Things that Happen When Reading Rilke
On the terrace of Bruno’s bar, Gerald, the Song and Dance man, is still walking around in mobile hell trying to make a connection. He has received a text message which says that his aunt, a retired actress, is dying. ‘How she delighted in my post-cards from Bras de Venus’, he sighs, and tells his venerable friend, and ex-producer, Big Hal that he must ‘fly to her’.
always flying around, old sport. Stay still and listen to me.’ If Gerald is lightly
pickled, Hal is royally drunk. The magisterial mind rises above the waves of
wine like a ship’s prow, and the procession of words is a state occasion
running to protocol. As usual he sits at an angle to the world, avoiding its
eye. But tonight he repeats himself as though talking to his own echo. ‘You’re
always flying around. Stay still.’
Hal’s royal decrees are not to be challenged. His eminence as the king of impresarios in light opera may be over, but he still strives to keep his hand in by slumming on its fringes with amateur groups in Broadway musicals. Gerald in his retirement also carries on camping, tinkling the ivories at baptisms, weddings and wakes. They sometimes collaborate in shows about famous tenors.
‘Listen to me. You have a gift for stillness, Gerald. When you stopped jumping around on the stage, the audience was always moved. Moved to stay. You should have done Samuel Beckett. I would have loved to direct you in a musical version of Happy Days. Hit-song, ‘Roll out the Barrel’. Don’t waste that gift by flapping against the windowpane like a trapped bumblebee.’ But by the time Hal concludes his stately reproof, Gerald has made his connection and is out in the street, holding on to his mobile like a shipwrecked sailor cradling a theatrical oar.
‘He is talking to his dead aunt.’ Hal opines. ‘My dear young Augustus, I didn’t have a gift except for recognising the gifts of others. My fate is to be forgotten’. Hal chills to the self deprecation with a gentleman’s relish. ‘I won’t be leaving anything behind. I won’t be leaving anything behind.’ Welsh staggers into the conversation with a shout from a nearby table. ‘Neither will I. I want all my paintings sold. I take my cue from Horace. Omnia mea mecum porto. All’s that’s mine I carry with me. I learned that from the local clochards, who like snails, move house by wearing them. And that’s what I do to avoid the bailiffs. I bounce along like my cheques. Who wants to leave anything behind when you can have it all now?’
was that?’, Hal murmurs, pretending not to hear Welsh. When his pitch is
threatened he plays it deaf. Welsh, who knows when he’s not wanted, exits,
leaving me to pay his bill. Hal sighs and repeats with a lyric lilt, savouring
every word, ‘My fate is to be forgotten’. He gives me a sidelong glance, as
though initiating an audition. It’s my turn at centre stage.
I decide to brainstorm him in the nicest possible way. But my problem is I’m sober. Vichy water has no hidden depths. I tell him the usual things about live performances being eternal treasures. They live on in the memory and programme collections. But even Shakespeare and the Bible will eventually die out into modernised texts. I perform like Job's Comforters on a bad night. And Hal has already begun to nod off.
returns, laughing wildly as he blocks the ear-end of the phone to whisper
loudly, ‘Auntie can’t stop talking even when she’s dying. I can’t get a word
‘Well, Augustus, old man’, says Hal, suddenly alert again. ‘Do you have any gifts worth mentioning? No offence. I mean it kindly. Frankly, I’m a bit of a waste of space myself’.
‘Most of the things I’ve done in life, Hal, have been by trial and error. I’ve worked hard to compensate for my lack of natural talent. But once as a boy I got full marks in a music exam for ear tests. I was born with perfect pitch.’
looks at me directly like a hawk whose territory has been invaded. ‘Youngish
Augustus, stay still and listen to me.’ He hums and haws until I realise he is
testing my ear. I hazard, ‘Middle C’, and he nods.
‘You could have become a piano tuner. Although no doubt there’s a machine to do it nowadays.’
Emboldened by hoodwinking Hal, I continue. ‘I have another natural gift. In my fifties I took to cycling up mountains, and discovered I had perfect cadence. That is, pacing pedalling to gear changes, and sustaining the rhythm. I found that I could cadence exactly in time with my heartbeat, and I climbed the Pyrenees at sixty revs a minute without leaving the saddle. Nowadays my heart beats faster, and on the flat in Argeles I can make the spokes sing’.
‘Rumble strip, rumble strip. It must be your perfect pitch’, concedes Hal. ‘And as one of nature’s workhorses you thoroughly deserve the gift of Babe Ruth, the perfect pitcher. But cadenzas are not about scaling the heights or bumping along the flat. They’re a resurrection of the main theme to round things off. I’m afraid you have buried your two gifts. If you had combined them you could have become a champion slow-bicyclist in a circus. Going on and on, slower and slower, never quite falling off. Stop flapping around, Gerald, like a demented chicken.’
Gerald is close to tears (the battery of his mobile has run out). He sits down at Hal’s elbow. ‘So many of our theatrical friends are dying. I don’t know what’s going to happened to us... Is death, Hal, like a long sleep, I wonder?’
‘Count no man happy until he’s dead.’ Hal stands up, tottering to his full height. ‘If death be sleep, life is but a dream. A man awaits his end, a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is no more…But it’s time, gentlemen, time for me to retire to my downy couch’.
I watch from a distance Gerald stopping the traffic and shepherding Hal across the road, up the staircase to the square where his apartment is. Hal looks like the leaning tower of Pisa expecting an earthquake, and Gerald fusses around him like several of the Seven Dwarfs. Tomorrow is another night.