FIFTY – five vignettes by Chris Green
It is May 1967. I am fifteen years old. I am walking through Wellesley Park with my friends, Dave, and Keith. I should be at school but I’m not. Dave is two years older than me and should be at college but he’s not, and Keith has tagged along. I’m not sure where he’s supposed to be. The park is a cool place to hang out. We can do what we want. No-one bothers us, except occasionally Tom, the park-keeper, who tries to sell us pornography and tells us about his days in Cairo when he was doing his National Service. He has told us several times now the story about the woman and the snake. Tom is old, he must be well into his thirties. My name is Mike, but for some reason, he calls me John.
Today, Dave has brought his Roberts radio and we are listening to Radio London, the best of the pirate radio stations. Radio London has an eight-day UK exclusive on Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. One by one, they are trickling the tracks into their playlist. A couple of days ago, Dave and I heard A Day in the Life for the first time. Dave had been unable to get any hash that day and he had read that you could get high by smoking dried banana skins. We were in the front room of his parents’ house trying some. His parents had gone away. We had the radiogram on loud. We decided A Day in the Life must be the greatest piece of music of all time. This may not have had anything to do with the dried banana skins.
Dave, Keith and I update one another with how far we have got with our respective girlfriends. I wonder if perhaps exaggeration is de rigueur for teenage boys sexual narrative. Or is it that Judy is just too inhibited? I have not got past the outside of her lacy bra. To save face, I pretend otherwise. We talk about the film Blow Up, which we saw at the Colosseum last night.
‘What did it all mean?’ Keith asks.
‘There is no individual meaning,’ Dave says. ‘Meaning can only be agreed socially and that’s why the film ended without closure. Because the David Hemmings character was on his own, we do not know if the murder really took place.’
‘You mean because there was no one to corroborate what he saw?’ I say. ‘And the photos had disappeared.’
‘It’s existential,’ Dave states, in summary. I can see by the expression on Keith’s face that he isn’t sure what it means either.
As we are walking up the hill past the zelkova tree towards the Pump Room, the opening notes of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds break through. It has not been announced, but we know instantly that this is The Beatles. It may seem a little sad but I have known the titles to all the tracks on Sergeant Pepper for about a month since they were announced in Record Mirror. I guess which one this is right away. Dave turns the volume up. What is that instrument? Surely it is from another world. We are sitting on a commemorative bench now, hunched around the radio. The words to the song are incredible, like a dream: ‘cellophane flowers of yellow and green towering over your head.’ ‘rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies’, ….’newspaper taxis’,…. ‘plasticine porters with looking glass ties’. What vivid imagery, I’m thinking, as this surrealistic masterpiece captures me. This is a moment of transcendence, and I have my whole life in front of me. Time is on my side. On Tomorrow’s World, they say we will not have to work much in years to come. From here on in, life will be easy. Technology will replace drudgery. In a few years, we will be able to travel on starships to Jupiter.
When I get home at 5 o’clock, the house is swarming with police. There are police in uniform and police in cheap macs and trilby hats. It is like the set of Z Cars.
‘There’s been an accident, Mike,’ one of them says. He has a grave look on his face.
‘Your parents stood no chance,’ says another.
‘The lorry driver’s name,’ the uniformed Sergeant tells me, injudiciously I can’t help feeling, ‘was Paul Lennon.’
My English teacher, Mr Percy, had been banging on all term about irony. Was this the kind of thing to which he was referring? Or was it coincidence? All I can remember is him saying that it is important not to confuse the two.
I am at Ben and Holly’s wedding reception. Rachel, my girlfriend, left earlier in a huff. We have been together long enough for me to be used to our disagreements. It is late in the evening. Everyone is off their faces. The band has finished their set and the DJ with the Rod Stewart haircut is playing Bohemian Rhapsody over and over. It is Ben and Holly’s favourite song and seems to have been Number One forever. Uncle Dutch, bored as I am with Ben and his friends air guitar demonstrations, is telling me how he lost his leg.
‘I was working as a locations finder for Columbia Pictures. What a great job, you are thinking. How did a country boy like me get a job like that?’
