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A Bunch of Fives - Stories by James Roderick Burns (18)
Raymond Chandler Reads the Radio Times
RAYMOND CHANDLER READS THE RADIO TIMES
AS THE SUMMER of 1958 crested in June, wound down in July, with every ball of Wimbledon watched and every American victory hailed with a fresh gimlet, Raymond Chandler found himself casting about for something – anything – to do. Writing, it seemed, was out of the question. The reviews for Playback, Philip Marlowe’s seventh outing, had been respectful but unenthusiastic: praise for what critics deemed a mere coda to The Long Goodbye, and hence his career itself; little more than a weak diversion salvaged from a screenplay which had gone nowhere. As the leaves fell, then intimations of snow, he’d thought idly about a play, a return to the short story, perhaps something in the military history line. Now none of it seemed worth a fart in a high wind.
He found himself in London, once again; seemingly anywhere but California. Drinking, again, his hand trembling in its glassy salute as Althea Gibson defended her title, the first Negress ever to do so. Good for her. Bored, listless, disconnected – these things he understood. He’d had friends once, women too, but dissolved them all at the bottom of a bottle. At least this flat was in a decent part of town, the local wine merchant prompt and scrupulously uninterested in its best customer. The boy would ring the bell (it shrilled though the hall) and after collecting his guinea, leavethe crate in the kitchenette, departing for another week. The English; a race of servants, indeed.
‘Goddammit it,’ he said under his breath. He didn’t remember having gone to bed, or sleeping anywhere at all, if it came to that. He must have dozed in his armchair for a while, through the early hours.
Chandler worked himself up and tottered down the hall, sliced and squeezed another expensive lime into a highball glass, topping it up with gin. Back in the sitting room, the Radio Times was topmost in the magazine rack. He leafed through it while birds chattered outside the window, a bluebottle made its fat and melancholy way behind the net curtains, bump by muzzy bump. The light was good in London, he’d give them that. Not far from the river, glancing off two hundred year old brick, then caught and strained through the leaves of an overhanging oak on the bend, it had an open, fleeting quality he enjoyed, like tea-time at a cricket match or whitecaps in the wake of a liner pulling out of the dock. Nothing seemed to happen in it, but nothing much bad, either. With one hand he raised the cloudy mixture to the room.
This week, the RT was covering the Farnborough Air Display, amongst the various programmes. A helicopter angled across the cover, blades cutting through a circle of printed dots. Cheery, he supposed – modern, too, riding the wave of the future. Doubtless there’d be a big feature and then a spot or two. He might tune in. What the hell else was there to do?
Right now the TV set loomed large in the rays of the one o’clock sun. Get some lunch, chum, its bulbous eye seemed to say; get off your elderly can and earn your time off. Sit down at the Olivetti, stick those banana-fingers on the keys and type your monkey heart out. No, sir. Now even the appliances, the damn house plants, seemed to want to talk back. Why should he have to earn anything at all? He had published seven novels, in dozens of countries; he had three hundred thousand in the bank, and no one depending on him. He was the king of three rooms and a kitchenette.
So, here it was – the Air Display, in all its whirligig glory. He flipped through for a minute more. He’d reached the dregs of lime=squeezings, where the gin could no longer absorbit. The sludge slopped round the curved bottom of his glass like low tide on the river bank. For no reason at all he recalled the feel of old concrete where the promenade gave way to the jetty, that orangey crumble of brick underneath his fingers. The memory reminded him of something, but whatever it was wouldn’t come. Another drink, Chandler. Right away, sir!
When he sat back down the light had shifted. It was – let’s see – almost one thirty on this fine Chelsea afternoon. There appeared to be a lull in the Swan Walk chorus, and the bluebottle had disentangled himself from the caves of ivory netting and pushed off into another room.
He lifted his spectacles with the edge of a finger, scratched at his nose. What was eluding him?
‘California’s what you’re thinking of,’ said a cool, even voice.
He turned and looked round the empty room. The wireless dial was turned all the way left, the TV blank;no one had passed by on the pavement outside. Chandler got up, seated his glasses properly and tapped the screen, left-clicked the dial fully just to make sure. Nada. While he was up he helped himself to a refill. The bluebottle had ended up in the kitchen, it appeared, where he was making nice with a lime-rind on the streaky counter. The hell with him.
What was that thing, squatting just out of range? It wasn’t so long ago he could x-ray a scene and commit the thing to memory – players, setting, what was said and how they said it. Especially how they said it. In his mind conversations were etched like lines on a salt flat – clean, baked hard in the sun. He could taste the spark and tang. Now his hands shook on and off, and his mind struck at things with the hollow thump of a busted piano key.
‘California, achievement. Happiness maybe. Take your pick.’ That voice again – detached, medium range.
Chandler stood in the sitting room doorway and stared.
What had attracted him to the flat, when the girl first showed him round, was the half-circle of the front window, looking out on the walk, its window-panes tall and thin but bridged by sturdy painted wood, hasps that locked in tight with a twist of thumb and forefinger. It felt like a lockbox crafted from light. He said he’d take it, right there; she’d laughed and had him sign a note she could take back to the office. But he had stood on and looked at it for a while longer – the same view he had now.
Now the room was cloudy with shadow, and front and square in his lockbox was a tall, familiar figure, sitting down with a drink in its hand and soft-brimmed hat on its head, despite the indoors afternoon. It shaded his face like a sharp turn in a cave. Chandler could see his own, familiar aspidistra through the man’s hand, the swirls of the antimacassar wavering in and out of the suit lapels. It was a light summer blue, he noticed. The figure was sitting in his chair.
‘California,’ it said. He said, Chandler supposed. He looked down at the half-full highball in his fingers. It offered nothing. His tongue felt like uncooked hamburger. Beneath his skin the glass twisted slightly in a film of sweat. He stood dumb. Was it rude, then, to refuse to engage with a spectre, or whatever this was? He tried out his tongue, but it flopped about like a fish on the slab.
‘I – well, I – ’
And here he was, sitting. In his own chair somehow. The drink was beside him on the table, almost on the coaster. It had reached sludge-levels again. The man was seated opposite him on the settee he never used, the settee Natasha and the other shuttle girls used to perch on, briefly, during their support missions; the settee, he supposed, beside which the undertaker might crouch if someone ever found him slumped after another bender. But the man sat tight, foursquare and present, all the same. He was more solid in the filtered light from the windows, if such a thing was possible.
‘You,’ Chandler said. The man took off his hat, turned it in his hand then ran a couple of thick fingers through the Brylcremed darkness of his hair. ‘You.’
There was nothing terrifying about him, and that was the worst part of all. When he leaned back slightly, the cushions expelled small breaths of air – poof! poof! – as shadows shifted on the printed surface of the fabric. Flowers, all circled and intertwining, now bending minutely out of shape. Something sparked again at the motion.
‘Listen,’ Chandler said. ‘I don’t know what you want, but you can’t be here, you understand? It’s not possible. I married you off.’
‘Waddya mean, didn’t take? I meant it to take. It took! Or at least it did till I ran out of steam.’ The phantom play, the short story, the bit of military history floated past his eyes like the last dance of the bluebottle, sad and insubstantial as the breeze. ‘I left you married to Linda Loring and running some half-assed detective agency. I gave you some stability, for God’s sake. Some happiness. You shouldn’t be here – you should be chasing down hoods and IOUs in Poodle Springs.’
The man on the settee set fire to a cigarette and leant back further into the cushions. He put one heavy arm on the end-scroll of the upholstery, laid his soft-brim alongside.
‘I’m not the marrying type,’ he said.
‘I get that. But still – ’
The writer trailed off, hoping whatever cloud had passed in front of the sun would move on, and all this with it. He shifted in his seat, and the slight angle of adjustment brought out the wrinkled edge of Marlowe’s smile. It had a floral button showing through, glaring as a gold tooth. Chandler made a dry swallow, regrouped.
‘What do you want? I haven’t much left in the tank, you know. Natasha and her friends are long gone – left me, I mean, stopped propping me up Gone for good. Too much booze, too much chivalry. I must sicken them. I tried to redeem things with ‘Poodle Springs’ but that didn’t take. Now I’m sitting here talking to you. I don’t even know what time it is.’
Without looking at his wrist Marlowe said, ‘It’s two. That doesn’t matter.’ Then he fell silent again. Through the crown of his hat, like some departing hand, the end of an aspidistra leaf bobbed on a passing draft. Chandler wondered what full winters would be like out on the walk. If snow would make a difference to the way things shone, somehow, or how they felt –or whether everything simply dissipated in the wet air, and came to nothing.
For a moment the man on the settee wavered. Nothing else changed – no bright spots chopped open the cloud, like a helicopter whirling up through arc lights. It only seemed to happen when he talked.
‘I think I’m going crazy,’ Chandler said, putting his head in his hands.
‘Listen, and listen good,’ said Marlowe. ‘I don’t care what you think, sense, or what your special writer’s antennae tell you to look out for.’
‘You know about that?’
‘None of it’s germane to the present situation. I only care about what you feel.’
Oh, blessed relief from such mad dialogue – here came the bluebottle!
‘Why, hello there! Finished with the lime-rind, are we? Care for a tipple? There’s a little left if you want it.’ Chandler giggled, held up the highball glass. One clean edge winked in a beam of sun. From the settee came the sounds of cloth being rearranged, then a snick, the brief waft of catching gas. Smoke – quite the effect, Raymond, old son! – sailed in rough swirls along its reaching length.
He looked up, letting the glass rattle onto the coaster.
‘Alright, then. Say what you’ve come to say, then get the hell out. Back to the Springs.’
There was a silence, so long he heard a boat honk on the river not once but twice, the birds resuming in the middle, the bluebottle tiptoe towards the sludge. For a moment everything seemed real, bright almost, and he sensed he was in the clear. Then from the corner of the room, Marlowe spoke again.
‘Don’t bother. I have my hat, and when I’m done with the smoke, I’ll be gone.’
‘So talk to me.’
‘Alright. Why are you here, Chandler, in London?’
‘That should be my line, shouldn’t it? “What’s all this, what do you want?” All that cheap crap from the pulps. If you’re nothing more than the incipient DTs, and I have my doubts, you don’t matter. Nothing does. I’m fucked either way. Next it’s spiders on the ceiling, mocking me, or waking up convinced I’ve beenworking for the CIA all along.’
‘But I’m here. I matter, wouldn’t you say – in the grand scheme of things. I matter to you.’
Fair enough. Chandler gave the glass a hopeful shake, but nothing sloshed around, not even the sludge, and the bluebottle was nowhere to be seen.
‘Well you’re keeping me in booze, and a roof over my head, even if it’s here.’
‘You sound as though you don’t like it. Why come back to this country at all?’
‘Dunno, mac. They do a better model of damsel-in-distress, I suppose.’
‘There you have it.’
Now the voice shifted – not from the settee, or the corner, but way over by the door, as though on its way out. It sounded fainter, too. ‘It’s all about the ladies, isn’t it. Or one lady in particular.’
He knew it – had known it was Cissy his whole life, he supposed, from the moment he met her a few months after getting to Los Angeles following the SF book-keeping job, then came into her orbit, as well as her husband’s. She was beautiful, tender, talented; like half the dames he painted in dance-halls and gambling joints, at least on the outside. But when you tapped her vase, it didn’t crack and fall away into nothing. It rang. It was still ringing, long after she was gone. He flicked a nail at the glass, but all it gave out was a dull clunk. He sat here pounding on a duff key, but she sounded forever in his mind and soul.
‘Want to tell me what’s really on your mind? Maybe lose the fancy metaphors,’ Marlowe said.
‘No – don’t need to. You know as well as I do.’
‘That why you’re in this funk – Cissy. You had a damn good run.’
‘Bastard. I know I did. I know. I didn’t deserve her – ’
No response to that, Chandler thought. When I’m done I really ought to turn myself in to the nuthatch. The silence rolled on, dropping into the corners of the room like sap from a maple. No birds or bugs, no far-off honking of ships; nothing. Just pale, sullen light over everything, like a blood curse, like the end.
But the fellow wasn’t quite done. Chandler heard the flitter of a bird in the tree outside, and for a moment sunlight dappled the plain carpet with little floral dabs. He felt it making shadows on his shoulders, darkening the antimacassar. The voice came from somewhere in the window bay.
‘You think she’dve wanted you to end up this way? Drowning in booze and self-pity, marooned in some sooty, washed-up burg that hasn’t lived in fifty years?’
‘What does it matter – she’s gone. Done. Sleeping the big sleep, like you said.’
‘Yeah, but what if – ?’
‘Ah, nothing. Keep on dreaming – that’ll set you right. This world’s too good for the pair of you.’
There was a slight billow in the curtains, then they came to rest. What the hell, Chandler. What time is it? He got up and made his way to the parlour to look at the mantelpiece clock. It had stopped. He walked across to the bedroom and checked his watch – still going – then back to the parlour to wind the damn thing till it started ticking. He turned for the kitchenette.
On the counter was the bluebottle’s rind, another uncut lime, and the bottle of Boodle’s half-gone in the afternoon. He ran his hands over his face, dry-washing, scrubbing away tears, and thought about light patterning the settee and the net curtains, spilling over the floor like balm. He wondered what was in there besides memories, and for a moment remembered the Air Display. That little circle of dots wasn’t much on the cover of the listings magazine, but surely the programme itself would be on in a while – whirligigs, the real thing! Blades turning, pilots stern but grinning, the whole Heath-Robinson bundle of tricks tumbling together into a huge, improbable soar into the blue beyond. Just the ticket, he thought; just the thing. She would have loved it.
With one hand he chopped the lime in half, filled a fresh glass with the other.
First published in Quagmire Magazine (October 2022)
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