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Pure chance or cunning bait — I’ll never know, but regardless of how it got there, the item I spotted in a secondhand junk store turned out to be a perfect example of something that used to be known in the antique trade as a ‘naughty*’ piece.
Although the store advertised itself as selling ‘antiques’, almost everything inside was simply cheap furniture from the nineteen-fifty’s, a few racks of secondhand clothes, the odd pile of long-playing records, assorted aluminum pots and pans, and a few old copies of Life magazine. But perched on a scratched and stained Danish Modern coffee table with one leg missing, was something that caught my eye — something that looked like the genuine article.
On closer inspection I discovered I was looking at what is properly known as a toilet mirror: a small tilting mirror mounted on a small case fitted with one or more drawers. Sometimes also called dressing glasses, but more often referred to not quite accurately as shaving mirrors, a toilet mirror is a small item of furniture that became popular in the eighteenth century. Such items continued to be made well into the nineteenth century when the ability to produce larger size mirrors made them obsolete.
Typically veneered with mahogany or walnut they range from plain rectangular boxes with a single drawer to cross-banded and stringed serpentine-fronted cases surmounted by a variety of different shaped mirrors, invariably tiltable. Like larger pieces from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as bureaux, bookcases, and commodes, they are instantly recognizable as pieces from the golden age of cabinetmaking, and as such are easily classifiable as Queen Anne, Georgian, Chippendale, Sheraton, or Hepplewhite, etc.
Anything that old instantly engages my attention, and I was unable to resist picking it up for a closer look. The first thing I noticed was that the mirror, or at least its frame, had to be a subsequent addition, since it was supported on feet screwed to the top of the case between two small veneered patches. These patches were covering the mortises into which the original frame must have been tenoned. Undeterred by this anomaly, since the frame and stops looked equally as old as the case, I opened the drawers, looked underneath, and decided this was indeed the genuine article. The design, the patina, the rosewood crossbanding, the satinwood stringing, and — beneath a certain amount of grime — a spectacular flame walnut veneer all sang out to me.
It was at this point that the shop owner appeared. Tucking a grubby t-shirt into dirtier pants, and with a largely toothless grin, he allowed as ‘how rare it was to find a shaving stand with its mirror still intact’. I nodded, and thus encouraged he added that despite the fact that some of the stringing needed regluing it was a rare find.
I looked at the mirror which was in fact intact. A scattering of dark spots where the silvering was missing did little to obscure the wavy look of really old glass. Affecting only a mild interest I asked the price, and was given a figure that was surely higher than for anything else in the shop. But, realizing that even at a knowledgeable dealer’s auction this price would have been a bargain, I tried not to show my enthusiasm, shrugged, and asked if it were possible to do a little better. The grin disappeared, he grumbled and repeated how rare it was to find such a piece with its original glass — but dropped the price.
I bought it, and scarcely believing my luck took it back to my workshop, proud and excited to have found another piece of eighteenth-century furniture.
For the next few hours I carefully reglued loose sections of stringing and banding, and gently eased a couple of veneer bubbles back into place with a scraper that I had heated in hot water and then, protected by several sheets of blotting paper, pressed over the parts that had become separated. With some 0000 wire wool and a little beeswax I removed some small paint spatters, being careful not to remove too much of the two-hundred year old patina.
By the time I had finished I had made some startling discoveries. My toilet mirror, although undoubtedly old, was not exactly what I had initially thought it was.
The mirror’s oval frame, although veneered with cross-grain dark walnut and edged with satinwood stringing, and holding genuinely early thin glass — which I ascertained by placing the edge of a quarter on the surface and tilting it slightly in order to measure the distance between the edge of the coin and the beginning of its reflection — was definitely not eighteenth-century but more probably early Victorian, since the turnscrews holding the mirror’s frame in its supporting structure were finished in points rather than the flat domes found on eighteenth-century turnscrews. Not only that, but the supports that held the frame were also made of mahogany in contrast to the walnut veneer of the case — with feet of a lighter wood that had been stained to match — visible where a small scratch had cut through the stain.
The case was quite different. Veneered in flame-pattern walnut, with rosewood crossbanding and satinwood stringing around all edges, it had a serpentine front containing three drawers. It was a perfect compliment to several Sheraton bureaux I have pictures of, and I was reminded of the fact that these items were often kept on top of stylistically similar larger pieces. But the drawer handles were wrong. Instead of Sheraton-style drops, the two outside drawers had small ivory pulls. Although beautifully turned I could now see they were not original; not only did they not sit perfectly against the front of the drawers but there were also signs of missing finish where other knobs or pulls must once have been attached.
The wide central drawer — where the original owner probably kept valuable toiletry items such as expensive brushes and combs — had originally been fitted with a lock. The lock was missing, and so was the standard round-bottomed escutcheon that must have once protected the veneered surface from the key. More obvious was the fact that the drawer did not close flush with the front surface of the case. I pulled it out for closer inspection. Beautifully dovetailed thin oak sides and back with perfectly parallel saw marks still visible, plus a tapered piece of walnut veneer at the very front of the drawer bottom (to keep the drawer centered vertically when closed) formed a solidly rectangular whole — and yet while not warped or out of shape in the slightest degree, one side of the drawer remained almost a 1/4in. proud of the front of the case. The reason became obvious when I looked inside the case. New drawer stops had been clumsily glued to what I could now see was a replacement back. The outside of the back piece had not initially attracted my attention since it was more or less uniformly dark as if oxidized by age, but the inside was much lighter and clearly a relatively new piece of pine!
My final discovery came on turning the case upside down. Although I could see the bottom was original — there was the scribeline outlining the dovetails where the sides joined the bottom, and there were the small dark areas of more oxidization where tiny nails went through the bottom into the drawer partitions — the feet were crude replacements. Although they had been stained to match perfectly the colour of the rest of the case, they were little more than crude pieces nailed on, not even perfectly aligned with the sides of the case and mismatched in terms of height to boot — causing the case to rock slightly when placed on a flat surface. The original feet — which would at least have been nicely formed little brackets, if not a more complicated design in keeping with the sophistication of the rest of the elegant case — had been sawn off, as evidenced by saw marks on the corners of the bottom.
My toilet mirror consisted of mis-matched parts, crude replacements, and missing elements — all adding up to a ‘naughty’ piece designed to masquerade as a genuine fully integral eighteenth-century antique. Such salvage operations have been common since Victorian times as the supply of genuine pieces dried up and unscrupulous dealers have sought to satisfy modern demand. It has been estimated that out of a total population of twelve and a half million in eighteenth century England no more than two million families might have been able to afford high-quality cabinet pieces, and of these probably no more than a hundred and forty thousand might have had the need to do so, and yet there may be as many as two thousand pieces offered for sale every year now in antique shops and auctions — in addition to those already in museums and other authenticated collections. Obviously they can’t all be genuine.
I’ll never know if my attention had been drawn to the ‘rare original’ mirror in order to distract me from other disparate elements, but I now knew I was not the owner of a ‘genuine eighteenth-century shaving stand’! On the other hand, most of it is still very old and beautifully made, and gives me a lot of pleasure to look at and consider its long and colourful past, and wonder whose possessions it must once have held and whose reflections it once showed.
It was not until he left Victoria Station that it began to sink in that he was home again. Even after the boat had docked at Folkestone and he had boarded the train for London he still felt like a traveller in a strange land. But as he crossed the bus terminus, dodging the big red double-deckers and the swarming black taxicabs, and turned into a Victoria Street busy and alive with English voices, the reality that had been Spain began to evaporate with every step like a dream fading on awakening.
And then, no sooner had London and England begun to seem real, a new disquietude began to trouble his travel-tired spirit. Having grown used to the feeling of being an outsider in a foreign land he now felt oddly disturbed at the thought that no one around him was aware that he had just arrived from somewhere far away, and that here he was, back after six months in undreamt of places, being brushed up against as if he were merely another everyday commuter. He wanted to shout out: “Look at me! This time yesterday I was in Spain — in Barcelona — another world!”
But no one knew, and no one looked as if they would care anyway. The desire to tell someone, to validate his presence in this new reality became an imperative, and he mentally ran through a list of people he might call in order to announce his arrival. He thought first of Sarah, but winced and quickly passed on through various relations and acquaintances until he remembered Brian Coleham. He had shared a flat with Brian the previous year and it occurred to him that Brian would also be a good place to start the hunt for lodging — which was his next most important concern.
He stopped at a red phone box and hunted around in his bag for the little store of English money that he had kept since Sarah and he had first changed their meagre funds into francs and pesetas all that time ago. The coins had dulled, and they looked strangely large as he pulled them out. He pushed four copper pennies into the slot. It was not yet nine o’clock, and unless Brian had experienced a major conversion and radically changed his lifestyle to become one of the ‘employed canaille’ he so despised, he would still be in bed watching his automatic coffee machine prepare his morning plasma. Sure enough the phone rang only twice before it was picked up. Barely audible behind a trumpet in full blast he heard Brian’s languid tones.
“Speak to me, oh world, I am your sounding board!”
“You’ll be a bloody cracked sounding board if you don’t turn that music down. What is all that racket, it’s almost drowning you out?”
“Ah, the Philistine Coulter is among us again — you’re surely not ringing from the land of sun and señoritas are you?”
“No, I’m in Victoria Street. I’ve been travelling for two days and I need a place to sleep. Can I crash on your settee?”
“My dear Coulter, you may crash in the room of the lately departed and much missed MacCaig, whose lamentably unsympathetic pater has seen fit to recall him to the less libertine environs of Edinburgh — due, I might add, to certain unsatisfactory reports from the educational establishment at which he was pretending to improve himself.”
“Have you relet the room yet?”
“Numerous applications are about to be considered, my dear returning prodigal. Why, has expatriatism lost its charm?”
“Sort of. Get another key made, I’ll be right over.”
This was better than he had expected. A place to stay, which would undoubtedly be cheaper than any bedsitter he might have found and, apart from the occasional mayhem that occurred when the ever-changing cast of Brian’s sub-tenants got out of hand, would be in surroundings more entertaining and infinitely less lonely.
He was, however, forced to bribe Brian with the promise of a double deposit before the room became his. But considering that he managed to convince him to wait for both the first week’s rent and the deposit until he should be gainfully employed and in funds again, he felt it was worth it, especially since he knew that once he had started to pay rent he would probably be able to stall coughing up the deposit almost indefinitely.
As it turned out, one of the three other current occupants of the top floor of Alexandra Mansions was a Hungarian émigré called Lazlo, who found Roger a job immediately at the place where he worked himself, and Brian was so happy at receiving rent at the end of the first week of Roger’s residency that he pressed him only lightly for the deposit. The job was at a sheet music seller’s in Charing Cross Road, just round the corner from Denmark Street — the centre of the Popular Music Business — otherwise known as Tin Pan Alley. Although the firm was dickensian in every respect, and the actual job of seeking out music from the shop’s labyrinthine and dusty library to make up orders that were dispatched to other music shops all over the country was mind-numbingly boring, Roger was pleased to think himself part of the music business. As he took the tube down from Hampstead every day he felt sure that the decision made on the docks — was it really only five days ago? — had been the right one, and that the time would now be very short before he would be able to send for Carmen.
By the end of January, however, although life at Alexandra Mansions was convivial and diverting, and although Lazlo had become a good friend, frustration was growing upon Roger once again. The decision to leave Spain had been instantaneous, but on the long train ride home again there had been plenty of time to reconsider the bigger picture, and he had decided on a revised Grand Plan. The Castilian Suite for String Orchestra he now thought had been too adventurous a project; he was abashed at his own temerity. Spain had been an invaluable experience, and the work he had done on the Suite was useful — but hardly good enough. Carmen deserved more than a student work. Their entire future together demanded a more secure base. He would continue writing, but more importantly, he would recommence studying.
Lazlo, who had been an architecture student in Budapest before leaving after the 1957 uprising, and was now struggling to learn English so that he might resume his studies in Britain, had thus far been very supportive of Roger’s somewhat parallel Grand Plan. He had endeavoured to make time for Roger to study surreptitiously among the racks by collecting some of the more difficult-to-find pieces himself. Despite his still very inept command of English he had become amazingly adept at understanding the byzantine system by which the music was stored, and could locate any requested piece in a fraction of the time it took any one else to find it. In fact, he was faster even than Hodges, who headed the firm’s staff of collectors and who, having been with the firm for many years, could reputedly remember when much of the material had actually been delivered from the original publishers. Lazlo had masked his ability from the very first in order to utilize the saved time to study his English grammar texts, and the rate at which he appeared to collect his orders was now carefully slowed so as to create even more time for Roger.
