SUNSHINE BOY BY STEVEN ADRIAN FREEMAN
Steven Adrian Freeman, originally surnamed Smith (1954-2021) was an English film critic, artist and writer, whose creative output was severely disrupted by troubles with the law over his passionately-held belief that Greek love could be very good for boys. Except for the odd short story (one of which won the English PEN’s Prison Writing competition in 2014), none of his fiction was finished. The following example of his writing is the only two chapters he wrote of a novel called Sunshine Boy. It is implicitly set in 1967-74, but was written at least one decade later, and possibly two or three.
Nomenclophobia, that’s what it is. Or some such anyway. Certain names just make you want to vomit every time you hear them, so bog-ghastly you wouldn’t even want them on your reject list when it comes to naming your own kids. I mean if you had kids to name of course. Anyway Douglas always had that effect on me, and I can’t even think why. Douglas, Nigel, Clive, a whole bunch of them. I can’t stand the smell of rice pudding either. There doesn’t have to be a reason for everything.
Douglas was what everybody else called him, and sometimes even Doug, which is worse if anything, but I always knew him as Mallory. That was his middle name, and I never had any problem with that. His friends thought it must be an alias or something, a nom-de-guerre if you want, but Mallory just said it was one of my foibles. I had to look the word up to be sure what he meant. Words, or what you call things, still has a kind of witchpower even in our own day and age, and that was the crux of the problem for Mallory and his friends, what to call a thing, what other people choose to call a thing. Mallory was a writer anyway, reckoned one of the top four science fiction authors in the country, so he had this special affair with words that came from playing Scrabble in the womb, or that was the rancid joke he bounced off me a thousand times. Mallory makes him sound like an explorer, caked in ice or elephant dung, and he did look a bit that way with his hair prematurely white and his face all criss crossed with character lines like an Etch-a-sketch, but the explorer instinct came out in his books, not his real life much.
Words were the finish of him, if you want to think of it that way. Some people thought it was me, but it was words that shot him off the Empire State. And here I am using words now to try and patch him back together, Humpty Dumpty style, but that won’t work. In the last TV interview when I really spoke about him for the first time, I just got so incandescent (I’ve got this Thesaurus handy) at the nasty-mindedness of the questions, and it all blurted out of me, and nothing was said right. They stopped calling me “the Sunshine Boy” after that, you’ll notice. No more invitations onto Parkinson for me. I don’t care about that. I just want to set the story straight, since it’s my story as much as anybody’s, if you don’t mind.
I was trying to figure out the first of those meetings I actually sat in on. For about a year, when I was first living there, he would arrange it so they’d always happen on days when I was out of the house, doing a shoot or a photo session. It was always at the weekend, so I wasn’t even at school. Then there was some last minute cancellation, though I don’t remember why or what, and I wouldn’t let him shoo me out of the house, however stroppy he got, and I finally met those friends of his for the first time, and they met me. And then there was this awful sitting on sofas business, everybody talking in wide walks around things, and some of them gawping at me like starved hyenas, and then I was crowbarred out of the room by Mallory, saying how it was all dry as bones business talk but I could join them for refreshments after if I absolutely must. I absolutely did.
“Who’s Mallory?” I heard one of them ask as the door shut firmly on my back.
“That’s what he calls me. Always has done.”
“It’s really him isn’t it? I thought you were pulling our legs!”
“Not the sort of thing you advertise.”
“God Douglas, I hope you know what you’re doing.”
“I manage the business side of things for him now. The agent he had was too supine for my liking. They keep him so busy now you wouldn’t believe it. Short shelf life these boy wonders, they want to wring every last cent out of him before his voice breaks, I suppose. I want to keep things as normal as I can against that day.”
There was this sort of wry, bitter laugh from the group then, and I left them to it, whatever “it” was. But you can’t shut a boy out from a thing and not expect him to creep back into it, come willy come nilly. It’s only natural. Secrets are made to be tweezered out, in the best old boring old Enid bloody Blyton mode. I’d have to say I was intrigued. My antenna started twitching, as such.
About three and a half hours they were at their gossip, worse than a blooming townswomen’s guild, but the meeting broke up finally and they spilled out onto the terrace fisting tea and John Player Specials, and some of them with Mackeson or Gin and T, so I moseyed down to nose about and listen, lugging a tray of fancy nibbles around. Saskia was going rampant in the kitchen, harpooning pickled herrings with gherkins and doing vol au vents with what she swore blind was genuine horsemeat. Saskia was Mallory’s cook, and just as well or I’d have starved waiting for him to look a stove in the eye.
There weren’t more than a dozen of them on that occasion, all men and anything from the early twenties to Tutankhamun’s vintage. None of them looked very interesting to me or even particularly comfortable in their own skins. They wore tired out clothes and their faces were kind of bleached and edgy, from spending too much time indoors on their own. It was an odd sort of bunch for somebody like Mallory to want to associate with, and he seemed not exactly at his ease with them either. He was obviously the most well-off by a long sea mile, he had his enormous house and his flash car and such trappings of a man that’s made it, but more importantly he rolled a six on that Dungeons & Dragons attribute “charisma”, where some of these friends of his could barely scrape up a one. Charisma’s not an easy thing to button down, but you know it when you see it, and you know it when you don’t. I suppose I was already starting to size people up with the actor’s eye, sort of, casting them in types. Not too many leading men there. I was a bit disappointed to be honest. If there’s going to be intrigue you expect it to have a bit more flavour to it, like Saskia’s horsemeat vol-au-vents.
There was this one character called Adam who made a bee-line for me as I pottered about the group, earwigging something shocking, and he did seem livelier and more well spoken than the rest. They all laughed at his jokes, and it didn’t take long to figure out he was the leader type. He must have been about 27 with shiny black hair and a Spanish sort of moustache and wasn’t bad looking at all, but everything he said to me was, you could say, laced with a hint of teasing, or mockery, or something up the sleeve of it. I wasn’t sure I liked him. He was just the most interesting out of a pretty dull bunch. And all my earwigging was in vain, because every time I hovered close to a clutch of them with my tray of Dutch munches, they’d stare at me and make clumsy small talk. Saskia told me they have an expression for it in Holland – “laat de dominé passen” – which means “let the priest go by”. Whenever folk used to huddle on street corners for a gossip, they’d always go silent if the village priest appeared, so if there’s an awkward silence in Dutch conversations they say “laat de dominé passen”. Anyway that’s what she told me. I can’t swear to it.
After they’d all left, and bloody Norah didn’t that take forever, I started in on Mallory with my inquisition. I oughtn’t to say “started in”, because he hated Americanisms with his spleen, his kidneys, bollocks and bladder. I spend so much time in the States these days I can’t really help myself, though I do try to keep the infection at bay. I said flat out
“What are these meetings in aid of, every month?”
“Just writer’s stuff” he tried to bat it away, “We do some things together.”
Adults really do think kids are stupid, that we can’t hear degrees of tone and read faces every bit as well as they can, and Mallory couldn’t fool me ever, with his words or with his silences.
“What things? I’d think you might tell me, after all you had to say about ‘being open’.”
“This isn’t part of that. It’s separate. Better that we don’t talk about it Simon, how are you doing with learning that part?”
“Don’t squirm and swivel out of it. I don’t see why you can’t just tell me?”
“I don’t want to discuss it. Anyway not today. What did you make of them?”
“Rum looking bunch.”
He grinned, or winced, or both.
“They are, I can’t deny it.”
“So what’s it all about?” I slid onto his lap, trying that old tack.
“No you don’t. Putty in your hands I am not. Are we going to that film or aren’t we?”
I shrugged, annoyed at him for cutting me out.
“If I were having secret meetings, you’d want to know all about it. You’d insist. You’d be cracking the whip to find out, and don’t I know it.”
“They’re not secret, they’re just private. I did have a life before you, remember.”
“So you keep telling me. Want to play that ‘Truth’ game of yours?”
He laughed out loud, a real hooter. “Under no circumstance. Go and get ready. The film starts at nine.”
It was a proper stinker anyway, which didn’t exactly help matters. They haven’t made a proper sci-fi film since “2001” and that was ages ago. This one was called “Zardoz” and starred Sean Connery in a jockstrap, and a few British actors I’d worked with on TV but it was tripe with a capital ripe. There was this floating Zeus head thing, and the big Gee Whiz surprise of it all was that Zardoz is detracted from “Wizard” and “Oz”. Well bugger me. They keep saying in the papers how the British film industry is “on its last legs” but when you see stuff like that, or that other thing last year with Peter O’Toole, you have to think euthanasia might not be such a bad idea. I had to check the spelling on that one, but just because I use Bamber Gascoigne words here and there, that doesn’t mean it isn’t me writing it. The director was Thingy Boorman, who did a really good film a few years back with “Deliverance”, but it looks like he was another one-shot wonder. If actors with the clout of Connery and O’Toole can’t find better material than this, what bloody chance have I got at my age? It’s depressing. I can’t remember the last time I saw a film that had me hopping in my seat and spilling the Kia-ora. It might have been “Zulu”. God, how long ago was that!
