I said to Big Jobs, “Can you get hold of some Kina Lillet for me?”
Big Jobs frowned. “What the hell’s that?” I said truthfully, “I don’t know. I think it might be some kind of Italian vermouth. Gin and It. It’s part of a cocktail called a Vesper.” Big Jobs raised his eyebrows enquiringly. I had memorised the recipe. “Three measures of Gordons, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet.”
“Crikey. Sounds a bit posh. I don’t think they’ll have it in Agnews. Leave it with me.”
It was like asking the Scrounger in Stalag Luft III for a crow bar.
What is the trick of life?
I had been watching her for weeks, walking dreamily along the open-air corridors of the New Building, always en route to a class. She wore her school uniform with elegance and distinction. Sometimes she carried her schoolbag in front of her, like a child. Her perfect deportment emphasised her tallness. She had long dark brown hair which sometimes she tied up but more often was free. Her name was Jennifer Marsden. She was two years ahead of me in the school. That alone made my worship of her, if touching and sentimental, futile and pointless. How could I possibly ache for someone I had never spoken to and only occasionally caught sight of from a distance? How come she could do this ethereal walk-the-corridor-between-classes thing? I was sure she could come and go as she pleased. Nobody would ever tell her off. It would have been an affront.
And I only ever saw her in the corridor. I fantasised that one day I would walk right up to her and without preamble ask her out. I would say something like this: “Hello. It’s Jennifer isn’t it? I’m James. I’m in 3AB. I know this is very sudden, but do you want to come and see the Beatles in Greens Playhouse?”
And then one day suddenly and without warning I rounded a corner on the first floor corridor and there she was coming in the other direction doing the holding-the-baby thing this time with a big pile of books and papers and precisely as I walked by and essayed a watery smile the pile of books and papers went everywhere and I had about two seconds to make up my mind and as I swithered and as she knelt to retrieve her stuff I had passed her and then a class door opened and a teacher emerged and got down to help her and as I walked on I could hear them talking and laughing and I could feel a great taut chilled fist gripping my heart.
I said to myself, “Never mind. Next time…”
But I knew there would never be a next time. Oh yes, I might by good grace have another chance but it would never be that chance. That particular amalgamation of circumstance, with its unique atmosphere and flavour and poignancy, was lost, irretrievably lost. That was why my heart was so icy. I remembered these famous lines from Julius Caesar:
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
I began to realise why people said Shakespeare had said the definitive word on every human circumstance. I has missed the tide! Shallows! Miseries! Evermore. The thing about a window of opportunity is that it is temporal and fleeting. You have to recognise it, evaluate it, and seize it, all within the space of a split second.
Gone! Yet Hope returns. You say to yourself, okay, you blew it, big time. You stuffed up. There’s no denying it. You can’t undo it and you can’t attenuate its effect. All you can do is forgive yourself; and give yourself another chance. The trick is to recognise the opportunity when it arises. Of course the hard bit is that the next opportunity will not look remotely like the last one, the one you missed. All you can do is keep an open heart and stay alive to opportunity.
“I’ve got the stuff,” said Big Jobs, speaking in flat tones with the expression of a ventriloquist, barely enunciating though clenched teeth like the Duke of Edinburgh. “Found it in a place on Woodlands Road.” He might well have. Pub land. The Three in One. The Halt. The Arlington. “5s 6p. There’s no hurry. Got your bag?” I nodded. The Kina Lillet was passed over in one smooth motion. It was Friday afternoon break. He said, “Going to-night?” There was a party on Banavie Road. I nodded. “I’ll bring some along. You can try it.”
He looked dubious. “Think I’ll stick with the Pally Ally. Maybe just a taste.”
Back home, I was in luck. Mum was out at the shops. I had the place to myself. I’d decided to make the Vespers up rather than take all the ingredients with me. I could reasonably conceal one bottle in my coat, but three… the clanking would have given me away. So I set to with the precision of a laboratory technician. Three measures of Gordons… two of vodka… half of Kina Lillet… I put it all in a thermos flask.
At the tea table, I endured the inevitable interrogation. Dad asked, “Who is throwing this party?” He was a policeman, taking a statement.
“Elaine Cochrane. Girl in my class. It’s her birthday. Quite a lot of the class are going.” Safety in numbers, I thought.
It was a massaged version of the truth. Elaine’s birthday had been last week and it wasn’t really a birthday party. She was in Fourth Year. Elaine’s younger sister had been allowed to invite a handful of friends. But I had an instinct that that intelligence might be dynamite.
“Elaine’s parents will be there?”
“Yes.” I didn’t say, “Yes, I think so.” I didn’t want to give him any room to manoeuvre.
He gazed at me thoughtfully. “You’ll be home at ten sharp.”
It wasn’t a request, or a piece of advice, or a guideline. It wasn’t even an order. It was a statement of fact.
On the way out, Dad cast a critical eye over my attire. I’d borrowed my cousin Johnnie’s bronze shortie coat which I wore over a fawn polo neck, my black jeans, and a pair of brown chisel-toed shoes. He said, “You look like a spiv,” but at least he didn’t order me to change. Mum said, “You look very nice, dear,” and kissed me on the forehead. “Have you got a present for Elaine?”
Once you start lying you have to keep going. “She stipulated no prezzies.” I was acutely aware that my father was an expert in detecting fraud and deception. “See you at ten.”
I sloshed out of the house.
