Read A Short Walk from Harrods Online
Authors: Dirk Bogarde
GARETH AND LUCILLA
With very much love
ââ¦ at sixteen the height of my ambition was to construct a cage â¦
for a pet linnet. ' Sussex, May 1937
Sitting here, as presently I am, the nicotiana is higher than my head. Well. As high as. The scent is overwhelming, drifting out into the still evening air. I suppose that I should try and find a word other than âdrifting'. But that is exactly what scents do on still summer evenings; it's what this scent is doing. So it remains. Drifting. It's all part of building up an illusion of peace and calm. I planted the things out in April, earlier than advised, but I did it anyway, and did it so that I should be able to sit one evening quite embowered by blossom and suffocated by heavy scent.
And so I am.
A sort of peace descends. It would appear, from all outward signs, that stress has faded.
Only âappear'. I still jump like a loon if a book falls, a door bangs, the telephone rings. That's rare. Rarer than falling books or banging doors. The telephone hardly ever rings. And never between Friday afternoon and Monday afternoon.
People go away.
Sometimes, on Sundays, if it gets really grim, I walk to the station to buy a newspaper I don't need, or want, and talk to the very friendly chap who runs the paper stall. His mate runs the flower stall. We speak of the weather, local football (about which I know nothing, but I nod and listen), and it breaks the silence.
Heigh ho. A fat bee nudges rather hopelessly among the fluted white trumpets. If you could talk to a ruddy bee I'd tell it that it was out of luck. You won't get any pollen from that lot, the trumpet is far too narrow.
But it's not after pollen. Nectar. That's the word. And it won't get that either. A hopeless, fruitless search.
Talking aloud to oneself, or trying to engage a bee in conversation, or discuss the state of the day with a portrait, or the wallpaper, is an almost certain sign of incipient madness and, or, senility.
I don't honestly feel that I have reached either of those stations of the cross; but I have checked it out with others who live alone and living alone, they assure me, gets you chatting up a storm.
To no one.
Well, it fills in the silences. Sometimes they are good, the silences, but at times they do get a bit heavy. Music helps, of course. I listen to more music now than I ever did before.
The evening sun is warm on my face, the terrace tiles still hot under my bare feet, hot from the glory of the day. It really is a kind of contentment. The bee, the nicotianas, the stillness and, high in the tree beyond, the kestrel.
He arrived like a silent dart a few moments ago; sussed me out, snapped his head round, fixing me with huge golden eyes. Steady. Below, on the close-mown grass, two wood pigeons waddle about like a couple of blowsy bag-ladies. Aware, with the extraordinary vision which they possess, of the danger above but disinclined to fly until death swoops, they continue to waddle. Very British.
The tree frills in a slight breeze which arrives suddenly like a sigh. The kestrel sways gently, eyes still on me. The nicotiana, the white and yellow daisies, the magenta bells of the fuchsia rustle and swing and suddenly, as if the breeze had been a signal, the kestrel takes off in a long low swoop, glides across the lawns, flustering the bag-ladies, planes upwards over the trees on the boundary and is lost to sight.
All is still. The breeze has dropped as suddenly as it arrived. A crow across the garden cries out in raucous worry; its mate, squatting on a rickety platform of twigs, calls back two or three times; the bag-ladies shake ruffled feathers and nose and bob, cooing in relief.
Danger has passed.
The garden is still, fading gently into evening. The ice in my whisky chinks, almost convincing me with the serenity of its delicate sound that there is nothing for me to do, or nothing which has to
done. But I know very well that there is.
The nightly watering chore has to commence. I do find it exhausting, carting gallons of water about and trying not to bump into the furniture on the way. Dusk is falling slowly, my ice melting; through the fretwork of the tree the elegant shape of Peter Jones looms, flags limp now in the breezeless air, sleek, proud, clearly bent on a collision with the Royal Court Theatre across the square.
Lights spring up somewhere on the top floor, an ambulance siren wails, a window is slammed shut, traffic mumbles distantly, a voice calls out, a woman laughs and feet clack-clack-clack along the pavement.
I am back full circle. I'm where I started out on my journey at the meek and wondering age of seventeen.
Consider: at sixteen the height of my ambition was to construct a cage from garden-bamboo for a pet linnet. Which I did, only to find that I had misjudged the widths of the bars, through which the bloody bird sped. Story of my life you might say. But you'd be quite wrong.
At seventeen, refusing education of a higher kind, refusing university, refusing all chances of becoming an office boy, or
a runner, at
Printing House Square, refusing, in fact, to follow my exceedingly clever father into his post as art editor, I agreed, fairly ungraciously I have been told, to a place at art school in Chelsea Polytechnic. At seventeen, just turned, I was a year too young but apparently showed âinteresting talent' so they took me on. Unaware of my lack of education and my cavalier method with measurements or anything requiring thought. (Check with bamboo bird cage above.)
