A departure from Batch Magna. The opening chapters of work in progress Company of Fools., set in post war Britain.
On a wall in an actors’ pub in Shaftsbury Avenue, a black and white production glossy of John Gielgud stared out from among the other photographs, a Prince of Denmark impaled on a throne, his eyes stark with stage horrors.
Jack Savage also saw the dead, saw them again in worst form, when sleep and his imagination made nightmares of them. And when he punched the man in front of him it carried the force of those who had not come back, those who were left behind.
The well-fed, expensively tailored weight of ‘Books’ Morris, a man who had not gone without during the war, went down like a sack of potatoes, the toes of his two-tone correspondent shoes turned up on the Burbage Bar carpet.
He struggled to get to his feet, his eyes wondering what had hit him, and when they focussed on the young man waiting for him to do so, on his expression, he decided to stay down.
The look Jack left him with before walking away fuelled his rage.
‘You’ll pay for this!’ he shouted, the blow mangling his words.
Jack was leaving before he was asked to, walking through a growing audience of the curious, followed by Titus Llewellyn-Jones.
“Jack. Jack, love,” Titus said, stopping him outside the pub. ‘It doesn’t do for an actor to chin angels. Even one who’s fallen as low as Mr Books Morris. I didn’t get chance to tell you – he intends backing the tour.’
Jack put together what that meant for him, and waved it away with an abrupt gesture. ‘Well in that case I wouldn’t have taken the bloody part anyway.’
‘Art must stay aloof, dear boy,’ Titus said, as if an obligation that he, if not Jack, was burdened with.
He leaned in, a Shakespearean conspirator, his Welsh dark eyes in the half-light from the pub fluid with drama. ‘But Jack, Jack, lad, have a care. I’d say Mr Morris is a man who keeps his wounds green. And one for the shadows. Watch where you walk.
‘Dear lad,’ he added, lightly touching Jack’s cheek like a blessing.
Jack had been standing at the bar when Titus came in with Books Morris and introduced him. Morris, sizing up Jack’s cheap suit like a pawnbroker, had barely bothered with the introduction
Morris’s nickname came from his days as an illegal bookmaker in the back streets of South London. And then war broke out and Morris, among the first at the table, had grown fat on it. Looking now to invest some of that money, he had decided on what he saw as the glamour of the theatre after seeing an ad in the Evening Standard offering investment opportunities, which had led him to Titus.
Morris, with a sidecar cocktail in his hand, had then given Jack more of his attention, his eyes going over his brown pinstriped suit again, its cut worn like a label saying ‘Fifty Shilling Tailors’.
‘The war’s over, chum, you know,’ he said.
Jack expressed surprise at the news. ‘Is it?
I thought it had gone quiet.’
Morris lost some of his complacent smile.
‘Well, I mean, still wearing that demob suit. Like a uniform isn’t it for you blokes. Like the geezers you see working in their Army and RAF blouses.’
Jack, ignoring Titus’s attempt to change the subject, said, ‘What were you then? Navy?’
‘Now, Jack,’ Titus started, and was stopped by Morris putting up a hand.
Morris’s eyes had become still, as if he were listening, as if he had picked up in this place that was foreign to him a language he understood. He had felt, despite himself, despite the swagger of money, a long way from South London in this sort of pub, this sort of company, but it was turning out to be just like home.
‘I had a certified medical condition, as it happens.’
‘Oh, yes,’ Jack said. ‘How much did that cost you then?’
Morris tutted and shook his head, as if amused by him, by his cheek, a well-built young man but soft looking, in his roll neck sweater, his hair untouched by Brylcreem, like some soft poet, like someone who might have spent his war in nothing more dangerous than an educational unit.
He put his cocktail down carefully on the bar, without looking at it, his eyes, still amused, on Jack, and then moved, but not fast enough.
Jack was younger and fitter, and he had nightmares to shed.
He said goodbye to Titus at the pub door and joined the Saturday night bustle on the Avenue, the smell of frying hotdog onions and roast chestnuts on the air from the carts of the street vendors, the West End lit up, open for business again, in a way he had yet entirely to get used to.
The top billing lights on the front of the theatres spelt out for him his future still, but his present had taken a step back, now he had thrown away his first principal part. He thought of turning off for Soho, for another drink and the company of his fellows in the French House pub or the Rehearsal Club. But after considering what he had left in his pocket, carried on instead for Piccadilly Circus and the Tube home.
Emerging from Earl’s Court station, he said hello with a wink to one of the street girls loitering as if waiting for someone at the entrance, and walked down to Prince of Teck Gardens.
