Love and Death on Long Island (7 page)

BOOK: Love and Death on Long Island
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Although the boy had a relatively minor role in the film, one pretty much on the periphery of its narrative (if that is the word for so ragbag a miscellany of gross and near-scatological vignettes of student mores on the campus of a preposterously implausible American college), he made appearances in two or three scenes following that to which my eye had first been alerted. But also, as it transpired, in a scene just preceding the entry of the motorcyclists and obscurely familiar to me as something I had had partial glimpses of while settling into my seat. It depicted some sort of impromptu beach party got up by a dozen or so young people of both genders, their half-clothed bodies lent a patina of late afternoon warmth by premonitions of nightfall, by the shivers and shimmers of a Californian sunset whose sickly yellowish light would turn nearly to purple in its shadow pools.

Ronnie Bostock was prominently featured in it. He shifted in and out of focus, sidling dreamily along the beach, knee-kicking a football in the air, performing hand-stands, shimmying with his slender, almost invisible hips to raucous music from a massive transistor
radio set which lay half-buried in the sand like a buccaneer's treasure chest. He would follow the margin of the shoreline barefoot, the diminutive shoreline of his own feet overrun by the foam of incoming breakers as it seeped between his toes. His slim, tanned legs were left uncovered above the knee by a pair of sawn-off, tight-fitting denim jeans. Over his torso, which one guessed to be smooth and firm, neither bony nor too muscular, he had on a sleeveless white cotton singlet on which were stencilled the words ‘My parents went to N.Y. and all they brought me back was this lousy teeshirt', a joke of sorts which, if not much more ingenious than most of those in the film, did contrive to tease a smile out of me.

Later it was that scene that I would turn over and over in my mind, trying to analyse why it had had such an impact upon me. In my tiny kitchen, whose single window overlooked a narrow, patchy lawn that I made sure was tended in my absence (mutedly as it would penetrate the cosseted fastness of my study, the dull whine of the gardener's mower had ended by proving fatal to my concentration), I sat sipping coffee, now idly daydreaming, now reflecting on the bizarre little situation I seemed to have got myself into, a situation that I was singularly ill-equipped to deal with. And I remembered something that had happened to me a long time before. As a writer, I have never pandered to the cult of the metaphor. I pride myself, even so, that I possess a flair for the detection of what might be called the ‘potential metaphor' – which is to say, the metaphor in embryo, that for which no referent as yet exists. I have, for example, been frequently struck by the fact of retailers continuing to stabilise the prices of their goods
just below the round figures towards which they are so patently straining: a tape-recorder at £39.95, a secondhand motor car at £4999. I find it hard to imagine a customer naive enough to be duped by so elementary a form of manipulation. But it has struck me, too, that such an ineffectual yet no doubt universal practice ought usefully to function as the metaphor of some more consequential abuse of society, even if I have still to discover what that might be. And, sitting thus in the kitchen, I recalled how, when my first novel was being typeset – and this at a period when I was relatively young and wholly without reputation – there had been one section of the printed text on which a long diagonal crack had opened up, a track of white, produced by the fortuitous disposition of words, or rather of the spaces between the words, which zigzagged down the middle of the page and, once remarked, drew the eye inexorably towards it. Typesetters traditionally hate these cracks and insist that they be taken out, the simplest solution being to ask the usually compliant author to remove or add a word or two, most congenially an adjective or adverb. But, inexperienced as I was, I had stood my ground, would not have harmed a comma; so that the typesetters, to their annoyance as also to that of my publisher, who reckoned he was doing me a favour by publishing the book at all, were finally obliged to readjust the pagination. If it were known, however, it was with a faint pang of remorse that I felt the disappearance of that fissure in my text, that white interstice of meaning, that involuntary calligram of negativity, that tiny San Andreas Fault upon which, unbeknown to me (for it was, of course, quite invisible in the manuscript), my
narrative had been erected; and I felt too, most powerfully, that therein lurked a metaphor still in quest of its subject.

Perhaps, it now occurred to me, I had discovered a subject for it at last, in these features which limned themselves so imperiously in the interstices, in the negative space, as it were, of my own psyche; and with dawning self-realisation it also occurred to me that, like the arrogant and insufferable young genius I had been, I did not want to be cured, or not yet at least, and that I would suffer the disappearance of this nearly imperceptible crack in my being with an ache of nostalgia and no little regret.

The following morning I rose unaccustomedly late after a dream-filled night. But although I went immediately to my study, and by ten o'clock had already sifted through the leaves of notes for
Adagio
and made a series of minor annotations in the margin, I remained moody and abstract. Later, I was astonished to learn for how long I had allowed this debilitating state of affairs to run on; it was just after eleven when next I glanced down at the top page of my manuscript to realise that absolutely nothing had been contributed to it in over an hour. With an affected sigh of resignation I let my fountain pen slide along the blotting pad, opened one of the little desk drawers and drew out a leather address book on which, in the upper left-hand corner, my initials were embossed. For a few minutes longer I sat there, address book in hand, and turned its pages one by one, at a pace leisurely enough for me to scan each of them thoroughly. From time to time, too, I would take up my pen again and score through some name or other.

Then, just as the marble-framed clock behind me began softly to chime the half-hour, I stopped flicking through the pages to look long and hard at one in particular. I put the address book down and stood up; frowning, I studied the dial of the clock. Then I sat down again, stared at the open address book, lifted the telephone receiver and dialled a number.

I had not for years had any communication with Rafferty, save once, fifteen months back, when I had received an invitation to a cocktail party fêting his appointment as arts editor of a newly and, as it then appeared, rather rashly launched Sunday newspaper, an invitation concerning which I had not even seen fit to convey my regrets. This Rafferty, at the time when our lives had intersected, just once, briefly and without sequel, when my four novels were being republished in a collected edition, had written a lengthy and extravagantly laudatory essay on them in the
Times Literary Supplement
that I had publicly judged ‘not stupid', by the faintness of which praise I had had absolutely no intention to damn. In fact, uniquely in my relationship with my reviewers, I had dispatched a discreetly phrased note of appreciation which was reciprocated by a far wordier and more effusive reply; and we had had lunch together, an unsettling experience for both of us and an experiment neither had ever sought to repeat. But if until the present Monday morning, and without having harboured towards my erstwhile champion the slightest hostility, I had lost contact with him, I had also for no very explainable purpose taken note of his new office number.

I knew at once from Rafferty's fulsome tone of voice
that no resentment lingered at the odiously condescending style in which he had been treated, fear of which had weighed upon me rather more than would ordinarily have been the case. Even so, plainly under no illusion that a call from such a source had been prompted by anything other than a request for some personal favour on my part, it was he who made the first move by politely enquiring how he might be of service to me.

I thought of my absurd and exotic mission, the query I was about to put into words, and was instantly struck down with stage fright. My teeth seemed to have got in the way of my tongue, the tongue itself to have lain down on the job. I started to stammer, to correct myself in mid-sentence, to preface myself and preface the prefaces. What further caused me to panic was the fact that before every phrase that, as I hoped, would once and for all explain the matter there always appeared to be at least one other phrase that would have to take precedence, so that my speech soon became a proliferation of niggling, clustering subordinate clauses, each one of them crowned by the next, and that by still another, and so on, interminably.

I was (I finally got around to saying) researching a novel, yes, after all these years, a new work of fiction, and I wondered how, for in this area I was a complete ignoramus, how or rather where one could find out what else a young film actor – or, indeed, actress – had done.

‘What else?' Rafferty said after a long pause. ‘I'm afraid I don't follow.'

‘What else – what films, what other films,' the words
tumbled out helter-skelter. ‘I mean to say,' I continued, ‘films other than that in which one might have seen him.'

‘Is it a real actor we're talking about?'

Possibly it was that I suspected a cynically insinuating inference behind Rafferty's question or possibly merely that, even from experience as yet so partial and limited, I had already come to acquire a lover's cunning and guile; whichever, I contrived to parry the other's suggestion of personal entanglement as nimbly as an old hand at the game. Alive to the juvenile thrills of subterfuge, I patiently explained that the protagonist of my novel was a film actor and that I myself had no idea where I would be able to find such clues as I might need to this kind of actor's film bibliography, so to speak.

‘His filmography, do you mean?'

I thought I could detect, along the unbearably hissing telephone line, if not a low laugh, then an audible smile.

Nevertheless, just a moment after, my interlocutor was giving me the information I needed as though it were the most normal request in the world, listing reference works, books and magazines, from which such facts could be routinely obtained. And, having scribbled their names in a notepad that sat, until now virtually unused, beside the telephone, I abruptly wound up the conversation without even attempting to make the par-odically vague overture towards a future meeting that tends to be the classic coda of such encounters.

For now that I had embarked unblushing on this adventure, I was becoming impatient to see its next phase through. The time for gnomic and unfruitful ruminations, for any coy and faint-hearted sidling about the object of my desire, was past; the time to take action,
to assert my liberty, had arrived. I got up at once from my desk, slipped on my overcoat and stepped into the street.

God, usually of the Realist School, does on occasion dabble in the abstract. The morning sky was dappled all over with tiny puffy cloudlets, clean and white and arrayed above my head in a disposition of such foursquare regularity it might almost have been made by a waffle machine; yet there was also an undercurrent of closeness to the air, as stifling as a heavy scent, that made me perspire under my coat. I walked so briskly that in a matter of just five or six minutes I had arrived at the newsagent's shop I was seeking.

Once inside it, however, I was dismayed by what at first seemed to me the hopelessness of the expedition. Not that the newsagent did not stock film magazines. On the contrary, there were shelvesful of them, mostly of a populist, gossip-mongering variety but with two or three containing learned (to all appearances, learned) articles on Russian, Spanish and Japanese film-makers of whom, naturally, I had never heard. I pulled them, one after the other, down from their shelves, rifled through them more and more cursorily and replaced them any old how.

But fortune, as would often be the case, was on my side. For as I prepared to leave empty-handed, I noticed a little further off, in another section of the shelving altogether, where not much more than its spine was exposed, an American magazine (a miniature dollar sign was just visible in the top left-hand corner), on whose cover, or that fragment of it accessible to the eye, was a photograph, of no more than postage-stamp dimension, a photograph of Ronnie Bostock.

Stealthily, lest someone, who could only be a fellow browser, were to observe what I was about (very afraid I was of appearing ridiculous), I eased the magazine off the shelf. It was called
Teen Dream
and Ronnie Bostock's photograph was just one, and among the less prominently displayed, of several portrait photographs on its front cover. These, superimposed on a constellation of gaudily coloured stars, all of different sizes, all radiating out from the centre, were (so I surmised) of the popular young film actors of the day, actors with such names as Kirk and Shane and Ralph and Jordan and even, unless I had somehow misread the meaning, River. Under each of them, moreover, was a caption bristling with exclamation marks and no doubt intended to entice the casual reader into the magazine. ‘Why Kirk Says “I'll Never Make An R-Rated Movie”!!!' and ‘Ralph's Storybook Romance!!!' and ‘Could You Be The Girl Jordan Will Fall For???' And, under Ronnie's photograph, to which my eyes immediately darted, ‘20 Facts Ya Didn't Know About Him!!'. As someone who did not know any facts at all about him as yet, I confess I felt a certain onset of excitement, galled as I was at the same time by the one already manifest fact that my own favourite had had to make do with only two instead of the regulation three exclamation marks.

I opened the magazine. Its first page was devoted to a Message from the Editor, evidently a regular monthly feature. ‘Hi, there!' this began. ‘Summer's ended (a-a-a-a-aw!) but the fall's here (yay!) and the time is right'n'ripe for some cozy fireside r'n'r – which means rest'n'relaxation or rock'n'roll, dependin' on your mood!! All your favorites have been in a great mood
since we last got together – and I've been in touch – I mean
personal
touch – with each'n'every one!!! Well now, just for starters – ‘My eyes glazed over. Were I to have to read one more word of such twaddle, I felt, I could not be accountable for my sanity. I turned the page. There, among the table of contents, was what I was looking for: ‘Ronnie Bostock: 20 Facts We Bet You Didn't Know About Him. Page 36'; and there, as well, in a separate, boxed-in little column listing the magazine's gallery of pin-ups, alongside Kirk and Shane, Ralph, Jordan and River, his name appeared again.

BOOK: Love and Death on Long Island
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