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The Productions of Time
By John Brunner
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1967 Brunner Fact & Fiction Ltd.
All rights reserved.
Precisely because the idea made him nervous, Murray Douglas rang the Proscenium Restaurant and booked a table for lunch before going to bail out his car. The man who took his reservation was a stranger, by his voice, and there was no hint of recognition when he repeated the instructions he had been given.
'Mr Murray Douglas—table for one—one o'clock. Very good, sir.'
It had been a long time. It had been an eternity.
His hand was shaking as he cradled the phone. To bring himself back under control, he drew a deep breath and let it out slowly, steadily, as though trying to sustain a level note on a musical instrument. For the twentieth time, he pressed the inside of his wrist against the front of his jacket, to verify the thick solidity of the hundred pounds in his wallet. Then he shrugged on his overcoat, picked up his travelling bag, gave a last look around the apartment, and went down to the street to find a taxi.
The garage, at least, hadn't changed. Tom Hickie was still in his little glass-sided office surrounded by stacks of grease-marked service sheets and continually ringing phones. The air was still full of crackling radio music and the bang of hammers. He picked his way between the ranks of cars, stepping over air-lines and wheeled heavy-duty jacks.
Phone in one hand, papers in the other, Hickie glanced around as the door slid back. For a moment he was puzzled. Then he caught himself.
'Oh, it's Mr Douglas! It's been such a long time, sir, I almost didn't recognize you.'
'You got my letter?' Murray said roughly. He didn't like to think about the long time or about people not recognizing him. The mirror had told him too much already. Last time he called here, he had already begun to lose the youthful handsomeness on which he had built so much of his reputation and following; his cheeks were fuller then, his eyes were growing watery and there were always pouches under them.
But now he had really changed. There was slack skin along the line of his jaw. There were old-man's furrows in his forehead. And he had a hat crammed low on his head because his scalp was showing at the crown and there was grey everywhere. Murray Douglas at thirty-two looked fifty and felt a hundred.
'Yes, sir—we got your letter, and the boys are bringing the car out now. We've looked after her for you, you may be sure of that.' Hickie put down the phone he was holding and a glint of curiosity showed in his eyes. 'I gather you've been ill, sir. I was very sorry to hear about it. I hope you've made a good recovery.'
Abruptly Murray was sick of the polite fiction his agent had circulated. He said, 'The hell! I haven't been ill—I've been in a sanatorium to stop me from drinking myself to death.'
Hickie's mouth, opening to say something further, stayed open for a long moment. Then he looked uncomfortably down at his table of service sheets.
'I'm sorry, Mr Douglas. I didn't mean to be nosy.'
'That's all right.' Murray felt in his pocket for his cigarette case; there were big no smoking signs up, but no one took much notice of them. 'Cigarette?'
'No thank you, sir. I'm trying to give it up.' Hickie essayed a casual laugh which turned into a croak. 'Ah! Here comes Bill now to say your car is ready.' He moved past Murray in the doorway.
Bill, a tall West Indian in brown overalls, called out as he approached. 'The Daimler's ready, Mr Hickie. I just took the job sheet in to be costed.'
'Good!' Hickie said. 'So we won't keep you long, Mr Douglas.'
'How is the car?' Murray demanded.
'Your Daimler, boss?' Bill turned to him. 'Well, we had a fair amount of work to do on it. Excuse my saying so, but you drive your cars damned hard.'
'I used to,' Murray muttered. 'I used to drive myself too.'
'Sorry, boss?' Bill widened his eyes anxiously. 'Didn't hear that?'
'Never mind.' Murray felt for his wallet. 'How much do I owe you for storage, Tom?'
At first, being back in the driving seat and hearing the beautiful even purr of the V-8 under the downswept bonnet helped to mask even the painful knowledge that Hickie had literally not known who he was when he first appeared. He drove cautiously through the West End towards St Martin's Lane and the Proscenium.
But things had changed here, too. There were new one-way signs, and the pavements had sprouted parking meters. By the time he had wasted a quantity of petrol and a good half hour of time creeping around traffic-throttled side streets in search of a vacant space to leave the car, he was back in the mood of depression in which he had spent most of the past few months. What the hell was the point of going to the Proscenium, anyway? A silly theatrical gesture. A shout: 'Murray Douglas is back!' To get what response? A few raised eyebrows, maybe, and a snide, 'So what?'
Blazes, but I'm going through with it. I've backed down and backed out too often. I've spent too long on the easy road.
He finally found a place for the car and made his way, sullen-faced, to the restaurant.
Emile, the head waiter, recognized him, but even his professional smile could not wholly hide his shock at the change which a year had wrought. And he had another reason for distress.
'I'm very sorry, Mr Douglas,' he was saying. 'But your reservation was for one o'clock, I believe. When at half-past one you had not arrived, I am afraid ...' And he made a gesture to complete the sentence.
Now if you'd done that in the old days, I'd have created a scene. But you wouldn't have dared to do it then. Now you think I'm washed up ...
Murray forced himself to swallow his resentment. He said, 'I've wasted about half an hour looking for a parking place. I'm sorry if I inconvenienced you, Emile. Never mind—you can fit me in somewhere, I suppose.'
'Ah—There is only one empty table, Mr Douglas.' Emile pointed somewhere towards the back of the crowded restaurant. 'François will attend to you. François, show Mr Douglas to his table, please. Yes, Mr Crombie, I'll be with you in a moment!'
Puzzled glances ('I'm sure I know who that is, but—!') followed him through the restaurant. None of the people who looked up was known to him; there were several people here whom he did know, of course, but he was glad that every single one of his former friends was too busy eating or talking to notice his passage. The table he was given was blessedly inconspicuous, half screened by a bank of the luscious indoor creepers the designer of the place had been so fond of. At the next table, around a corner and in an alcove, were two men whose voices he immediately recognized—Pat Burnett, the drama critic of the Gazette, and Ralph Heston-Wood of Acting.
They hadn't noticed his arrival. They were deep in discussion of a rehearsal they had just seen. Murray sat listening with intense concentration, thinking himself back into the past.
God, but he missed it all! Why had he been such a fool as to come here alone instead of calling his agent? Roger would have been glad to—
No, probably he wouldn't, and no use kidding myself. Not after the months of hanging around; not after the endless loans, the savage complaints, the moans of despair.
Since coming out of the sanatorium, since hanging around and hoping when there was no hope, Murray Douglas had become far better acquainted with Murray Douglas.
And I don't like Murray Douglas very much.
With as much delight as a man fresh from jail (and those abominable snack bars had been a kind of jail), he studied the menu and picked some favourites: avocado pear, truite au bleu.
'And for wine?' the wine steward asked.
'Apple juice,' Murray said curtly. 'Chilled.'
He lit a cigarette and leaned back, waiting for the food to arrive.
Now the two critics at the next table had switched to a different subject. At first he only let his attention drift idly back to them. Suddenly, as Murray heard what they were saying, he was all ears.
'What do you make of this man Delgado, Ralph—this Argentinian that Blizzard's got hold of?'
'Oh, he has something, there's no doubt of it,' Heston-Wood answered. 'Didn't you see the thing he did in Paris with Jean-Paul Garrigue? Trois Fois à la Fois, I think he called it.'
'No, I didn't see it, and from all accounts it wasn't my cup of tea anyway,' Burnett grunted.
Heston-Wood gave a chuckle. 'Yes, I remember what you had to say about The Connection, Pat! What was the rhyme they were passing around—"Hail, stale disciple of the tried and true"—something like that?'
'That was one of Maxie's. Nobody minds Maxie. Seriously, Ralph, what the blazes is the point of all this nonsense? If you have a play you have a play and there's an author who put it together. But from what I can gather, this isn't a play. There's a fast-talking dago with an avant-garde label on him who's conned Blizzard into vouching for him and someone else into putting up one hell of a lot of money, and a gang of no-goods, has-beens, and deadbeats scraped off the bottom of the barrel because no one in his right mind will touch the job.'
Murray felt a thick constricting band of anger close around his heart.
'Pat, you carry this theatre-for-the-masses pose a bit too far sometimes. You haven't even seen Delgado's work, and you're condemning it out of hand.' Heston-Wood drank noisily. 'The one he did with Garrigue gave me the most stimulating evening I've had in a theatre since Godot.'
'It didn't run,' Burnett said.
'No. Well, there was Garrigue's suicide, you know.'
'Yes, but for heaven's sake! Rest in peace and all that—that's a publicity gimmick to end all gimmicks. Why didn't it go on with a replacement?'
'Because the piece was created around a specific cast, and a replacement would have destroyed it. There is a point to the idea, Pat. You just won't see it.'
'I know all about that. Saroyan was over here a few years back, remember? He tried the same thing at Theatre Workshop. I thought it was abysmal nonsense, and I said so.' There was a sound of clinking glass as Burnett poured more wine. 'You get your cast together and get a few basic suggestions, and you work up your dialogue co-operatively, and you call the result a play. But get a masterpiece out of this bunch of second-rate hams? You'll never make me swallow that, Ralph. Why, there's nobody better in the whole gang of them than Murray Douglas, and you know as well as I do he's turned into such a gin-swilling sot there isn't a producer in London who'd look at him. And he never had real talent anyway—just a pretty face.'
Murray stood up. He didn't bother to push the table away; its legs scraped, it half tilted and spilled a couple of knives off its edge before settling back on an even keel. With his face absolutely white, he went around the concealing screen of greenery.
There was a clang as Heston-Wood dropped his fork on his plate. It was the last noise. A total silence seemed to have invaded the restaurant, lasting only heartbeats—but that was enough.
Burnett, his lower lip visibly shaking, stared up at Murray as though at a ghost. He was a big, burly man with a ruddy face. His gimmick, carefully husbanded by his editor, was what Heston-Wood had called 'theatre for the masses', and the picture that ran at the head of his column showed him grinning around a Priestley-type meerschaum pipe.
'Get up,' Murray said.
'Now—now look here, Murray!'
Murray reached out and took him by the knot of his tie. His rage lent him strength he had never had and after the wreck he had made of his body was not entitled to. He dragged Burnett to his feet and sent his chair over with a crash. Then he hit him as hard as he could under the jaw.
The burly man staggered backwards and collapsed on the table of another party, planting one hand in a plate of crème caramel. Ignoring the cries of alarm and shouts from waiters which now went up, Murray drew a deep breath.
'Somebody ought to have done that to you years ago, Burnett. Hear me, you ignorant slob? You're not a critic and you never will be. You're a foul-minded gossip columnist with the morals of a baboon and the bad taste of a whole hen party of Aunt Ednas. I wanted to kick your teeth in a hundred times when I was on top of the tree, and I didn't dare because of the power your dirty little column gives you. Now I'm back at the bottom, and you can't hurt me. But you go on trying, don't you? You called me a gin-swilling sot, isn't that right? All right, now's your chance to say it again knowing I can hear you!'
Panting heavily, Burnett straightened up. He mouthed some sort of apology to the owner of the sticky sweet in which he had planted his hand.
'Mr Douglas! Bon Dieu, what have you done?' From the front of the restaurant came Emile, as agitated as only an interruption of his smooth routine could make him.
'It's all right, Emile. I'm leaving. If I'd known I was going to be under the same roof as Burnett I wouldn't have come in. The sight of him spoils my appetite.' Murray spoke with the full resonance of his trained voice, the voice which had once been able to fill the monstrous volume of the Albert Hall without a microphone, and knew that everyone could hear every word. 'Take that for any damage I've done to your property!' He peeled a five-pound note off the wad remaining in his wallet, and dug in his pocket as he continued. 'And you can take this for your damage, Burnett.'
He flipped a single penny contemptuously through the air towards the burly man. It landed on the carpet between his feet. He turned his back and walked slowly towards the door, aware that this time every customer in the place was watching him and nobody was any longer asking who that might be.
The best exit I've made for a long while, he thought bitterly.
He paused and glanced around. At a table near the door he saw Fleet Dickinson, who was more on top than anybody and never likely to be anywhere else. The full charm turned on high.
'Murray, I'm damned glad to see you back in the land of the living, and congratulations on what you just did to Patsy-boy. What are you doing at the moment? Hardly heard a word of you since—well, you know.' A twist of a graceful hand in the air.
'Since they wrung the gin out,' Murray said flatly. 'Why, I've been resting. On doorsteps, mainly. I tried to get in to see you, too, and one of the doorsteps I rested on was yours.'
A flicker of well-controlled embarrassment. 'Well, Murray, you know how it is when something like this happens.'
'I know only too intimately how it is. Don't let me spoil your lunch, will you? So long.'
'Just a moment—uh—Murray!'
He paused and looked back.
'Look, if you're really in difficulties—'
'Not any more, thanks. Blizzard picked me for this gang of no-goods, deadbeats, and has-beens he's collecting for the new Delgado play, so I'm provided for. See you in the stalls when we open.'
That was a childish sort of jab to end with, Murray told himself as he went back on the street. The damnable thing was, of course, that he was just as suspicious as Burnett of the whole Delgado project, and if his agent had been able to find him anything else—anything at all—he wouldn't have considered it even for the fantastic rates of pay.CHAPTER 2
His mind clouded by what had happened, he picked his way north through London towards the southern end of the M1 motorway. He pulled up once in order to take the top of the car down—he felt that he needed some fresh air to blow Burnett out of his memory—and to buy a sandwich instead of the good lunch he'd left behind at the Proscenium.
So far, he'd been driving cautiously; he hadn't touched the wheel of anything but a slowpoke family saloon since the onset of his breakdown. Once he hit the motorway however, he deliberately took the car up to the maximum of its performance, holding third gear until the hundred and ten showed, then shifting to top and letting her roll.
Even if it was only for advancing him the cash to ransom the car from storage, Murray was grateful to Manuel Delgado.
He hadn't disposed of the Daimler because in the end it had come to be a potent symbol to him. The registration plates said 1 MQD for Murray Quest Douglas; people recognized it on the street, the white SP 250 with the black flashes down the sides—'There's Murray Douglas in that car! I saw a shot of it on TV last week!'
Once, held up beside him in a traffic jam, a taxi driver had passed a sheet of paper over from his cab asking for an autograph.
Excerpted from The Productions of Time by John Brunner. Copyright © 1967 Brunner Fact & Fiction Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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