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In the summer of my second year of university, I was working in the kind of dingy, backstreet pub that seemed to consider the fact of being dingy and backstreet evidence of a sort of triumph of will. The red velvet of the bar stools had been rubbed and blanched to the same dusty grey of the chipped walnut beneath, and the peeling wallpaper was covered in faded photographs of old singers and Hollywood stars so obscure that even Angelica, with her encyclopaedic knowledge of all things recondite and strange, might have struggled to identify them all. The only one I ever recognised was a young Sinatra, the waved hair and pin-sharp features of the Columbia years, grinning down on us with a manic, studio-approved glee. I never liked that photo. There was a kind of detached wildness in it, a dormant energy that had never quite dispersed with the yellowing of the years, and the smile felt like a quiet threat.
Kip had inherited the pub – and the décor – a year earlier, when his estranged father finally succumbed to the brain cancer that had plagued him for half his adult life. He had no experience whatsoever, and almost no idea what to do with a place which was right on the cusp of becoming unprofitable. This was information I had discovered almost embarrassingly early in our association, but Kip could be very free with his emotions when drunk, and he lacked my inveterate wariness with new people. He was Angelica’s friend before he was mine. They were at Cambridge together, and later I found out that they had dated, for a short time, during Angelica’s first year; but neither of them had ever alluded to it in the company of the other, and it was some time into our relationship before she told me, when the studied blitheness of the revelation was a little difficult to swallow. But by that point, the pregnancy was functioning as the ultimate emotional buffer, repelling all attack, and she was clinging to it unyieldingly. When I asked Kip about it, he just looked sheepish.
It wasn’t really the kind of place to have regulars: it was too far into the city centre for that, too far from the concentrated residencies of the outskirts. But neither was it exactly on the tourist trail, tucked away at the back of a jumbled street leading to nowhere in particular, almost impossible to stumble on to by accident. There was the occasional group of students, who could always be relied upon to confuse mediocrity for some nebulous idea of ‘authenticity’, and the occasional undiscriminating – and invariably lost – stag or hen party. But there were rarely more than three people drinking at once. Before long, Kip realised that it wasn’t worth him keeping all six of his dad’s employees in a business struggling to stay afloat. They were all dropped, and I was brought in. He paid ok, and I needed the money.
Directly across from Sinatra was Brock Turley. I knew that it was Brock Turley because it was the only one of the pictures to be signed, in an almost comically neat freehand at the bottom left of the photo. There was a strange, mannered flourish at the end of the ‘y’ that curled back over itself and encircled the rest of the name in a perfect little bubble, a gesture almost childlike in its blend of precision and absurdity. Brock Turley was everything Sinatra wasn’t. He looked out from the photo, it seemed to me, with an expression of mild panic – lips slightly parted, with wide silvery eyes that seemed lost in their own vastness. He had a thin moustache, well-kept but unimpressive. He was handsome, but in a stiff, self-conscious sort of way. He looked, for all the world, like the second understudy rushed on to stage a minute before curtain.
“Don’t see many of them.”
“Died young, see. That’s rare, that.”
“Don’t know much about him, to be honest.”
The man bit his lip thoughtfully. “He did Westerns.”
The man’s glass was smeared with oily rings, as though he had been sweating, which flared strangely in the cold blue light.
“Don’t watch many Westerns, really.”
The man nodded decisively. “He did Westerns,” he said again, as if that settled the matter.
When I got back, Angelica was already in bed, reading a book on Frank O’Hara with the look of mild disdain that she usually reserved for bad novels. There was a half-finished bowl of pasta on the dresser, and a long-stemmed wine glass lolling rather pathetically under the bed.
She smiled without looking up. “Work all right?”
“There’s some carbonara left in the pot.”
I picked the glass up off the floor. “Did you have a drink?”
She hesitated. “I did, yeah. Jeanie was round.”
There was a stale chemical smell in the kitchen, a little like nail polish. The hob was on, at its lowest setting, and the plastic handle of the serving spoon was melting quietly in a little puddle of white goo at the edge of the ring.
“You melted one of the spoons.”
“On the cooker. The one you were using for the pasta, the big plastic one.”
“Oh, shit. Sorry. Blame Jeanie, she was on clear-up duty.”
The carbonara was still warm, at least. I grabbed one of the lagers from the back of the fridge and headed back into the bedroom.
“I had to chuck it.”
I undressed in silence. Angelica put the book down and began to watch me with a vaguely curious look.
“We were wrong,” she said, rather suddenly. “About… what we thought last week. I went to the doctor.”
In all my years of knowing her, I had never been quite sure if her ‘we’ was supposed to be inclusive or exclusive, which was probably the point.
“No, I’m not.” Her voice was very steady, almost deliberate.
“I don’t know. They’re not one hundred per cent reliable.”
“They’re pretty damn close, aren’t they?”
A note of irritation began to creep in. “I don’t know what to tell you. We were wrong, that’s that.”
And that was that.
Though neither of us ever really acknowledged it, Angelica was the reason I had come to York in the first place. We had known each other since school, slept together once in Sixth Form, went our separate ways, then reconnected a few years later at a friend’s wedding. In the interim, she had done four years at Cambridge and was applying for PhD funding. I had done four years staying with my parents, doing odd jobs and trying not to make so much money that developing concrete plans about my future would become unavoidable. Apparently, we each managed to find something enviable in the other’s situation, and a year later, I was enrolled on a degree in History at York, where Angelica had alighted for her PhD. By my second year, we were living together.
Angelica always seemed to find something vaguely embarrassing in the idea that I had changed the whole trajectory of my early twenties for her, though, in reality, it had never been the act of homage she had taken it for. I needed to get away from home, and she was my excuse. But that did something permanent, I think, to her idea of me: here was a man who could, quite seriously, without compunction, without ironizing self-regard, and with the full force of youth, change his life for love. It was a state from which I would never quite recover in her eyes.
“Have you ever heard of Brock Turley?”
“He was an actor, in the sixties. I think he made Westerns.”
Angelica looked up from her computer and frowned. The morning sun curved in through the skylight and slanted obliquely through the rough netting of her hair. “That sounds made-up.”
Almost ten minutes worth of Google searches had given me nothing, until, on the fifth page of results for ‘brock turley actor westerns’ I found an entry for ‘Turley, Brock’ in an absurdly antiquated website styling itself as the ‘Dictionary of National Cinematic Biography’, a short line of text on a vast bed of beige that had clearly lain undisturbed for well over a decade: Brock Turley (1932-1965) was in westerns. No further information, no link to a Wikipedia page, not even a picture. For comparison, I tried the Henry Fonda entry in the same website: four pages of biography, plus a gallery and a filmography. Brock Turley was in westerns. It was obscurely depressing, the thought of an entire life hidden under the brutal insouciance of those five words.
“Why does it matter particularly?”
“Doesn’t, really.” I snapped the laptop shut. It did sound made-up. I kissed her on the forehead, which she accepted unprotestingly, and left for my seminar.
Brock Turley was born Barry Thompson on the fourth of August 1932, in Billericay, Essex. His father was shot down over Arnhem in 1944; his mother worked in a chemist’s. Turley’s acting career began in 1953 when, filling in for a friend, he took a small role in a production of Richard II at the London theatre company where he worked as an usher. He would go on to play the title role when the production was revived just three years later, making him the youngest Shakespearian lead in the company’s history. In 1958, he swapped the grimy backstreets of Soho for the bright lights of Hollywood, with his wife and new-born child in tow; it was at this point that Turley took up the nom de plume by which he is most widely known. He appeared in six movies, only one of which made any commercial impact: Frank McDonald’s The Bones of Santa Fe, in which Turley played an unscrupulous rancher opposite Audie Murphy’s heroic sheriff. The film is perhaps most notable today for featuring the final on-screen appearance of Shirley Temple, in what is really little more than a glorified cameo, supposedly as a favour to a friend at MGM. The commercial and critical failure of Turley’s subsequent films is thought to have contributed to his declining mental state, and in 1965, at the age of just thirty-three, he overdosed on prescription painkillers at his family home in Torrance, California.
I hadn’t done the reading and the seminar was largely incomprehensible to me. The tutor, a young woman with rimless glasses and tight, wiry bronze curls, and who always seemed faintly bored of her own teaching, had all but given over the class to the soporific bass tones of Ben Palmer, sat opposite, and I spent most of the seminar airily transfixed by his almost supernatural stillness, and by his fantastically pale face, which was like shredded candle wax, or the cooled, streaky resin of the melted spoon the night before. I had had to chip it off that morning, bit by bit, with the back of a knife, but it had slipped and left a long and obvious gash across the work surface, which was almost certainly our deposit gone. I hadn’t told Angelica, but she probably wouldn’t notice anyway. Blame Jeanie. But Jeanie didn’t know – couldn’t know – why she was drinking, when she never did, when she hadn’t since secondary school. Nobody else was privy to any details of her life, and even I had to fight for most of them. It was something people found enticing and repelling in equal measure: the natural attraction of a mystery, and the subsequent resentment of the arrogance that deemed it worthy of mystery in the first place. Angelica didn’t care about that, and I loved her for it. But Jeanie wouldn’t know.
Her thesis was on something to do with ‘mystic semiologies in twentieth-century American poetry’, which meant about as much to me as it would have done to anybody else. She had no interest whatsoever in explaining the details of her work to me, and she had brushed me off whenever I had tried to push it further. This was again, I think, a kind of embarrassment: to talk to me about it would be to risk exposing to herself the hopeless limitations of my understanding. But she would read to me sometimes – not from her own work, but from the poets she was writing on: E.E. Cummings, Hart Crane, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens. She enjoyed that, I think, even if I probably never quite responded in the way she would have wanted me to, and it was perhaps the closest we ever came to a genuinely erotic experience, our sex life being that rare aspect of our relationship that managed to embarrass us both equally. And the thesis was going well – I knew that much. She had never been one to stress over her work, even at school, but in the last few months she had begun to assume a coolness and an easy confidence that might, had I known her any less, have seemed like indifference. There were no more late nights in the library, no putting off of social engagements with the excuse of work. She started going clubbing, something she had never done in all her years at Cambridge. There were physical changes too: her eyes were brighter, she grew stockier. For the first time since I had known her, she seemed to fully inhabit her own body; she seemed more authoritative, more physically present than she ever had done. She was in total control of her life, and she was thriving. And I think – admittedly, with the benefit of hindsight – that was why I had never really believed her when she had told me she was pregnant. The vulnerability of that position would have been unacceptable to her, the faint significance it would accord to me untenable. For my part, I had found myself in the strange position of hoping, illogically, that she was pregnant, and that the baby was Kip’s, rather than that she was lying, but that the invented baby was mine. That’s that.
Ben Palmer had finished talking, and in the three or four seconds in which people registered the silence there flickered across his face an almost imperceptible moment of sheer terror, of utter desolation, and in that exact moment I decided I would have to find Kip and quit my job.
Brock ‘the Croc’ Turley, third of that name, born 1932 in Amarillo, Texas, to Brock Turley II and Maria Wightman, grandson of movie mogul James ‘Jimmy’ Wightman, distant cousin of Billy Wilder. Starred in his first picture, Ransom of the Blood, at just ten years old; went on to make an impressive twenty-six films in his short career, the majority with Wightman Pictures. Notoriously irascible, he clashed repeatedly with his directors and co-stars, including, famously, with John Wayne, who first labelled him with the nickname that would become his calling card. Croc’s short temper and committed, high-octane acting style – he has been cited as an influence by actors as diverse as Daniel Day-Lewis and Nicholas Cage – undoubtedly contributed to his severe health problems, which culminated in his heart attack on the set of the revisionist masterpiece Day of the Horse-Thief in 1965. His last words, reported by a well-placed sound engineer, have become almost more famous than the man who spoke them: “Pay my debts. Kiss my wife. Shoot my dog.”
Almost two years ago, in the dismal sanctuary of the Student Union bar where Angelica first introduced us, out of the frigid cold of the early November evening, I had disliked Kip almost instantly. He had a pasty face, with eyes too small for his head, and an aggressively masculine manner, which manifested itself in a fondness for unnecessary bear hugs, and in a way of maintaining eye contact during conversation, as though challenging you to look away first. His manner towards Angelica was another deliberate challenge, referring to her by a string of stupid shortenings and nicknames, daring me, it seemed, to question the implied intimacy between the two of them. Angelica made no particular effort to downplay this, but neither did she exactly participate in it, and after a few drinks he had calmed down a little, become a little less self-conscious and theatrical, and infinitely more likable. But it was a difficult first impression to shift. I don’t know what his first impression of me would have been like. I’m not entirely sure he ever fully registered me as an individual person at that point, as anything beyond that which I represented, as friend of a friend, or potential employee, or, in some absurd, macho way, rival. He was like that. He was Sinatra, I suppose. He was an inveterate liar too, of course, and perhaps the natural thing to do would be to ascribe the phantom pregnancy plan solely to him. But I knew them both better than that, and there was more calculation and strategy in it than Kip alone would have been capable of. I think I was supposed to have balked. They were banking both on my cowardice, which was reasonable, and my obliviousness, which was not. And whilst I would like to say that, when she told me, I called her bluff, the truth is that I froze. In the end, it was neither heroic resistance nor noble ignorance. I just froze.
Brock Thompson, born Barry Turley. 1932. New York, New York (so good they named it twice). Began career in advertisements, radio jingles: for a morning kick that’s hard to beat, pour yourself a bowl of Oat‘n’Wheat! ’54, meets Sinatra, set of Guys and Dolls. Sinatra: this kid’s got the real mouth, I tell ya… Recurring part on Gunsmoke, couple of the early Elvis films. Wife – wife? Gay? Unmarried. ’65, shot by Lee Harvey Oswald or Jack Ruby or Mark Chapman or whoever.
The city could, on occasion, be extraordinarily beautiful, when the late sun jostled and gathered claustral between each stony façade, and spread, dark umber, down the depth of the street. Even the pub, Kip’s pub, in that sun, could appear somehow redeemed from time and neglect, so long as you never went past the front door. Inside, I knew, the opposite would be true – every scratch and cobweb and floating dust-raft rendered contemptibly obvious – but for that moment, standing in the pool of light that collected beneath the irradiated sign, it was an almost shockingly lovely sight.
It was completely empty, save Kip’s friend Marie behind the bar, all rippled blonde hair and electric smile. Sinatra leered at me as I passed.
“Hi, Marie. Where’s Kip?”
She chewed her cheek for a moment before answering, with deliberate cheeriness, “He’s gone. Home, I guess. I’m on this evening.”
“I didn’t realise he’d been hiring?”
Her smile widened, as if to embrace the suggestion of complicity in my exclusion. “He’s just been giving me a few evenings, here and there. Doing me a favour, really. I assumed you knew.”
Angelica Thompson, born Kip Turley.
“No, I didn’t know.” A pause. “Can you give him a message from me? Think you’ll probably see him before I do.” Marie cocked her head gently. “Can you tell him that I’m dropping out, and I’m going home. Permanently. And can you tell him that I know about him and Angelica.”
“Oh,” she said. “Shit.”
I smiled lightly and turned to leave, and as I did so caught sight of Brock Turley on the wall, those wide animal eyes as fearful and misplaced as ever. A dark lip of shadow, thrown by the central bar of the sash window, hovered just above his head, like a finality, or perhaps an anointing. It had often struck me just how handsome he was, how superficially made-for-himself he was. From a distance, in this light, he could be Clark Gable, or Frank Sinatra even: charming, self-possessed; every bit the slick, emphatic, aggressive man-of-the-movies. But for those eyes, he could be that. Instead, he was the bright fear looming in the quickening darkness, the mystery picture on an obscure wall, the fragment of a forgotten website. That had been the melancholy of it: an irreversible reduction to a set of discrete, unalterable events. Forever unassured, or so it had seemed, forever absent of assurance – that’s that – an eternity petrified in mild indignity.
But perhaps not. Perhaps there was some hardness in those eyes, or perhaps there didn’t need to be. Perhaps it wasn’t melancholy at all, perhaps it was beautiful, somehow, indestructible, and irreducibly true. Perhaps that was assurance enough. It had been a strange couple of years, but I was going home, and perhaps it didn’t really matter after all. I thought again of Angelica, her definition, her solidity, her unquenchable, incandescent joy of selfhood, and as I stepped back out into the darkening evening, into the profound arbitrariness of that street and the profound arbitrariness of that moment, and with the force of vague, straining revelation, some words came back to me, words from one of her poems, something about a colossal sun, and a new knowledge of reality.