By Peter Thompson • •
MRS CLEARY possessed love in vast quantity. So much had she that she was always giving some away. To Duncan Grant and William Walton, to the Basque children and the Chinese Exhibition, to young and unregarded poets, to the Shell-Mex building and the Dean of Canterbury, to the Russian film, the Icelandic saga, Hungarian embroidery, Ubangi-Sharian pottery, and to her chameleon she poured out her love in warm scented gasps.
It is possible that she felt a twinge of affection for the chameleon. Why else should she take it everywhere on a hair-fine gold chain? The
reptile's sex was uncertain, to Mrs Cleary at least; but she called it Franco, because, as she explained to her friends with a jolly laugh, it seemed "more heish than sheish."
People soon began to notice that Mrs Cleary carried a chameleon among her furs, and commented on the fact, called it amusing, and got into the way of referring to Mrs Cleary as " The Lady with the Chameleon," and sending invitations with the added note: "Please bring Franco too" ; and even to addressing envelopes to " Mrs Cleary and Franco," until Mr Cleary, who was rich but not intellectual, protested one morning at breakfast about having his wife's name linked with " that rascal who bombed British ships."
Franco always behaved properly. He never moved, nor became excited or frightened, not even at a performance of Oedipus Rex at Covent Garden or at a mass meeting of Billingsgate porters protesting against protests against Russia's latest purge. At all times Franco clung serenely to the shoulder of his mistress's fur coat; his black eyes, bright and expressionless as two drops of ink, forever moving independantly, up and down, left and right, round and round. Naturally on occasion he squinted abominably, so that some of the young men who came to Mrs Cleary's house winced; but he did no other harm.
Only once did he lose his temper and change colour. That was when the fat little mayor of a Catalan town, who had come to London to collect what he could get, tickled the chameleon's tail with the lighted end of a cigar. Franco twitched violently, nearly wrenching out the pin by which he was attached to his mistress, and his putty-coloured leathery body suffused with vermilion, for the little mayor was attending a sherry party given in his honour by Mrs Cleary, who had put on the bright red woollen dress by Mainbochr, partly to show her sympathy with the mayor and partly to show off the new iron grey dye to which her hair had been treated.
Mrs Cleary was annoyed with the mayor and mentally halved the subscription she had intended to give him. However, she smiled and said how fortunate it was that she was not wearing a plaid material and everyone laughed. Someone else said that if the reptile would call Itself Franco what else could it expect when a loyal Spaniard got near it, and everyone laughed again.
Mrs Cleary was not quite sure how to soothe her reptile. She blew softly on his face, and he squinted. So she stopped blowing and gradually the colour left him.
* * * Mrs Cleary's husband, who had built up quite a decent business in the manufacture of superfluous hair remover, thought the chameleon "damned nonsense," and said so. But that didn't worry Mrs Cleary, who thought her husband an insensitive fool.
The chameleon had become important. All London, or at least all of London that counted in Mrs Cleary's eyes, knew of the chameleon. It had become a sort of mascot.
Already that nice young boy Leofric Stutzschweinerberg, who would surely become a giant among English poets had written two poems about the chameleon; " poems bursting with the fire and the impulse common to all works integrated with the movement for the working class revolution " as a reviewer in Life and Letters To-day put it; and Nick Jagg, who did such marvellous pictures of gasholders, had asked if he might paint her portrait in the nude with the chameleon on her breast. Of course she had said yes; you couldn't refuse Nick anything. Such a dear! And there was no need for her husband to know—not that it mattered, but he was so backward, he
might make a scene, and scenes were just the worst thing for her nerves.
* it tx er
"I'm highly strung you know. You can't imagine what I've been through this last week with all this dreadful bombing in Spain and China. My heart has been pulped . . . PULPED . . by the weight of all this horror."
A prominent lawyer hastily put down his sherry glass and patted Mrs Cleary's hand with a good show of affection.
" If only you were a little more selfish. If you could fill your mind with a full delight in art, literature and music and manage to forget, if only for a little the sufferings of unfortunate people all the world over. . ."
" Forget? And so turn traitor to the suffering women and children in China, Spain, Abyssinia, Austria, Czechoslovakia ; turn traitor to my own sisters, to my own children? How can I forget?
And Franco's black eyes went round and round and round.
So, too, did Mrs Cienry's large blue
ones, for she was making sure that Rutland Bravington, who occasionally contributed those brilliant essays to the Manchester Guardian, and the New Statesman was among her little crowd. He would be writing soon a sequel to his highly successful, highly imaginative account of the European scene published a year or two ago. What was it called? Sitting on Gunpowder? Or was it Awaiting the Deluge? So difficult to remember. Such Iota of books there were dealing with the Fascist menace in Europe. Anyway it had a description of a reception given by that Bulstein woman. A very nice description. Appallingly false in some ways. Whoever could compare 73u1stein to a swan when all London sniggered about that neck of hers so like corrugated cardboard?
He might put next time: " I was at a sherry party given by Mrs Cleary, brilliant leader of progressive thought in the capital of the greatest empire built up by Tory reactionaries that the world has ever known. All the most promising Left Wing intellectuals were there. Mrs Cleary moved among them, magnificent in a black dress embroidered with gold dragons, as a tribute to the heroic people of China. So she told Asthma Pyrene, the Persian poet. Her talk was as fascinatingly wise and amusing as ever; but there was a sadness in her eyes. The news had come through about Barcelona, ghastly news which had obviously affected her profoundly. I remember her magnificent reply: Sudden laughter recalled Mrs Cleary to her ivory, black and silver room. Franco had, it seemed, attacked and swallowed some insect that had been crawling on the bald head of Robinson, the choreographer. Robinson said that the scabrous touch of the little devil's tongue was bloody unpleasant. Mrs Cleary did not mind; everyone was laughing, and laughter meant success.
* * *
" What we want is more laughter," Mrs Cleary often said when her husband at the other side of the breakfast table complained about business.
His reply that " what we want is more hairy women," Mrs Cleary thought a trifle coarse. She did not say so, Instead she spoke at him about how much she had loved the Benjamin Brittain the night before. Such tactics were always successful. Mr Cleary, reminded of his ignorance, finished his breakfast in silence; then hurried off to his vulgar, materialistic successful office, where he could for six hours a day be ignorant in comfort.
One evening after an unusually profitable day he asked his wife not to wear Franco in her hair. She continued however to wear Franco in her hair— so much more original than orchids, don't you think?—until she overheard a road sweeper in Berkeley Square reply to an errand boy's question as to what that lizard thing was doing in the old cow's hair, by saying that it was " 'Tinting."
So when Mrs Cleary went to Camberwell to address a meeting in support of a proposed birth control clinic, Franco was in his customary position on the shoulder of her Persian lamb coat.
It was a most successful meeting. People were enthusiastic over Mrs Cleary's little speech, and a stronglyworded resolution condemning reaction. ary obscurantism and calling, in the name of humanity and hygiene, for fewer births, had been adopted.
As she walked up and down in front of the employment exchange in the Walworth Road, waiting for a 'bus, Mrs Cleary hummed a little tune to herself —it was the theme from the last movement of Sibelius's Fifth Symphony, if you must know.
Yes, a most successful meeting. And now another of those delightful omnibus rides. It was quite exhilarating to he among "the people." One got down to realities here. She must take more omnibus rides, it was so jolly to be travelling about with all those people; and the conductors were so nice. Besides it was really democratic. After all if one believes in democracy one must believe in omnibus rides, surely. Turn, turn, ta, turn, turn. But they ought to improve the services, she had been waiting nearly four minutes. Now under the Socialist State. . . . A man approached her. A young man he was, in black jacket and a pair of dark grey trousers with grease marks on them, and the turn-ups jagged and torn. He wanted a shave, his hands were purple and blue and there was dirt under his finger nails.
* * * Mrs Cleary noticed these things because thee man had stretchd out his hands to her coat. She said: " What do you want ? " in much the same tone as when she indicated the liquor bottles to her young men, for she was resolved to be absolutely cool. But the young man had got what he wanted. Franco was in his hands. He looked at the reptile: the reptile squinted.
" No. Give him back. Stop. Don't." No time to be cool after all. No time to do anything. The young man had flung Franco into the road. The great wheel of a 'bus—Mrs Cleary's bus, went over him.
Mrs Cleary screamed. The young man stood there, watching her, his brown eyes derisive. She clawed at the sleeve of his jacket, and beat at him with her fist, shouting all the time for the police. " Shut up," said the young man. He pushed her firmly away. " They're coming. They're coming. You don't have to scream your head off."
The police came. Mrs Cleary pointed to a patch of blood and skin in the road, and to the young man. When she could speak she told the policeman of her love for Franco, how he had gone everywhere with her, how he had met everybody, how she had fed him on butterflies.
"Butterflies!" said the young man, "I get cod and chips and broken biscuits."
" Be quiet you," said the policeman. And Mrs Cleary told all the details of the attack.
The young man got two months in the second division. He said nothing in his defence. Apparently he had been on public relief for four and a half months.
Mrs Cleary's friends were very sympathetic. Leofric Stutzschweinerberg read to her each day at four his poems on abortion, in a soothing voice. No one could understand the reason for the young man's attack on the chameleon until to young Stutzschweinerberg there came at the end of one of his sessions with Mrs Cleary, a revelation.
He said: "The young man was of fascist orientation," and Mrs Cleary understood and was sorrowful.