School of Life
by Jude Cook
He had waited a year to reel her in, and now he was ready. The line was baited, the hook sharp. The hour was at hand. Before sending his email, Paul gave the text, as was customary, one last look through the eyes of its intended recipient.
Sent: 08 December 2009 23:14
You probably won’t remember me, but we talked last year at a networking event held at The School of Life in Marchmont Street (a wonderfully named institution, and one which I thought I was already attending). We discussed, for over an hour, the state of the modern film industry, favourite auteurs and the correct pronunciation of ‘cineaste’.
Would it be possible to take a look at this new project of mine? If so, I can either send it over as an attachment or as a hard copy.
I hope you don’t mind this unsolicited intrusion, but I did feel we had a tremendous amount in common.
Too timid? Most probably. He was troubled by the classic loser’s opening of ‘you probably won’t remember me’. Who had ever got anywhere with that old pre-emption? Or was his sign-off too swashbuckling, with its assertion that they had a ‘tremendous amount in common’? It sounded like a reply to a lonely hearts ad. And wasn’t he making his belated approach way too personal (as well as way too late)? Christ, she was only some movie industry woman he had talked to at a party, admittedly the first soirée in years he had felt mentally able to attend. Did he, in fact, come across as the type of dangerous individual whose innocuous email begins a decade of stalking? He really couldn’t tell. After a certain age, what can we ever be sure of regarding ourselves? The ‘new project’ he referred to was a movie script he had laboured on for many years, through his labyrinthine decade of drinking, and on into sobriety. It told the story of the rise and fall of Hammer Films, delving deep into the socio-cultural eruptions of the 50s and 60s along the way. It also had a lot of blood, fangs and dolly birds with unfeasible breasts. Everyone Paul pitched it to said it was a winner, though no one had definitively opened their chequebook as yet. Just turned forty, and with no full-time occupation to speak of, Paul felt it was high time someone did.
Hesitating for a further moment before pressing Send (it was that slightly over-confident tone in mentioning the exact details of a conversation that took place over a year previously, one which she had most probably forgotten, that still bothered him), he threw caution to the winds of cyberspace and left-clicked on the mouse. What the hell, if you don’t take chances you won’t make advances! or so the Eleven Commandments of Networking informed him. Would the busy eyes of up-and-coming film producer Tsivia Bogoraz find his missive charmingly informal and get back immediately? Or would she delete it as just another in the daily blizzard of unsolicited approaches? By now he had no idea. Nevertheless, he reassured himself that a connection had been made – on a personal level, perhaps – at the dimly-lit party in the School of Life’s basement; a space made sophisticated and connoisseurial by the pungent waft of a passing cheeseboard and red-wine-only tab. Not the usual beer-swilling rodeo. Yes, unless he was well wide of the mark, an intimacy had been established, as his ‘discussed ... for over an hour’ hopefully attested. And anyway, it was too late now. He had pressed Send.
He heard nothing for a week, then even less for a further week. Feeling undermined by this silence, and with Christmas approaching, Paul emailed Marta, his one real contact in the film industry. Marta had been the hostess of the basement party – an old university friend, and one whose acquaintance he hadn’t ruined with the complications of sex. A naturally sociable woman, whose graceful, Renoir-bather’s limbs flowed under smocks or peacock chemises, Spanish Marta had immediately taken his elbow and steered him towards Tsivia Bogoraz in the tenebrous room. ‘Now, tell her you’re writing – you are writing? Bueno! – and that you want her to take a look! She’s on the up. A good contact ...’ Paul had been reluctant, as always on such occasions, to be formally introduced. ‘Please, Marta, you know I’m no good at this. I’m like Gordon Brown attempting a smile. She’s too young to remember Hammer Films ... Let me just lurk in the corner and watch people put away that terrific Rioja.’ But Marta was having none of it, and he soon found himself in the company of the diminutive but surprisingly animated producer.
Thus Paul – shy, uncertain in speech, but possessed of an engaging intelligence that never let him down – had talked enjoyably to Tsivia, for over an hour.
Yet, a year later, when he emailed Marta for advice, his friend had no idea why he had received no response from Tsivia Bogoraz. Except to suggest that the busy producer was ‘Probably at full stretch – you should try again, sweetheart.’ Which he did, recalcitrantly, with a short, maybe over-familiar note:
Sent: 15 December 2009 11:29
Subject: Possible Project
Apologies for mailing you direct again – Marta at Pacific Pictures said I should persevere with the possibility of you maybe reading some of my stuff. Alan Parker read a draft copy of the Hammer script and said it was ‘terrific’ ... I enjoyed talking to you at her gathering last year, and we seemed to like the same movies.
Appreciate you are way busy, and might not have the time for this!
All the best,
After pressing Send on this despatch he was even more troubled than after the first. Not only for namedropping Parker, which he had promised himself he wouldn’t do, and the rather unfortunate and rude preposition ‘to’ in ‘talking to you’, but because of the exclamation mark. How he had agonised over that exclamation mark! To exclaim or not to exclaim, that was always the unanswerable question. Take it away, and the note looked flat, almost importuning. Put it in, and it looked like a greetings card. What to do? And even worse, the italicized colloquial Americanism ‘way busy’ began to irk him too, like a secondary neuralgia emerging under a first. It was all too much. The etiquette of such approaches was a minefield, one for which there was no map of negotiation.
And still no reply.
It was the day before Christmas Eve when Paul experienced his first definitively negative thought about the whole business. He had been blanked. Not once, but twice. And none of it seemed to add up. They had got on so well, he thought ... There was always the possibility that Tsivia might be ill, or may have suffered a bereavement, and was putting all casual approaches such as his on the back-burner. Who could tell? You never know what’s really going on in other people’s lives, he decided; beneath those cool frontages that slide past us daily, like ocean liners leaving port – like the QE II, a ship he had witnessed many times gracefully gliding from Southampton dock in the town where he grew up. Who knew what Tsivia had playing out in her life at that moment? However, a cursory look online at Tsivia’s new company (Mercenary Productions), to which she had been headhunted back in February, indicated that her career, at least, was in rude health. A co-production deal here; a script optioned with Spielberg there ... No, for whatever reason, Paul had been blanked, and he was beginning to take it personally, as he poured out another Diet Coke and ice, alone on Christmas Eve, watching Albert Finney in Scrooge cowering under the shadow of Marley’s ghost.
But still, in his secret soul, he waited.
In the bleakest moments of his inbox-vigil, that long and lonely Christmas, Tsivia’s silence became, for him, like the silence of God. Determined, agonising, but professionally and efficiently sustained. Never ending.
Gradually, the ‘new project’, the History of Hammer, had come to feel like an old project. Stale and creaky. What’s more, Paul had begun to realise he didn’t even like horror films. He knew them to be laughable schlock he had grown out of at thirteen. And Hammers were Carry-Ons with fangs. As a man who had taken an English degree at Southampton Uni, rather than a career-forwarding BA in Film or Media studies, he now felt the whole project slightly beneath him. Why hadn’t he picked Ealing Studios as his subject? Or the Nouvelle Vague – an article on which, by Paul Fordham, had appeared in the esteemed movie journal Little White Lies a month before Marta’s party; his first published work. Instead, he had plumped for the corny grimacing of Vincent Price and Christopher Lee as the panacea which would save his nose-diving writing career. But Paul suspected, again deep in his secret soul, that it wasn’t just his movie project that was being rejected by Tsivia’s well-maintained silence, it was him, his very essence. How had he so catastrophically misread her signals?
More than anything, during that barren January, he strove to recall the exact details of their meeting in the murky basement room; Christmas tree in the corner, milling media goons stooped over glasses of scintillating Rioja; bundles of Little White Lies under the branches, like festive gifts. Only by examining the well-worn scenario might he locate a reason for Tsivia’s ecumenical cold-shoulder. He kept replaying the scene in his head, like a suspense movie that continually flashed back to a central, defining – or inciting – incident ...
‘Tsivia – Paul. Paul – Tsivia.’
Marta stood there, eternally poised, warm and Spanishly flamboyant, holding his elbow as she steered him into the force-field of Miss Bogoraz. Paul, averagely tall, fair-haired, with his confrontational, strangely penitent eyes, had been successful with women once, and he searched himself for his old charm, like an actor digging up an old speech.
‘Hi,’ said Paul, extending a hand.
‘Hi,’ said Tsivia, taking it.
Before him was a small, snub-nosed woman, no more than thirty, with a low centre of gravity. A girlish, engaging radiance seemed to flow from her face, mesmerising him for a moment, like a flashlight beam. Paul took her in, while immediately forgetting her name, which to his ears had sounded like deceiver. He noted a peasant earthiness in the flat line of her upper teeth, with its hint of a gap; the rich, aristocratic brown of her eyes, like chocolates in a Jermyn Street window. A certain rapidity of movement took Paul by surprise, too, as she quickly dropped his hand. She was comfortable in her media uniform of black; effervescent and engaged. Though neither beautiful nor plain (her features were best described as exotically mittel European), she nevertheless had small, flower-like cheeks and a forehead that begged you to shower it with kisses.
‘Let me guess,’ she smiled. ‘You’re a writer?’
‘How did you know? Am I wearing the characteristic dishevelled look?’
Tsivia laughed. A big, open, head-back giggle – one that defined her as having the capacity to be dangerously free and familiar in all types of company. This, he knew, from bitter experience with women, was not a vulnerability, but a weapon.
‘No, no, no!’ Tsivia broke out, when her amusement had cleared. ‘It’s just that Marta’s always introducing me to them. Like they’re the only people she knows. Occupational hazard, I guess.’
‘Oh, and what’s the occupation?’
With this, Paul decided to take his charm troops out of combat and opt for a lie. Play dumb: always the best bet with these industry people. Masquerade as the ingénu and they tell you everything. He already knew she was one of the hottest producers in London; he just wanted to hear it in her own words. Despite himself, he was enjoying her company. The wariness and fatigue he usually experienced during these encounters began to evaporate. This was a woman – and he saw the truth of this in the erotic black centres of her eyes – who could talk to any man. And probably sell wigwams to the Indians too.
‘Well ...’ Tsivia pondered, looking at the floor and nodding. ‘I’m a producer. I’m developing a slate of projects at Consequence Pictures at the moment. Mainly genre thrillers and romantic comedies – stuff that sells, I’m afraid. What else? I spent a couple of years as a script editor, then a couple more as a talent agent. So the occupations have been pretty varied, I guess.’
