Claudia and Vernon
Much as I would like to wait until the theatre has even half filled, my cast of two are getting restless. Waiting in the wings offers only so many distractions, and even dressing rooms bar smoking so Vernon has had enough. He is used to playing to empty houses, and just wants to get it over. (If you read beyond ‘more’ you are invited to visualise, and suggest…)
The book to date: It takes place in North Oxford in the early seventies. We have heard that there has been a suicide by drowning of a woman in her sixties. We have called, with the policeman, upon the husband and desolate daughter, who for three days have expected something catastrophic. The news has now reached Claudia through a free paper delivered with the milk. Claudia Forchacz is a member of the University’s Psychology Department who has a private practice as a counsellor. The news is not the sort of thing she would normally attend to but she realises that the suicide, Anna, is a client, who a week ago was, as she had been for three years, calmly sitting on her William Morris sofa. This scene takes place after a certain amount of resentment and soul searching. Claudia thinks that the counselling contract implies that a client who had taken up a great deal of her time, owed her the obligation to stay alive. It feels as though she had given a book all her attention only to find it lacks the last few pages.
Urgently she felt the need of a friend, someone to clean the palate.
‘Vernon, It’s me.’’
‘Sweetie! Ages…’ Vernon’s deep voice comforted like good brandy.
‘I know. Mea culpa, maxima etc. Are you free this evening? Can we eat?’ Claudia always abbreviated with Vernon who never bothered with grammar. She liked the fact that Vernon could be caught without bait. It was the basis of their friendship.
‘Eating the least of it…talking sweetie, talking. So much to catch up. We’re in luck. Greg is on a bally rally, so I’ve got a loose end…Your place?’
‘For starters, eight-ish.’
‘Be there, spit and sanded. Treat you to flashing. New brocade waistcoat, very haute’
He hung up. Poor Vernon. The kindest creature malformed by trying to stay young, stay hip, stay with Greg who enjoyed tormenting him. Claudia had once caught sight of Greg, a brute on a Mitsubishi 500 whose kick start had the walls reverberating, as he roared up the Woodstock Road. She had never found it possible to admit this to Vernon. That sight of leather chaps and greasy pigtail would have polluted their friendship had he known of it. Vernon was naked from behind, but his front was the only thing up for discussion. His front was all and only Greg; Greg the outrageous, Greg the young God.
Luckily Vernon was a better listener, as avid as she was for small traumas, like potted plants to snip at and tie in.
Claudia ran a bath, took out a silk jersey dress, plugged in the hair dryer and turned on the radio. To the consolation of Debussy she covered her face in green mud. She realised she could afford to do this more often. If she wasn’t careful she would lose touch with her neat elegance and its power. Claudia’s knowledge of herself was almost objective; she knew the arch of her fine brows, and the precision of her nose and jaw, and regretted that on occasion her mouth betrayed her disapprovals so easily. Mouths were the great give-away.
She contemplated her hands ruefully; the folds of skin over the knuckles undermined the weekly manicure. Subterfuge was all that could be perfected really. The sight of her white knees above the bubbles suddenly evoked that body lost in the rocking surf, picked clean by fishes, polished off by sly crabs.
She sat up, her bath ruined.
When the sound of Vernon’s old MG spluttered to a death in her drive, Claudia went to the upstairs window. She liked watching people secretly, especially people she loved. Vernon paused with his freckled hands on the wheel and looked round her front garden, taking his own inventory. Then he glanced in the mirror and fingered his chin, inspecting himself with the thoughtful brown eyes of a spaniel. He licked a finger and smoothed an eyebrow. Abruptly he got out.
He reached over and took out two brown bags, a portable wine cooler and a small bunch of white freesias. He slammed the driver’s door with a flick of his hips.
He did not ring but strolled into her kitchen where she found him, snipping the ends off the flowers. He offered her his cheek.
‘Cheek hmm? Done a number, sweetie. Cordon blue and cold, Stephan at the ‘Green Man’ not so much noblesse but espérance oblige. Thought we’d do it a deux to start with…’
‘I was going to take you out’
‘You have, you have. I’m out…’ He appealed, ‘Sweetie, my whole life sotto voce, jammed in the corner and paying the bill…tonight I mean to make the most of talking out loud and stretching my legs…Tell you what…You can give me a very expensive coffee in that fish bowl, liqueurs chez La Belle Époque, so you can show off that very sexy dress. Come and give your old bear a hug, and forgive me for wanting you all to myself.’
He poured the Chablis, and swiftly laid out the food. His fingers seemed to move independently of his slow appraising gaze. Claudia enjoyed being looked at and his sudden command of her kitchen.
‘So out with it. Never was your fair weather friend?’
‘No, you’re too important. I don’t know. Probably nothing. Time of life. Just blue’
‘Seem more black than blue…’ He pushed the olives and pimiento towards her, ‘…anything special or just existential despair?’
‘One of my clients topped herself, without a word of warning…’
‘Make her sound like a sliced thumb…was she a good client?’
‘What’s a good client? One who pays?’
Vernon looked reproachful.
‘Not fair sweetie. Not worthy. But it answered the question. You liked her.’
Claudia had forgotten his perception. She felt ashamed.
‘Sorry. But I’ve only just realised it…that I liked her…I liked her a lot…and I never made it clear and now its too late…’
‘Black as it gets and a right bugger.’
‘You wouldn’t have made that mistake…’
‘That’s why I wouldn’t do your job, much too dangerous…’
‘I thought you always said it was too safe…’
‘The two aren’t contradictory. Dangerous being safe. Liable to be whacked from behind. Least expected. So from the beginning… but first a plate of food, another drink, a comfortable backside, and I’ll be all ears and all attention…’
Claudia carried the plates, Vernon the wine and glasses, and they sat in the bay window darkened by the night. The subtle lamp light on her mahogany tables flooded across the Kelim rug and caught the edges of pictures and the generous shoulder of her balloon back chair. It had the quiet expectancy of a theatre set for a performance, almost as though she was a character already scripted. She could never remember an evening with Vernon at home, except with other guests. Whether it was just the disconcerting news, or being over-dressed, or having the truth winkled out with such clinical speed she did not know, but something had changed. Claudia felt she was meeting him for the first time, like Faust or a Monet landscape, known at a distance but never encountered.
‘All ears and all attention…’