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Casanova's Chinese Restaurant

Anthony Powell




  Book 5

  A Dance to the Music of Time



  CROSSING THE ROAD by the bombed-out public house on the corner and pondering the mystery which dominates vistas framed by a ruined door, I felt for some reason glad the place had not yet been rebuilt. A direct hit had excised even the ground floor, so that the basement was revealed as a sunken garden, or site of archaeological excavation long abandoned, where great sprays of willow herb and ragwort flowered through cracked paving stones; only a few broken milk bottles and a laceless boot recalling contemporary life. In the midst of this sombre grotto five or six fractured steps had withstood the explosion and formed a projecting island of masonry on the summit of which rose the door. Walls on both sides were shrunk away, but along its lintel, in niggling copybook handwriting, could still be distinguished the word Ladies. Beyond, on the far side of the twin pillars and crossbar, nothing whatever remained of that promised retreat, the threshold falling steeply to an abyss of rubble; a triumphal arch erected laboriously by dwarfs, or the gateway to some unknown, forbidden domain, the lair of sorcerers.

  Then, all at once, as if such luxurious fantasy were not already enough, there came from this unexplored country the song, strong and marvellously sweet, of the blonde woman on crutches, that itinerant prima donna of the highways whose voice I had not heard since the day, years before, when Moreland and I had listened in Gerrard Street, the afternoon he had talked of getting married; when we had bought the bottle labelled Tawny Wine (port flavour) which even Moreland had been later unwilling to drink. Now once more above the rustle of traffic that same note swelled on the grimy air, contriving a transformation scene to recast those purlieus into the vision of an oriental dreamland, artificial, if you like, but still quite alluring under the shifting clouds of a cheerless Soho sky.

  ‘Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar,

  Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell?’

  In the end most things in life – perhaps all things – turn out to be appropriate. So it was now, for here before me lay the vestigial remains of the Mortimer where we had first met, the pub in which our friendship had begun. As an accompaniment to Moreland’s memory music was natural, even imperative, but the repetition of a vocal performance so stupendously apt was scarcely to be foreseen. A, floorless angle of the wall to which a few lumps of plaster and strips of embossed paper still adhered was all that remained of the alcove where we had sat, a recess which also enclosed the mechanical piano into which, periodically, Moreland would feed a penny to invoke one of those fortissimo tunes belonging to much the same period as the blonde singer’s repertoire. She was closer now, herself hardly at all altered by the processes of time – perhaps a shade plumper – working her way down the middle of the empty street, until, framed within the rectangle of the doorway, she seemed to be gliding along under the instrumentality of some occult power and about to sail effortlessly through its enchanted portal:

  ‘Pale hands, pink-tipped, like lotus buds that float

  On those cool waters where we used to dwell ...’

  Moreland and I had afterwards discussed the whereabouts of the Shalimar, and why the locality should have been the haunt of pale hands and those addicted to them.

  ‘A nightclub, do you think?’ Moreland had said. ‘A bordel, perhaps. Certainly an establishment catering for exotic tastes – and I expect not very healthy ones either. How I wish there were somewhere like that where we could spend the afternoon. That woman’s singing has unsettled me. What nostalgia. It was really splendid. “Whom do you lead on Rapture’s roadway far?” What a pertinent question. But where can we go? I feel I must be amused. Do have a brilliant idea. I am in the depths of gloom to be precise. Let’s live for the moment.’

  ‘Tea at Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant? That would be suitably oriental after the song.’

  ‘What do you think? I haven’t been there for ages. It wasn’t very exciting on my last visit. Besides, I never felt quite the same about Casanova’s after that business of Barnby and the waitress. It would be cheaper to drink tea at home – and no less Chinese as I have a packet of Lapsang.’

  ‘As you like.’

  ‘But why did they dwell on the cool waters? I can’t understand the preposition. Were they in a boat?’

  A habit of Moreland’s was to persist eternally with any subject that caught his fancy, a characteristic to intensify in him resolute approach to a few things after jettisoning most outward forms of seriousness; a love of repetition sometimes fatiguing to friends, when Moreland would return unmercifully to some trivial matter less amusing to others than to himself.

  ‘Do you think they were in a boat?’ he went on. ‘The poem is called a Kashmiri Love Song. My aunt used to sing it. Houseboats are a feature of Kashmir, aren’t they?’

  ‘Kipling characters go up there to spend their leave.’

  ‘When we lived in Fulham my aunt used to sing that song to the accompaniment of the pianoforte.’

  He paused in the street and offered there and then a version of the piece as loudly trilled by his aunt, interrupting himself once or twice to emphasise contrast with the rendering we had just heard. Moreland’s parents had died when he was a child. This aunt, who played a large part in his personal mythology, had brought him up. Oppressed, no doubt, by her nephew’s poor health and by thought of the tubercular complaint that had killed his father (who had some name as teacher of music), she was said to have ‘spoiled’ Moreland dreadfully. There were undeniable signs of something of the sort. She had probably been awed, too, by juvenile brilliance; for although Moreland had never been, like Carolo, an infant prodigy – that freakish, rather uncomfortable humour of only musical genius – he showed alarming promise as a boy. The aunt was also married to a musician, a man considerably older than herself whose generally impecunious circumstances had not prevented shadowy connexions with a more sublime world than that in which most of his daily life was spent. He had heard Wagner conduct at the Albert Hall; Liszt play at the Crystal Palace, seen the Abbé’s black habit and shock of iron-grey hair pass through Sydenham; drunk a glass of wine with Tchaikowsky at Cambridge when the Russian composer had come to receive an honorary degree. These peaks are not to be exaggerated. Moreland had been brought up impecuniously too, but in a tradition of hearing famous men discussed on familiar terms; not merely prodigies read of in books, but also persons having to knock about the world like everyone else. The heredity was not unlike Barnby’s, with music taking the place of the graphic arts.

  ‘Perhaps this was a houseboat of ill fame.’

  ‘What an enjoyable idea,’ Moreland said. ‘At the rapturous moments referred to in the lyric one would hear the water, if I may be so nautical, lapping beneath the keel. An overwhelming desire for something of the sort besets me this afternoon. Active emotional employment – like chasing an attractive person round some wet laurels.’

  ‘Out of the question, I’m afraid.’

  ‘What a pity London has not got a Luna Park. I should like to ride on merry-go-rounds and see freaks. Do you remember when we went on the Ghost Railway – when you dash towards closed doors and tear down hill towards a body across the line?’

  In the end we decided against Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant that day, instead experimenting, as I have said, with the adventitious vintages of Shaftesbury Avenue, a thoroughfare traversed on the way to Moreland’s flat, which lay in an undistinguished alley on the far side of Oxford Street, within range of Mr Deacon’s antique shop. Once there, after climbing an interminable staircase, you found an unexpectedly neat ro
om. Unconformist, without discipline in many ways, Moreland had his precise, tidy side, instilled in him perhaps by his aunt; mirrored – so Maclintick used to say – in his musical technique. The walls were hung with framed caricatures of dancers in Diaghilev’s early ballets, coloured pictures drawn by the Legat brothers, found by Moreland in a portfolio outside a second-hand book shop; Pavlova; Karsavina; Fokine; others, too, whom I have forgotten. The few books in a small bookcase by the bed included a tattered paper edition of Apollinaire’s Alcools; one of the Sherlock Holmes volumes; Grinling’s History of the Great Northern Railway. An upright piano stood against one wall, although Moreland, so he always insisted, was no great performer on that instrument. There were always flowers in the vase on the table when Moreland could afford them, which in those days was not often.

  ‘Do you mind drinking wine from teacups, one of them short of a handle? Rather sordid, I’m afraid. I managed to break my three glasses the other night when I came home from a party and was trying to put them away so that the place might look more habitable when I woke up in the morning.’

  Following a preliminary tasting, we poured the residue of the bottle down the lavatory.

  ‘If you were legally allowed three wives,’ asked Moreland, as we watched the cascade of amber foam gush noisily away, ‘whom would you choose?’

  Those were the days when I loved Jean Duport. Moreland knew nothing of her, nor did I propose to tell him. Instead, I offered three names from the group of female acquaintances we enjoyed in common, speaking without undue concern in making this triple decision. To tell the truth, in spite of what I felt for Jean, marriage, although looming up on all sides, still seemed a desperate venture to be postponed almost indefinitely.

  ‘And you?’

  Moreland possessed that quality, rather rare among men, of not divulging names. At the same time, the secretiveness he employed where his own love affairs were concerned was not without an element of exhibitionism. He was always willing to arouse a little unsatisfied curiosity.

  ‘I am going to marry,’ said Moreland, ‘I have decided that. To make up my mind is always a rare thing with me, but the moment for decision has arrived. Otherwise I shall become just another of those depressed and depressing intellectual figures who wander from party to party, finding increasing difficulty in getting off with anyone – and in due course suspected of auto-erotic habits. Besides, Nietzsche advocates living dangerously.’

  ‘If you have decided to base your life on the philosophy of writers of that period, Strindberg considered even the worst marriage better than no marriage at all.’

  ‘And Strindberg earned the right to speak on that subject. As you probably know, his second wife kept a nightclub, within living memory, not a thousand miles from this very spot. Maclintick, of all people, was once taken there.’

  ‘But you haven’t told me who your wife – your three wives – will be.’

  ‘There is only one really. I don’t know whether she will accept me.’

  ‘Oh, come. You are talking like a Victorian novel.’

  ‘I will tell you when we next meet.’

  ‘This is intolerable after I offered my names.’

  ‘But I am serious.’

  I dismissed the notion that Moreland could be contemplating marriage with the heroine of a recent story of Barnby’s about one of Mr Cochran’s Young Ladies.

  ‘Moreland pawned the gold cigarette case Sir Magnus Donners gave him after writing the music for that film,’ Barnby had said, ‘just in order to stand her dinner at the Savoy. The girl had a headache that night – curse, too, I expect – and most of the money went on taking her back to Golders Green in a taxi.’

  Even if that story were untrue, the toughness of Moreland’s innate romanticism in matters of the heart certainly remained unimpaired by gravitating from one hopeless love affair to another. That fact had become clear after knowing him for even a few months. Wit, shrewdness about other aspects of life, grasp of the arts, fundamental good nature, none seemed any help in solving his emotional problems; to some extent these qualities, as displayed by him, were even a hindrance. Women found him amusing, were intrigued by his unusual appearance and untidy clothes, heard that he was brilliant, so naturally he had his ‘successes’; but these, on the whole, were ladies with too desperate an enthusiasm for music. Moreland did not care for that. He liked wider horizons. His delicacy in coping with such eventualities need not be exaggerated. Undoubtedly, he allowed himself reasonable latitude with girls of that sort. Even so, the fact remained that, although fully aware of the existence, the greater effectiveness, of an attitude quite contrary to his own, he remained a hopeless addict of what he used to call, in the phrase of the day, a ‘princesse lointaine complex’. This approach naturally involved him in falling in love with women connected in one way or another with the theatre.

  ‘It doesn’t matter whether it is the Leading Lady or Second Slave,’ he said, ‘I myself am always cast as a stage-door johnny of thirty or forty years back. As a matter of fact the hours I have to keep in my profession compel association with girls who have to stay up late – by which I do not necessarily mean tarts.’

  All this was very alien to Barnby, himself enjoying to such a high degree the uncomplicated, direct powers of attack that often accompany a gift for painting or sculpture.

  ‘Barnby never has to be in the mood to work,’ Moreland used to say. ‘The amount of material he can get through is proportionate to the hour he rises in the morning. In much the same way, if he sees a girl he likes, all he has to do is to ask her to sleep with him. Some do, some don’t it is one to him.’