The stucco on the porch pillars of his lodging house was peeling and there was a smell in the hall from the food cooked on the landing stoves. And the sound of a violin from the third floor back, where Mr Somovich, a musician in his Saturday night cups, wept over its strings for old Russia, the dirge-like notes speaking of home and exile seeping through the building like a melancholy mist.
Jack saw Titus again a few days later, when calling at a theatrical agent’s near the Windmill Theatre in Soho. He was on his way up to the third-floor office as Titus was leaving.
Titus waited for him to climb the narrow flight of stairs, where the glamour of the theatre turned into grubby whitewashed walls and no carpets, before continuing on down, posed on the small stage of a first-floor landing, leaning on a cane of black Malacca as if waiting for a hansom cab.
He was wearing a velveteen Edwardian smoking suit of black and pale green stripes, a silk scarf, threaded under the collar of his shirt and blooming in full colour from his throat, and a black wide-brimmed hat which, Jack considered, with a little adjustment, did service either as a stage villain or cavalier. Titus dressed largely from the wardrobe of his theatre.
‘Casting the principal, Titus?’ he said, putting a smile on it. ‘Who’s behind the desk today, Herbert or his brother?’
‘His brother. The one with the elephantine wit. But I’m not here with a job, I’m here looking for one. For me.’
Titus and two dwarfs tipped their hats to each other, the dwarfs on their way up to the variety agency, doing the rounds now the pantomime season was over, dressed like little gangsters in fedoras and sharp suits, and smoking cigars.
Jack smiled at them in a way he knew to be ingratiating, Dwarfs made him feel uneasy, exposed, as if his fly were undone or his shirt tail hanging out. He’d worked with a few of them for a week at Pinewood Studios on a circus film, and became convinced that they saw something from their height which was denied him at his, some absurdity of normal-sized humanity which they tried politely not to notice, but which nevertheless kept them secretly amused.
‘For you? Why? What happened to the tour?’ he asked.
‘First you, my boy, and then I happened to it. After you had left Mr Books Morris started pushing his investment in my face, obliging me to make it clear to him that his money entitled him to nothing other than any returns on it. That everything else was the province of art and the business of its servants, the director and actors. Art, sir, art!’ Titus exclaimed, as if ready to defend it, his hand clenching on the chased silver top of the cane, an elegant sheath for seventeen inches of finest Sheffield steel.
Captain Swinburne in Death before Dishonour, Jack thought, and winked at a show girl edging her scented way through them.
‘What happened then?’ he asked, watching her legs go up the stairs, seamed stockings and a flash of petticoat lace like a promise.
Titus held out his cane. ‘I was driven to this,” he said, as if in soliloquy, as if a dagger he saw before him.
Jack looked startled. Titus was a man of passions that could take off suddenly and in any direction. And one who had also known war, had seen its face close up across the mud of Flanders.
‘You didn’t – did you …?’
‘What? Dispatch him?’ Titus laughed. ‘No, no, of course not. There was no need. I’d only drawn it halfway when the bounder turned and legged it, scattering drinks and customers. And I,’ he added, pausing as if for a curtain to fall on the line, ‘was shown the door.’
‘This is my fault, Titus. I – ’
‘Nonsense! Nonsense, my boy,’ Titus said briskly, off stage, the curtain down. ‘It was bound to have happened sooner or later with a fellow like that. And later may have meant halfway through the tour. So you see, dear lad, you may well have delivered us from all sorts of dreary complications.’
About to continue on his way, Titus added, ‘There aren’t many hopefuls waiting upstairs, so if you should find yourself outside Lyons in Piccadilly in the next half hour or so, drop in and I’ll buy you a bun.’
Titus was having the tea leaves read by Dolly Burke in the kitchen above his ruined theatre, the Red Lion in London’s East End. Dolly, her voluptuous figure clothed in an eau-de-nil silk evening gown, shook her head regretfully over the cup.
‘I still can’t see a job on the horizon, darling.’
She grinned at him, a grin simmering with mischief. ‘But, don’t worry, mate. I mean, it’s not as if you believed in it, is it.’
‘I don’t entirely disbelieve in it either. Which is not quite the same thing. There are, after all, more things in heaven and earth, Horatio - ’
‘And anyway, I might be wrong. I’ve been wrong before, you know.’
‘You weren’t wrong about Joan,’ he said, gloomily accepting his fate.
