Authors: Jo Baker
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK
PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
Copyright © 2011 by Jo Baker
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Originally published in Great Britain as
The Picture Book
by Portobello Books, London, in 2011.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The undertow / Jo Baker.
“Originally published in Great Britain as The Picture Book by Portobello Books, London, in 2011”—T.p. verso.
1. Families—Great Britain—Fiction. 2. Great Britain—Social life and customs—20th century—Fiction. 3. Domestic fiction. I. Title.
53 2012 823′.92—dc23 2012002079
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental
Front-of-jacket photograph: © Royal Photographic Society Collection/ NMeM/SSPL/The Image Works
Jacket design by Carol Devine Carson
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh. All the rivers run to the sea, and yet the sea is not full
ECCLESIASTES 1:4, 7
THE LIGHTS GO OUT
. The cheap seats erupt in shrieks and roars, as though the dark has changed everyone into wild animals and birds. It’s hot. The stench is terrible. Amelia fumbles for William’s hand.
A mechanical whir and clatter starts up behind her. She twists round to look over her shoulder. All she can see is a saturating flood of light, which makes her blink, and then the light begins to flip and flicker.
“It’s starting,” William says.
Amelia turns back in her seat and cranes to look between the heads in front, through the twists of tobacco smoke.
A man snaps into existence. The audience cheers. He bows, blows kisses. He’s framed by rich, draped curtains, and wears an elegant morning suit. He is very handsome. He is soft shades of porcelain and charcoal, silky-grey.
“That’s Max,” William says. “Max Linder.”
Amelia’s hand squeezes William’s. “What’s the story?”
“He’s on stage,” William says. “Taking a curtain call.”
The miracle of it. A gentleman like that, bowing to them; to the audience crammed there, two kids to a seat, all of them jabbering away as if this was nothing. The place smelling of old clothes and boots and sweat and bad teeth and disease.
“What do you think?” William asks.
She just shakes her head, smiles.
The image changes: she sees a husband and wife now, talking. There’s a title card: the lady wants to meet Max; can the husband send a note? The kids in the cheap seats gabble out the words, translating or just reading out loud for their parents: a tangle of English, Yiddish, Italian. It’s like bedlam in the theatre, but on the screen everything is
beautiful: the husband is in evening dress, and the lady’s wrap is just the loveliest thing Amelia’s ever seen, the silky drape of it. It would feel so good on the skin. But the husband is jealous. You can tell that by his eyebrows, his fists.
The man in front of her leans to talk to his neighbour, and she moves closer to William, shoulder against his shoulder, to peer round the obstacle.
In the dark, William draws her hand into his lap, unbuttons her glove and peels it off. She repossesses the empty glove, smoothes it flat on her lap. He twists the narrow wedding ring around her finger, then strokes her palm with his thumb, the calloused skin grazing and snagging on her hot skin. It’s distracting, but she doesn’t pull her hand away. Tonight he is allowed.
She glances round at him, at his angular profile. His eyes are on the distance, watching the screen; they catch the flickering light and flash green. Then he laughs, creases fanning, and she looks at the screen to see what made him laugh. The maid lays out a china coffee set, and Max is charming, and the husband seethes, and, while the wife and Max are turned away to admire a painting, the husband pours a dose of salts into Max’s coffee!
The audience roars. Amelia claps her gloved hand over her mouth.
The husband dodges over to join his wife and Max, and, when all their backs are turned, the maid, who is also beautifully dressed in hobble skirt and high heels, goes to take away the tray. Seeing the coffee is undrunk, she sets it down again, but has, by chance, turned the tray around, so that the tainted cup is set before the husband’s seat. The audience roars again. Amelia’s hand drops away from her face. And then, for good measure, the husband dodges round and pours another dose into what he thinks is Max’s cup, but it’s the wife’s. They’re all going to cop for it now!
“Oh my goodness!”
On screen, the three of them sit down at the coffee table, but then there’s an exchange of courtesies, of sugar lumps and cream that just goes on and on and you can’t bear it because you know any moment they’re going to drink, but it keeps on not happening, and not happening until the husband, dainty for his bulk, smug in the expectation of Max’s humiliation, lifts his china cup and sups long on his coffee. He doesn’t know what’s coming! A moment later, he grips his stomach and rushes for the door. Max and the wife look on, bemused. Then Max drinks, and
grimaces, and has to rush out too! And then the wife! They return, with accusations, and then there’s outrage, confusion, revelation, and then a caption: the wife isn’t in love with Max—she just wants to be in one of his films!
A wave of laughter, and the kids are gabbling again, and there’s a second wash of laughter afterwards.
On screen, everyone shakes hands, kisses cheeks; they resolve to make the film together. All troubles are over, all discord is resolved: no-one loves the wrong person or wants something they can never have, or has to face something they simply cannot face.
The reel ends with a clatter, empty white panels flipping up and away. The lights come up and Amelia blinks, staring down the length of the room towards a blank white screen, between the greasy heads in front. The heavy curtains are kept pulled tight, and the electric light glares uncomfortably, and the man in a huckster’s suit, who took the money at the door, walks the length of the cheap seats, spraying the crowds with scent. That she is here, in a place like this, where the audience has to be perfumed—disinfected?—halfway through the show, is testament to her feeling, her resolve. Amelia gets a whiff of the spray—sweet violets but with a sharp tang of ammonia. It makes the kids laugh and jostle, and even the adults down in the cheap seats don’t protest or really seem to recognise the shame of it: one woman raises her face towards the spray, eyes closed as if in enjoyment. But she and William are all right where they are, up in the sixpenny seats. No-one will spray them here.
The lights flick out again, and the clattering wheel of the bioscope starts up, and the huckster slips out of the way, and the scene is of the sea, a fleet of proud grey battleships nosing across an expanse of iron-grey waves.
“Can you see your ship?” She peers in hard at the murky grey-on-grey. “Is the
He peers. “Those are the new ones.
s getting on a bit.”
Then there’s a title card:
The Gallant Navy Boys
. And there’s a clutch of them on deck, three lads in their rig, joking and laughing, eyes bright white against dark weathered skin. She feels again for William’s hand, and squeezes it, and feels a flush of pride. And then from somewhere towards the front, a young woman’s voice breaks out into song.
’Tis the Navy, the Fighting Navy
That will keep them in their place
And other voices join her, and Amelia tries, but the words come out thin and husky.
For they know they have to face
The gallant little lads in Navy Blue
She reaches up to touch the wet away from her eyes.
“All right?” William asks.
She nods. “I know you have to,” she says. And that’s the only thing that makes it bearable at all.
When the lights go up at the end, he tugs on her hand, and they’re on their feet ahead of the crowds, and they slip past the projectionist who is crouched and fiddling with his machine, and they’re out through the front doors and into the busy evening of York Road, and he’s spinning her round on the pavement like a child, whirling through the warm thick summer air, and making her protest and laugh.
Then he stops her, and holds her waist. She’s smiling dizzily.
“Thank you for coming,” he says.
She inclines her giddy head.
“I know it’s not really your cup of tea.”