, she has often said to herself. So she has rewritten her script. She would have loved to have worked in the film world. She does remember Carol Reed walking up the Kings Road to his house and feeling there strides a man who has left his mark on the world and who has enhanced our lives a little, what a privilege, a real and valued privilege, to have been blessed and to bless. Many times she saw John Osborne in his white suit across the square scuttling into the Royal Court when he was still in his powers. These things she does remember because they were the real fabric and characters of her fiction, seen from a distance.
She looks at the pen. She had lied. Lied to everyone except her family and they were the ones for whom she had the least concern. The friends who had bought her this pen, who had laid on a party and who, above all, had been available at any time to listen to her insecurities, her insights, her sorrows and ultimately, her attractive fabrications. She had lied to them forever.
She felt herself sink again. Two tables away two women were talking loudly and with an over expensive vulgarity. One had a hideous, fat pug in her lap. The other, the loud one, was drinking a flute of champagne. A little early in the day, was Amelia’s first thought; it was not quite lunchtime. Perhaps there was a reason, a celebration; perhaps this early drinking was not a habit. Anyway what business is it of mine?
She thought, and the thoughts had a strange effect on her. Last night she celebrated sixty years of sobriety, sixty years of no alcohol. Each year that passed without a drink was a cause for celebration, a round of applause at a meeting, a party now and again when the big ones - the ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty and now finally the sixty year furlong markers were passed. But where now, she thinks? Sixty-one? Sixty-one seems an anti-climax after sixty, even if it is a greater number it has no real celebration about it, it seems to her, and she feels the last great moment of significance, the last moment of which she was the centre has probably passed. Unless she makes sixty-five and that,.. well.. it’s possible but don’t put your last guinea on it my dear. These are significant figures, significant achievements, but now the long arc of age weighs her down. She may, if fate and God have overlooked her, have another five years, or six. Sixty-six years sober? Two thirds of a century! Will they throw a party for her every year because at her age another year is not just an achievement but also a wonder? And she wondered if she could sustain the deceits for another few years. Or as her mind fogged would she let it all slip and make her humiliation public? What would they all think of her if they knew the wonderful stories she had been telling of having been transferred from SOE to the decoy armies of Turnbull and Strangeways and of heavy petting Rex Harrison were nonsense. Her credit rating would go through the human floor.
Decoy, she thinks, decoy.. the word lingers around her. False tanks, aeroplanes, landing craft. A brilliant idea from an inventive nation. But nothing to do with her. I haven’t any imagination really; that false life is not an act of imagination or real creativity, it is simply borrowed from others’ who have actually lived such lives. I’m not a creative soul; I’m a parasite.
She caught the sun highlighting the woman’s flute of champagne, the burn of gold in the morning light, and she tried to remember the taste but couldn’t. It was as removed from her as it had been as a child before she ever tasted it. She wondered what it would be like if she tried it. Would the alcohol hit her fast and change everything? This avenue of thoughts opened up before her rapidly and she soon found herself wondering if.. the magic and terrible ‘if’. If she tried it. Might she try it? Who would know? Sixty years of sobriety gone in a moment. Sixty years of self-mythologizing gone with a mouthful. She could lie of course. If it didn’t immediately hook her back into addiction. That happened, but most people who had slipped talked about how the first few times it was all right, it seemed to be normal drinking. For a while. So she could just lie. Had she not lied about so much anyway? Truth was what the fellowship and being sober was about and she had avoided that. She had even put the names of celebrities on her fourth step list and pretended she had resentments against them. But she had never met them and they had no awareness of her. Amelia felt the deep reach of shame. Whenever it penetrated her, it reduced and disfigured her and left her feeling like a child. Her eyes drew back to the gleaming flute of champagne. She pondered it. She called Andre.
“What does a glass of champagne cost these days?”
“Amelia, for you, I can do a deal on a snappy little half bottle”.
“No, just one glass. Like that one over there?”
“We don’t sell champers by the glass.”
“So what’s she got that I haven’t? Apart from a friend with a hideous animal.”
“Ah, drinking the profits?”
His response was non-committal enough to confirm Amelia had spotted something.
“We sell it at parties at eight pounds a glass.”
“Eight pounds! My!” she thought, eight pounds would have bought me... and she had no idea what it would have bought her back in the old drinking days not so long after the war. “What would a bottle of champagne from nineteen fifty one cost me, Andre?”
“Nineteen fifty one?” He whistled as if she had asked him to explain the non-covalent interactions of hydrogen bonding in protein structure, “Hundreds Amelia. Hundreds. Possibly a thousand. Well yes, a good one would cost more than a thousand.”
“And an excellent one?”
“Eight pounds seems cheap.”
He crouched nearer her, “I can get you a glass if you want one...”
She looked at the couple, at the dog, at the tiny bubbles travelling ever upwards and thought of everything such a sight represented: the nights at the Ritz, or slumming at the Café de Paris, the gay, bright young things, the long gone stars of London and its haute fun, fun, fun. The Good Old Days. Daddy at Ascot when Precipitation came loping in first. Time was suspended in a moment so vividly she could almost touch it. Memory was briefly palpable. Sense memories of tiddlyness came back to her like gentle but bracing tides, floating in the bubbling brimfuls and bursts of yesterday’s hope.
Her hand laid a fiver on the table. “For the coffee. Keep the change.”
“That’s very generous of you, Amelia.”
“Oh, shut up.”
She rose without his help and gathered her stick. The hideous pug barked at her as she passed and Amelia gave it a stare from a thousand years of privilege and walked her slow but relaxed way round the corner into Sloane Street. The champagne urge had passed. These moments had ambushed her several times in the long haul, but as yet she had always survived and they moved by and were forgotten as quickly as they appeared. She supposed she would just have to go on lying, at least in her head, she needn’t mention any of that again to anyone, but she knew she couldn’t switch off her head, and at her age why should she? It does no harm, does it, she said, and she ambled that consideration up Sloane Street towards the turn into her square in the Cadogans. She preferred sticking to the street as long as possible because it suddenly fell quiet and empty whenever one turned into the Cadogans, and she preferred the bustle and noise of traffic and people, preferably of people she would never know nor had any need to speak to, to distract her from the clashing narratives in her head. These people’s anonymity mirrored her own and the anonymity of all the masses she had quietly walked through down the ages bustling about their business and through their dramas towards death and the ultimate anonymity. She checked that her pen was in her bag. It was there but as she watched the great public stride down her streets she thought how they were both relics. There was no need for pens now: the faces drifting past glued to their i-pods and i-phones had no need of pens. They were transported by music that could not be heard and engaged with unheard voices, all coming through tiny plastic or metals squares, portals on some other world that gave them their animation and their identity, listening in on some other in secret places, jabbering, laughing, reacting like marionettes to a tiny piece of plastic in the hand. The genie in the bottle making them dance.
The street was alive with silent noise, and as she walked through it, she was reminded that despite all their clear differences, they weren’t so unlike the masses she had walked among through many decades, and this reflection made her think I’m still alive. With all her own silences and unheard noise, she was still alive. Still alive.