Love and Death on Long Island (4 page)

BOOK: Love and Death on Long Island
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There was no doubt of it: this was the main programme of the evening. For some reason that eluded me I was watching the wrong film. Scene followed scene, one supposedly piquant incident succeeding another at a bewildering rate. Seated far in advance of the body of the audience, I was forced to turn my head to ascertain whether anyone else but myself was disturbed by the anomaly. Ostensibly not. There seemed to be no pronounced enthusiasm for the off-colour antics on the screen, but the very crassest and smuttiest of the film's jokes had prompted a few uncouth guffaws, and certainly no hint was audible of the anxious whisper of concern that I would have expected to hear had everyone else felt as I did. Yet such apparent indifference to what was being projected in front of them, as though one film were quite as good as another, was not what troubled me most about my fellow spectators. It's true, I knew nothing at all of the demographics of cinema audiences. But these young people (for, excepting a dishevelled tramp sitting alone, with four or five shapeless carrier bags at his feet, in a seat on the left flank of the auditorium corresponding almost exactly to mine on the right, I was, and by far, the oldest person present), these be-jerkined and be-jeaned young people, dangling their legs across the seats in front of them and lighting up cigarettes in insolently unsurreptitious defiance of an
illuminated ‘No Smoking' sign on either side of the screen, scarcely tallied with my conception of the kind of public that might be attracted to a film version of a novel by Forster, no matter that it was one I myself had always regarded as something of a potboiler.

I turned forward to face the screen once more. The motorcyclists were on the move again, vaulting over a ridge in the roadway with such violence and abandon, one upon the other, that they seemed to take off into the air and momentarily hover there – an illusion, I suspect, having not a little to do with the low-angle frontality of the filming and perhaps the choice of a deforming camera lens. Fidgeting in my seat, I could not resist turning round yet again, and quite pointlessly so as I was aware, to study the public's reaction. Nothing. Plainly, it was the wrong film for me alone; and the rather complacent sense of self-reconciliation that I had enjoyed when entering the cinema had been dissipated once and for all as far as that particular Sunday afternoon was concerned. It was with sheer, undiluted loathing that I now considered the screen and the scrubby glamour of the Californian landscapes that appeared so stupidly at home there and the motorcycles parked outside a dilapidated café – this was a film that lost no time in advancing its narrative – and the hateful cyclists themselves who had squeezed together into a single booth inside and were drinking Coca-Colas to deafening juke-box music.

Enough was enough. I could no longer remain in my seat. An error had been made (not, I felt sure, by me), it would now have to be rectified. Although I scarcely relished the prospect, and recoiled from all such scenes, I would naturally have to ask the plump Filipina to
reimburse me for my ticket. I quickly collected my overcoat and scarf from off the back of the seat next to my own and nervously felt inside the overcoat pocket into which I recalled having slipped my half of that ticket. And I was about to leave, was poised for flight, was actually starting to rise to my feet, when, in a manner that was almost pre-cognitive, that as it were allowed the essence of the sensation itself to precede by some while my understanding of the purchase it was to have upon me, something, something visible on the screen, arrested initially my gaze then my movement.

It has first to be said, though, that in the short period of my departure-taking a new departure had also been taken by the film's plot. Cory and his loutish minions had begun to eavesdrop on a whispered tête-à-tête conversation in the booth adjacent to their own; and, as though taking its cue from them, the camera immediately angled upwards, above Cory's eyes, his forehead and his lank and gummy black hair, above the panelled partition which separated the two booths, until it ended by disclosing, but only from behind, a cascade of shiny, synthetic auburn curls bow-knotted with a polka-dot ribbon. For the moment not much more than these curls could be seen, the curls and a downy, slightly elongated neck and a pair of shoulders and, glimpsed over the right shoulder, two hands resting upon a formica table top and clasped in two other hands, these being patently male if somewhat delicate and even childlike, and a glass salt-shaker and a ketchup container in the form of an oversized plastic tomato. Although neither face had yet been revealed, there could be no possible ambiguity: it was Dora Mae and her new boyfriend (even I, fussing
over my leavetaking, managed to get the drift of the scene). At which point Cory, eager to learn who might be this unidentified ‘dickhead' (his own esoteric epithet) with the tanned and slender fingers and faintly adenoidal voice who was paying suit to his own former sweetheart, stealthily edged up along the partition wall and peered over the top into the next booth; simultaneously, and seeming to match stealth with stealth, the camera made a slow and sinuous lateral movement to the left, a movement that came to rest only when, in virtual symmetry, it had framed the two faces, Dora Mae's and that of her suitor.

