The Man on the Bridge: A Novel

The Man on the Bridge: A Novel

by Stephen Benatar

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504008068
Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media LLC
Publication date: 03/17/2015
Edition description: Digital Original
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Stephen Benatar was born in 1937 in Baker Street, London—and in the block of flats where H. G. Wells and Arnold Bennett once lived; one of these days there’ll have to be a third important plaque beside the other two! Benatar is married, with four children, but now openly gay and living with a male partner.

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The Man on the Bridge

A Novel


By Stephen Benatar

OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA

Copyright © 2012 Stephen Benatar
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-9373-9


CHAPTER 1

I had never heard of him until the previous evening. I'd been inching forward patiently with the rest of the audience leaving Drury Lane when a woman in front of me had said to her companion:

"Isn't that Oliver Cambourne over there? The tall one with the black hair and the good profile."

The man was some distance to our left. Roughly level with us. He stood out in the crowd not merely because of his height and impressive appearance but because amidst all the chatter and exuberance he looked bored.

"I went to his exhibition last month," the woman continued. "I don't always care for his paintings but some of them are interesting."

And now he stood here in the shop.

He still looked bored. Yet for fully a minute I couldn't stop watching him. He had glamour. This may partly have derived from what I'd overheard; but his elegance and his air of patrician wealth were also commanding. I straightened my tie and walked over.

"May I help you, sir?"

"I doubt it."

At first it seemed he wasn't even going to look up. But when he did I was still at his side. His eyes showed a flicker of interest.

I said: "Excuse me but you're Oliver Cambourne, aren't you? The artist."

"I believe I am."

"May I say how much I admired your exhibition?"

"Thank you. You may say it as often as you like. And to as many as you like."

"Actually, it's a small world. I saw you at the theatre last night."

"Is that so?" He gazed at me quizzically for a moment. "Then what did you think of it—'My Fair Lady'?"

"Magical," I said.

"Really? To me it seemed tedious."

I was astonished: that anyone, however jaded, could possibly hold such an opinion. For a second I was tempted to qualify my praise yet instinct warned me not to. "But, sir, didn't you think the costumes and the settings must have been amongst the best we've ever had?"

"And what if I did? Are costumes and settings, then, the things which matter most?"

"Or that the songs all grew so fluidly out of the action—without any strain or lapses of taste? And that little or nothing appeared to have been left out?"

There was a pause.

"God save us all!" said Oliver Cambourne.

But he looked amused.

I carried on in the show's defence for at least a couple of minutes. I should certainly have done so longer—he was doing nothing to discourage me—if Miss Partridge hadn't returned just then from an unusually late lunch. The White Queen, First Lady of the Shop, my self-appointed benefactress. "Good afternoon, Mr Cambourne. I'm sorry I wasn't here when you arrived."

"Good afternoon, Miss Partridge. I daresay I shall never quite forgive you. You know that I need you continuously at my disposal."

"Such a sense of fun!" said Miss Partridge.

But the one or two creases she put around her mouth didn't exactly set him in the same category as Jacques Tati. (Or perhaps, with her, they did.) One hand mechanically touched her rigid bleached coiffure—as though there could ever have been a single filament daring to go walkabout—and she remarked with some of the asperity she generally reserved only for the other assistants:

"All right, Mr Wilmot. Thank you. I'll take care of Mr Cambourne now."

Yet she misjudged. Mr Cambourne demurred.

"No, Miss Partridge. I fear I might be thought a Philistine if I allowed you to effect my escape. Mr Wilmot is trying to educate me in the history of the American musical."

The White Queen smiled tightly again.

"Mr Wilmot is sometimes a little too ready to educate anybody in anything. He holds his own very forthright opinions."

"Oh, but in this case I find them invigorating. You and I, Miss Partridge, are not simply old friends, we're old fogies. And I consider it's pleasant, occasionally, to let the fresh winds of youth blow over us."

He looked in his thirties—maybe his mid-to-late thirties—and at least fifteen years her junior, but this coupling of themselves was clearly not to her taste.

"As you wish," she said. "I'll leave you then to Mr Wilmot. However, should you require any advice that's possibly less invigorating—although marginally more experienced—please don't hesitate to call."

She withdrew, with yet another smile suggestive of ulcers, then went to stand by the cash desk, near her particular crony Mrs Gee.

"Oh dear," observed Oliver Cambourne, quietly. "I'm afraid I didn't handle that too well."

"I thought you were extremely tactful."

"Did you now?" He glanced down at a book on the table in front of us. "I don't believe I've seen you here before."

"I only started some ten weeks ago—and to begin with I was up in the stockroom."

"Are you planning to make a career of it?"

"No, not at all."

"I find that reassuring."

"In the evenings I'm writing a novel."

"Are you indeed? Free of strain and lapses of taste—where little or nothing appears to have been left out?"

"I'd swear you've had a peek at it."

"Yes ... Well, now you'd better help me choose a few novels not quite so comprehensive nor, I feel sure, nearly so interesting."

He explained they'd be small gifts to sundry strangers who in some way had been supportive; either to him or to his mother.

"And I'm convinced," he said, "you're going to be resourceful."

I, too, was convinced of it. I suggested a score of titles—kept going to the shelves for older publications—trying to stick to the ones I knew but expressing equally pithy judgments about those I didn't (which was fraudulent but fulfilling; it was just as well he'd stipulated fiction), every so often admitting, for the sake of credibility, that I hadn't actually read one. Three or four times, without meaning to, I looked up to encounter Miss Partridge's unremitting glare and knew that the last fifteen minutes had cost me her patronage. I didn't care. The signals she kept emitting seemed every bit as noticeable as RKO's. Even in the space of a few seconds I saw two of the other assistants glance from her to me and back again. I saw the shop manager, on his way to the music department, look curiously in our direction.

I felt that all we lacked was the lad with the clapperboard.

In the end, Oliver Cambourne bought six copies of a recently published book entitled 'Daisy and Sybella'. I hadn't even mentioned it.

He wanted them to go on his account. It was a Chelsea Embankment address.

"Do you deliver?"

He must have known we didn't.

And the book was relatively short—even a dozen copies wouldn't have been that heavy.

"But I could drop them round if you like." I had aimed to keep my voice fully as casual as his.

"Very well then. If you're sure. This evening?" We agreed on seven o'clock.

Then he nodded and walked briskly across to Miss Partridge. She didn't appear too welcoming. After that he left the shop. He stood on the kerb for about a minute before an empty cab drew up. When he had driven off I turned and sent Miss Partridge a tentative smile.

But she ignored it.

CHAPTER 2

I arrived at the Embankment late, partly because I took too long in my bath and partly because ten minutes after leaving my flat I had to return to it—I'd forgotten to bring the books! This was annoying but it was also mildly amusing. "Keep the fellow in suspense," I declared, whilst waiting for the taxi I had now decided I would need to take. "Operation Insouciance!"

The block where Cambourne lived was a modern one. Having identified myself over the intercom to a male voice which wasn't his, I walked across a vestibule thickly carpeted in aquamarine—passed a tank full of weird darting fish and willowy vegetation—stepped into the lift and pressed the button for the top floor.

A manservant in a black jacket and finely striped trousers awaited me. "Good evening, sir."

A person of slight build and medium height, perhaps fifty, perhaps thirty-five, he had a noticeably unlined face, a thin coating of slicked-down dark hair, with a parting (dead straight) at its middle, and the sort of fingernails that—when he held out his hands to take first the parcel, then my raincoat—nearly made me wince, to see how brutally their half-moons must have been tortured into place.

"Mr Cambourne is expecting you." He handed back the books.

The flat was a fittingly luxurious part of the great luxurious whole. Yet surprisingly it made me think ascetic. Acres of clean uncluttered space, oatmeal carpeting, white walls: in the sitting room, the rich blue of floor-length velvet curtains and the dramatic use of colour in all of Cambourne's paintings ... I assumed that they were his. A low fire burnt in the grate; warm pools of lamplight further prevented the room from seeming cold.

"Good evening, Mr Wilmot." Oliver Cambourne rose from an armchair to the right of the fireplace. "I trust you had no trouble getting here?"

"None at all. I came by cab."

He held out his hand and I shook it. "Thank you for bringing these." He placed the books on the mantelpiece. "Now ... what will you have to drink?"

I chose sherry, despite noticing it was whisky in his own glass. I was well aware my palate required an education but didn't think this was the time to start giving it. Supposing I were to take some absentminded sip ... and he were to witness my grimace of surprise?

"Sweet or dry or something in between?"

"Dry, please." In fact I preferred it sweet.

"James. A dry sherry for Mr Wilmot."

For some reason the servant made me uneasy. As he deftly set a small table next to my chair—on the opposite side of the fireplace to Cambourne's—then placed my drink on it, I felt doubly glad I hadn't yielded, in front of him, to what I realized would have been a solecism.

He addressed his master. "Will that be everything, sir, for the time being?"

The man departed, closing the door with care. I immediately relaxed. I said: "I love this room."

"Thank you."

"I imagine that by day it looks out across the river?"

"Yes, by night, as well. Especially when the curtains aren't drawn."

I thought I could have expressed myself a little better but never mind. Operation Insouciance!

"You'd miss it if you went away."

"What? The river? No, I'd probably take it with me."

"Wouldn't that become expensive?"

"You mean—my having to bribe the Port Authorities?"

"That, too, but I was thinking more of your having to bribe Pickford's."

Then I left my chair and went to look at his paintings—conveniently, they were signed. Like the woman at Drury Lane, I wasn't sure whether I liked them or not but there was one in particular which intrigued me. I asked about it.

"Oh, that? The scene on the rooftop? Well, the boy to your left," he said, "the one who's being held by the policeman as a shield against gunfire ... that's Derek Bentley. Do you know of him?"

"Vaguely. Wasn't there a shooting? Some ten or twelve years back?"

"Six," he said. "It was 1952."

"I was still at school in 1952."

"He was a nineteen-year-old illiterate—nearly a mental defective—who was executed for a killing done by a friend of his. The friend was too young to be hanged and it was said that Bentley had encouraged him. There was a reprieve petition signed by thousands."

Oliver Cambourne gave a laugh, whose bitterness surprised me.

"But for some reason it pleased the Lord to harden the heart of the Home Secretary."

Cambourne came to stand beside me.

"That fog enveloping him," he said, "isn't meant to be a representation of the weather, but rather of his state of mind ..."

We stayed gazing at the picture for maybe a further minute; and I thought about this essentially innocent young man being led towards the gallows.

"Did you know," he said, "that throughout this decade, here in Britain, we've been hanging somebody under twenty-five roughly every two months?"

I stared at him. "No. Is that true?"

"Roughly every two months."

But then he gave a shrug. And almost at once his manner lightened.

"The question is—is the Law right? Come and sit down again and tell me if you, personally, are capable of reform."

"Fortunately I have no need of it."

"Ah. I wonder if Miss Partridge would agree?"

"Well, she would have done, until this afternoon."

"Yes, I am sorry." He got up, took my glass and poured me a second sherry. I stretched my legs towards the fire, crossing them at the ankles. We were quiet for a while. "Well, this is the life," I said. "Epicurus would approve!"

"Oh, yes? Why?"

I was disconcerted. "Wasn't he the one who said that pleasure was the thing we should all aim for?"

"No. That's only what he's been reported as saying. In truth he was an abstemious fellow who taught that peace of mind is the highest sort of happiness—and that therefore one should invariably strive after virtue." He smiled. "I'm not quite sure where that leaves us. Are you?"

I resolved to treat this as rhetorical. I looked into my glass and meditated on another form of the same question. Where do we go from here?

"Oh ... incidentally. How much was your taxi?"

So there, already, was my answer. This was where we went from here. I must have proved a disappointment: dismissal after the second sherry.

I was aware of sounding terse.

"No, that isn't necessary. I could have come by tube." (Begin as you mean to go on, I had told myself airily—somewhat discounting the fact of my lateness, and that it had been my intention to use public transport.)

"But I'm very glad you came by taxi."

"Well, in that case, it was eight-and-six."

"Including tip?" Still sitting, he rummaged for the coins in his trouser pocket.

"No. Ten bob with tip." I stood up, accepted the four half-crowns, slipped them into my own trouser pocket, half-turned towards the door. "Do you know where James would have put my raincoat?"

"Surely you're not thinking of leaving?"

"Well, I don't want to take up your time. I've brought the books. And doubtless there are things you'd like to be getting on with."

"But do you wish to leave?"

"As I say, I was thinking more about you."

"Have you eaten?" he asked.

"No, but ..."

"Well, nor have I—and there's a nice little place around the corner. Why, we haven't even begun yet to talk about your future. Another drink?"

Instead of answering the question, I repeated the statement. "To talk about my future ...?"

"You think that presumptuous?"

"No."

"I don't feel it is, either—not really—because ..."

"Because ... what?"

But he had evidently changed his mind.

"I wish I'd thought of asking you to bring your novel. I'd like to have looked at some of it."

"I've only written fifty-one pages—too much of my time, recently, has been spent on wallpapering!"

Then I smiled, as I went back to my seat.

"Yet on the other hand my writing's not large and the pages are foolscap."

"Is it good, though?"

"Who knows? All I can say is, when I'm working on it, time speeds up like a champion sprinter. I go to bed late, often can't sleep, have to get up to do some more; then suddenly it's four or five in the morning! Therefore, if sheer excitement can be seen as any sort of a guide ..."

"Fair enough. Forget about letting me read it—me, or anyone. The thing is for you to think it's good ... and also, obviously, to have the chance to get on with it. What do they pay you at the shop?"

I told him.

"Not princely. You could make a lot more if you were modelling."

"What sort of modelling?"

"Every sort. Advertising. Fashion. Art school. (No, on second thoughts, perhaps not the last: the money would be too basic.) But no reason why you shouldn't do relatively well in either of the first two. Not if you played your cards right."

"I intend to play my cards right."

"Yes. I can believe it."

He regarded me, reflectively.

"I've various contacts I could put your way."

"Thank you."

"And as a matter of fact ... I myself happen to be looking for a model."

I grinned. "Would the pay be any good?"

He didn't answer that. "How old are you?"

"I'll be nineteen in December." I added, "The same age as Derek Bentley ..." I must have had him on my mind: that awful journey to the waiting hangman.

"You're very young," he said. "To be honest I'd thought that you were older."

"Will it make a difference?"

"To what?"

"Those contacts you mentioned."

"I can't see why." He'd been about to swallow the last of his whisky but before the glass had fully reached his mouth he stopped. He asked abruptly:

"You don't still live with your parents, do you?"

"No. My father's dead. And my mother decided to stay on in Folkestone."

He relaxed; returned to that final swallow. "Well, now, enough of this weighty talk. I expect you're hungry. I know I am."


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Man on the Bridge by Stephen Benatar. Copyright © 2012 Stephen Benatar. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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