A prayer answered
Here I am, sitting at my table with my pad, the usual table at the usual hotel in Barbados. It’s mid-morning now, pigeons hopping about in the sun, little birds with yellow chests settling on the rim of my fruit punch, in front of me the sea in Caribbean blue and green, and from it the occasional purr and cough of small boats, the roar of a speedboat, brief and violent, and behind me the clatter of waiters laying tables while they talk to each other in incomprehensible Bajan – everything very much as you hope it will be when you’re in London during Christmas, longing to be here.
So at least that’s another Christmas gone, thank God. For me it has become the worst season, the season when people I love die, beginning with my mother, over thirty years ago, then a long gap, and then almost every other year, sometimes on consecutive years, for the past decade – last year on the day after Boxing Day, it was Ian Hamilton, this year on Boxing Day Alan Bates – no, technically by the calendar, that’s wrong, Alan, who died three weeks ago, died in 2003, which is now last year, and Ian, who died one year and three weeks ago, died in 2002, which is now two years ago – but on Boxing Day and the day after Boxing Day respectively, in the Christmas season –
My plan is to sit here and get down some thoughts and memories of Alan, but I don’t think I can start today, not on the first day, with the pigeons hopping, and the little birds with yellow chests etc., one of which is now sharing my drink. Best let it happen when it happens, tomorrow perhaps, or later in the week, let it sneak up. Today the thing is just to be here, to be back here at the usual table, my yellow pad in front of me, free to go wherever – although I think I must make a pact with myself to lay off the subject of my age, and my physical deterioration, it’s really time I outgrew all that, it’s not becoming in a man nearing seventy. Now I see those words actually on the page, ‘nearing seventy’, I find myself gaping at them, I can’t think what it is that’s nearing seventy, apart from my body, but the most significant parts of my body, the parts whose ageing have a significant bearing on my life expectancy, are hidden from my view: the liver (mistreated for nearly fifty years), the lungs (for over sixty years), the heart, the intestines, bladder and bowels are all concealed from view, their condition reported on a couple of times a year in the form of figures printed out from blood tests which my doctor faxes through to me and which I study with attentive ignorance, looking for asterisks – if he puts an asterisk by a number it means that the number is either too high or too low. These days the number to do with the prostate is too high, but I’m not to be surprised by this, I’m told, because although I have a tumour nesting or nestling there, it might still be nesting or nestling while I die of something else, or a combination of something elses, or in an accident, or unlawfully, at the hands of another – in other words, one way or another, it’s there for life. As am I, I suppose. But my point, if I have a point, is that while I am decaying within and without, and quite right too, it’s nature’s way, after all, the way of all flesh, I am most of the time unaware of the decay, though there are the hints, of course, the days when the bladder seems to fill even as I’m emptying it, the wheeze and double whistle in the chest, the faintness that follows climbing stairs.
Birth of the jouncer
On the other hand the self itself, my only self, seems to be exactly what it was when I first discovered it at some months old, sitting harnessed in my pram in the garden at Mallows, in Hayling Island. It was a large pram, handed down from an earlier period, capacious, highly sprung, almost brakeless, easily mobile, and I used to be left in it alone for half an hour or so every afternoon. One afternoon I began to shake and buck in my harness, and the pram jolted forward. As I grasped the connection between the movement of my body and the movement of the pram, something in me sprang to life – a self-birth is how I remember it now, with pride and astonishment still. The pram moved maybe only a few inches the first time, but eventually the inches became feet, and then yards, and then quite a few yards, until at last somebody, Mummy? Daddy? Nanny? noticed that the pram when they returned to it was not quite where they were sure they had left it. But how was he doing it, and if not he, who then and why? The next day they planted the pram in the usual spot, withdrew to a distance and witnessed first its swaying, then its juddering, then its slow, unsteady progress along the path, accompanied by a ghastly keening sound from within that reminded them more of a dog than of a baby human. The explanation was so simple that it concealed the real mysteries – of the self, of the will, of the power of solitude, and of the elemental need to make a keening noise when shaking and bouncing one’s pram up or down the garden path. Jouncing was the word they used for this eerie combination of causes and effects. I was a jouncer, therefore.
Simon Gray at Hayling Island, 1937
My battle with the waves
So. To the left of the hotel, if you are facing the sea, there is a small cove with a shed in it. From this shed a pipe stretches into the sea and pumps water out into something or other behind the shed, a cistern, I think, though I’ve never seen it. The shed and the pipe and the cistern, if there is a cistern, belong to McGill University, in Montreal, their Marine Science Department. My father went to McGill, which is why I always read the sign carefully, though I know it by heart, when I clamber around the little cove to the public beach next to it. I’ve taken to swimming there because the hotel beach has developed a high ridge close to shore. When you walk out to sea the ground gives under you, and you have to fling yourself forward and swim before you intend to. I like to have a cigarette as I wade out, smoking and contemplating the various mysteries of life. Where does the sea come from? Why does nature exist? What’s that scuttling over my feet? – and it’s no fun, plus it’s very unsightly, to be caught by a wave with a cigarette between your lips, wasteful too, but the worst part is getting out. It’s difficult to get a grip on the ridge, which consists of sand and pebbles, your foot slides down the slope, you topple back into the sea, start again, trying to get out between the incoming waves, which bide their time and then, when you’ve convinced yourself there isn’t one, erupt under you as you place your foot halfway up the ridge again. The year before last a visiting friend of ours, Bumma, got caught by a brute of a wave, she was virtually alone on the beach, there was no one to help her as she was tumbled and rolled around, sucked back by the undertow, then before she could regain her footing, rolled and tumbled forward. She was lucky not to have drowned, really, in what would have been a foot or so of water. I kept thinking of her when I was trying to get out the other afternoon, and suddenly hit upon a scheme, a rather daring scheme, basically derived from judo, or ju-jitsu. You use the force opposing you to your advantage – i.e. when a man throws a punch at you, you duck, catch his arm and pull him forward using his own impetus as a lever, then step out of the way as he flows past you and crashes to the ground, where you can kick him at your leisure. I’ve seen this done often on screen, most notably by a one-armed Spencer Tracy, in Bad Day at Black Rock, when he annihilates the brutish two-armed Ernest Borgnine by employing exactly the method I’ve described, though being Spencer Tracy he doesn’t kick him when he’s down, he lets him get up to throw another haymaker. Spencer has to go through the whole process three times, his trilby remaining on his head, by the way, throughout. It’s a very exhilarating scene, and now I’ve got the film recorded I can, and sometimes do, play it over and over again. So? Oh, yes, conquering the ridge. My plan was to use the waves to carry me over the ridge by surfing them. I am actually rather good at surfing, can do it without a board, and lo! there I was on the other side of the ridge, the beach a mere few feet away, all I had to do was scramble to my feet and take a step or two – I’d made it to my knees when the wave I’d surfed in on surged back, taking me with it and peppering my legs and stomach with pebbles, sharp stones and what felt like fragments of broken glass, and then, like Bumma, I was rolled, tumbled, etc., but unlike Bumma I was watched from the shore by a dozen or so guests at the adjoining hotel, lolling on their beach beds and certainly smiling, in some cases laughing as if I were a floor show. This went on for several minutes. Once or twice I struck out to sea, a dignified, classy crawl, as if I were engaged in a complicated exercise I’d designed for myself, a sort of combat course. I suspect I would still be there, either being rolled around with sand and stone and sea, like a maritime version of Wordsworth’s Lucy, or right out in deep water, pretending that that’s where I prefer to be, or drowned, if my wife Victoria hadn’t come looking for me, sized up the situation in a blink, walked into the water and stretched out her hand, which I took as if intending to shake, but allowed myself to be drawn by it up to safety. Extraordinary how much power, I almost wrote brute power, is contained in her slight and graceful form. I’ve long accepted that she’s stronger than me physically as well as morally, but then she’s much younger, hasn’t got a paunch, doesn’t smoke, so she jolly well ought to be able to haul me out of the sea.
