I don’t know where my life has gone. I was a young attorney in London when the senior partner asked me to run an embarrassing errand for an important client. Next thing I knew I was in Barcelona, up a tree with a camera. That led to my stuffing a bunch of drugs in my pockets as the border guards came down. Then I was in California and I was rich. I was married and I was not married anymore. My children have no use for me. My oldest friends blame me for their self-inflicted failures. I look around and forty years have passed and I am old and I don’t know where it went. Now I am a wealthy old man on top of a mountain in Jamaica and I don’t understand how I got here.
I do know this, though. I know the poison that infected my life just by its proximity and that ate up many of my comrades. That poison was the pursuit of fame. I fell in with a crowd who had more than almost anyone–they were beautiful, they were loved, they had talent, and they lived like antique nobility. But, having so much more than others, they became obsessed with what they did not have. They wanted to be famous and if they got famous for a while then they needed to be famous forever. They made a terrible mistake. They assumed fame was the same as popularity. They thought if they were famous, everyone would love them.
They learned too late that fame does not mean everyone loves you. Fame means everyone knows you, and many of the people who know you dislike you. Fame means people mock and misunderstand you. Fame does not boost one’s ego. Fame destroys egos. My friends who became famous grew bitter and mistrustful. They thought everyone leeched from them and they dismissed whoever disagreed with them. They dismissed their wives and their children and eventually they dismissed me.
The ones who did not remain famous spent their lives consumed with jealousy. They became more desperate with each year for something that does not exist. They thought that someone else had stolen their portion of glory, and that if they could fix that mistake all of the bad things they had done would be erased and their lives would be healed. The ones who had a little success and then lost it never forgave me for that, and they never blamed themselves.
I found a box of vinyl records yesterday. I put on a Van Morrison album that I bought in London in 1968 and which somehow has stayed with me ever since. I played it and memories flooded in.
I will stroll the merry way and jump the hedges first
It transported me to a flat in London, to a cottage in California, to a loft in Manhattan, to a hotel suite in Prague, to a glass room in Africa, and to the Paris apartment of a girl I have never been able to find my way back to.
And I will never grow so old again
I was raised in England but I have lived abroad for twice as long as I lived there. My English friends all say I talk and dress and carry myself like an American. I use American words. I have an American passport. My children are American. It is only Americans who consider me English. I live now in Jamaica, a former British colony. I feel like an old colonial, dispossessed of his land and left behind when the army withdrew. I don’t know what the Jamaicans think I am. An old white man sitting on a hill. Perhaps they expect me to be dead soon. Perhaps they are right.
I don’t feel old. I feel like the same young man whose life was all laid out for him in London in 1967. If only I had known then what it took me all these years to learn.
© 2010 Bill Flanagan
Mr. Difford was a senior partner and he wanted to see me. I was a young lawyer. Ah, but you see, I am transposing my memories into American. I was not a young lawyer then. I was a young solicitor. When I began dealing with Americans, they thought a solicitor was someone who hired a prostitute. A solicitor was not a lawyer; a solicitor was someone who needed a lawyer.
I was a young attorney with an old London firm called Difford, Withers & Flack. Mr. Flack had gone to his reward the year before I was hired, and when I saw Mr. Difford pass in the hall he looked to be only half a step behind him. I was just out of university and had an office the size of a storage closet with a narrow window and a view of a steam pipe. I was earning two thousand pounds a year. Mr. Difford wanted to see me.
I was shown into a brown office that seemed big to me then but would seem small to me now. Mr. Difford was there with Edward Withers, the partner to whom I reported.
“Here he is,” Withers said when he saw me. “Mr. Difford, you know Jack Flynn.” We exchanged handshakes and they gestured for me to sit. Withers spoke. Mr. Difford exuded the regret of a man watching a servant clean up after a sick dog.
“Do you know who this is?” Withers said, handing me an eight-by-ten-inch photograph of a smiling young man with long hair and a floral shirt and tight white pants and the beginnings of a mustache.
“Is it a Beatle?” I asked.
Withers looked at Mr. Difford and smiled and said to me, “Very close. Have you heard of a pop group called the Ravons?”
“Yes.” I was pretty sure I had. I had heard the names of a lot of pop groups and a lot of animal species and they all blended.
“We represent the Ravons,” Mr. Withers said. I would not have been more surprised if he had told me we represented Nikita Khru-shchev. “You know we have always done a bit of theatrical work. Their manager is the son of Sir Carl Towsy.”
I must have projected blankness. Withers was a bit annoyed when he had to explain, “The impresario.”
“Towsy’s son Dennis manages this pop band the Ravons. He also manages that girl, Tildie Gold. We look after Dennis and so we do a bit with his clients, too.”
