New York, 1976
Myriam is lugging two suitcases of her samples to an apartment block on East 69th and Fifth Avenue. They’re smart suitcases. New.
‘You gonna tell me?’ the cab-driver asks after lifting the cases into the boot and starting off. Silence. ‘You always tell me.’
He means Myriam’s assignation – its precise nature, the identity of her latest client.
‘Can you keep a secret?’ Myriam asks, staring out the window at the pavement throng.
‘Sure as hell. You know me.’ He’s gone though this ritual subterfuge before.
‘People are always letting me down,’ Myriam complains. ‘What’s wrong with people? I don’t know what’s happening to the world. You can’t rely on anyone anymore.’
‘My, are we depressed today. Try me. Lift my spirits.’
Myriam’s journeys across town are always colourful. One of her customers was Broderick Crawford’s wife. Peggy Lee was another. Then there was Lucia Maglinini, girlfriend of Carmine ‘The Snake’ Persico. Myriam’s name is aloft after that Ruth Preston write-up on the fashion pages of the Post.
‘It’s just up here,’ she says.
‘I know where it is, goddamit. Now who’s the lucky lady?’
‘Pick me up at the usual. I’ll tell you then.’
‘I might be dead meantime.’
‘So it’s a philosopher we are now. Think silent movies. Just along here – this’ll do.’
The cab pulls into the kerb. The driver gets out, retrieves the suitcases – one small, the other a lot bigger – and plants them on the pavement. Then he opens the door for Myriam. She’s an elegant little lady, wearing a Tweed suit of her own design and a hat sprouting a long feather. The hat is knocked comically sideways as she disembarks.
‘Before you ask, it’s a no,’ she says, anticipating the driver’s question as to whether or not she needs the cases to be carried to the elevator doors. He’s learned not to make Myriam look dependent.
‘It’s Mayo isn’t it?’ he calls out as she makes off. ‘Virginia. Or Jane Russell?’ Then louder: ‘Tell me it’s Ava Gardner!’
Myriam hobbles towards the building like a milkmaid with two unequal pails. Half-turning her head, the hat righted, she lets out a high-pitched laugh. ‘See you later,’ she shouts. ‘Don’t die on me!’
Waiting for the elevator, Myriam smiles at the cab driver’s suggestions. It could well have been Virginia or Jane or Ava. Even the vice-president’s wife or Mrs Nat King Cole. Their agents have phoned. These days, the phone never stops ringing. It’s just that today Éva hasn’t rung, which is why the crowds got her down and why she wasn’t forthcoming in the cab. Éva always rings at 9am on a Monday, just for ten minutes of gossip from Csopak. Reversed charge at Myriam’s insistence. Never fails. There must be something wrong. Myriam gave Éva half an hour while she double-checked the contents of the suitcases; then she called the number herself. But there was no answer. Éva never goes out. Hardly ever.
Myriam rings the bell, and a camp voice exits the inter-com grille: ‘Hello. What can we do for you today?’
‘It’s Myriam Weiskopf,’ she says, rising on tip-toe to speak. ‘I have an appointment with Miss Blanche Stewart.’
‘Very good’, the voice says encouragingly. ‘Wait awhile!’
Myriam’s worked out that Blanche Stewart is eighty or in her eightieth year. She’s tried to find an up-to-date photograph of her but failed. She’s also been unable to view the most famous silent film her friend Bucky Patello says Blanche was in a half-century before – El Cid – even though Bucky is in the movie business and is still trying to locate a copy. She’s seen Sunset Boulevard, so imagines Miss Stewart will be like the central character in that, or like Gloria Swanson, the ageing star who plays the part. There’s barely been time to do all these things. A secretary phoned just three weeks before to announce that ‘Miss Stewart’ would take a flight from Florida and await a visit at her apartment overlooking Central Park. Bucky told Myriam that in Billy Wilder’s film, Gloria Swanson was really playing herself. But Myriam knows that Swanson isn’t reclusive or even a faded and forgotten celebrity. Bucky did say that in Sunset Boulevard Wilder sought to commemorate a vanished era and in doing so was alluding to mortality, the tragic passing of life itself. Myriam always lets Buddy’s statements of the obvious pass unremarked. She hasn’t spoken to Blanche Stewart directly.
The man on the inter-com is young but has coiffured grey hair; he’s dressed smartly in black. Inside the apartment, he raises his brows and smiles recognition but says nothing. He takes the suitcases and nods Myriam through.
At first, the apartment seems empty. It’s the sort of place Myriam has visited many times and is redolent in its ostentation of the luxurious life of others. Myriam will tell her friends that it lacked taste or was out of step with the times. Most of them do and are. Few of Myriam’s new clients, for the moment, are young women who have not made their fortunes the hard way. Lucia Maglinini was one of the exceptions; she seemed hasty and frightened, out of her depth and reluctant to spend. Myriam felt sorry for her but invoiced just the same for the outfits she made.
On the carpets, the footsteps of Myriam and the young man make no sound. Myriam can see in front of her the top of a woman’s head, the hair silver-grey. ’This way,’ the man whispers as he glides past her with the suitcases.
She settles into a leather chair at the side of the huge settee where Blanche Stewart sits primly with a fur blanket across her knees; but the woman she actually sees is her friend Éva Pataky. Myriam opens her mouth in silent exclamation.
‘Don’t be shocked,’ the old film star says in a girlish voice.
‘No, I’m sorry, it’s just that…’, Myriam splutters.
‘Just what, my dear? That I’m not the woman you remember?’
‘No – that you look just like…well, someone I know, a friend of mine.’
‘Goodness me!’ Blanche Stewart exclaims, turning to the young man. ‘And there was I thinking myself unique, still celebrated. Doesn’t your friend know this?’
The man smiles again, tilts his head and lifts his shoulders.
‘No, I didn’t mean…’ Myriam tries to explain.
‘We had doubles, you know. Mine looked more like me than I did myself. I often wonder where she is now, my double. I honestly forget her name. Perhaps there are three of us – me, my double and your…’
‘Éva’, Myriam says, embarrassed.
The man finally speaks, leaning across the back of the settee to side conspiratorially with his employer, head to head: ‘My, a trio of lookalikes!’
Myriam is confused. She appears to see three Blanche Stewarts, all old, sitting side by side, joined together. The apartment is huge, too big. The women are fragile figurines which have been placed inside a doll’s house. Éva has rung every Monday since Myriam arrived in New York after what her friend refers to amusingly as the ‘dust cloud’ she created across Europe in flight from haunting memories. Éva, who was liberated with her from the other place, where a British officer had tried in vain to physically prise them apart, eventually returned to Hungary. They refer to the first place as ‘A’ and to the second as ‘B-B’, the horror as ‘that Nazi jamboree’. They were two inseparable little girls. Perhaps for the first time the phone line is down. That’s it, Myriam decides; it’s a fault.
‘So?’ Blanche Stewart says, drawing on what Myriam suspects is a deep but politely deferred well of impatience.
Myriam slides the suitcases towards Miss Stewart’s feet and kneels down to open them. One contains patterns, drawings, photographs and cloth samples; the bigger one complete garments, six in all, representing a selection of the latest designs. One of the photos is of Virginia Mayo wearing a knitted waistcoat in two shades of green. While Miss Stewart examines the sketchbook, Myriam looks around for evidence of a life lived in the past, but there is none – no studio photographs, no posters, no gramophone with a bellowing horn. There are just flourishes: interior design as a series of flamboyant gestures. All Myriam’s clients are busily trying to reclaim the past.
They chat about Florida and New York and about growing older. Miss Stewart asks what sort of person Ruth Preston is and whether Myriam has met Elsa Clench, of Women’s Wear Daily. Myriam tells her what she knows. Elsa’s an acquaintance, like the rest of them. There’s little talk of films or the film industry, except for Myriam’s mentioning that Tippi Hedren’s representative has been to see her. Miss Stewart says she doesn’t quite catch the name but Myriam believes she doesn’t know it. ‘Oh yes,’ Miss Stewart says, when it’s repeated by the young man, who mentions Hitchcock’s The Birds. ‘I’ll take these,’ she announces eventually, pointing to four of the drawings, three of them pinned to photographs of the items being modelled. ‘And in these materials.’
She places the floppy book of samples on her lap and waits for Myriam to organise herself with pen and notebook. But it is the young man, having heard a decision made, who appears at Myriam’s side with writing materials of his own. He seems anxious to impress his employer. They both record the information.
‘I’ll need to take measurements,’ Myriam says, still writing. ‘It won’t take a minute. Do you want to see any finished work? I’ve brought a few items.’
‘Of course. But I’ve made my choices.’
Miss Stewart obediently stands and waits while Myriam reaches for her tape. Myriam is short but her new client is a couple of inches shorter. She reminds Myriam of a small bird, safe in its lodging above the city throng, her choice an assertive act to compensate for a stature others might associate with hesitancy and doubt, with weakness.
‘They’re quite bright,’ Miss Stewart says as she eyes the contents of the untouched case. Myriam translates this as polite criticism, like the descriptions ‘too old for me’ or ‘a bit young-looking’. For Myriam, ‘colour’ and ‘New York’ are the opposites of ‘drab’ and ‘Central Europe’, though the pictures Éva sends her of the summer gardens in Csopak are a delight, a familiar signal of hope in spite of all. Éva would love Myriam to come home. But Myriam won’t hear of it. She regards the postcards as enticements.
The completed items are too big for Myriam except for the jackets, which she hangs in front of her to display. Miss Stewart likes them all but waves her hand for silence when the young man grows agitated in his approval. She relents and chooses a jacket in hand-painted silk with wide, shortened sleeves and deep side pockets.
Myriam makes some notes before starting to pack the cases. It’s then that Miss Stewart wanders over to the big studio window. The sun is flooding Manhattan with brilliant Spring light but has yet to rise far enough to stream into the apartment. The traffic way below murmurs unceasingly. She places her right hand on her chest and begins speaking, as if to someone on the phone or to a crowd gathered outside. The young man silently draws Myriam’s attention to what is happening. Miss Stewart’s small voice doesn’t rise much above its normal level and at a distance is barely audible. Myriam takes a few steps forward to pick up the words:
‘Thou knowest the mask of night is on my face, else would a maiden blush bepaint my cheek, for that which thou has heard me speak tonight. Fain would I dwell on form; fain, fain deny what I have spoke: but farewell compliment! Dost thou love me? I know thou wilt say “Ay”, and I will take thy word; yet if thou swear’st thou mayst prove false. At lovers’ perjuries they say Jove laughs. O gentle Romeo, if thou dost love, pronounce it faithfully; or if thou think I am too quickly won, I’ll frown, and be perverse, and say thee nay, so thou wilt woo; but else, not for the world in truth, fair Montague, I am too fond, and therefore thou mayst think my haviour light.’
As soon as each word was uttered it seemed to vanish immediately. The effect was of succeeding words catching up, eager to follow into the void.
Miss Stewart bows her head slowly, not removing her hand for several seconds, at which point it drops slowly and theatrically to her side. As it does so, a draught ruffles her chiffon dress. The young man begins to applaud but is silenced by a glance as fearsome as it is swift. Hearing the name Romeo, Myriam guesses that her client is quoting Shakespeare, but even her few trips with Bucky Patello to the New York Classical Theatre and offbeat productions in the Village tell her that Miss Stewart’s monologue, which she assumes is Juliet’s, was flat and barely audible. She wonders if there is a character in the play called Montague. She has not been long in America; learning fast is not the same as learning a lot. She wonders if Éva has got through at last.
‘Romeo and Juliet,’ Miss Stewart says with a smile. ‘Shakespeare. Griffith wanted to film but it never happened. I don’t remember why. There’s lots of action.’
She says this in a way that oddly suggests she would not have been part of it.
‘Would you have been Juliet?’ Myriam asks.
‘Oh yes!’ the man exclaims, as if there were any doubt. He couldn’t have been born when El Cid was made.
Miss Stewart ignores him. She approaches Myriam as if she intends to embrace her but she stops the other side of the suitcases. ’The past is no longer with us,’ she says. ’It’s history, in books. One makes of life what one can at the time.”
Outside, the cab driver is waiting. “Well?” he says, opening the door for her.
“You wouldn’t know,” she says. “It was Blanche Stewart.”
“Sure I know Blanche Stewart. Remind me.”
But she knows he doesn’t. Myriam believes everything about her new country. On the short journey back, the driver is silent. Now and then he glances at Myriam in the rear-view mirror and smiles. Myriam has forgotten about him and his enthusiasm; he’s become one of the conquered, one more native who defers to her and will talk to others about her. She is looking out the window at everything passing in a blur.
When she returns to the workshop there is a telegram waiting. Her three assistants are standing silently in the doorway looking glum.
‘What’s up with you lot?’ she asks, unfolding the telegram. ‘Nothing to do?’
They tell her that they haven’t read the message but that while she was out there were two calls, one from Csopak the other from a place the name of which they couldn’t pronounce, but which turns out to be Kezthely. None of this registers with Myriam at first. Unaccountably she decides that she must take on two more helpers at least, and maybe move to bigger premises. It was something to do with the way Blanche Stewart had been neither demanding nor unreasonable and the impression she gained that her flight to New York was exclusively linked to the morning‘s meeting, brief as it was. It couldn’t have been, of course; but Myriam’s burgeoning fame attracts to itself wild suppositions. The three are still hovering when she reads the telegram and lets herself drop into her swivel chair. From the phone calls they know it’s bad news. She drives her fist into her mouth. Her knuckles turn white.
‘It’s Éva’, she says. ‘My friend Éva is missing. They are out looking for her.’
She hands them the telegram with an outstretched arm and looks in the opposite direction, away from the typewritten truth. But they know Éva is nowhere to be found. The second caller mistook one of the assistants for Myriam and blurted out as much.
The telegram is from Éva’s cousin.
‘Who sends telegrams?’ Myriam asks. ‘Now you know why I’ll never go back there. They all think we drive geese through the Village. As if MacDougal Street’s a mud track.’
She laughs. The assistants begin to laugh, too, but hesitate. She calls one of them over.
“Get me Halliwell’s ,” she says, cryptically. The new edition, shiny and just published, sits heavily on the shelf above her bench.
The assistant brings it, hands it to her.
“No,” she says. “Look up El Cid.”
He’s puzzled. “You mean the Charlton Heston film?”
“No I do not, darling! Look up Stewart, Blanche, at the same time. Stewart as in James Stewart.” An order from Mrs James Stewart is currently being processed.
He flicks the pages, finds El Cid and marks the page with his thumb. But the other name eludes him.
“No Blanche Stewart,” he says.
“Then it’s a fantasy,” she replies, grabbing the book herself. “A fantasy and a mystery both in one day. It’s more than a poor Jewish girl from the shores of Lake Balaton can handle.” She muses out loud. “So it wasn’t El Cid. Bucky got it wrong. That guy’s losing his schtendels.” Then louder, eyes glazing: “Someone get me Bucky Patello. It’s several words with him I need.”
Note: Schtendel = pebble, marble
Copyright©Nigel Jarrett 2013
Nigel Jarrett is a freelance writer and music critic, having worked as a reporter and sub-editor on daily newspapers. He is a winner of the Rhys Davies Award for short fiction. His début story collection, Funderland, was published by Parthian in 2011 to enthusiastic reviews in the Guardian and the Independent on Sunday, among others, and was longlisted for the Edge Hill Prize. A first poetry collection, Miners At The Quarry Pool, is due from Parthian in November. His poems, essays and stories appear widely and he reviews jazz for Jazz Journal and poetry for Acumen magazine. He is also the co-editor of The Day’s Portion (Village Publishing), a collection of Arthur Machen’s journalism. Since 1987 he’s been music critic of the South Wales Argus newspaper and he also writes music criticism and essays for the British Music Society Journal, Cambria, the Welsh Arts Review and others. His stories are beginning to appear on literary websites, such as The Lampeter Review, Readwave, The Anakatawa Review (Cairo) and The View From Here. In 2012, he was again a finalist for the Rhys Davies Award. Latest fiction is due soon in the Erotic Review, Gold Dust magazine and Crannóg (Eire); and poetry in the English Chicago Review and Agenda. Born in Cwmbran, Jarrett was educated in Pontypool and at Cardiff University. He lives in Monmouthshire. His website www.NigelJarrett.wordpress.com
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis