Sometimes investigative reporters come sniffing around for news of Lionel Fetlar. They’ve heard he’s living on the south coast now, a town that remains resolutely unfashionable while those nearby have undergone a modest transformation following the influx of the affectedly on trend from that London.
Lionel is glad his adopted home hasn’t been inundated yet. Folks here know who he is but are not the kind of people to mention it. They are settled types. A kind he knew when he was a boy, the intervening decades somehow passing them by. There are incomers here but they’re not the kind of people to open street food stalls or art galleries.
‘Detritus mostly,’ he tells Cathy as they sit in the Pier-End Cafe eating chips and looking at the rain on the grey sea. ‘Junkies I imagine. Single mothers. All that kind of thing. Ah well, I suppose that’s the company I keep now.’
Cathy frowns. It’s a familiar litany. ‘You really are a misery muppet Uncle. I like it here. There’s fresh air. And peace. And Brighton, really isn’t that far away. You can get a bus from Lewes Road and be there in under an hour. And you’ve got a free bus pass, so it needn’t cost you anything.’
‘Brighton! Who in his right mind would want to visit Brighton these days? It’s gone terribly downhill. It used to be a decent sort of place filled with maiden aunts. You could be safe and utterly bored in Brighton. Not now.’ He sipped on his tea. ‘Anyway, you only like it here because you’ve not been here long. Try three decades in the place then come tell me how you feel. Except you won’t be able to as I’ll be dead by then. I’ve done well to make it this far.’
‘It’s a good job I’m fond of you Uncle Lionel.’
He made a weak smile. She was wasn’t she? It was an unexpected blessing. She was a dear child, even though she was now in her early forties with one failed marriage behind her. She said she was relieved to find her uncle still alive even though she hadn’t come here looking for him. She wanted a place on the south coast to recuperate from the marital breakdown and here was somewhere she could afford. She was finally writing that novel she’d always talked about.
It began with a woman getting off the bus at the top of a steep road in a city in the north of England. The woman is lost in more than the physical sense of the word. Cathy has not yet decided if the woman has some sort of memory limiting condition or if that might appear too contrived. As if she were jumping on a bandwagon. You can’t write about dementia these days without people doubting your motives and anyway, the woman wasn’t that old. Perhaps she was just lost emotionally and lacking direction but that seemed to be devoid of narrative drive. Nobody said writing was easy and Cathy was devoting a lot of time to articles about decision making in the creative process.
‘Sounds like Sheffield,’ he said. He’d been in panto in the city when it was an isolated socialist republic in a world that no longer seemed to understand. He’d thought the place was romantic back then. Steel mills. Smoke. Blunt, straight talking people on the buses which you could travel on for ten pence anywhere in the city and beyond. That nice man with the beard running the council, people in duffel coats selling inky left-wing newspapers outside M&S. He thought he might be able to stay there.
‘I’ve never been to Sheffield, so it can’t be.’
‘Perhaps it’s the Sheffield of your imagination. Perhaps you’re plugging into some great amorphous consciousness where the city features heavily.’
His niece looked thoughtful. ‘Perhaps. I’ve never really been to the North. It’s only how I imagine it. From films and things. I don’t want to be specific about where it is.’
‘And what you do call this place?’
‘Northtown. Like a generic northern every town.’
Outwardly Lionel looked benign even if inside he was quietly dying.
Having someone else around was definitely helping his better nature. He’d mentioned it to Father Clement who suggested that Cathy might be here for a reason other than the merely materialistic;
‘Perhaps to help you cultivate goodness, Lionel. You should use this opportunity. It doesn’t do for any of us to slide into solipsism. God knows, it happens all the time to the clergy.’
Lionel liked the priest. He seemed as lonely as himself and he didn’t mince his words or water down the faith. He was a pre-Second Vatican Council sort of chap. Like the men who’d taught him the faith. Hard but never abusive, at least not to him.
Of late Lionel had been praying about purgatory. There were plenty of stains on his conscience in need of a deep clean. Clement had assured him that purgatory was still there and in the traditional teaching of the church it wasn’t pleasant. Sin would be burnt off. These days contemporary priests made it sound like a rehab centre where you’d pad around in a white dressing gown talking to sincere angels about your sex addiction before being released into eternal bliss. That wasn’t what he wanted. He wanted the purging flames to be as real as the eternal torment that awaited the truly damned. He wanted the stoup by the church door that he dipped his fingers into before crossing himself to contain water that would transform him, he wanted the words of the priest to do away with his mortal sin, he wanted real blood and real flesh from a real and risen Lord who could be only be found within the corporate body of the true church. Most of all he wanted unrepentant sinners to burn in hell for eternity and the good thing about old school Catholicism was that even if you were repentant it was no guarantee of mercy.