She smiled again, with a peachy, glinty-eyed keenness only achievable by women under the age of thirty. After that, he decided, a deadness or a desperation sets in.
‘Sounds impressive ...’ Paul said. ‘If I carried a card, I’d hand it to you now. It seems slightly foolish, somehow, to have the word ‘writer’ on a business card, don’t you think? The two concepts seem unlikely bedfellows.’
‘What? Business and writing?’
At that moment, Paul ached for a drink. A forest of empty Rioja bottles was flourishing on a trestle table next to the Christmas tree. After being buffeted by fellow guests following Marta’s introduction, he and Tsivia had found themselves huddled in a kind of recess where all Paul could smell was the pungent bouquet of good wine. It was maddening! For a vivid ten seconds, the single thing he could think about was the loosening elixir of a glass of red. But he knew he could not go there. Oh, no. He must never go there. To give in to such impulses would spell catastrophe. Yet, after a choppy couple of minutes, he stabilised. Years of AA meetings, which he still occasionally attended in a damp Battersea basement, had furnished him with more than one strategy for passing the open windows. Engage fully with your interlocutor was one of them, and this he decided to do.
‘I don’t know,’ Tsivia said thoughtfully. ‘Most successful screenwriters I know are sharper than accountants when it comes to their option deals. They remember expiry dates like a computer.’
‘Ah, see, that’s where I’ve been going wrong all my life.’ And he punched the air theatrically. ‘I’ve been sweating adjectives when it should’ve been figures.’
A brief pause fell between them, one in which they both decided they quite liked each other.
‘So ...’ Tsivia beamed, raising her voice above the hubbub of the intimate room, ‘what are you working on at the moment?’
And thus Paul trotted out the whole saga – it couldn’t be called anything as professional as a pitch – of the genesis, execution, and continued failure of the Hammer Films biopic. Tsivia’s professional stare told him nothing of her real feelings about the project – only her frequent ‘uh-huhs’, ‘yesses’ and ‘go ons’ gave him any positive momentum to continue his tale. And much abridged and compressed it was, too. Omitted were his years of boozing that had only permitted him to write a maximum of five words every morning through the storm of a ransacking, seemingly permanent hangover. Gone were the two other producers who had sat on the project for over two years each, and then shafted him out of promised development money. Absent also was any talk of his real biography, home-life, or track-record within the industry. Instead, they soon found themselves talking about Paul’s article in Little White Lies (‘I’ll take it with me – read it on the tube home!’), and favourite auteurs: Goddard, Truffaut, Rohmer, Ray, Chabrol. Towards the end of this nutritious dialectic, Tsivia came out with a pronunciation that, to Paul’s ears, sounded wrong.
‘Of course,’ she smiled, her forehead and cheeks reflecting the aquamarine Christmas lights, ‘a true cineaste like yourself needs no lessons in fragmented Goddardian narrative from me!’
She had pronounced the word sin-east.
‘Thank you,’ said Paul, ‘but I think you’ll find it’s cine-aste.’
‘Yeah, I heard a French speaker say it on Radio Four’s Front Row.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Definitely ... Absolutely.’
Though smiling from ear to ear, he could tell Tsivia Bogoraz didn’t like this correction. He found himself backtracking:
‘ ... Although you might be right, for all I know! Words and meanings mutate all the time. As does pronunciation. Just look at the case of aks.’
And so they talked for another five minutes about the great North London coinage, To aks, with its metathetic reversal of the letters of ask; a verb that, one day, Paul asserted, in ten years or less, would be in the Oxford English Dictionary.
It was only in retrospect that he wondered if cineaste wasn’t where all the damage was done.
January is never kind, but that particular, barren, post-festive month waiting for Tsivia to reply seemed especially bleak to Paul. Skies of pewter, holding sentences of escaping birds, strung without punctuation in great streaks, greeted him each morning. Freezing air, blowing in draughts under the front door – and through the blinds his landlord had insisted on instead of curtains – tortured his toes on the way to the bathroom. His flat, a gloomy rented ground-floor place, was about as far from the epicentre of Soho as you could get and still be in London. It was two minutes from Southgate tube, where the urban seemed to bleed inexorably into a faceless suburbia. Cockfosters. Barnet. Hendon. Nowhere places, in which to live without a family – to be a man apart, as Paul felt himself to be – was to play the pariah. His flat’s interior had begun to resemble a second-hand bookshop that didn’t make much money. Dusty piles of unread volumes, some nearing the ceiling, hovered precariously in all corners. Bachelor filth and despair pervaded every room. Some mornings, to Paul at least, the flat resembled the den of a hermit or madman. A squalid hermitage. Unfinished scripts (and dinners) clogged the passageways, like cholesterol in an artery. A suspicious visitor (and he wasn’t getting many of those, suspicious or otherwise) might be wary of discovering certain things once they got past the rickety shared front door. An emptied hoover-bag of dust under the bed. Forgotten underpants, stranded like mountain climbers behind a radiator. A human brain-pan in the vegetable drawer of the fridge ...
And so he continued to torture himself about Tsivia; her silence, her rebuttal. Why had he waited over a year to send his two emails? Why did the sense of personal rejection hang so heavy over him? He couldn’t answer the first question, but, on his lengthy walks along the gentrified slopes of Palmers Green, wrapped in his black Army greatcoat, breathing steam, he thought he might have the answer to the second. Shamefully, in the weeks after the basement party, he had admitted fantasies of a romantic nature between himself and the up-and-coming producer. Not one for parties, let alone industry shindigs, he had been smitten. Tsivia was the first woman he had sustained a conversation with since becoming sober. And they had got on so well! Or so he had imagined. In his fantasy, prominently and proudly Jewish Tsivia would nevertheless consider penniless and gentile Paul as marriage material. She would see their whirlwind romance as a melding of two distinct cultures. He envisaged the introduction to her warm and wealthy family in Highgate; the Jewish customs he would have to learn and observe (even a late conversion to Judaism wasn’t ruled out); also the children they would raise in the Wiltshire farmhouse he had purchased after the worldwide success of his Hammer biopic. In concordance with this domestic eden, Paul saw clearly the tornado of showbiz dos and premieres they would attend – the wrap-parties; the sparkling sun-drenched gatherings on the Croisette; the BAFTA awards ceremony, with his hand on the small of Tsivia’s back as he ushered her up the carmine escalier. What’s more, these vain fantasies were based on hard fact. He knew she had a family house up in Highgate because he had done his research. Like the stalker he didn’t want to become, a little delving online had revealed Tsivia’s whole biography. Her famous architect father, Saul Bogoraz. Her film producer mother, Nina – midwife to many international hit movies – who had named Tsivia after a Ukrainian aunt. Her years at St Paul’s School for Girls, followed by a first in Eng Lit from King’s Cambridge (no wonder they talked more comfortably about Balzac than Bruce Willis!). Then her MA from Harvard in film studies, her fast-track through the lower echelons of the Brit film biz courtesy of mother Nina. Paul also knew a little of her romantic history – Tsivia had only recently surfaced, at 32, after a long relationship with a famously disreputable talent agent; and was currently single, after being headhunted from Consequence to her current apotheosis as Director of Development at Mercenary.
There was only one small impediment to these happy imaginings: he found her name ugly. To his inner self, he had admitted this, accepted it, but continued to have a problem with it. Tsivia Bogoraz. My, oh, my! Why hadn’t she been given one of those beautiful Jewish girl’s names, like Hannah or Deborah? Every time a search engine turned up ‘Bogoraz’ (and it was frequently) he winced, as if inhaling vinegar. And ‘Tsivia’ wasn’t much better. What had initially sounded worryingly like deceiver was preferable to the lascivia he now heard every time he spoke her Christian name. Tsivia Bogoraz. She sounded like a peasant dish. One unearthed in Hungary, made of potatoes and horse-meat, with scary unidentified scrapings at the bottom of a thin gruel. She couldn’t help it, of course – blame that Ukrainian Aunt, and money-bags father Saul, a man whose suntanned face dripped from in-flight magazines above features on world-renowned architects, playboys, cultural arbiters. But Paul resigned himself to the fact she would surely want to continue using her maiden name post-nuptials, as most successful women did. He would be chained to it.
And how successful was Tsivia?
Over the past year, her star had risen with horrific alacrity. This answered his first question: Why had he procrastinated for over a year to use her as a contact? Because everyone, it seemed, suddenly wanted a piece of Tsivia. And he didn’t want to be everyone – to be merely another member of the scrum. She had come so far, so swiftly. From her moan at Marta’s party about the financial downturn (‘I’ll certainly lose my job at Consequence Pictures – it’s in the post!’), to this heady, vertiginous ascent.
Putting the brake on his wild speculations, Paul decided to contact Marta one more time. He must have rubbed Tsivia up the wrong way somehow. If not cineaste, then one of a vista of other possibilities:
Sent: 30 January 2010 00:15
Decided, on balance, not to mail Tsivia another time ...
Maybe she is at full stretch, as you say.
Although a ‘Sorry – too busy,’ might not have gone amiss.
Now I’m thinking it was something in the Little White Lies piece (which I remember she said she was looking forward to reading). She may have taken umbrage with the scurrilous coded reference to Harry Spielmann (with whom I now realise she had a lengthy and tempestuous relationship). Although, one would have thought she might welcome the public drubbing of such a man. However, people can retain a paradoxical affection for the most terrible abusers, as we both know. Nevertheless, I don’t see how she could take offence at so obvious a caricature of a cigar-smoking talent agent, known universally as ‘The Shit’.
Then the paranoiac in me thought it might have been cineaste ... At your party, Tsivia and I discussed the old chestnut of how to pronounce it – with me claiming correctness largely on the basis of a French speaker I once heard interviewed by Mark Lawson.
In my worst moments, I fear she might have thought I was coming on to her – we spoke long and fruitfully, after all, only parting when she expressed an urgent need to go upstairs for a cigarette.
She is lovely, but I certainly had no designs in that direction!
Or none of the above ...
Or maybe I’m mental.
If you ever find out, it would be good to know.
Meanwhile, I’m never leaving the house again.
