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Authors: Robert Gott

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BOOK: The Serpent's Sting
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‘No. He died.'

‘Well, the idea just might work with you. It's always hard to tell until I see the final image.'

This was hardly a ringing endorsement for my looks, but at least he didn't think I was a gargoyle. For the next two hours, I stood, sat, and leaned as Alex photographed me from every conceivable angle. He finally declared that he thought he had a sufficient number of shots to work with, and he said that by the time he'd finished touching up and fiddling with the images, I wouldn't recognise the improbably handsome creature in the pages of
The Listener-In

‘The problem with this sort of photography,' he said, ‘is that it leads gullible people to believe that you actually look like a movie star, and even movie stars don't look like movie stars. I've seen Dietrich in the flesh, and, believe me, von Sternberg is a genius. You'll have to get used to the fact that when people meet you, they'll always be disappointed.'

I recognised the truth of his caution, and assured him that at this stage of my life I'd become used to the disappointment I engendered in others.

With my make-up removed and in my ordinary clothes, I felt positively drab. I walked past the Tivoli and wondered how Cloris had enjoyed her descent into vaudeville. The theatre was closed, but the stage door was still manned, and there were a lot of people about as I returned the dame's costume to my dressing room. I sat in my chair and stared at myself in the mirror. The circle of lights around it were brutal, and I was in danger of becoming maudlin as I failed to reassure myself that my resemblance to Tyrone Power was as striking as I'd always thought it to be.

Percy Wavel interrupted my contemplation. Without being invited, he sat beside me in Roger Teddles' chair. I cast a sideways look at him. I would like to say he was like a bottled spider, simply because I so love that expression from
Richard the Third
, and I'd never met anyone who fitted it. Percy Wavel didn't fit it, either. He was plain, but lacked the energetic, frantic creepiness implied in the description. He was ordinary; less than ordinary. He was my director, and I had no sense of him as a man.

‘Where is she?' he asked.

‘Where is who?'

‘Geraldine Buchanan. I don't like her understudy.'

‘She's where she always is when she's called away.'

‘I have no idea what that means.'

‘She's painting jeeps at Puckapunyal.'

Percy Wavel laughed incredulously.

‘So she's done a runner,' he said.

It was my turn to be incredulous.

‘Why would she do that?'

‘I was hoping you might know. You left with her on Friday, correct?'

I had no intention of giving Percy Wavel even a glimpse into my private life. I didn't answer his question. Instead, I asked one of my own.

‘How often did the army second her services?'

‘That's easy. Never. What services?'

‘She's an artist.'

‘She's an actress.'

‘The army has never seconded her so that her understudy covered her performance from time to time?'

‘Never. She was here on Friday, and now she's not here, and Sophie is terrible.'

‘Are you saying that this is the first time Geraldine has been away?'

‘The first time. It's unprofessional. She told no one, except you apparently, and you didn't think the company might be interested.'

I was torn. My feelings for Geraldine meant that I was reluctant to agree with Percy Wavel that Geraldine's absence seemed, on the face of it, to be unprofessional and inconsiderate. As an actor, one was always conscious of one's responsibilities to a whole cast.

‘It was my understanding that Geraldine was regularly called away to do war work, and that the Tivoli was happy to accommodate this.'

Percy Wavel's bland face was enlivened by disbelief.

‘This is what she told you, is it? And you believed her? Have you ever heard of such an arrangement, in any occupation?'

‘The theatre isn't just any occupation, though, is it?'

I felt foolish saying this, largely because I realised the truth of what Percy Wavel had said. I'd accepted what Geraldine had told me simply because it had been she who'd told me. Now I saw how ludicrous it was.

‘She seems to have either taken you into her confidence, or taken you for a ride. Or both. Do you have any idea where she is?'

‘She's at Puckapunyal army base.'

‘If you're sure of that, perhaps you'd be good enough to telephone the base and ask Miss Buchanan what the fuck she thinks she's doing.'

He stood up, and to my amazement, before he left he said, ‘I like what you're doing with the part. You're a vast improvement on Jim Stokes.'

I'm ashamed to say that his praise gave me a lift.

It was quite late when I arrived at Mother's house, and I went straight up to my room. I was exhausted. The hours I'd spent in the photographer's studio had been draining. There was no point telephoning Puckapunyal at this hour. I'd do that in the morning. I was troubled by Percy Wavel's remarks about Geraldine. It was clearly a misunderstanding, or a miscommunication at the very least. My concern was ameliorated by a general feeling of satisfaction with the direction my career was taking. Playing a pantomime dame wasn't the ideal role for me. It would, however, lead to other opportunities, particularly as the production was proving successful at the box office. I closed my eyes in a state of gentle euphoria, and I descended into such a deep sleep that I didn't hear Brian knock on my door or enter my bedroom. He had to shake me quite vigorously by the shoulder to rouse me, and for a moment I couldn't place him in the landscape of the dream I'd been having.

‘John Gilbert's gone missing.'

Still only half-awake. I thought he was talking about the actor.

‘He died in 1936, didn't he?' I asked vaguely. ‘Has someone stolen his body? They should check Greta Garbo's attic.'

‘No, not that John Gilbert. Our John Gilbert. I've just come from Cloris's house. We came back from the Tivoli, and he still wasn't back from wherever he'd been. No, that's not exactly true. He'd been back, while we were at the theatre. His room was a mess, the front door of the house was open, and one of his shoes was just outside the door. It looks like he left under duress.'

‘You think someone kidnapped him?'

‘Either that, or he wanted it to look that way. Cloris thinks he's been taken.'

‘Well, have you gone to the police?'

‘Yes, of course we have. Immediately. They didn't seem too concerned. In fact, they were a bit bloody blasé, and reckoned people staged their disappearance all the time — to avoid Manpower mostly. I didn't tell Cloris what John told you, and now I don't know what to do.'

‘Good. You don't want to compromise your own investigation. Cloris would have gone straight to her father. What's the time?'

‘It's 3.00 a.m. Should I wake Peter? Cloris thought we should leave it until morning, in case the police are right and he turns up.'

A spiteful part of me thought that disturbing Peter Gilbert's sleep was the least we could do, but a more selfish part of me wanted to avoid the consequent rumpus.

‘I think you should take your lead from Cloris, and let Peter get a good night's sleep.'

My own night's sleep had been irremediably disrupted, but I closed my eyes when Brian had left to approximate its benefits.

It was cowardly of me, but I left the house very early. I told myself it was reasonable to do so because I had bought no Christmas presents, and it was Christmas Eve. By the time that afternoon's performance had finished, the shops would be shut. The real reason for leaving early was to avoid being involved in breaking the news to Peter Gilbert that his son had gone missing. I took the easy way out with presents, and called into the Leonardo Bookshop, where I bought three detective novels, and remembered just before leaving that Cloris — and, if he turned up, John — would be at lunch, so I bought another two.

I had no idea what to buy for Geraldine, and as I was pondering this I thought I'd better contact her at Puckapunyal to clear up the misunderstanding between her and Percy Wavel. There were telephone booths in George's department store, and I only had to wait a short time for one of them to become available. There were two women who were next in line to use the telephone, and they looked resentful of my presence, as if I'd stumbled into the women's lavatory. The booth afforded some privacy, and I turned my back on the women to escape their disapproving eyes. I placed the call and waited for the operator to connect me.

‘Putting you through now,' she said. I was surprised that getting through to a military establishment was so straightforward.

‘I don't know if this is possible,' I said humbly, ‘but I'm wondering if I might speak to Geraldine Buchanan.'


‘I don't know its proper title. She's a civilian, a camouflage artist, and I understand she's painting trucks.'

‘Just a minute. I don't even know if that happens here. A civilian, you say? Seems bloody unlikely. I'll check.'

There was a lengthy, and expensive, silence, and when he returned he said, ‘You there? There are people here doing that, but they're not civilians, they're certainly not women, and no one's heard of a Geraldine Buchanan.'

‘She must be there. She'd have arrived on Friday afternoon.'

‘I'm sorry, mate, there are no women in that section.'

‘Maybe she was redirected.'

‘There's no record of anyone of that name at Puckapunyal.'

‘But …'

‘No record, mate. Sorry.'

He hung up. I wasn't immediately concerned. Puckapunyal was a big place with, I imagined, hundreds of people coming and going each day. It would be easy for an administrative error to misplace Geraldine. She might have been recorded as ‘Gerald'. I ignored the impatient rapping on the door of the booth, and placed another call to the army base. The same functionary rather crossly reiterated that neither Geraldine, nor Gerald, nor any other person with a diminutive ending in Buchanan, was now, or had never been, within the perimeter of Puckapunyal.

‘This is the army,' he said. ‘We don't lose people.'

He hung up, and the click of disconnection, although it wouldn't have been any different from the earlier one, sounded peeved and final.

My performance that afternoon was slightly off, as distracting doubts about Geraldine ruined my timing. Roger Teddles assured me that no one had noticed. Afterwards, Percy Wavel came into the dressing room, and as with any visitor, Roger made no move to protect his, or the other person's, sense of decorum.

‘Christ, Roger,' Percy said. ‘Put some clothes on, for fuck's sake. I'll have nightmares.'

‘Wet dreams, more like,' Roger said, and remained obscenely splayed.

‘Did you talk to Miss Buchanan?' Percy asked.

‘I telephoned Puckapunyal.'


‘And they've got no record of her ever having been there.'

‘If she thinks she can just waltz back in here and have a job, she's mistaken. The understudy can keep the part, as far as I'm concerned, even though she's no good. Miss Buchanan has blotted her copy book, and you can tell her that from me.'

‘I can't tell her anything if I don't know where she is.'

‘Well, Merry Christmas to you both, at any rate,' he said absently.

BOOK: The Serpent's Sting
10.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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