A glimpse of a lost civilization
Anyway, the above should make it clear why I now go to the left of the hotel, past the cove with the McGill marine science shed in it, and scramble on to the public beach which has only a small ridge, and furthermore soft pebble-and-shard-free sand – altogether a much better swimming beach, in fact, and much more fun, as the local people swim from it, you see them in large groups, almost like congregations, which they may well be, outings from the nearby churches, of which there are dozens, of all known and some (to me) unknown denominations – portly matrons in one-piece swimming suits with vivid sunsets stamped on them, supple young men, sinuous girls, middle-aged men with angry, Rastafarian locks, families dunking naked babies into the water, and here and there the English, sitting stiffly on boulders and tree-stumps if they’re middle-aged, or sprawling on the sand with tattoos on their arms and bottles of Banks beer in their hands if they’re young, offensive to the eye, let’s face it, as offensive as I am in my drooping trunks, pendulous this and puckered that – but I don’t have to see myself, do I? And within seconds I’m in the sea, splashing along, ducking through the waves, spouting water out of my mouth, something like a whale.
This morning a boat arrived, full of schoolgirls on an outing, about thirty of them, between nine and fifteen, I suppose, all wearing traditional brown uniforms, their hair in pigtails, children of a sort I haven’t seen in England since my own childhood. They leapt squealing and laughing off the boat into the water, carrying their shoes and socks in their hands, and scampered on to the beach. A young woman, presumably the teacher, got off last, her skirt hiked up. She splashed after them, calling out instructions which she really didn’t expect them to follow, but at least reminded them that she was there. They poured up the beach and into the changing rooms in the small park, a sort of compound, that also has a cafe, benches, swings, little shops. A few minutes later they poured out again, into the sea, heads bobbing, screams, shrieks of laughter, splashing each other, ducking each other, an absolute rough-house of girls at play, but not a swear word to be heard, nothing bad-tempered, ill-natured, brutish about these children, and it struck me with a pang that such a sight and such sounds would be impossible in the England of today, and will soon be just a folk-memory among the elderly, for what authority would dare to allow thirty children to go on a trip to the beach, to plunge into the sea, with only one teacher to supervise them? Indeed, what authority could muster thirty children who would play freely and joyfully, without bawling out obscenities and threats at each other, and at the teacher, probably. When you live in a barbarous country, it’s educative, if painful, to spend a little time in a civilized one, to remember what we once were, to think what’s become of us.
From infant genius to infant pervert
But what was admired in the Hayling Island garden in daylight, indeed interpreted as the early manifestation of an original mind, possibly of genius, became regarded as something other, possibly a perversion, when practised at night in an unmoving bed. The bouncing and jouncing and above all the weird canine keening could be heard all over the house, and all through the night, and persisted through my teens and twenties, actually until I got married at the age of twenty-nine – it was worse than snoring because it seemed entirely wilful, even though I was unconscious, or could be assumed to be, with my face buried in the pillow, and my body sliding and humping. But if my face was buried in the pillow how come I was so audible? And how come, at least in my earliest years, I didn’t suffocate? I could have been an early example of what used to be called cot death but is now frequently, after confidently delivered though hopelessly flawed medical evidence, misdiagnosed as murder (a number of mothers wrongfully jailed, families destroyed, children snatched from their homes and placed with foster-parents or in institutions, irretrievably – irretrievably? well, yes, we know we might have made a mistake, say the social services and government ministers responsible, but it’s too late now to correct it, for the children’s sake they must stay fostered or institutionalized, besides no smoke without fire, even if we’re the ones who lit it you can’t expect us to put it out, we’re comfortable with what we’ve done and compassionate and caring with it.) So with the hypothesis that I died in my cot because my face was sunk into my pillow while jouncing, and then with a time-jump of those sixty-seven years, it’s easy to see how the course of our lives might have run differently, Mummy’s would have run in jail, Daddy would either have remarried or sacrificed himself to clearing Mummy’s name, Nigel would have been fostered or institutionalized, and I, well, I would have been dead, of course, officially the victim of infanticide (unless they could pin it on the nanny) but in fact the victim of a jouncing habit that led to pillow-suffocation – but what pillow? Surely babies don’t have pillows. If they lie flat on their stomachs – a clear impossibility, actually, given that babies’ stomachs are round, inflated – I’ve just been upstairs and tried it on the hotel bed, I lay with my cheek, right cheek as I’m right-hand-side person, pressed flat against the mattress, it felt so easy and natural that I began to slip away for a moment, the great soft belly of me cushioning the middle of my body, in fact becoming a functional asset instead of the pendulous embarrassment it is when I’m upright and in company, and not only when I’m in company, I’m embarrassed by it when I’m on my own, sometimes I stand still in the middle of my study and try to suck it in – I’ll try now, I’m in the bar but nobody’s really looking – no, nothing stirred except the ghosts in my chest, the effort has left me short of breath, so let me go back to it as it was when I lay down a few minutes earlier – how did I describe it? as a cushion for the middle of my body – so must a baby’s be, when it’s not full of wind, so must mine have been when I was a windless baby. But just now, when I lay on the bed, I felt no impulse to jounce and bounce and fill the hotel with my keening.
A peaceful and reasonable man goes sleepless
Daddy needed his sleep. When we moved from Hayling Island to London, into 47 Oakeley Gardens, in Chelsea, he had to be up and off to his path lab early in the morning. He also needed energy for his romantic enterprises later in the day. Furthermore he liked his sleep, not only was he relaxed and nourished by it, but was addicted to it as a kind of pleasure, or was it vice? liked to be in bed early, stay in it until the last possible minute – he took his breakfast in it, along with his post and the newspapers, and he was very uxorious, a very uxorious philanderer, so what with one vice and another, one pleasure and another, you can see that he spent quite a lot of his day, as well as most of his night, in bed, and when he was in bed at night he liked his sleep, drowsy, toasty in Mummy’s arms, she in his, zzzzz – and I disturbed all that, the sound of my bed jumping up and down, my child’s voice keening, clattered and sliced into his slumber, their slumber, and drove him quite wild with rage, though he tried, being by nature a reasonable and peaceful man, to bring the rage under control and to devise reasonable and peaceful solutions to my problem, though it wasn’t in fact my problem, after all I wasn’t waking myself up, in fact I was probably jouncing and keening myself into deeper and deeper layers of the unconscious, into sweet and holy spaces or places. Or perhaps not, who knows where you go when you’re asleep, whether you’re jouncing and keening or as still as a corpse?
Another use for a hairbrush
His first solution was to ask me, and then, a few nights later, after I’d evidently though not consciously turned down his request, to command me, to sleep on my back. I remember lying rigidly, eyes closed, trying to lower myself into sleep by an act of will, a kind of reverse levitation. My next introduction to consciousness was when he rolled me back on to my back with whispered imprecations, dark words I couldn’t understand that for all their intensity were designed to be inaudible to Mummy in their bedroom next door, and perhaps to me, too. Whatever they were, their meaning was inescapable. He believed, even though reason and peaceableness must have argued against it, that I was doing it on purpose and that I was a deliberate and premeditating jouncer. Well, possibly I was. I certainly came to believe that I was, and fought against the deep, corrupt desire to roll on to my side, then on to my stomach. One turbulent night he ran into my room and unleashed a powerful but soft, because unshod, kick at my ribs. From the next room came Mummy’s, my Mummy’s alarmed and imploring response – ‘James! James darling!’ – to his disowning me, so to speak, with ‘Will you shut up, you little bastard!’ That he should have come to this! He got his foot out of the blanket, threw it over me, and left the room, a little click, a solicitous little click of the closing door, as if being careful not to wake the sleeping child. I heard their voices murmuring away, mainly hers, consoling – I’d recognize the tone now, though I didn’t then – she knew her James, he wasn’t a man to kick his sleeping nine-year-old, even with a naked foot, for the pleasure of it, this was a James who had been driven to desperate measures, a James beside himself. James, peaceable and reasonable and at one with himself again, devised a practical scheme to prevent me rolling on to my stomach in my sleep. A hairbrush tied through one of the buttonholes on my pyjama top.