Dolly blew out smoke from a Woodbine and laughed huskily. ‘Darling, Joan chases after so many men she was bound to catch one of that description sooner or later. And every male according to her is the one. So cheer up, cock, the sun will shine again as it always does.’
But where Titus was it was raining still. ‘First Hitler puts me out of business. And then, after spending money on that damn newspaper advertisement, I lose the only genuine response I had in the entire month. And now I am denied my hour on the stage, denied my art. How many more slings and arrows am I obliged to suffer? Perhaps it’s time not to be,’ he said, staring off. ‘Time to end it. To - ’
‘Well, have your lunch first.’
‘To depart this vale like a Roman. To repay God the debt of a spent life and take a short walk to the river.’
‘You’d only end up back where you started in this fog,’ Dolly advised him from the kitchen range, feeding its firebox more coal from a scuttle. ‘There’s only dried eggs left, but we’ve got enough cheese so I’ll scramble them. And there’s bacon to go with it.’
Titus, diverted, frowned.
‘Bacon? I thought we’d exceeded our ration.’
‘Mr Fletcher let me have it off the book.’
‘Did he! Did he indeed! And for what payment, I should like to know?’
Dolly laughed, not unpleased. ‘Don’t be daft. You know perfectly well he used to admire my act. Like you used to. Only I never got extra bacon out of it.’
Titus ignored it. ‘How many rashers?’ he asked cautiously.
‘Three each. And nearly all meat.’
Titus wrestled briefly with drama and three rashers of bacon nearly all meat, before the bacon won.
The dishes had been washed and they were waiting for the kettle to boil again when there was a knock on the kitchen door.
A head under a hat with a feather in it poked round it at them, and it opened on an elderly woman wearing brogues and a tweed suit under a well-worn riding mac, and carrying a brown leather attaché case with her handbag, and an umbrella with a duck’s head handle.
She closed the door and said something, before remembering the college scarf covering her mouth and pulling it down.
‘I’ve heard and read about them of course, and seen newspaper photographs. But until now had never been in one. A London Particular. What an experience!’ she said, her tone suggesting that it was one they were missing, sitting about indoors.
Outside the room fog thick enough to stir with a spoon moved in Wharf Lane, a fog with a yellow tinge to it and the stink of sulphur. Shipping on the nearby Thames sounded lost, the capital stumbling through it, blinded and coughing its lungs up.
‘It’s this cold snap we’re having,’ Dolly said, as if apologising for it. ‘More people lighting their fires, see. And I only cleaned the windows yesterday,’ she added, looking over at them, the fog’s foul breath leaving its stain on the glass.
‘When I left the Tube train station,’ the woman said, ‘it swallowed me up. I was rescued by a bus conductor leading a double-decker bus like an elephant. He told me where you were and very kindly invited me to walk in front with him until we arrived at your turning, It was magical,’ she said, more to herself, her eyes wide with it. ‘Like a fantasy. Like a lost world. His flaming torch leading us through caves of ancient air, their walls in its light and those of the bus like gold tarnished by the centuries. It was magical!’ she cried, and coughed violently as if trying to bring some of that air up.
‘Don’t just stand there, duck, come in and warm yourself,’ Dolly said.
‘Thank you. Thank you so much. But I’m forgetting my manners. Do please forgive me for barging in like this. I tried knocking on the street door, but – ’
‘The knocker’s stuck. Rusted. The river air,’ Dolly told her.
‘And I did try telephoning first of course,’ she assured them. ‘But the exchange said there was a problem with the line.’
‘Yes, it’s called not paying the bill,’ Dolly said, and putting her head back laughed, laughter a well spring in her, finding in the world, its cruelties aside, much to laugh about.
‘Ah, that explains it,’ the woman said. ‘Well, allow me, if I may, to introduce myself. My name is Marjorie Devonaire. But everyone calls me George, always have done. I’ve no idea why. Nor, it seems, has anyone else.’
She looked differently at Titus. ‘May I ask if you are Mr Titus Llewellyn-Jones?’ she said, as if expecting to be refused the request.
Titus, who had stood out of politeness, said solemnly that he was, and eyed the attaché case with suspicion. ‘And what can I do for you, madam?’
The woman, about to tell him, was taken with another fit of coughing.
Dolly cleared a chair of a large marmalade cat, which then leapt up onto the table and started indignantly cleaning itself. ‘Come and sit here, George, near the fire,’ she said. ‘Take your mac off or you won’t feel the benefit. And I daresay you wouldn’t say no to a cuppa. The kettle’s nearly there,’ she said, indicating the kitchen range where a large cast iron kettle with a polished brass handle and a spout like a striking snake gently breathed steam. Above the range, up under the ceiling, more steam rose from a hoisted pulley maid loaded with washing.