At that time, l I was obsessed with Bond, and was working my way through the canon. I’d reached The Spy Who Loved Me. There was a general consensus that it had been a bit of a misfire from Ian’s pen (for some reason I thought I was on first name terms with the author), and on Desert Island Discs he had more or less acquiesced to this view. Certainly it had turned out to be less of a commercial success, and Ian’s readership longed for a return to the old formula. But I can’t think that Ian was displeased with the result of his effort. I thought it was a wonderful idea, to make the girl the “I” of the story. It appealed to the true Bond aficionado, this opportunity to see one’s hero from another perspective. It was a brave thing for Ian to do, frankly, to imagine what it is like to be a woman. He was always being accused of being a misogynist. He was certainly blatantly sexist. When at work, women were an encumbrance, with their frightful emotional baggage. Look at these remarks about women drivers in Thunderball! Yet somehow he gets away with it, maybe because many of his heroines go against James’ stereotypic notion, and show themselves to be truly gritty. Vivienne Michel is a case in point. I think Ian had this notion (even if James didn’t share it) that men and women were not so different after all, and that if Vivienne spoke and thought much as Ian did, it would sound perfectly natural, come to life, and work. I thought so anyway. But how would I know? You’d have to ask a woman. It raises an interesting point. Do women read Bond books? You might want to ask a woman if she can voluntarily suspend her disbelief, if The Spy Who Loved Me works, if she reads it and is convinced she is listening to the story of a woman. But first you have to find a woman who has read the book. Bond books appear to be the playthings of heterosexual males passing a train journey with a little Kiss Kiss Bang Bang fantasy. Female Bond readers are as rare as female chess players. If Faye Dunaway plays chess with Steve McQueen, maybe that is just Steve’s fantasy. Stroking the bishop’s mitre like that.
The party at Banavie was heaving. It was a party on many levels, parties within parties. There was a party in the big front lounge with the bay window, and the dining room, and on the stairs, and on the landing, and in the queue to the bathroom, and downstairs in the basement rumpus room which had been cleared for dancing. And in the kitchen. Always the best parties are in the kitchen. I got tapped on the shoulder. My heart leapt into my mouth. It was Jennifer Marsden in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. She gestured at my thermos.
“It’s a Vesper.”
She held up her glass.
I poured her a double.
Of course, The Spy Who Loved Me is not only unusual because the female character is the narrator. James doesn’t even appear until two thirds of the way through. It’s not a conventional Bond thriller at all. So what’s it all about?
I had another illicit substance with me, more easily concealed about my person. A packet of Wills’ Whiffs. Ever since I’d seen a picture of President Kennedy out on a yacht looking very macho with a stogie between his teeth I’d thought, yep, that’s the image for me!” Looking back on it, I had some pretty dodgy role models. I was under the misimpression that it was JFK who had said
A woman is only a woman
But a good cigar is a smoke.
He didn’t. But he could easily have done. For JFK, sex was even more purely recreational that it was for James. Actually, James by comparison is almost puritanical, certainly more gentlemanly. JFK warmed to James, had From Russia with Love among his top ten favourite books. And interestingly, his most cherished book, his Desert Island book if you will, was Pilgrim’s Way, The US title for John Buchan’s Memory Hold the Door.
Anyway, JFK didn’t compare women with cigars, although he did have something to say about smoke.
“There’s no smoke, without a smoke machine.”
The target at the centre of the world’s greatest conspiracy, was himself a conspiracy theorist.
So who did promulgate this unconscionable philosophy? About women and cigars I mean. I could propose a likely short list, like a multiple choice question:
A Winston Churchill
B Mark Twain
C Rudyard Kipling
D George Bernard Shaw
E Groucho Marx
In the end, I didn’t smoke my Wills’ Whiff. I felt like too much of a prat. Instead, I bummed a Stuyvesant off Big Jobs.
Down in the rumpus room, shoulder tap again. “It’s Vesper Man.” Jennifer giggled. She was gone. Vespered. “Dance?”
“Sure.” I couldn’t believe my luck. She took my hand and pulled me on to the middle of the floor, centre of the throng. Abruptly the rock’n roll stopped to be supplanted by a ballade, Roy Orbison’s In Dreams. Normally it was one of these little awkward social corners you needed to negotiate, to dance a slow number with a stranger, not be a masher, not be too gauche.
But she grabbed my arms and pulled them round her neck and buried her sweet alcoholic breath in my neck. And for three minutes the world came to a stop. Four minutes. It’s quite a long track.
I love In Dreams. Its form is curious, not like a pop song at all. It doesn’t have two or three verses and a chorus. It just starts with one idea and then moves to another idea, and another, and yet another. Its growth is organic. It is like a symphonic rhapsody. And it works.
And I loved the Big O. Didn’t Elvis say he had the best voice in the universe? There was a disparity between the way the Big O looked and the way he sounded. He sounded superb and he looked a bit geekish. That was why he wore the dark glasses. The shades helped the man to become the voice. And the voice helped me to become the man. Periodically her friends would shriek at her, tease her. “Jennifer! What you doing? Child snatcher!” But she would just laugh uninhibitedly and ruffle my hair. At the end she gave me a big vodka-soaked snog.
I loved Jennifer Marsden for giving me the time of day, not because of her friends, but despite them. She was a free spirit. She didn’t give a damn. I thought of her as a girl who would quite happily have gone into a bar and ordered a pint of lager and drank it, alone, if she felt like it. She had no need to hide behind anybody, man or woman. She was her own dazzling self. And she gave me a moment of stillness, arrival, of blessed release from striving. I would even get home for ten, without remorse.
I retrieved my bronze shortie and struggled through the throngs and found Big Jobs and handed him the thermos.
“Enjoy! Shaken, not stirred.”