Champagne Days & Bitter Nights
Alan L. Marshall
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A penetrating voice cut through the lunchtime roar in the pub. "It's him, isn't it?" carried along the bar to Roderick Vernon. "Him off the telly."
   Roddy huddled deeper into a threadbare overcoat and thought himself invisible. It didn't work.
   "Afternoon, your Lordship," the man added in a matey bellow. "Slumming it with the peasants?"
   Roddy directed a distant and patient smile towards a cheerful, flushed face.
   "Where've we got to?" His unwanted friend said to the barmaid. "Another large Scotch and two port-and-lemon. Having one, your lordship? Champagne cocktail, is it?"
   Roddy glanced down at the last few drops of his half of bitter. "No thanks, old boy," he drawled, bravely playing the expected role. "Have to be pushin' along to the studios, don't you know."
   "Getting a quick bracer down first?" yelled the man, including the rest of the pub in his personal conversation with a television star.
   "Somethin' like that," Roddy said with a vague smile. He tipped half a swallow of flat beer into an aristocratic mouth and turned to leave. He had done quite well – a whole half-hour without being recognized by a fan.
   "See you, your Lordship!" followed him to the door of the pub.
   The street was cold and damp, but at least the rain had stopped. Roddy turned aimlessly to the left and plodded away with no particular destination in mind. Roderick Vernon, actor and television star, was ‘resting'. Worse, he was hopelessly typecast.
   To the nation's viewing public, he was Lord Simon – a struggling, modern silly ass, who muddled through somehow from one financial disaster to the next supported by the dubious activities of a crumbling retainer.
   Mister Brighton, as he was always called, had swindled Lord Simon's father something rotten. Now, a guilty conscience drove him to shield the last of the line from the true horrors of reality. The nation had offered Mister Brighton a grudging respect for his resourcefulness. And Lord Simon's engaging charm had persuaded the audience to laugh at him without malice.
   But the series was ancient history to the cast. Now, Roddy Vernon was drowning in the smothering embrace of his last part. Only the hope that there would be another series made him drop into the role whenever a member of the viewing public recognized him. The ratings for the first series hadn't been spectacular, but it had been run against a flashy American space opera.
   The Head of Drama was still making his mind up about whether to repeat series one, make a second, or just forget Lord Simon ever existed. In the meantime, Roddy Vernon was stuck in limbo.
   He was beginning to hate Lord Simon – almost as much as he hated Colin Seaton, who had played Mister Brighton. Nobody recognised Colin in the street. He had been safely hidden behind the make-up that made him look about two hundred years old. And Colin was working.
   Roddy had, been ‘resting' for three months. Nobody was prepared to cast Lord Simon. He would be too big a distraction. Instead of concentrating on the plot and the brilliant performances of his fellow players, the audience would start whispering about the hated Lord Simon when Roddy made his entrances and wondering when Mister Brighton would appear.
   No, he was twenty-five years old, a star of television and unemployable in his chosen profession. One of his so-called friends had suggested changing his name and having some plastic surgery done.
   The trouble was, not many plastic surgeons would operate for the ninety-two pence that had to last him until his unemployment benefit giro arrived. It was depressing to realize that the man in the pub had spent more on one round than Roddy could allow himself for a month's halves of bitter.
   A taxi honked its horn and squealed its brakes when he started to cross blindly at an intersection. Roddy jumped back onto the pavement.
   "Get you next time, your Lordship," called the taxi driver. "Changing the air in the tyres of the Rolls, are they?"
   Roddy muttered a curse behind a vague smile. Eyes followed him across the road at a break in the traffic. There was ‘him off the telly' in the flesh, incognito, wearing a scruffy old coat that he had borrowed from the crafty Mister Brighton.
   Thin rain began to creep down from an oppressive, grey sky. Roddy realized that he was approaching Albert Bridge Road. As he was still a mile and a half from home, and he didn't want to get wet, he decided to go and annoy his agent until the rain went off.
   Not that Mr. Andras Clifford will see me, Roddy told himself as he started up a steep flight of stairs.
   Leopard-like, his agent lived in the sky. Only successful, working actors would have the strength of body and spirit to attempt the climb. That was the theory behind Andy's second-floor retreat. Roddy Vernon was one of many awkward exceptions to the rule.
   He tapped on a frosted glass-paned door and let himself into the outer office. A welcoming blanket of central heating warmth embraced him. The look in the wide, brown eyes of Andy's secretary was decidedly chilly.
   "Mr. Clifford has a very full diary today, I'm afraid," she said before Roddy could open his mouth. "And he's in conference at the moment."
   "He might be able to spare me a few minutes," Roddy returned with an optimistic smile.
   He lowered himself onto one of the rank of well-worn chairs and turned his attention to the photographs – Andy with the stars, pinned in artful disarray opposite the window with its view of Battersea Park.
   Roddy dressed as Lord Simon in a ‘soup and fish' full evening dress was there. He had slipped from the centre to the very edge of the display. Soon, his picture would be relegated to Andy's filing cabinet of has-beens.
   With a rustle of nylon, the secretary disappeared into the inner office. Roddy caught something about ‘starting it to the right and letting the wind carry it back' while the door was open. Andy was watching golf on the office telly. But his enjoyment was about to be destroyed by the news that he was trapped in his lair by an out-of-work and unemployable television star.
   Roddy could picture the look of irritation on Andy's round face. And the droop of the large cigar that he chewed like an adult's dummy rather than lighting it. Andy was another victim of type-casting. He looked like an agent – on the short side, tubby, aggressive and flattering by turns, with fading red hair and an occasional trace of the Eastern European Jewish accent of his Romanian grandfather.
   The blonde and distant secretary returned to offer Roddy a cup of coffee, knowing that he wouldn't go until he had received some reward for scaling the stairs. If his agent had run out of excuses and apologies for not turning up another part, Roddy was determined to recover Andy's fifteen percent of Lord Simon in cups of coffee.
   He sipped coffee and glanced through a copy of Drama Review until the rain went off. Then he made a graceful exit and headed for darkest Clapham. One advantage of having an agent with an office south of the river was that he could visit Andy on foot and save the bus fare.
   Half an hour later, he was climbing another flight of stairs into a rising vacuum-cleaner roar. All the furniture in the flat's living room had been pushed over to the window wall. Stan was hoovering furiously and singing an irritating jingle about shaving cream. He had just done TWO! commercials and he was disgustingly rich. And also in deadly danger of joining Roddy's hate list.
   Stan heard the door slam and trod on a switch. "Your Lordship! Greetings, old bean," he said with a grin over the vacuum cleaner's dying whistle.
   Roddy glowered menacingly.
   "Sorry, forget the lordship," laughed Stan. "The point is, I'm entertaining tonight. I don't suppose you could manage to get lost until about lunchtime tomorrow?"
   Roddy scooped loose change into his right palm and stirred it around with his left index finger. "I wonder what the Savoy can offer for ninety-two pee?" he said to his worldly wealth.
   "About ten seconds on the pavement outside," sighed Stan. He heaved a small fortune out of his hip pocket and peeled off one of many fivers. "Here's a small loan. Think you'll manage on that?"
   "To get smashed enough to get locked up for the night?" suggested Roddy, who was so out of practice at serious drinking that two pints made him light-headed.
   He retired to his room to put together a survival kit. Stan was paying more than his fair share of the rent, as Roddy had when he had been earning decent money, which entitled Stan to take over the whole place for his romantic interludes.
   There was only one word to describe Roddy's love life – disastrous. Every woman, including his contemporaries at drama school, expected to be taken out by Lord Simon. They expected Roddy to wear one of the three hundred and fifty guinea suits that Mister Brighton had blackmailed out of his tailor. They assumed that they would be wined and dined at an expensive restaurant, and then taken on to an exclusive club or casino.
   They expected Roddy to spend more on them in one night than the dole provided in three months – just because that was how Lord Simon behaved on television and how Roddy had behaved when good money had been coming in. Now, he had no chance of competing with his aristocratic alter-ego.
   Stan was the man with the money now. His five pounds V.A.T. (Vernon Absence Tax) meant nothing to him. He would spend ten times that amount before he dagged his ladyfriend across the threshold of their flat.
   Roddy changed into a slightly more respectable coat and slung his duffle bag over his right shoulder. Once he had persuaded someone to put him up for the night, he would be able to do five pounds worth of putting himself about – showing the flag, reminding the theatrical world that Roddy Vernon was still alive and available for work.
   "You're a good egg, your Lordship," yelled Stan above the vacuum cleaner as Roddy crossed the living room on his way out.
   Roddy rippled his lips in a snarl and slammed the front door. Cold, damp air slapped him across the face when he stepped out onto the street. Two doors down, he climbed yet more stairs and knocked on a pink door.
   Jenny didn't bother to ask him in when she saw the duffle bag. Her sister was there, visiting her, and the settee wasn't big enough for two. Roddy gave her a Lord Simon smile and said thanks anyway. There was always Nigel.
   Nigel live a couple of miles away, on the other side of Clapham Common. Most people thought that he was queer, but Roddy knew that his affected behaviour was camouflage, designed to divert the suspicions of the husband of his Battersea girlfriend.
   Roddy turned onto Clapham High Street and headed for the bus stop. He could afford the small extravagance.
   "Hello, your Lordship," said an old dear with a bulky shopping bag.
   Roddy flashed his Lord Simon smile and thought about growing a beard. Most of Clapham kept an eye open for Lord Simon but few believed that he actually lived there, in a modest flat on Homer Drive. Fortunately, his fans just let on to him and didn't demand autographs, as if knowing that they would get Roderick Vernon when they wanted Lord Simon.
   Running feet approached from behind as he neared the bus stop. Roddy stepped to his left, out of the path of a woman with a pram. The feet caught up with him. Roddy checked his stride. Someone was running for a bus, perhaps his bus. But as he started to turn to look for a red shape, he felt a violent impact. Then he was flying sideways.
   The next thing he knew, he was lying half in and half out of a shop window, surrounded by broken glass and assorted tins.
   He could hear muffled voices but he was too dazed to realize that they were speaking to him. Behind his trademark vacant blue eyes, his mind whirled in circles, struggling to accept that a shop window could be broken so easily. He had always thought of them as tough and unyielding, except to a vandal's brick.
   Hands eased him out of the window frame, first to the pavement, and then onto a stretcher and into an ambulance. The left side of his face hurt. From a long way off, he heard someone tell the driver to give his Lordship a smooth ride. Then the world just slipped away.
   He woke again in a bed, surrounded by blue curtains. Keeping his eyes open proved rather difficult at first. By the time he had mastered the art, a doctor had arrived.
   After ‘Where am I?' and ‘How do you feel?' had been disposed of, and Roddy had followed the doctor's finger successfully with his eyes, they got down to essentials. Roddy would have to stay in hospital at least overnight for observation, which solved his problem over accommodation. As for the two-inch gash in his left cheek, it was deep but unlikely to leave much of a scar. And plastic surgery could be arranged later to wipe it away completely.
   Roddy took the news about his face with a lot more fortitude than the doctor had been expecting. After all, they were talking about his fortune and Lord Simon wasn't covered with dirty great duelling scars like a Prussian fencing master.
   In fact, Roddy was bubbling with inward joy when the doctor left him. A scar! A piece of the flying glass had sliced across Lord Simon's throat. He could play villains now. Lord Simon was as good as dead.
   Curtains wafted. Andy Clifford breezed into Roddy's isolation, cigar first. "Front page," he beamed, tossing an evening newspaper onto the bed. "The flowers are piling up to the ceiling. And I've got you a telly advert. For port. Very Lord Simon."
   While his agent bubbled happily about how he looked after his clients, Roddy scanned through the story under the headline: Lord Simon In Bizarre Accident. The man who had knocked him through the shop window was in police custody for his own protection. Lord Simon's fans had been all for lynching him.
   "Of course," Andy was saying when Roddy gave him his attention again, "you can't appear in the commercial as Lord Simon. Just a well-known TV personality."
   "I reckon I can do a pretty good Al Capone now," suggested Roddy, turning his head to give Andy a better view of the huge dressing on his left cheek.
   "He's marked! The boy's marked!" Andy gasped in horror. "You can have fifteen percent of the scar," Roddy offered him generously.
   His agent dropped onto the bedside chair, his cigar a crumpled mass in his right fist, his face a mask of despair.
   "Cheer up," grinned Roddy with the mobile side of his face. "If they film me right profile, no one will ever know."
   But I will, he told himself as a fifteen percent smile returned to Andy's chubby face.
   Left profile, I'm a scar-faced bad guy. I'm half way out of Lord Simon's clutches. The other half of my freedom will come in time.

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Created for Romiley Literary Circle by HTSP Web Division, 10 SK6 4EG, Romiley, G.B.
The original story © Alan Marshall, 1980. This version © Alan Marshall, 2008