Company of Fools, a work in progress, follows a British theatre company on tour in the late 1940s. Titus Llewellyn-Gwlynne, actor/manager of the Red Lion Theatre, has lost a backer who was going to fund the tour. In this chapter he finds salvation.
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.
‘I still can’t see a job on the horizon, darling.’
She grinned suddenly 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. 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 good old 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.’
‘Time 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 said practically 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. Nice bit of back bacon.’
Titus, diverted, frowned.
‘Bacon? I thought we'd had our ration.’
‘Mr Fletcher let me have a bit off the book.’
‘Did he! Did he indeed! And for what payment, I should like to know?’
Dolly laughed, not displeased. ‘Don’t be daft. You know perfectly well he used to admire my act. Like you used to. Only I never got half a pound of back bacon out of it.’
Titus ignored it. ‘How many rashers?’ he asked cautiously.
Titus wrestled briefly with drama and three rashers of back bacon, 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 pea souper, 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 Dean Lane, a fog with a yellow tinge to it and the stink of sulphur. Shipping on the nearby Thames sounded lost in it, the capital stumbling through its day, 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 staining 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 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,’ Dolly told her. ‘Rusted. The river air.
‘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 laughed, laughter a wellspring 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- Gwynne?’ 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, fiercely indignant, started cleaning itself. Tilly was not only a cat, she was a theatre cat. She had made several unscripted entrances from the wings, once during Titus’s `Hamlet soliloquy. He had simply picked her up, and stroking her reflectively, as if it were part of the act, finished the speech. Tilly was used to star treatment and the sound of applause.
‘Come and sit here, George, near the fire,’ Dolly 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 a sulking Tilly, back rigid still with umbrage, 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 girl, 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 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 unfulfilled.
‘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.’
‘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. So I think I'll get wed in the summer time, I think I'll get wed in July. I think I'll get wed when the roses are red. And the weather is lovely and drrry. Harry Lauder used to sing that. Sir Harry, as he became. And quite right, too. He was a gentleman, God bless him.’
She leaned forward, sharing sudden delight with George.
‘Got a beautiful wedding dress waiting in wardrobe, I have. 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?’
‘From Wiltshire,’ George said.
‘All the way from Wiltshire. 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 onto 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.
‘Lumme,’ 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 ring-less 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 had a theatre, 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 gentler note. ‘It may not look it from outside, but 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,’ Dolly told her. ‘Even Tilly, the cat there, 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 ceiling and 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 Tilly 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 London Pavilion. 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… 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, George,’ 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 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 replacement for the one Hitler removed, taking my wardrobe, bed, 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. Gus. 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, 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, his swordstick at her service should footpads 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 look far from what’s playing in the West End. They’re unlikely to invest in – ’
‘Oh, 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.’
‘They’ve got their own backers,’ 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 large, a place apart from the small, scurrying world outside. A home for wonder. A place where imagination and truth can slip the surly bonds of … ‘He paused, catching up with what she had said. ‘How much money, George, may one ask?’
‘Well, whatever it costs to stage a play. I am quite determined.’
‘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.’