Love and Fame By Susie Boyt: Book Review
I first fell in love with Susie Boyt when I picked up My Judy Garland Life, a part-memoir, part-biography, part-meditation on showbusiness. Love & Fame, while a novel, treads similar territory thematically.
It follows Eve, a failed actress from a beloved thespian family as she recovers from the death of her famous father, John Swift.
Meanwhile, Rebecca, an emotionally repressed journalist, attempts to dig for the tawdry story below John's pristine legacy.
To me, Susie Boyt represents the shady part of the Venn diagram between an Alice Munro story and a Nancy Meyers movie.
Her books are wonderfully escapist – they're witty, romantic and almost everyone has a lovely house – but they also have a deeply affecting sadness to them.
Love & Fame is a great glass-of-wine-by-the-fire read – save it for your next lazy Sunday.
Love and Fame By Susie Boyt: Book Extract
But this should be the happiest time of your . . . Just let yourself . . . Lots of people would die to . . . you should be . . . drain every last drop. It’s a once in a lifetime, well let’s hope. Oh. Well, sure, of course these things can be a bit . . . In fact, famously so. So just work on trying to maybe? Keeping busy and don’t give yourself a second to— Of course there’s too much pressure to feel as though everything’s. And it’s really important to allow yourself— Now and then, anyway.
Look away when you. You tried Tranquilitea? Avoiding caffeine, sugar and alcohol could really make a. Gluten’s a pig. Don’t watch the news every night, might be. Make an effort to enjoy things while. Loads of people don’t know what’s going on in the world and they’re completely. Just a thought. Until you feel more— Early nights. ink of yourself as an athlete in preparation, a princess, a thoroughbred, a nun about to take— Maybe not that. Oh yes and definitely log out of anything that could . . . St John’s wort is meant to be— Oh dear. That does sound. There’s a brilliant woman off Devonshire Place, she’s quite scary but you just lie down in this squishy leather throne and she somehow. Disengage. But you look well on it . . .
What do you mean? Of course you’re not! Are you still doing your running because that’s probably very. Eating clean foods might just. Have my mindfulness workout, no I promise you. You mustn’t feel like you’re the only one who’s. No one admits it but apparently the major cause of the plastic surgery boom is not that anyone cares how they look it’s just people want a week in bed afterwards without anyone thinking.
Take some deep breaths when you feel a bit. I’m pretty sure they sell it at Boots. That’s it, that’s right. In two three four. Have you had a little browse in the self-help section because? Try not to dwell on stuff. You want to come to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes? And you know, maybe we should all be fucking angry that for thousands of years in this country in this world it was accepted as fact that women were worth less than men and these things just don’t seem to— What you going to have in your bouquet?
Eve was packing for her honeymoon, alone in the at, laying out the ice blue nightgown the shop assistant said would make her look like a goddess. She folded the bodice, smoothing down the gathers, taking care not to crease the springy lace, tucking it in like a child.
Christ. What was an eau de nil silk-satin bra and briefs set in the face of all this? What was a husband-to-be with an appraising smile and that look in his eye? Was that, too, sicko territory? Could your body exist outside the body of the world? Could you carve out a corner where romance was possible in the face of all this, in the face of the groin of all this?
At the last minute she ditched Venice, surprising everyone. A place that led with love was not to be trusted. And how could you feel anything in Venice that had not been felt before? Venice where every afternoon you could break your neck tripping over men on bridges, popping the question in scuffed brown brogues on bended knee while obliging gondoliers caught the whole thing on somebody’s phone, to be sent as an e-attachment with the save-the-dates. Venice where there was nothing to do in the face of the curdling love-industry and all those malcontent churches and shops that bore down on you, relentless with tat: menacing black and gold eye-masks, pig-ugly beads, hideous artisanal tooled leather phone covers, nightmarish puppets with craven expressions, but croon, at the top of your voice ‘Just one Cornetto’. The place was evil with atmosphere, rotting with romance.
Venice suddenly seemed to her deadly, brimming with hysterical aesthetes, desiccated collectors, red-handed cardinals with obscene bank balances. Venice was sick, she couldn’t help thinking, clanking with skeletons and sinister institutions. The putrid, drains-y odour of the Grand Canal!
So, Chicago it was.
‘It’s not trying to be exquisite, full of ancient wisdom, you know? It’s clear about itself. It’s honest. Straightforward, in a way. It doesn’t hide its history of murderers, crime, corruption, drug wars behind painty ceilings and solid gold altar pieces. There’s something decent in that, something frank, something a bit sexy.’ She liked working up an argument. ‘It doesn’t, I don’t know, reek.’ She was enjoying herself now. ‘It’s not squalid.’ The ideas behind America appealed to her. She hoovered up its literature, swallowed its facts down whole: the hopes of it, the energy, the scale. ‘They say when the sky is blue there it really means it, not like here when it’s not pretending exactly but . . . I mean, they built the first skyscrapers in Chicago and they called them “cloud busters”. And some of Chicago’s best-loved gangsters started their careers as singing waiters. You cannot argue with that.’
Chicago doesn’t have a veneer, she thought. It’s not drowning in history and all clogged up with gold leaf and palazzo dust. Suddenly there was no competition. ‘It’ll be cheaper by miles . . . And we can make it our own.’
‘Of course!’ Jim said. Jim always said ‘Of course’ or ‘absolutely’. He was that sort of person. He had an enthusiasm for enthusiasm. His interests extended to almost everything in life. Jim was frank and easy, mild, clever, well-rounded. The ordinary wear and tear of things, the pull of the past, the fear of the future, did not seem to get to him. They got to her.
It was hard to keep a straight face where anxiety was concerned when your husband-to-be was an expert. Jim was literally writing a book about it – quite possibly THE book – a biography, a history, a geography of anxiety (an algebra?), a rich, complex, far-reaching work. ‘I’m kind of putting worry on the couch, if that makes sense.’
Eve had choked on her drink when he told her about it. ‘You’re doing what?’ It was their third evening together. Embarrassment, already hovering in the air, started to throb, radish-coloured, neon. A luscious pizza pouted on the table between them, entirely neglected. ‘It’s going to be called The Influence of Anxiety,’ he said.
Wine sprayed a doily pattern on Eve’s white ‘Renoir’ blouse, dripping down her chin onto her cuffs. The drycleaner’s gasp of horror the next day. (‘It’s kind of like your shirt hooked up with a vampire ...’)
Jim had begun the book before they met, at least. He had seven solid chapters down. It made the whole thing one notch less excruciating. She urged him to tell new people that, ‘Maybe just like drop it into the conversation when there’s a quiet minute, could you?’ she smiled, she even winked sometimes. She did not want to be anyone’s muse, not in that way. (She worried for England, it had been said, but it wasn’t true, not now, not really. High end of average was closer to the mark . . .) Jim was arguing, hopefully, helpfully, that anxiety could be a good thing, it could guard against uninformed decision making, it could be a strong force for change. Worry was creative, an expression of deepest self, profound concentration of the highest calibre. Painstaking, care-taking, meticulous, fastidious, anxiety was, at its very best, the nervous arm of play. Now and then she thought he was anxiety’s biggest fan. It could – anxiety could – make artists out of people. It was key to most of the high achievement in the world. It saved lives. It staved off disaster. It was the mindset of the noble- hearted. Conscientiousness magnified, it was doing your duty. It was good. It might be great. These were comforting thoughts, sort of comforting, although it did strike Eve from time to time that realising the full potential of your anxiety was a whole new tier of things to worry about.
Jim’s editor, Max Winship, phoned his favourite author frequently. ‘You know I hate to bother you, but any chance of another couple of pages for Friday?’ This book was going to be Max’s saviour. Anxiety as an essential key to excellence. ‘Yes!’ Anxiety’s inextricable links to joy. ‘Come to Daddy! And also Ker-ching!’ Max had bought the book from an eleven-page proposal, going crazy in an auction, ravenous for this great cargo of travelling brightness. Witty and sincere, the book had sold in sixteen territories. Philosophy, pop songs, Greek myths, nineteenth-century novels, opera, soap opera, tennis, economics, poetry, super-heroes – its breadth was impressive . . . And so was the hope it would bring. Worriers worldwide were desperate to know they did not fret in vain.
‘This book is not just going to be of universal appeal,’ Max declared to Jim at their sign-up lunch, tears welling, whisky-smelling, heart swelling, ‘it is really going to . . . ’
‘Thank you so much.’ Jim lightly raised his hand like a star in a packed stadium. He was not trying to reach the inter-galactic reader.
Max smiled. Writers were the easiest people in the world to offend, but Jim was different, solid somehow, not the usual huddle of needs. He could have been anything he wanted in life. You just loved him.
During the flight to Chicago, Jim and Eve made a pact not to let talk of anxiety dominate their honeymoon. ‘If you were writing a history of olives, we’d say the same thing,’ she reasoned, ‘or, or the Duchess of Windsor, or, I don’t know, or grapefruit spoons? That wouldn’t be healthy either.’
Yet outlawing any topic was strangely difficult, perhaps it would have been true of Mrs Simpson, but she wasn’t sure. Anxiety had a way of worming its way in, it crept up or ganged up or gently stole over you. Many conversations were composed of it or touched on it, or provoked it, or danced around it, without anyone having particularly given their permission. Especially in the artificial environment of an aeroplane.
It did not help that the stewardess kept giving them free miniature bottles of spirits, clanking them theatrically with a barrage of outlandish looks. She was fortyish, aggressive, hair so black it was almost navy. ‘I’ve got something for you!’ she zeroed in. ‘It’s your lucky day! Look there’s more!’ She shook her head at them wildly. ‘You guys!’ She had just escaped a toxic marriage herself, she said, adding four Smirnoff Blues to their collection. ‘Thanks, that’s so kind but really we already have—’
‘No problem!’ she said. ‘There’s no charge!’ The alcohol was intended, they saw it clearly now, as part of a compensation scheme. ‘You know I don’t envy you children one little bit!’ she added. ‘Aww,’ she kept saying, as though they were sick puppies with only weeks to live. ‘Awwwww.’ As the flight progressed she flung packets and packets of mixed nuts and sour cream and chive flavoured fish-shaped corn snacks into their laps. They amassed a stash that could have stocked a little kiosk at O’Hare.
When they hit turbulence and the seat belts signs flashed on she shoved into Eve’s open handbag about a hundred pink sugar-substitute sachets. They knew for certain then she was deranged. They were lambs to the slaughter and would need all the fake sweetness they could muster for when the love died, that was the long and short of her communications.
Jim took up Eve’s hand. ‘You are OK, aren’t you?’
‘Don’t fuss over me!’ she whispered. ‘I can’t stand it!’ She was firm. ‘Listen. I’m not having worry being our glue. I don’t want to be Anxiety Barbie with chewed-down fingernails and nervous tics. I am not Joan Crawford with heavy brows in a Swiss sanatorium losing my mind. I mean Bette Davis. I am not your or anybody’s patient. I am not Zelda Fitzgerald or a pale imitation. I’m not even that highly strung.’
‘Of course not,’ Jim said. ‘Of course not. I am sorry.’
‘That’s all right,’ she said. ‘That is all right.’ There was an anxiety surrounding anxiety now and a ring of anxiety round that. Perfect.
The plane bucked and sent orange juice into Jim’s lap. He dabbed at himself with his eye mask, but little fronds of orange fibre were adhering to the folds in his jeans. The captain announced more turbulence and bade them sit down and refasten their belts. Should I ditch the book, Jim suddenly thought. Sacrifice it on the altar of matrimony? He needed to do something handsome to reassure his new bride. The air-conditioning nozzle sent swooshes of frozen air onto his nose and however much he swivelled it round, the flow could not be stemmed. His nostrils began to run in protest. He did not dare summon the insane stewardess. He imagined handing back advances in sixteen territories. It couldn’t be done. He was going to be sick. He scrambled for the paper bag in the seatback in front of him. He swallowed a bit of it down. The feeling passed. ‘Would you like me to abandon the book?’ he asked his wife of nineteen hours.
She smiled. ‘No no no, I don’t think so, no. Well, I mean – no. No! Don’t be silly.’ She laughed. ‘Thanks for offering, though. Stylish of you.’
Had he really meant it? He did not know.Next chapter
In the church Jim’s rangy sister Bel had read out, ‘Let us not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.’ She was all in black, courtesy of a challenging Belgian. An expert on streamlined living, Bel went into people’s homes and offices, showing the clutter who was boss, once and for all. I take no prisoners, it warned on her promotional material, its pale greige headings in a Zen-aggressive font. She believed in paring things down to the essentials, for sanity, for freedom, for power. She loved nothing more than being rid of things, whisking and whittling away, cutting back. She was a whirlwind, narrow and angular, who despised indecision. (Making a decision quickly is often more important than what you decide. Really?) She went through women’s wardrobes and told them there and then what they must ditch, standing over them until they capitulated. She was a prim reaper. She liked to see the clutter cower. Her small talk made you think of doctors delivering the results of terrible tests. Sometimes her clients cried!
‘I’m not sure about that poem,’ Eve mumbled under her breath at the time. ‘Going on about what love isn’t, what it can’t stretch to, what it mustn’t contain. Impediments! Why would you lead with impediments at a wedding, and sickles and error and doom?’ It was as though Bel had peered into the cupboard of love, appraising its saving habits, its foibles and routines, then flicked through the racks, with expert eye going, ‘No no no yes no.’ My charms escape her, Eve could tell. She wasn’t sure she could be thought to have clean lines.
‘She’ll grow on you,’ Jim said. ‘Just give it time.’
Bel would have liked Jim to have married someone crisp and super self-sufficient, say, a dental hygienist fighting the daily war against plaque; a woman with a vast self-storage empire, white lacquer, stainless steel, spreadsheets stretching out to the horizon. Not a bookseller who wore jumpers and did not know what she wanted to do when she grew up.
Eve had been an actress for a spell; it was the family business, her father and his mother before him. Perhaps she still was one, how could she tell? She had done well at drama school, won a small medal and a big cup, landed the job of her dreams three years after leaving, Nina in The Seagull on St Martin’s Lane. She was all set up for life’s best things. She started to get fine treatment and it started to suit her. There was a lot of pleasure involved. You’ve had it pretty easy, she told herself. Her parents adored her. She knew they chatted about her endlessly – she was their weather, their politics, their sport. They were always popping bits and bobs in the post for her, newspaper cuttings, book reviews, and a kinky three-finger KitKat bought in Cyprus. (‘Nobody say Chernobyl,’ her father wrote.) She was almost their religion. It’s not necessarily fair, how your life has gone, compared to other people, she knew that. That doesn’t have to count against you, she countered. You’ve not committed any crimes.
The excitement of The Seagull was a delicious poison. Four weeks of rehearsals she did not eat or sleep. She bought packets and packets of monkey nuts, removing the kernels and eating the woody outer shells. It was all she could keep down. Must have some sort of nutrition in them, anyway. Little bit . . . Better than nothing, at least. She was always rustling, like a small squirrel. Couldn’t sit still for a second.
‘What did you expect, darling?’ her agent said. (He had started ringing regularly.) ‘It’s absolutely normal. First time in a big show in town. It’s huge. The best thing in the world that could have happened to you and listen no one says it but you’re kind of meant to feel dreadful at least half the time. If you’re taking it seriously enough. What made you think it would be different for you?’
The man playing the old doctor took her to one side: ‘Of course you never get used to it. Stage fright is the price you have to pay for – ha! – anyone know how that sentence ends? It does feel like food poisoning, like food poisoning from something really terrible like bad oysters. It’s natural to wake up feeling as though you’ve swallowed a concrete mixer, sure. Welcome to show business, sweetheart! Shows you’re having the full experience. That you’re engaging with the process at the deepest level. Really living the work, delving into the material. The worst times are almost the happiest, in this game. All the best actors are crackers anyway.’ She was shown into her tiny dressing room, but there was a mini-fridge with a bottle of champagne. (And a mousetrap with a real live dead mouse!) She had her make-up in a shoebox. She had good-luck cards and inspiring photographs and little quotes on yellow Post-its from the wacky and the wise and she tucked them into the frame of her mirror. Her mum sent armfuls of daffodils.
‘Get out there and do what you were born to do. Kill the People!’ her father told her.
‘Leave it with me, Dad,’ she said. She felt responsibility to the actors who had gone before.
One day, her hair started to fall out, only a small amount at first, which was funny, but then it was handfuls. Everyone admired her minuscule new frame. ‘Not that you were at all big before but now!’ Strange to be congratulated for a disappearing act. Even when she fainted in the dressing room, twice, no one thought anything of it. Why didn’t they? Her dresser, over the coarse web of her knitting, was thrilled. These things are always stressful, everyone told her. You’re feeling the character and that’s good. She’s highly strung. No, she’s beyond highly strung. She literally has a raw heart.
(Doesn’t everyone? thought Eve.)
The director asked her to stay behind one afternoon after rehearsal. ‘The thing about Nina is she’s torturing herself, trying to believe something she knows isn’t true. She’s wide-eyed, so open to life at the start, she knows her own charms, she’s beautiful, of course, and headstrong, dreamy, she is in love with love, with life, but things shift. I sometimes think Nina’s almost a butterfly in reverse. And things darken – it is Chekhov – and she shows herself to be deeply unstable, masochistic, attaching herself to something that she may not altogether value, or does she? And she so wants to be an actress, but she’s lost. And you do lost so well, Eve. All Nina wants in return is a crumb and she offers herself on a plate to Trigorin – she thinks he’s a great hero of literature but really he’s just vain and middlebrow –and she just can’t see it – and he comes and takes a bit now and then, and yes he tires of her. He goes back to Arkadina. Of course people do tire of people when they give their all. It’s a form of embarrassment, I suppose, I’ve seen it time and time again. You have to hold something in reserve. And her acting is . . . disappointing? Konstanin says she doesn’t even know what to do with her arms, apart from in her dying scenes. So touching that. And please don’t worry about your hair, Eve – honestly it hardly shows.’
The next day the Arkadina popped into her dressing room. ‘You know, Eve, I hope you don’t mind my saying so and please don’t take this the wrong way, but I wonder if it might be an idea to pull back just a little? You see acting is a combination of concealing and revealing and how can I put . . . ? I don’t think you’re concealing anything any more. Honesty is wonderful, of course it is, but a little goes a long way ...’
One day all the advice changed. Oh. People looked at her with pity and alarm. Ah. It’s not going to work. There was distaste. She had crossed into freakish new territory. Oh! Send in the clowns.
‘Of course there’s no disgrace,’ her mother told her. ‘Happens to everyone at least once in their career. You’ll have so many other chances,’ she said, but her father shook his head over and over. He looked older, shaky, traumatised. Eve could tell for him it was a tragedy. Did he know that she knew that chances like this rarely came once for people, let alone?
He slumped in his chair. Nothing seemed to move him.
‘I know, let’s go to Brighton for the weekend,’ her mother finally said. ‘Anybody? It will cheer us all up.’
They visited the Pavilion. In the servants’ kitchen they admired the copper saucepans that went from enormous to the size of a human heart. In the hotel she had a little zed bed at the end of her parents’ divan. On the Saturday night her mother rubbed her feet and brushed her hair, stroked her back until she fell asleep. ‘The disappointment must be unendurable,’ she whispered to her daughter.
‘Do you think I am a person who squanders things?’ Eve asked.
‘I think it was a chemical reaction that you had.’ She lowered her voice, for scandal, for blasphemy. ‘The theatre can be terrible. It just mashes everybody up. I mean, I can’t think of any other job where it’s normal to experience actual terror every single time you go to work. I mean, perhaps if you’re a bomb disposal expert or something . . . ’
‘Mum!’ They started to giggle, crying and laughing like the comedy/tragedy masks.
‘How is Dad, do you think?’
‘He has taken it hard, but it’s really not for you to— Oh, I know, have you got your phone on you?’
‘Yeah, it’s here somewhere.’
‘Give it to me for a second.’ She typed in a few words, pressed the white play arrow and there on the little screen dancing before them not a centimetre wide was the proud, arch, English face of Noël Coward singing ‘Why Must the Show Go On?’ in which he begged all ailing show folk to cease and desist with their miserable calling once and for all.
‘Hang on, here’s my favourite bit coming up now,’ her mother said. ‘Oh no, hold on, yes now!’ Noël sang in his best Hollywood-nursery-cautionary tones: ‘Let’s hope we have no worse to plague us / an two shows a night at Las Vegas.’
‘Be careful what you don’t wish for,’ Eve murmured.Next chapter
Enter the bookshop, high street left! She approached it with gratitude each morning, her other life (was it her real one?) receding further and further from her clutches. It was dreamlike now and from a dusty story book: the bright stage lamps, the dresser rubbing her hands to warm them. She sure wasn’t pining for her comeback . . . Those long afternoons at drama school with students offering up their most painful life-memories in over-lit rooms with rain crashing at the windows and although people were terribly interested in the material, nobody quite cared. Occasionally she heard or saw a London seagull from Regent’s Park and she felt the skies contracting and a sharpish comedy terror came swooping down at her, the opposite of a superhero landing. Sometimes she even called out the hardest line in the play, which according to the director many of the best actresses of their generations had murdered night after night because it was pretty much impossible to say: ‘I’m a seagull, I’m a seagull, no, that’s not right.’ (‘Yep, you’re right, it’s just not at all right, darling.’) But mostly she kept on walking. ‘If I had had a choice I would have chosen the play but I didn’t have a choice. It was me or it so I chose me.’ She mumbled things of that ilk to soothe herself. Blah blah blah blah blah. She counted up the fifty- three fast-food outlets between her at and the bookshop to take her mind off it, thirteen chicken shops. Pretty impressive. A new place doing kebab pizza – just what the doctor ordered. Brought up believing there was no business like show business, at the first signs of trouble she was all The Show Must Go Off. Ravaged by the theatre, that was how she put it, her face had not quite regained its former bounce but she was confident in time it might – she looked older, perhaps a little cynical now, faintly sour from some angles. Funny. Sometimes she worried that her voice had darkened. There were so many things you had to try not to think about. One evening after a gruelling day of rehearsals she had stared at her reflection in her dressing-room mirror and thought with more sadness than she could shoulder, that person’s got nothing to do with me.
Where do you go from there?
One morning, early, her father phoned her before she left for the bookshop. She could not understand him – did he assume a prior conversation which had not taken place? Surely she couldn’t have forgotten. There was a great deal of emotion in his voice, pain and regret. She grew afraid. He was ill, she thought, was breaking it to her gently, putting it in context in the widest way, medical, historical, animal, vegetable, mineral. Suddenly there flew from him a long low howl of misery. ‘Dad!’ she cried out. ‘I don’t understand what you’re saying. Can you rewind a bit and explain.’ If she had another phone she could ring her mother without ending the call and find out what the fuck was—
‘I am so very sorry,’ he said.
‘It’s not your fault, Dad,’ she replied. She still had no idea what he was – but the desire to reassure was strong. How to say? And then the line had gone quiet for a bit. When she finally got him to unravel things it transpired the play was heading to Broadway in the spring with the replacement London Nina. Laura something. Double-barrelled.
‘Why must life be so spiteful?’ There was agony in his voice.
‘It’s all right, Dad, it’s for the best. I mean, not that, but you know what I mean. I thought you were going to tell me something really terrible. at you or Mum were ill.’
‘You are brave,’ he said.
‘Sometimes I think you mind this more than I do. Mum says disappointment and relief are pretty much the same thing at the end of the day.’
‘And I refuse to go into mourning for my career,’ she said brightly.
‘Well,’ she said, ‘well.’
‘It’s so strange,’ he said, ‘what I feel. I feel as though you and I were standing together by the side of the road, you a toddler in a blue dress with the white you used to wear – and I am looking up at the sky or distracted by a noisy plane or a bird flying overhead or something and I release the child’s hand, your hand, only for a split second, and she bolts into the traffic straight under a truck.’
‘OK. That’s not helpful.’
They had put her in charge of the plays, poetry and classics section at the bookshop. This job didn’t force her to turn herself inside out every night. She wasn’t called on to conjure up her strongest feelings when people snapped their fingers: girlish enchantment and naïveté, passion, confusion, despair, mental disarray, heartbreak, bereavement pangs, full on insanity: NOW. No job should make you do that, day in day out. It was actively discouraged in retail.
One day Jim came in to the bookshop for a copy of Persuasion. They got chatting in the classics, between Dickens and Defoe. They talked right the way through her lunch break. Ruth, her boss, passed by at intervals, raising a curious brow. He had two tickets for a play that Friday; could she, would she by any outside chance, be free?
‘Anything in the world but that,’ she said.
He was taken aback! ‘Do you suffer from claustrophobia?’ he asked her.
‘Not that so much, it’s just I am a bit allergic to St Martin’s Lane just now,’ she said. ‘I had some bad luck there recently. Long story. Tell you when you’re older . . . ’
‘OK, not a problem.’ He was intrigued.
She tucked a loop of hair behind her ear and did up her top button. ‘Are you allergic to pizza?’ he asked cautiously.
In the Actors’ Church, at the altar, kneeling in her wedding dress, she was still cross with the word ‘impediments’. It was cheap to take the service to pieces while you were actually in the middle of it, she did see that. Jews wouldn’t do it, Catholics, Muslims. People’s in-laws were invented to be trying. It was traditional. It was a success of sorts if you looked at it that way. Nothing’s for everyone. It’s normal. She felt her cheeks glow radish. He likes me anyway, that is the thing that is the thing. She glanced at Jim kneeling beside her and he really did have beams of love shining out of his eyes. She took his hand.
‘I’m with you on the poem,’ her father said afterwards, ‘all the way. Not one of his best.’ He looked extravagantly handsome in his grey suit. ‘I am sorry you come from a family where people don’t take things in their stride, my love.’
She looked at him and his face had nothing in it that wasn’t sorrow suddenly.
‘But you should see us sometimes!’ Eve said.
Ninety minutes from Chicago, cruising at a high altitude over New York, she thought of a joke her father liked to tell. She had heard him do it first on the radio. All his jokes were sad. ‘Hey, don’t I know that voice?’ She smiled into the room as she heard his familiar intonation, halfway through an introductory aside. She stopped taking the top off her boiled egg. He liked a bit of ceremony. Put down her spoon. He was a well-known actor, classically trained, a household name these past eight years from a sitcom called Last Orders. Late developer, he said. Good at comedy, even if he couldn’t help hoping he was built for finer things. He acted his jokes, got right inside the characters’ insides. They were like short stories. Sociological anecdotes, he sometimes called them, when they concerned matters of the heart or la condition humaine. (‘They make it sound quite bearable in French.’) In real life he was an unpredictable man, to put it mildly: huge, generous and selfish in the best ways, kind. He could be awfully childish, toddlerish even, almost new-born in his demands. But his characters stayed with you, so much easier to pin down: the chuckling sitcom pub landlord with demented bonhomie, taken for a ride by all and sundry, deceived by most women and all men, a mug really with limited aspirations, whose very catchphrase was ‘Say when’. There was his shrill and tragic Malvolio in mustard tights, undone by his constant over-efforts, that carapace of pride thinly disguising vast self-loathing, always the last to know, reduced to an absolute nothing at the end so you felt you’d betrayed yourself for laughing at him in the first place. Had anyone ever made Malvolio such a sympathetic soul, all his smug idiocy rooted in hurts? How did you do that? He liked his humour tinged with tragedy. They could joke about what she’d been through. Just. ‘I got shat on by The Seagull, ho ho ho.’ Well, she understood him better now.
‘Chekhov,’ she sometimes said out loud to him as though it were a swearword, when she dropped her toast jam-down or stubbed her toe. ‘You Chek-off’ came his reply.
Next year, all being well, he was finally going to be King Lear. There was already talk of it coming in to town. ‘It’s going to be hard on us all,’ her mother said. He wasn’t above bringing his characters home, it was true. Banging his tankard on the table was to be expected, an imperious manner, unquenchable thirst for praise, small-hours carousing, bouts of anguish, hideous rashness, teatime vainglory and a nightly agonising descent into madness.
‘No change there then!’
‘Eve Swift!’ His eyes sang and danced at her unbridled daring.
It was after his last performance as Malvolio when he stopped drinking. No more cakes and ale for ever more; well, no more ale. He was in a small hospital ward, watching a hospital show from a pay-as-you-go TV which hung from the ceiling on a dark metal arm. Nurses bobbed and tended to him, graceful as dancers. ‘What luxury,’ he mouthed the words. It was the day after he had fallen, coming out of the Duke of York’s, in search of his habitual Saturday Late Night Dover Soul of Success and the steamed spinach he ordered ‘for health’ but rarely touched. Smashed his head against the plate glass of the ballet shoe shop on the corner. Blood trickled down his cheek, the taste of warm rust in his mouth, pink satin as far as the eye could see, the stiff frills of a dusty red tutu. Half unconscious he had heard the ambulance men discussing his case. ‘D’you hear that?’ the paramedic said to the driver. ‘So there he is lying in a pool of blood, all smashed up and seeing stars and all that and he still manages a joke about “the Nutcracker”! Class.’ It had made a world of difference to the patient’s morale. With some bluster he told the anecdote to the group-therapy group at the rehabilitation centre, more than once.
‘“Pure class,” the ambulance driver said!’ John Swift grinned, triumphant, impressing not a soul but himself. About every eighteen months or so he returned to the clinic for a bit of a top-up, what they used to call a rest cure, just a week usually, respite and guidance, a psychological MOT . . . A bit Hollywood of me, he sometimes mused. To be entirely honest, he did not loathe the attention.
On the radio show she heard his voice: ‘Well now, a joke, you want? As you know I don’t tell jokes, but let me tell you a little story. It was last year, spring, end of May, no June. First bit of summer. I went for my holiday. Sun, sea, sand – you get the picture. Left my canary with Charlie. He’s good with birds. [Pause] “I’ll take good care of her,” Charlie said. “Worry not, my friend.” So o I went. All was well. All was well until the phone went early Monday morning.
‘“Charlie here,” he said.
‘“Hullo Charlie!” [He usually put his hand over the imaginary receiver so that “Charlie” wouldn’t hear his aside.] He didn’t sound good.
‘“I regret to have to tell you your canary’s died,” he said.
‘“Charlie, Charlie, Charlie,” I said to him. “Charlie. No one ever tell you how to break bad news?”
‘“How do you mean?” he said.
‘“Well, you got to do it in stages. You should have called me yesterday and said, Something’s come up, my friend, spot of bother, the canary’s on the roof and I can’t seem to get her down.
‘“Then you should call the next day and say, Thing is, pal, it just isn’t looking too good canary-wise. Then on the third day: Bad news on the canary front. I’m worried she may not be much longer for this world. And then on the fourth day . . . Sad tidings, I’m afraid, on the canary side of things. It’s all over. Curtains. You get the picture?”
‘“OK, I think I understand,” Charlie says.
‘Following year, I go on holiday again; Spain this time, ringing the changes, and there’s a phone call from Charlie, middle of the night.
‘“It’s me, Charlie,” he says. “Um, it’s your mum, she’s on the roof.”’Next chapter
In Chicago, entirely married, it was easier by miles, everything was. She just knew it would be. The soaring buildings and the fiercely blue skies sent anxiety packing. ‘What?’ anxiety curled its lip as you showed it the door. ‘What?’ It crossed the threshold like a ruined lover caught misbehaving in his socks. In its place came pleasanter questions. What to have for breakfast? That wasn’t worry, that was gorgeous. They tried everything: golden pillows of cinnamon and raisin brioche French toast with Vermont maple syrup and blueberries and crispy bacon. One morning they were ambushed by an Early-bird Waffle Buffet. These breakfasts were so vivid with grease, salt and sugar that they kept you going until halfway through the evening when you heard your stomach making sudden claims for your attention, asking, like a neglected husband in an American song: ‘Remember me? Remember me?’
All day they walked and walked, didn’t even know where they were going, laughing, singing, blinking, kissing. The towering buildings, sheer and silvered in the sun, had been designed to give man, give woman the feeling they were dwelling among the stars. Had their local Euston high-rises been built with such dreams? Athlone, the Brereton Estate? It seemed unlikely.
These spires inspired, it was true. A great sense of possibilities was Chicago. There was a 400-foot 1920s office block with decorative lacy stonework to the upper floors, inspired by Rouen Cathedral. Who had conjured up that?
One night the temperature dropped by twenty-one degrees. You could not fail to be impressed by those kinds of mood swings. They took off sun clothes and put on moon boots. Jim admitted to her, halfway through, he had been surprised at her choice. ‘I thought Chicago would just be New York lite but I was wrong. You’re always right about everything.’
‘I am not! How dare you?’ She was very happy.
Over breakfast in a diner he crooned her a love song he had learned especially about the Windy City. He showed scant regard for timing or pitch but you couldn’t fault the sentiment, which was of true romance in a world rife with sin.
Need to shoe-horn a bit of Chicago into our London lives, when we get home, she decided. Anything’s possible, she wanted her London neighbourhood to holler every morning from the flickering chicken shops, the all you can eat noodle outlets, the orange and brown Irish pub, the corrugated iron clad Cash Converters, the black and fuchsia ‘gentlemen’s nightclub’ and down the ailing high street the struggling bookseller’s chain where she was deputy manageress. In the brainy-looking Camden-borders terrace where they rented the top floor of a tall dark handsome house, no one had ever said, she suspected, let alone sung, ‘I saw a man dancing with his own wife’. Well, we’ll see about that, she thought. We’ll see about that.
They ate a turkey dinner in a revered old Chicago institution with gravy- filmed vinyl tablecloths, seventy cents extra for all white meat. There were ancient waiters in grubby white coats with the air of – was it fanciful to say? – lost wealth.
‘Why is white meat more expensive? I much prefer the dark,’ Jim said.
‘Yes, I think we all know that.’
One morning she went for a run down the Magnificent Mile in a light snow storm, leaving Jim sleeping. Against the cold her nipples flickered on and off. She giggled. She had fresh white honeymoon trainers with a silver swoosh bought especially from Sports Direct. The best thing about running was that you ceased to exist. It was just your white breath and the beating of your feet, she thought, swatting snowflakes from her eyes. Running in Chicago on your honeymoon in the snow . . . She turned it over – not bad, pal! Still, she could not help wondering if her healthy side got Jim down a little bit. If she didn’t worry would he love her as much? Perhaps that was unfair. Besides, she did.
Why did Jim have this unquenchable fidelity to anxiety? Why the need to champion, rehabilitate and rebrand? Sometimes she felt as though anxiety, to Jim, was a dodgy relative much loved despite his qualities, an uncle in a filthy mac, fresh out of jail maybe, or loitering in a sharp suit for his court appearance. Had this uncle done him a tremendous favour to inspire lifelong loyalty? If so, what? Still, she thought. Still. ere are parts of people that you cannot understand, and that is how it should be, perhaps. We’re all clinging on to our mystery, pal. Sometimes she thought worry to Jim was an exotic maiden, dizzy and golden, a mermaid luring him towards disastrous rocks. He would emerge, fingers burnt, older, wiser, not quite so sure of things, his sense of self shaken possibly. It must be about looking for answers, in some way, colour, texture, meaning. Certainly psychological. She smiled. Well, that was hardly illegal.
And she trusted him.
Her feet beat the street again, not with stress or anger, more like someone happily playing the bongos. Of course she had said all this to him.
‘Your fidelity to anxiety is pretty odd, do you ever think or not really?’
‘I just think people see it so negatively, and it’s such a natural part of life for everyone, that it’s worth putting the other side, the more heroic side, the saving parts of it, the use of it, the point. I want people to feel more ease around the subject.’
‘I suppose. But isn’t anxiety by its very definition . . . I mean . . . It’s just that… I don’t know. The thing to remember with me is... What I mean is, with me, I don’t only worry. I hover around the high end of the normal amount. I guess sometimes I worry that you fetishise my unquiet heart.’
‘That would be low, I agree,’ he smiled.
She kissed him as a reward. ‘Anyway, tons of people worry way more than I do.’
‘You’re getting me excited now.’
If this marriage were a play, Eve’s thoughts raced as she upped her speed, I would become less and less anxious as the months go by, trip about, happy-go-lucky, willy-nilly, carefree as hell and meanwhile you would be gradually afflicted with such mounting, high-level bouts of anxiety you would find yourself completely unable to function. I mean, for God’s sake, if you say anxiety makes artists out of people you could just as well say that jealousy does. It makes people paranoid and controlling. It makes you imagine stuff that isn’t there. And where does that end? You really want to turn into Othello? Good luck with that! She visualised Jim’s book in a bookseller’s window. She would give it a spiteful new title; I know, how about You’ll Be Fine! Or what about – yes! The Joy of Anguish? She sneezed suddenly into the snow and the sneeze broke something, woke something.
You think? She shook her head. On your honeymoon you’re going to start savaging him in your mind? She detected a mock-Chicago twang in her tone. Christ!
She ran away from the thought, left it on the corner by a cheesecake emporium. There was a large black-cherry cheesecake in the window, lavish and glossy, and next to it a small sign flashed on and off, in rose pink neon letters, the word: LEGENDARY. She stopped and went back to admire the little tableau, the stiff white cloth, the cut-glass pedestal cake stand. It was a kind of meditation on reputation, she thought, our lady of the cheesecake, or something, an American dairy Vermeer. (In Venice the cakes were just bound to be dusty, no?)
She apologised to Jim’s frank face in her mind. ‘Sorry, I was a rat just then,’ she said out loud. He smiled wryly in return.
She ought to turn back at the next block, she thought. She might be missed if he woke and she was gone. In the window of a department store she saw a promotion for a face cream in a pale green tube: ‘Look like the picture of health.’ She slowed slightly. The ‘like’ troubled her. She was getting thirsty now. She blinked several times, trying to improve her general focus. Her calves were beginning to tire. One of her laces was unravelling and she bent to— Oof! She half-collided with a man in chef’s checks carrying a cardboard tray of yellow muffins. She thought to open her mouth for a tumbling bun like someone in a cartoon. The scent of chemical vanilla filled her nostrils, sweet and acrid in equal measure, cooked sugar and bleach, patisserie toilets. She ran on.
On the corner by the hotel she nipped into a coffee shop.
‘Coffee with milk?’ she said.
The barista had a small reddish beard. ‘No worries,’ he said. ‘No worries. Not a problem. Not a problem at all.’
What would he say next, ‘You mustn’t blame yourself’?
On the cup he wrote her name in black marker as IV, like a drip. She drank the lukewarm coffee, standing at the counter, smiling. The snow beat down on the streets of Chicago, large jigsaw pieces, crashing into the windows of the café. It was quite beautiful. Inside the café it was slightly foggy from the heat and some women were discussing a wedding one of their party had attended in Dubai. The foam on the rehearsal dinner cappuccinos had been embellished with gold leaf! This news caused a ton of mirth and incredulity.
This may be the most happiness I have felt, Eve thought. Perhaps that was extravagant, but everything seemed to be brimming. She grinned, drinking it all in. The coffee was strong, made her eyeballs hot and coy and bridal. She wondered if Jim was awake yet. She could walk back into the room, slip out of her clothes, perch on the edge of the bed and whisper to him alluringly, ‘Would you say your feelings for me stray beyond friendship?’
Jim was snoozing peacefully when she returned, his arms wrapped round her pillow, and he stirred in his sleep and smiled broadly. ‘Happy,’ he murmured, eyes still closed, as though giving a weather report. He had the kind of ears that put his whole face in parenthesis, like Prince Charles or the FA Cup.
She kissed his forehead. ‘Sorry,’ she whispered. The kiss woke him.
‘There you are!’ He sat up in bed. ‘I missed you,’ he smiled. ‘It was tragic here without you.’
‘You were asleep!’
‘A honeymoon suite for one is the saddest thing. I had to order a violinist from room service.’
‘Where is he, then?’
‘She’s on her way up.’ She threw her arms round his neck; a snowflake from her head fell on his nose, iced confetti. He shivered.
‘Course, we can send her away if you like,’ he added.
‘Fine by me.’ He looked at her sincerely. He looked about ten years old.
‘Can I ask you something?’
‘No, it’s nothing like that. It’s just I was wondering, when you go for a run, what is it you are running away from exactly?’ ‘Well,’ she said, ‘I don’t know exactly. I mean, it’s a bit hard to put into words. I mean, there’s YOU, of course, or rather US,’ she said, pushing off her damp whiter-than-white shoes then slipping back into the enormous bed. ‘Obviously. Me, I don’t know. Everything. Nothing. My mum and dad being so nice to me all the time. People who come into the bookshop and ask if they can charge their phones. Seagulls. Life. Death. Sadistic airhostesses. Hotel violinists, of course.’
‘Well, that’s all right then.’ He hugged her. He looked genuinely relieved.
‘I’m sorry you’ve married a has-been with the ruins of a brilliant career behind her.’
‘But they’re my favourite,’ he said.
She worried about her dress as she left the hotel to meet him at a restaurant later that evening. It was perhaps a bit old for her, the print hectic and unabashed, slightly migraine-ish maybe, exploding reworks against a midnight sky. Low end of hideous, possibly, a challenging pattern. He had slipped out first, while she lingered in the shower, so they could achieve ‘seeing each other across a crowded room’. It was her idea but she wished they had set off together now.
The hotel doorman, six foot five, was black and stately. ‘Madam!’ he called her back as she was about to step into the revolving doors. She swung round, retraced her step. She had got something wrong. Her knickers must be caught up in her hem or something, toilet paper dragging on her heel. She had failed to convince in one way or another. Not that again. ‘Madam!’ he called again. He was regal, imperious, borderline huffy in his cap and gold-rope epaulettes. ‘I only hope, wherever you’re going tonight, your friends are worthy of that FABULOUS gown.’ Compliments are meat and drink to new brides. She floated out of the building.
The restaurant was high in the sky with picture windows giving out onto Lake Michigan, its waters turquoise and violet in the evening sun. The dinner was a wedding present from Jim’s right-wing Uncle Bee. They had a gold and white voucher for the nine-course tasting menu. It sounded exhausting. They presented it to the maître d’.
‘Congratulations on your marriage,’ he said to them stiffly. His hair was very shiny but his face was so sad.
‘Thanks very much indeed.’ Jim shook his hand like the Lord Mayor of London. He really had an atmosphere of clanking chains tonight. It was as though being married had suddenly given him a kind of public confidence, a quiz show host’s smooth bonhomie . . . ‘It’s absolutely wonderful to be here.’ He was one step away from ‘Goodnight, God bless.’ It wasn’t irritating exactly, but it was unexpected.
‘Glad to have you with us.’ The maître d’ warmed a little, steering them to a large table, pulling out their highly padded chairs, launching napkins across their laps with fierce linen snaps.
‘Think he’s just had bad news or something?’ Eve whispered. ‘Why does he look so stricken?’
‘I don’t think so,’ Jim said. ‘I’m sure it’s just his natural grave demeanour. S’why they gave him the job, I expect.’
‘Ah. So that’s what it looks like.’
The female sommelier, precise and ample in her tail coat, caught their imagination. Her eyebrows were so glossy and fulsome they might have been made of mink. They had a lot of personality. ‘I bet she can really sing,’ Eve said.
‘Oh yes,’ Jim nodded, ‘a hundred per cent.’
There was a complex pre-starter. Twin crystal thimbles brimming with chestnut velouté and garnished with shaved what was it? It did not look good. You couldn’t help thinking of verrucas, truth be told.
‘I don’t know, could it be rough skin from an elbow?’ Eve looked at her own elbow that had a tiny crusted patch of eczema. ‘Could it?’
They ate the pre-main, which was an oyster anointed with a feathered design of pre-maple syrup.
‘Doesn’t taste quite right, but what do I know?’
‘It’s certainly different.’ The pre-dessert was some kind of mousse or parfait with fine pink and green stripes with black chocolate fronds, a little caterpillar heading out to a party? They were happy.
‘What are you thinking?’ Jim asked her suddenly.
‘I was just thinking about that joke my dad likes.’
‘The roof one?’
‘Uh-huh.’ From nowhere she felt herself close to tears. ‘Ignore me,’ she said, ‘it’s probably just the altitude.’
‘I can’t wait for his King Lear,’ Jim said. ‘He will make him so likeable, won’t he, so reasonable, the villains won’t stand a chance. They might have to change the ending, have all the characters sit down and talk things through sensibly and come up with a plan that works for everyone.’
‘Apply for mediation type of thing? Employ a family therapist? That’s a play I’d like to see. You might have to make it a musical, though, go the whole hog. It could happen.’
‘I think he will be the world’s most good-natured King Lear. He will make him so magnanimous. When things go wrong for him it will be too painful for anyone to watch.’
‘Because he has so much gallantry.’
‘I think all actors do,’ she said.
They had slipped onto dangerous ground. ‘Lot of work for him,
in any case,’ she spoke cautiously. ‘Might have to write half the words on his sleeve or have me speaking it into his ear from the wings.’
‘He wouldn’t be the first.’
‘No. Wonder how I’ll feel seeing him tortured by his daughters? I mean, it couldn’t reflect badly on me, could it?’ Her voice did not sound as humorous as she had planned. ‘I’ve never really understood about sibling rivalry . . . A lot to learn, I guess.’
Jim smiled and rubbed her head as though she were his faithful hound. She stiffened slightly. A chocolate drop, are you about to give me?
‘They’ll make you look good,’ he said. ‘Because you are.’
Beneath them were views so sheer that if you peered down even for a second, it was hard to swallow a thing. The madly tall blocks looked menacing at twilight, the architecture unsuited to the human scale. There was nothing wrong with feeling completely insignificant, of course, but the streams of bug traffic, the toy ships on the darkening lake, the ant people, some with umbrellas for it was raining now the snow had gone, looked like an after-thought. A nearby metallic tower caught the reflection of several other buildings in its watery façade, as though it were gathering them in against some sharp practice. Taking sides, ganging up. It was impossible not to think of people jumping from high buildings. Wheeeeeeeee! Eve shivered and put her hand over her eyes. The world looked so unwell suddenly. How ill was it? Could anything be done?
What have you done with your good mood? she silently reproached herself. Such a fool!
‘Don’t look down,’ Jim said to her softly. ‘It’s all all right, just don’t look down. Don’t look down.’
‘OK,’ she said. ‘OK, thanks. That’s very helpful. You’re so—’ They must tower above anxiety, that night and every night. We’re bigger than that. Remember?
‘I know what I’ve been meaning to ask you for ages. Do you get many goths coming into the shop?’ he said suddenly.
‘It’s Camden!’ she said. ‘Of course.’
‘That’s what I thought,’ he agreed.
‘I mean, not as many as I’d like, but quite a few, I don’t know, nine or maybe twelve a week. Seventeen max. I mean, I guess they don’t like being outdoors much, they kind of like being inside and reading is an indoor pursuit. After all.’
‘That’s so nice,’ he said. ‘I always think if I had a daughter who was a goth, not for ever but maybe for eighteen months, that would be so sweet.’
‘Yeah?’ She passed him a queer look that said, What are we even talking about?
‘Yeah, I mean obviously whatever choices she made, in the style stakes, little Bridget or Agnes, or . . . ’
‘Bridget! Agnes?! You can’t name them without me.’
‘Olivia, I don’t know, Violet, she would have my undivided, you know, or maybe Emily is best . . . Support . . . because of course she . . . ’ He stopped talking.
‘A baby goth are you seeing in a big black pram? A toddler? A tween?’ Why had her voice come out so sharp?
‘I don’t know really,’ he said. ‘I suppose I’m just being ... um . . . ’ And then: ‘Should I phone for the violinist again?’
Eve ignored him. She thought of saying, ‘Didn’t you hear she burst her appendix and exploded?’ but something prevented her. God, she could be spiteful.
She had better try to— ‘Just thinking, I am pleased with everything, you know, with how it’s going, I mean,’ Eve announced, as though she were addressing a little staff briefing at the bookshop, propping up morale in the face of droopy sales figures or five customers wanting local tourist information (‘Is Freddie Mercury buried near here by any chance?’) to every one that came looking for a book, ‘but if we’re ever properly unhappy, we still won’t split up, will we, even if we are making each other really miserable we’ll soldier on to the bitter end, is my feeling, do you agree?’
‘Of course,’ Jim said. ‘Goes without saying. This is it,’ he said, ‘a hundred per cent.’
‘Good.’ They tried to kiss but their table was so big that even if they both leaned forward they couldn’t reach the other so they shook hands, lingeringly, instead.Next chapter
When she was younger she had wanted to be the love interest in a high-brow, fast-paced American novel. It was why she had chosen Chicago for their honeymoon, more or less. She had cast herself as one of those Ramona Renata Katrina types, a Saul Bellow-y broad, with crème de Chantilly thighs, and a devotion to a great man anchoring her life. He would be some sort of mentor maybe, internationally acclaimed, a rockstar academic of a certain age, a poet or artist inhabiting a plane so high he could barely be expected to concede anything in a personal capacity. He would be ruthless and she would be Ruth, naturally. She shook her head at this wind-beneath-his-wings portrait now. There had been a visiting acting coach when she was at drama school, an American Shakespearean, sixteen years older, who had taken a shine to her, not a huge one, but still. ‘You should come by sometime,’ he often said to her, casually, and then one evening, bored, she had tapped on the door of his office, taken a hammy deep breath and started it. He was the full, vain, hard-drinking, caustic, elbow-patched, corduroy nine yards, that was clear from the start. And it had not been wonderful. Apart from cynicism, and envy, naturally, he didn’t much go in for feelings. He had a breath-taking appetite for recognition and praise. The romance he had embarked on with his u y, silken hair! As a critic and commentator he appeared regularly on TV and the appearances made a monster of him . . . She sourced him beta blockers from the internet in the end. He was very antagonistic towards life. He hated every kind of weather. He had fist fights with computers. He found almost all theatrical performance inauthentic, rarely staying for the second half. He considered most emotions fake, had a very low view of human people generally. He took pride in his severity. He had a pet theory that Shakespeare had cannibalised the life stories of the people he knew, causing huge distress and humiliation in his immediate circle.
The rewards with this man were at the slender end of things. The meanness of the compliments only a twenty-one-year-old would take. ‘Vivid’ he sometimes called her. Vivid?! ‘You are not unattractive,’ he yawned, leaning back and closing his eyes as though an extravagant sexual act was the only correct expression of gratitude for such a statement.
He thought her father’s sitcom persona proof that the family was ludicrous. ‘You are quite refined, considering your stock,’ he said. ‘I sometimes think your looks operate best when you’re neither moving nor speaking,’ he told her once.
You couldn’t make someone like that happy. It would be like using a hot cross bun to threaten a vampire. Or something.
Some years later she read that he got caught up in a small scandal for implying in passing in a literary journal that women themselves were often silly and/or delusional.
Jim didn’t have these kinds of blockages. He didn’t see botched transactions wherever he looked. He was clever, exhilarating even, but there was nothing cut o about him. His day-to-day behaviour didn’t cause much wear and tear. She didn’t have to perch on the edge of herself for him, as though on a precarious cliff. He wouldn’t despise her if she chose a bad film, ridicule her if she liked an inferior book, now and then, like some people. The very idea. He didn’t expect her to drop everything when he called at the last minute. Besides, he always called with plenty of time to spare. He was easy. He laughed easily. He lived easily. It wouldn’t have occurred to him to be severe. They liked the same things – near enough, anyway. His hold on life was firm and clear, modest, charming, undefended. He had no ex-wife! It was going to be all right, wasn’t it?
The best hotel in Chicago being full, Jim and Eve had made their home at the tallest one, which had a special offer, four nights for the price of three or seven for five, twelve for nine. ‘An oasis dedicated to personal wellbeing,’ Jim read from the website. ‘How bad can it be?’ Its lobby was on the twelfth floor of a high-end shopping mall – the brochure kept that under its hat. Everything was spam-coloured marble, everything that wasn’t gold. As you emerged from the elevator there stood, right in front of you, a high pedestalled marble basin fourteen feet wide, raining water into a shallow moat below. On the fountain’s surface, bright oral arrangements surrounded a large iron sculpture of a bird of prey whose wings stretched up towards an elaborate ceiling rose. It was such a far-fetched construction. You couldn’t entirely believe your eyes.
‘I mean, why?’ Jim said, taking a step back, chuckling.
‘Well, sure, but it is very welcoming. I mean, could anyone in the history of hospitality ever have gone to more trouble for their guests?’
The concierge passed and stopped to welcome then. ‘I hear congratulations are in order!’ she beamed.
‘We were just admiring your . . . ’ Jim motioned with his hand.
The lady glanced upon the – no one could have known what to call it – with so much admiration, it was as though she were gazing at her firstborn in his graduation robes.
From the desk of Mr and Mrs James Southwold, the pale pink notepaper in the letter rack said, in residence at the . . . It had been engraved prior to their arrival, in raised gold bridal italic script. On the desk there was a china box of chocolates which was refilled every night: a caramel for a caramel, a strawberry crème for a strawberry crème. In the bathroom – the thickness of the towels! It was living, all right. It was loving. The people of Chicago adored them outwardly for choosing their fine city for the honeymoon, but amongst themselves they muttered incredulous, ‘Are they nuts or something?’
Dear Mum and Dad, she wrote.
Honeymoon is heavenly.
Hooray and phew.
Millions of Love,
at night when they made love she did not think the bad thoughts. Chicago had cauterised them. She was so happy she wept without restraint.
‘Hey!’ Jim said. ‘Hey! What’s all this?’
‘It’s going to be all right,’ she told him.
‘This. You, me. Life. Everything.’
Four days later her mother was on the hotel telephone. Who rings you on your honeymoon? Eve covered the receiver with her hand, shaking her head. ‘Oh Mother! She is naughty. She’s going to ask something completely disgraceful like, I don’t know, like, “What news from the stork?”’ She bit her lip and rolled her eyes in preparation. Her mother loved babies more than life itself. She was a pram chaser, a bonnet fancier, an obsessive knitter of matinee jackets for near strangers, a maker of heirloom mobiles. Her mother’s breath had been held since Eve met Jim for what they all thought of now as the ‘bootie call’.
‘What’s happened?’ Jim said as she came off the phone.
‘My . . . my dad’s on the roof,’ she said and her eyes filled with tears.
They flew home immediately. Chicago? What Chicago? They hovered in a holding pattern at Heathrow. Snow dashed against the windows. It was chasing them round the world. The plane landed gingerly.