He could well imagine Tony Catchpole muttering a few words on his deathbed to try and evade punishment. Not that the old rogue had much chance to do that. He dropped dead on stage, some regional theatre up north in an attempt to put bums on seats in an otherwise turgid Chekhov production. It worked by all accounts, Catchpole putting in a few cheeky winks and getting creative with the script. It only had three nights remaining when a heart attack took him during the last act. For a few minutes the audience thought it was part of the production. The other cast members by now used to his ad-libs at first played along. It took five full minutes before the curtain would fall.
Lionel wishes he’d had the chance to tell Catchpole what he really thought of him. He’d been too meek as a young actor, too star struck and grateful for steady work. If he’d known what it would do to his reputation he’d never have got involved. He’d have starved in a garret for a few more years trying to lever a way into serious work. It wasn’t as if doors were closed to working class actors then. It was a golden era. Because of the ‘What-A-To-Do‘ money he grew lazy. He stopped looking. And by his third appearance as a wide-eyed, wet behind the ears young man falling into honey traps with members of the opposite sex the die was cast. When the films ended in 1976 he was lost. In his thirties and on the scrapheap. It took some time to reinvent himself. A few adverts, a little musical theatre and there was always panto. But it was a far cry from what he’d once hoped for.
‘At least you’re not dead Uncle. You’re pushing 80 and you’re still here.’
‘I suppose that’s something to be grateful for’ he said.
They called it The Curse. Actors, writers, production staff involved with the films dropped dead long before their time. Catchpole went in the 1970s but to be fair he was already in his late sixties which considering his debauched life was something of an achievement. Lots of them went younger having grown corpulent and unsteady, others hung on but were desperately unhappy as if purgatory had broken through into the temporal world. Lionel sometimes wishes Catchpole had lived on long enough to face a reckoning. There’d be some satisfaction in seeing him have to face the consequences of all that he was once was now the climate had changed. People looked the other way at powerful men and the things they got up to, particularly in the entertainment industry, particularly in the 60s. It was the downside of all that sexual liberation. Men presumed women were fair game. No one had come out with stories about Catchpole, not as far Lionel was aware. They were still hidden under layers of ambiguity, people not wanting to dig up the past. Some of his victims had done alright for themselves, others were no longer with us.
‘Did you see Connie on the television last night?’ asks Cathy. She had waited until there was a lull in the conversation to mention it. He knew something was on her mind. He really hoped it wasn’t that woman.
‘No, I didn’t have that pleasure.’
‘She looked so ill. I think she was drunk.’
‘That really doesn’t surprise me. And how is your search for your forever home coming along? Seen anywhere you like?’
Cathy frowned at him disapprovingly.
‘She’s lost uncle. I think she needs a friend.’
‘I know where you think this going dear niece, but I can assure you I’m not going to be the friend she needs. Even if I were at all suitable I’m not sure she’d want to see me again anyway.’
It had been twenty years since their paths had last crossed. A band in the 1990s had wanted an ironic video featuring a trio of the surviving ‘What-A-To-Do‘ cast. He’d been a naughty old man, she’d been a frumpy housewife, the band had played milkmen, window cleaners and soldiers in the Raj. A number of glamour models had appeared in hotpants and wedges who he was required to chase around a park having jumped up and thrown away his walking stick in delight upon seeing them. It had been dreadful, and Connie had been drunk throughout. The band didn’t help, kept producing new bottles of wine as the session went on and on and the weather got worse. In the end he’d gone home without leave and then had followed arguments between the production company and his agent about whether or not he should be paid. He’d been missing for the final scene but as far as he could tell he was sure they had more than enough footage. He was angry about his situation. He wasn’t poor by any means, he still isn’t but he’s not where he should be. He was grateful when the state pension kicked in and removed his need to work as the only work available was invariably linked to those wretched films.
‘I think you should meet her. It would be good for her. For you too.’
He chose not to say anything.
‘I know I’ve only just reappeared in your life Uncle Lionel, but I want what’s best for you. I think it would be good to get together with some of the old crew.’
‘There’s hardly any of them left. It’s not like we were ever a happy ship despite what you might have heard.’
All the interviews at the time talk of the cast being like ‘one big happy family’ who all looked out for each other and supported one another. It was never the case. It was a den of jealousy and petty spite. Catchpole rode above it like some kind of Emperor, playing people off one against the other.
Cathy showed him leaflets of three flats she was looking at in old town houses along the front with sea views. They were pleasant enough but very different from what she’d once known. He wonders again why on earth she’s here. He really hopes she hasn’t chosen this place because of him.
As he walks home he begins to wonder if there’s something deep and genetic going on that drew them here. He chuckles to himself then remembers Connie and it’s never good to remember Connie.
Of all the cast who could have survived it had to be her. He shouldn’t be surprised perhaps. She was one of the younger members. She was a teenager when she was dropped amongst all those lecherous old lags. Catchpole was well into his fifties when word got around that he’d bedded the new girl. There’d been some party, something Lionel made his excuses for. Catchpole had plied her with drink and then made his move. She’d come into the production the following week full of herself. Tony was going take care of her, she was going to be married to a proper star. The girl was just out of care and casting around for a father figure.
Lionel had been characteristically oblivious to what was going on, hadn’t understood why the other women in the cast disliked her so much, why they called her those cruel names. Some of them had already begun talking about him, saying he was another one to add to the list of fairies. It had enraged him, he was nothing like the closeted old queens with their high volume mannered camp. And he wouldn’t succumb to them no matter how often they pawed him or conspired to be alone with him.
He wonders sometimes if Connie remembers that particular night in The Red Lion. It was a favourite haunt, just a stone’s throw from the studios. They always piled in there after filming was done, the walls littered with photographs of stars of a previous era. It looked so much simpler then. They’d never have put up with the lowbrow filth his lot were churning out. Lionel had arrived late, the rest of them were crowded around their usual tables in the corner, pipes and cigars smouldering gently, the voices getting louder and louder. Benny Sykes had a young man on his knee that Lionel took to be a rent boy, Catchpole was leaning with his back against the bar a large smile across his face;
‘Ah my boy, my boy,’ he said as Lionel walked in. He lifted a pint from the bar and handed it to him. ‘I took the trouble of buying your usual.’
Lionel thanked him. He immediately felt anxious. Something was afoot.
‘I have something very special for you this evening my boy, very special indeed. Isn’t your Uncle Tony kind?’
Lionel can’t remember what he’d said but before he knew it he was clutching the beer in his hand as Tony winked at the landlord who lifted the counter and opened up a door at the back of the bar that led to the stairs. Tony had placed a hand on his shoulder and was leading him upstairs. They were on the landing, a door into a darkly lit room was ajar.
‘Tone? Is that you Tone?’ slurred a voice.
‘Go on then son, she’s all yours. I’ll hold your drink.’ Tony pushed open the door. There on the bed was Connie. She was wearing nothing but a mini-skirt. As she saw the door open she reached down and hitched it up. Her eyelids kept falling, her head lolling about.
‘Come on then lad. Get in there before I change my mind.’
‘You either get yourself in there or I go tell Benny you’re waiting up here all ready and bent over.’
He didn’t know why he did it. He didn’t know why he’d done as Tony told him. He was scared of him, that was part of it, scared of being found out as well. Perhaps he’d wanted to prove something to himself. Perhaps he’d thought this might be a way to purge himself of the curse.
When he dreams of Tony he appears like an East End gangster. He’s always there, standing by the door, a pint in his hand shouting foul-mouthed encouragement as he struggled to do what was expected. He still sees Connie sometimes too, so drunk and incapable she has little idea what was happening.
The stories stopped. Tony made sure of that. He struggled to look Connie in the eye, couldn’t visit her when Tony returned to his third wife and she had the inevitable breakdown. It must have taken something special for that woman to return to the set, this time without the need for drink, there to do the job and earn her money. Even Tony kept his distance. At some point she succumbed to the curse and fell off the wagon.
‘You’ve told me this so many times now Lionel. I can only forgive you the once,’ said Father Clement through the grille of the old-style confessional. ‘Perhaps you could tell your niece about it. Perhaps you need to share it with someone other than me.’
‘I could never do that Father.’
‘Maybe you could contact Connie herself. Tell her you were sorry for what you did.’
Lionel fell silent for a moment.
‘That’s the problem Father. I’m not yet sure I am.’
The priest made a full and deep sigh. ‘Then God forgive you Lionel Fetlar.’
Lionel stepped out of the church into the evening light. The wind was getting up and there were spots of rain and sea spray being blown into his face. He would visit Cathy tomorrow and ask if he could help her with her flat hunting. He would find ways to be useful in however long he had left.
Banner Image: By Tim Green from Bradford (Tragedy and Comedy) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons