I’m taking a break from Batch Magna and writing a novel about a small post-war theatrical touring company. Despite the rather sombre note of this, its first chapter, it is, or will be, a comedy.
The title is taken from God’s Fool, an actor character in a Pushkin play.
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 he had left behind, face down in the shallows turned pink off the beaches of Dunkirk.
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’s 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, boy, 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 turned to what he saw as the glamour of the theatre, and an ad in The Stage newspaper offering investment opportunities 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 this 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, and that the rent was due again in a couple of days, 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.