Between The Lines Ch. 05bymitchfren©
"I'm going to be completely straight with you, Jack."
"Don't worry... I promise I won't tell anyone."
It produced the faintest of smirks on the lips of my accountant, but Davy Slack didn't react at all; in fact, I would probably describe his demeanour as 'grim.'
"I've represented you for a long time, Jack," he growled, "and I've done it to the very best of my ability... and yes, before you say anything, I don't claim to be the best at what I do; not by any means. But it doesn't help that I've been trying to get bookings for someone with a reputation for being a waster and a drifter!"
"You don't have to dress it up, Davy...." I started to smile, but he wiped it off instantly;
"Okay... in that case... trying to get bookings for someone who's a complete and utter fuck-up!"
There was a silence in the small room that seemed unnaturally heavy and oppressive; or maybe it was just me being in shock. Davy was my agent. I employed him and, through commission, paid him; it was supposed to be me who was in control. I mean, everything in my life had changed now, thanks to the death of my wife -- a wife I'd been married to for a long time without realising it! Suddenly, I was rich -- which is why I'd asked for this meeting with my agent and my accountant to discuss my future direction.
The accountant was a stranger to me. All of my previous dealings had been with an elderly man named Joshua (never 'Josh' for some reason), but I was told that he'd retired and been replaced with this young woman who was a lot less formal and seriously attractive. My guess placed her in her mid-to-late twenties and, although I flirted with her a little bit (not seriously, of course, because she had a wedding ring on her finger), I couldn't help wondering if someone of her age was really up to the task of managing what was likely to be a considerable fortune. At any rate, it was embarrassing to have Davy suddenly turn on me like this in front of her.
"And since we're not dressing it up," Davy went on, "I'd like to tell you exactly where we stand." He paused for a moment to take out his inhaler, took a deep draw on it, and then;
"You chose the perfect name, Jack. I mean, 'de Ladd' suits you down to the ground... because that's what you've always been... a lad! No worries, no cares... just drifting along and trying to enjoy yourself without ever really working on the talent you had. And every time you've taken a knock, you've just fallen apart. Somehow or other you managed to get by without ever growing a pair!"
"That's a bit...."
"Don't tell me it's harsh, Jack! It isn't... it's just being honest! You could have been in the top rank... but you hit the booze every time things went a bit wrong.
"Let me tell you something... I saw you do a spot at the Palladium in the early days, Jack... and you were good. You were very good... because you were original and different. You didn't do any of the traditional 'wife' or 'mother-in-law' gags... you did your own brand of observational stuff that flowed and made the audience laugh at their own foibles. You reached out to them... you touched their lives... and they loved it.
"Then you took a couple of knocks and suddenly you're playing seedy clubs and telling jokes that would make a docker blush! You're an idiot, Jack... and now you're a rich idiot because someone remembered you as you were and didn't really see what you'd become!"
There was another silence as we stared at each other. I wanted to tell him that he was wrong -- that it wasn't like that at all -- but I couldn't. The truth was that I had simply stumbled along without ever really caring about what direction I was heading in, just as long as I had an audience to laugh at my jokes and money to stuff into the bank.
"Well... maybe if I'd had a better agent...." I began, hoping to laugh it off or at least recover some dignity but, even to me, it sounded like a whining little boy complaining that the world didn't understand or appreciate him. It didn't matter anyway, because Davy was more than ready for me.
"You had one, Jack! Remember? You had Mel Dyson... and he dumped you when he realised you couldn't stand the heat! I took you on because I thought you'd learn... I thought your natural gift would win through in the end. I did it out of charity!"
"Yeah... at ten-per-cent and...."
"...And how many times did I go without it so you wouldn't be priced out of a gig? Ah... fuck it! I swore I'd never mention that!"
Now I was completely deflated. My mouth opened but no words came out. I could see that my accountant was looking very uncomfortable; she was probably wondering what on earth she'd got herself into but, if anything, I was even more whipped. Quieter, now, Davy went on:
"Listen, Jack... let me tell you a little story. A few months ago, me and the Mrs were having dinner with a television director and his wife. He was talking about some scripts he had... some decent ones that would never get made because they weren't about lawyers, doctors or cops. He mentioned one that was set in a nightclub and I said I wouldn't mind taking a look at it. I had a vague idea that there might be something in it for you... okay?
"Anyway, when I read it... and realised there wasn't... I almost dumped it. But you don't know how lucky you are Jack. Norah came to the office... she did from time to time, just to hear any news I had about you. Whatever you thought of her... the feelings she had for you were genuine. Anyway, when we got talking, she told me about Harold flatlining and going to his fifteen minutes of flame. She was saying how she wanted to make just one decent film -- under her own name -- to leave behind. So I showed her the script.
"She snapped it up, Jack! She didn't want the lead or anything like that... but there was a part in it that she thought would suit her."
It wasn't hard to guess which role it was. The script had a fairly prominent part for an ageing ex-stripper who becomes the leading lady's guide, mentor and ally.
"Anyway... by the time she left, she was sold on it. Okay... I was happy enough with the finder's fee she gave me... but she was like a whirlwind of activity. Within a week she'd formed her own company to make a mini-series out of it, appointed a director, and hired people to negotiate with the writer to obtain the rights to it.
"Two weeks later she came back to me and we talked again. Apparently she'd obtained the rights -- provisionally - and had a list of three people she wanted to be in it; herself and two people from her past. The names, apart from her own, meant nothing to me. She wasn't prepared to tell anyone else about that until the deal was settled. Naturally, she was trying to keep a bit of distance between herself and the production company, so she hired some 'front men' to look after it, but she wanted to locate the other two people on her list. That's when I told her the script needed a touch of humour.
"She took it on board and told the company to contact the writer about it. One thing I can tell you for certain, Jack... she had no idea that Margaret Pendlebury was actually the real name of someone who was on her list!"
"Shit! I really am a fuck-up, aren't I?" I said. Then I quickly apologised to the accountant, but she just dismissed it with a slight wave of her hand. She didn't know what it was all about, but she was clearly fascinated.
"Don't expect any argument from me on that score, Jack!" Davy said. "Anyway, the other name was someone who'd died a couple of years ago. But now we come to the long arm of coincidence, Jack. The writer panicked. She desperately wanted to get her script accepted... you'll probably know more about the whys and wherefores of that than I do... so she talked it over with her... errm... friend, I believe? Anyway... you know the rest."
I did -- of course I did! I've never really been sure what a jackass looked like, but I bet I could have found out right then if there'd been a mirror handy. There were still questions -- of course there were -- but I had a horrible feeling that I wouldn't feel any better when I had the answers to them.
"It's time for you to start growing up, Jack," Davy declared, "You've got Norah's legacy right there in your hands... and I'm not talking about all the money and the properties and whatever...."
Properties? What properties? I hadn't heard anything about any properties. All I knew was that Norah had left me a large sum of money, and a production company that hadn't actually produced anything yet.
After my meeting with Norah I'd 'retired hurt' (for our American friends, that's a term used in cricket occasionally), to a decent hotel in Folkestone -- the Grand Burstin where I'd done a couple of cabaret spots in the past -- locked myself in my room and, just as Davy said I always did, attempted to dive into a bottle. It may seem pathetic in some ways, but my head was spinning and to describe my feeling as emotional turmoil would be like calling a hurricane a breeze.
Think about it! I'd been lucky enough to become involved with Penny; the most incredible woman I'd ever met -- a feisty, funny, intelligent and talented creature with whom I'd had the most intense and beautiful sex I'd ever known. No -- cancel that; it hadn't just been sex -- we'd made love, and the experience had simply blown me away (Okay, maybe she wasn't entirely certain about her sexual orientation -- but I could definitely live with that!)
Then I'd become convinced that the whole thing was a set-up -- that I was being marked as some kind of fall guy for something that involved (what I believed to be) my ex-wife and (again what I believed to be) her sleazy husband - and that Penny was merely the bait being used to reel me in. So, being much too smart (yeah -- right!) to fall for anything like that, I'd simply walked away from it all. I'd even switched my phone off when I went off to work the cruise ships and come close to dragging a very sweet young lady into my pathetic life.
I hadn't exactly felt good about it all, but I'd told myself that I was too clever to fall for whatever scheme they were planning. No one puts one over on Jack de Ladd I'd told myself! Okay, make fun of that if you want; but if you've read the story up to that point, what would you have thought?
After talking with Norah, though, I hadn't walked away from it -- it was more a matter of slinking away like a whipped dog. So that night I'd tucked my tail firmly between my legs and tried to plunge my snout into a bottle of scotch. Somewhere along the way, however, I must have fallen asleep because, when I'd woken up the next morning it was to find that I'd managed to get through less than a third of the bottle and I'd no signs of a hangover.
"You fucking lightweight!" I'd said to the mirror after a shower and shave.
A decent breakfast in the hotel restaurant had been disturbed by two dark shadows suddenly falling across the table. "Bring me sunshine," I muttered without even bothering to look up.
"Very original, Jack," one of them had said drily, and then; "we'd appreciate it if you'd come to the clinic with us." I suppose I must have glared because he'd added: "we're asking, Jack. We're not pushing."
The look on their faces had told me all that was necessary and, on the short journey, they'd explained in hushed tones that Norah had been in a brief final spell of remission when she'd appeared at Penny's home, but had gone downhill ever since. It was clear that they were both fond of her and I'd respected their feelings by keeping any comments to myself.
We'd arrived at the clinic too late and, in some ways, I'd been relieved that I hadn't had to sit and watch her die. There was some paperwork which, as her next of kin, I'd been required to sign, but there wasn't much else for me to do. Norah had already made all the arrangements for her funeral and even paid for everything in advance. I remember looking at her then, as she lay at peace in the bed, and it was as if many of the cares, and the years, had fallen away from her face.
I couldn't help thinking that she'd deserved better; that even if it had been the cancer that had finally claimed her, it was the machinations of an evil man which had truly blighted her life -- and all the money she'd accumulated had only benefited the ease of her passing.
Her forehead had been cold and strangely waxy when I'd leaned over to give her a final kiss, but I felt glad that I'd had the opportunity to do so.
Her cremation, four days later, had turned out to be an amazing event. It was only a very small and private gathering (she'd been very specific about who was invited to attend) and the little chapel was less than half full. There were a few ladies there who, I learned later, had been involved in the porn 'industry' some years earlier, as well as two or three blokes with the same background. I also recognised the man I'd been introduced to as her lawyer and the somewhat coy-looking Mr Savundra. There was also Jimbo Mcardle and, after the coffin had made its entrance (to a recording of Morecambe & Wise singing 'Bring Me Sunshine,' -- which made my two companions choke up a bit), it was Jimbo who'd delivered the first eulogy. He spoke eloquently about her qualities, recalled a couple of events that were not at all risqué, and somehow managed to make everyone want to laugh and cry at the same time. Despite his age, he was still a consummate 'pro' when the occasion demanded it.
There were no flowers -- by request. For the same reason there were no prayers and no hymns but, after Jimbo had done his bit, there was a lusty rendition of Monty Python's 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life!' That had been followed by Davy's moving tribute to a woman he'd regarded as a genuine friend. Then we'd sung, as she'd requested, the old Elvis hit 'Love Me Tender;' and I'm sure she'd been well aware what that would do me.
It was one of the first songs I'd ever learned to strum on the guitar, and I'd sung it to her many times when we'd first been together. Okay, if you really need to know, it made me blub like a bloody girl; but I don't care what anyone thinks, it was the very least she deserved. In any case, I think my tears were more for what might have been -- for all the wasted years -- than for Norah herself.
Finally, though, the coffin had rolled forward and disappeared through the curtains to the sound of the 'Cuckoo Waltz,' the theme tune of Laurel & Hardy, and I don't think anyone had known whether to laugh or cry!
Afterwards, as I'd watched the casket of ashes being lowered into the ground in the lawn cemetery, I caught sight of a movement in the distance. A man was holding the door of a car -- a Bentley -- as an elegant female, dressed in black, climbed into it. It hadn't taken anything at all to work out who she was.
"How much truth do you think you can take, Jack?"
Have you ever noticed how women have a particular gift for asking questions that appear to be innocent and simple but which are, in fact, incredibly loaded? Take the one that Penny had just asked me; an unwary man would immediately respond with a heartfelt declaration that the truth was always the best no matter what the consequences. Then, if the truth turned out to be unbearably painful, it would be his fault for demanding it rather than hers for telling it. On the other hand, any suggestion that an 'edited' or less complete version of the truth might be preferable could lead to a potential lifelong excuse for a restricted form of honesty.
Be careful what you say, my friends, because your womenfolk will accurately recall every detail of your answers to their questions and make use of them for the rest of your lives.
"I took it okay when you told me you were... err... y'know...." I blustered.
"The word is 'lesbian,' Jack... and I saw the look on your face! You looked like a kid who'd just had his sweeties snatched away!" she giggled.
"Yeah... well," I muttered, knowing that she was probably right; but being told that such a gorgeous and desirable woman preferred sex with other women had come as something of a disappointment at the time! "And is that... errm... still...?" I began, but left the rest of the question open because I wasn't sure that I really wanted to hear the answer. Then I realised that it probably told her a good deal about how I could handle the whole truth.
She must have understood what I was thinking because she didn't follow up on it directly. Instead, she took the conversation in what I thought was a different direction.
"There's a lot you don't know about me, Jack. In fact, I'm not even sure you'd be here right now if you did."
She was wrong -- definitely wrong about that. I honestly wanted nothing more than to be with her; no matter what had happened in her past and regardless of whatever the future held. I'd realised that when I was standing on the deck of the cruise ship as it made its way into Dover Harbour. All I'd been able to think about was that I was returning to where Penny was. I'd been perfectly prepared to risk the threat of Mason's skinning knife if necessary, but other things had taken precedence for a while. In fact, as I ought to have expected, it had been Mason's voice announcing "Pendlebury residence" when I'd phoned the day after Norah's funeral and, when I'd nervously jabbered a response, his ultra-calm tones had merely replied; "Yes, Mr de Ladd... Miss Pendlebury told me to expect a call from you... if you'd be so good as to wait for a moment; I'll inform her that you're on the line."
Was she psychic? How did she know I'd be phoning? I was a bag of nerves by the time she finally spoke to me, and all the carefully thought-out script I'd been planning about arranging a meeting to talk about the production had gone completely out of my head. Instead, I'd just babbled about needing to see her and talk to her and that maybe we could go to dinner and....
And that was when she'd broken in, told me to take a deep breath, and explained that it was her last day in her parents' home because they were returning from their cruise and she didn't want to be there when they arrived. I was still taking the deep breaths, so she told me she was returning to her apartment in Canterbury, gave me the address and told me to pick her up from there at seven the following night.
I didn't have any trouble finding the place -- mainly because I was sat in the back seat of a rather nice Mercedes while Eric and Ernie argued over the route map. Yes, I'd kind of inherited them as well -- they were in charge of security for the production company and, even though they'd been left a substantial sum in Norah's will, they wanted to carry on working (something about not wanting their wives to know they were financially independent, or that they were free to spend more time at home). To be fair, I'd begun to discover that they were pretty good company, and they'd got me to Penny's place only a little over ten minutes late.
After they'd taken us to the restaurant Penny recommended, I'd told them their services weren't required for the rest of the night; that I'd probably get a hotel room and call them in the morning.
The restaurant was superb -- if you like the stuff they call 'nouveau cuisine.' Basically, it's food that's presented with wonderful artistry, tastes fabulous -- and leaves you feeling like you need a portion of fish & chips on the way home. Obviously, a lot of people did like it because the place was packed and we didn't really get a chance to talk at all.
That was why Penny had invited me back to her apartment, a place that surprised me because it wasn't large or expensively furnished; it was just 'homely' with a nice, bright décor and comfortable furnishings.
Once we were inside, she said it would be best if I stayed overnight and then, before I had any chance of concealing my thoughts, added that there was a spare bedroom. Without even bothering to look at me, she'd giggled, "Same kid... same sweets!" and then, "Fancy some beans on toast, Jack?"