“Louis, I’m back,” Simon called softly, opening the brown paper bag, removing three newspaper wrapped items and placing them reverently on the envelope-strewn butchers block. Lifting a plastic carrier bag onto the knife-scored surface he set down Champagne, raspberries and a stiff white cardboard cake box. Outside it was sticky hot, but down here was much cooler, the August sun barely penetrating the high unwashed lace of the basement window. Beyond the dull glass, seagulls cawed and cartwheeled over the English coastline, pestering genteel day trippers for their vinegar soaked chips. Inside, the empty kitchen was still and silent.
“You wouldn’t have liked them,” Simon announced crossing the whitewashed wood floor to the greasy sink and pulling an old metal tray from behind the taps, “they were too big.”
He soaped, rinsed and carefully dried the tray on a paint stained beach towel dumped on the half-ripped-out Formica work top, retracing his steps until he stood positioned once more, behind the butchers block. Roughly shoving aside a pile of unopened post he put down the tray and removed a starched white cloth from the brown paper bag. Smoothing it across the dented tin, he began unwrapping his items: “Their boots were big, their hands were big, their faces were big – their stretcher seemed enormous.”
His handsome features were still with concentration as he un-scrunched newspaper to reveal a gleaming antique silver cake stand, round with a jaunty handle. Two dainty side plates, with roses round the skirt. And two long stemmed crystal champagne flutes, which chimed a sonorous note.
“I watched television while they went upstairs…” He shivered slightly despite the thin dribble of sweat trickling from his neat silver-gold temple to the open collar of his blue linen shirt. “That show you…” He paused, made a visible effort to breathe deeply, raised his photogenic profile and began to arrange his purchases on the dressed white tray.
The Champagne bottle was so well chilled that the green glass had become frosted with a cold cloudy haze. Simon lifted it aloft, smiled to an imaginary camera fixed somewhere within the window frame and said in his archest tone, “For friends!” His blue eyes sparked with the spirit of performance, “Do you remember?” How could anyone forget, Simon looked almost the same as he had on televisions, billboards and magazines across the country, all those years ago.
“Now cakies,” his voice was camp and businesslike and his loose wrist beat time as he opened the stiff white cardboard cake box, “Two dozen cupcakes – every variety.”
With theatrical pincer fingers he began extracting the sparkly pastel topped fancies and arranging them on the gleaming silver cake stand. There were pink ones and blue ones, green ones and yellow ones, mauves, lavenders, lilacs; fairy polka dots illuminated with glitter dust and hundreds and thousands of pretty sugar froufrou pushing and jostling for attention on the polished old plate. Long artist’s fingers ordered colour on the silver palate; working frantically, arranging and re-arranging the sweet decorative trifles, then crowning the picture with juicy clusters of fresh Kent raspberries.
Satisfied he lifted the stand by its delicate handle and placed it on the spotless white tray along with the Champagne bottle, crystal cut-glasses and two rose-rimmed bone china plates. “Perfect,” he trilled stepping back to survey his work. Then, swept up the tray with one hand and glided out of the kitchen, across a huge echoing white hallway and through a doorway into another cavernous, empty room.
Silence – not even a clock. Muted sunlight filtered through the long linen blinds and brushed the unpolished wood floor. Impossibly high white walls rose to a white box ceiling and three corners stood unfazed by solid hulks of antique furniture. Ahead, a mahogany wind-up cabinet gramophone. To the right, a heavy dining room table. Diagonally opposite, a nineteenth century sideboard, whose eye Simon did his utmost to avoid. Above the mantelpiece, a grand sweeping mirror doubled the size of the room, whilst in front of the fireplace sat two squat art deco armchairs, their horsehair stuffing spilling out onto the floor.
The only sign of life was an extravagant display of hothouse blooms, under whose enormous weight the small round coffee table seemed to buckle and bow: giant roses, pouting germini, pirouetting lisianthus, swaggering lilies and sprays of pale gypsophila, each petal perfectly formed, perfectly crisp and perfectly pink. Simon put his tray down beside them with a thud, “Music – we need music,” he declared to the empty room. Fixing his eyes forward and forcing his stride even, he crossed the floor to the archaic music box.
Kneeling down he carefully selected a shiny black seventy-eight from the broken cardboard box of records on the floor. Then rising to his feet he succumbed to the unhurried old-worldly decadence of the wooden machine, which like all his possessions had been snared at an auction. Setting the disc down on the turnstile, Simon wound the handle and lowered the arm. As the tinny intro began he fanned the cabinet doors to adjust the volume, then reluctantly returned to his beautiful tray laid for two.
“Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you,” crooned Frank Sinatra as Simon picked four raspberries from the silver cake stand and dropped two into the bottom of each Champagne flute. Pointing the heavy green bottle towards the door, he eased out the cork, which ejected with a small pop. With a twist from the shoulder and wrist he splashed fizz into each glass so it bubbled up over the juicy fresh raspberries. With a flourish he arranged the plates and drinks at opposite sides of the small round coffee table and placed a candyfloss coloured cake on each. Finally he lifted the tray onto the floor so only the great bunch of pristine pink flowers divided the two settings. Now there was nothing left for him to do. He sat down heavily in the brown leather armchair and seemed to slump.
“They were far, far too big for your hallway,” he said after a moment. “Far too big,” he shook his head and tried not to imagine the photograph on the sideboard behind his chair. This picture and dozens like it festooned that hallway, stretching all the way to the top of the stairs. Beautiful posed studio pictures, beginning in 1949 and stopping abruptly in 1971. Louis with Tommy Trinder, Billy Cotton and Jack Warner; up at Pinewood studios, at Elstree; styled in the fifties with pin rolled hair and red lipstick. Like a door in time snaking all the way up the stairs to the top landing. Simon didn’t want to climb those stairs. He pulled himself back.
Back to being a child in the house in Hampstead, and to spying the cupcakes cooling on their wire rack on top of the kitchen cabinet; back to the chubby blonde ringleted boy intent on devouring the oven-warm baking. The crash was inevitable. But he was five years old and it all happened in slow motion. First the crockery began to slide from the top of the dresser, a blue rimmed bowl whistled past his ears and smashed on the hard flagon floor. Then the great solid masse beneath him began to drop away and the world was hurled sideways. He missed having his head crushed by a millimetre: “Louis,” he screamed, “Louis!”
Two perfectly spherical baby pink cupcakes dusted with silver sprinkles sat untouched on two bone china plates. Two glasses of good quality Champagne fizzing with raspberry pink fruit stood un-drunk. Simon couldn’t stop himself any longer. Craning round he drank in the photograph, which stood on the heavy old oak sideboard behind his head. It was taken in 1963, the year he was born. By then, according to her, she was already unfashionably old. In the picture she’s young and smiling in a halo of platinum curls, her wide eyes bright and anxious to please, her face frozen in black and white. Shaken, Simon has no choice now but to climb the narrow staircase past the lines of carefully chosen photographs up to the landing. He tried to pull away, but there was nothing he could do. There was no turning back.
It was last night again and he stood in the dusky hallway, his hands full of flowers as he softly called “Louis.” It was late, she wasn’t expecting him. There was no reply. Her pleading call had come the previous evening. But London had held him. In the crowded bar her voice had sounded dim and querulous, her lonely unhappy neediness exhausting. Now in darkness he ascended the stairs, past her photographs and up onto the landing, clutching his stiff pink selection of hothouse guilt.
With no windows open the air was oppressive as Simon stopped outside the closed middle door. “Louis,” he whispered tapping lightly. No answer. He paused then turned the handle and pushed his palm lightly against the glossed wood. The hinge swung inwards and he was hit by a hot blast of lavender, the familiar scent trapped in the abundant maternal folds of soft furnishings and sealed double glazing. The room was bathed in mauve-grey darkness. Only to the left of the doorway, the dazzling yellow lights of the dressing table illuminated a bewildering array of cosmetics, creams, pills, powders, tinctures medicines, pigments, and other paraphernalia to sustain life. In the huge duck-down bed his mother looked tiny. Her face pale and naked, her snowy hair scrambled against dozens of pillows. She slept restlessly, tossing and turning in fitful splutters of distress.
“Louis,” he choked, he was five years old and had narrowly missed being squashed by the tumbling kitchen cabinet. “Simon,” she cried, scooping her young son from the hard red flagstone floor and clutching him to her. He snuggled his thumb into his mouth, buried his head in her shaking warmth and waited for her to stop crying before he said, “cakies.”
Hand in hand they walked to Woolworths, the new plates, bowls, cups and saucers almost draining her thin purse. But as they headed back towards home they stopped at the bakery on the high street. The smell sent a shiver down Simon’s spine and when Louis lifted him up to see inside the counter his face was flushed with infinite choice. They couldn’t stop giggling as they selected four delicious golden cupcakes iced strawberry, chocolate, lemon, vanilla and topped with a dazzling rainbow of sugar strands: each one a perfect dome of sweet, buttery joy.
Nearly 50 years later Simon stood over her bed clutching his great pink bunch of roses, germini, lisianthus, lilies and gypsophila, their sickly sweet perfume struggling against the lavender fug. Watching Louis he felt her distress. Twisting from side to side, her features contorted painfully with every turn. His arm dragged like a lead weight as he reached his right hand down and took one pillow from the huge pile beside her head and gently placed it over her face.
There was a slight shudder under his hand, a weak fleeting flicker of something – then nothing. He lifted the soft Egyptian cotton featherweight away, and smoothed the sheets with his hands. She was still. He leant down and brushed her warm cheek with his lips.
The music had stopped. Now there was only the soft sound of the record arm dancing on its axis. Simon raised his glass of raspberry Champagne, “To you, Louis.”