The time thus made available to Roger had so far been spent preparing for the extra-mural examinations for entrance to the Royal College of Music; the idea being that by the end of the summer, if he passed, he would be able to attend and devote himself entirely to composition classes. Ignoring the fact that he was barely making enough money to support himself at present, let alone save any for supporting Carmen and the baby when it should arrive, how he was going to be able to keep things together when he was studying full-time remained a complete — and ignored — mystery. His fervent self-involvement had been sufficient to render this mystery irrelevant for the first few weeks, but now it was becoming apparent there was a terrible flaw in the Plan and he began to try to think of ways to improve the situation.
His frustration at this stage was further compounded by Hodges, who was beginning to be a problem. A small man in his late forties, with a pointed chin and wire-rimmed spectacles, he had been at the job since leaving school, and was full of the unctuous officiousness commonly seen in that class of clerks which has risen above the humblest but will never achieve any real authority.
“Not an easy piece to find, but I think if we look under ‘Chorales’ we might have some success, Mr Orolik,” he said one day, just as Lazlo was starting at the wrong end of a rack in order to justify the thirty minutes that he proposed taking for the search.
“Tsenk you, Hodges,” said Lazlo, staying where he was. “I look already in ‘Chorales’ but is not to find.”
“I think if you look more carefully you will find it there, Mr Orolik. Don’t you think so, Mr Harrison?” he added, more loudly, looking over his shoulder to the proprietor of the firm, who was standing at the main counter in the front of the shop.
“What’s that, Hodges?”
“I was suggesting that Mr Orolik look for Vita Pulchra in ‘Chorales’, Mr Harrison.”
“Quite right, quite right! Look in ‘Chorales’, Orolik. You’ll save a lot of time if you take Hodges’s advice.”
Hodges smiled smugly at Lazlo, who picked up the pile he had already collected and in squeezing past Hodges managed to drop it, and in so doing cause Hodges to drop his own pile as well. As Hodges bent down to retrieve the sheets, Lazlo somehow managed to knock two other open folders from the shelves, so that their contents also fell on top of the previous piles.
“Oh, let me help!” said Roger hurrying over, and in his rush tripping, so that reaching to save himself from falling he too managed to empty several more files of their contents onto the exasperated Hodges.
By the time order was restored and the three collectors were back at work, Hodges had had enough and was content to leave Lazlo and Roger to their own devices for the rest of the day. But day by day his persistent meddling increased, and more and more he managed to bring some deficiency of Roger’s or Lazlo’s to Harrison’s attention under the guise of well-intentioned obsequiousness. It was not long before Roger’s chief occupation had ceased to be trying to find some time in which to squeeze the odd fifteen minutes of studying, and instead was directed to dreaming up new ways to frustrate Hodges and land him in trouble with Harrison.
Although he normally found great difficulty in being punctual, he now went so far as to arrive a few minutes before Hodges each day and look at the list Hodges would be expected to fill, remove the contents from the appropriate folders, and hide them somewhere else. One day he had a better idea. He managed to switch the address labels on a couple of orders, one of which was particularly urgent and which Hodges had been specially assigned to fill, and sat back to enjoy the inevitable furor. Two days later, arriving at work expecting that on this day the orders would have been discovered to have been sent to the wrong addresses, he received an unpleasant surprise. Instead of a chagrined Hodges in hot water with Harrison he found himself on the mat. Hodges had realized what had been done and had gone immediately to Harrison to ‘apologize’ for Roger, saying that it was Roger who had written out the labels and whose inexperience had resulted in the switched addresses. Harrison, an irritable man at best, was beside himself.
“Mr Coulter, this firm is where it is today because our customers have learned over fifty years that they can rely on us. You are the last link between our reputation and the customer. Our entire library and stock counts for naught if it be misdelivered as a result of downright incompetence. You were given this position on the basis of your supposed familiarity with our stock in trade. I was led to believe that you were, in fact, a musician acquainted with the literature of the profession.” He spluttered on in this vein for a considerable time.
Roger pursed his lips and frowned, wondering what he was doing standing there listening to all this nonsense. What was the matter with the bloody fool? Who did he think he was, and who the hell cared anyway? Anyone would think this was all actually important. At last he simply turned and walked away, leaving Harrison continuing to splutter with increased indignation.
“Mr Coulter, where are you going?” — splutter, splutter — “I haven’t finished …” — splutter, splutter — “Come back! You may consider yourself relieved of your…”
But Roger had already reached the back of the shop where the coats were hung up. He turned and said: “Goodbye, Harrison, you really ought to watch your blood pressure, you know.”
As he opened the door to leave, Lazlo rushed after him.
“Vait for me. I come also!”
“Mr Orolik, if you leave with Mr Coulter you too may consider yourself sacked.”
But this remark was ignored as well, and they slammed the door and ran off laughing down Charing Cross Road. Harrison, who by this time was screaming at the top of his voice, was left alone with a terrified but triumphant Hodges.
“Now what do we do?” said Roger as they came to a stop at the corner of Denmark Street. He was wondering where to go until the pubs opened, since in his opinion their audacity demanded a suitable celebration. But Lazlo was thinking of his future, and an idea that Bart — the most recent arrival at the flat and a Spanish wine exporter’s son — had suggested to him.
“I tsink I take now big step into business. ‘Orolik Import Export’ is sound like wery good idea. I vill start vit champagne. Vill you be partner?”
“Lazlo, that’s a great idea. This is as good an opportunity as any to try your hand. But I don’t think I’ll be your partner, I’ve got to stick to my music.”
“So vot you try now — collectink for Moody and Bliss Poblishers?”
“No, I’m going to Grossner’s. I heard they’re looking for a junior plugger.”
“Plogger? Vot it is?”
“A plugger takes sheet music around and tries to get people to play it. If you get good you can get into the record business. Besides, you get to work your own hours, and I bet with any luck I could get a lot of studying done.”
“How you know from tzis?”
“Max over at Lilly and Hawkes was telling me about it at lunch yesterday. I was going to go over to Grossner’s tomorrow anyway. But I don’t see why I shouldn’t stop by now and see if I can arrange for an interview. Come with me and we can get a drink afterwards, all right?”
“To tzis,” agreed Lazlo grandly, “I vill trink champagne!”
Over the next few weeks ‘Orolik Import Export’ gradually became a reality, and after Lazlo had talked Brian into backing the purchase of a fifteen-year old van, on the sides of which he had the firm’s logo — a champagne bottle emerging from a globe — emblazoned in black paint (the van having been painted by hand in a particularly virulent shade of blue), the venture gained a certain credibility. Lazlo and Bart spent a lot of time driving the ‘waan’ to the docks, bringing back ever more paperwork but no champagne. This seemed in no way to dampen their enthusiasm, and Roger continued to wish them luck.
In the meantime he had applied to Grossner Music Publishers, lying about the circumstances surrounding his departure from Harrison Music Distributors. To his relief his story was not checked, nor was he asked for references. The following Monday found him around the corner from his previous employer, basking in the glory of his elevated position. That very afternoon he took time off from familiarizing himself with Grossner’s catalogue to use the office typewriter to write to Carmen:
My Dearest Carmen,
We’re nearly there! As you can see by the letterhead I’m now a genuine part of the music business. I imagine that before very long I will have saved enough from this place to be able to afford to move out of Brian’s and look for a place for both of us. Hang on, it won’t be long, I promise — another couple of months at the most. Then we can get married and the baby’s birth can be taken care of on the National Health.
With all my love,
Ludwig van Coulter!
To a certain extent his optimism was justified. Life as a song plugger for Grossner Publishers was a great improvement over life as a collector for Harrison’s. He did not have to start work until nine a.m., and since there was no time-clock, arrival and departure times were quite flexible, depending mainly on who from the upstairs office was in the building. Lunch hours were considerably relaxed: he was free to leave whenever he felt like it, and by arranging an appointment immediately after the supposed lunch hour itself, it was often three in the afternoon before he reappeared in the office.
The job consisted mainly of sending copies of Grossner’s most recently published sheet music to various small-time performers in the hope that the pieces would be played and thereby stimulate sales. It had been a passive operation up to Roger’s arrival, his predecessor merely mailing out copies of each new song as it was published to a list of theatre organists, but Roger was quick to see that follow-up phone calls and personal visits were far more likely to produce results — as well as provide copious opportunities for some quiet study on park benches.
It was difficult to tell whether Roger’s new approach had any direct effect on sales since he shrewdly concentrated on distributing only those pieces of music which had been recorded already and which were consequently already in demand. But the list of plays in theatres, restaurants, and hotels grew impressively, and although the royalties received by the firm were by no means enormous — amounting only to fractions of a penny for each performance — the upstairs office was duly impressed, and after only a month took the unprecedented step of giving Roger a small rise.
Lunchtime society in the Alley also improved greatly for Roger. As a plugger he was now admitted into a more elite circle than he had been as a lowly collector, and he began to hear stories about the next level of the business — that concerned with recording. Several pluggers working for other publishers with whom he became friendly were actually assigned directly to looking for ‘covers’ — minor recording artists who might be cajoled into recording additional versions of songs already made into hits by the big names. Max, the stock manager for Lilly and Hawkes, whom Roger had met while still at Harrison’s, and who had encouraged him to ‘move up in the world, my son’ was a special source of inspiration.
“It’s like this, Roger me boy,” he announced one day with his thumbs stuck in the armholes of his striped waistcoat, “you’ve gotta be smoove. All these bleedin’ recordin’ artists think they’re Frank Sinatra, don’t they, and you’ve gotta treat them like they was — even though they ain’t and never will be.”
“Yes, I see.”
“No, you don’t, neither. What you need is a new suit, innit? Get rid of that bleedin’ corduroy jacket and get yourself kitted out with somethin’ smart.”
He took the advice, but the new suit ate a large chunk out of the savings account recently established for phase two of the Grand Plan. However, after a lot of soul-searching it was rationalized on the theory that it would lead to quicker and greater growth of the fund by increasing his efficiency, and maybe his chances of being promoted to Grossner’s record-plugging team. It was a vote of confidence in himself that did in fact lead to results in the form of increased responsibilities and commensurate opportunities, but somehow the results never quite made it into the savings account. He found himself being included in the sharper set of pluggers, and instead of lunching on two-and-sixpenny veal escallops in Maria’s — the little Italian café at the end of the Alley — he was now enjoying five-shilling luncheons in the Marquis of Granby’s plush-carpeted saloon bar.
Although the bank account was stagnating, his studies continued, spurred on by the daily contact with the manifest results of musical success. He was ever more determined to reach the point where it would be his music that someone else was plugging and his songs that someone else would be singing and recording. One day Gloria Laine appeared at the office. Accompanied by several record company artist-and-repertoire executives — commonly referred to as the A-and-R men — and her own manager, she was ushered upstairs into Lionel Grossner’s private office by Marilyn, Lionel’s personal secretary. The large limousine in which she had arrived filled up half the street, and soon pluggers, collectors, and casual passers-by were crowding outside waiting to get a glimpse of the celebrity — whoever it might be.
Roger knew she was expected. Marilyn had called down earlier in the day.
“Roger, make sure you’ve got every version of Singing To You on hand, including the orchestral reduction. Lionel’s managed to get the one-and-only Gloria Laine to promise to drop by this afternoon before she goes down to Leicester Square to do the matinée at the Copa. If she’ll do it at the Copa and they like it, there’s a chance she’ll include it on her live album.”
And now there he was, acting very casually, as if artists of the stature of Gloria Laine dropped in at Grossner’s every day of the week. The attitude was not only for the benefit of the audience outside. He was every bit as impressed and as excited as they were, but at the same time embarrassed with himself for it. It was one thing to work one’s way up while studying, but almost unbearable to be seen as a mere plugger by someone he hoped soon to be in a position to fraternize with, even condescend to.
The phone rang on his desk and it was Max — whose office on the other side of the street afforded him a grandstand view of practically all the comings and goings of the Alley.
“Well, my son, I can see you’ve got company over there. ’ow come you’re still at your desk downstairs and not bein’ suave with the stars up in the front office?”
“What stars? You mean Gloria what’s-her-name?”
“Gloria Laine, eh? So that’s ’oo it is. Well, I am impressed. By the size of the limo’ I thought it must be Elvis ’imself! Mind you give ’er your card before she leaves”
However, when the entourage descended and made its way through the autograph hunters jamming the space between the office door and the waiting limousine, Roger was nowhere to be seen, having just at that moment remembered something that needed to be brought up from the basement archives, and which proved exceedingly difficult to locate.
Although he fell into the habit of spending an hour every day after work at the Marquis of Granby — not just to socialize but to wait for the rush hour to subside and to get something to eat — evenings were spent in his room at Brian’s, and were devoted with monastic single-mindedness to the harmony and counterpoint texts required for the upcoming examinations. He wrote to Carmen now with regularity, unconsciously sublimating thereby any urge for female companionship, and she wrote back encouraging him in his studies but never complaining about their separation or the difficulties her pregnancy was causing for herself and her family. It was becoming increasingly apparent that he was going to be in no position to provide a flat for both of them, let alone for the baby, so long as he worked at Grossner’s, but since Carmen had now determined to have the baby in Madrid he felt justified in directing all his energies towards admission at the Royal College. The sooner he qualified, the sooner he could start work at something meaningful and sufficiently remunerative to make their lives together a practical reality.
Spring arrived and winter’s leaden skies lightened. London burst into leaf. As the temperature became warmer, Roger’s optimism increased and he felt ever surer of the outcome of June’s examination. At the same time his position at Grossner’s was improving. Gloria Laine had indeed recorded Singing To You, and new copies of the sheet music bearing her picture on the front were plastered all over the window of the offices in Denmark Street. It was easy to convince almost anyone to play the song, and consequently Roger’s play list had never been longer. Lionel Grossner had begun calling Roger by his first name, and was talking about hiring another plugger so that Roger might spend more time on recording artists. If this happened it was almost certain that another rise would accompany the event, and he would be a little closer to doing something about a flat of his own.
Back at Alexandra Mansions, Lazlo’s business had progressed so far that much of the flat was now filled with cases and crates bearing Spanish labels. Evenings were frequently occupied with much moving and removing of these things, and Brian, very put out by all the commercial activity, spent a lot of time locked in his room with his Miles Davis records playing at full blast. The effect was to make Roger’s studying less than optimal, but he bore it with good humour, buoyed with confidence in the way everything else was progressing.
On the sixth of June, the very day before the examination, he received a short letter from Carmen:
Madrid, June 2 1962
My Dearest Roger!
This morning our son was born. Come to see him so we can all be together. You can stay at my aunt’s house and my parents will receive you here when you come to see us. We miss you.
Your Carmen — and your son Juan-Miguel.
He sat the examination with almost religious fervour, conscious of answering the questions not just for himself, but for Carmen and his son and their whole future life together. Afterwards, he was so certain that he had done well, that he virtually emptied his savings account to buy a return ticket to Madrid. The money to bring them all together would surely be forthcoming when he was enrolled at the Royal College. This wasn’t exactly a logical deduction, but he couldn’t believe that having so faithfully kept to the Grand Plan fate would not somehow provide. He had done his part, and done it despite having had to do it alone, without Carmen. So far as Grossner’s was concerned, not having told them of the examination but simply having called in sick, he merely informed them his ‘influenza’ looked like being a week’s affair rather than the one-day event he had at first thought.
And so, after six months in London that had seemed twice as long until the moment he stepped off the train in Madrid’s Chamartín Station — at which moment it seemed as if he had never left — he found himself back in Spain.
* * *
The Castilian Suite is available as an eBook or a paperback at Blackburn Books.
The decision to abandon the neo-Jean Genet lifestyle was, thanks to Ron’s fortuitous suggestion, almost immediately implemented. Despite a head-crunching hangover, he put on his clean shirt and presented himself at Oliveira’s Language School at ten o’clock the next morning. A brief interview, conducted in a confusing mish-mash of languages, was sufficient to establish that Señor Coulter was qualified to teach both English and German — the latter largely on the basis of Roger’s impressive recitation of the first verse of Heine’s Die Lorelei, which fragment comprised almost all Roger’s knowledge of that gritty language.
The director of the school was a large, sweaty, and nervously harried man, who was eager to put Roger to work at once, but who grudgingly allowed him to begin with a class at two that afternoon, and who furthermore also advanced Roger a small portion of his weekly salary — which was to be computed according to the number — undisclosed — of classes that he would teach. The timetable would be worked out later, and Roger was to keep himself apprised of his obligations by constant attention to the notice board in the lobby, where the schedule of classes and teachers was posted daily.
It was not clear whether any classes he might be required to teach would interfere with his playing duties at the Gato Negro, so he decided not to say anything to Delgado for the moment. If he could manage both, then so much the better. If the classes prevented his playing, then presumably he would be earning enough to pay his rent entirely in cash, or even more optimistically find himself with enough cash to move out of the Gato Negro and into something more along the lines of Manfred’s superior neighbourhood in the hills. It seemed as if things might be getting better at last, and he began writing a letter to Carmen in his head as he walked away from the school, keeping an eye out for somewhere to buy hot chocolate and churros, his usual breakfast fare — especially good for hangovers — with the windfall advance.
He returned to the school a little before two, and was impressed to find his name already on the schedule, not only for the two o’clock class, but also for one at eight o’clock that evening. That meant he would be able to make an appearance at the club, and by leaving perhaps five minutes earlier than he ought, still be able to make it back in time for the eight o’clock class. The prospect of thus doubling his income was hugely exciting, and he found his way to the prescribed classroom bubbling over with enthusiasm and mentally calculating how many classes it would take before he could start looking for somewhere better to live and be able to send for Carmen.
Much of his enthusiasm evaporated the moment he opened the door. Up to this point he had not given much thought as to whom he might be teaching. He had more or less assumed it would include the average cross-section of bored housewives, young secretaries and clerks, enthusiastic salesmen, and middle-class retirees preparing for a foreign holiday. What greeted him instead was a most macabre collection of old ladies; some so old they needed propping up, others so out of it they appeared to be unsure where they were — or why. Those with faculties still intact fixed him with birdlike stares, and with much patting of elaborate hairdo’s — mostly grey, although there were a couple of garishly tinted ones in their midst — opened the books before them and picked up their gold-plated pens and pencils. Apart from the nervous rustling of those in danger of keeling over, the room became expectantly silent.