Withers seemed bothered that he had to go into all this. Withers often acted as if he preferred subordinates to read his mind and save him the trouble of having to explain himself. Mr. Difford was sitting behind his desk with the casual alertness of a cat on a couch.
“One of the Ravons has a complication and we need to help him deal with it.”
“Divorce case,” Mr. Difford said. He was telling Withers to stop dithering.
“Divorce case,” Withers echoed. “Ugly stuff. This young fellow, Emerson Cutler, is being sued for divorce by his wife on grounds of adultery.”
I asked if we were contesting that claim and both of the older men looked at me as if I had belched.
“It would be awkward for us to claim that Emerson has been a faithful husband,” Withers said.
“He’s deflowered half of Piccadilly,” Old Difford suddenly cried. “If there were a virgin left in Mayfair he would have ruined her, too!”
“We have been quietly settling up with girls wronged by young Cutler,” Withers explained. “We cannot ethically maintain that he has been pure after marriage.”
I said it sounded as if his wife had a good case. Here old Difford twirled and smiled and pointed at the ceiling.
“Except for one thing! Mrs. Cutler has not herself been loyal to her vows!” he said
“Ah.” I began to dread where this was heading.
Mr. Difford began to softly sing an old army chorus: “Tramp, tramp, tramp, the boys are marching.”
Withers said, “Mr. Cutler has informed us that his wife is tonight in Barcelona, in the arms of another man. If we can bring back proof of her infidelity, we greatly improve the prospects for a reasonable settlement of the terms of separation.”
I tried to find a way back from the abyss toward which my superiors were nudging me. “So you would like me to hire someone in Spain to follow Mrs. Cutler . . .”
The two older men looked at each other with regret. Among that generation of Englishmen it was poor form to ask questions about touchy subjects. Instead one would tiptoe up to the edge of an uncomfortable topic and then declare, “Well, it needn’t be said.” For example, if you were a British soldier, an older officer might offer you a smoke and ask you to take a walk with him and tell you, “Damn tough thing about Pedro. The general’s coming for inspection tomorrow and the silly bugger cannot learn to salute straight. It would be a good thing if you took him out and . . . well, it needn’t be said.” This left the subordinate unsure if he was expected to stay up all night training Pedro, hide him in a hamper until the general left the camp, or shoot him. I dare-say that many the unfortunate Pedro got a bullet in the back of the head when all the officer intended was to have him sent to the kitchen for a day. That is the downside of discouraging underlings from asking questions.
I was of a new generation. I came right out and asked. “Mr. Withers, what exactly would you like me to do?”
Mr. Difford let some air whistle out from between his teeth. Withers said, “We would like you to fly to Barcelona this afternoon and take some photographs of Mrs. Cutler in flagrante.”
All I had to qualify me for such an assignment was a camera. I said, “I don’t imagine Mrs. Cutler will want to go along with that.”
Here Withers gave me a look that suggested I was making him look bad in front of his boss and I had better fix that fast.
“Mrs. Cutler will not know about it, Flynn. We will give you a ticket and the name of the bungalow where she will be. From what her husband tells me, it is a place they have stayed before and security is lax. You should be able to get some pictures of her with her paramour and get out of there without announcing yourself.”
I looked at the two old lions. To say anything other than yes would have been to consign myself to ten years of filing folders in a basement vault. I said I would buy a toothbrush on my way to Gatwick and be back with the pictures. They nodded.
But I was, as I said, of a new generation and I had to ask, “Sir, why me?”
Difford looked at Withers, who looked as if he were contemplating the dissolution of the British Empire. Withers said, “Because you are young, Flynn. You are part of this . . .” He waved his fingers as if looking for a word to pluck out of the air; he settled on, “new vogue.”
I considered that all the way to Spain. I had not thought of myself as part of any vogue at all. I was a young man, certainly, born near the end of the war, brought up on rationing, pushed by my parents and teachers to take advantage of the opportunities purchased for me by the sacrifice of so many. It was quite a burden for a child to carry–to justify through his success the casualties of a long and brutal war–but, of course, one did not voice such rude ingratitude.
I was aware, of course, of the image of young London as a swinging hot spot of mods and dolly birds, but that seemed to exist only for a few dozen celebrities and attractive children of the very rich. It seemed to exist mainly in magazines. Swinging London was a marketing phrase that no more represented the lives of most young Londoners than Dodge City was full of gunfighters.
On that plane ride, though, I smoked a cigarette and looked at my reflection in the darkened glass of the window. Something in me began to change. It was as if Withers had by his assignment and assessment baptized me into a new idea of myself. Perhaps I was not as much like my superiors at the law firm as I had supposed. Perhaps I was more like Emerson Cutler than I had imagined.
© 2010 Bill Flanagan