It was the latter face which had arrested my attention. It belonged to an adolescent of, as I supposed, about fifteen or sixteen, with fairly close-cropped blond hair, blue eyes with luxuriantly long lashes, a straight nose neither especially narrow nor especially pudgy and – for the moment the only ones perceptible in the sweetly reticent smile he offered up to the spectator's gaze – two ideally white but slightly crooked front teeth.

I could not help being astonished by the perfect beauty of the lad's facial features; and if I needed more time to register them fully, it was less because of my own fretful state of mind than because the textures of that beauty were both banal and extreme.

Banal, in that, despite an uncustomary gentleness of mien, the morphological type was one very much in the public domain; it exemplified what I take to be a specifically American criterion of ‘cuteness' – which is to say, beauty untranscended by mystery, tragedy or spirituality, beauty golden and well nourished and so vacuously secure in its own natural and social prerogatives that,
as much as heredity and environment, it is its very disregard or ignorance of other, less privileged species of late twentieth-century adolescence that appears to guarantee the tranquil perfection of sparkling eyes, of healthy white teeth, of a complexion tanned just so. But also extreme, in that I had never before seen so consummate a specimen of the type, one wherein all the knots of the face, so to speak, had been becomingly tied together, neither too tight nor yet too lax, one wherein each individual feature, so perfect in itself (with those rabbity front teeth constituting the single tiny flaw that is indispensable to perfection), had combined to form an incomparably lovely face-object. It was empty, depth-less, pure surface; it was decorative, even rather enchanting, nothing more; but to have filled its void with meaning, with character, would have been in the cruellest and subtlest fashion imaginable to destroy it. There, I thought, is a face that will break a few hearts.

Still half-sitting, half-upright, my coat and scarf over my arm, I let myself sink back into the seat and now with head cocked in bemusement looked up at the youth. I had not changed my mind. I would leave presently. But having found myself once more in the mental posture with which I was perversely most at ease – that of being alone in apprehending the mark of beauty where it is least to be expected – I was determined to savour for a moment this unsummoned windfall.

That moment, however, was all too brief. Cory wasted no time in settling accounts with his ‘baby-faced wimp' of a rival (as he contemptuously referred to him, with a venom that obscurely thrilled me). Almost at once a squabble broke out, one in which by virtue of his
frailness of build the younger of the two was defeated with predictably ignominious speed. Emboldened by the subhuman cackle of his henchmen – and also, I was mystified to observe, by a smile of smug gratification from Dora Mae – Cory grabbed the boy by the fur-trimmed collar of his denim jacket, hoisted him bodily out of his seat and, displaying the wanton energy of a born bruiser, pitched him across the floor of the café. Heedless to his girlfriend's belated and in any case quite formulary protestations, he cast his eyes about for an instrument by which to deal out a final blow. They settled on the obscene tomato. With a half-witted grin on his face he picked it up off the table, stood astride the still supine figure and squirted the ketchup over him, from the roots of his hair to the tips of his white tennis shoes.

Having been played for laughter, the scene accordingly provoked a smattering of gormless haw-haws from the audience. And the sight of the victim lying on the floor, humiliated, fighting back tears, smeared all over with the foul red slop, while his tormentor slipped his arm around Dora Mae's shoulders and she gazed up at him with a beatifically coquettish smirk, of a sort that is intended to convey ‘My hero!', was a uniquely grotesque one. Yet, to my eyes, tenderised by beauty, the ketchup bore an uncanny resemblance to blood, the actor to the dead Chatterton in Wallis's portrait. Forced to assume such a ridiculous pose, he somehow contrived to preserve the essence of all his coltish young charm.

I hung on a little while longer, reluctant to depart but just as reluctant to stay where I was. I couldn't let myself be exposed for too long to what was, save for the
of a briefly glimpsed face, a film entirely without interest or distinction, an unqualified idiocy even for so disreputable an ‘art form' as the cinema. And when it became plain to me that the actor in question was not immediately about to make a reappearance and that the film's protagonists were Cory and Dora Mae, I got to my feet again, took my belongings and, aware that a faint hot flush was rising in my cheeks, strode up the aisle and out of the auditorium.

