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Excursion In Reality

I
The commissionaire at Espinoza’s restaurant seems to maintain under his particular authority all the most decrepit taxicabs in London. He is a commanding man; across his great chest the student of military medals may construe a tale of heroism and experience; Boer farms sink to ashes, fanatical Fuzzi-wuzzies hurl themselves to paradise, supercilious mandarins survey the smashing of their porcelain and rending of fine silk, in that triple row of decorations. He has only to run from the steps of Espinoza’s to call to your service a vehicle as crazy as all the enemies of the King-Emperor.
Half-a-crown into the white cotton glove, because Simon Lent was too tired to ask for change. He and Sylvia huddled into the darkness on broken springs, between draughty windows. It had been an unsatisfactory evening. They had sat over their table until two because it was an extension night. Sylvia would not drink anything because Simon had said he was broke. So they sat for five or six hours, sometimes silent, sometimes bickering, sometimes exchanging listless greetings with the passing couples. Simon dropped Sylvia at her door; a kiss, clumsily offered, coldly accepted; then back to the attic flat, over a sleepless garage, for which Simon paid six guineas a week.
Outside his door they were sluicing a limousine. He squeezed round it and climbed the narrow stairs, that had once echoed to the whistling of ostlers, stamping down to stables before dawn. (Woe to young men in Mewses! Oh woe, to bachelors half in love, living on £800 a year!) There was a small heap of letters on his dressing table, which had arrived that evening while he was dressing. He lit his gas fire and began to open them. Tailor’s bill £56, hosier £43; a reminder that his club subscription for that year had not yet been paid; his account from Espinoza’s with a note informing him that the terms were strict, net cash monthly, and that no further credit would be extended to him; it “appeared from the books” of his bank that his last cheque overdrew his account £10 16s. beyond the limit of his guaranteed overdraft; a demand from the income-tax collector for particulars of his employees and their wages (Mrs. Shaw, who came in to make his bed and orange juice for 4s. 6d. a day); small bills for books, spectacles, cigars, hair lotion and Sylvia’s last four birthday presents. (Woe to shops that serve young men in Mewses!)
The other part of his mail was in marked contrast to this. There was a box of preserved figs from an admirer in Fresno, California; two letters from young ladies who said they were composing papers about his work for their college literary societies, and would he send a photograph; press cuttings describing him as a “popular,” “brilliant,” “meteorically successful,” and “enviable” young novelist; a request for the loan of two hundred pounds from a paralysed journalist; an invitation to luncheon from Lady Metroland; six pages of closely reasoned abuse from a lunatic asylum in the North of England. For the truth, which no one who saw into Simon Lent’s heart could possibly have suspected, was that he was in his way and within his limits quite a famous young man.
There was a last letter with a typewritten address which Simon opened with little expectation of pleasure. The paper was headed with the name of a Film Studio in one of the suburbs of London. The letter was brief and business-like.
Dear Simon Lent (a form of address, he had noted before, largely favoured by the theatrical profession),
I wonder whether you have ever considered writing for the Films. We should value your angle on a picture we are now making. Perhaps you would meet me for luncheon tomorrow at the Garrick Club and let me know your reactions to this. Will you leave a message with my night-secretary some time before 8 a.m. tomorrow morning or with my day-secretary after that hour.
Cordially yours,
Below this were two words written in pen and ink which seemed to be Jewee Mecceee with below them the explanatory typescript (Sir James Macrae).
Simon read this through twice. Then he rang up Sir James Macrae and informed his night-secretary that he would keep the luncheon appointment next day. He had barely put down the telephone before the bell rang.
“This is Sir James Macrae’s night-secretary speaking. Sir James would be very pleased if Mr. Lent would come round and see him this evening at his house in Hampstead.”
Simon looked at his watch. It was nearly three. “Well ... it’s rather late to go so far tonight ...”
“Sir James is sending a car for you.”
Simon was no longer tired. As he waited for the car the telephone rang again. “Simon,” said Sylvia’s voice; “are you asleep?”
“No, in fact I’m just going out.”
“Simon ... I say, was I beastly tonight?”
“Lousy.”
“Well, I thought you were lousy too.”
“Never mind. See you sometime.”
“Aren’t you going to go on talking?”
“Can’t, I’m afraid. I’ve got to do some work.”
“Simon, what can you mean?”
“Can’t explain now. There’s a car waiting.”
“When am I seeing you—tomorrow?”
“Well, I don’t really know. Ring me up in the morning. Good night.”
