Here below is the next extract from my book, ‘Albatross – the scent of honeysuckle’, published on Amazon. It is available in both book and Kindle form. The link to it is –
You can also get it, in book form, from this seriously excellent South London Bookshop –
One reader’s comment –
“I was completely absorbed in it – and loved the richness of the lives that his female characters had – all discarded by Barney in his search but all complex characters with some depth and range of emotion. Couldn’t put it down until I finished and am still thinking about it and feeling unsettled – it is thought provoking too.”
I miss Ellen. I miss the skein of perfume that hangs in the air as she passes. I miss her laughter, her voice on the telephone in another room. I miss her touch and the softness of her lips. I miss making love to her. I miss waking up in the morning, touching her still-sleeping hand and knowing she is there. I miss coming home to her.
The attempt to try not to wonder how she’s coping or what goes through her head when she thinks of me sometimes takes more strength than I have. At those times I’m all but frozen with guilt and regret.
Even after all this time, I still keep away from newspapers. Not so much because I think they’re interested any longer in my whereabouts – I’m not a Lord Lucan. Or even a Reggie Perrin. But what I don’t want is to stumble upon some article, included to fill out a newspaper on a news dog-day and designed to jerk tears, about the effect on Ellen of my perfidy.
All the questions come flooding back. Why – why didn’t I just level with her? – before I asked her to marry me, before Brockwell Park, before she put her finger on my lips that day and gave me the excuse I was looking for – why did I not simply tell her the truth and take the consequences? Why did I string this albatross around my neck?
Ellen has never been a mother. There are no medical or gynaecological issues. She never wanted children. What she would have done in the earlier years of our relationship had a baby come along – despite our rigorous precautions – I can’t imagine. I simply cannot see Ellen coping with that sort of disruption. I remember only too clearly the seismic upheaval the arrival of baby Matt brought to the lives of Stella and myself. A new baby, especially the first, rearranges the domestic dynamics in a brutally disinterested way – and not for just the time it takes you to get them back on track again, because you never do.
I know Ellen well enough to know she would have found the advent into our lives of a child not her own – albeit in the form of a man getting on for middle age – profoundly disturbing and very likely intolerable. She is not, in some respects, the most understanding of women – at least not in matters which fall so far outside her experience.
Something has had to give. Despite Licia’s less than overwhelmed attitude towards what I’m doing, I nevertheless believe it is the least dishonourable of the courses open to me.
Licia’s contacts within the advertising business were, by this time of her life, few and far between. She had been retired for a number of years and was, as she told me the following day when she rang, rather out of touch. So the fact that she could recall no-one by the name of Matt or Matthew Marshal-cum-McDonald-cum-Whatever wasn’t significant. But she was meeting her daughter, Marie, later that week and was hopeful something may emerge from that.
Marie, it seems, had not followed her mother into advertising, regarding it, to her mother’s chagrin, as ‘a job which society would be better off without’. As if to rub it in, she had taken a post with one of those shadowy organisations whose function it is to keep a critical eye on the content of advertising of all sorts – if necessary insisting on its amendment or even its rejection. The unofficial view of the advertising agencies was that such bodies were there primarily to be obstructionist and to thwart their creativity. The reverse view – that of the bodies themselves, and probably more realistic – was that without them the country’s TV sets would be awash with downright lies instead of with just ingeniously worked half-truths.
Although Marie therefore was not working directly in advertising itself, she was involved across the board – sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly – with many of its practitioners. London advertising, although far and away the largest in the UK, is still a relatively small and introverted affair. There seemed therefore, a reasonable chance that if Matt had found his way into it and was still working in it she might have heard of him, or could at least dig around and find somebody who had.
My only concern was that of having to reveal myself to Marie – a third party about whom I was not in a position to make a judgment. In a phone conversation with Licia I was pondering how I should put this to her when she herself saved my embarrassment. “I don’t think, by the way,” she said, “that you should talk to Marie yourself. Let me do that. I can poke around in Marie’s mean little anti-advertising mind without her thinking there’s more to it than I’m letting on.”
And so it was one morning, wearing my Yves St. Laurent jeans, light blue open-neck shirt, Italian black leather jacket, shades, beard in admirable condition and my hair trailing stylishly to my shoulders that I – posing as ‘Mister Peters’ – met up with Minxie in the Greek Cypriot café in Crouch End.
Minxie, I’d learned from Marie via Licia, was a copywriter of some repute at one of London’s larger agencies. She had apparently worked relatively recently with a man who answered what pathetically few scraps of a description I’d been able to provide. It was flimsy stuff. But Marie had done her best and I had nothing else. Once she’d got a coffee and settled herself down, I asked Minxie simply to tell me, in her own words, all she could about this man.
The very first thing threw me – his Christian name bore no relation to ‘Matthew’ – it was Gaston.
“Gaston? ‘Gaston What’?”
“’Vincent’. And he insisted you pronounced it like in French – Vah-sar. Something like that. I don’t know French.”
“’Gaston Vincent’.” I listened to it as I said it. “Sounds too French to be French. Was this man English?”
“As far as I know. Yes, he must have been – after he’d had a few drinks or got a bit excited he developed a bit of a northern accent. Yorkshire, Lancashire – something like that.”
“What about a middle name – did he have – ?”
“If he did, he never said.”
“OK. Gaston Vincent. Please go on.”
It turned out he worked not in advertising itself, but in one of the many small film companies in Soho that produced TV and cinema commercials for the ad agencies. He was, she said, what they called a Production Manager. It sounded grand enough but even though I’d worked in advertising myself, I’d had too little to do with the production of commercials to have any idea what that involved. When I asked her, she shook her elegantly coiffured head. “There’s Production Managers and Production Managers,” she observed mysteriously. Then smiled to herself as she stirred her coffee.
I waited for some elaboration. But she just gazed into her cup. “I’m not quite sure,” I ventured, “what you mean.”
She swept her hair back. “What I mean,” she said, “is that there are the names. The guys who do the big ones.” She stirred her coffee. “Gaston didn’t. Though if he’d liked himself a little more, he could have done.”
I was still at sea. “’The big ones’?”
“Pictures. Movies. An elite band – mostly men of course – has it sewn up.”
I was sure she wasn’t actually trying to confuse me. But she might have been speaking Mandarin. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but you’re talking of a world about which I know virtually nothing.”
“Gaston was an in-house Production Manager. He’d been with them a long time.”
“Leopard Films.” She said it as though ‘Leopard Films’ were words on the lips of half the world. “In that little passageway between Berwick Street and Wardour Street. They were once – ” – and here she formed an ‘O’ between thumb and first finger, held it up before me and gave it a snappy flourish – “ – the business!” Then she went back to her coffee. “Times change though. Don’t they?”
I struggled on. “You knew him reasonably well, by the sound of it.”
“I did.” She smiled. “He was wonderfully eccentric. I like that.” She threw out a sudden laugh which had little apparent connection with her speaking voice – light, lilting, musical. “Oh,” she said, the laugh subsiding into a smile of sweet remembering, “he was delightfully different.”
“Was he?” I replied, warily. “What sort of ‘different’?”
“He would come into meetings sometimes – “ – she put down her cup, leaned across the table and spoke in an urgent, confidential tone – “ – dressed entirely in black – black shirt, outrageous black leather trousers, black boots up to here – “ – she stuck out one of her own shapely stockinged legs and tapped it just below the knee – “ – a black hat with a great wide brim which he called his pet Akubra. On his wrists he’d have these chunky silver bracelets. And round his neck – ” – she indicated with both hands – “ – the most beautiful silver pendant with a ruby in it. At least it looked like a ruby. I always wanted him to tell me where he got it but he – ”
“I understand you worked with him?”
“The Addison’s Tea commercials,” she replied, proudly. “Bewley’s Lager – I wrote all those. Criterion Car Insurance.”
“And you knew him over quite a long period?”
“A year – ish”
“D’you know if he’d ever worked in an advertising agency?”
“Probably. Not sure.”
“When did you last see him?”
She looked blankly back at me for a fraction of a second. As though something inside had first to be dealt with. That done, she launched into what I can only describe as a piece of personal theatre. She sat back, raised her eyes to the ceiling and placed, with self-conscious elegance, the index finger of her right hand on the little finger of the left. Paused. Then, in a stage whisper, she started to count – slowly and deliberately, “One-two-three – ” – and as she did so, with the index finger of the right hand she pressed down on each finger in turn of the left. People have made cabaret acts of less. I watched in a mixture of fascination and profound irritation.
“ – four – five – and – er – well – ” – she took her eyes from the ceiling and looked at me – “ – six. About six months ago.”
“And how well did you know him?”
She took a quick sip of her coffee. “Do you mean did we fuck?”
My jaw dropped. “Er – well,” I stammered, “in a way, I suppose. But – ”
“From time to time. As you do.”
I decided to move this up a gear. “Listen Minxie,” I said, baulking just a little at that name on my own tongue, “I need to know about him – the man. His background, details of where he came from, colour of his hair etc.”
She narrowed her eyes. “You a private dick, Mister Peters?”
I’d hoped not to have to do this. “OK,” I said. “I don’t know how much Marie told you, but the background to all this is as follows.” With which I launched into an elaborate fiction I’d put together in anticipation of some sort of hiatus. I was, I told her, acting on behalf of an elderly female client. This lady had not heard from her only son in five years. He had left the family home in the country one Sunday evening to drive back to London and was never seen or heard of thereafter. He didn’t return to his flat in Clapham, his car was never found. He had, at the time, been about to take up a position at an advertising agency. The lady – a recent widow – was now in poor health and desperate to have any news of him, her only child.
I sat back, smiling one of those sad, ‘that’s life’ smiles.
She grimaced. “How awful.”
I’d told my story well. Minxie was seriously upset, and quite stripped, for a while, of her affectations. I wasn’t proud of myself. But that’s the way it had to be. “OK,” I continued. “Where did he come from? Had he been married? Any brothers or sisters? You were with him for a year. In that time there must be a lot of things – however insignificant they might seem – that you learned about him and have perhaps forgotten. Can I ask you now to dig deep? For any scrap or fag end that might give this now rather desperate lady something to hang onto.” I also needed to ask her about his parents, but as my ‘client’ was one of them, it wasn’t clear yet how I was going to go about that.
She took a few seconds to consider it. Then, with the anguish of the ageing widow in mind, told me anything she could remember and in whatever order.
He was in his late thirties – or at least, that’s what she judged. He would never divulge his true age, coming up, whenever she questioned him, with rather silly extremes of one sort or another. From what odd bits about himself he did give away, despite his tendency to play from time to time, the streetwise card, she formed the impression he was a country boy, more au fait with the land and the open air than with the cramped spaces of the city. He came, he had said, from a ‘broken home’. But never revealed in what way it was ‘broken’. As for his name – Gaston Vincent – nobody, including herself, questioned it. In the film and TV advertising world, it was not uncommon for people to call themselves by ‘trendy’ or ‘fashionable’ names in preference to the ones they were born with.
He was about my height, she said, with almost black hair that contained a streak or two of early grey. His eyes were brown. He had never spoken of brothers or sisters. Minxie had assumed he was an only child. He seemed well educated but they had never discussed his schooling.
In private, he seemed often rootless and insecure. Anxious to please and to be accepted. At other times almost to court others’ displeasure, to challenge them, to discomfit them. Good-looking, quick-witted, attractive to women. Yet there was a surprisingly vulnerable side to him. The odd innocent remark could sometimes trigger an explosive anger or even reduce him for a few moments to an almost ineffectual ditherer.
All in all, he was very different from other men she had met. He had about him what she termed, ‘a permanently edgy buzz, an unpredictability; a feeling that he was slightly dangerous to be with’. He could be very funny, having a wicked sense of humour. “And on top of that,” she said, lighting up a cigarette, “with a drink or two inside him, he would talk about things most men shy away from – emotions, feelings, things like that.” She had been, she said, ‘incredibly attracted’ to him. She sat back and drew on her cigarette.
“Did he,” I asked, “ever tell you where he came from?”
“I asked him once.”
“Somewhere south of Inverness and north of Brighton,’ he said.” She smiled. “He liked playing games.”
“Does ‘Lincolnshire’ ring a bell?”
“Is that where his mother lives?”
‘His mother ‘? My mind went blank. Stella?? How on earth would Minxie – ? No – the fictitious widow. Christ, I was adrift. I dragged things back together. I had to side step the question. I said, in a rather loud, nervy voice, “So do you have any idea where he is now?”
She shook her head. “The last time I saw Gaston was in a restaurant – just off Wandsworth Common – on the day he resigned from Leopard. We ate, he paid the bill, said goodbye and fucked off into the sunset.” She was upset.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to pry.”
“He wanted out. The film business and the country were off down the toilet, he said.”
“Where did he – er – fuck off to?”
“I don’t know.” She bit her lip, looked away.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “This isn’t easy for you.”
She shrugged as if to say, ‘I can cope.’ “All he told me was he was going to ‘make serious money’. Bullshit.” She stubbed out her cigarette. “He was doing a runner. Don’t ask me what from because I don’t know. Me – most likely.”
Her defences had fallen away. I wanted to put an arm around her shoulder and tell her things would be alright. Maybe that’s what having a daughter would have been like.
She looked at her watch. She was becoming agitated and a little distressed. “Just one more question,” I said, as a sudden inspiration came to me. “Did Gaston ever say what he felt about his parents? What view he had of them? My client, you see, worries herself sick sometimes that maybe it was something she or her now dead husband had said or done – their relationship with their son had often been troubled.”
She thought. Then drank the last of her coffee. She put the cup down slowly. “He never, ever spoke about his parents. I used to tell him I didn’t think he had any. But then one day he said he’d had a letter.”
“From his father.”
I almost choked on my coffee. My heart pounded. Was I about to be sunk?
“I’d never seen him like that. It had touched some really raw nerve, and he blew sky-high. He wouldn’t have told me otherwise, I’m sure. Even then he just blurted out the gist.”
“It was all to do with a woman friend of his father’s and a dispute over some property. Putting two and two together, it sounded like the old man had promised it to Gaston, but somehow she’d got her hands on it. He said the old man had betrayed him, that he was a hypocrite and ‘a free-loading nonentity’. I told him that was not a very nice thing to say about his father. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘well that’s where you’re wrong. He’s not my father.’”
An electric shock went through me.
“’He’s my stepfather’, he said. And he’d never had a lot of time for him anyway.
I had difficulty getting my breath. “So – so – who was his real father then? Did he say?”
She shook her head. “He couldn’t remember him. He died when Gaston was very young.”
I fell back in my chair.
“Gaston had this weird idea that having a step parent carried some sort of social stigma. He made me promise never to tell anybody. Anyway – ” – she started gathering her things together – “ – I can’t see it matters now.”
“Nothing?” I said, my voice faint. “He could remember nothing?” I sat forward again. “A recreation ground, for example? A park? You know the sort of thing? With swings and slide?”
She looked puzzled.
“Or – or anything about a poster – on the wall of a building – an advert that frightened him? No?”
“I’m sorry,” she said, standing up, “I’m not sure what you’re – ”
“And you don’t know what part of the country this was in?”
“What was?” Her look was turning to one of concern.
“His father’s death. I mean, where did that happen and what – ?”
“I’m sorry, I’m getting a bit – ”
“No, no. Right.” Confusion and embarrassment were about to demolish me.
She picked up her bag from the table. “That wouldn’t have any relevance to where Gaston is now anyway, would it? I mean, he – ”
“No. Absolutely not. I just – well, just thought this lady would be interested. In principle.”
Her concern was deepening. “But she presumably would have known where he died – his father, that is. Wouldn’t she – her husband? I mean – er – ”
I too stood up. I was staring at her – struggling to suppress an urge to blurt out the whole truth to this woman. She had known ‘Gaston’ only a few months back, eaten with him, slept with him. But then – who was this ‘Gaston’ anyway? He could be absolutely anybody. Yet already I’d pinned my son’s name on him. I was breaking up.
Minxie forced a smile. “I hope what I’ve said helps this poor lady.”
“Guaranteed!” Did I really say that? What a stupid response. I didn’t know where to look, how to be.
“Look,” she glanced at her watch again, “it’s time I was heading off now.”
We shook hands. “Thank you,” I said. “So much.”
She turned to go. Then said, “Oh!”, stopped and looked back. “One thing. He did tell me once – for what it’s worth – that he had a middle name. Which he said he hated. I didn’t take it seriously, but whether it’s any more believable than ‘Gaston’ or ‘Vincent’ I don’t know.”
“Oh, yes?” I said, flatly. I was out of enthusiasm. I was a fool on a fool’s errand. “And what was that?”
“Alec,” she said.
“Just – ‘Alec’?”
“That’s what he said.” Then she smiled and went, telling me it had been nice meeting me and that she was going shopping. At least I think that’s what she said. I really don’t remember.
I got the bus back to Kilburn. ‘Alec’ – “for what it’s worth,” she’d said. Well, let’s be realistic – plain, unadorned ‘Alec’ wasn’t worth anything. ‘Alex’ on the other hand, might have been a different matter – Matt’s middle name was ‘Alexander’. So maybe Minxie’s memory had misled her. We all have the right to believe what we want to.