No 100 - 1985
Valentino, Just Before He Died
Steve the manager is posing on the pavement outside, legs apart, shoulders thrown back, showing off his hairy chest to the passing young girls. I think about sneaking up and aiming a punch between his shoulders. He wouldn’t know what had hit him. He’d be winded, he’d swing round and I’d pull his face against my knee. His nose would explode all over his shirt. He’d struggle but I’d have him pinned to the pavement with my foot on his neck. Nobody would help him because nobody likes him. If he knew what I was capable of he wouldn’t talk to me the way that he does.
Me and the black guy are leaning over the tills, waiting to be told to wipe the counters down. He has just told me that a Burger Hut manager gets £150 a week. He thinks it’s spectacular, one of the best jobs, that your Main and Dad would be proud of you. I tell him any idiot could do it, even him. He says no no no, you need flair and acumen. I know that someone has told him those words because he doesn’t speak like that.
And anyway I’m sure Valentino was on more than that when he was making his first film. The black guy doesn’t know who I am talking about. He thinks I mean an Italian footballer. But then he doesn’t know much about anything, except disco music. When the right song comes on the juke box he can’t resist. He just drops everything and dances on the spot. He doesn’t even hear you any more.
I wipe the counter clean and go upstairs to take my break. It’s nice up there on the second floor after they close it down at five. Nobody bothers you. I sit up there in the dark, eat my burger and smoke two Sobranie cigarettes. Then I do exercises to make my back ramrod stiff. I think about Steve and his acne. It’s getting worse because he’s not happy. Deep inside he knows he’s not so great, he knows you don’t need flair and acumen to do his job, and this worries him. So his face gets spottier. If I were a girl I wouldn’t go anywhere near his face.
Girls look at me when I serve them. That’s because my smouldering gaze is getting better every day. Irresistible. There’s a certain girl who often comes in when I’m on the ice-creams. The manager puts me on this job when he’s in a bad mood. I get my own back by giving away the ice-creams. This girl is about sixteen, slim, arab-looking, with big dark frightened eyes, long black wavy hair. Her hand shakes when I give her the cone and she tries to make out she wants to get away quickly. But it’s my eyes, she cannot avoid my eyes. I could have her if I wanted to I suppose, but I’m not really interested. I’ve got a girlfriend and I want to stay faithful to her, to show how strong I am, but I still like to practise my gaze. It’s a skill that might come in handy in later life, when things get going.
I saw a late-night film at the Classic once. It’s the one where Rudi’s hair is slicked down funny all on one side. There’s a scene where he’s all alone with this woman who really fancies him, and thinks she’s controlling him. Rudi looks vulnerable, like a little boy lost. But when he decides to take her he strides across the room, his gaze begins to smoulder, and then she looks lost. But I think Rudi had it planned all along. Underneath all that playacting he was always the boss. I have a picture of Rudi by my bed. I cut it from a book and framed it. His face is brilliant white, tapering down to the fine chin. The light catching his smooth hair makes it look like he has a bald patch. It says underneath, ‘Valentino, just before he died.’ Before I go to bed I study this picture as I stand before the mirror, checking to make sure my smouldering gaze is developing. So far it’s steady, but not dangerous.
One day I’ll buy a rosary and drape it across the picture. It would be only right, a mark of respect for a great man who has passed away.
‘But wouldn’t you like to be a manager?’
I hate Pauline when she talks like this. Sometimes she just doesn’t understand. About Patience and Time, I mean. But I don’t even answer that question any more. She also says, ‘Then you could buy a car and we could go nice places for holidays.’ I light a Sobranie, turn my profile to her, and calmly puff out a cloud of smoke, as I imagine Rudi would have done. The trouble with Pauline is that she doesn’t have enough faith in me.
I met her in the perfume department of Debenhams where she works as a sales assistant. I was out one Saturday looking for a new aftershave. I saw her potential straight away. We chatted and I pursued her with my eyes. We began to go out together. She has the kind of old-fashioned face that I like, and now she wears the kind of clothes that I like. I persuaded her to go to the Oxfam shop where she bought a flapper’s dress, a turban hat, and low-heeled shoes. I got her to put lots of make-up on the eyes, like a panda, and to wear suspenders. She said she felt silly. I told her she looked like Pola Negri, Rudi’s girl.
We make love every Saturday night when my Mam and Dad are out at the Labour Club. The first time was terrible. There was blood on my parents’ continental quilt, Pauline was crying, saying I’d hurt her. I’d been planning it all day, how she’d feel, the things I’d say. But like Rudi on his first honeymoon I felt small, depressed and insulted. I didn’t tell her it was my first time too.
It got better in time though. For me and Pauline sex is always mysterious, because I make it that way. It’s not just something you do. ‘No matter what girl you’re with, the most important thing is the number of webs of fascination you weave.’ That sentence came to me when I began to study girls at school. I like it. Webs of fascination.
Every Saturday night I buy a bottle of Campari and dress up in my tweed hacking jacket and trousers, white shirt with stiff collar, black shoes with spats, the thin tie with the stud. My hair looks good greased back, it shows off my eyes. We listen to some old 78s and I pretend we’re in Falcon’s Lair, Rudi’s house. After two Camparis I start to weave webs of fascination. I stub out my Sobranie and loosen my tie. Pauline leans her head back and I kiss her, first on the mouth then on the neck. I tell her things like ‘Making love is like two souls touching.’ I undo the top two buttons of her blouse but I don’t kiss her breasts. I linger on her neck and gently nibble her ear. When her skin begins to burn I stare into her eyes till she opens them. Then I lead her into my parents’ bedroom. I undress her slowly, leaving on the stockings, and carry her to the bed. Then I undress myself, taking my time with another Sobranie, placing my cuff links neatly on the table, folding my trousers carefully to keep the crease, draping my shirt and jacket over the back of a chair. Pauline’s arms reach out to me as I walk over to the bed. She says I’m the only one.
When my parents come home we pretend to be watching TV. My Dad is always drunk on Saturday night, that’s where his redundancy money goes. He doesn’t speak, just sits in the armchair smoking a cheap cigarette, letting the ash drop on to his suit. My Mam sighs, says she wants to go to bed, that she’s worn out. The make-up is clogged around her eyes. He gets up out of the chair and stares at me with his red eyes, as if he wants to say something nice. But he doesn’t.
My father was good-looking once. He didn’t always have a beer belly. He was a really sharp dresser. My Main has a photo of him, taken in the country when he was a young man. He is leaning against a gate, smiling, his hair greased back like mine. I like the way one leg dangles easily over the other. He looks like he owns everything in the photo. My Mam said all the other girls were jealous when they started going out together, because he was so good-looking, and he had the best report from the Army, and he was going to be a special person.
But he ended up staying in the car factory. I don’t understand that, he should have been strong…I know he worries about me. I heard him talking about me once, to Mam, about school, about me being simple. But I don’t mind. He’ll be proud of me one day, when things get going, when I decide to make a move. He won’t think I’m simple then.
Of all the customers who come into the Burger Hut it’s the students who get to me the most. The rich posh ones who say ja instead of yes, who wear expensive clothes, and who don’t look at you unless you give them the wrong change. They pull out wads of notes, but they argue about pennies. Oxford is not their town but they act as though it is. They make me nervous, the tall blond ones with horsey faces and ugly blue overcoats. If you smile at the girls they close their eyes and pretend they haven’t seen you. The boys talk like the politicians on TV.
I saw one of these students being beaten up once. I was on my way home from the late shift. Two blokes had him pinned against the wall while another one nutted him over and over again. There was blood all down the front of his coat and he was shouting no no no, but they kept on hitting him. I lit a Sobranie and watched till the police came. The late shift on Friday is my favourite shift. We stay on till three in the morning cleaning everything in sight, taking the drinks machine to pieces, the sauce and mustard guns. Everyone picks a job and gets on with it. All except for Steve the manager. He sits in his office at the back pretending to be busy with the till rolls, but most of the time he’s slumped over the desk with his head in his hands, worrying about his life and his acne.
The music plays over the speakers just for us. After I’ve finished mopping the eating area it looks like a polished dance floor. Sometimes the prostitutes come in and dance. Steve tells them to go away but I invite them back again. Some of them are as beautiful as film stars. I think that what they’re doing is wrong. If they can act like that with men they should become actresses. I don’t understand it.
When it’s time to go I always hang around the office to taunt Steve. I offer him a Sobranie and he snatches it out of my hand. I don’t mind. I step out on to the street knowing that though he is the manager I am better than him. I think he knows it too and this is another reason why he puts me on the ice-creams.
Walking home through Oxford I dream about my future, of coming back here after I’ve made it. I will return at this time of the night in a car as wide as this road and park it outside the Randolph Hotel. All the staff will call me sir, knowing that they will receive a big tip. I won’t have the same problems Rudi had. When he went back to his village he didn’t feel at home any more. I will have a party at the hotel with my Mam and Dad and all their friends. Pauline will look like a princess, my father’s face will be red and smiling. The rich students will look dreary next to me, in their shapeless grey trousers and ugly blue overcoats. My overcoat will be beige cashmere, well-made and elegant. I will wear a slave bracelet and a gold ring. My Dad will say nice things to me and laugh about the time he said I was simple. My Mam will cry.
My Dad said I was simple because I had trouble with the careers officer at school. All the other boys wanted to be electricians and welders like their fathers. I told him I didn’t want to do anything because I knew he wouldn’t have believed me if I’d told him the truth. He had spiky hair and bad breath. He read out a list of trades but I shook my head at every one, and smiled to let him know I wasn’t trying to be funny and that he shouldn’t worry about me. He asked to see my Mam.
My Mam started to cry when he told her, so he began to talk like a doctor. ‘No no,’ he said. ‘It’s not like that. It’s just a test. We send lots of boys to the Educational Psychologist. It’s really nothing special.’ Which wasn’t true, because I was the only one I knew of to be sent there.
The Educational Psychologist was an old man who looked like he just wanted to be left alone. His waiting room was empty. Half a big cigar was burning in the ash tray. He was so fat he couldn’t breathe properly. He made me play with bricks and say what these blots on paper looked like. When I told him it was silly he ignored me, so I told him again, only I got carried away and said if they’d tried that with Valentino he’d have beaten them with his bare hands. He smiled when I said that and asked if I meant Rudolph Valentino. I said yes and he said he knew a lot about him as old films were a hobby of his. I told him about the book I’d found at a jumble sale, and how my interest had gone on from there. We forgot about the bricks and talked about Rudi for an hour, though I didn’t tell him about my plans. I said Hollywood never appreciated him, that he had wasted his talent on those people, and that was one of the things that killed him.
Afterwards he said he’d tell the careers officer I was all right and not to worry. I liked that old man. He laughed very loud, as if he hadn’t laughed for a very long time. He didn’t really want to play with bricks and blots on paper. He didn’t want to be there doing that silly job.
It won’t be long now. My back is ramrod stiff and the arab-looking girl smiles at me a lot. Soon I’ll know what to do, which moves to make. My eyes are clear, my gaze smoulders. I’m learning to dance from a book I got from the library. Me and Pauline practise together in my room on Sunday evenings. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I like the way my head snaps back when we tango. Sometimes Pauline giggles and I have to slap her. She cries then and I kiss her and tell her I’m sorry. It’s all part of my act. This kind of thing will come in handy in later life.
The Burger Hut is getting to me, making me think the wrong things. Last night on the till I wasn’t my usual self, I didn’t think of Rudi once. I found myself thinking about hamburgers, how many, the different types, acting as though I really cared. I handed each one to each customer, pretending it had been especially made for him or her. Normally I like working on the tills. It’s the best job of the lot because you don’t have to think. If you do your mind does funny things. You think the man asking for the double burger has already been in three times, and that he’s doing it to make a fool of you. When you look in his eyes you can’t see anything because he’s so good at acting. That’s what you think till in the end you make a fool of yourself, so it’s best not to think. After a while I just become part of the machine, which is OK for me because then I don’t see the faces, especially of the students.
I dream about Rudi then, what he felt like in his first job as assistant gardener when he arrived in New York. Did he get upset when the Head Gardener told him off, or was he strong? I see him clipping the grass, stopping sometimes to stare at a beautiful woman. His hair is slicked down with the brilliantine he bought with his first wage. He tries not to feel small when the beautiful woman looks down on him for being just a gardener. He wills himself to be strong.
But last night something happened. I tried to imagine him clipping the grass but the picture wouldn’t stay. I thought about him just before he died, Pola Negri at his side, not knowing he was ill. How strong he was to act like that, pouring himself a drink, pacing the room, in control, never tense, and all the time he was in agony. He didn’t want Pola to think him weak. I tried hard to think about this but the picture wouldn’t stay.
Today I decided that the best thing for me to do is stay away from the others with their small lives, their disco, their stupid jokes, the girls they’ve been with. I must work hard on my own so that I can leave my mind free to think about other things and not let their small-talk get in the way of my dreams. So I don’t mind when Steve puts me on the ice-creams. I don’t. I can practise my gaze on the girls. The arab-looking girl is mesmerised, not even afraid. I hold her with my eyes for a few seconds more, then look away.
Thursday afternoon one of the company directors comes into the Burger Hut. He looks at me and smiles, this little American man with an old face and young hair, and goes into the office at the back. After about half an hour I am called in. He tells me there has been an inspection of the Burger Hut, and that I have been noted for my aptitude and efficiency, and that I would make a Trainee Manager. Am I pleased?
I don’t think. I just say yes and stare at his face. I can’t move. Close up his face looks like a dead face, his yellow smile is frightening. I get the feeling he wants me to say more than yes. Steve is looking at the floor and rubbing at an angry yellow spot on his chin. ‘Fhe director says I will wear a different colour shirt now, that it is a responsible position, and that I could earn a lot of money. I can’t wait for him to finish because I want to get back on the tills.
Later Steve comes up to me and says, ‘You’re one of us now,’ smiling in a way that irritates me. I can’t look at his face.
I expected my Mam to be happy but not my Dad. I thought be would understand, about my plans I mean, that I am only biding my time. But he just says I should be content with what I can get. My Main really thinks it’s something special, and she keeps going on about the money, how I can save up for a car and maybe get engaged to Pauline.
I eat my tea in silence, then go up to my room and cry over my framed photo of Valentino, just before he died.
Saturday night I wait for Pauline even though I know my Main has phoned and told her the news. I am ready, the Cainparis already poured, a Sobranie burning in the ash tray, one leg dangling over the other, my hacking jacket neatly pressed. When Pauline arrives she is not wearing her Pola Negri clothes, as I guessed she wouldn’t. She looks like any other girl on the street. It shows what she really thinks about my plans.
I have a headache from smoking too many cigarettes and I feel sick, but I am determined not to show it. I will myself to be strong. 1 switch on the TV and pace the room with my drink and cigarette, not talking.
Pauline begins to cry. She asks me if I want to finish with her, am I too good for her now I’m a Trainee Manager? I tell her no no no, she doesn’t understand. When my stomach turns over I know what I have to do.
‘I have to slip out for a while,’ I say. ‘I won’t be long.’
They don’t know what to do with me because I’m only seventeen. They ask my mother questions about what happened when I saw the Educational Psychologist. It’s a difficult case, they say. Pauline doesn’t come round any more, her mother keeps her away. I’m not sorry for what I did. Someone once accused Rudi of turning American men into homosexuals because he encouraged them to use powder puffs. They shouldn’t have done that. He wrote to the newspaper and invited all the journalists to box with him on the roof of a hotel. ‘You have insulted me, my country, and my family,’ he said. They sniggered and made stupid remarks while he stood erect and confident in his new shorts. They all expected an easy fight. They didn’t know he’d been trained for one of his films by the great Jack Dempsey. He floored them all, one after the other, and left without a mark.
For the last two years I’ve been training secretly at the karate club. I thought it would be something that might come in handy in later life. When I entered the Burger Hut everyone stared at my clothes, but I ignored them. When someone said, ‘Look out, here comes the new manager,’ my stomach turned over again. ‘You’re one of us.’ Steve had said to me. I knew he was at the bottom of all this, quietly wrecking all my dreams.
He was in his office, slumped over the till rolls as usual. He didn’t even look up. I thought of Rudi carefully knocking out the journalists for insulting him, his country, and his family. The first punch made Steve jerk upright, too shocked to do anything. His arm flew up to cover his face but I got there with a second punch. I broke something in his jaw, the bone making a crunching noise under my fist.
When he began to shout I ran out of the Burger Hut. I remember thinking, only three punches. I slowed down when I reached our street and pulled my jacket straight. I stepped calmly into the house, smiled at Pauline, lit a Sobranie, and looked at my empty glass. I took her in my arms, gave her a long lingering kiss, and unfastened the top button of her blouse. She looked surprised. When the police arrived and told her what had happened she cried very loud, her body shaking all over. It’s not true, she said. Not true.
Pola Negri collapsed when she learned of Rudi’s death.
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