‘Oh, how kind of you. How very welcoming,’ George said, settling herself down in the chair at the mahogany table with her things, glancing about the kitchen, a dresser and cupboards, shelves of books and shelves hung with pots and pans, a workmanlike Belfast sink, a mangle and washtub and dolly, theatrical posters and photographs on the walls, the air smelling of the coal fire the cat now sat in front of, of bread baking, and clothes drying, and fog.
‘But if I may say so,’ George went on, gloves off and hands held out in the direction of the fire, ‘I knew you would be. Yours is not, as some are, a front door that when closed shuts out the rest of the world. And I knew that if, in the excitement of being in a London Particular, and in the East End, where, when I was a young woman, Jack the Ripper was at work on the cobbles, I forgot myself long enough to turn the door knob and enter without right or invitation, as indeed I – ’
Dolly waved it away with a hand. ‘Oh, don’t worry about all that, George. Liberty hall this is. Besides, the catch doesn’t work.’
George smiled on her. ‘Thank you …?’
‘Thank you, Dolly.’
‘Dolly Burke. Ever heard of me?’
‘Dolly Burke …?’ George politely considered the name, and was startled by Dolly leaping to her feet and breaking into song.
‘Has anybody here seen Dolly? D-O-double-L-Y. Has anybody here seen Dolly? Find her if you can. But she won’t be on her ownio. For she’s not skin and bonio,’ she sang and, as she did in her act, winked with exaggerated suggestion at the raucous heart of the gods and shook her ample breasts.
‘And then I get off with this,’ she added, and disappeared to the sound of tearing cloth in a sudden full spilt.
George clapped her hands delightedly. ‘Oh, bravo, bravo! But you’ve torn your beautiful gown.’
‘Oh, I’m always doing that, ripping and stitching. It’s from downstairs, from the theatre wardrobe. I use it as a housecoat. Got a good elasticated waist. Titus picked it up second hand with other costumes from up west. It was last on stage in Terrance Rattigan’s After the Dance,’ she said, and waltzed a few steps in the arms of an imaginary partner.
‘Had a short first run at St James’s in thirty nine.’ Titus said, ‘and was then packed away. Too dark with war on the doorstep. People went to be cheered up by another French Without Tears and were given moral disintegration and a suicide.’
‘Hi-hi, tea’s up,’ Dolly said, the kettle busy with steam.
‘And it was your theatre that brought me here,’ George said, as if suddenly remembering it. She looked at Titus. ‘Mr Llewellyn – ’
‘Such a splendid name! It marches with ancient Rome.’
‘The tenth emperor,’ Titus said. ‘It was also the name of the King of the Sabines and is to be found in the New Testament. Shakespeare borrowed it and so did my late da, a Glamorgan draper and haberdasher, when he heard it was a boy. An outbreak of grandeur in a life that otherwise knew its place. And here I sit in my middle years in the place life has now put me, among the ruins of his hopes and my vaulting ambition. A name that will die with me, its grandeur unfilled.’
‘I never married,’ he added on a dying fall, answering George’s look of appalled sympathy.
‘Never say never, cock,’ Dolly broke in cheerfully, pouring tea and winking at George. ‘Help yourself to sugar, George. We’ve got plenty.’
‘Thank you, Dolly,’ George said, dragging her attention away from Titus’s performance.
‘Like a gasper?’ Dolly added, offering the Woodbine packet.
George said she wouldn’t, thanks, that she used to smoke but had to give it up because she kept setting fire to things.
Dolly lit one and settled in the chair with her tea.
‘Oh, yes, dear, I’ll get the old chap to the church yet. He’s an actor see, George, got all sorts in there, he has,’ she said, indicating Titus’s head. ‘Get him in the right mood, the right character, and he’d come in on cue. Oh, I’ll get him there all right, one of these fine days. On time or not. Got a beautiful wedding dress waiting in wardrobe. Needs letting out but it’s only been worn a few times. Nineteen thirties, lace halter and satin gown with a small train, and a dear little hat.’
‘Oh, how lovely!’ George cried.
‘It’s white I know,’ Dolly said, winking at her again. ‘But well, it’s not every day, is it.’
‘What are we thinking of!’ Titus said, abruptly changing the subject. ‘Poor George here has come all the way from – where have you come from, George?’
‘Surrey,’ George said.