However, there it was: I went. And sitting here I can almost see the spire of St Luke's church, which was not so far from the school. Which is why I can say that I am back full circle. For this was my area, my manor if you like. I knew it, and loved it, well.
At seventeen an art student, at nineteen I was scrubbing out the pans and pots in the tin wash at Catterick Camp. At twenty-seven, after a good bit of voyaging, I was back again, became a âfilm star', and at forty-eight, deciding to take stock and readjust the seasoning of life, I left England for Provence and sat up on a mountain among my olives and sheep very contentedly until I was sixty-seven. When the heavens all of a sudden fell.
So I came back here. To the area in which I had begun to grow up; or, if not that exactly, to set down tentative roots, and commence an adult life. It was familiar territory, I walked among ghosts, pleasant ones, and felt not so strange, and people were initially very kind, until I decided, quite by myself, that solitude was better by far than being âin demand'. So I cut adrift and went on my way. A dinghy bobbing along happily in the fog of unfamiliarity.
Being âin demand' simply meant that you were presentable enough, not an unspeakable bore, that you could talk left and right at a dinner or luncheon table, be agreeable, amusing (moderately), and, above all, that you were unattached. That was the most important thing of all: no wife or mistress to trail about, just you yourself. Free,
the desperate hostess's dream. You had become a âspare pair of trousers'. It is not as disagreeable as perhaps it sounds. You get your supper free - you just have to do a bit of singing for it. Not difficult. Merely tedious.
The deadliest thing of all was the agonizing sameness of it. After over two decades away I had grown far distant from the chatter and behaviour of the people with whom I now dined or lunched. I did my best to bone up, as it were, on London events by reading a great many daily newspapers. I could talk about, for example, plays and films and books which I had never seen or read simply because I had studied their critics.
of them, so that I could work out for myself how things were in that performance or production or book. I read about politics, something I had hardly ever bothered to do in France; even got into American politics through the pages of the glossy news magazines. Nervously I went to my dinners if not in a black tie, which I did not possess and refused to wear anyway, at least moderately well armed with general information. What bugged me most was that I was not at all
with the local politics of the neighbourhood. I had no idea who was sleeping with whom, who had gone off with a wife or husband, boyfriend or lover, and where they had all hidden. I didn't know who was âin' or âout', and was amazed, above all, to discover that the only thing which really had not changed over the years was the speech pattern
of the guests at these unquestionably perfect, elegant, beautifully presented and, ultimately, dull evenings.
Generally speaking my hosts, hostesses and their guests were all, to my silent consternation, merely marking time. A long-forgotten roar from my regimental sergeant-major at Aldershot drifted often into my mind while I toyed with a slim Baccarat wine glass:
'On your marks! Slow march!'
And this is exactly what they were doing, apparently quite unaware and uncaring. Perhaps it was all too late for them anyway? It seemed to me that they were digging themselves into a hole of their own making. Trapped hip deep in the past. Their scenario was sepia, thumbed and tattered.
I had, personally speaking, chucked my copy away years ago when I left the grey-white cliffs of Dover for a new life. But now on returning I discovered, to my dismay, I had to dig it out again, dusty and faded by the years, and play it over once more. Or, rather, replay it, without the confidence and knowledge that once I had possessed. It was very worrying really, but, I suppose, better than boiling up one of those deathly plastic bags, or crumbling Carr's water biscuits into a tin of heated-up soup over the sink. I couldn't do more, frankly. Boiling an egg had become either âVictory' or âdisaster'. Even with an egg-timer from the Reject Shop. It was extremely insular and (a name the papers decided to lumber me with) âreclusive' to hang in just with myself. I really couldn't complain that the telephone never rang, because I was fast becoming a deadly, unsociable boor. My own fault. Therefore I decided to accept the invitations which did come my way from generous and affectionate friends from way-back-when. To go out and discover life among the living! Not to sit there alone in my room, to go where the music played â¦
Okay. But did it? Let me describe an average evening. You can make up your own mind. It was a far cry from my life before. I had known Victoria for years, since my earliest days in the post-war theatre. She had a very pretty house in Charles Street filled with minor treasures. Flowers, silks, good paintings, good furniture. It was not by any means an âarrogance of good taste'; it was extremely comfortable, pleasing and very expensive. She had arrived from America years before with a glorious figure with which to carry her clothes and a glorious figure with which to purchase them from the great houses and to please her bankers and her future, pretty useless but titled, husband. In short, Victoria survived radiantly, and by the time I met her, after my first big West End success, she was intent on launching me into Society. I didn't desire that, and there really wasn't much âSociety' flying about by that time, 1947â50. What was left after cruel decimation in the war and vicious taxation didn't amount to very much. Victoria's world was crumbling like an Alka Seltzer. Only she, and her guests, didn't dare face the fact.