not natural, but so subtly coloured as to deny artifice), gave her a blurred outline, as if she was always viewed through soft focus. The skin of her face still had a softness, probably the result of a lifelong application of skin creams, and, though it sagged a little round her eyes and neck, remained commendably taut, but without that synthetic shininess which is the legacy of facelifts.

The eyes retained the pure blue clarity which had been remarked by Sacha Guitry, Jack Buchanan and Noel Coward, and the unfocused, abstracted stare which the pre-war public had found so sexy. They reinforced the aura of charming vagueness, which her manner of speech did nothing to dispel.

She did not have to wait long in the doorway for her appearance to register. Peter Lipscombe gambolled across from the bar, asked, ‘Everything okay, Aurelia?’ and took her order for a drink. At a slower pace, a very elderly man inched towards her and greeted her effusively.

He was eccentrically dressed in a blue blazer with an elaborate heraldic badge, and what appeared to have been white cricket flannels. His black shoes had the highly polished gloss of a previous generation. An open white flannel shirt revealed a blue, yellow and green cravat, fixed with a pearl-headed pin. The looseness of the cravat accentuated the thinness of a tortoise neck, on which an almost hairless head bobbled uneasily. Face and hands showed the stark contours of the bone beneath, their flesh eroded by the steady wash of age.

‘Good Lord, it can’t be,’ murmured Gerald.

‘Can’t be what?’ asked Charles.

‘I think it is, though.’


‘It must be.’

‘Will you stop being bloody oracular and tell me who it is?’

‘Barton Rivers.’

‘That’s a vaguely familiar name.’

‘Aurelia’s husband. I thought he must be dead by now. He’s nearly ninety, must be. I met him at some charity dinner ten years ago and he seemed so doddery and gaga, I thought he couldn’t last long then.’

‘They’ve been married for ever, haven’t they?’

‘Pretty well. It’s always hailed as one of the great show-biz marriages, giving the lie to all those generalisations about show-biz marriages. No, they must have been married in the early Twenties, because I seem to remember they had a son who was old enough to get killed in the war.’

‘Barton was an actor, wasn’t he?’

‘Oh yes, you’ll see his face in bit-parts in pre-war British films. Did the revue circuit too. Even wrote a bit, I think. Never as successful as she was, and didn’t seem to do anything after the war.’


‘Anyway, come on, what are you hanging about for? Introduce me.’

‘Gerald, I can’t.’

‘Yes, you can.’

When he approached her, he received the full benefit of the misty blue eyes and a throaty, ‘Charles, darling.’

‘Lovely performance tonight, Aurelia.’ It wasn’t his usual style, but somehow the old actress’s charm seemed to demand it.

‘Do call me “Dob”, darling,’ she cooed. She had always been known as ‘Dob’ in the business, but Charles wouldn’t have dared to use it without her express permission.

Even with it, he had difficulty in bringing himself to say the name. ‘Thank you. . er. . Dob. I’d like, if I may, to introduce you to a friend of mine, who’s always been one of your greatest fans.’ Charles hated doing things like this. ‘Gerald Venables. . this is. . er. . Dob Howarth.’

Gerald took her hand and kissed it gallantly, which was just the sort of thing he would do. Aurelia seemed charmed by the gesture and favoured the solicitor with the beam of her eyes, which still, in spite of her age, remained surprisingly sexy. ‘I’m enchanted to think that someone as young as you should remember an old lady like me.’

Gerald glowed predictably, like a schoolboy who had won a prize. Charles tried to work out why he didn’t find the exchange as sickening as he did most show-biz sycophancy, and decided it was because Aurelia Howarth was a genuinely warm person.

‘But, darlings,’ she continued, ‘I haven’t introduced you to my dear old boy, have I? This is Barton Rivers, my adorable husband. . and this is Charles Paris, whom you saw in the show as our barman. . and Gerald Venables.’

Charles was impressed by the way she had got the names exactly right. He also felt, through the theatrical hyperbole, a very strong attachment between the old couple.

Barton Rivers grinned hugely, turning his insecure head into even more of a memento mori. ‘Lovely to meet you, boys. Weather not much good for the Test Match, is it?’

This remark seemed so inapposite at the end of January, that Charles concluded the old boy must now be completely gaga. But then came a wheezing guffaw, which suggested that perhaps the comment had been a joke. Charles chuckled reassuringly.

Gerald was all politeness. Charles often felt in his friend’s company that awful childish gaucheness of being with the boy whose manners one’s mother has always held up as exemplary.

‘I believe, sir,’ the solicitor charmed, ‘that we met at a Variety Artistes Benevolent Fund dinner about ten years ago.’

Barton Rivers chuckled again. ‘Oh yes, must have been a Tuesday. Sun never comes out on Tuesdays.’

This time, surely, there was no doubt that the old boy’s mind had gone. But Gerald was not so ill-mannered as to notice any inconsistency. ‘Yes, I believe it was,’ he went on smoothly. ‘I must say, it’s a great honour to meet you too, sir.’

‘Honour? “What is honour? A word. What is that word, honour? Air”,’ the old man quoted with sudden lucidity. Charles recognised the line of Falstaff and couldn’t help thinking that soon its speaker would die, like its originator, babbling of green fields. But Barton was already off on another tangent. ‘Trouble is, though, the Aussies don’t know the meaning of the word. All this damned bodyline bowling. You reckon there’s a bump on the pitch, do you?’

Gerald replied to this direct question judiciously. ‘It wouldn’t surprise me at all.’

‘Wouldn’t surprise you at all, eh?’ Barton Rivers guffawed his appreciation. ‘Worthy of Noel, young man. Need new young writers with that sort of sharpness. Come and see me after the show one night, young man, and I’ll introduce you to Cocky. Hear that, Dob — he said it wouldn’t surprise him at all.’

‘Yes, darling,’ said Aurelia Howarth, and patted her husband’s arm with infinite tenderness. She seemed totally unembarrassed by his disconnected chatter.

‘Similar thing happened in Paris,’ Barton Rivers confided to Gerald. ‘No one could be sure, but I knew who was behind it.’ He shook his head. ‘One bad apple, you know what I mean. .’

Gerald nodded wisely.

Charles thought he should say something to Aurelia, to show that he hadn’t noticed anything odd about her husband. Maybe something about the dog. He looked without enthusiasm at the little rat body in its shreds of silken fur, and wondered what on earth one says about, or indeed to, a Yorkshire terrier.

The answer was provided by Peter Lipscombe, who arrived at that moment with more drinks. He chucked the little dog under the chin and said, ‘Hello, Cocky, everything okay?’ Cocky bit his finger.

At this moment Bernard Walton came into the bar. He was with a neat forty-year-old man in a grey suit, and he looked worried. More than worried, he looked as if he was in shock. When Charles recognised the man in the grey suit, he thought perhaps he could guess the reason for the star’s discomfiture. It was Nigel Frisch, West End Television’s Director of Programmes, the man who was delaying his decision on the future of What’ll the Neighbours Say?

Nigel Frisch threw his arms round Aurelia and thanked her flamboyantly for her performance. ‘Another winner on our hands,’ he effused. ‘Hello, Barton.’

‘Hello, old boy. Keep a straight bat, eh?’ Guffaw.

‘More news too, Dob darling,’ Nigel continued smoothly. ‘Sure you’ve all been in a bit of suspense over the What’ll the Neighbours situation. .’

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