So in the car driving home from Guildford I dug my bone up again. I wasn’t exactly subtle.
“I wish you’d tell me about these meetings you know?”
“To be honest, I’m getting bored with them. Can’t seem to make any progress or attract the right sort of people to join. Seems more like a magnet to lost puppies, and there’s no real drive to do what needs to be done.. I may well quit the group altogether. I’ve been thinking about it for some while now, since I’ve known you in fact.”
“What have I got to do with it? You won’t even tell me what they’re about!”
“Did any of them talk to you..? About your work I mean?”
This was another diversionary ploy.
“Not really. One of them, the one with the Catweazle beard, said he bought all my records. I told him to save his money.”
“Sorry about that. I did ask them explicitly not to say anything, not to make a fan group meeting out of it, just to treat you like any other boy. I expect they over-compensated. But you do have your following there, certainly. I think one of them worships at your altar.”
“What? Goodness no, I was thinking of some of the others. Adam.. probably wishes he had half the contacts you do. I think he’s jealous of your airtime, if anything. He was a press officer for the Open University, a few years back. Quite an academic heavyweight, compared to the rest of us. Adam runs the show, I certainly wouldn’t.”
“He’s been on the box? What in?”
“He has, in.. other contexts. Nothing compared to your exposure, needless to say.”
“Maybe I could help out then?”
Adam revved the Spitfire and got some speed going. I could tell he was getting vexed.
“So have you tagged that script or not? They want an answer from you in days, not weeks. You didn’t answer me before.”
“I will if you will” I replied, all stony faced.
“Don’t sulk. It’s not your metier.”
And we finished the drive in silence.
Bloody Zardoz, I ask you!
They did want a boy for a film Sean Connery was signed up to do a year before all this, and my name was on the maybe list, but it was a pretty small part actually, and I’d just done “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” for the BBC so I didn’t really fancy getting demoted, but it would’ve been nice to work with him. He was trying really hard to get shot of the James Bond shadow and willing to do pretty much anything. That particular project never saw light of day anyway, and you’d be surprised really how many films sort of snuff it just before they go to principal shooting. I’ve been firmly cast now in five that never got made, and one that got made but with someone else instead of me. That was the gorblimey dreadful “Treasure Island” Orson Welles did. I was his first choice to play Jim Hawkins (or that’s what he told me when I met him) and I must admit I was really on for that. We did some screen tests in Spain and script run throughs, and he told me lots of fascinating, grisly stuff about what real pirates were like, but I’d just done that second single, and it generated so much fuss and got my face all over the papers so much that he cried off and cast some shrinking mouse of a boy in my part. I was so heartbroken when I got the call about it. The critics gave his film a right good kicking in the end, and I can’t say I was sorry about it.
You have to be a bit vain if you’re an actor and I can’t pretend I’m not, but Mallory is very strict with me about it, so I’m careful always to wear my modest face in public. Nobody likes a big head, and I don’t either, so I’m always grateful he keeps me in line about stuff like that, even if it smarts when he does it. Anyway Orson Welles had enough charisma to flatten a small city, and a laugh you could hear from a nuclear bunker, and working with him would have been special for me, but that’s how the cookie crumples. I even told him some private stuff of my own, through billows of giant Cuban cigar smoke, and he listened like a Pope. I don’t think it was that that made him drop me, it was all the pop thing publicity. He didn’t want the Bee Gees shinning up his rigging either. He said on the phone I’d have to choose. Choose between fame in the charts or making a face on the screen. Nobody has ever excelled at both he said, not since Frank Sinatra. I think he was right though. Just look at Elvis.
Mallory was dotting the “i”s and crossing “t”s on his new bestseller, called “The Changeling”, and Sphere were going to bring out a new edition of eight of his books to coincide with the launch. We always looked over the jacket art submissions together and I liked doing that, being consulted on it, and sometimes he would read me his revisions out loud and ask my thoughts on it, which was always nice of him. He’s the most considerate man I’ve ever met, and he never, never flattered me. Well he did, but not about my acting, or singing, or the dancing. I would always get it straight from the hip with Mallory, no weasel words. That’s why I trusted him so much. You get a bellyful of praise if you’re my age, and fairly nice looking, and you can deliver a knockout performance when it counts. Theatre people are the worst, but the television ones aren’t much better. Darling this and darling that. Makes my teeth ache, it does I’m sure.
“That one’s the best” I told him, pointing to a cracking artpiece which showed the mystery planet of his story from space, the shadow half of it forming the face of his prodigal child. “I wish I could draw like that.”
“You don’t want to be a jack of all trades, with a bit of talent at everything. Remember what that woman wrote about you in the Mail. You don’t think this one is better?”
“God no, too green” I pushed it away, and rolled off his bed to watch fat flies of rain dashing their brains out on the window. The garden outside looked like the Somme or something, but we’d be going abroad inside the week, and it was always like going on holiday even if the work was pretty flat out when we got there. Oh and that columnist in the Mail had written about me, bitchy bitchy bitchy, after I did that dance on Oscar night, “When a child so prodigiously good looking is also a talented singer, a better dancer, and an astonishing actor for his age, I do have to ask if it isn’t rather too much talent for one so young to carry. I have to ask if it won’t all end in tears. The gods do have their own way of cursing the over-blessed.” I didn’t commit it to memory as such, but the cutting’s right here in front of me, to get the quote right. I was fourteen when she wrote that, and only now I know what she meant. But I hate her all the more for predicting it. Talk about back-handed compliments.
I suppose I’m allowed to talk about myself some without having to go the whole hog and make it an autobiography thing, and even if the book is mostly about Mallory the only reason you’re reading it in the first place, like as not, is because my name is on the front. But that’s alright. If you like me, I want you to like Mallory the way I liked him, to see him the way I do, so I can’t really stay out of it, can I? I won’t go back to my early family stuff though. What’s buried can stay there, if you want my opinion. Let’s skip over all that like a rambler hopping cow pats then. All actors are born on the stage, and that’s where their life proper starts. I think Dickens might have said that or somesuch. I never did pay much attention at History. “Simon has perfected the avoidance of work to a fine art” my History teacher wrote in my school report. I laughed for days.
My mother was Dutch and that’s where I get the blond hair from, and actually I was born in a sort of tent in the Sahara, or that’s the rumour anyway, in April 1959. She met my father in Tangiers, long before Morocco became a sort of Mecca for rich Western dropouts. She was teaching English and smoking water pipes, and he was, best I can piece it together, a consular type called an “attaché” and they were both youngish and Bohemoth types. He took her on a camel jaunt in the Sahara and that’s sort of when I showed up. Says everything you need to know about my mother that she went camel-riding when eight months gone, in a place that would’ve took a dim view of women doing anything of the sort. Still she was well cared for at a Wadi I’m not even going to try and spell right, and they moved to England not long after that. They weren’t exactly made for one another, my mum and dad, and got divorced long before that became the trendy thing to do as well. I couldn’t say I knew him much or saw much of him or cared much one way or tother. I still carry his name, Johnson, but I’ve never heard a whisper from him since, even during all the razzmatazz, and he may as well be in Timbuktu, or stone dead, whichever the case may be. I think I might have got my looks from him, and where would I be without that, but all the rest I owe to my mother.
You do wonder what it’s like sometimes, having brothers and sisters and such, but you can’t exactly say you miss them if you never had one to miss. I know there seemed to be a pretty endless convoy of Uncles stopping by to make a fuss of me when I was small, though never so many aunts, and I guess I’ve looked to men for attention ever since. I wish Mallory could have met my mum, because I’d have liked them to like each other, and I might have been able to understand her better, through what his eyes found there. He was so shrewd about people it isn’t true, and she was always fond of slim tall men with some sort of wit about them. It’s a shame, but anyway they never did meet, so.
One of the things she taught me, early on, was to use my body like a stereo, to get the music out of it in 3D. When I made all the usual boy protests at learning to dance she would say “Swimming is dancing, Simon, just underwater. Tennis is dancing, skiing is dancing, basketball is dancing, even football or boxing is a kind of dancing. They’re all different ways of making your body speak. Learn to speak well, that’s all I’m wanting.” So I did, and boy, was she right about that. She got stuck right into the women’s politics thing when I was still young, and I never really understood why she bothered, she never seemed to need liberating from anything so far as I could see, and like Mallory she tried to keep me out of it, never explained it all to me, which is why I resented Mallory so much, when he started down the same road. Keeping me out of it, I mean.
My mother never taught me Dutch, but she did one better, and gave me the Dutch mind, which in some ways is a better one to have than the British one, even though I am British of course, and Americans melt to butter at my accent and proper English manners. Bit tricky to put your finger on the Dutch mind, but it’s a long way from tulips and windmills. They don’t feel superior, never needed to rule the world as such, and don’t go the other way, with a sort of ugly resentment you see in the dumber kids in class. They try to be reasonable even when they don’t like something, they don’t judge so fast as some folk, they’re private like the British, reserved, but more relaxed about it as well. Anyway I said it was tricky to put your finger on it, but that’s part of its virtue. The Dutch language is a bit clumsy and awkward, now that I’ve heard it from Saskia, but the Dutch mind is quick and in a word, civilised. She taught me how to swear at Mallory of course, Saskia did I mean, and it’s always nice to curse someone in a foreign language they don’t know, isn’t it? Ha!
I was mentioning my body so I may as well come right out and say I’ve got a really good one, as it goes, and when I stand in front of the mirror and look at me, I always feel proud of it. I’m not that tall but it’s all sort of in proportion, my legs are strong but not all ugly and muscly like those Tour de France types, and I’ve always been surprisingly strong in my arms too. We did archery at my last proper school, before the stage one, and I was pretty good at it, to my surprise, since I’m bloody hopeless at darts. You need strong arms to draw a bow right, and Mr Hengies the teacher was even more surprised than me. I beat all the class sports freaks, the ones they call jockeys in American schools. Best part of my body though is my bum, the way it really curves out like a gun turret on a flying fortress or such and such. A bay window bum, Mallory says. If girls can be proud when they’ve got nice marmeries I don’t see why a boy can’t be proud when he’s got a nice bottom. Anyway I do and I am, and it didn’t take me long to notice how men on the street would swing their heads as I went by. Kids pick up on that sort of thing real fast, like I said before. But it was the shape I’ve got that, if you like, gave me my first break, and got me into fashion modelling right off when I was just turned 8. You’ll find me in those old Marshall Ward thingies, all you hoarders of Marshall Ward thingies, and that’s a kind of acting too. Mallory says a lot of Hollywood boy stars from the olden days got started through modelling, so it’s not just me. Anyway, so I did that.
The catalogue (that’s the word I was after) led to a small local stage part at the Rochester, and then a bigger one, then some really good ones, at the Meadowcroft Theatre, where a friend of my mother’s worked up the costumes. We were living in Harrow back then, or just outside it actually, and I sort of took to stage acting like a dolphin to seawater. They had me in “David Copperfield” for Christmas. Not really me but I did OK as it goes, except for that sodding cane scene with Mr Murdstone, because the leather padding I had down those breeches it kept riding up my shirt, didn’t it, and I always caught one or two eye-watering whacks across my own cheeks, so that part of my performance was even better than in rehearsal. I didn’t tell anybody, they were so singing with compliments at my acting but Jesus, I smarted after. I showed it to mum and she gave me this long look and said “It isn’t a game you know. Either take it seriously or find something else.” I didn’t know it then but the Meadowcroft was still only amateur theatre really, or semi-pro, but the old peculiar who played Micawber was better than any of the television ones, I’m telling you. He was such a natural for it, and he taught me a lot of useful stagecrafty things. Arthur MacIntyre his name was, though he’s dead now I think. Sent me a beautiful telegram when my first proper film role was in the West End and that. I shan’t say what he said but it was so nice of him, me just twelve and he’d been acting his whole life since the war, and never a chance to make his name, and there are so many like him, better than I’ll ever be, who never got the breaks. Arthur had a rabbit called Muswell Hill that always sat at the mirror watching him make up, so I would bring it lettuce because it didn’t really have the teeth for carrots anymore.
“Turn of the Screw” was after “Copperfield”, and I did the Miles part, but that was a bit boring if you want my opinion, and I didn’t have all that many lines, and it didn’t sort of make sense to me, the boy dying just because he has to say good riddance to Quint’s ghost. But Arthur had taught me some stuff, as I said, and I put all I had into the dying, to make it look real and not a bit like stage dying. That was the first time I died, in a play or a TV production I mean, and it makes you feel odd after. It should make you feel odd after, if you’ve done it right. I don’t like the dying parts, if I’m honest. The local paper critic wrote me up a treat, and I saved that one: “Meteors don’t rise, so I can’t quite imagine where the phrase ‘meteoric rise’ came from, but if I’m any judge of quality, and I certainly am, then young Simon Johnson is a sure thing for the West End stage or the R.S.C. A face to watch there, and you did read it here first. The scenes of him with Quint are genuinely disturbing, and there’s a glint in his eye with the governess which conveys the requisite profane knowledge without tastelessness. But watch also how he moves on the stage, not in the way of a forward child trying to upstage the leads, but with innate grace and self awareness that makes me certain he is a magic dwarf.” Ha! I loved that last bit especially.
It was in the fourth week of doing “Screw” that a BBC producer, Marsha Welles-Emerson, was in the front row and came round to the dressing room after. She told me she was in children’s programming, and said the usual “didn’t you do well” kind of things, but she had a lot of questions about my family and hobbies and school and that, just to make me talk really. She asked if I had an agent and I said my mother handled all that. Then finally she said “Why do you like acting, Simon?”
I knew that was the first proper question, and thought it over properly, getting changed while I thought.
“It’s like.. It’s like having other lives, not just the life you’ve got. It gives you the chance to get in someone else’s skin, get right in it, and even if it’s not a comfy fit, it’s still really interesting.. It’s like going on holiday from yourself for a bit. I think that’s part of it.”
“You look like a boy who likes himself?” she said, a bit on the acid side.
“Oh I do” I made a sheepish smile at her, “But that doesn’t mean I don’t like other people. I like.. trying other people on for size, if that makes any sense of it.”
“Do you read a lot? Outside of school I mean?”
“No time really. Not much of a studier me.”
“Another way to get in someone’s head. Reading books.”
“Oh. Yes but, the fun of it is putting their skin on. Living in their skin for a bit. I’m not much good at explaining myself, sorry” I shrugged, and gave her a cheeky grin. She went away and we heard nothing more from her, so I figured I’d given the wrong answer, and then a month or two later I was invited to meet another producer at Broadcasting House. “Bingo!” I said when mum showed me the letter. That was a phrase I’d picked up from the Quint actor, Lewis something.
The first time you go up to Broadcasting House, I’m sure it’s the same for everybody, you peer round every corner expecting to be trampled by famous faces. And you usually see some, if you go in the refectory anyway, but it isn’t quite like you expected. It’s just an ordinary sort of office place only with miles and miles and miles of corridors inside. My mum took me there in January to see Mr Padstow, who’d heard about me from the children’s broadcasting lady. I wouldn’t have minded doing a kids programme if it meant getting my face on the box, but he wasn’t in her department anyway, and he spoke to my mother more than to me. I know how to sit quiet and not look smug or full of myself, and that’s what I did, and I answered him with short, polite answers, but I always looked him square in the eye. He had a sort of Satan Blackbeardy beard, ginger and grey, but spoke to me gently enough, and his fingers twiddled at his pen like a circus trapeze artist. He made one joke at me, and it wasn’t a bad one either, so my face opened up in a full grin. That seemed to be the trick he was after, and the interview ended a few minutes later.
“I hope you know what that was all about, ‘cos I don’t I’m sure” I said to Mum as an assistant led us up to the refectory place. “I didn’t even get an audition.”
“You wanted to come. Here you are.”
“Yes but… I was expecting to be given some lines to read or something. Didn’t even say what he was casting for.”
“I think we need to think about finding you a proper agent.”
“Can we afford it?”
That was one of her awful Mummy lines – “We’ll see” – and I gave a loud groan at it.
You probably won’t believe this, I know I wouldn’t, but it was on that day I met Mallory for the first time. We were sitting in the refectory place, not much better than a Lyons corner shop to be honest, except that Dick Emery was parked in one corner with his nose in a paper, and Bob Monkhouse was in a very sort of animated conversation at another table. We’d no sooner sat down closer to the servery, my mother and me, feeling we’d no proper business being there, when he leapt up and pounced upon the next table along, where an old type was sitting with a chimpanzee all dressed up like his nephew. The monkey was knocking tea back from a china cup and banging it on the table. Mr Monkhouse came up, snatched the cup from its hand and smashed it on the edge of the table.
“I hope you don’t think anyone else was going to drink out of that?” he snapped loudly at the monkey’s uncle, who looked a bit shocked and embarrassed. “You’ve no right at all, bringing an animal in here where people are eating.”
“But he’s..” the man started to say.
“Do you have any idea how many lethal diseases chimpanzees carry on their teeth?”
The old fellow blinked, nonplussed.
“This is the BBC canteen, not an apes’ tea party. Show more consideration in future.”
And he returned to his friend at the other table. The old man crept out with his chimp not long after, and I felt a bit sorry for him. He looked like a harmless old thing to me. I was a bit surprised to see someone like Bob Monkhouse be so rude to him, and I was just thinking this (my mouth sort of goes open when I think) when I noticed the other man at his table looking straight back at me. I was afraid for a second one of them would swoop over and start a quarrel at our table too. The BBC canteen must be a bit like one of those saloons in the Western films, with people brawling about and drawing on each other any minute. But he just looked straight at me, until I blushed and looked away.
Mum and I were only killing time really, waiting for the next train back to Harrow sort of thing, since there weren’t any decent shops in the area. About ten minutes later I glanced back at that other table, oh so casual how I did it, and found the man still looking straight at me, while Mr Monkhouse was laughing at one of his own funny stories. Then he gave me this outrageous wink from thirty feet off, and I burst into a giggle. Mum was reading a women’s paper she always lugged about, called Virago or something, and I don’t think she noticed. I just lighted up, so flattered at the attention, but that’s always me. I couldn’t hardly scoot across and introduce myself, but not long after he stood up and went to the servery for another coffee, or to escape Mr Monkhouse. I had some money of my own in case there were any good kit shops nearby, so I told Mum I was getting another dandelion & burdock, and sauntered across to the servery behind the man, trying not to be too bloody obvious that’s what I was doing. He was studying a tray of rock cakes behind the glass when I came up next to him.
“Hello” I said.
“Hello back. D’you think any of these looks like a monkey?” pointing at the rock cakes.
“That one does. A bit” I said, and it did actually.
“I’d better have that one then” he said, and stood up again.
Goodness he was tall, about six foot two at least I should think. He stood aside to let me move in front of him, and ordered the monkey rock cake from the lady serving there.
I got my dandelion & burdock, though I’m damned if I know what a burdock might be, and we waited in line to pay. I was wearing these canary yellow corduroys with the new flair legs thing, and a short brown suede jacket I liked. I sort of hoped he liked it too. I waited a bit, so I didn’t seem like some awful yacketing child, then I smiled back at him and said “Are you an actor as well then?”
“As well as what?”
“As well as me. That’s what I do” I shrugged.
“Don’t know if I do it as well as you. Haven’t seen you do it, have I?”
My head spun around that one for a moment.
“No I’m here to do an interview. Just on radio I’m afraid.”
“What are you starring in, so I’ll remember to watch it?”
He was teasing me, but in a friendly way, so I didn’t mind.
“Ha, I don’t expect I’ll be starring. They haven’t even told me what it is yet.”
And that was the end of that. I never thought to ask what his radio programme was, and we went back to our own tables. When mum and I left, not too long after, I gave him a little wave and a smile, and I felt him watch me out the refectory door in my canary yellows. I suppose it was a month or so after this I saw his face again in the local bookshop, where Mum had one of her meetings she never wanted to talk about. I was left to mooch about the books and magazines for an hour, and there he was, on the cover of a sci-fi magazine. Douglas Mallory Fry. I read the article through twice, then jotted down the names of some of his books, and went and had a look at those in the sci-fi section. Goodness, he’d written loads of the buggers. The dust blurb on one of them said he was “The Hugo and Nebula award winning author of ‘Phaedo’ and another one”. Crumbs, he was really famous, as much as authors ever get I suppose. They didn’t have the other one so I looked at “Phaedo”. I bought it, and the magazine as well, so I guess you could say he made a first impression. He’s told me since what he was thinking, that first meeting at Auntie’s, but I’d be a bit embarrassed to say. Seems I made a first impression too though. Still, I hardly expected to see him again.
“Phaedo” is great. It’s about this robot that looks exactly like a human boy, only his brain works sort of a trillion times faster, and of course he never gets any older. Only snag is something went a bit wrong in the wiring, so the self-preservation part in his brain starts making up a “hostile units” list of anybody who’s been mean to him, and he starts gathering information on all their weak spots. He’s a ticking bomb, but something worse has to happen before he runs amuck. And the really neat part of it is, the man who builds him is Leonardo da Vinci, so it all happens in like the middle ages. Mallory wrote it so cleverly, especially the parts where you see things through the robot’s eyes. The book sold by the lorryload, and Mallory won several major awards for it, like Oscars. Later I asked him why anybody would want to build a robot shaped like a boy in the first place. “Why not?” he teased, “They’d sell like hot cakes.”
“Not if they turned out like your one. Who’s got the film rights?”
He made a sour face at that.
“I won’t be letting them mess up my stories, thank you. I’ve been asked before. Serious cheques have been wafted under my nose but, no thank you very much.”
“But I could play the robot.”
“If I’d known you back then, the robot might have been more believable. No, it couldn’t really be filmed, not unless someone like Kubrick was willing to do it, and he has his heart set on some sprawling epic about Napoleon, so I hear.”
Mum had always told me to keep up the dancing, just in case the stage parts started to dry up, and I still kind of enjoyed it, except that at the dance classes I did on those evenings the theatre was closed the teachers had this thing about ballroom dancing and that wasn’t my cup of tea a bit. I preferred solo dancing, or like they do on “Top of the Pops”, making up a routine round one of the new hit singles. I could do that, only it seemed mostly girls that did it on TV, and their dances seemed to be mostly about what they were almost wearing, not so much about the way they moved. One or two of them were really good though, to be fair. Learning the Samba and the Paso Doble and the So-and-So was about as much use to me as a third foot. I think I would have jacked it in altogether if it wasn’t for that music competition.
It’s true, everything just sort of fell together at once, the way it does sometimes, my first part at the BBC, winning that song contest and then making the record. When I was asked to mime the record in front of the cameras, because that’s what they all do, they don’t actually sing it, I told them flat out no, I wanted to dance to it instead. They thought I was off my trolley, but they let me give a demo to show I could do it. So I showed them. That was all for “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows” of course. I didn’t write the song or anything, but it had a cracking rhythm and a fair lick of pace. Anyway it went straight to number one, but you know that already. And I got to show them I could dance as good as any Pan’s People, and with more clothes on too.
So that was when some old soak at the Daily Mirror came up with his “Sunshine Boy” tag for a headline, and it stuck to me like the worst gob of bubble gum you ever put your foot on. I’d have paid real money to bury that nickname in a secret grave in Epping Forest. I haven’t got a bad voice I suppose, good enough for a candyfloss number like that one, but I’m not really a singer at all. I sort of acted that song same way I’d act in a part, and if it got to number one that’s only blind luck really. God knows there’s been a few stinkers in the number one spot when competition was slack. Anyway so my face started turning up in all those new pin-up magazines for girls my age, and I had to do all these cheesy interviews where they’d keep asking “What kind of girl do you like to be with when it rains?” and “Do you prefer a girl who plays the piano or one who can bake a cake?” and “What would be your three tips for a girl on your first date?” After a few of those I just told them to sod off and let them write their own answers. “Simon was too shy to speak to our reporter but we hear that…” ran the copy for months, until they found some American boy singer to pester instead. Donny Osmond his name is. Very pretty, but if I had teeth like that I’d be afraid of ivory hunters.
But I’ve just read through all this and it’s not much of it about Mallory at all. You can probably tell I’m not actually writing a word of it but using this Dictaphone thingummy of his and getting it typed up for me, which takes about a week. They do correct the spelling (mine’s just chronic) but I told them to leave the rest exactly how I say it, so I hope that’s alright. It’s a bit like interviewing yourself on TV. I’ve done “Parkinson” and “Russell Harty” a few times now and that’s money for eating strawberries, but a bit tricky when you have to do the questions too. I never know which ones to ask myself or in what proper order. Sorry.
I think the best way is if I skip all the usual “how I got to be famous” thing and go right to when we met next, and sort of fill in the gaps from there. I haven’t said much about school up to now, or mentioned Colin and Perry, who were my best friends then, but school is like a disease you hope to get cured of right quick, and the doctors keep telling you they need to keep you an in-patient for four more years at least. My mother had her own ideas about school, which she called “a hotbed of misogyny”, and would have taught me herself at home (she got a PhD from the London School of Economics, so she’s much smarter than me) but she said it wouldn’t be fair to isolate me from kids my own age, and anyway she had to work to feed us both. Happy for me, I was pulled out of school pretty soon after all, when the film and TV work took off, and I wasn’t sorry to see the back of it. There was only one teacher there I really liked, Mr Findlay, who was young and took us for Art and Music. I suppose I’ll mention him some more but let me get back to that author who was ranked after Arthur C Clarke (I met him as well), Brian Aldiss and someone else as the best living UK science fiction writer. Can’t remember the other one.