‘From Surrey. To tell us whatever she’s come to tell us, and we entirely and with unpardonable rudeness monopolise the conversation,’ he said, looking at accusingly at Dolly.
‘George, dear lady, please,’ he added with a sweep of his hand, giving her the floor.
‘Well,’ George said, looking suddenly bashful. ‘Well,’ she said again, and putting the attaché case on her lap, opened it, and clipped a black-ribboned pince-nez on her nose.
‘Well, I have written a play.’
‘Oh, how marvellous!’ Dolly said, springing up to look over her shoulder. ‘Love and Miss Harris, by Lady Devonaire. Devonaire …? Is that you, George?’
‘Well, yes. Yes, it is,’ George admitted.
‘Well, I never,’ Dolly said. ‘Fancy that.’
‘I wouldn’t normally use it in such a way, but I thought it might help get it accepted. It hasn’t. In fact, to be perfectly frank, I have to tell you that all the principal London theatres turned it down one after the other.’
‘Oh, them!’ Dolly waved the West End away with a scornful hand. ‘All they know is farces and whodunits. Love’s out in the blooming cold these days. I’d go and see it on the title alone, George. And look how beautifully bound it is!’
And when Titus saw how beautifully bound it was, it told him all he needed to know about its contents, and, perhaps, in this case, with her ringless left hand, the author.
That perhaps the child she never had was in there, between expensive-looking cream pasteboard bound in blue silk ribbon ending in a bow, the play lovingly named, painstakingly inscribed in copperplate on the cover. Dreams, yearning, self-delusion, the desperate strivings of strangers, had all come dressed like that when he was actor manager, and he had never seen one that he could use. And for the first time since it had happened he found himself glad of the ruin downstairs.
‘George - George, dear lady,’ he said on a softer note. ‘There is no longer a theatre here. Not the parts that matter at any rate. There’s no longer a stage or auditorium. A flying bomb one night in forty-four saw to that.’
‘Oh!’ George’s hand flew to her mouth. She had seen newspaper reports, had seen the photographs of what a flying bomb could do to bricks and people.
‘There were no casualties, love,’ Molly told her. ‘Even the cat escaped. We were on rehearsal time for a new production then. Six o’clock finish and off to the pub.’
‘And it wasn’t as bad as it could have been,’ Titus added, ‘It was put out of business by one of our RAF fighters and we got what was left. It was an Act of War, so no compensation. I used what money I had left from a legacy to put a new roof on and for a new bedroom floor. But it was the end of the Red Lion Theatre.’
‘Oh, I’m so sorry,’ George said.
Titus shrugged. ‘Well, as Dolly said, even the cat kept a life.’
‘Yes,’ George said. ‘And that of course is the main thing. So many lost. So many. Well, on, on noble English, and all that.’
‘That’s the spirit, George. And there are other theatres outside the West End,’ Dolly said. ‘And I wouldn’t be surprised, now the halls have almost disappeared, if they don’t follow the fashion and turn into theatres. This place started as a pub, then when the fashion for music halls grew it turned into one. I should know. I played it.’
‘I should have liked to have seen your act,’ George said.
‘You could have done, almost any night. Played them all, I have. The Queens, Hoxton Hall, the Palace, Holborn, the Victoria, the dear old Paragon in the Mile End Road, the Alexandra, Wiltons, the Shoreditch Empire. In the gay old days there used to be some doings…’ she sang out. ‘Marie Lloyd used to sing that. And she should know, the naughty girl. Then the talkies came in and the puritans had a go at the licensing laws, and, well, I couldn’t get a shop in the end from one week to the next.’
‘And when the hall here shut its doors I bought it with the legacy I mentioned,’ Titus said. He smiled. ‘My da, handing me a second shot at grandeur.’
‘I was his cleaner,’ Dolly put in. ‘Then, when he couldn’t pay me one week, I was promoted to wardrobe mistress. Live in,’ she added, giving George another of her winks.
‘But I’m just sorry, darling,’ Titus told her, ‘that you had this journey for nothing.’
‘Oh, but, Titus, it’s not being for nothing. Far from it. It was worth it simply for the time spent in this kitchen. And the fantasy of a London Particular, the sound of the boats on the river and footsteps in the fog …’
She came back from wherever she was about to disappear to and looked at them.
‘Titus, you talked of failed grandeur, but you and Dolly have far more than grandeur. You have warmth and kindness, and a welcome for a stranger,’ she said, ending on a note that threatened tears, and tugging her suit jacket to one side peered at the jewel fob watch on her chest. ‘And now I see I must go.’
