Love and Death on Long Island (9 page)

BOOK: Love and Death on Long Island
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These magazines rewarded thoughtful study. Not caring, however, to keep around the house what constituted for me so much dead matter – which is to say, everything in them that did not pertain to Ronnie – I spent the earlier part of the evening clipping out articles and photographs and pasting them into a cuttings album I had once purchased but never used. Then, much later than usual, I went on my daily stroll around the Heath. This once, thrillingly, the stroll would have an objective
other than its statutory one of soothing my nerves. Instead of aimlessly circling that stretch of the Heath that remained more or less in sight of my own house, I headed directly for the part of it which was furthest from home, a wilder and more densely overrun area than I generally frequented, traversed by the long and purplish shadows of the enveloping dusk. Feeling after a while that I need walk no further, that I had at last cleared the magnetic field, so to speak, of my own house and those of my neighbours, I peered about in the gloom for a litter bin; found one which had been rigged up to the trunk of a solitary beech a few yards away and which was already overbrimming with assorted lager cans, potato crisp packets, used prophylactics and the wrap-perless, picked-clean remains of someone's fried chicken; and, first making certain I was not observed, stuffed the magazines one by one into the disgusting mulch. Then, a shiver running through me, I strode back homewards.

Since Ronnie was just out of his teens, even if crucially older than I had assumed him to be (but ages, I had come to understand, had to be judged by criteria different from those in force in my own young days since ‘age' itself seemed meanwhile to have been rejuvenated), the so-called ‘biographical' material that the magazines traded in tended to be of a deliriously self-duplicating and self-perpetuating type. It was merely the rubric that changed. In the first it was ‘20 Facts We Bet You Didn't Know About Ronnie'; in another, ‘Ronnie – The Hottest Rumors Whispered in Tinseltown'; in another, ‘His Dreaminess, R.B.' (which had for me an incongruously
Firbankian ring to it); and if, in a fourth, the form adopted was that of a straightforward interview, just the sort of interview, indeed, that I myself had been willing to submit to only a few weeks before, its subject uncannily assumed the same exclamatory tone of voice as the (uniformly feminine) gossip-mongers when writing about him. Time and again (for this initial investment of mine was to be only the modest foundation stone for a collection of what I might term Bostockiana or even Ronniana that would be the envy of many an adolescent girl) I would read of Ronald Sr's prosperous real estate business; of Ronnie's own secretly entertained hope (a secret divulged in at least three of the magazines without any of them heeding the paradox of calling it so) that he might one day be cast in a movie as the son of his favourite actor, one Jack Nicholson; of his idea of the ‘perfect date' ('a Mets game followed by a candlelit supper in an intimate and romantic French restaurant'); of his sentiments towards his ‘legion' of fans ('tho I mean to graduate soon to more serious parts, I won't ever forget that they made me what I am today'); and of his attitude to R-rated movies ('Yes, I guess I'd do a nude scene, but only if it was tasteful and essential to the story. But I'd take a lotta persuading. I mean to have a whole litter of kids someday and I wouldn't want them to see their dad pawing some half-nude woman'). How often, too, did I read – with something of the doting complacency of a fond father for whom such stale trivia has become the source of inexhaustible, ever replenished pride – about Ronnie and marriage ('Will I ever marry? You better believe it!!!'), Ronnie and drugs ('Never touch ‘em. Never have, never will'), Ronnie and smoking
(he had lit up a cigarette just once in his life and it would never happen again ‘except if a part called for it'), Ronnie and success (he believed it was every actor's duty to work for charitable causes ‘to pay his dues to the world that had dealt him a winning hand') and Ronnie and the commercial failure of
(‘I was devastated. This was one movie I really believed in and wanted to get its message across'). And I would repeatedly lavish loverlike glances on the photographs that illustrated these texts, as though endeavouring to verify beyond any shadow of doubt that such trite, repetitious and infinitely charming utterances could have passed the lips to which they were attributed.

