Read Mermaids on the Golf Course Online

Authors: Patricia Highsmith

Mermaids on the Golf Course (6 page)

BOOK: Mermaids on the Golf Course
3.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

For a moment, Craig felt cut off, then glad it was over.

Prescott gave a laugh. “That bit about religion at the end. You thinking of writing a book, maybe? Might sell.”

Craig didn’t reply. He had decided in the last seconds that he didn’t like Prescott. He had met Prescott only once before, in the
Monitor
’s office, knew he was highly thought of, but now Craig didn’t like him.

However, the article that Prescott wrote which appeared ten days later in the
Monitor
was top-notch. Craig’s words came out hardly changed, and they rang true, in Craig’s opinion. In Tom Buckley’s photos, Craig looked serious in one, agonized in the other. An excellent, if only one, picture of Lizzie Davis showed her seated in an armchair in her house, holding what the caption stated was a print of the photograph that had changed her life. Lizzie looked hopeful, modest and pretty, as she stared the camera straight in its eye.

The article brought Craig a few more invitations to lecture, one from a prestigious university in the east, which he accepted. He wrote to the
Monitor
saying that for the next few months he expected to be busy on his own, and so could not at once say yes to the staff photographer’s job they had offered, even with the augmented salary to which they had agreed. Craig had higher aspirations: he was going to write a book about it all. When he thought of Fate’s part in it, God’s part, his brain seemed to expand and to take wings of fancy. He might call his book
Fate Took the Picture,
or maybe
The Lens and the Soul.
The word
conscience
in the title might be a bit heavy. Craig gave a few more talks, and managed easily to bring his religious thoughts and pangs of conscience into his text. “Life is not fair sometimes—and it troubles me,” he would say to an awed or at least respectfully listening audience. “Here
I
am, lauded by so many, recipient of honors—whereas the poor girl victim, Lizzie, languishes . . .”

Craig’s book,
Two Battles: The Story of a Photographer and a Girl,
appeared four months later, after a rushed printing. The book was ghosted by a bright twenty-two-year-old journalist from Houston named Phil Spark, who was not given credit on the title page.
Two Battles
sold about twenty thousand copies in its first six months, thanks to aggressive publicity by its New York publisher and to a good photo of Lizzie Davis on the back of the jacket. This meant that the sales more than covered Craig’s advance, so Craig was going to have more money in his pocket due to royalties. He and Clancy got married, and moved into a house with a mortgage.

He had sent half a dozen copies of
Two Battles
to Lizzie Davis, of course, and in due time she had replied with a formal note of thanks for his having told “her story.” But she showed no sign of wanting to see Craig again, and he didn’t particularly want to see her again, either. She and Craig had met briefly with the ghostwriter to get some background in regard to Lizzie’s schooldays in Kyanduck.

Craig appeared on a few religious programs on TV, which did his book a world of good, and he dutifully answered almost all his fan mail—though some of it was pretty stupid, from teenagers asking how they could start out “being a newspaper photographer.” Still, contact with the public gave Craig the feeling that he was making new friends everywhere, that America was not merely a big playground, but a friendly and receptive one, which conflicted a bit with his playing the reflective and publicity-shy cameraman. Craig eased himself over this little bump in the road by convincing himself that he had discovered another métier: exploring God and his own conscience. This seemed to Craig an endless path to greater things. Craig decided to tour America with Clancy in his new compact station wagon, and to photograph poor families in Detroit and Boston, maybe some in Texas too; and fires, of course, in case he encountered any; rape and mugging victims the same; street urchins of wherever; sad-faced animals in zoos. He would make himself famous as the photographer compelled to photograph the seamier side of life.

He envisaged a book with a few lines under each photograph which would reflect his personal conflict in regard to God and justice. Craig Rollins was convinced of his own conviction, and that was what counted. Plus the belief, of course, that such a book would sell. Hadn’t he proved by
Two Battles
that such a book would sell?

Chris’s Last Party

A
mong the six or eight letters waiting for Simon Hatton in his hotel suite, he noticed a telegram and opened that first. The sender was Carl, a name that didn’t ring a definite bell.

    

CHRIS NEAR THE END! WE ARE ALL HERE EXCEPT YOU. ELEVEN OF US. PLEASE COME DONT HESITATE. KNOW YOU ARE WORKING BUT THIS IS IMPORTANT. PHONE 01-984-9322 AND CONFIRM. CHRIS WONT BUDGE WITHOUT YOU! YOUR OLD PAL CARL.

Carl Parker, of course, and not an old pal, rather an acquaintance, even a rival once. But Christopher Wells on the brink of dying? It seemed incredible, but the old boy was ninety at least—no, ninety-four. And it was emphysema, of course. Chris had been living with an oxygen gadget in his bedroom for the last decade, Simon knew, inhaling from it when he needed it, trying not to inhale the mild cigars the doctor had yielded to and the occasional cigarette that Chris had never totally abandoned. The telegram had come from Zurich. Chris had a chalet with generous grounds near Zurich, and Simon had been there once, the last time he’d seen Chris, perhaps four years ago. Chris had spent half the time in a wheelchair, and what must he be like now? But Simon could imagine: Chris would be throwing a party, keeping his butler busy with champagne, his cook with gourmet dishes at all hours. Chris loved his protégés, and he wouldn’t die without saying good-bye to all of them in person, including Simon, the twelfth (what a coincidence) of the disciples.

Simon felt suddenly afraid, and it occurred to him that he could ring Zurich and say he ought not to come because as long as he didn’t show up, Chris might go on living, not to mention that Simon was giving eight performances a week now in
William
in New York.

Simon jumped at a knock on his door. “Yes? Come in.” He knew it was his champagne arriving.

“Good evening, sir,” said the white-jacketed waiter. He bore a tray with a quarter bottle of champagne and a few English biscuits of a nonsweet variety. “Am I too early, sir?”

“No, no, just right.” Simon knew it was six or five past, but he glanced at his wristwatch anyway (it was four past six), then removed his overcoat and noticed that a drop of moisture fell from it. It was snowing today. His fair, rather crinkly hair was damp too.

Johnny took his coat before Simon realized it, and hung it in a wardrobe. “You’d like to be called as usual, sir, seven-twenty?”

“Y-yes.” Seven-twenty for a curtain rise at eight-forty.

Simon always took a nap at this hour until the hotel switchboard awakened him, though he had his own travel clock’s alarm set too. Yesterday being Monday, he’d had the day off and gone to Connecticut to visit friends. He’d been fetched late Sunday night after the show and driven up to Connecticut in his host’s car with a driver. Now Simon felt tired, though it hadn’t been a strenuous holiday. Was he starting to feel old at forty-nine? Awful age, forty-nine, because the next number was fifty. No longer middle-aged, that number, but elderly, definitely.

He slipped out of his shoes and walked back to the sitting-room table for the rest of his letters. He took off his jacket, trousers and shirt and got into bed. Two letters were fan mail, he saw from the strange names on the return addresses, and one letter had a red expres-eil-sendung stamp on its front. He didn’t recognize this hand either, but it was from Zurich. He opened this, bracing himself for further grim information about Chris. The letter was in longhand and signed Carl again.

Dec. 7, 19–

Dear Simon,

Chris took a turn for the worse about a week ago, and it really seems it is going to be the end. For one thing, he has summoned all his old what shall I call us—students?—to him. He wrote you to California, where he later realized you weren’t, because of the N.Y. show. (Must congratulate you on
William,
by the way.) There are nine of us now at High-Ho, two due tomorrow, Freddy Detweiler and Richard Cook. Plenty of room here and you mustn’t think it’s a wake. Chris looks pretty well for a few hours a day when he’s up entertaining us. The rest of the time he’s in bed, but loves us to come in and talk with him round the clock!

So please come because for Chris there’s something strange about your not being here. Use your understudy for a couple of days, but hurry, please.

Chris phoned me nearly a month ago and said he was sure he would die in December, end of year and a life and so on. So he said come on the first of December or as soon after as pos. and “I won’t hold you up long.” Isn’t that typical of Chris? . . .

Yes, Simon understood, but his mind as he laid the letter aside and sank into his pillow was disturbed and undecided. He couldn’t have found a word or words to describe how he felt. Shocked, and on guard too. It was as if Chris had given him a sharp poke in the ribs to remind Simon that Chris still existed. Chris hadn’t always been kind or even fair. Or was that true? No, the kindness, the concern of Chris did outweigh the rest. Chris had been selfish, demanding of attention, but Simon couldn’t honestly tell himself that Chris had ever been heartless, or had ever let him down. And he had told Simon that he would be a fine actor, if he did this and that, if he disciplined himself, if he studied the technique of so-and-so. Chris was a director, if he could be called anything, and had three or four famous productions to his credit, but he had always had money from his family, and he dabbled, didn’t have to work all the time.

But it was the word of praise in the ears of twenty-year-old Simon Hatton that had inspired him, coming as it had from a man over sixty, who had troubled to come backstage to meet him, when he had been acting with a summer theater group in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. When Simon recalled this, his heart seemed to tumble. It was Christopher Wells’s enthusiasm that had lighted his own fire. Could he ever have made it without Chris? Christopher Wells had been a silly, aging dandy, in a way, wearing odd clothes to attract eyes in New York or London restaurants and theaters. Chris had taken Simon on his first trip to Europe.

For a few seconds, Simon felt a mixture of resentment, pride, and independence. Then came the memory of his happiness in those first weeks with Chris. He had felt bewildered, flattered, and as if he were walking on air, different from being in love, because the feeling was so much bound up with his work, yet like it too. Chris had cracked the whip at him, as if he were a circus dog, Simon remembered quite well.

At this recollection, Simon got up and walked around his bedroom, deliberately relaxed his shoulders, and did not take a cigarette that he was tempted to take. He went back to his bed and lay face down and closed his eyes. In forty-five minutes he had to be ready for his taxi downstairs, and he must do his job tonight. He must entertain. The audience would be silent and sad at the end. It was a serious and sad play,
William.

And he knew he would get a ticket to fly to Zurich, maybe not tonight but tomorrow, after he had arranged for his understudy Russell Johnson to take over for him.

Fantasy!
William
was fantasy, so was acting—all make-believe. After the others in the cast, Simon took one curtain bow, and not two. He was smiling, but a few women in the audience, and men too, pushed handkerchiefs against their lids. Simon closed his own wet eyes, and walked off with a straight back.

Simon took off for Zurich the next morning. He had spoken with his understudy, who had been visibly elated by the chance to replace him for a few days, as Simon had thought he might be. Simon had played well last night. He had recalled Chris’s words: “It’s a craft, it’s not magic—but the audience helps to inspire you, of
course.
You could say the audience makes the magic.” Simon could hear Chris’s voice saying, under varying circumstances, “Of
course,
” which was reassuring when you’d already resolved to do something, and reassuring also when Chris was proposing something like jumping off a cliff without a parachute. “Of
course
—you can make it. What’s talent for? You’ve got it. It’s like money in the bank. Use it, my boy.” And there was a couplet from William Blake that Chris used to say:

If the Sun and Moon should doubt,

They’d immediately go out.

He felt strange, as if he were going to meet his own death. What nonsense! He was in good form, and at Chris’s house there was not only fresh air but mineral water, paths to hike on, a tennis court that had been there when Chris bought the land, but which Chris had never used. It was going to be something, renewing old acquaintances such as Carl Parker, Peter de Molnay, some phony and some not, some maybe balding and plump. But all successful, like himself. Simon wasn’t in close touch with any. At Christmas, he’d receive an unexpected card from one or two, just as he on some impulse would send a Christmas card to one or two. They all had one thing in common, Chris Wells, who had discovered or befriended or encouraged them all, touched them when they were young with a magic finger, like God giving life to Adam. The image of Michelangelo’s ceiling fresco flashed for an instant into Simon’s mind’s eye, and he flinched at the triteness of it.

Simon had telephoned High-Ho and told someone, who had sounded like a servant, at what time he would be arriving in Zurich. He had expected Peter or Carl at the airport, but he saw no identifiable faces among the group of waiting people, and then a card with
HATTON
written on it caught his eye. It was held by a stranger, a sturdy, dark-haired man.

Simon nodded. “Hatton, yes. Good evening.”

“Good evening, sir,” said the man with a German accent. “Is this all your luggage?” The man took it from Simon’s grasp. “The car is just this way, sir. Please.”

The air was crisp, different. Simon sank into the back seat of a large car, and they moved off. “And how is—Mr. Wells?”

“Y-yes, sir. He is doing quite well. But he must rest much of the time.”

Simon gave up asking anything more. They rolled on into darkness, and after an hour’s drive Simon sensed the black mountains rising around them, hiding the glints of the stars, though the car did not seem to be climbing. Finally they drove between tall iron gates and tree-shaded houselights came into view. Simon braced himself. A tall, slender figure came to meet the car.

“Simon! Is that you?”

This was Peter de Molnay, who opened the door before the driver could. Peter and Simon shook hands firmly—they had known each other very well indeed fifteen years or so ago, but it occurred to Simon that they might as well be strangers now, polite, with polite smiles.

“Chris is in bed now—but still awake,” Peter said.

It was midnight, but the eleven guests or visitors were all up, spread between the spacious living room where a fire blazed and the arch-doored kitchen which was now fully lighted and where no doubt a chef was still working.

“Hello, Simon! Richard—Richard Cook. Remember?” Awkwardly, Richard drew back his hand and gave Simon an embrace with one arm. Richard had quite a belly and was bald on top, gray at the sides—but of course there were roles for just such types, and Simon knew Richard kept busy.

“Simon! Welcome!”

“Hey! There’s
Simon!
—We knew you’d make it!” Carl Parker, blondish and slender still, the eternal juvenile, clasped Simon’s hand.

Several people spoke to him at the same time. Questions. Was he tired? How long could he stay? The atmosphere was party-like. Simon felt not tired but nervous. He wanted to see Chris, and said so.

“Oh, he wants to see
you,
Simon! Go up!”

Simon followed the dark-haired man, who carried his suitcase up to his room.

“I hope this will be all right, sir. You have it to yourself. This room has not a private bath but . . .”

Simon half-listened as the man (whose name was Marcus, Simon had learned downstairs) explained that there was a bathroom three doors down the hall on the left. “May I see Chris—Mr. Wells?”

“Just a minute, sir.” He went out.

Simon unlatched his suitcase lid, but did not open it. Then he stood at attention facing the door, as if Marcus would appear at any second with a military order, summoning him into Chris’s presence. This was exactly what happened.

“You may come in now, sir.”

Simon marched forward, turned left, and was escorted down the hall to a room on the right on whose door Marcus rapped gently.

“Yes, Marcus. Come in.”

Simon heard the age in Chris’s voice and felt a painful ache, though he realized he wasn’t young either, and what would Chris think of him? Simon tripped on the threshold—not being used to raised thresholds—and laughed.

So did Chris. “Ha-ha! Splendid entrance! Bless you, Simon—for coming. Give us a kiss!—Um-m!”

Blinded with tears, Simon bent and kissed a half-pale, half-pink cheek. He was aware of a mountainous form under a white sheet and a pink blanket. The room was overheated. Simon stood back and blinked. “You’re—”

“I’m looking bloody awful, don’t say it, but I’ll be up in a few minutes—and looking a bit better.” Chris’s thin blond hair was even thinner, and limp, the face beneath it broader and flabbier than Simon could have imagined. My God, thought Simon, this is really death! Was Chris taking cortisone too? His blue eyes, once so bright and quick, seemed to be faking a brightness by a deliberate tightening at the corners. “I’ve read your reviews, Simon—of
William,
I keep up, y’know. Must congratulate you. Where’s your hand?”

Simon gave his right hand again. His hand was colder than Chris’s just now. Simon glanced again at the shiny cylinder at the end of the bed, which suggested a fire extinguisher.

“All goes well, doesn’t it, Simon? I’m proud of you. I saw your film
Barter
—last year. You were excellent all the way through. Supporting actor—who really carried the cast.”

“Yes, well—” Simon had seldom heard such praise from Chris, not even when he had been twenty-four, with his first good part in a Bernard Shaw play. What was its name?

“Wash your hands and face, go and have a nice drink, and I’ll be down in five minutes. We’ve got a round-the-clock party going—going to see me out. Ask August to come up, would you? He’s maybe—near the kitchen.”

BOOK: Mermaids on the Golf Course
3.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Metamorphosis by James P. Blaylock
A Simple Mistake by Andrea Grigg
A LITTLE BIT OF SUGAR by Brookes, Lindsey
Flat Lake in Winter by Joseph T. Klempner
The Hitman's Last Job by Max Freedom
Road to Redemption by Piper Davenport
Cold April by Phyllis A. Humphrey