Once in the foyer, which was now as deserted as when I had entered it, my insistence on being reimbursed seemed rather less pressing than it had been. Not only was I shy of confronting the placid little Filipina, who was still sitting at her glass-fronted cashier's desk, plump and olive-skinned, like one of those fairground automata that require a coin to be inserted if they are to whir into motion, but, as I told myself, the world for once had met me halfway, had come to me and made to my senses a small gift of beauty – beauty to whose existence I would not otherwise have been privy.

On the other hand I was as anxious as ever to satisfy my curiosity as to how and by whom the error had been made. On my way out I stopped again before the column of photographs which I had studied while sheltering from the rain. There they were, just as I remembered them, and there was even, atop the glass panel in which they were enclosed, the printed message ‘This Week'. I confess I was utterly flummoxed, and on the point after all of re-entering the foyer and making my complaint to the cashier, when I thought to step around the column and take a look at what there might be on its other side. There, in an exactly similar display cabinet, were my old
friends Cory, Kiddo, Dora Mae; there, in only one of the photographs, was my own particular discovery, in a setting which, as I noted at once, with a vague sentiment of regret, was wholly unfamiliar to me and which I therefore had to conclude belonged to that part of the film that I had not waited to see; there, too, inscribed on each of the stills, was the title of the film I had just walked out of. I could hardly bear to read it:
Hotpants College II

The cinema had two auditoriums, two screens, two programmes. The solution to the puzzle was simple, elegant and obvious. If it had succeeded in frustrating me it was merely that in my own day theatres had contented themselves with one stage and cinemas with one screen.

The rain had stopped. Opposite the cinema, above the dripping slate rooftops of the houses facing me from the far side of the street, there rose the slanting roof and gently thrusting steeple of a church, a church that I imagined as nestling in a glen of soft, wet, very English greenery, a roof and steeple shrouded in a fine, gauzy, silver-grey mist, as though painted by a Monet in dark glasses. I found myself smiling at that Monet image, one much too gaudy, too kitschy, ever to gain inclusion in my fastidiously unmetaphorical prose but also one, as I knew, more representative of my private, intimate, non-literary sensibility than many an admired passage from one of my books. Or it could have been at something else that I smiled. At any rate, smile I did. Then, turning up the collar of my overcoat, tying a robust knot in my scarf and tucking the two loose ends under my coat lapels, for the evenings were proving unexpectedly chilly
for the season, I began to retrace my steps up Fitzjohn's Avenue towards Hampstead.

The next several days saw a perceptible change in my cast of mind. From being tetchy and self-absorbed I grew rather lighter, gayer, in spirit. For a day or two I continued to be affected by the whole bungled affair of the magazine interview. I could not hear the telephone ring (which anyway it did only infrequently) without imagining it to be the egregious features editor coming at last to apologise. But from that quarter there came no apology, no vestige of life whatever. It was almost as though, initially with the missed appointment, now with the absence of the merest sign of contrition, the magazine, its editor and one of its journalists had been engulfed in a vast and fathomless pit, never to be heard from again. Instead of discouraging me further, stoking up my animosity, such strange conduct actually had the effect of appeasing me, as might the antidote to a poison. I bothered myself once to ring up my agent, but he, it transpired, knew no more than I did.

Of very much greater significance was the fact that, on my return from the cinema, I felt stealing over me, quite spine-tinglingly, the idea for a new book, a novel. Idea, perhaps, is an overly grand word for what was just, at that stage, a miasma of intuitions and inspirations, a confused maze of thought processes. Yet I had begotten my four early novels in just that tentative and
fashion. The actual writing of them had been a relatively painless business and my post-composition labours a question above all of ‘removing the stitches' from a prose
style that was still to my eyes here and there disfiguringly scarred. It was the period of gestation that I found so painful. The line and form of what was to become my narrative had first to be carved out of a great unhewn slab of language. They were, I knew, buried in there somewhere, and it was the most supremely intoxicating joy I had ever experienced to sense them arduously emerge. Yet there were, as well, lengthy periods when impotence or just sheer incompetence would make me give way to despair, when I would simply panic and tremblingly cup my hands over my face and try literally to pull my hair out and deem myself worthy of being aligned with the most rank of rank amateurs. If these fits of enervation, as I paradoxically thought of them, were by now all too familiar to me, they did not terrify me the less.

BOOK: Love and Death on Long Island
10.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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