She googled her father’s name illegally on her phone as they taxied on the runway. ‘Died peacefully during a nap, at home amongst loved ones who were gathered for a family party,’ it said. There had been no party, she knew that, ‘gathered for a family party’ was a bit of set dressing from the mouth of her father’s loyal agent Leslie. It was bow-tied defiance in the face of death. Pain or illness in the announcement was a definite no-no in the business. You didn’t want that – humiliating – although ‘brief illness’ had a certain high tone, if a hospital was already known to be involved. Dying quietly but calmly with no status-reducing degeneration or apparatus, at home with, if you really must, hot and cold running nurses, fair of face, surrounded by children, of course, as you expired with a ‘I’ve had a magnificent life’, that was the pinnacle, the absolute top rung. Her mother and her father’s agent had achieved a form of distinction in the announcement that would have impressed him. Her father was proud. He had gone to sleep, had some sort of heart event in the night, and simply not woken. To die with no illness was a coup, he would have been the first to state. He was seventy-six. Looks intact, he had staved off, just, old age. Full set of marbles – tick. Career in great shape. Lined up for Lear. Teeth – tick. Hair white, but Santa-lustrous. As a specimen even his enemies would have pronounced him 100 per cent shipshape, ‘as far as they knew’. He may have played losers but he had died a winner. He had said ‘when’ to old age, said ‘when’ to suffering and pain. He hadn’t conceded any kind of control to these bogeymen. at might not be everything but it was something.
They waited for the seat belt sign to go off.
‘I am just so so sorry about your dad,’ Jim said.
‘Do you think he’s all right now, wherever he is?’ she asked.
‘I suppose, in a way,’ Jim said, ‘that’s up to you.’
There was a white funeral. No one had been to one of those before. The snow on the coffin bearers’ heads made them look like sugary buns. People said it was Dickensian and they spoke of her father’s Fagin, which had had real menace, but who could forget the acres of heart? Which little child in the audience hadn’t wanted to join that merry gang of thieves? Eve had been taken on the Friday after press night. In her blue smocking dress, with her best friend Libby, she balanced a box of Maltesers on her knee. Her father up on the stage had a lot of personality. When he counted out his jewels and trinkets from a special box in his den you saw the lights of pleasure in his eyes. She dropped the Maltesers, in her delight, scrabbling for them on carpet printed with red flowers, scooping them back into the box with cupped hands. When she came up, licking the melted chocolate from her fingers, trying not to giggle, her father was tucking in the terrified-looking little blond boy who was the Oliver on his first night at the Den, ‘Goodnight Oliver, if you carry on in this way you’ll grow into one of the finest men of our times.’
She talked about it with her father the next day. ‘I was thinking that probably in his own life at the workhouse and the undertaker’s and everything no one has ever said anything kind to him, not once, not even thank you or please and then the first kind words he ever hears are just so enormous.’
‘Would make his heart brim, I expect,’ her father said.
She looked at him closely. ‘It was wonderful, Dad, more than wonderful. The way you made us feel what you made him feel, the little boy.’
‘Thank you.’ He squeezed her hand, ‘That means a great deal to me.’
On Sunday night when there was no show and he had come up to tuck her in, she saw a pale gold light come into his eye as he bent and kissed her cheek.
‘If you carry on in this way, Eve, you’ll grow into one of the finest men of our times.’
At the funeral various theatrical knights read passages of Shakespeare competitively. You could smell the aging actors in the church: face-powder, cigar-smoke, dry-cleaner’s fluid, vetiver. Some were ruddy of nose and cheek, some had a delicate Victorian pallor. Eve remembered that thing as a child, suddenly, when she couldn’t sleep and came downstairs and saw her father taking off his make-up in the kitchen. He used mountains of cotton-wool balls, not the coloured ones, and Pond’s cold cream always kept in a green Clarks shoebox. (I said to that dour gent at the chemist’s, ‘Do you have cotton-wool balls?’) The make-up on the discarded cotton looked precious, like something from a museum.
It was a life she might have had herself. Don’t think about it now.
Eve stood to deliver an address she had composed on the plane, but when her mouth opened there was only a threadbare sort of wail. She sagged against the lectern. She had a certain fascination in this setting, she knew, a brand of glamour that was tinted with disgrace. People knew she had buckled and cracked in the face of good fortune. What did that make her? Monumentally stupid and weak, some of them thought, and spoilt – nice work if you can get it – others ranged themselves more sympathetically – she was perhaps too sensitive a creature for this world. Still, to either side she was a strange phenomenon. She tried again with her speech. She had a horror, somehow, of acting or of seeming to, of using professional skills in a place where they did not belong. Public faces in private places or the other way round. But you could be too sincere. ‘Sorry,’ she mouthed. ‘I can’t make speeches. It’s too serious for that. I am too sad. I just loved him. I miss him so much – he’s the best person I ever met – it’s unbearably painful.’ She struck her stomach. ‘It almost feels like appendicitis.’ There was a ripple of laughter. ‘I know we all feel that way. We’ll always feel that way. I cannot think of a single good quality he didn’t have. The way he led his life. The way he made people feel. His extreme kindness. His brightness of spirit. His great rushes of grace.’ A catch came into her voice. ‘To my beautiful Dad,’ and she kissed her fingertips and blew on them, her breath hot on her hand. She bowed her head. ‘To Dad,’ the deep voices echoed all around, indulging her. He had been father-like in his dealings with so many of them. There was a certain sense there. Eve sat back down at her mother’s side to listen to the next ‘act’, gazing out over the congregation in the Actors’ Church where they had all gathered only five weeks earlier for the wedding. ‘It’s got such good proportions, generously wide, almost square like a double-fronted house, so welcoming,’ her father said. ‘Like open arms.’ The priest was lovely, they had agreed. Theatre people always felt at home in churches. It was familiar. What good did it do now? Eve reached for her mother’s hands. They were so soft.
Towards the end a recording of her father’s voice read out a sonnet:
‘Who will believe my verse in time to come,
If it were fill’d with your most high deserts . . . ’
‘He recorded it just a few weeks after you were born,’ her mother whispered. ‘They came to the house to do it. It was some big sonnet anniversary. He was looking at you as he spoke.’
‘Oh!’ She started to sob in her mother’s warm arms.
Then, from a crackling LP Billie Holiday sang ‘I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places’ and killed everybody.
‘Oh dear,’ her mother said. She would not cry. She was sensible and not a crying person.
‘Yep,’ Eve agreed, her body still heaving. They clutched each other hard.
Even the people who came who’d never met him were crying now: the work-experience tabloid gossip columnist who introduced herself afterwards (Did that even happen?), the flowers lady who had a lot of dignity in her charcoal coat with gold buttons, mud under her nails. What were they crying for? Their own fathers? After the final blessing they all sang ‘He Who Would Valiant Be’ but no one seemed at all valiant. It was a word that belonged far back into the past.
‘If we had known he was dying we could have really spoiled him,’ Eve whispered.
‘We’ve been spoiling him his whole life,’ her mother said.
Outside, as they left the church, there were seven or eight paps in a small huddle, underdressed against the cold. Jim shouted at them, ‘Go to Hell.’ She had never seen him angry before. It was not an expression that he, that anybody, used any more. It was the politest rude thing you could possibly say, taking in the dignity of the occasion, but still his body language was threatening. She always forgot to remember how tall he was. She thought he might hit them. Looking at things objectively she was proud that he was hers.
It was confusing, though. Wouldn’t her father want his send-off to be in the papers? ‘I have a nice level of fame,’ he had said in an interview recently. ‘People sometimes nudge themselves and smile and colour when they see me. I find it charming.’
‘How was the service?’ a journalist asked one of the Leading Actresses of our Time as she fiddled with her handbag by the mouth of the church.
‘It was perfect,’ the Dame said, smoothing the white cropped hair that framed her elfin features. ‘He would have been furious to miss it,’ she said, her mercurial face filling with first-rate feelings. She had probably had every possible emotion in her life, and on matinee days, sometimes twice over in twenty-four hours. Her own husband had died fourteen years ago. Her granddaughter lived with her now. She was that rare person who had found an energy in grief that fuelled her work, she said. She was so grateful for that.
The day was almost over, they had used it somehow.
So, the moral was, you couldn’t have a husband and a father. Eve had known it would be complicated but no one had said, specifically, it was either/or.