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Casanova's Chinese Restaurant, Page 3

Anthony Powell

  ‘Hullo, my dear,’ he said, addressing himself to Moreland. ‘I hear you saw the new Stravinsky ballet when you were in Paris.’

  His voice came out in a drawl, half cockney, half drawing-room comedy, as he changed the position of his feet, striking a pose that immediately proclaimed a dancer’s professional training.

  ‘Speaking choreographically—’ Moreland began.

  Mr Deacon, put out at finding his ‘young friend’ already known to most of the company, once more made an effort to intervene and keep the boy to himself, determined that any negotiations conducted between them should be transacted in at least comparative privacy.

  ‘What?’ he said, scarcely trying to hide his annoyance. ‘You know each other, do you? How nice we should all be friends. However, Norman and I must discuss business of our own. The sacred rites of bargaining must not be overheard.’

  He tittered angrily, and laid one of those gothic hands of his on the shoulder of the young man called Norman, who, as if to indicate that he must bow to the inevitable, waved dramatically to Moreland, as he allowed himself to be shepherded to the far end of the bar. There, he and Mr Deacon untied the parcel between them, at the same time folding the brown paper round it, so that they themselves should be, if possible, the sole persons to observe the contents. Mr Deacon must have felt immediately satisfied that he wanted to buy the cast (which reached his shop, although, as it turned out, only for a brief moment), because, after a muttered conversation, they wrapped up the parcel again and left the Mortimer together. As they went through the door Moreland shouted goodnight, a farewell to which only the young man responded by giving another wave of his hand.

  ‘Who is the juvenile lead?’ asked Gossage.

  He smiled vigorously, at the same time removing his pince-nez to polish them, as if he did not wish Maclintick to think him unduly interested in Mr Deacon and his friend.

  ‘Don’t you know Norman Chandler?’ said Moreland. ‘I should have thought you would have come across him. He is an actor. Also dances a bit. Rather a hand at the saxophone.’

  ‘A talented young gentleman,’ said Gossage.

  Moreland took another newspaper from his pocket, flattened it out on the surface of the table, and began to read a re-hash of the Croydon murder. Maclintick’s face had expressed the strongest distaste during the conversation with Chandler; now he dismissed his indignation and began to discuss the Albert Hall concert Gossage was attending that night. I caught the phrases ‘rhythmic ensemble’ and ‘dynamic and tonal balance’. Carolo sat in complete silence, from time to time tasting his vermouth without relish. Maclintick and Gossage passed on to the Delius Festival at the Queen’s Hall. All this musical ‘shop’, to which Moreland, without looking up from his paper, would intermittently contribute comment, began to make me feel rather out of it. I wished I had been less punctual. Moreland came to the end of the article and pushed the paper from him.

  ‘Edgar was quite cross at my turning out to know Norman,’ he said to me, speaking in a detached, friendly tone. ‘Edgar loves to build up mystery about any young man he meets. There was a lot of excitement about an “ex-convict from Devil’s Island” he met at a fancy dress party the other day dressed as a French matelot.’

  He leaned forward and deftly thrust a penny into the slot of the mechanical piano, which took a second or two to digest the coin, then began to play raucously.

  ‘Oh, good,’ said Moreland.‘The Missouri Waltz.’

  ‘Deacon is probably right in assuming some of the persons he associates with are sinister enough,’ said Maclintick sourly.

  ‘It is the only pleasure he has left,’ said Moreland. ‘I can’t imagine what Norman was selling. It looked like a bed-pan from the shape of the parcel.’

  Gossage sniggered, incurring a frown from Maclintick.

  Probably fearing Maclintick might make him a new focus of disapproval, he remarked that he must be ‘going soon’.

  ‘Deacon will be getting himself into trouble one of these days,’ Maclintick said, shaking his head and speaking as if he hoped the blow would fall speedily. ‘Don’t you agree, Gossage?’

  ‘Oh, couldn’t say, couldn’t say at all,’ said Gossage hurriedly. ‘I hardly know the man, you see. Met him once or twice at the Proms last year. Join him sometimes over a mug of ale.’

  Maclintick ignored these efforts to present a more bracing picture of Mr Deacon’s activities.

  ‘And it won’t be the first time Deacon got into trouble,’ he said in his grim, high-pitched voice.

  ‘Well, I shall really have to go,’ repeated Gossage, in answer to this further rebuke, speaking as if everyone present had been urging him to stay in the Mortimer for just a few minutes longer.

  ‘You will read my views on Friday. I am keeping an open mind. One has to do that. Goodbye, Moreland, goodbye … Maclintick, goodbye …’

  ‘I must be going too,’ said Carolo unexpectedly.

  He had a loud, harsh voice, and a North Country accent like Quiggin’s. Tossing back the remains of his vermouth as if to the success of a desperate venture from which he was unlikely to return with his life, he finished the dregs at a gulp, and, inclining his head slightly in farewell to the company with an unconcerned movement in keeping with this devil-may-care mood, he followed Gossage from the saloon bar.

  ‘Carolo wasn’t exactly a chatterbox tonight,’ said Moreland.

  ‘Never has much to say for himself,’ Maclintick agreed.

  ‘Always brooding on the old days when he was playing Sarasate up and down the country clad as Little Lord Fauntleroy.’

  ‘He must have been at least seventeen when he last appeared in his black velvet suit and white lace collar,’ said Moreland. ‘The coat was so tight he could hardly draw his bow across the fiddle.’

  ‘They say Carolo is having trouble with his girl,’ said Maclintick. ‘Makes him even gloomier than usual.’

  ‘Who is his girl?’ asked Moreland indifferently.

  ‘Quite young, I believe,’ said Maclintick. ‘Gossage was asking about her. Carolo doesn’t find it as easy to get engagements as he used – and he won’t teach.’

  ‘Wasn’t there talk of Mrs Andriadis helping him?’ said Moreland. ‘Arranging a performance at her house or something.’

  I listened to what was being said without feeling – as I came to feel later – that I was, in one sense, part and parcel of the same community; that when people gossiped about matters like Carolo and his girl, one was listening to a morsel, if only an infinitesimal morsel, of one’s own life. However, I heard no more about Carolo at that moment, because Barnby could now be seen standing in the doorway of the saloon bar, slowly apprising himself of the company present, the problem each individual might pose. By that hour the Mortimer had begun to fill. A man with a yellowish beard and black hat was buying drinks for two girls drawn from that indeterminate territory eternally disputed between tarts and art students; three pimply young men were arguing about economics; a couple of taxi-drivers conferred with the barmaid. For several seconds Barnby stared about him, viewing the people in the Mortimer with apparent disapproval. Then, thickset, his topcoat turned up to his ears, he moved slowly forward, at the same time casting an expert, all-embracing glance at the barmaid and the two art girls. Reaching the table at last by these easy stages, he nodded to the rest of us, but did not sit down. Instead, he regarded the party closely. Such evolutions were fairly typical of Barnby’s behaviour in public; demeanour effective with most strangers, on whom he seemed ultimately to force friendliness by at first withholding himself. Later he would unfreeze. With women, that apparently negative method almost always achieved good results. It was impossible to say whether this manner of Barnby’s was unconscious or deliberate. Moreland, for example, saw in Barnby a consummate actor.

  ‘Ralph is the Garrick of our day,’ Moreland used to say, ‘or at least the Tree or Irving. Barnby never misses a gesture with women, not an inflection of the voice.’

  The two of them,
never close friends, used to see each other fairly often in those days. Moreland liked painting and held stronger views about pictures than most musicians.

  ‘I can see Ralph has talent,’ he said of Barnby, ‘but why use combinations of colour that make you think he is a Frenchman or a Catalan?’

  ‘I know nothing of music,’ Barnby had, in turn, once remarked, ‘but Hugh Moreland’s accompaniment to that film sounded to me like a lot of owls quarrelling in a bicycle factory.’

  All the same, in spite of mutual criticism, they were in general pretty well disposed to one another.

  ‘Buy us a drink, Ralph,’ said Moreland, as Barnby stood moodily contemplating us.

  ‘I’m not sure I can afford that,’ said Barnby. ‘I’ll have to think about it.’

  ‘Take a generous view,’ said Moreland, who liked being stood plenty of drinks.

  After a minute or two’s meditation Barnby drew some money from his pocket, glanced at the coins in the palm of his hand, and laid some of them on the bar. Then he brought the glasses across to the table.

  ‘Had a look at the London Group this afternoon,’ he said.

  Barnby sat down. He and Moreland began to talk of English painting. The subject evidently bored Maclintick, who seemed to like Barnby as little as he cared for Mr Deacon. Conversation moved on to painting in Paris. Finally, the idea of going to a film was abandoned. It was getting late in the evening. The programme would be too far advanced. Instead, we agreed to dine together. Maclintick went off upstairs to telephone to his wife and tell her he would not be home until later.

  ‘There will be a row about that,’ said Moreland, after Maclintick had disappeared.

  ‘Do they quarrel?’

  ‘Just a bit.’

  ‘Where shall we dine?’ said Barnby. ‘Foppa’s?’

  ‘No, I lunched at Foppa’s,’ Moreland said. ‘I can’t stand Foppa’s twice in a day. It would be like going back to one’s old school. Do you know Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant? It hasn’t been open long. Let’s eat there.’

  ‘I am not sure my stomach is up to Chinese food,’ said Barnby. ‘I didn’t get to bed until three this morning.’

  ‘You can have eggs or something like that.’

  ‘Won’t the eggs be several hundred years old? Still, we will go there if you insist. Anything to save a restaurant argument. Where is the place?’

  Maclintick returned from telephoning. He bought himself a final Irish whiskey and drank it off. Conversation with his wife had been, as Moreland predicted, acrimonious. When told our destination was Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant Maclintick made a face; but he failed to establish any rival claim in favour of somewhere he would prefer to eat, so the decision was confirmed. I asked how such a recklessly hybrid name had ever been invented.

  ‘There used to be the New Casanova,’ said Moreland, ‘where the cooking was Italian and the decoration French eighteenth century – some way, some considerable way, after Watteau. Further up the street was the Amoy, called by some Sam’s Chinese Restaurant. The New Casanova went into liquidation. Sam’s bought it up and moved over their pots and pans and chopsticks, so now you can eat eight treasure rice, or bamboo shoots fried with pork ribbons, under panels depicting scenes from the career of the Great Lover.’

  ‘What are prices like?’ asked Barnby.

  ‘One might almost say cheap. On Sunday there is an orchestra of three and dainty afternoon tea is served. You can even dance. Maclintick has been there, haven’t you, Maclintick?’

  ‘Must it be Chinese food tonight?’ said Maclintick peevishly. ‘I’ve a touch of enteritis as it is.’

  ‘Remember some of the waitresses are rather attractive,’ said Moreland persuasively.

  ‘Chinese?’ I asked.

  ‘No,’ said Moreland, ‘English.’

  He laughed a little self-consciously.

  ‘Bet you’ve got your eye on one,’ said Barnby.

  I think Barnby made this remark as a matter of routine, either without bothering to consider the matter at all carefully, or on the safe assumption that no one would take the trouble to mention the fact that any given group of girls was above the average in looks without having singled out at least one of them for himself. That would unquestionably have been Barnby’s own procedure. Alternatively, Moreland may have spoken of Casanova’s on an earlier occasion, thereby giving Barnby reason to suspect there must be something special that attracted Moreland personally to the place. In any case, the imputation was not surprising, although Barnby’s own uninterrupted interest in the subject always made him perceptive where the question of a woman, or women, was concerned. However, Moreland went red at the enquiry. He was in one sense, easily embarrassed about any matter that touched him intimately; although, at the same time, his own mind moved too quickly for him to be placed long at a disadvantage by those who hoped to tease. In such situations he was pretty adept at turning the tables.

  ‘I had my eye on a girl there formerly,’ he said, ‘I admit that. It wasn’t entirely the excellent pig’s trotter soup that brought me back to Casanova’s. However, I can visit that restaurant now without a tremor – not a concupiscent thought. My pleasure in the place has become purely that of gourmet of Cathay. A triumph of self-mastery. I will point the girl out to you, Ralph.’

  ‘What happened?’ asked Barnby. ‘Did she leave you for the man who played the trombone?’

  ‘One just wasn’t a success,’ said Moreland, reddening again. ‘Anyway, I will show you the problem as it stood – no doubt as it stands. Nothing altered, so far as I know, except my own point of view. But let’s be moving. I’m famished.’

  The name Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant offered one of those unequivocal blendings of disparate elements of the imagination which suggest a whole new state of mind or way of life. The idea of Casanova giving his name to a Chinese restaurant linked not only the East with the West, the present with the past, but also, more parochially, suggested by its own incongruity an immensely suitable place for all of us to have dinner that night. We arrived in two large rooms, in which most of the tables were filled. The clientele, predominantly male and Asiatic, had a backbone of Chinese businessmen and Indian students. A few negroes sat with very blonde white girls; a sprinkling of diners belonged to those ethnically indefinable races which colonise Soho and interbreed there. Along the walls frescoes tinted in pastel shades, executed with infinite feebleness of design, appealed to Heaven knows what nadir of æsthetic degradation. Almost as soon as we found a table, I marked down Moreland’s waitress. She was tall, very thin, fair-haired and blue-eyed, at that moment carrying a lot of glasses on a tray. The girl was certainly noticeable in her white lace cap and small frilled white apron above a black dress and black cotton stockings, the severity of this uniform, her own pale colouring, lending a curious exoticism to her appearance in these pseudo-oriental surroundings. There was an air of childlike innocence about her that could easily be deceptive. Indeed, when more closely observed, she had some of the look of a very expensive, rather wicked little doll. Moreland’s answer to Barnby’s almost immediate request to have ‘the girl we have come to see’ pointed out to him, confirmed the correctness of this guess. Barnby took one of his lingering, professional stares.

  ‘Rather an old man’s piece, isn’t she?’ he said. ‘Still, I see your point. Poorish legs, though.’

  ‘You mustn’t concentrate on legs if your interest is in waitresses,’ said Moreland. ‘The same is true of ballet dancers, I’m afraid.’

  ‘She looks as if she might well be a nymphomaniac,’ said Maclintick, ‘those very fair, innocent-looking girls often are. I think I mentioned that to Moreland when he brought me here before.’

  Maclintick had hardly spoken since we left the Mortimer. Now he uttered these words in a tone of deep pessimism, as if, so far, he had resented every moment of the evening. He greatly disapproved of Barnby, whose inclination for women was as irksome to him as Mr Deacon’s so downright repudiation of the opposite sex. M
aclintick possibly thought Barnby had a bad influence on Moreland.

  ‘She showed no sign of being a nympho,’ Moreland said. ‘On the contrary. I could have done with a little nymphomania – anyway at the start.’

  ‘What are we going to eat?’ said Barnby. ‘I can’t make head or tail of this menu.’

  Maclintick and Barnby ordered something unadventurous from the dishes available; under Moreland’s guidance, I embarked upon one of the specialities of the house. Moreland’s waitress came to take our order for drinks. Although a restaurant of some size, Casanova’s had no licence, so that a member of the staff collected beer from the pub opposite, or wine from the shop round the corner. When she came up to the table the waitress gave Moreland a cold, formal smile of recognition, which freely acknowledged him as a regular customer, but suggested no more affectionate relationship. Close up, she looked, I thought, as hard as nails; I did not feel at all tempted to enter into competition. Barnby eyed her. She took no notice of him whatever, noting our orders in silence and disappearing.

  ‘Too thin for my taste,’ said Barnby. ‘I like a good armful.’

  ‘This lascivious conversation is very appropriate to the memory of the distinguished Venetian gentleman after whom the restaurant is named,’ said Maclintick harshly. ‘What a bore he must have been.’

  He leant across the table, and, like an angry woodpecker, began to tap out his pipe against the side of a large Schweppes ashtray.

  ‘Do you suppose one would have known Casanova?’ I said.

  ‘Oh, but of course,’ said Moreland. ‘In early life, Casanova played the violin – like Carolo. Casanova played in a band – I doubt if he would have been up to a solo performance. I can just imagine what he would have been like to deal with if one had been the conductor. Besides, he much fancied himself as a figure at the opera and musical parties. One would certainly have met him. At least I am sure I should.’