  Barnby would not in the least have endorsed this picture of himself. His own version was that of a man chronically overburdened, absolutely borne down by sensitive emotional stresses. All the same, in contrasting the two of them, there was something to be said for Moreland’s over-simplification. Their different methods were, as it happened, displayed in high relief on the occasion of my first meeting with Moreland.

  The Mortimer (now rebuilt in a displeasingly fashionable style and crowded with second-hand-car salesmen) was even in those days regarded by the enlightened as a haunt of ‘bores’; but, although the beer was indifferent and the saloon bar draughty, a sprinkling of those connected with the arts, especially musicians, was usually to be found there. The chief charm of the Mortimer for Moreland, who at that time rather prided himself on living largely outside that professionally musical world which, towards the end of his life, so completely engulfed him, was provided by the mechanical piano. The clientele was anathema; this Moreland always conceded, using that very phrase, a favourite one of his.

  For my own part, I never cared for the place either. I had been introduced there by Barnby (met for the first time only a few weeks before) who was coming on to the Mortimer that evening after consultation with a frame-maker who lived in the neighbourhood. Barnby was preparing for a show in the near future. Those were the days when his studio was above Mr Deacon’s antique shop; when he was pursuing Baby Wentworth and about to paint those murals for the Donners-Brebner Building, which were destroyed, like the Mortimer, by a bomb during the war. I had recently returned, I remember, from staying in the country with the Walpole-Wilsons. It must, indeed, have been only a week before Mr Deacon injured himself fatally by slipping on the stair at the Bronze Monkey (disqualified as licensed premises the same month as the result of a police raid), and died in hospital some days later, much regretted by the many elements – some of them less than tolerable – who made his antique shop their regular port of call.

  It was pouring with rain that night and the weather had turned much colder. Barnby had not yet arrived when I came into the bar, which was emptier than usual. Two or three elderly women dressed in black, probably landladies off duty, were drinking Guinness and grumbling in one corner. In the other, where the mechanical piano was situated, sat Mr Deacon himself, hatless as usual, his whitening hair hanging lankly over a woollen muffler, the coar
se mesh of which he might himself have knitted. His regular autumn exhalation of eucalyptus, or some other specific against the common cold (to which Mr Deacon was greatly subject), hung over that end of the room. He was always preoccupied with his health and the Mortimer’s temperature was too low for comfort. His long, arthritic fingers curled round half a pint of bitter, making an irregular mould or beading about the glass, recalling a medieval receptacle for setting at rest a drinking horn. The sight of Mr Deacon always made me think of the Middle Ages because of his resemblance to a pilgrim, a mildly sinister pilgrim, with more than a streak of madness in him, but then in every epoch a proportion of pilgrims must have been sinister, some mad as well. I was rather snobbishly glad that the streets had been too wet for his sandals. Instead, his feet were encased in dark blue felt snowboots against the puddles. That evening Barnby and I had planned to see a von Stroheim revival – was it Foolish Wives? Possibly Barnby had suggested that Mr Deacon should accompany us to the cinema, although as a rule he could be induced to sit through only Soviet films, and those for purely ideological reasons. Mr Deacon was in the best of form that night. He was surrounded by a group of persons none of whom I knew.

  ‘Good evening, Nicholas,’ he said, in his deep, deep, consciously melodious voice, which for some reason always made me feel a trifle uneasy, ‘what brings you to this humble hostelry? I thought you frequented marble halls.’

  ‘I am meeting Ralph here. We are going to a film. Neither of us had an invitation to a marble hall tonight.’

  ‘The cinema!’ said Mr Deacon, with great contempt. ‘I am astonished you young men can waste your time in the cinema. Have you nothing else to do with yourselves? I should have thought better of Barnby. Why, I’d as soon visit the Royal Academy. Sooner, in fact. There would be the chance of a good laugh there.’