Mental? He was definitely unhinged, and more dangerously so than he let on to Marta. Thankfully, he received an immediate reply from her (‘Paul, Que va, loco? It is not any of the above!!!! Please do leave the house again. I will investigate further ...’).
Gracious and magnanimous as this was, he was certain he was to blame.
Now he began to wonder about the cigarette business. At the party, after their hour of fruitful dialogue, the turquoise glow of the tree flattering her kissable cheeks, Tsivia had paused, smiled, and announced she needed to run off to smoke. ‘Well ... it’s been a pleasure to meet you,’ she beamed in his direction. ‘I’m just going upstairs for a cigarette.’
Paul had grinned back, thinking foolishly (Oh, how foolishly!) that this was merely the first of many such tête-à-têtes. He felt he had met a true friend. A fellow cineaste, however it was pronounced. ‘I completely understand,’ Paul had babbled, buckling under the need to make her stay for another hour. ‘I smoked professionally for twenty years. I’ll just stay here and work the room.’ And with that, her force-field disappeared with characteristic speed across the floor; her tiny hands already manipulating the pack of Marlboro Lights. He watched her go – a small black presence climbing the stairs from the basement room to the air above, an unreadable smile on her face. And that was the last he saw of her, except for the half an hour she rejoined the throng and stood talking to people she seemed to have known since childhood.
When it was time for Paul to leave (after his great social success, he had failed to make any other contacts, and had stood like a gooseberry smiling at nothing), he had almost tripped over Tsivia as he searched for his man-bag and coat. She was sitting on the floor, as were many of the guests, wineglass in hand, talking animatedly to an old male acquaintance, all but the real hardcore networkers having escaped to civilisation above. Paul had decided not to make eye-contact, or acknowledge he was leaving. His need for a drink was threatening his sanity. And anyway, against his better judgement, he was jealous of her male companion. Maybe this rather petulant leave-taking had gone down badly with Tsivia, too. Secretly bored to tears, she had escaped his company to spark up. And then this doomed scribbler didn’t even have the courtesy to nod goodbye. Not done within the etiquette of the biz. It would be noted, inwardly, for further use – for when said writer came begging with his project for consideration. There were rules, and all ‘industry insiders’ knew them, obeyed them. No matter how much inward animadversion was felt, an outward show of gregarious charm was always maintained.
Still, a year on, Marta had failed to find out whether his abrupt departure (or any other factor) had caused her offence. A mystery. And still Tsivia’s silence prevailed.
Spring came, and with it the urge to revisit the scene of the crime. Marchmont Street. A pretty, almost Dutch-looking stretch of eighteenth-century houses that led one north from Brunswick Square in a hopeful straight line. There the scrubbed pubs dangled poly-hued tubs of irises and lilacs. Bohemian young men and women in shades peopled the pavement cafes and boutiques. Bloomsbury, in all its exclusive, erudite intensity huddled guardedly, its collar done up against the changing air.
One morning in March, Paul found himself just round the corner, at his favourite bookshop, the dusty, sequestered Skoob. Leaving the warren of shelves empty-handed, he decided to take a walk to see if the School of Life was still in existence. With London, you could never vouch for anything’s permanence, not in the mutable river that was the metropolis. When he arrived at Marchmont Street, a terrific incipient activity seemed underway. A cocktail of coffee and diesel fumes hung pleasingly in the damp, trembling atmosphere. Sunshine, in great confident squares, was monopolising the road. Cars, tourists, courier bikes, pushchairs and pigeons thronged the busy thoroughfare. And yet none of it exalted Paul. What a fate, to breathe in the aqueous intoxication of such a city morning, and still feel a clammy bitterness at your core!
Suddenly he was there, the School of Life, with its small frontage of muted green paint and discreet lettering on clear glass still extant. Paul peered in, curiously emotional to view the empty reception area once more. Breathing heavily, he stared at the sight of the staircase that had led him, almost eighteen months ago, to the basement soirée, and so to Tsivia. At the party, he had felt privileged to be invited to such a prestigious venue, a precious oasis of learning set up by the very best, most inquiring, minds of his generation. Now he hated the place. He wondered how someone had had the balls to give it such a name. The School of Shit, more like! A loose collective of Bloomsbury intellectuals and poseurs that constituted a kind of pointless informal think-tank; a philosophical salon that met monthly to discuss the recondite implications of banal activities – eating, travel, housework. The dilettantish pastime of people with too much money, Paul now decided.
Nevertheless, the organisation’s name had, irritatingly, and against his wishes, started him thinking. He began to wonder about the whole project of learning, of pedagogy, where something as complicated as living was concerned. There were things in life you were forcibly taught, he decided, and then things you elect to learn: courses and qualifications you sign up for. He felt the lesson he was learning from Tsivia’s silence belonged to the former category. Too old, at 41, to be blanked, or to waste time caring about it, Paul nonetheless felt the most important lessons in life were the ones you kept learning; the one’s you never quite mastered. The bare truth that people were unpredictable, motiveless, not amenable to one’s manipulation is something a child of five has to learn. And a fact Lear was still learning on the Heath. From her appearance as an approachable, eager, enthusiastic human being, Tsivia now resided in some impenetrable citadel. It didn’t add up, and never would. That was the lesson.
Leaving the frontage of the School of Life (and he thought it strange that it was empty, unpeopled), Paul shuffled off up the street, plagued now by dark and vindictive thoughts. Honestly, who were these rich little middle-classes bitches to blank him and fuck him around!? The so-called Creative Industries were diseased with these privileged floosies, these readers, producers, development directors! All self-appointed arbiters of whether an artistic project lived or died! What gave them the qualification to stand in judgement over the sweated-out, agonisingly produced work of painters, authors, film-makers? What was their talent or qualification, apart from a certain aptitude, a social fluency, a banal facility? They were merely parasites – talentless mediocrities who were nonetheless promoted to ubiquity in the present culture. Everyone hungered for a job in the arts or media, and this swarm of Manolo-wearing, swishy-haired, plummy-voiced, pony-riding daddy’s girls fitted the bill.
It gave him comfort, as he headed towards the more unsettling and grimy environs of Kings Cross, to think of Tsivia in this light. Refreshing, to knock her from her pedestal. He was furious with her now! He booted a shiny bag of refuse as he passed a Georgian doorway, and imagined it was Tsivia. What pleasure that kick gave him! Her arrogance in not replying astonished him, stupefied him. Didn’t father Saul teach her that those you boot on the way up you meet again on the way down? And she was certainly still on the way up – for a while now her name seemed to be everywhere. Even in the basement of Skoob, he had opened a recently published script by a very famous female film director (there were a few) only to see the inscription: To my darling Tsivia – always my first reader ... This cloying sentence had forced him to slam the book shut and leave for the upper air; air he now forced into his lungs along with the fumes of the city. Tsivia Bogoraz! That privileged little horror, that over-educated tootsie knew nothing – nothing of life! Like her counterparts in the other creative industries, she was unaware of life outside her exclusive bubble; the real world, where great work was originated. She had no real conception of how art was made or written, surrounded, as she was, by the great and the good ever since graduation. Her CV told of involvement with Stoppard, Pinter, Minghella, Mike Leigh, Alan Bennett: great film-writers all. How had these scions got past their own armies of nay-saying Tsivias to the broad sunlit uplands of success? Who had understood and valued them, before they became ‘cultural icons’ or ‘national treasures’? No, he was certain she merely viewed everything as ‘content’, saw writers as ‘creatives’, or worse, ‘the talent’. In a way, she was more execrable than that other type of industry professional (and how he had come to loathe that term!) who was secretly at work on a screenplay themselves – as half of the business seemed to be. They all think they can write, spat Potter’s Singing Detective. Just because they can hold a biro the right way up. Losers! How had this ship of coiffured creeps become all-powerful so suddenly? And here was Tsivia, lording it over him from the depths of cyberspace – closing down his career. She certainly never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns ... Her long silence presupposed they would never cross paths again. Well, think again, my lovely! Paul now entertained wild fantasies of snubbing her at industry awards parties, glitzy premieres – the very shindigs he once imagined attending with her as his partner – only to recall that he had resolved never to leave the house again.
Hovering outside the blackened maw of Kings Cross tube, Paul readied himself to face the Piccadilly line to Southgate. He felt sad to be leaving the glamour of central London – as he always did when heading back to the sticks, like a wounded animal, a loping fox. He was giddy after his cataclysm of resentment. But how good it felt too! Who was Tsivia to decide his life? He would mail Marta back immediately and tell her he didn’t care what little Miss Bogbrush thought of his wretched project: he was going it alone! He was certain that it was Tsivia, not he, who needed to return to the School of Life and learn some hard lessons. His legitimacy was that of the artist, the poet – the seeking, all-seeing, life-transporting insight of someone like (and he struggled for a name) ... Omar Khayyam. But her presence, alas, on the world’s stage, was the more visible. She was a big producer and was seen to exist. She was one of the privileged few: lauded, lionised and licked by the thrusting metropolitan crowds that filled basement bars crammed with media hounds every night; who all knew each other intimately, and sniffed each other’s hind-quarters while DJs spun behind ever-whirling decks. Paul knew she and her fellow producers were small-of-soul, yet publicly important – they had gone for temporal fame, yet forgotten what really mattered: Art. He, on the other hand, could still be one of the immortals! If only he were given the breaks.
Descending the steps unsteadily, he decided the biggest thrill felt by these self-important scumbags was their proximity to the great and the good – that through their working lives, on the end of phones, they were in communion with those ‘creatives’ who would be truly remembered, while putting to the back of their minds the fact they were merely parasitic facilitators, soon to be forgotten. Sure, they had the jobs and the glittering careers, the pension-plans and the holidays, but posterity would bury them. They comforted themselves with the thought that it was they who had the salary (not the artist), and thus must be worth something. But in their dark little hearts they knew themselves to be history’s detritus.
Scanning his Oyster card at the barriers, buffeted by humanity’s hordes, Paul laughed at the memory of the romantic fantasies he had once entertained about the silent producer. He still vacillated slightly, of course, but an element of cruelty had taken him over. Now he envisaged sick sexual punishments. Part of him wanted to handcuff Tsivia to a bed; to fist her until she admitted to being a useless parasite, especially after they had agreed, at Marta’s party, that the general consensus on Neil LaBute’s misogyny, after the release of In the Company of Men, was unfair. Something about her uncertain tone, however, her relentless nod as the Christmas lights spangled in her black eyes, had told him she really did think Neil LaBute was a misogynist, and one of world-class stature too. A good fisting by a madman would clarify where the real woman-haters resided! Why hadn’t she been honest? In retrospect she fairly reeked of bullshit, of industry ordure! Sure, another tiny part of him – the part that cared about the future of his soul – still wanted to drop to one knee and beg her to start a family of little well-behaved kinder. But the genie of hate was out of the bottle. If he saw her in the tube carriage, he would spit on those tiny flower-like cheeks, that kissable forehead.
They say life begins at forty – well this, to say the least, hadn’t been the case with Paul.
He thought he had recovered from the mistakes of his twenties, only to fuck it all up in even grander style in his thirties. So what had his forties delivered? With both parents dead, a failed marriage and decade of alcoholism behind him, the sensible option would have been to either hang himself or make a new start – preferably in a different country. But he had clung to his little life-raft in North London, the survivor of an artistic shipwreck. After his marriage ended – or rather, in the years after his wife left him – he felt he hadn’t actually been alive: no sex, no holidays, no parties, no real friends. Just hard work: writing. He had deferred his life to some distant point in the future. He had forgotten how to live. He needed to be re-taught it, like recovering a lost skill. Now the things people did when they were in love (and for love) seemed ridiculous to him, like the conventions of another species. The jealousy and waiting-up all night; the declarations and sacrifices; the ardent passions and versifying, the text messages with their litter of kisses: all the ridiculous rituals of Martians! In this respect he felt very alone. Distanced even from his older brother, Tom (a banker too greedy and too smart to be touched by the recession), he felt more solitary than at any point in his life.
As spring turned to summer, he returned to Marchmont Street many times, often after taking in an arthouse movie at the Renoir. Strolling the wide pavements, it felt vindicating to walk past the School of Life and revel in his superiority to Tsivia. Though neither anti-Semitic nor a misogynist, he wondered if he had ever hated another human being more ... But still the worm ambition, as Tolstoy said of Vronsky, ate away at him. Forty, and not still not made it! To console himself while he walked, the plane trees dappling the streets of Bloomsbury, he compiled lists of writer-directors who had failed to complete a film by forty. To his relief, there were many. Yet as he headed inexorably back towards Kings Cross, other counter-lists appeared to him; lists of those who’d made classics before they were even out of their twenties: Scorsese, Spielberg, Truffaut, and, of course, Welles. Those were the lists that troubled him.
Back in Southgate, in the bookshop flat, he occasionally poked his other projects to see if they were alive. None were, least of all the Hammer saga. The warm nights were spent brooding on his lack of progress, success, money. His struggle with money seemed lifelong now, like a chronic condition. The little he earned from sporadic work as a proofreader, or hours at a telemarketing job in nearby Winchmore Hill barely covered his rent or bills. Of all the women he had been involved with, the one thing he could be absolutely certain of was that none had been a gold-digger. Much of his thinking was taken up by putting his life into some kind of perspective. How much existence did he have left? How much had been used or wasted? How much bought off or simply forgotten about? Some days he could almost hear the hull of his life scraping through its final passage of jungle, like the beached steamer in Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. At other moments he felt as if he were one of life’s stationary onlookers, and it was the fortunate others in life who were in motion, like the ships he liked to watch leave Southampton docks as a boy, sliding down the Solent for far-away destinations. Life had passed him by, as the cliché goes, and it made his light-headed to contemplate it.
Rarely did he think about Tsivia. He avoided newspapers and the internet so as not to come across an unfortunate mention of her dazzling career. To do so was like finding a toenail in a tuna salad. When he did conjure her face in his mind, he was more philosophical. Had his fishing-line really been ‘baited’ as he had imagined? What enticement was there for Tsivia to get back to him, apart from to explore the nebulous connection he mistakenly felt had been made that evening? The world hardly need another unproduced film script, after all. Her non-response was his answer. She had passed on his project without even seeing it – not uncommon in the business. It didn’t smell right; she had other similar ideas in development already, et cetera. It was too late for him not to take it personally, but he should at least get a grip on himself. The only vaguely similar cold-shoulder he had endured was years ago at a pitching session for the New Filmmaker’s Alliance in a Shoreditch bar. On that occasion, he had gone along with an aspiring director friend, Mike Doxy, and the two of them had worked the room all night; Paul experiencing a rare visitation of self-confidence. It has been going swimmingly until two-thirds through Mike’s pitch to a diminutive female producer (not unlike Tsivia, he noted in retrospect). Mid-sentence, the woman had brazenly walked off and collared the tall finance director standing behind them. Paul and Mike had looked at each other, uncertain as to what had occurred for a moment; nonplussed – in denial. Then the truth hit them. They had fallen victim to a truly astonishing, a virtuoso, bravura blank. On the tube back they resolved not to mention the woman ever again, but she kept surfacing, like a stool in a u-bend. How could she? How dare she?! To just walk off while someone was speaking, like leaving the bed during sex, never to return. No pitch was that bad.
But now, with the summer trailing into the dog days, a whole year and a half after the School of Life party, it was Tsivia who still resolutely refused to be flushed away.
Six months later, at the end of the year, Paul decided to surprise Marta with a call at Pacific Pictures. He knew this was partly to see if she were thinking of throwing another Christmas soirée. And also because it had been a few weeks since he had had a conversation with someone other than the unsuspecting marks he intruded upon while they ate their evening meals, cold-calling them with his meaningless questionnaires.
‘Guapo, qué tal?’
Marta’s voice was as ebullient as ever. Outside Paul’s window, a robin dragged a twig along a lawn of frost.
‘I’m good, Marta. Just wanted to check in with you ... How are things?’
‘Bueno. The slate is fully financed at last! We’re ready to go with the three projects I really wanted.’
‘That’s fantastic,’ Paul said. ‘It’s so rare in life you get what you really want.’
In his square of shared garden, the tiny bird was still determinedly pulling the twig, its current eyes darting for predators. Paul steadied himself for a blast of Marta’s enthusiasm as the tiny pale red feathers on the bird’s chest shivered.
‘And that’s not all ...’ The voice at the other end flushed with a kind of choked pride. ‘Me and Javier are having a baby!’
Paul’s heart plummeted at this information. He tried to inject the correct note of congratulation into his single word. All thoughts of enquiring about another Christmas party were cancelled as he listened to his old friend thrash out, for twenty minutes, the merits of Ricio versus Jesus if it were a boy, or Gemma versus Christella if it turned out to be a girl. When he did finally turn the conversation around, Marta seemed in a hurry to get off the phone. On the subject of Tsivia she was dismissive.
‘You should put the whole thing down to experience, my friend.’
‘I thought I had,’ said Paul, wondering if Marta were withholding crucial information. You never knew in this business, that was the thing. You just never knew!
‘That’s your trouble, Paul. You brood over things. Other people let things go. And they lead a happier life. Are you happy?’
‘What do you think?’
‘Vale. Move on and happiness will come!’
‘I wish it were as simple as that ...’ Paul moaned into the receiver. The sturdy little bird was now readying itself for flight, the twig seemingly too big to get airborne. Then, with a flourish of wings it took off into the vacuum of the December sky. ‘Are you having your party again?’
‘The networking night? At the School? Not this year, hombre. Maybe next when I know where I am. Then I will have to think about babysitters ...’
And she was off, back on the subject he knew would be her favourite for the next twenty years.
That evening, Paul found himself walking across the dark, concave space of Russell Square. He hadn’t intended to go into town, but after burning the only manuscript of his Hammer screenplay in the back garden he felt the need to get out of the house. He had also burned his collection of Little White Lies. Since they had turned down every subsequent essay he had sent, he didn’t feel in any great need of them. His army coat still stank of the charcoaled failed script; of the chemical gloss from the burnt magazines. He remembered the scene as the flames took, the curlicues of carbonised page drifting up into the short, blank afternoon, like offerings to the sky.
Now he was striding under the canopy of towering trees, the last commuters dawdling on the benches; collars up against the freeze. Beyond the square, the bristling yellow lights of hotels beckoned. What lives were going on behind those windows? What promise they seemed to hold! What alternative existences, thought Paul; lives with more momentum, purpose, plot.
Leaving the secret cover of bare branches, he crossed the busy river of Southampton Row and found himself drawn, as if by compulsion, to Marchmont Street and the School of Life. He hadn’t intended to pay it a visit, but felt he should, one last time. For closure, as they say.
Once on the broad pavements, he was surprised to see the whole street seemed to be hosting some sort of outdoor Christmas party. Despite the cold, packs of young people (and he had come to define himself as old after forty), huddled at al fresco tables, whooping and shouting with a festive urgency. Here was where the real action was, then! Why didn’t he come every night?
And there it stood – the School of Life, its little reception area empty under strong ochre lights. Paul stopped and breathed steam against the panes of glass. The lights were on, but ... always empty! Whatever went on in there seemed to be conducted downstairs. Was there someone else’s party in full throng in the basement? – a Christmas tree twinkling in the corner like two years before? He wondered how he would react to see Tsivia’s expensive brown eyes again; wineglass in hand, coming up the stairs at the back of the reception. Would he be magnanimous; accept her embarrassment as she mis-recalled his name, bullshitting about how good it was to see him? Or would he cover her in the flakes of his burnt screenplay, scraps of which he had gathered and collected in the pockets of his coat? Debris that was now blackening his fingers and palms. Would he scream that her silence for him had been like the silence of God; that it mirrored, in some essential way, His ultimate indifference to us?
But nobody came up the stairs, and nobody recalled his name. Moving on up the chilly street, Paul marvelled at how long it took for some people to get anything through their thick heads.
Jude Cook lives in London and studied English literature at UCL. His first novel, BYRON EASY, was published by William Heinemann of Random House in February of 2013. His essays and short fiction have appeared in Staple magazine. More from Jude Cook at Windmill Books.
Jorinde Reijnierse graduated from the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, The Netherlands in July 2011 and started working as a freelance photographer. She uses photography in a creative, playful way to make people think about the story behind the pictures. One of her fascinations is nature and the relationship between humans and nature. In her photography she often uses this subject where she uses nature as a blank canvas to project ideas on. View more of her work at www.jorindephotography.nl