I am thinking this very thing. My dad’s younger brother, Uncle Dutch and I had never been particularly close. I had last seen him in the late sixties. He ran a motorcycle courier business. Quite a new idea back then. I remember too that he used to ride horses. It would be hard for him to do this now.
‘I lived in a 1930s house in Beverly Hills,’ Dutch says, ‘with a fantastic view of the foothills of the Santa Monica mountains. The sun came through my window every morning. I could have freshly squeezed orange juice on the lawn with Laura and look out on to the palm tree canyon. A short drive to Topanga and Malibu and a short drive to the studio in Burbank. It was like paradise. I met all the stars, Burt Lancaster, Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Natalie Wood, Faye Dunaway, Barbara Streisand. You name them, I met them. I had a season ticket for The Dodgers. I lived among the rich and famous. I went to the same shrink as Tony Curtis. You have to have a shrink in Beverley Hills, or everyone thinks you are mad. David Crosby and Mickey Dolenz were neighbours. I went to The Beach Boys barbecues in Bel Air and swam in Joni Mitchell’s pool. Life couldn’t have been better. And Laura looked more beautiful every day.’
He takes out his wallet and shows me a well-thumbed photo of Laura, She is a real stunner. She has long dark hair, and an hourglass figure with rounded breasts, thin waist, and voluptuous hips. She has a perfect California tan. She has beautiful brown eyes and her smile is like the sun coming up. He shows me another picture of the two of them at a Hollywood première. His eyes mist over. He hands me the photo. I’m not sure what to say.
‘Is that Dustin Hoffman in the background?’ I ask.
Dutch doesn’t seem to hear me. He studies the original photo of Laura reflectively.
The hall seems to have suddenly become more claustrophobic. It is a chaos of empty bottles and fuddled friends and family. The DJ has put on Sailing. He is juggling the microphone like Rod does and encouraging people to sing along. It is painful to watch. Why do people hang around at these embarrassing gatherings once the business is over? I suggest to Uncle Dutch we go outside to smoke a joint. Despite the limitations of movement presented by his sticks, he seems to move remarkably well. After negotiating a maze of corridors and lobbies, we find ourselves in the hotel’s landscaped grounds. The recent snow sparkles under the floodlights. We pick out a discreet table and Dutch lights up.
‘I was driving around the Monterey, Big Sur area,’ Dutch continues, ‘looking for a spot to film some shots for a remake of Vertigo that the studio was planning. All I had to do was select a few vertiginous spots. Not that difficult on the Californian coast. The views from Highway 1 take your breath away. I had a 1971 Dodge Challenger. Bright red it was with a black stripe. They call them pony cars in California. God knows why. Anyway, it had a big six-litre engine and handled more like a pig than a pony. Nothing sensible about it. That’s the way they like their cars out west. Anyway, I had put the thing in for a service the previous week but they had not checked the brakes.’
Dutch looks me in the eye and passes me the joint. I wonder if he wants me to put two and two together rather than continue with the story. He can see I am holding out for the story and laughs.
‘Drove it over a cliff,’ he says. ‘I have this image in my head of a sound like the distant rumble of thunder and a line of Harley Davidsons coming the other way. There is a bend coming up. I must have tried to slow down to negotiate the bend, I guess. The Challenger goes straight ahead, through a clump of trees and down a ravine. I was trapped inside the car for three days before a Japanese hiker found me. They had to cut me out. The leg was severed off above the knee. I had lost pints of blood and was unconscious when they found me. I don’t know; I may have had a drink or two. I often stopped by at a little Hispanic bar in Salinas, but the truth is I can’t remember.’
I am silent. I do not know what to say.
‘To cut a long story short, I was in the Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital for months,’ Dutch says. ‘Laura didn’t visit me once. The day before I got out, I found that she was divorcing me. She didn’t like the idea of living with Long John Silver. Life is quite simply before the accident and after the accident. They didn’t film Vertigo in the end.’
I have split up with Rachel after six years. She moved her things out the week before last. I have let my friend, Karl, stay for a while. Karl got back from India a few days ago. He has been to Southern Asia many times, but the political situation is changing, and he says it is now much harder to travel around that part of the world. Chitral, Kashmir, and Nepal are now hostile areas, and he thinks the Shah of Iran may soon be deposed and word is going around that the Soviets might invade Afghanistan. The end of the hippie trail. It also looks as if the cowboy actor might become President, I point out. Dangerous times ahead, we agree.
Karl is helping to redecorate the flat. It is a spacious conversion, on three floors of a Regency building, if that is not a contradiction. We are painting the large front room burgundy and Venetian blue, picking out the pictures rails and the cornice. He says it will look theatrical, like a stage set. We have some modern art planned for the door panels, Piet Mondrian, maybe. Karl isn’t your stereotypical hippie. He wears a tweed jacket, listens to classical music and is a fan of The Archers. You can pick it up on BBC World Service, he says. He tells me how he had to be near a set every day when Shula was stranded in Bangkok after her money was stolen, and how he hopes that the hapless Eddie Grundy’s turkey farm will take off. Eddie and Joe add some spark to the programme. I have no idea what he is talking about.
Karl has brought back some Nepalese temple balls and after three days of painting, we are only halfway through the second wall. We are taking a break for a cup of Darjeeling Spring Flush tea. Apparently, Darjeeling tea reduces mental and physical stress and promotes a feeling of relaxation and well-being.
‘It’s to do with the amino acids,’ he says. ‘I’ve noticed that you seem to be on edge.’
‘Six years is a long time,’ I say. ‘It takes some adjustment. I miss Rachel’s perfume on the pillow, her books on the bookshelf, her notes around the house, her piles of clothes on the bedroom floor, the condiments and spices in the kitchen, and even the sound of the hoover on a Sunday morning.’
‘And the sex.’
‘Yes, the sex obviously.’
‘She wasn’t having an affair, was she?’
‘Not that I was aware of.’
‘And you aren’t having an affair.’
‘No. Why do you ask?’
‘Nothing. Just a thought. So the split was her decision.’
‘I suppose so.’
‘When people live together for a long time, they are likely to gravitate towards stasis.’ Karl says. ‘How much of what you are feeling is down to not wanting change?’
‘I don’t know. Some of it, I suppose. I like to be able to pick up things where I left them.’
‘But change is the only certainty.’
‘But all the same….’
‘You wanted happy ever after,’ he says.
‘I just want to be happy,’ I say.
‘There is no happy ending,’ he laughs. ‘You only find happy endings in books. Happiness and sadness are like yin and yang. One chases the other in a never-ending cosmic circle. Therefore, you must not put all your effort and energies into clinging to them. It is much better to detach yourself from these illusions and go with the flow.’
‘How do I do that?’
‘You will learn to. As Ibsen said, We sail with a corpse in the cargo.’
‘Is that for me?’ says Joi, her gaze taking in the bulge in my jeans.
She has just come through the door and is putting her travelling bag down. Joi and I have been seeing each other for about three months. She has been away for a few days, and I have missed her. She is tanned and her dark hair is hanging loose around her shoulders. Her Louis Vuitton skirt hugs her hips tightly and her breasts seem to be powering their way out of the low-cut top she is wearing. I have Miles Davis’ Tutu playing. I pretty much only listen to jazz now. I find pop and rock in the mid-nineties so unsubtle.
Joi leads me off to the bedroom. She has a wicked smile. She slips her skirt off slowly to the sound of Miles’ muted trumpet. She is wearing sheer black tanga panties. She guides my hand towards her favourite spot. It is warm and wet. I kiss her urgently and pull her down onto the bed, where frenzied passion takes over.
‘What was that all about?’ she says afterwards. My unrestrained ardour seems to have taken her by surprise.
‘I wanted you badly,’ I say.
‘I must go away more often,’ she laughs.
‘I think I’d rather you didn’t.’
‘I’d rather I didn’t too. Perhaps I should move in. We’re good together, aren’t we?’
I hesitate before I answer what was probably not a question, anyway. I give her a warm post-coital hug to give myself time to consider my words. I feel like a million dollars but at the same time I feel a creeping melancholy. When things are this good, I worry that my credit at the Metaphorical Bank of Serendipity might be running out and somehow will be paid for with something in-fortuitous. My experience suggests that epiphanies have a tendency to foreshadow calamity. I am also unaccustomed to sharing my deepest secret fears. It is dangerous to let down your guard. I want what I say to come out right.
‘Sometimes when everything is going well,’ I say. ‘I have this sense of foreboding that something bad is about to happen. That something is going to be taken away.’
‘You mean like Happiness, that state you dare not enter with hopes of staying, quicksand in the marshes and all.’
‘Certainly the quicksand in the marshes part. That’s very good. Where’s does it come from?’
‘It’s the opening of a poem. Stephen Dunn.’
‘The thing is, I’m usually right, which scares me a little.’
I relate to her the occasion that I had climbed the North Face of Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the UK with my fellow climber, Roy Tavistock. Roy had been my instructor at the Everest Climbing Club in the Brecon Beacons.
‘I was a comparative novice. I had never attempted anything so daring before. I had never been particularly good at physical sports, so for me, the climb was a supreme accomplishment. Roy congratulated me. Its Grade he explained was Difficult. There had been a number of fatalities over the years. We stayed on the plateau at the summit for a bit, taking it all in, the wind whistling around us. I felt literally on top of the world. By world standards, Ben Nevis may not be the highest, but it was to me. I understood how Sir Edmund Hillary must have felt. Late in the afternoon, we began our descent. Roy warned me this would be more difficult than the ascent and would need concentration. About halfway down I was struck by a flying crampon. I was concussed and had to be rescued by air ambulance. I was in hospital for over a week.’
‘Dramatic stuff,’ says Joi. ‘So, my hero, what is it you think it is that is going to happen?’
‘That’s the trouble. You never know. If you knew then you could prepare for it.’
‘They say that every action has an opposite and equal reaction, you can’t have night without day,’ Joi says, sounding like she had just been on a Buddhist workshop.
‘Or day without night,’ I say. ‘It’s the day part that is the problem because you know that it must be followed by night.’
‘And then day again. Look! Why can’t you view it another way, crisis contains the opportunity for growth and bad luck becomes good luck? Adversity spawns creativity. But we’re not talking about adversity. I don’t see much adversity.’
I think about what Joi has said. I’m sure she has a valid point, but she is looking at the thing the wrong way round, so in a sense, she is missing the point I am trying to make.
‘My analogy is that if you have had a run of six green lights, then you are unlikely to get a seventh’, I say. ‘Each green light increases the chances that the next one will be red.’
‘Don’t you think that is a little negative,’ she says, sitting up and folding her arms over her breasts in a defensive gesture. ‘You could see every red light as positive because the chances of a green light next time increase.’
‘How does that help when you get the feeling that things are going too well?’
I seem to have dug myself into a hole. The conversation ends there. Joi gets dressed. She says she is going out for some air. She doesn’t return. She doesn’t come round again. Life it seems is a series of losses
Maya is awake now. She has been asleep for most of the flight.
‘Funny how some situations bring unrelated memories flooding back,’ I say to her. ‘With me, it’s air travel.’
‘You mean involuntary memory. Like Proust’s madeleine,’ she says.
I give her a disapproving look because I feel she should know I have not read Proust.
‘In the last volume of À La Recherche du Temps Perdu, Proust describes how he was eating a madeleine that he had dipped in tea when a series of memories from his past came flooding back to him,’ she says. ‘He felt those things you remember involuntarily contain the essence of the past.’
‘I guess that’s it,’ I say hoping that it isn’t the case as each of my wayward reminiscences has been an episode that turned out badly.
It is September 2001. Maya and I are flying to New York to celebrate my fiftieth birthday, which is on the eleventh. We are on a Boeing 747 flying at 35,000 feet. We are over the tip of Greenland. This seems a little off course to me, so I take the opportunity to ask a stewardess.
‘Transatlantic flights go this way because it is quicker. It is known as a Great Circle route,’ she says, knowledgeably. She explains that this is the shortest distance between two points on a sphere and that westbound flights tend to run more northerly due to the prevailing westerlies. I am more confused than I was.
We are going to stay in Lower Manhattan. Maya knows New York quite well and for my birthday, she is going to take me to breakfast at Wild Blue in the Windows of The World Restaurant, which is on the 107th floor of the World Trade Centre. Through the full-length windows, Maya tells me, you get unrivalled views of the southern tip of Manhattan, where the Hudson and East Rivers meet. The weather forecast is good.
© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved