23 March 2011
“No, the Oxford Street one … because I’d much rather … the Mountview Café, yes … but can we meet downstairs? … the Tottenham Court Road entrance? … it’s less busy ... Ten-fifteen? I should be able to, just ...” He hung up, snatched gloves, scarf, coat, satchel.
The Coventry Street Corner House he would not be seen dead in. Much too close to Piccadilly Circus, absolutely too obvious. They’d be put among the others. In the ‘amusing’ corner. The ‘musical’ corner. (And what an abuse of that sacred word …!) How did the Nippy always know? ‘Good morning, gentlemen. Table for two? This way please.’ And off the black- and white-clad waitress, apparently so prim and proper, would lead them, straight to the ‘special’ corner. He didn’t care if she was making an effort to be welcoming, to indicate understanding, even sympathy. When the other tables in this section of the restaurant were so clearly occupied by single men! Ignoring their unnecessary tea. Stirring sugar that took an eternity to dissolve. Killing time, all of them, till every table was filled - when, with luck, the next single man to come in would have to ask might he possibly …? Oh, it was too embarrassing, too sordid for words!
He looked around for something for the underground, grabbed the first thing to hand. The vocal score of his new piece. Getting it ready for its first London performance, in three months’ time. His music. Setting words assembled - and some even written specially! - by Wystan.
As he locked the door of the flat, his breath clouding the chill dank air, his thoughts ran on. Yes, they were meeting in a Lyons Corner House. But at least not the Piccadilly one. The last thing he needed today was a bevy of single men at nearby tables trying to catch his eye. Why did they persist in thinking that just because you were young you were interested? No, today was to be a serious - because unwanted - goodbye.
‘And Wystan needs to pay attention too,’ he clucked as he hurried into Finchley Road underground station. ‘Looking round the way he always does!’ He fumbled for change. ‘Bobbing and nodding at complete strangers - smiling, winking even! Getting involved where he shouldn’t be. And where I don’t want to be. Not now. At least not yet.’
They had other, more serious matters to discuss this morning in early January 1937. The International Situation. Storm clouds darkening over Europe. How would Wystan cope? Would he ever get as far as Madrid? What help could he be to the Republicans? More to the point, how soon would he be back? They had so much work now, the two of them: he really shouldn’t be going away, not now. And what if he never came back? He shuddered, took out his score and lost himself in it, while the train rattled along its tunnels.
In the end, even walking from Great Portland Street, he was there first, and had to pretend interest in the Food Hall windows - the hams, the cakes, the hand-made chocolates, the fruits from distant corners of Empire - until “Benjie dear!” behind him - the familiar voice, at a volume sufficient indeed not only to cut glass but also to draw curious eyes - rescued him and they could go in, climb to the open doors of the Mountview Restaurant and consign themselves to the care of a Nippy.
As they manoeuvred themselves in under the heavy, deep-hanging tablecloth, Wystan was already waving away the proffered menu, assuming - as usual - control.
“Now Benjie dear, coffee, I think? And today calls for a special treat.” He included the Nippy in his expansive gaze. “Chocolate éclairs? Fresh today? Then yes, two.”
Chocolate éclairs. At 10.30 in the morning. “Actually, I’d be happy with a Chelsea Bun,” he heard himself say.
“Nonsense you will.” And to the Nippy: “Two large chocolate éclairs.”
“And that’s coffee for two, sir?”
“Thank you,” said Wystan, with excessive articulation.
How did he manage it? Why did people take him so seriously? Yes, he was a great deal older, already nearly thirty. And, for sure, he deserved to be taken seriously. But his manner …! And now here he was, just as expected, looking round at the nearby tables. But when he followed Wystan’s eye, he was relieved to see barely a handful of single men over the entire floor of the spacious restaurant, here for purposes even he could not be too suspicious of at so early an hour. No, there was nothing he need worry about.
“So, Benjie dear.” Wystan was leaning in over the starched white cloth. “Here we are. For the last time. Tomorrow I depart.”
“I shall miss you terribly,” he said. “You know that, don’t you? Promise you’ll be back just as soon as you can.”
“Not until I have given all the help I can,” said Wystan.
“You’re still sure this way is best?”
“How can I speak about the cause - for the cause - without being there myself? However bad a soldier I may turn out to be.”
“But killing people - ”
“I have no intention of killing anyone,” declared Wystan. “Madrid must be defended but I refuse to lift a gun. I shall offer myself as a medical worker. I hope to drive an ambulance.”
“You couldn’t do more by staying here and continuing to write?”
“Anyone with any socialist ideals is going to Spain.”
“I know it’s awful. Popular Front boys - as young as fourteen - lined up against a wall and shot!”
The Nippy returned with her laden tray. In different silences they watched her transfer the silver-plated pot of coffee, jug of hot milk, and two plates across which, broken-backed, unable to retain their heavy cargo of whipped piped cream, lolled two enormous éclairs.
“Good heavens!” said Wystan to the Nippy. “The size of them!”
“Nothing two young gentlemen such as yourselves couldn’t manage.” She smiled broadly, then bobbed her head and withdrew.
Wystan worked to force his thick napkin round the handle of the coffeepot. “Come, Benjie, enough. I know what I must do.” He began to slosh coffee into cups.
“It’s enormously brave, I know - ”
A dollop of hot milk followed unasked into each cup.
“Completely logical, I can see that - ”
Now the éclairs were being lined up in front of each of them. Wystan picked up his and said: “In memory of absent friends!”, before stuffing a full half into his mouth and beginning to chomp, indifferent to the smear of chocolate-stained cream left at the corner of his violently masticating mouth.
He looked away, down at his own plate. He took up his cake-fork, the small knife, and began carefully to cut his own éclair into bite-sized pieces.
When Wystan had swallowed the second half of his éclair, he said: “Benjie dear, I’ve something to show you.” He leant forward, both hands under the table as he furrowed in his bag, then pulled out a folded sheet of crumpled paper. “A new poem. For Michael. I want you to have a copy. I wonder - when you have a moment of course - do you think you might - ? I’m sure Michael would love to hear the words sung. I know I would. Have you a piece of paper?”
He had only his vocal score. He bent down, felt for it in his satchel, handed it across the table.
“Our Hunting Fathers,” Wystan read out from the cover. “Op.8. Vocal score.”
“First London performance this April. I’d hoped you’d be able to - perhaps you still will be - ?”
Wystan was already turning the pages. “We work so well together, don’t we?” He stopped, read out: “‘Who nurtured in that fine tradition Predicted the result, Guessed love by nature suited to The intricate ways of guilt?’ How about that, eh? I’m proud of those lines.”
The Nippy returned, suggested more coffee.
“Why not?” said Wystan, without consulting. He tipped the smaller jug towards him. “Milk too, please.”
The waitress removed the pot and jug, and retreated with a smile.
“So, Benjie my dear - ”
“At least in Spain you shall have excellent coffee!”
“The coffee I imagine will be the least of my concerns.” Wystan fished a pencil-stub out of a pocket. “Do see what you can do with this. Please?” Choosing a fly-leaf at the back of the score, without reference to the paper copy on the table beside him, he began quickly to write out his new poem. ‘Lay your sleeping head, my love, Human on my faithless arm; …’ When he was finished, he excused himself to the lavatory.
He read the poem through carefully, twice. “Wystan!” he said, when his friend returned. “It’s beautiful!”
“Thank you, my dear. But, Benjie, before I go I want you to know that in your music you disclose just as much beauty. As much ability. As much courage.”
He felt a flush of pleasure, of pride rise to his face, automatic, impossible to restrain.
“How old are you now?” Wystan asked.
“How old - ? Twenty-three. Just. By one month and - how many weeks is it - ”
“Never mind the weeks! Benjie dear, I know how you feel. But while I’m away, think of this. Who cares what other people think? Where is your Michael? Why still no sign of him?”
He felt a different flame rise to his cheeks now; didn’t know where to put himself, what he was supposed to say.
Conveniently Wystan announced it was time he was off, time to pay, to tip the friendly Nippy, go downstairs and make their farewells.
But first he commanded: “Wait here.” He disappeared into the Food Hall. When he came out, he was carrying a box of white card tied with pink ribbon.
He handed it across. “For you,” he said. “And you only. Open it when you get home. You’ll understand. Enjoy them, dearest Benjie! Allow yourself for once to be messy. And when I return, I expect to find you on someone’s arm. You hear?” He waited.
“I hear,” he replied quietly, feeling again the heat in his cheeks, hoping no one else could hear, or understand. He felt suddenly on the edge of tears. But before he could disgrace himself, Wystan was gone, his tall figure striding into the crowds at the corner of Tottenham Court Road, then turning right into Oxford Street, without a backward glance. Gone. Just like that.
He turned the other way, up Tottenham Court Road. I must try, he vowed. I owe him that. If he can be brave, then so can I. In my own way. Let that be my New Year’s Resolution. Let this year be different!