Reading them, too, called to my mind a curious incident from that most unhappy period of my schooldays, one I had long since forgotten. Until the summer break in question most of my daily energies had been expended in warding off the ragging and bullying of which my timidity, fragility of build and quite unintentional priggishness of manner combined to make me a prime target. Nor had I helped the situation by being utterly hopeless at cricket, soccer and rugby alike, by consistently confusing the rules of the two latter games and, for all of nine years, failing to grasp even the rudiments of the former. During the fourth year of my attendance, however – my holiday at home having coincided with the last stages of my grandfather's lingering death – I had been delegated to read for two hours or so each day, throughout what turned out to be a cheerlessly waterlogged season, at the bedside of the ailing but still alert old gentleman. Although I read aloud all manner of literature, from Dickens to Dickson Carr,
what my grandfather most enjoyed were
The Times's
reports of that year's Test series. And if the rules of the game were ever to elude me, those daily sessions in the sick room, with its perpetually drawn blinds and its intriguing aroma of suspect cleanliness, ended nevertheless by making me exceptionally knowledgeable on the progress of that particular competition, on the strengths and weaknesses of both teams and the individual exploits of virtually every player. Enriched by this unearned little bonus of cricketing lore, I returned to school in the autumn and was soon enhaloed by an expertise that carried all the more prestige for being so inexplicable.

Now, I would think at odd moments of the day, laying my pen down on the blotting pad and gazing blankly out of the window, imagine the hubbub I would cause were I to drop in on my Cambridge acquaintances and recite to them everything I know of an obscure American actor of whom they would never have heard and to whose one feature of interest they would be totally insensitive. Only I, I exulted, only I and that legion of fans who do not count, have recognised this rare flowering among weeds, this unique compatibility of form and flesh, this
fait accompli
of physical perfection. But then, I went on, brought up short by another fancy, can it be that I am still the person I was, a respectable middle-aged widower possessed of a culture and erudition far in advance of the generality, and yet find myself appearing to share the sexual tastes and fantasies of an American teenybopper? And if I am to remain true to the implications of these tastes and fantasies, should I not now withdraw my cuttings album from the little coffin of a desk drawer inside which I keep it concealed, remove the pin-ups of
Ronnie and do with them precisely what the word itself tells me to do – pin them up? Pin them up on one of my bedroom walls? Perhaps I might even send off a stamped addressed envelope to the studio in Hollywood care of which Ronnie can be contacted by his fans and from which signed photographs are promptly sent back to them – there being no mention of any age-limit in the advertisement I cut out of
, apparently no discriminatory objection to one of these fans being a not too young English writer based (as
would put it) in Hampstead, England, and whose works are regarded, by his publisher at least, as Modern Classics. For I did cut the advertisement out – and why, for heaven's sake, if not to make use of it in the manner prescribed?

There was, I believe, nothing as yet in my external demeanor, in the course of my modest daily traffic with the world at large, by which the bitter-sweet compulsion to which I had surrendered might chance to be betrayed. Except on those occasions when I was obliged to dispose of the waste matter, the superfluous connective tissue, of those magazines of which I was now a regular consumer, and hence had to find my way to a litter bin far enough from my own home for them not to be traced back to their owner – and a feeling of delicacy, a qualm, something close to paranoia, deterred me from ever making use of the same bin twice – I would set out for my constitutional over the Heath at an identical hour more or less every afternoon. Once a fortnight, as I had done off and on for nearly eighteen years, I would visit a
seedily opaline hammam in Jermyn Street for a massage and steam bath: there, lying out on a cold slab like the living sarcophagus of a warrior saint, my eyes half-closed, my arms crossed on my abdomen, my fingers interlaced, there, enveloped in white towelling and flanked by veiny green colonnading, I would let myself be pummelled by a pair of young fists with the words ‘Love' and ‘Hate' tattooed across their knuckles. My
flopped through the letter-box each morning along with the mail, my linen was sent to a local laundry twice a week to be collected three days later by my housekeeper – in or out of doors, if ever my movements risked being spied upon, I would let the world see me to be as absorbed as ever in the serene, thin-textured minutiae of my existence.

Yet with each day now came an intensification of my secret life. I was, for example, thoroughly briefed on everything pertaining to the magazines that brought me news of Ronnie. I knew in which half of the month they were published in the States, how much later after that were they available in the United Kingdom and in which of the two Soho newsagents' shops I frequented could they first and more easily be found. I would instantly, now inside the shop itself, scan their contents pages to note whether there was an article of interest and concern to me. Almost invariably there was such an article; but should it happen that I was not so favoured by circumstance, I also knew which of the magazines' more general features – ‘Shhhhhhhhhhhhh!!! Don't Tell A Soul, But …', ‘Flick-Flack', ‘The Gossip Gazette' – might possibly contain a juicy item of information, some anxiety-inducing shred of ‘tittle-tattle', on Ronnie's
doings. Or else a photograph of him attending a rock concert in Madison Square Garden or playing Trivial Pursuit ‘with a few of the guys' (but who were these ‘guys', I would fitfully wonder, and what precisely did they mean to him?) or posing in a pair of gorgeously palm-patterned Bermuda shorts around the family pool with Mom, Dad, little sister Joanie and, inevitably, bringing up the rear, Strider the mixed-breed pooch. I had even conditioned myself by now to the intemperate spout and gush of prose, the indiscriminate ooze of enthusiasm, the scattershot spray of exclamation marks, that I would rationalise to myself as the very onomatopoeia of youth, energy and, why not, sex appeal. And I would browse and buy in either of the newsagents without now attending to, probably without really noticing, the quick, sly glances I began to receive, the quaint sidelong bemusement I had once so prematurely feared and thought to detect, the studied little finger flick, so negligently effected as to seem perfectly routine, with which the shop assistant would slip the magazines into a plain buff envelope before handing them to me, a doubtful compliment, I knew, but I no longer cared.

There was one point, however, on which I felt a very real frustration: I had still to see
Skid Marks
, those two previous films of Ronnie's about which I had read often and, so far at least as
was concerned, tantalisingly. It seemed to me scarcely practical that, once released, a film should vanish into a limbo of neglect from which it could not subsequently be recalled. And self-knowledge had taught me that if ever I was struck by some such apparent malfunctioning in an area about which I was ill-informed, then the
likeliest eventuality was that I lacked a crucial element by which all would explain itself. There was a way to see these films, I decided, and it was for me to discover it.

Thus I rang up Rafferty again, coming straight to the point with a question about catching up with older films – which was not to say, old films, or so-called ‘classics', but films that were no longer going the round in London's cinemas. On this occasion I knew at once that my call had been ill-timed. Rafferty seemed busy, distracted – perhaps, though, he was no busier than during my first call but merely disinclined to lend his full attention to a disappointingly mundane enquiry, no matter that the enquirer was a man he admired. In any event, our conversation was interrupted more than once by an interpolated query from some underling in the newspaper office, a query to which (as I could not help remarking, with a vague sense that the esteem in which the other held me had already been eroded) Rafferty's own response sounded less brusque and impatient than it ought to have been had he considered the telephone call to be of the first importance. There was, too, the fact that even when we were left uninterrupted, I heard a faint tap-tap-tapping in the background, as though Rafferty had continued to labour away at his infernal computer while turning a merely half-attentive ear to the problem in hand.

It was in a voice of listless incredulity, as though even one so prone to cultivating an air of fogeyish unworldliness as I was really ought to have heard of the phenomenon, that he told me of the popularity of video recorders and tapes, as also of the high-street stores from which
such ‘hardware' and ‘software' were to be bought or rented.

I took note of this information in a hand that was neat, methodical and businesslike. Although I grew conscious, as I posed more and more questions, that if I were indeed supposed to be researching a new novel the dry, incorruptible austerity which in the past had always been the glory of my fictional style would hardly be equipped to accommodate such a profusion of naturalistic detail, there had come into my dealings with the world, involving Ronnie, such a blithe and reckless irresponsibility, such a mad and total disregard for subterfuge or simply for the conventional attributes of discretion, that I ended the call by thanking Rafferty for his kind assistance without, this time, attempting to justify my need for so many factual particulars. I even went so far as to propose that he and I ‘have lunch together some day', albeit with that airy indefiniteness of tone that tends to mean not ‘some day' but ‘some sunny day', which is to say, never.

BOOK: Love and Death on Long Island
12.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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