A quarter of a mile away, Sylvia put down the telephone, rose from the hearthrug, where she had settled herself in the expectation of twenty minutes’ intimate explanation and crept disconsolately into bed.
Simon bowled off to Hampstead through deserted streets. He sat back in the car in a state of pleasant excitement. Presently they began to climb the steep little hill and emerged into an open space with a pond and the tops of trees, black and deep as a jungle in the darkness. The night-butler admitted him to the low Georgian house and led him to the library, where Sir James Macrae was standing before the fire, dressed in ginger-coloured plus fours. A table was laid with supper.
“Evening, Lent. Nice of you to come. Have to fit in business when I can. Cocoa or whisky? Have some rabbit pie, it’s rather good. First chance of a meal I’ve had since breakfast. Ring for some more cocoa, there’s a good chap. Now what was it you wanted to see me about?”
“Well, I thought you wanted to see me.”
“Did I? Very likely. Miss Bentham’ll know. She arranged the appointment. You might ring the bell on the desk, will you?”
Simon rang and there instantly appeared the neat night-secretary.
“Miss Bentham, what did I want to see Mr. Lent about?”
“I’m afraid I couldn’t say, Sir James. Miss Harper is responsible for Mr. Lent. When I came on duty this evening I merely found a note from her asking me to fix an appointment as soon as possible.”
“Pity,” said Sir James. “We’ll have to wait until Miss Harper comes on tomorrow.”
“I think it was something about writing for films.”
“Very likely,” said Sir James. “Sure to be something of the kind. I’ll let you know without delay. Thanks for dropping in.” He put down his cup of cocoa and held out his hand with unaffected cordiality. “Good night, my dear boy.” He rang the bell for the night-butler. “Sanders, I want Benson to run Mr. Lent back.”
“I’m sorry, sir. Benson has just gone down to the studio to fetch Miss Grits.”
“Pity,” said Sir James. “Still, I expect you’ll be able to pick up a taxi or something.”

II

Simon got to bed at half past four. At ten minutes past eight the telephone by his bed was ringing.
“Mr. Lent? This is Sir James Macrae’s secretary speaking. Sir James’s car will call for you at half past eight to take you to the studio.”
“I shan’t be ready as soon as that, I’m afraid.”
There was a shocked pause; then, the day-secretary said: “Very well, Mr. Lent. I will see if some alternative arrangement is possible and ring you in a few minutes.”
In the intervening time Simon fell asleep again. Then the bell woke him once more and the same impersonal voice addressed him.
“Mr. Lent? I have spoken to Sir James. His car will call for you at eight forty-five.”
Simon dressed hastily. Mrs. Shaw had not yet arrived, so there was no breakfast for him. He found some stale cake in the kitchen cupboard and was eating it when Sir James’s car arrived. He took a slice down with him, still munching.
“You needn’t have brought that,” said a severe voice from inside the car. “Sir James has sent you some breakfast. Get in quickly; we’re late.”
In the corner, huddled in rugs, sat a young woman in a jaunty red hat; she had bright eyes and a very firm mouth.
“I expect that you are Miss Harper.”
“No. I’m Elfreda Grits. We’re working together on this film, I believe. I’ve been up all night with Sir James. If you don’t mind I’ll go to sleep for twenty minutes. You’ll find a thermos of cocoa and some rabbit pie in the basket on the floor.”
“Does Sir James live on cocoa and rabbit pie?”
“No; those are the remains of his supper. Please don’t talk. I want to sleep.”
Simon disregarded the pie, but poured some steaming cocoa into the metal cap of the thermos flask. In the corner, Miss Grits composed herself for sleep. She took off the jaunty red hat and laid it between them on the seat, veiled her eyes with two blue-pigmented lids and allowed the firm lips to relax and gape a little. Her platinum-blonde wind-swept head bobbed and swayed with the motion of the car as they swept out of London through converging and diverging tram lines. Stucco gave place to brick and the façades of the tube stations changed from tile to concrete; unoccupied building plots appeared and newly planted trees along unnamed avenues. Five minutes exactly before their arrival at the studio, Miss Grits opened her eyes, powdered her nose, touched her lips with red, and pulling her hat on to the side of her scalp, sat bolt upright, ready for another day.
Sir James was at work on the lot when they arrived. In a white-hot incandescent hell two young people were carrying on an infinitely tedious conversation at what was presumably the table of a restaurant. A dozen emaciated couples in evening dress danced listlessly behind them. At the other end of the huge shed some carpenters were at work building the façade of a Tudor manor house. Men in eye-shades scuttled in and out. Notices stood everywhere. Do not Smoke. Do not Speak. Keep away from the high-power cable.
Miss Grits, in defiance of these regulations, lit a cigarette, kicked some electric apparatus out of her path, said, “He’s busy. I expect he’ll see us when he’s through with this scene,” and disappeared through a door marked No admittance.
Shortly after eleven o’clock Sir James caught sight of Simon. “Nice of you to come. Shan’t be long now,” he called out to him. “Mr. Briggs, get a chair for Mr. Lent.”
At two o’clock he noticed him again. “Had any lunch?”
“No,” said Simon.
“No more have I. Just coming.”
At half past three Miss Grits joined him and said: “Well, it’s been an easy day so far. You mustn’t think we’re always as slack as this. There’s a canteen across the yard. Come and have something to eat.”
An enormous buffet was full of people in a variety of costume and make-up. Disappointed actresses in languorous attitudes served cups of tea and hard-boiled eggs. Simon and Miss Grits ordered sandwiches and were about to eat them when a loud-speaker above their heads suddenly announced with alarming distinctness, “Sir James Macrae calling Mr. Lent and Miss Grits in the Conference Room.”
“Come on, quick,” said Miss Grits. She bustled him through the swing doors, across the yard, into the office buildings and up a flight of stairs to a solid oak door marked Conference. Keep out.
Too late.
“Sir James has been called away,” said the secretary. “Will you meet him at the West End office at five-thirty.”
Back to London, this time by tube. At five-thirty they were at the Piccadilly office ready for the next clue in their treasure hunt. This took them to Hampstead. Finally at eight they were back at the studio. Miss Grits showed no sign of exhaustion.
“Decent of the old boy to give us a day off,” she remarked. “He’s easy to work with in that way—after Hollywood. Let’s get some supper.”
But as they opened the canteen doors and felt the warm breath of light refreshments, the loud-speaker again announced: “Sir James Macrae calling Mr. Lent and Miss Grits in the Conference Room.”
This time they were not too late. Sir James was there at the head of an oval table; round him were grouped the chiefs of his staff. He sat in a greatcoat with his head hung forward, elbows on the table and his hands clasped behind his neck. The staff sat in respectful sympathy. Presently he looked up, shook himself and smiled pleasantly.
“Nice of you to come,” he said. “Sorry I couldn’t see you before. Lots of small things to see to on a job like this. Had dinner?”
“Not yet.”
“Pity. Have to eat, you know. Can’t work at full pressure unless you eat plenty.”
Then Simon and Miss Grits sat down and Sir James explained his plan. “I want, ladies and gentlemen, to introduce Mr. Lent to you. I’m sure you all know his name already and I daresay some of you know his work. Well, I’ve called him in to help us and I hope that when he’s heard the plan he’ll consent to join us. I want to produce a film of Hamlet. I daresay you don’t think that’s a very original idea—but it’s Angle that counts in the film world. I’m going to do it from an entirely new angle. That’s why I’ve called in Mr. Lent. I want him to write dialogue for us.”
“But, surely,” said Simon, “there’s quite a lot of dialogue there already?”
“Ah, you don’t see my angle. There have been plenty of productions of Shakespeare in modern dress. We are going to produce him in modern speech. How can you expect the public to enjoy Shakespeare when they can’t make head or tail of the dialogue. D’you know I began reading a copy the other day and blessed if I could understand it. At once I said, ‘What the public wants is Shakespeare with all his beauty of thought and character translated into the language of everyday life.’ Now Mr. Lent here was the man whose name naturally suggested itself. Many of the most high-class critics have commended Mr. Lent’s dialogue. Now my idea is that Miss Grits here shall act in an advisory capacity, helping with the continuity and the technical side, and that Mr. Lent shall be given a free hand with the scenario ...”
The discourse lasted for a quarter of an hour; then the chiefs of staff nodded sagely; Simon was taken into another room and given a contract to sign by which he received £50 a week retaining fee and £250 advance.
“You had better fix up with Miss Grits the times of work most suitable to you. I shall expect your first treatment by the end of the week. I should go and get some dinner if I were you. Must eat.”
Slightly dizzy, Simon hurried to the canteen where two languorous blondes were packing up for the night.
“We’ve been on since four o’clock this morning,” they said, “and the supers have eaten everything except the nougat. Sorry.”
Sucking a bar of nougat Simon emerged into the now deserted studio. On three sides of him, to the height of twelve feet, rose in appalling completeness the marble walls of the scene-restaurant; at his elbow a bottle of imitation champagne still stood in its pail of melted ice; above and beyond extended the vast gloom of rafters and ceiling.
“Fact,” said Simon to himself, “the world of action ... the pulse of life ... Money, hunger ... Reality.”
Next morning he was called with the words, “Two young ladies waiting to see you.”
“Two?”
Simon put on his dressing gown and, orange juice in hand, entered his sitting room. Miss Grits nodded pleasantly.
“We arranged to start at ten,” she said. “But it doesn’t really matter. I shall not require you very much in the early stages. This is Miss Dawkins. She is one of  the staff stenographers. Sir James thought you would need one. Miss Dawkins will be attached to you until further notice. He also sent two copies of Hamlet. When you’ve had your bath, I’ll read you my notes for our first treatment.”
But this was not to be; before Simon was dressed Miss Grits had been recalled to the studio on urgent business.
“I’ll ring up and tell you when I am free,” she said.
Simon spent the morning dictating letters to everyone he could think of; they began—“Please forgive me for dictating this, but I am so busy just now that I have little time for personal correspondence ...” Miss Dawkins sat deferentially over her pad. He gave her Sylvia’s number.
“Will you get on to this number and present my compliments to Miss Lennox and ask her to luncheon at Espinoza’s ... And book a table for two there at one forty-five.”
“Darling,” said Sylvia, when they met, “why were you out all yesterday and who was that voice this morning?”
“Oh, that was Miss Dawkins, my stenographer.”
“Simon, what can you mean?”
“You see, I’ve joined the film industry.”
“Darling. Do give me a job.”
“Well, I’m not paying much attention to casting at the moment—but I’ll bear you in mind.”
“Goodness. How you’ve changed in two days!”
“Yes!” said Simon, with great complacency. “Yes, I think I have. You see, for the first time in my life I have come into contact with Real Life. I’m going to give up writing novels. It was a mug’s game anyway. The written word is dead—first the papyrus, then the printed book, now the film. The artist must no longer work alone. He is part of the age in which he lives; he must share (only of course, my dear Sylvia, in very different proportions) the weekly wage envelope of the proletarian. Vital art implies a corresponding set of social relationships. Co-operation ... co-ordination ... the hive endeavour of the community directed to a single end ...”
Simon continued in this strain at some length, eating meantime a luncheon of Dickensian dimensions, until, in a small, miserable voice, Sylvia said: “It seems to me that you’ve fallen for some ghastly film star.”
“O God,” said Simon, “only a virgin could be as vulgar as that.”
They were about to start one of their old, interminable quarrels when the telephone boy brought a message that Miss Grits wished to resume work instantly.
“So that’s her name,” said Sylvia.
“If you only knew how funny that was,” said Simon, scribbling his initials on the bill and leaving the table while Sylvia was still groping with gloves and bag.
As things turned out, however, he became Miss Grits’s lover before the week was out. The idea was hers. She suggested it to him one evening at his flat as they corrected the typescript of the final version of their first treatment.
“No, really,” Simon said aghast. “No, really. It would be quite impossible. I’m sorry, but ...”
“Why? Don’t you like women?”
“Yes, but ...”
“Oh, come along,” Miss Grits said briskly. “We don’t get much time for amusement ...” And later, as she packed their manuscripts into her attaché case she said, “We must do it again if we have time. Besides I find it’s so much easier to work with a man if you’re having an affaire with him.”

III

For three weeks Simon and Miss Grits (he always thought of her by this name in spite of all subsequent intimacies) worked together in complete harmony. His life was re-directed and transfigured. No longer did he lie in bed, glumly preparing himself for the coming day; no longer did he say every morning ‘I must get down to the country and finish that book’ and every evening find himself slinking back to the same urban flat; no longer did he sit over supper tables with Sylvia, idly bickering; no more listless explanations over the telephone. Instead he pursued a routine of incalculable variety, summoned by telephone at all hours to conferences which rarely assembled; sometimes to Hampstead, sometimes to the studios, once to Brighton. He spent long periods of work pacing up and down his sitting room, with Miss Grits pacing backwards and forwards along the other wall and Miss Dawkins obediently perched between them, as the two dictated, corrected and redrafted their scenario. There were meals at improbable times and vivid, unsentimental passages of love with Miss Grits. He ate irregular and improbable meals, bowling through the suburbs in Sir James’s car, pacing the carpet dictating to Miss Dawkins, perched in deserted lots upon scenery which seemed made to survive the collapse of civilization. He lapsed, like Miss Grits, into brief spells of death-like unconsciousness, often awakening, startled, to find that a street or desert or factory had come into being about him while he slept.
The film meanwhile grew rapidly, daily putting out new shoots and changing under their eyes in a hundred unexpected ways. Each conference produced some radical change in the story. Miss Grits in her precise, unvariable voice would read out the fruits of their work. Sir James would sit with his head in his hand, rocking slightly from side to side and giving vent to occasional low moans and whimpers; round him sat the experts—production, direction, casting, continuity, cutting and costing managers, bright eyes, eager to attract the great man’s attention with some apt intrusion.
“Well,” Sir James would say, “I think we can O.K. that. Any suggestions, gentlemen?”
There would be a pause, until one by one the experts began to deliver their contributions ... “I’ve been thinking, sir, that it won’t do to have the scene laid in Denmark. The public won’t stand for travel stuff. How about setting it in Scotland—then we could have some kilts and clan gathering scenes?”
“Yes, that’s a very sensible suggestion. Make a note of that, Lent ...”
“I was thinking we’d better drop this character of the Queen. She’d much better be dead before the action starts. She hangs up the action. The public won’t stand for him abusing his mother.”
“Yes, make a note of that, Lent.”
“How would it be, sir, to make the ghost the Queen instead of the King ...”
“Yes, make a note of that, Lent ...”
“Don’t you think, sir, it would be better if Ophelia were Horatio’s sister. More poignant, if you see what I mean.”
“Yes, make a note of that ...”
“I think we are losing sight of the essence of the story in the last sequence. After all, it is first and foremost a Ghost Story, isn’t it? ...”
And so from simple beginnings the story spread majestically. It was in the second week that Sir James, after, it must be admitted, considerable debate, adopted the idea of incorporating with it the story of Macbeth. Simon was opposed to the proposition at first, but the appeal of the three witches proved too strong. The title was then changed to The White Lady of Dunsinane, and he and Miss Grits settled down to a prodigious week’s work in rewriting their entire scenarios.

IV

The end came as suddenly as everything else in this remarkable episode. The third conference was being held at an hotel in the New Forest where Sir James happened to be staying; the experts had assembled by train, car and motor-bicycle at a moment’s notice and were tired and unresponsive. Miss Grits read the latest scenario; it took some time, for it had now reached the stage when it could be taken as “white script” ready for shooting. Sir James sat sunk in reflection longer than usual. When he raised his head, it was to utter the single word:
“No.”
“No?”
“No, it won’t do. We must scrap the whole thing. We’ve got much too far from the original story. I can’t think why you need introduce Julius Caesar and King Arthur at all.”
“But, sir, they were your own suggestions at the last conference.”
“Were they? Well, I can’t help it. I must have been tired and not paying full attention ... Besides, I don’t like the dialogue. It misses all the poetry of the original. What the public wants is Shakespeare, the whole of Shakespeare and nothing but Shakespeare. Now this scenario you’ve written is all very well in its way—but it’s not Shakespeare. I’ll tell you what we’ll do. We’ll use the play exactly as he wrote it and record from that. Make a note of it, Miss Grits.”
“Then you’ll hardly require my services any more?” said Simon.
“No, I don’t think I shall. Still, nice of you to have come.”
Next morning Simon woke bright and cheerful as usual and was about to leap from his bed when he suddenly remembered the events of last night. There was nothing for him to do. An empty day lay before him. No Miss Grits, no Miss Dawkins, no scampering off to conferences or dictating of dialogue. He rang up Miss Grits and asked her to lunch with him.
“No, quite impossible, I’m afraid. I have to do the continuity for a scenario of St. John’s Gospel before the end of the week. Pretty tough job. We’re setting it in Algeria so as to get the atmosphere. Off to Hollywood next month. Don’t suppose I shall see you again. Good-bye.”
Simon lay in bed with all his energy slowly slipping away. Nothing to do. Well, he supposed, now was the time to go away to the country and get on with his novel. Or should he go abroad? Some quiet café-restaurant in the sun where he could work out those intractable last chapters. That was what he would do ... sometime ... the end of the week perhaps.
Meanwhile he leaned over on his elbow, lifted the telephone and, asking for Sylvia’s number, prepared himself for twenty-five minutes’ acrimonious reconciliation.



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