Trouble with pyjamas
One went to bed in suits, in those days, a thickish jacket and a thickish pair of trousers, particularly thick at the waist because of the thick cord that went through it, the ends of which one tied in a burly bow at the front, navel height. It’s a wonder, really, that we didn’t wear shoes in bed – oh and the gap at the front of the trousers that wasn’t a gap but folds of cloth that you somehow had to pull apart, a fumbling and desperate business when you were in urgent need – sometimes it was simpler to pull the trousers down and pee over the top, the dangers of this procedure being manifest in smells and stains that mother drew to your attention, ‘Really, must you be so lazy!’ and one couldn’t explain the difficulties to the mother, how in the cold it was like a tight little knot that tucked itself tightly into somewhere between one’s legs, one’s numbed fingers needed time to locate it, and then it had to be plucked at and coaxed and stretched like a piece of sensitive elastic, and this after one had fumbled through all the folds of cloth to locate the naked groin, let alone the tightly infolded little knot – how much easier to pull the trousers down so one could actually see where it was, and if one bent one’s knees and pushed one’s groin or would that be loins? forward, one could mainly miss the crotch in one’s pyjama bottoms, it would only be the last little bit, the dribble that sometimes, inexplicably, becomes a spurt before becoming a treacherous dribble again, dribbling down into the crotch and causing that stain.
Sounds from the next room
So I went to bed with the hairbrush dangling from the buttonhole in the pyjama top, lay rigidly on my back, eyes closed, and woke to Daddy’s brawling hands, rolling me back on my back, pulling my pyjama jacket into position – it had become twisted around to the side so that the buttons ran from my armpit down. The hairbush lay away from my body, pointlessly attached. On some occasions, worse occasions, the pyjama jacket was completely discarded, lay on the floor even. These were the signs, were they not, of a deliberate, wilful determination to sleep on my stomach and jounce keening through the night, in complete disregard of the father’s need for replenishing sleep? I think that during those nights, many, many nights, I became quite simply the enemy, as a screeching cat or a perpetually barking dog becomes the enemy, first the enemy to sleep, then the enemy to self – in this case to my father’s self. I expect he wanted to kill me, from time to time, as he lay beside his wife in the darkness, listening to my night life expressing itself in what, now I come to think of it, must have sounded like an infant parody of the sexual act, the bouncing bed, the twanging springs, the animal keening, at a consistent, monotonous level of a climax impending but never achieved – an eerie parody of his own noises after lunch, say, in the bed in the flat of his secretary, little Mrs Rolls, or in the bed next door, where his wife my mother lay beside him but around whose body his arms – ah, but that was love, I heard it, not in the dead of night but as I lay awake before breakfast, the hairbrush replaced and resting on my stomach. I listened to the real thing, the noises of love, not keenings but murmurs, grunts, laughs, little cries suppressed but still trembling into screams choked off –
Is it possible to become autistic, or do you have to start off that way? Well, I believe that all day I’ve been something that corresponds to my understanding of the word autistic – it’s as if I’ve had no inner context at all, no points of reference, a sort of blankness and not a comfortable one – I’m quite unhappy in this, but don’t want to talk to anyone about it, not even Victoria, to whom I tell everything, almost everything, certainly more than she actually needs to know. And yet this is something that she probably does need to know, that her husband has plodded beside her to bar, restaurant and beach, indeed swum beside her in the sea, sat opposite her at the lunch and dinner table, and internally there’s been no flicker of life at all, his mind a tabula rasa, slightly soiled.
A good deed punished
Can I, in all conscience, keep my table at the bar while I have lunch at a table in the restaurant? Yesterday I decided I couldn’t, and surrendered my bar table to a lanky north country couple, he has buck teeth that fix his mouth in a permanent grin of seeming good-nature, she is blonde, with a handsome, beaky face and long legs made longer by high-heeled sandals. Both wear sunglasses which don’t suit them, they make his face seem all teeth, and to hers they give a hooded effect, like a bird of prey. They accepted the table gratefully, as if with full knowledge of the ancient tradition, that it was mine by right, and their tenure was at my convenience. When I returned from lunch they vacated it immediately, with a flourish and some jokes about having been honoured, etc. So that was okay. Today at lunch time when they came to the bar I repeated the offer. When I came back after lunch they were sitting with their heads bowed, stubbornly unaware of my hovering presence. I thought I’d give them a few minutes. When I came back they were just as they had been, heads bowed. Victoria took me for a walk to calm me down, and I was calm when we came back, until I saw that they were still there, heads bowed. Victoria took me for a swim, and when we got back, there, with bowed heads, etc. I walked around the table at a slight distance, and though their heads were still, I could see their hands moving and hear little clicking sounds, like false teeth. I moved closer to make absolutely sure, and yes, it was true, they were playing Scrabble, sitting at my table, the buggers, playing Scrabble – So here I am now, looking down at them from our balcony, I notice that she has a long straight back, and he too sits very upright, both of their postures speak of intense concentration, which is I suppose needed when playing a game for halfwits, you have to keep the other half of your wits at bay, if they joined up you’d surely knock the board and the pieces of the alphabet to the ground – not that I’ve ever actually played Scrabble, I have no patience with indoor games that involve spelling or knowledge or indeed thought or intelligence of any kind – but the fact is, as I look down at them with scowly eyes, I suspect that they make a more attractive, more elegant spectacle at my table than I do, when I sit there writing, my jaw jutting out, cigarette on the go, a study in ill temper and bad living.
It’s not true that I’ve never played games that require thought or knowledge. I used to play chess en famille, not with Mummy, of course, she thought it was strictly a man’s sport, unlike hockey or cricket, at both of which she’d excelled, along with the standing broad jump and the high jump, but chess, she said, demanded the male mind to grasp its intricacies, she couldn’t hope even to set the board, the pieces themselves made her female, or was it feminine? mind reel, they were so sinister, but she used to stand smoking in admiration whenever a combination of the males in the household were bent in archetypal male postures over it – elbows on knees, chins in palms, foreheads furrowed, rather like Thurber’s version of Rodin’s Le Penseur. When Nigel and I played, our games usually climaxed in our rolling around the floor, with our hands around each other’s throats, kneeing, punching, kicking, sobbing (me), shouting (him) until she had to come in at a run and separate us with her own more authoritative violence, precisely aimed kicks and clips. So mainly we played alternately with Daddy, who was, Mummy told us, very good at chess, his natural game, because it required thinking. And he seemed to be very good, beating us within a few moves, again and again. At first I accepted this as quite right and proper, in the natural order of things – I think at the beginning I’d have been quite fearful if I’d won, I mean if I could beat him what manner of father was he? How could he be trusted to look after us, bring us up? – but eventually the gorge began to rise, and feelings stirred in me similar to the ones that stirred when Nigel won – no doubt all explicably atavistic, ape junior wanting to overthrow ape senior – his honest, pleasant, thoughtful face as he mowed me down in game after game infuriated me, the gentle peer over the rims of his spectacles, the Scots undercurrent underneath the Canadian accent which ran below the English one, ‘Mate, I think, old boy.’ ‘What, you’ve won again!’ came the cry from the passing Mummy, and if I said something primitively filial – ‘Any fool can beat me’ – the triumphant, ‘Oh, don’t be such a poor loser, the world hates a poor loser.’ I tried cheating, nudging a piece into a different position when he was reloading his pipe or tamping it down though I’m sure I never gave myself any real advantage and I couldn’t work out the consequences properly, probably putting myself into worse positions – I don’t know why I did it – perhaps just the thought that cheating gave me a kind of psychological edge, I could do things that would never cross his mind – and then I began to study the board with real concentration, practice moves on my own, in fact began to get a remote glimmering of how to think a move or two ahead, of what could be predicted, or at least sensibly guessed at. I got better, our games got longer, he was making his way through two bowls of a pipe rather than half a bowl. There came an evening, a twilight in Halifax, Nova Scotia – the twilight of a God – I had him! I don’t know how it came about, all I saw clearly, as clearly as I’ve ever seen anything, was that if I moved my knight, bishop, whatever, he would be checkmated. ‘Mate, Daddy, mate I believe,’ I would say, and keep the tremble out of my voice. ‘What!’ she would cry, ‘You’ve beaten your father!’ or with luck, ‘You’ve beaten your own father!’ – there would be accusation in it, bewilderment and loss – ‘I’m just going to have a pee,’ I said. I remember it quite well, peeing, washing my hands, looking at my face in the mirror, a boy on the threshold, a boy who beat his Daddy, his own Daddy – I went in, sat down, ‘Whose move is it?’ though I knew perfectly well it was mine. He was relaxed back in his chair, feet crossed at the ankles, eyes miles away. ‘Oh, yours, I think.’ I bent to the board, made to pick up the assassinating piece, and saw that it was a square or so away from where I had left it. Furthermore, his queen wasn’t where I’d last seen her. I lifted mine eyes unto the Father. He was still in his trance, lost to the trivialities of the chessboard that is life. ‘Cheaters never prosper,’ I might have said, Mummy-style, but I didn’t – it never occurred to me to say anything – I moved my piece, in due course lost the game. ‘Well done, Daddy!’ I said, losing gracefully for once. ‘It was closer than you realized,’ he said. ‘There was a moment there when you nearly had me.’ But I had had him, hadn’t I?
James Davidson Seagull
It’s a most beautiful day, the small boats are humming across the absolutely still Caribbean, a couple of waterskiers are criss-crossing each other in complicated patterns, oh, one’s just come a cropper, a young woman, a second ago all poise and grace as she rode on her skis, arms stretched out, head back, hair flowing, the next a grotesque flurry of up-turned legs, the skis sticking out of the water like a compass – she’s all right, she’s waving to the driver, a slim guy in an orange shirt with Rastafarian locks and shades, he’s circling around her – meanwhile a gang of little birds are hopping about my drink, a Virgin Sea Breeze (cranberry and grapefruit). One has hopped on to the rim of the glass, jerking its head now one way and now the other, seeing what’s in front of it out of the corner of its eye – I think I have to go on doing what I’m doing, to give it a chance to dip its beak – no, well yes, that is he dipped his beak two or three times without making it to the liquid, gave a couple of panic-stricken twists of his head, flew off – I wonder what sort of bird it is, dun-yellow chested, dark grey plumage – smaller than a sparrow – a kind of martin, I suppose, it has a blue band around its left leg, just above the claw – strangely large claws, parrot-like, out of proportion to its body – the band looks as if it’s made of rubber or plastic, put there by an ornithologist, I suppose, who wants to keep tabs on its movement – yesterday Victoria pointed out a dove with three blue bands, two on one leg, one on the other, making one imagine it’d been specially tagged, like a criminal. I wish I knew more about birds, most of all I’d like to know how much consciousness they have, or is everything they do programmed, I think I once read, like computers? They often look, when they’re on the ground, as if they’ve been wound up, hopping stiltedly this way and that, but in flight they’re a different matter, actually not very different with these small birds, martins and sparrows, they zigzag in spasms, as if in response to abrupt electronic impulses, but seagulls now – my father said once, when we were all sitting on the beach in Hayling Island, ‘I wish I were a seagull’ – what made it surprising was that it was apropos of nothing, a sudden utterance, as if his soul spoke. ‘But why,’ Mummy asked, ‘why would you want to be a seagull, James? Is it because they fly so beautifully?’ James said yes, he supposed it was that, the way they swooped and soared, the freedom and majesty of the flying, the ease of it, just cresting on the winds, their wings spread – also they can be quite vicious, attack people, he said, as if it were a continuation of the thought rather than a qualification, so perhaps he was interested in that aspect of them too, he envied them their temperaments as well as their flying skills – I remembered that conversation a few years ago, when we were visiting Nigel and Barbara at their summer home in Pictou, Nova Scotia. We went most afternoons – in appalling weather, grey skies, squally rain, an edgy wind – to a very long, dark-sanded beach, on which there were washed-up tree trunks that the gulls squatted on, shrieking angrily – a couple of times when I came out of the sea, cold and frankly rather miserable, two or three of them rose from their logs, soared upwards, dropped, or rather lurched down on me until they got to face level just a foot or so in front of me, then up they’d go, soaring, and back they’d come, jolting at me and shrieking their shrieks – the second time it happened I broke into a run, lumbering across the ridges of sand, shouting swear words at them. We thought they were probably protecting something, their eggs, their nests, but really they gave the impression that they didn’t like humans, or more particularly me, as I was the only human going into and out of the sea, their sea – and it was noticeable that Victoria, sitting dry and fully dressed on one of the tree trunks, was never abused. When we told Nigel about it he said, yes, some people had actually been attacked at the beginning of the summer, a man’s scalp had been pierced and a woman had had her eye plucked out – can he have said that? Eye plucked out? Well, Nigel being Nigel wouldn’t have said it if it weren’t true, but on the other hand I wouldn’t have gone back to the beach, possibly gone to any beach in Nova Scotia ever again, if I’d believed that a gull had plucked out a woman’s eye – so conceivably I’ve made it up, but attribute it to Nigel as a way of transforming it into a fact. But I still don’t believe it.
Pan, at the next table
Anyway, now I’m alone again, the bar is empty again – I’d just written that – the bar is empty again – when lo! an elderly man, by which I mean older than myself, with a nose so bulbous and knotted and veined that if he’s not an alcoholic he should sue it – there he is at the table next to mine, he has chosen it out of all the empty tables, there are ten of them, I’ve counted, just to sit beside me, attracted by the long shapelessness of my own nose, perhaps, or just by a muddled desire to be a nuisance. He’s carrying an object the size and shape of a large book that I didn’t at first notice which he fiddled with for a few moments, and then, just as I turned away, he pressed a knob and a man’s voice, plus music, both crackly, burst forth, yes, a radio, the old bugger’s got a radio, and he’s sitting there, holding the radio to his mouth, like a sandwich. He’s got very bushy eyebrows, by the way, thickets, actually, and a beard, also thickety, but just sticking out from the base of his chin – it’s the head of Pan, and he’s holding the radio to his mouth no longer like a sandwich, but like a flute, but with hideous, unflutish noises emanating from it – he’s conversing with Sam, the very neat and handsome young waiter, the one with the Eddie Murphy face, which he is bending to Pan’s lips, so that he can hear him behind the music. No need – Pan’s voice is loud, boisterous, slurred, he’s requesting tea – ‘Lots of good, strong tea, to wash the alcohol out,’ he says, following his words with a coarse chuckle. Sam gives him a polite, blank look. ‘I drink lots and lots of alcohol, that’s why I drink tea now, always a pot or two at this time of the morning. Sluices it out. The alcohol.’ Sam nods gravely, goes off. Probably, like most of the waiters in this hotel, he’s teetotal. Pan goes on chuckling to himself, changes the channel on the station, is trying to catch my eye, which I keep resolutely fixed on the page as I write this sentence, which will be my last until he’s gone, or his radio’s off.
The radio is off. He is drinking his tea, and smoking a large cigar. Clouds of his smoke are drifting over me, making me feel queasy. Nevertheless I’ve picked up my pen, feeling it important to get this down – that there is a very coarse-looking man in swimming trunks and straw hat sitting smoking a cigar, trying to catch the eye of an elderly, not particularly refined-looking man in swimming trunks and a straw hat who is, in fact, smoking a cigarette and writing about him, and one day when the elderly writing man is back in London he might take out this pad from his drawer in his desk, leaf through it, come across this account, ponder it, and wonder if the old roué of a Pan with his stinking cigar and nose like a rotting fig is dead – he’s blowing the smoke in my direction, quite deliberately, he’s picked up the radio, he’s turning it on again, and he’s leering at me, I can feel it – Christ! He’s got up, he’s coming my way, coming straight at my table, at me, I’ll keep my head bowed, keep scribbl –
– he spoke pleasantly through his nose into my ear. This hotel, he said, was one of the nicest he’d ever been to, the staff were so charming, he said, and the guests, the great thing about them, he said, was that they were all friendly, but never intrusive, never intrusive, he said pleasantly into my ear, his beard scraping my shoulder, as the fumes from his cigar drifted across my face and the radio hummed and spat almost in my armpit. ‘Don’t you find that?’ – a young lady turned up, attractive, with curly dark hair, bangles on her wrists, a silver chain around each ankle, ‘Ah, there you are,’ she said, ‘I knew I’d find you in the bar,’ and gave me a smile, as if she’d known she’d find me in it too. ‘I’ve been having tea,’ he said. ‘And talking to my friend. And waiting for you.’ He clamped the cigar in his mouth, put the radio into one of her hands, looped his arm around her waist, lurched her off towards the swimming pool, or perhaps its shrubbery.
Now he’s gone it’s the most beautiful morning again, and I would be tranquil, I really think I would be, if I weren’t convinced, beginning to be convinced, that I’m the victim of a conspiracy. Is it that people can’t bear the sight of an elderly sixty-seven etc. sitting at a shady table at the sea’s edge on a sunny morning in Barbados, working – or not even working, just writing, and not even writing to any particular purpose, merely moving his hand which happens to be holding his pen across a yellow pad with long pages with lots and lots of lines on it with lots and lots of spaces between that have, naturally, to be filled, what else can I do in life but fill these spaces? But does the sight of me doing it provoke people into feeling that they’ve got a duty to stop me? I’ve been doing this very thing on this date, at this table, for eleven years now, every year on January 20 at this hour, this very minute, in fact, I could be seen at this very table, in this very chair – nonsense, not this very chair, every couple of years they change the chairs for chairs of a different style, progressively more uncomfortable, when I started out the chair was a miracle of comfort, a firm, weatherproof armchair, more elevated than you’d expect in an armchair, that seemed to settle you over the table into a natural writing position, but also allowed you to collapse backwards forthought, vacancy, erotic meditation, then a slight adjustment, almost unconscious, and one was at it again, the shifts between inertia and activity unnoticed by myself – recumbent, erect, active, a full page, recumbent, erect, active, a full page etc. This year we still have last year’s chairs, wrought iron, gardeny sort of chairs, with thin white cushions that keep you in a stiff, upright position, oddly unsupported, and you can’t help seeing your hand, the pen, the movement across the page, every single word you write as you’re writing it.
Alan at last
And what I’m writing now is the title of a film, Women in Love. Presumably from some half thought to do with Alan, who starred in it with Oliver Reed – I wonder if it was any good, I can’t remember whether I liked it even – well, I haven’t seen it for ages, doubt if I’ll ever see it again, or any film with Alan in it – such a disturbing part of modern life, you can find yourself watching a film you saw and loved in your childhood, all the Laurel and Hardys, for instance, or take one of my favourite films, Shane, some of its scenes I have watched about thirty times over the last fifty years, I was seventeen, in my last year at school, when it came out in London, so yes, fifty years – nobody in the film is much over forty except perhaps the villainous rancher, and the old chap, played by Buchanan, is it? Edgar Buchanan, whose homestead is burnt down – although now I think about it, nobody apart from Brandon de Wilde, who plays the son of Van Heflin and Jean Arthur is much under forty either, which is surely unusual for a film, even of that period, but you see them there still, is my point, Brandon de Wilde, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin, Elisha Cook Jr, Ben Johnson, Jack Palance creaking about in black, and of course Alan Ladd, blond in blond, or light-brown buckskin. And there’s the great scene, the open-air party, the settlers celebrating what can it have been? Thanksgiving, I suppose, Shane dancing with Van Heflin’s wife, a curiously stately dance that ends with a bow and a curtsy, Van Heflin leaning on a fence, watching them, seeing the attractiveness, the almost rightness of them as a couple, Shane’s tenderness and delicacy, his wife’s dignified submissiveness – and later, when Van Heflin prepares to risk almost certain death to defend his family and their future, he tells his wife that if he fails he knows she will be well looked after, as will their son, Shane will be a better protector than himself. How pathetic, sentimental and dull it would seem to an audience of these days, a story about good people who struggle to live honourably, with its assumption that a man who has lived badly, like the professional gun-fighter Shane, is willing to sacrifice himself so that people he has come to love will have what he yearns for, that their lives count for more than his – even Wilson, the dead-souled killer played by Jack Palance, sticks to a code, or the appearance of a code – he doesn’t draw his gun until the helpless Elisha Cook Jr, provoked by Jack Palance’s smiling, low-voiced contempt for his southern sense of honour, reaches for his gun – to my mind one of the most terrible moments in cinema – the rain beats down, Palance stands sheltered from it on the saloon porch, Elisha Cook Jr stands not many yards from him, drenched, his boots mired in mud, his gun only just out of its holster, still pointing down – Palance’s gun drawn so quickly one can hardly see the movement, pointing directly at Elisha Cook Jr’s chest – the long pause is the rest of Elisha Cook Jr’s life, Palance smiling, Cook’s eyes bulging – then the shot, Cook hurled backwards from the impact, spread out in the mud. This is awful violence, violence with meaning, it makes us know and feel what an act of murder is – in fact, there are only two killings in the film, that one and Wilson’s by Shane in the saloon in almost identical fashion, but this time it’s Shane who does the taunting, and Wilson whose guns are incompletely drawn – Wilson hurtling backwards, his guns a quarter up and firing uselessly, his thin limbs sticking out in all directions, and then the old boss sitting at the end of the bar, shot as he raises his rifle – and of course the boy watching from underneath the swing doors, his arm around his dog, spots the third assassin on the landing above, about to shoot, cries a warning, Shane swivels, shoots, kills the assassin – so four killings in the film not two – and is wounded himself. Then the arrogant, no, flashy, it’s actually a flashy twirl of the gun before he drops it in its holster, steps out of the saloon – ‘You got him, didn’t you Shane? You shot Wilson!’ ‘Yes. That was Wilson. He was fast. Fast on the draw,’ this said to the boy in a trance. Then Shane riding off into the darkness, hunched sideways from the pain of his wound, the child crying out for him to come back, music swelling, child’s voice echoing – and so forth. Well, not so forth. Credits, and The End naturally. But still, think of all that now, from now, in these days of cinematic trash, when the foul and vacuous Lord of the Rings, with its interminable set-pieces, one set-piece after another, of hideous mass slaughter, is voted by the nation as the nation’s favourite film, and you find yourself asking, what kind of nation is this? What kind of nation? But what I was actually thinking about, what I started all this from was not Shane, its plot and its people, but the fact that they’re all dead, all the actors, including the ten-year-old Brandon de Wilde, killed in a car-crash in his twenties, and the contradiction that never existed before the invention of movies, of people who are long dead being visibly alive, you can see them breathe, there they are, the characters and the actors, both with futures of life and death unknown to them in the two stories they’re in. I’ll go on watching Shane until nature prevents me, but I think I shall always avoid seeing Alan on the screen, or at least avoid watching him, I’ve already seen him a few times when channel-hopping, a glimpse of him in a bowler hat, an eyebrow raised, smiling quizzically –
We were here at this time last year, when he phoned to say he’d been diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas and the liver. His voice was robust, cheerful, just as it was when he was talking about the usual sort of stuff we talk about, a new role, a new film, a new illness – he’d had a lot of unexplained illnesses recently – he’d had a hip operation, his stomach had been bad, his knee hurt, sometimes shortness of breath – but he’d taken them in his stride, little spells in hospital, a long one for the hip because the operation had gone slightly wrong (botched, he wondered) but he had been unremittingly robust, cheerful, the sense of the comedy of it all pervading – the comedy of getting older, of people’s reactions to his illnesses, the expressions they adopted, the tones they assumed – so was his tone when he was talking now – then – a year ago, about his cancer of the pancreas and liver. The trouble was, he said, that he’d known from all the other illnesses that there was something more, something more wrong with him than a dodgy stomach, a difficult knee, occasional shortness of breath, something else had been going on all the time (and actually he’d thought so all the time) but he’d been in New York, playing in Fortune’s Fool, a complete triumph, he’d been the toast of Manhattan – funny, if you change that only slightly to in Manhattan he’d been toast, a phrase I loved when it first turned up in the sort of movies I used to love: ‘Make a move and you’re toast!’ – well, he wasn’t toast in Manhattan, he was the toast of Manhattan, winning all the acting awards – and the thing was, it was his show in more than the star’s normal sense, as he’d done the play first in Chichester, where it really hadn’t been much good, a plodding and ponderous fable, badly lit and erratically acted by the supporting cast, although he himself, at the ebullient centre, had been Alan enough to give the evening a charge – but really, it had floundered along, and he’d been depressed by the impoverished lighting, the helter-skelter staging – but on the other hand his son Ben had been in it, for Alan a great thing, perhaps the greatest thing, to be on the stage with his son, it justified the enterprise, it justified going on with the enterprise, it justified the long struggle to take it to New York, to play it in first for a long period outside New York. Things were changed and then changed again, the staging was still all over the place, but his co-star Frank Langella was sympathetic and great fun, his director was old but sympathetic and great fun, and Ben was having a great time, learning more and more as he got better and better, and Alan knew, he just knew, that by the time they got to New York it would be a triumph, and so it was, a triumph, he was the toast etc. And yet the things that were wrong with him got worse, the knee, the stomach, the fatigue, whenever he went on stage he was exhausted, couldn’t understand, went to a New York doctor who did a series of tests, gave him some pills that settled his stomach, but said: ‘When you get back to London you’ve got to have all this checked out. Don’t leave it.’ So when he got back to London he left it, didn’t have anything checked out but his hip, and even with all the complications of that, he didn’t have himself checked for anything serious. ‘But why not?’ I asked, after a dinner, as we went to his car, a large car, built for cross-country driving, that sort of thing. ‘You keep saying you feel awful, you think there’s something really wrong with you, so why the hell don’t you!’ He said he would. We had the conversation several times, with the same firm conclusion – he would, yes, he really would. Well, of course he was a diabetic, had been for nearly twenty years or so, and partly assumed that his diabetes might be behind it all – he was used to being very insouciant about his diabetes, rolling up his shirt in a restaurant, crouching slightly so the syringe couldn’t be seen as he plunged it into the side of his midriff, pulling it out, slipping it back into his pocket – the whole business completed in a matter of seconds – but really behind the diabetes he now knew there was another illness, showing itself in different guises and glimpses – but he was in all respects such a sturdy man, his body sturdy, the will and spirit within it sturdy, the whole of him rooted in a sure sense of himself and his place in the world – it was this that made him so complete a presence on the stage and screen, and yet gave him freedom and brio in his acting – though he was so quick from one thing to another, from tenderness to savagery, from contemptuous wit to unfathomable pain, the centre always held, Alan was always there, however dangerous or defeated his mood, the final dot of him was intact, so that audiences, thrilled and sometimes nearly unnerved, felt finally safe in his company – I suppose that’s what they loved about him, really, that he could take them into anarchy or despair without loosening them from their trust in his kindness – it was visible in his eyes, even at their iciest you could feel it there, and you knew that you could depend on it, an essential part of his kindness was its dependability.
How he dealt with the lights
Also his dependability was practical, you could count on him in a tricky situation, on the stage as in life – I remember him making his entrance as Butley, hungover, a wreck, lurching to his desk to turn on the lamp that was scripted not to come on, had never come on before, not in the dress rehearsals, not in the two weeks of performances in Oxford, not in the four or five previews, but at the Criterion, on the night of July 14, 1971, the official opening night with a full house and all the critics in, it came on. Harold Pinter and I, director and writer, standing at the back of the stalls, looked at each other aghast, then looked towards Alan, who, we supposed, would be looking aghast at the lamp. He scarcely gave it a glance as he Butleyed to the other desk, and the lamp which was scripted to come on and therefore, I assumed, now wouldn’t, not only came on, it came on while Alan was still reaching for its switch, but went off again the instant he touched it. I’m no longer clear about what Alan did next, actually I don’t think I was clear at the time, whatever it was it couldn’t have made any logical sense, but it made complete emotional sense and sense therefore to the audience, who laughed in sympathy with Butley’s evident frustrations, even though they seemed to be mysteriously, even magically created. But my real memory of the incident is not what Alan did, nor my momentary panic, but my underlying confidence that whatever he did it would be the right, the perfect thing, partly because he was so right and perfect in the part, so founded and centred in it that his any action became the right action by virtue of its being his, and partly just because he was Alan, in whom one had a perfect and complete trust, on and off the stage.
His laughter etc.
There was a scene in rehearsals that he was unsure of – he hadn’t got the feel of it, his tone was wrong, something he couldn’t quite catch in the meaning of the lines – each time he got through the scene he would turn enquiringly to the director, who looked at him with a blank, though friendly smile, then turned his attention to something else. Finally Alan asked him – could he please have a comment straight out, whatever struck the director would be welcomed, however trivial, he just needed a note, any note, he badly needed a note on how he was doing this scene. The next time he did the scene, he turned eagerly towards the director, who almost succeeded in failing to catch Alan’s eye, but couldn’t avoid his eyebrows, fiercely raised in interrogation. He stood for a minute, broodingly, as if sorting through note after note in his head, then swiftly raised his right thumb, then turned away to the other actors. Alan, telling this story, one of his favourites for illustrating the general uselessness of directors, would bend so far forward with laughter that his forehead would actually touch his knees, and he would actually have to mop the tears of laughter out of his eyes, ‘Oh dear!’ he would say, ‘Oh God!’ and as like as not he’d jerk his thumb up again, and the laughter would start again – any meal with Alan would contain as much laughter as speech. But when I think about it, what could the director say that would have been more eloquent than a raised thumb – obviously what he meant by it was that Alan’s acting of the scene was true and honest and right, words which would also apply to the way he tried to live his life, and why not a raised thumb to that, too, especially if it would have caused him to laugh so much that his forehead met his knee – it was his merriness, I think, that marked him out from anybody else I’ve known – his laughter made you feel instantly better. A generous, forthcoming laugh that demanded company, so that sometimes you laughed not because you found it, whatever it was, particularly funny, but because Alan’s laugh had somehow got into you, yours fed on his and his on yours so you ended up like children, clutching at each other, the initiating cause often forgotten – ‘But why did we, what were we – ? Oh – oh yes!’ and like as not, off again. It’s terrible to think I shall never hear it again, and that it’s nowhere to be heard – his laughter on screen is not the same thing at all, of course, being an organized and probably in some cases frequently rehearsed laugh, although what you do get on screen, in his eyes, is the mischief and the appetite, the exuberance –
– in Zeffirelli’s Hamlet is the most sensual, the most appetitive, the most louchely endearing – during an early scene when he’s trying to lecture and cajole Hamlet out of his woe, etc. a servant on the other side of the room brings in a tray with a flask of wine and some goblets on it, Alan’s Claudius, attempting to be doleful, measured, earnest, catches sight of the tray, scampers across the room, fills the goblets to the brim, turns to Gertrude with lascivious delight – his wine in his fist, his woman before him, his crown on his head, what more could a man want? except to be rid of the spoilsport, killjoy nephew – you can see too, for once, what’s in it for her, what fun she has with him in bed, what a rollicking place he’s turned the court into, a playground – it’s as if Falstaff had come to Elsinore, where he’d been tracked down by a poisoned Hal – Alan would have been a great Falstaff, the wit, the relish in life, the sexiness that would have embraced Hal as well as Mistress Quickly, I used to nag him to do it, and he would pretend to ponder it, but really his vanity got in the way. The problem was the fat, he couldn’t bear to play a fat man, however nimble tongued and quick of wit, however gorgeous in his pomp, broken in his fall – really, he still saw himself, until quite late in his career, too late in his career, as a leading man, romantic – to his inner eye lean and svelte and dashing when in truth he was big-boned, stocky, a heavy mover though his energy also made him quick when he wanted to be – but his natural tempo was slow, his natural walk an amble – his energy distracted the attention from his shape, as did the marvellous eyes, the handsome mouth, the line of the cheeks, and the exuberant head of hair – but it grew on a round head, set on a bullish neck, and physically he was a peasant, a Derbyshire peasant, and his hands were agricultural. His consciousness of his body made him shy of exposing it professionally, though he famously exposed all of it in the film of Women in Love, but that was when he was young and besides the camera and the editor could redefine, above all select. Later, and especially on the stage, he was careful – in a play of mine, Melon, for instance, he hid behind the furniture when stripping down to his underwear, and pretty well stayed there, almost crouching, until the end of the scene – his no-nonsense, let’s get on with it exchanges with the girl he was about to fuck seeming more like bombardo – bombardo? Is there such a word? I must have meant bravado, or did I mean bombast? Well, both of them combined give my meaning – his bombardo perversely made him more attractive, it created a tension between his desire and an innate modesty, possibly prudishness, that made him irresistible, so the girl, instead of being swept along by the force of his brute male assertiveness, succumbed to his sweetly boyish bombardo. I tried once or twice, out of a sense of duty to my own text, to get him out into the open, but he invariably said it was no good, wherever he went he seemed to end up behind the desk or the chair, and added that he wasn’t a young man any more, there was too much of him, he was bloody well going to keep most of it to himself, they were already seeing more of him than was good for them – or him. But as I say, the truth of it is that though he was in fact bulky, he never seemed it – his intelligence transformed him, gave the illusion of his being light-footed, mercurial – sometimes you scarcely noticed the movements that carried him from one side of the stage to the other, as if his mind and the meaning of his lines had taken him there without help from his body, but in repose he was a massive presence, nothing to do with his height or weight, but of density, really, the bulk of him somehow compacted, concentrated in the audience’s concentration – Alan alone on stage at the end of a play, motionless, was volcanic. He was also beautiful, I think, in the way that no artefact can be beautiful, because he was breathing, dying.
His inadequacies as a hater
He was a great mimic, a great creative mimic – in the course of an evening he could give you a whole novel full of characters, waiters in restaurants, agents, publicists, the nurses and doctors during his last weeks in the hospital, and earlier, in his palmy days, his mother-in-law, whom he adored, and not simply for the comedy she provided him with – and that was it, every character was suffused with his own delight in their being, so that they were always presented in all their vivid absurdity without malice, with a kind of love, and a gratitude for giving him so much pleasure in their creation. Correspondingly, he was not much of a hater, although capable of explosions of anger and contempt, mostly against directors, but he would usually append a coda of forgiveness and the suggestion that it was probably his own fault really. Once, though, when he was coming to the end of his chemotherapy, he went abruptly, without warning, into a low, muttering but precisely articulated monologue of loathing for a famous director. He went on for quite a long time, and when he finished he sat in silence, his head lowered. I waited for a burst of laughter or the fabulous smile, but neither came. ‘There,’ he said eventually, ‘There. I’ve said it at last. And I don’t feel any better for it.’ I think he was in part speaking about his illness, about which he scarcely said a bad word, seeming to accept it as a mysterious visitation that probably made sense if one understood the real order of things, rather than as a betrayal of his body, or as an outrage against perfectly reasonable expectations. Shortly after he’d been moved back into the London Clinic for the last time, he said that if he was going to die soon, it was all right: ‘I’ve had a very good life. I’ve done everything I want, really. Yes, it would be all right.’
Was his a good life?
For Alan, the birth of his twin sons, Benedick and Tristan, was life’s greatest gift, its blessing. Tristan died in a freak accident in Tokyo at the age of seventeen. At his funeral Alan spoke of his memories of the twins’ growing up, of the differences and similarities in their natures, of the promises for both the future had seemed to offer, he spoke calmly and gently, seeming almost at ease until suddenly, mid-sentence, he stopped, his face seemed to fall apart, his mouth hung open, his eyes started, as he gaped into the horror of where he was and why he was speaking. He blinked, looked towards Benedick, gathered himself and went on. I’ve always thought that giving that address was the bravest and noblest thing I’ve seen a man do. Two years later his wife, Victoria, wasted to the bone with grief and bewilderment, drifted to Italy, to a hotel where she, Alan and the twins had gone one summer. For her it was a place of special memories, memories of herself as a young mother in her prime, of her dashing film star husband, of her beautiful sons who were also enfants savages. She arrived at the front desk so enfeebled that the receptionist immediately phoned for an ambulance. She was taken off to hospital where she died the next day, of malnutrition, dehydration, extreme self-neglect, in fact. But how had she managed the journey? How had she found the strength even to contemplate it, let alone complete it? In his funeral address Alan spoke of her with such tenderness and understanding that he sounded at moments almost parental – the truth is, I think, that he was born to be a father, not a husband, and his marriage was really a sort of flawed adoption. He was honest and sad about the ways in which he’d failed her, but then she was always, in a friend’s phrase, a reluctant incarnation, and I doubt if anyone could have given her what she needed in life, or even known what it was. His own death – his own death –
He is spoon-fed
He looked like Galileo, have I said this before? The rim of white beard, his hair growing back to a thick white stubble on his skull, his marvellous blue eyes as clear as they were in his youth, all his natural exuberance distilled into a different sort of energy, to be released after a few moments of rest, but the range of expressions as great as ever, with a new one, sweet and sly as he lay on the bed, his head propped up, studying you, or from his favourite position, a small armchair facing the bed, where he sat in his hospital gown, his feet planted, with the air of a benevolent emperor. He was, in fact, imperial in his dying, deeply happy with what had come to him at the end, his Tony Award on Broadway, his knighthood, all that was his due had come at last. He received his friends until nearly the end, sitting in this chair by the bed, a rug over his lap, full of delight and above all attention. He wanted to hear everything that was going on in our lives, gave sympathy and advice where things were bad, and shared in any pleasures and successes. He was Alan as I’d always known him, the very best of best friends, the one you phoned up immediately when you were in need, the one you hoped would phone you up when he was. Ben came from New York to lodge with him in his room for the final few weeks, sleeping on a camp bed so that he was available at night, tending him like a nurse and son, spooning food into his mouth when he resisted eating, getting him to swallow by cajoling and teasing – Alan adored this reversal of roles, describing how he’d used similar tactics when spoon-feeding Ben and Tristan, and then going into imitations of his father, at the end of his life, assuming a quavering and tetchy tone: ‘Take it away, it’s disgusting, disgusting, I can’t eat it, who are these people anyway, call themselves nurses, call themselves doctors!’ and then spluttering with laughter, Ben laughing too as he slipped another spoonful down. They touched each other a lot, Ben patting Alan’s head, Alan stroking Ben’s cheek, as if they were the same age. Mates.
His last days
I used to have the taxi stop on the Marylebone Road, at the top of Marylebone High Street, and walk the hundred yards or so to Harley Street and the London Clinic. I’d do it slowly, spinning it out, smoking two cigarettes, and then often have one more on the steps of the Clinic, where there would usually be someone smoking – either one of the hospital porters, or a relative or, like me, friend of a patient, and once or twice a patient, I think. We all had pretty well the same manner of smoking, it was a cigarette that mattered, that we couldn’t get enough of, but couldn’t linger over, short, greedy puffs, then a decisive step on to the pavement, drop the butt, a quick stamp, a decisive step back and into the clinic – then the lift up to the third floor, or was it the second? anyway, to the cancer floor – along the corridor, not bothering to stop at the reception desk because the nurses know you by now and there’s his door – the first thing I did on returning to the pavement was to light up, connecting myself immediately to the man I’d left on the pavement smoking, as if the visit itself were in parenthesis, that linked up to the parentheses of the previous visits, so that the visits now seem to be a continuum, a main sentence all of its own. I would smoke my way through to Marylebone High Street by the back route, and sit at a pub that had chairs and tables outside, even though we were in December, Christmas nearer with every visit – I would sit at a table with a Diet Coke and concentrate on anything but Alan, or find a blankness sometimes so successfully that I’d forget what I was doing there, smoking, with a Diet Coke, outside a pub in the cold, and I’d get the next taxi that came along, hailing it from my table. The truth is that, whatever joy there was in seeing Alan, it was also unbearable – that stretch from the top of Marylebone High Street to the top of Harley Street – whenever we pass it in a taxi I look out of the window and measure it with my eye, but even as I register how short it is, I feel the lurch of dread in my stomach and hope I never have to walk it again, never have to stand on those steps again – and there’s another thing that comes back to me, that as I approached the clinic I used to look up to the window of Alan’s room, imagine him sitting in his chair or lying on his bed, and then imagine myself as I would be in a few moments, in that room that seemed to me from the outside, looking up at its window, so self-contained and far away that I could never be in it.
He and Toto find peace
So that’s how it was all the days in December, leading up to Christmas – Alan dying in the London Clinic, and our dog, Toto, going mad in Holland Park – I could hear her screams as I came down the street towards the house – not, I suppose, technically screams, but shrill, joined-up yaps that had the effect of screams in that they shredded the nerves and made one think of cruelty, pain and ambulances – such a small dog, and in repose such a pretty one, with alert, intelligent eyes, and affectionate. We’d originally given her as a birthday present to my granddaughters. Victoria had picked her up at the kennels on her way to London from Suffolk at 3 p.m. on September 11 – in fact, she was drawing up outside the kennel doors as the news about the Twin Towers came through on her car radio – so in a sense Toto is a 9/11 baby, about whom songs could be written therefore, but her condition that Christmas was actually the result of something far more momentous in her world, an hysterical pregnancy which coincided, perhaps not coincidentally, with her being transferred from one home to another. She gave birth to a small stuffed bear, which she protected with extraordinary savagery from predators like Victoria and myself. When she wasn’t crouched snarling over it, she was drooling over it and cuddling it, and then would suddenly rampage around the house screaming the screams I used to hear on coming home from the London Clinic. So the two experiences are intermingled – no, they’re not – as I’ve said, Alan’s dying is a long, separate event, and Toto’s madness is a long separate event that happened at the same time, parallel with it, one home and one away. The worst was Christmas, Alan in his coma, Toto in a frenzy because somehow her stuffed bear of a baby had vanished and she decided that she had delivered herself of all the presents under the Christmas tree, and crouched, snarling among them – this meant that no one could approach the tree without being threatened – a mad dog is a mad dog, however charming to look at and sweet her nature, and her shows of teeth, saliva dripping from her muzzle, were terrifying among the pink and gold and silver and scarlet packages – when she went on one of her looping, screaming runs, we tried to gather up the presents, but either she would be back before we’d done, or if we shut her out she would patrol the hall screaming – so when it came down to it there was nothing we could do but leave them under the tree and let her embed herself. Eventually the stuffed bear was found on a high shelf in the kitchen and was placed on the floor some way from the presents. Toto ran to it, buried her face in it, licked it, stroked it and rolled it about, then carried it gently down to the basement, and put it to bed – and so, apart from sudden rushes upstairs to check briefly on her other family, under the tree, and other rushes through the flap and screaming circuits of the garden – which led to a petition from some of the neighbours asking us to confine her to the house, her garden screams were too distressing, and set their own dogs off – the situation held through to Boxing Day. We saw Alan a few hours before he died, when we took Ben some food, as the visitors’ cafeteria was closed over the festive season, indeed the Clinic gave off the feeling that it had closed down, the only occupants the ill and the dying – he was still, his arms lying straight outside the blankets, his eyes closed, his chest moving irregularly – we could hear his breathing, shallow suckings in and expulsions after long intervals – he was obviously near the end, and looked ready for it, neat and noble, only the breathing disorderly. Ben, white and staring, looked as close to death as Alan – but then he hadn’t eaten for a long time, nothing was open in the neighbourhood, not even the pubs. We stayed until Ben had eaten, said goodbye to Alan with a kiss on his forehead, and came home to Toto, running this way and that, screaming. In the New Year we got canine Prozac from the vet. It calmed her down somewhat, and she began to treat the bear as a toy rather than as a baby, knocking it about, throwing it into the air and catching it until she discarded it altogether – it still lies in her basket in the basement, but she scarcely ever goes down there, now that she sleeps in different spots all over the house in the daytime, and on our bed at night.
Oh, I saw Pan this afternoon, sitting in the reception with his suitcases, waiting for the taxi for the airport. He looked subdued, no cigar, his hands folded in his lap. He was dressed in a blue blazer, cream-coloured slacks and sturdy brown shoes, for London or Manchester, wherever. His nose seemed to fit in better when he was wearing his usual togs, it could go almost unnoticed in the Garrick Club or the MCC. The young woman with bangles and chains was attending him, but not departing with him. She was wearing beach clothes and hotel slippers, and kept going to the desk to ask about his taxi: ‘Mr Prynne’s got to be at the airport by three, at the latest.’ There’s something solemn and poignant about these departures in the lobby, the piled-up luggage, the cold-weather clothes, somebody at the desk worrying about the taxi and the flight – flamboyant Pan with a cigar becomes passive Mr Prynne staring down at his mottled hands. I wonder if Pan and the young woman are lovers, and Mr Prynne is going home to the wife and children, grandchildren. Well, the day after tomorrow it will be our turn, Victoria’s and mine, to sit beside our luggage in the lobby, waiting to be returned to the fitful fever, all that, and people who are staying on will observe us and try not to think that one day soon –