Love and Death on Long Island (6 page)

BOOK: Love and Death on Long Island
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Thereafter, however, at odd, unexpected moments, evenings, for example, when I might be reading in bed, the actor's face would resurge and press itself on my attention; venturing not to linger over it, as I did, would merely render it the more vividly present. I didn't know what to make of it all. It irritated me; and yet it also amused me as an unprompted and unwarranted little adventure of the spirit. What I did not feel, strangely enough, was any very real unease that my interest in the youth might be erotic in nature. Such as I remembered him at least, he was a lovely, flowerlike nonentity. If, as I fancied, adolescent girls fainted away as he passed, that was explained by the immaturity of their emotional lives recognising its natural correlate in the immaturity of his physique. And, a classicist by both education and temperament, I knew nothing more shaming and tedious in the literature of my contemporaries and near-contemporaries than the maudlin neo-Hellenist cult of the ephebe, with middle-aged men like Wilde and Gide tastefully salivating over sleeping youths and making mawkish comparisons with asphodels and eglantines. Yet this particular face had piqued my curiosity, this face I had not recognised was nagging at me like one I had recognised but could not name. I wanted to stand back, hold myself up to the mirror of my own self-scrutiny and conceptualise (here I thought with a grimace of the features editor) – contextualise my feelings on the matter.

I remembered that, while at Cambridge, I had been asked by the editors of an undergraduate journal, of the ‘aesthetic' sort still more or less fashionable when I was
up, to submit to the Proust Questionnaire. To the question ‘What is it that most depresses you in life?' I had replied, The unequal distribution of beauty.'

On one level, the reply had been derisively intended, a wilfully provocative rejoinder (quite without consequence, to be sure) to what I considered to be the fatuous sham of any left-leaning political engagement among my privileged contemporaries. On another, though, it was a reflection of the almost religious fervour with which I had once prostrated myself before the world's beauty, and it could not have been more passionate and sincere (a contrast, in this, with most of my replies).

Yet if so exacerbated a type of aestheticism (now to be recollected with a sardonic smile) tends to be conventionally interpreted as a symptom or sublimation of homosexuality, such was not at all my own case. I had not once, not even at the feverishly lubricious public school to which I had been dispatched as a petrified ten-year-old, had what might be thought of as a homosexual experience. I could not even recall from those terrible and inexpiable years having felt burdened by the guilt of frustrated prurience, although I was always perfectly well aware of the nature of the heated fumblings and scufflings I would hear after lights out, the tiptoeing to and fro from one bed to another, the obscene little cabaret held evening after evening in the communal lavatory. No doubt I was undersexed, but, alone and aloof, I had never been exposed to the famous ‘phase'. I knew myself, even then, to be ‘boringly heterosexual', as I had later described myself to a wistful suitor at Cambridge.

As for the concept of bisexuality, so very modish now, I refused to take its premise seriously. The ‘bisexual', so
far as I was concerned, was a libeller of the self and of its profoundest instincts; to say the least, a victim of the most unproductive kind of wishful thinking. For me, indeed, he bore a droll likeness to precisely that unhappy young man who had clumsily propositioned me at university and who, in a foredoomed attempt to endear himself to me, had rattled on, slightly desperately, about how he loved ‘every kind of music, from classical to pop'. But when, invited back to his room for a few dry biscuits and a thimbleful of sherry, I had had a chance to inspect his record collection, what I discovered was row upon row of obscure Broadway musical comedies and, tucked away out of sight as though in positive embarrassment and shame, certainly never turned to in the anticipation of any sheer, uncomplicated pleasure that they might afford, a classical library numbering no more than three records: Vivaldi's
Four Seasons
, naturally; a pairing of Mozart horn concertos; some vapid piano pieces by Satie.

Sex is destiny, is written – an injunction, a commandment, a ukase, to which no resistance, with which no compromise, has ever been possible. I had no great fears on that account.

Yet, far from expelling it from my system, I continued to be assailed by my strange and bothersome distraction, assailed as by a memory – a trivial memory, in truth, chafingly inconsequential, but lodged as naggingly in my mind as in the crevice of a tooth. By very definition, said Chesterton, our memories are of what we have forgotten. Perhaps, I said to myself one evening while taking a turn around the Heath, an excursion that would unfailingly calm jangled nerves and alleviate the burden of solitude,
since I was all too ready to be deluded into believing that the loneliness I felt there, and especially at night, was a condition of the Heath, not of myself – perhaps if I no longer needed to remember, did not increasingly have to struggle to remember, the young actor's face, it would cease to be a memory, it would become as familiar to me as – and then I discovered to my astonishment that, my few Cambridge acquaintances aside, I could not think of a single other face in the world, or in that part of the world which constituted my world, that was not also merely a memory now, ever more fallible and dim.

It was on that day that I made my decision. As with a nettle I would firmly and ruthlessly grasp the flower. I would go watch the film once more (even in my innermost thoughts, even mutely, I would not enunciate its title) and exorcise this odd little demon of mine. It was absurd, it was demeaning, but it had to be done.

When back home, and even before removing my overcoat and scarf, I went to my study. There I unscrewed the cap of my silver fountain pen and in the margin of the top page of my manuscript of notes, annotations and cross-references wrote a few scrawled words relating this new development in my own life, possibly with the intention of appropriating it for my book. But after a moment of introspection, judging that the contrivance, as I saw it, simply would not do for my protagonist (it was less his deafness than the idea that he would address the reader in the first person that troubled me), I drew a neat line through the marginalia, rescrewed on the cap of my pen, laid it down on the blotting pad at an angle exactly parallel to the pad on the desk and to the desk in the room and, ideally, to the room in the
world, then left my study again, undressed and went to bed.

Next day I returned to the cinema at the foot of Fitzjohn's Avenue. As on that first Sunday, it was the latter half of the afternoon, but uppermost in my mind was neither the time of day nor the cinema's own timetable. It scarcely mattered to me whether my ticket would be purchased just as the film was due to start or else as it was already unfolding. All I wished was for the puzzle to be solved, seen to, done with.

What I had not calculated on, and learned only when standing beneath the overhang of the cinema's marquee, was that the film itself was no longer playing there. (Ironically, the photos of the Forster adaptation were still on display inside their oblong glass cabinet, but this time I barely glanced at them.)

I was nonplussed, made conscious as so often in the past, in very different situations, that the exhaustive precautionism of my working mannerisms had somehow never succeeded in influencing the fecklessness with which I engaged with the outside world. Just for example, it had taken me years after my wife's death, quite literally years, to assimilate the humble axiom that, to toast a slice of bread for myself alone of a morning, it made better sense to use the oven's single instead of double grill; years, too, to locate a shortcut from home on to the Heath that was very much quieter and more leafily rustic than the macadamised and car-infested route I had long been accustomed to frequent. And now I had, in the manner of the High Court judge who had
asked ‘What, pray, is a Beatle?' and to whom a hostile critic had many years before compared me, failed to realise that,
obviously
, in the way of such things, the cinema would meanwhile have changed its programme.

Was I then to turn back? To forget the rather foolish and humiliating purpose to my jaunt? That, I knew, I had come too far to do. And it suddenly occurred to me that there existed precisely a magazine whose function it was to help its readers locate a particular play, film or concert. My essay on angelism had been reviewed in it and I had been forwarded the piece by the cuttings agency to which my publisher subscribed. As I recall, it had been a very unfavourable review, vituperatively so, its author compounding his incapacity to follow the book's argument by an outstandingly insulting conceit: the culminating sentence, a direct quote from my text, was left half-completed and allowed to trail off in suspension points and a row of unequivocal little Vs. Remembering how old and ridiculous and terrifyingly unfluent that review had made me feel, hardly daring to speculate on what course I might have embarked upon, I crossed the street to a small newsagent's shop and bought my very first copy of
Time Out
.

To begin with, I proved to be inadequate to this as to most other of those trifling challenges that the rest of the world seems to take in its stride. Standing in the open, hampered by a breeze tugging at the hem of my overcoat, protecting as I would a flame the fluttering pages of the magazine that were being flicked on faster than I could turn them, I was at once disconcerted by erratically captioned rubrics and headings and sub-headings and it was quite by chance that I hit upon a page on which the
films of the week were listed alphabetically alongside the cinemas screening them. I let my finger slide down this list until it stopped on the film in question. Its title was punctuated by a colon, on the far side of which was the single word: Hammersmith.

I took my glasses off, from one ear at a time, as gingerly as a hiker on a country lane unravelling a strand of wool from the barbed-wire fencing in which his pullover has become snarled, and with the tips of my thumb and forefinger gently started to massage a sore and reddened hollow on either side of my nose. The street was deserted, save in the distance for the just audible hum of an approaching car. Replacing my glasses as carefully as I had removed them, I calmly raised my eyes and saw, before I saw the vehicle itself, the bright orange glow, fierce in the fading daylight, of an unoccupied taxi. Without further vacillation, indeed without reflection of any sort at all, I flagged it down. When the cabdriver looked out at me enquiringly, I heard myself say – heard, rather, my voice say – ‘Hammersmith. The Odeon cinema.'

The experience of viewing the film again was a most curious one, satisfying inside the cinema itself but far from conclusive as soon as I was back outside, standing on one of those anonymous streets where of late, as I was forced to acknowledge, ‘wryly', I suppose the word has to be, I had been spending so unconscionably much of my time.

During the whole eccentric expedition, which was
how I affected to regard my little outing, I miscalculated only twice.

The first occasion was actually purchasing the ticket. I had alighted from my cab to discover that the Hammersmith Odeon had no fewer than four separate auditoriums, which seemed to confront the potential customer like a multiple-choice question in an examination paper. That fact in itself posing no problem for me now, I immediately ascertained to which of the four I myself was bound; and, assuming a lopsided stance of tolerant impatience and negligently tapping my gloves on the knuckles of one hand, I asked for a single ticket for no. 3. The cashier, however, a slim, youthful, efficient fellow to whom a trim and dapper moustache lent an air of effete manliness (if such an oxymoronic condition is imaginable), made me name the film after all, despite having been given exactly the information he required, and, flushing pinkly, I had to stammer out the terrible title.

The second occasion concerned my wish to learn the actor's name. As chance would have it, the film had less than a half-hour to run when I took my seat in the small, steeply raked and claustrophobic auditorium. But it was only after having endured an unbroken chain of trailers and commercials, as well as the cinema's curtains being opened and closed and reopened and then reclosed with such inane regularity that I started to wonder whether the manager of the establishment were gripped by a horror of unveiling the white screen in its, to be sure, not quite pristine nudity, as though for him it represented the cinema's linen, its undies, its
unmentionables
, it was only after all of that and after the film had begun
again that I realised that what I should have done was study its final cast roster or whatever it's called and that I would have to sit through it once more to the very end.

On reflection, though, the trip more than repaid the trouble it had put me to. The film itself had certainly not improved with age, and my tolerance for Cory and his motorcyclist chums reached a new low ebb. But I learned my favourite's name, a nicer one, I concluded, than I had any reason to predict in the circumstances: Ronnie Bostock. Ronnie Bostock. ‘Ronnie' I had scant enthusiasm for, although, goodness knows, it could have been much worse; but the sound of ‘Bostock' had about it an agreeably brittle, altogether un-Californian hint of Boston and New England, of which I had heard good and bracing things considering.

Ronnie Bostock. Was I, I mused, the only person capable of responding to such uncommon physical comeliness? Was I alone in tracing beneath the conventional surface a timeless and universal ideal, an almost supernatural radiance of pure heart, of innocent spirit and of the sun-inflamed flesh which expressed and enveloped it? Whatever dour puritanical vigilance I would once have sought to exert upon my emotions I now readily relaxed; the darkness of the auditorium, licensing me to watch without being watched, see without being seen, made my bored and restless eyes more lawless and brazen; and it was in a blissful mood of rapt and meditative tenderness – tenderness, yes – that I gave myself up, as I had never dared before to do, to a fantasy of pure contemplation. This bronzed boy looked as though he must smell of freshly baked bread. When he moved it was with the virile light-footedness with which
one might imagine a statue to move. Ought I to confess that his smile, only his smile in close-up, with those two protruding upper teeth leaving a faint serration along the ripe redness of the lower lip, fairly enraptured me? The way, too, as tennis players do, he would wipe off the perspiration from his brow with the side of his upper arm and the inside cup of his elbow was delightful to watch. Never, I felt, could there have been such a sublime fluke of nature, and I thought again of the unequal distribution of beauty.

BOOK: Love and Death on Long Island
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