‘Nonsense, woman!’ Titus said. ‘Not in this. You must stay the night. It’ll be clear in the morning. We have a spare bedroom. The one Hitler removed, taking my wardrobe and a ten-year bottle of single malt with it. The house painter has much to answer for.’
‘And there’s cows heels for dinner. We’ve got a very obliging butcher,’ Dolly said, with a swift glance of mischief at Titus. ‘Done in onions, with dumplings and homemade bread, and stout to wash it down with.’
George looked swayed for a moment. ‘No. No, I really must get back. For one thing there’s Augustine,’ she said, gathering her things.
‘Augustine?’ Dolly said.
‘My dog. Named after Saint Augustine.’
‘Give me chastity and continence, O Lord, but not yet,’ Titus said.
‘That’s the one.’
‘An admirable compromise, I always thought.’
George smiled. ‘A saint of more human scale. Well, his namesake is being looked after by a friend. Just for the day. And he’s a large and rather unruly animal, so one must not impose. And my conductor guide informs me that the buses I want for the Tube station regularly pass your turning. So in the interest of not getting lost he suggested I simply wait there for one.’
‘Very well, George,’ Titus said. ‘I’ll get my coat.’
‘Oh, but there’s no need for that, Titus. Thank you, but –‘
‘Don’t argue, woman,’ Titus said, helping her on with her riding mac.
‘You’ve been told,’ Dolly said. ‘And I’ll see if the bread’s ready, cut you something to eat on the journey back.’
‘Bless you, Dolly, but I came prepared with sandwiches,’ George said, indicating the attaché case.
Dolly gave her hug and told her not to forget them the next time she was in London, and that she was to come back if the fog didn’t cough up another bus, and then handed her the umbrella she was about to leave behind, Titus ready to escort her, bearing his swordstick in case footpads should lurk.
‘There are, as Dolly said, other theatres, and of course the provinces. But I must warn you, George, that these are threadbare times,’ he added, wanting to say something that would perhaps steer her away from what was almost certain to be disappointment, or at least prepare her for it. ‘When it comes to putting bums on seats managements will not stray far from what’s playing in the West End. They’re unlikely to invest in – ’
‘But I have money to invest myself. Something I mentioned to all the managements when I sent the play in. Not that it made the least difference.’
‘Oh, they’ve got their own angels,’ Titus said. ‘Regular investors who expect returns on their money. They’re businessmen, George, bean-counting abacists and scriveners. Peddlers of shares, not dreams. A stage should be writ big, a place apart from the scurrying world outside. A home for wonder. A place where imagination and truth can slip the surly bonds of … how much money, George, may one ask?’
‘Well, whatever it costs to stage a play.’
‘A full production?’
‘Oh, yes. Yes, of course. That was always my intention.’
Titus stared at her. ‘George,’ he said, a man in the grip of a sudden revelation. ‘George, it occurs to me that there is another possibility you might like to consider.’
In the large bed-sitting room in Prince of Teck Gardens the high, ornate ceiling, which once looked down on Victorian opulence, now looked down on sparse deal furniture and a carpet with the pattern walked into it.
Jack Savage sat over a shilling’s worth of gas in a fire set into an Adam fireplace of primrose Sienna marble, a refuge from the draughty spaces of the room. The tall casement window was loose in its frame, letting in the fog and the muffled sound of traffic as purblind drivers, their headlights near quenched in the murk, crawled after each other in the Earl’s Court Road.
He was recently back from the labour exchange called the Green Room by the ‘resting’ actors of the area who met there as if at their club, and apart from the latest gossip had returned empty-handed. After checking The Stage newspaper, he had now turned to the jobs columns of the Evening Standard for non-acting work, something, even an interview, to chuck to the landlord, who was waiting for his rent.
Shortly after Jack had moved in there the landlord, an ex-Merchant Navy cook, had made a pass at him. Jack hadn’t been interested, but now tried, shamelessly, to exploit it by explaining to him with a winsome smile why the rent was late.
But a winsome smile hadn’t gone far. If all the landlord was getting was a show of ankle, as it were, then he wanted his money, and by the end of the week. Otherwise Jack and his winsome smile would out on the street.
Jack had passed his driving test in the Army when he’d first joined up, and now, after finding an ad for a van driver, sorted out coppers for the telephone in the hall.
He had just left his room when it rang. While telling himself that it was doubtless for somebody else, he answered its summons with the haste of a resting actor.