The class was about twenty strong, arranged around several large tables irregularly placed in a high-ceilinged room at the front of the building, overlooking the busy — and extremely noisy — Calle Agosto, several floors below. At the back of the room, facing the large street-side windows, was a smaller table in front of a blackboard fixed to the wall. This was obviously his command post. He walked over to the table, sat down, and then decided to stand up again. Like a certain more famous chain of language schools, the Oliveira Language School operated on the principle of native-speaking teachers speaking nothing but the language being taught. This was a German class, and all he knew was that they were beginners. Accordingly, he cleared his throat and said: “Guten Morgen!” since this was the only German greeting he knew, and although it was long past morning he had no idea what the German for ‘afternoon’ might be.
A hesitant chorus of ‘Guten Morgen’s came back at him, and then total silence descended again as fifteen or so pairs of beady eyes fixed on him. There was a gentle crash as one old lady fell off her chair, and several of the more senile students who seemed unaware of what was going on let out quiet titters.
He sat down again and opened the course book he had been given. The method was simple. The teacher pointed at something and repeated its name. After several repetitions he or she was supposed to then ask, in simple terms meant to be understood as a question by virtue of the tone in which it was uttered, what these various objects were. The students were expected to reply with the designated object’s name. This was to continue until all students could name all objects quickly and surely. Most of the words listed in the book were new to Roger, but sounding as confident as possible he made a start.
“Tisch,” he said, pointing at the table. Silence. “Tisch,” he said again, more loudly. Continued silence. He looked around encouragingly at the geriatric bafflement before him, and repeated the word a third time — even more loudly: “TISCH!”
Most of the old ladies flinched, and one actually said something suspiciously like ‘God bless you’, but they were obviously not getting the point about repeating this linguistic gem. He decided to adopt a different tack. Smiling kindly, he stood up and began walking about the room pointing at chairs, tables, the walls, the floor, and whatever else was listed in the first lesson, saying the words as slowly and as clearly as he could. and hoping his pronunciation was halfway correct. They seemed to like this, and two or three applauded him as he approached the window and said slowly: “Das Fenster…das Fenster!”
But as he walked back up the room again — without having opened the window — they looked disappointed, and fell as silent as the others.
It was like teaching a room full of hypnotized snakes. Two more old ladies fell off their chairs during the ensuing hour, but otherwise there was total silence as their beady eyes followed his every move. When the lesson was terminated by a clangorous bell, he felt as if he had been reciting some cabalistic incantation. But they all curtsied nicely as they left the room and he took comfort in the thought that unlike the sailors or his customers at the bullring they were unlikely to come looking for him later with revenge in their hearts.
He rushed back to the Gato Negro, played an increasingly quiet set, so that when he stopped earlier than he was supposed to the lack of piano would be less likely to be noticed, and then rushed back to the Oliveira Language School. The second lesson was all old men — but at least this time he was teaching English — and he spent a pleasant hour and a half talking to another sea of uncomprehending faces, regaling them with a monologue on the subject of topless bathing at Badalona and what they were missing by attempting to learn English instead of spending time at the beach. Several of the younger ones clapped politely when it was all over, but most of them remained sound asleep in their seats when the younger ones left, and he was forced to shake them all awake so that the next class might enter. He had an idea he might not last too long if it was discovered his students did better at sleeping than learning English.
The director shook his hand warmly when he went downstairs — which was a relief — and he was happy to discover that once again the schedule for the next day would permit him to put in an appearance at the Gato Negro — just. He felt very pleased with the way things were working out, and decided to celebrate by sharing a round of Fundadors with Kurt and Ron. He found them at the usual place, and they were more than ready to celebrate with him, although he did have to endure a half-hour’s lecture on political corruption, occasioned by the delayed arrival of Ron’s government pension.
They celebrated rather later than he had intended, and as dawn broke across the still largely sleeping city he found himself cold and once again hungover trying to drink fresh horchata at one of the white-tiled combination bakery–dairies whose opening doors were the first signs of daytime life. Kurt and Ron having decided at last to head for home and bed, he was finally left alone with barely enough time to change his shirt and fight the morning rush hour to be on time for his first class of the day. This was not good; more monosyllabic German at eight o’clock in the morning with no sleep and a wretched hangover. Mercifully, his next class was not until lunchtime, and he determined to snatch a couple of hours sleep.
Sleep was not on the cards, however, and the day was not a success. The morning class had been agony; the few hours’ sleep he had been counting on had been wrecked by construction noises in the Plaza. Consequently, he was late for the afternoon class, late for his gig at the Gato Negro, and late for the evening class at the school. This time the director did not shake his hand but pointed out that he was being paid by the hour — or portion thereof that he managed to be present for. He left the school at ten o’clock intending to go directly to bed, but when he got back to the Gato Negro Kurt and Ron were waiting for him, and insisted he join them for the last set of the evening since an up-and-coming local saxophone star was expected to make an appearance.
As a result of all this, the next day was not much better. Nor was the following day much of an improvement on that day. In fact, in little less than a week after he had started at the Oliveira Language School, he felt ready to die. The classes had devolved from strange to surreal. More than once he had come to with a start at his desk, realizing that he had actually nodded off, and had no idea of how long he had been unconscious. The old ladies stared beadily, expectantly, and he barked out another mouth-destroying German noun, at which they all flinched, although by now he had progressed so far as to get at least a few of them to whisper something back. But their efforts made him sorry for them. They sounded a lot like they were trying to throw up.
In an effort to stay awake he sometimes stood up and wrote things on the blackboard, but this was dangerous since he often found himself drawing strange diagrams he had no memory of beginning; several were distinctly sexual in character, and he worried lest an unexpected visit by the director were to put his future at the school in jeopardy. There could be little justification for teaching such old ladies the German for such youthful erotic preoccupations.
His constant drowsiness was even more of a problem with the old men, of whose number more and more fell asleep at every lesson. One particularly somnolent afternoon while walking up and down between the tables of snoring students in a desperate attempt not to nod off himself, he hit upon the idea of opening the windows. Perhaps a little fresh air would help, he had thought, and had thrown wide the large casement windows with a sudden clatter. This, plus the unexpected noise of the traffic outside, had so startled some of the more soundly snoozing grandfathers that he had feared group heart attacks were imminent, and he had been forced to shut the windows again in a hurry.
And then the main reason for this new and strenuous lifestyle that he had thought was making it all worthwhile — namely, an increased income — backfired just as it was achieved, and precipitated an even worse disaster than the potential infarctions he had nearly caused his old men.
It happened at the weekend, when for the first time he had no evening classes. Still hankering after another opportunity to spend more time in the company of the French beauty, whose topless image had occupied almost as much of his available fantasy time as his true love, Carmen, he had jumped at Kurt’s suggestion that he join ‘Mesdames and Messieurs’ for dinner. It had been longer than he could remember since he had been able to contemplate such an extravagance without the necessity of taking out a loan, and aside from his eagerness to meet the ineluctably delectable Anna Raspaud again, felt he deserved some luxury after the non-stop exhaustion he had endured running backwards and forwards between the Gato Negro and Oliveira’s Language School — not to mention the occasional trip to El Perico.
They met, dined, and danced at Los Caracoles d’Oro, and the evening was everything he could have hoped for. He sat next to Anna at table, positively wallowing in her radiance and perfume, and when, during a breathy, intimate interval in the dancing, she not only tolerated his taking her hand but rested her other one on his thigh, was sure the moment had arrived when he might suggest some solitary tryst — if not in the windowless cell above the Gato Negro, then perhaps in the quiet of the cathedral precincts or some convenient park. But he was still waffling on about the ‘impression she had made on him’ when the toll for his excesses was exacted.
The first sign was an embarrassing stomach rumble, which he pretended to ignore, although he was sure he detected a slight raising of one of her beautiful eyebrows, but almost immediately he felt an abdominal gurgling which he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt could not be ignored, even were he with a hundred Anna Raspauds, all ready to rip off their clothes and fall at his feet. Annoyed and humiliated at the same time, he jumped up and ran for the toilets. He was only partially successful. Too soiled to reenter polite society, he was forced to wait until Kurt came looking for him. He explained his mortifying predicament and left by the back entrance, making Kurt promise to invent some face-saving excuse — especially to Anna.
The cool night air precipitated another attack that put paid to any idea he might have had about taking a taxi home; he was now in too much of a mess. He was also feverish, and growing steadily worse by the minute. In fact, by the time he had dragged himself up the stairs and into his tiny room at the Gato Negro he felt so bad that he would not have cared if news of his condition, far from being discreetly withheld from Anna Raspaud, had been broadcast to the entire world.
The next thirty-six hours passed by like an agonizing nightmare of which he was only vaguely aware. Word of his distress filtered down to Delgado by noon the next day when the toilet at the end of Roger’s hall became unusable by anyone else. He sent up a janitor to see what was the matter and the janitor returned with news of the ‘Ingleses’s imminent demise’. Delgado seemed to think that so long as the Inglese was alive it was no great concern of his, but since it would be difficult to find a replacement pianist on short notice he condescended to send up one of the Moroccan waitresses to see if she could straighten him out sufficiently to sit on the piano bench.
He was later appalled to think what native cure Ouida, the Moroccan, might have subjected him to had she had a free hand, but as it was she met Kurt on her way upstairs, and Kurt promptly seized the opportunity to practise the results of his five years at medical school. At first, Roger was too weak and so barely conscious that Kurt was unable to do much. But by the second day he had filled the sink on the wall in Roger’s room with a cement-like mixture of bananas and oatmeal, which he encouraged Roger to eat every time he opened a weak and watery eye. He did not have the strength to object that he had been in the habit of using the sink as a urinal, and took tiny mouthfuls which he then spat out when Kurt was looking the other way. During the intervals when Kurt was absent Ouida was left to keep an eye on the patient, and she would look in from time to time and mutter guttural soothingnesses in Arabic. Short and dark, and habitually dressed in intricately flowery clothes, she took on the persona of Florence Nightingale and Anna Raspaud combined so far as the semi-delirious Roger was concerned, and he gradually became attached to her the way many a patient comes to rely on his nurse, or a captive on his jailor. By the third day he was able to sip a little of the acrid tea she brought him, but he was more interested in the warmth and mysteriousness of her voluminous dress. His feeble attempts to bury his head or at least his hands into her warm spots were met with patient but firm reproof.
“Tu me dégoûttes, tu me dégoûttes,” she repeated over and over, and he thought she was being coy, and encouraging him. If only he had a little more strength. It was a long time later that he learnt that what she had been saying — with a heavy Moroccan accent — was ‘You disgust me, you disgust me.’
At last Kurt gave up on the banana and oatmeal cure and helped a partially recovered Roger downstairs for the first time in four days and into the nearest farmacia. The pharmacist took one look at the pathetic figure before him, and barely paying any attention to Kurt’s lengthy medical diagnosis handed over some medicine that took effect almost at once. His only surprise came when he discovered how long Roger had been in Spain before succumbing to what in Mexico is jokingly referred to as ‘Montezuma’s Revenge’.
“It must be due to the fact that since your arrival you have eaten so poorly that your system had nothing to react against,” surmised Kurt, learnedly. “Only after you indulged in some genuine cuisine at Los Caracoles, could the inevitable take place. Now, no doubt, you will be fine.”
Feeling considerably chastened for his excesses, his lack of discipline — he had written almost nothing since meting Kurt — and his shameful hankerings after Anna Raspaud — who in any event he now learnt had indeed moved into Carlos Vargas’s flat — he resumed work at the Language School, presenting a doctor’s note provided by Kurt, written on the impressive Unicorn stationery. He so far prevailed on Delgado, who more than anything else was relieved that his plumbing was once again in working order, that in return for a modest increase in rent he kept not only his windowless cell but also his piano job at the club; both, he promised himself, only for the shortest possible while. The chief consideration in this deal had been the opportunity of using the piano during the mornings before the club opened — and then only provided he had no classes to teach.
Once again dedication and determination were the order of the day. But it was difficult. His good intentions were constantly undermined by his erratic and unpredictable teaching timetable; he never knew from day to day when he might have to teach. And to make matters worse, his classes were always awkwardly scheduled; he rarely had two consecutive classes. Most often there was a gap too short to get back to the club and do anything useful, but too long to be idled away in good conscience.
He thought of Jorge’s offer to play the piano at El Perico, but knew the distractions would be too great. As it was, it was only with the greatest difficulty that he suppressed periodic urges to visit Inés.
It was now close to Christmas, and he was becoming depressed by the apparent hopelessness of his struggle to better his situation as well as continue writing the Suite, when fate rewarded him for his doggedness.
He came home from the school one evening to hear the unusual strains of Dixieland jazz emanating from the Gato Negro. This was so unlike the usual avant-garde fare that the Gato Negro was known for that he at first thought it could not possibly be live music, but must be some especially loud record. As he pushed his way into the club, noticing a different clientele than was usual, he realized that, in fact, there was a live Dixieland band playing, and a Dutch one at that.
The music was irrepressibly festive, and instead of going directly upstairs to squeeze out a few more bars of the Suite he ordered a beer and decided to stick around for a while. He had hardly picked up the beer a scowling Jaime pushed at him when he heard a voice at his side.
“You’re English, aren’t you?”
He looked around and smiled at a pretty girl sitting at the bar with a stack of music before her. “Yes, I am. My name’s Roger. Who are you?”
“Anne Rasche. I’m with the band. They said there was an English musician living here when we came in. I guessed you must be him from your long hair and your accent.” She smiled again and continued: “Do you think you could buy me something to drink until my boyfriend finishes this set. This bartender won’t give me any credit, and says he can’t serve women anyway?”
“Which one’s your boyfriend?”
“Would you like a beer, or something else?”
“A beer would be great, thank you. How long have you lived here?”
“Seems like forever. How long are you going to be here?”
“Just until Christmas. Then we go over to Ibiza for two weeks. Frankly, I can’t wait to get home.”
“Eindhoven. Do you know it?”
She sipped her beer and he watched her over the top of his glass. Short blond hair, a square face with high cheekbones; she reminded him of Sarah with her hair cut. Funny she should be called Anne, with the last ‘e’ pronounced as a separate syllable; almost like Anna…Anna Raspaud. Yet how different. They were both beautiful, but where Anna Raspaud was sophisticated and seductively manipulative this Anne was open and guileless.
“What’s all the music?” he asked, indicating the pile in font of her.
“Oh, it’s arrangements Dirk is working on for the band. He plays drums but he really wants to be an arranger.”
Before very long they had become fast friends. She was so easy to talk to it was as if they had known each other for years. When the set was over she introduced Dirk and the rest of the band, and they all shared several rounds of beers before it was time to play again. There was something very unassumingly dedicated about this honest Dutch band, working their way around Europe. So much so that, mindful of his own resolve and inspired by his new friends, Roger said goodnight and went upstairs to work on the Suite in a much happier frame of mind than he’d been in when he’d arrived — but not before promising to get together the next day and show them around,
Happily he had no classes until late in the afternoon the following day, and after his habitual morning chocolate-and-churros, he found himself leading a mini-tour around the more colourful parts of the Barrio Chino. At lunchtime Dirk and a couple of the other band members who had been with them remarked that they had a rehearsal planned for the afternoon, and before he knew it Roger found himself alone with Anne headed for a cable-car ride up Montjuich.
The heights to the west of the city, which the cable car ascended slowly but often dramatically, afforded a bird’s-eye view of the entire basin. They were alone in the swaying car for the last half of the journey to El Cumbre — the summit — and the glass windows magnified the heat of the sun so that it was almost warmer in the car than outside during the middle of the summer. They had been quiet for a few moments, almost the first lull in their easy conversation all day, and Roger was suddenly aware of the perspiration breaking out on his brow. He took off his sunglasses, and was digging in his trousers’ pocket for his handkerchief, when Anne leant forward and wiped the beads of moisture away with a scarf from the handbag slung over her shoulder. The gesture was quite natural and unpremeditated, as if it had been a matter of a child in need of having its face wiped, but something passed between them as she finished, and she stopped, almost in mid-motion, her face very close to his. He put up his hand to her chin and held her for a second — and then they kissed.
The slowly climbing car rocked gently from side to side, and they remained face glued to face until neither of them could breathe anymore. Finally, with a gasp, they broke apart — and there were tears on Roger’s face.
“I’m sorry… I…”
“I won’t tell,” she said with a smile.
“No, it’s not that. I’m not…after you.”
“I know,” she said, now wiping his face again unconcernedly. “From what you’ve told me it sounds like you’ve been alone too long — from anyone who really understands.”
“I didn’t think I’d told you so much.”
“You’ve told me a lot. And it’s clear that you love this Carmen, but she is from a different world.”
It’s true, he thought. It was hard to imagine Carmen following him around Europe as Anne was following Dirk and the band.
Are you and Dirk…?”
“We’re engaged and going to be married in the spring, after the band makes its record.”
“I hope it all works out,” he said.
“And I hope it all works out for you,” she replied, and kissed him again, this time a polite, friendly kiss, as was appropriate for two friends wishing each other well.
Anne and the band left a week later for their gig at the White Horse Club on Ibiza. Roger helped them get their equipment down to the ferry for the passage across to the Balearics, and found himself wishing very much he was going with them. They had all become fast friends, and he had begun to feel like one of the band, even sitting in for a few numbers every night. What she had hinted at was true: he had indeed grown very lonely for company with his own kind — whatever that was, although they seemed to fit the bill. When the ferry pulled away in the short dusk of the December night he found himself very alone and almost overwhelmed by the utter foreignness of his surroundings. By the time he had reached the dockyard gates it was completely night, and the cold wind from the Mediterranean made him hunch his shoulders into his jacket. The Gato Negro was waiting for him, as were Kurt and Manfred and Jürgen, as well as all his baffled old ladies and all his sleepy old men, but the feeling that his world was out there on the ferry, over there on Ibiza, and even farther away in England, suddenly became impossible to refute.
It was not exactly homesickness or loneliness. It was not that he still felt lost in an alien environment the way he had months before. He had friends, a job — several jobs. He knew his way around, he spoke the language, and most of all he had Carmen — albeit at a distance, he thought ruefully — and he had his purpose in life — the Suite. But suddenly it all felt wrong, as if it were the wrong scenery in a play. He didn’t need this anymore. He wanted to be where people spoke his language, and where the effort to write music and the attempt to provide a means whereby he and Carmen could be together was no longer such an exotic farce.
He turned to catch a last glimpse of the ferry’s twinkling lights, and blew a kiss to Anne. He thought of his stupid infatuation with Anna Raspaud. He thought of Carmen, halfway across the country, writing to him every day. He thought — and guiltily suppressed the thought immediately — of the long-haired beauty he had first come to this wretched place with.
As he walked back up the Ramblas with his hands stuffed in his pockets, past the noisy cafés and the blaring bars with their outlandish menus of fried sparrows, frogs legs, and squid, he suddenly knew it was over. His Iberian hegira was at an end.
* * *
The Castilian Suite is available as an eBook or a Paperback from Blackburn Books