Wednesday, April 28th, 1937
S.S. President Hoover
"Wow," from Tom; in an awed breath. "Wow; it's a beautiful night."
"Yes … Yes. It is."
We were on the Starboard side of the deserted Promenade Deck, sometime past midnight —
And it truly was a beautiful night. Where we stood, leaning on the teak railing, we were partially sheltered from the wind; and the swells rolled slowly and majestically on before us, glittering in the starlight. There were a few huge, black clouds, overhead; but everything else was crystal-clear, almost supernaturally clear.
"Look at all the stars!" from Tom, in a whisper. It was almost lost in the sounds of the water, rushing past the hull.
"Mm-hmmm." I could feel the comfortable press of his shoulder, against mine, as we stood. "Can you recognize any of them — ?"
"Umm … Well, that's Leo, over there; see his back — ? So that star over there, a little below … that must be Regulus … "
Truth to tell, it was actually a little chilly, for stargazing. But we had both just come from a warm bathtub, in a hot and steamy bath-room; the cool air felt good. We were both bareheaded, our hair still wet, holding our caps in our hands; cooling down.
My feelings for him, just then, were very tender.
Partly that was due to what we'd just done, with one another.
It had been a hugely erotic session; a deeply emotional session. I had penetrated him with my finger; at his whispered, and not-very-coherent request … and I had proceeded to pleasure him, slowly, as he leaned back against my chest, and moved against me, as I stroked his member gently, with my other hand —
"Relax," I'd whispered, into his ear, as I'd probed him. "Relax … "
Two breaths; three.
"Okay," from him; in a strained whisper —
He had, in the end, made a little more noise that was quite safe; and he'd climaxed very impressively, his strings of semen reaching high up his chest.
I had gone on probing him, gently, as he recovered.
He'd hugged me, later, after my own climax; and we'd kissed very deeply, and then he'd whispered in my ear —
"That was awesome. That was the best thing, ever … "
I'd kissed him again, then, with feeling; without words.
So. It had been a remarkably intimate experience, a deeply felt experience; and it was all the more thrilling, because we both knew, without saying anything, where it was all leading, what we'd be doing together next, if we had the chance —
If we had the chance.
I looked at Tom's face now, his soft, boy's face, in profile, as he scanned the seas, and the sky —
"Look — !" he said, in a low voice; then, "Wait … No, there it is, again — !"
"What — ?"
Tom pointed upwards; his right arm moving against my left shoulder. I sighted along with him.
"Oh … okay. I see. It's the Moon! Oh, look at it!"
As we watched, one edge of the darkest cloud, right overhead, turned light-gray, and then, silver; then, suddenly, silver light came spilling around the cloud, turning the seas into a mass of what seemed like dark blue, highlighted with crests of silver moonlight. It was dazzling.
"That's beautiful," I said, quietly. "That's so beautiful," and Tom looked over at me, with a soft and gentle smile that would have melted stone — and I smiled back …
We did not in fact know when, or even if, we'd get the chance to — be intimate together — again.
Tomorrow night — no; no, later this same day, now — we'd be docked in Yokohama; and the night after that, we'd be in Kobe. And we might be taking on new passengers — perhaps second-class passengers, Japanese workers headed to Shanghai — and in any case, the crew would be busy, all around the ship. We could not safely get together, then.
That left one night at sea, between Kobe and Shanghai … but that's exactly what it was, the Last Night Out. I knew from experience, it would be full of packing, and good-byes, and making arrangements, and I doubted that either Father or Tom's parents would want Tom in my cabin, for that night —
And that ultimately left Shanghai. And Shanghai, and our respective accommodations there, our potential ability to see one another there — all were unknowns; all were question marks.
That uncertainty was making the night poignant, just now, for the both of us.
And in yet another way, on yet another level — I was even more uncertain in my heart, still. For if I could not be intimate with Tom again, I knew I would miss that part of him, deeply …
But another part of me would be deeply relieved; for Jack's sake. Or, no; no. For my sake, honestly; for the sake of my abiding love for Jack —
Oh, Jack, I thought. Oh, Jack. How I miss you. It would all be so different if you were here, standing on Tom's other side — I could almost see you there, laughing, shining, pressed up against Tom's left shoulder …
"Hello, boys," came a low voice out of the darkness. "Would you mind if I joined you — ?"
Tom and I both started; and we automatically jerked a little apart. Once again.
"Of course not, ma'am," I managed to say at last; and I looked to my right —
Miss Lloyd — Miss Deirdre Lloyd — moved up to the railing next to me, with a kind of languorous grace. She was wearing a fur wrap of some kind — it looked like mink, in the dim light — and like us, she was bareheaded. She clutched the wrap around her shoulders, with one hand.
"It's a beautiful night, and I couldn't sleep … again." The corner of her mouth curled up, just slightly, in a familiar expression that Jack and I had last seen on a giant silver movie-screen, in New York. "Not sleeping is something I do very well."
"Umm … yes, ma'am."
Silence, for a few heartbeats. Then —
"Look at that … my goodness, it's beautiful, isn't it — ?"
'That' was the partly-obscured moon, of course; and the silver-lined edges of the dark cloud, and the silver-crested seas, surrounding us. The seas glittered in the moonlight, like living things, almost painfully bright.
"It's beautiful, but all that light does make the stars seem just a little dimmer, doesn't it — ? And that's a pity, I've been enjoying the stars very much, these last few nights … Here, I'm forgetting my manners." She turned towards me, a little. "You're the bank officer's son, aren't you — ? Is it — Piers — ?"
"That's my father, ma'am. I'm Rhys. Rhys Williamson."
"Oh, that's right … and — ?" With a graceful turn of her head, she looked past me, at Tom.
"Tom Fletcher, ma'am." His eyes were wide; he seemed awed.
"Ah … and your father works for the government … a diplomat — ?"
"Umm … no, ma'am. He works for the Department of Agriculture."
"Oh … yes; yes. But you're the family that's going to live in China for a few years, am I right — ?"
"Yes, ma'am." He seemed awed, that she'd remembered.
"How lucky you are! What an adventure! When I was your age, I would have given almost anything, to get away from my home town … "
Miss Lloyd had already been my favorite Hollywood actress. Now she was doubly so. Tom braced up, and brightened, visibly.
"Well … yeah. Yes. I'm looking forward to it."
Silence, then, again; for a few comfortable moments. We watched as the moon lifted up, another half-span higher in the sky.
Miss Lloyd stirred.
"Here, I'm forgetting my manners, all over again … "
She opened up the slender clutch-purse she carried in her left hand; and she extracted a gold cigaret-case. She opened it, and took a cigaret out, placing it between her lips, gracefully — it was like watching a choreographed ballet movement — and then, with a glance upwards, she languidly offered the open cigaret-case to me.
It was a touching gesture. Most of us at school smoke, clandestinely; it's the adult thing to do, after all, even if it is officially frowned upon. But Jack and I are in athletic training, so we do not.
"Umm … thank you, ma'am! But, no thanks … " I turned it into my usual, self-deprecating joke. "They say it can stunt one's growth; and, I don't have enough to spare."
The corner of her beautiful mouth turned up, slightly. "You'll do," she said, in a low voice; and then, she gracefully repeated the wordless offer to Tom.
"Uh — no, thank you, ma'am," from him, in a slightly higher-than-usual tone. I thought he was taking his cue from me.
Another slight upturn, of her mouth; then, the cigaret-case disappeared back into her clutch. In its place appeared a slender, gold lighter. This she gave to me.
It proved to be remarkably heavy, and solid-feeling; I guessed it was solid gold. I fumbled open the top, and spun the wheel, holding it out towards Miss Lloyd; she leaned in gently, cupping my hand in hers, shielding the flame from the wind, and lit her cigaret — I recognized it as French, and expensive. Then she released my hand, and exhaled a stream of smoke, upwards …
I returned her gold lighter, and we all leaned against the railing, again … me, marveling at the grace of the performance; for such it truly was. I'd seen it in films, and in Society, often enough; but not done as well.
A few silent moments, then; the three of us admiring the brilliant moon, with Miss Lloyd smoking, in silence.
"So," Miss Lloyd said, at last; casually. "Do you boys come up on deck like this, every night — ?"
I was immediately uncomfortable.
"Uh … no, ma'am." I hesitated, for a moment. "Well … sometimes, we do. I — uh, we — like the solitude … "
I immediately blinked, and cringed, to myself. It could be taken the wrong way.
Miss Lloyd shrugged, under her fur stole. "Solitude … ? You might be surprised." The upturn-curl of her mouth, reappeared.
I wasn't quite sure what to make, of that.
"As for me, I've been up here most nights, on this trip … But, I've been getting better. I think I might actually be able to get to sleep, in an hour or so." I saw a certain bleakness, in her famous profile, as she gazed out over the water …
More silence, then, for a few moments. I was aware of the sounds of the water, rushing against the hull. I was very aware of Tom, awed and shy, at my side.
And then, Miss Lloyd stood up straight, and clutched her stole more tightly around herself; and she shivered, she actually shivered, it wasn't an actress' artifice.
"I need to get indoors, it's cold out here … " She glanced sideways, at us. "And you boys should get indoors, too, you'll catch your death, with your hair all wet, like that."
I blinked. I could feel my mouth go dry.
"Would you care to come back to my cabin with me, for just a few minutes — ? I've missed having someone to talk to, on this trip … and I promise, I won't keep you long."
As if anyone would say no, to Miss Deirdre Lloyd — ?
"I'd like that, ma'am," I said. Then I glanced at Tom, who looked awed and terrified, both, now; the reference to wet hair hadn't escaped him. "We'd like that, very much … "
"Come in, please. Make yourselves at home." Miss Lloyd casually tossed her fur wrap — I'd been right, it was mink — over the back of an armchair, and gestured towards a sofa.
"Thank you, ma'am … "
Miss Lloyd's suite was, as it turned out, the mirror image of Father's and mine; on the opposite side of the ship.
It was also completely unlike ours. Where our suite was rather classic — a great deal of good wood-work, and brass fittings — Miss Lloyd's was conspicuously modern. Streamlined, even; the furniture, the walls were in whites and pastels, and the fittings were in the modern, Art Deco style. It was like being inside a poster for the Twentieth Century Limited.
Miss Lloyd started towards the bar-cabinet.
"May I get you — ?" She stopped, suddenly; looking at us. "On second thought — no; no. That wouldn't be a very good idea. For any of us."
"Ma'am — ?"
Miss Lloyd gave me an enigmatic expression; then, she languidly seated herself in the armchair across the space from our sofa, and reached for the streamlined telephone, on the little table next to the chair. Again, the motion was a performance, all in itself.
"Hello … cabin-steward, please — ?" A short wait; then — "Hello. May I please have a pitcher of warmed milk?" Her eyes flicked to Tom and I. "A large pitcher, please? With three glasses? … Oh, thank you, very much." She replaced the handset on its cradle with practiced grace.
I noticed she'd never mentioned her name, or cabin number. Clearly, it wasn't necessary.
Miss Lloyd regarded us; and she sighed, a little, relaxing in her chair.
"Thank you, boys, for indulging me … I really should be able to get to sleep, in a little bit; and the milk will help. It's all part of the process."
"The process, ma'am — ?" from me; tentatively.
Miss Lloyd looked amused. "I don't suppose there's any chance, that you'll call me Beth? It's my real name … Elizabeth Johnson, from Galena, Kansas, just across the border from Joplin, Missouri." She gave an ironic little shrug, and smile. "And when I hear 'ma'am', from someone your age, I feel just a million years old."
"Umm … of course. Beth. Ma'am." I couldn't stop myself, adding the title, and I covered my mouth, in embarrassment; and Miss Lloyd smiled, a real, warm smile, that I didn't remember from any of her movie roles.
"You'll get the hang of it … " The smile dimmed, a little, and became a little ironic, again. "And now — can I ask you boys a favor — ? A big one, actually."
"Yes. Of course." I had a hard time, omitting the 'ma'am'.
"Sure!" from Tom.
"I would absolutely love to take off my shoes … if I do, would you promise not to tell anybody what you see? It's not something I do very often in public … "
"Uh … of course," I repeated. Tom just nodded.
"Good," she sighed — with just a little hint of humor, I thought? — and slipped off her left shoe, and rubbed her foot, with real satisfaction; and then, the same with her right shoe.
"Ahhhh … " She went on rubbing, slowly. "I have bunions, you see. Too many tight shoes, for too many years … my contract with the studio states very clearly, that I get to have a foot-double, for any closeups when I'm barefoot. The studio didn't object." She went back to rubbing her left foot, with evident pleasure. "Don't ever let anyone talk you into wearing high heels, boys; believe me, it's not worth it."
I blinked at her. This seemed a little … pointed.
My anxiety increased.
Another measuring, languorous look from Miss Lloyd; and she reached for the cigaret-box on the low table that rested between us. She took out another French cigaret, and replaced the lid, and used the streamlined, porcelain table-lighter to light it. Another languid stream of smoke, into the air above our heads.
"So; yes. Yes, I've been up on deck, quite a bit, at odd hours, on this trip; especially the early morning hours … it's because of the benzedrine. Or to be more accurate, because I'm coming off of the benzedrine. And the sleeping pills."
A full stop. A thunderous silence.
"Ma'am — ?" I couldn't help myself.
A very slight, amused, sideways-look from her; which I thought I remembered, from 'Pride and Prejudice'. Jack and I had seen it, with Grandmother, on Grandmother's birthday.
"A bit shocking, isn't it — ? But it's all perfectly legal." A puff from her cigaret; another stream of languid smoke. "You see, time is money, when you're shooting a film … especially when you're shooting on location. Days can be long; I've done twenty-hour days before, we all have." Another, graceful puff from her cigaret. "Fortunately for all of us, the Studio has doctors who will give us the benzedrine to keep us all going … and the sleeping pills we need, when we do have a chance to sleep." She paused, to flick some ash into the cream-colored ashtray on the table, before us; then she leaned back, gracefully. "I've got both. You should see the size of the bottles; they're enormous."
I blinked at that; several times.
"Of course," she went on — "it's absolute hell on your body, if you take them, long enough … and worse, it's absolute hell on your ability to act. I've seen benzedrine ruin better actors and actresses than I am — "
"I think you're a wonderful actress, ma'am! Uh, Beth, I mean. You were perfect in 'Mary Queen of Scots'!"
I'd blurted it out. I am not star-struck, as a rule; but she really had moved me, in that film. I'd cried.
Another warm flash of a smile, from Miss Lloyd.
"Thank you! … It's my favorite film, so far." She shrugged. "Although the real credit should go to the head lighting director, Lazlo Ferenc; he's a genius, I almost wish I could marry that man." A quirk of a hidden smile, from her; and she shrugged, again. "But, quite seriously — that film makes my point. We shot it, for the most part, on sound stages in London and Burbank, and it was an easy shooting schedule; we didn't need to be cranked up. And I think — no, I know — we all turned in better performances, because of it."
Another pause; another languid puff, on her cigaret. She had, in fact, been nominated for an Academy Award.
Another lidded, measuring glance from Miss Lloyd, towards Tom and I.
"But," she went on; "this is all a little bit beside the point. Beside the original point, I mean. And that is, that I've been spending this voyage, weaning myself off of pills … and so, I've been up on deck, at night, quite a bit, the last few nights; waiting to feel sleepy, waiting until I can at least try to go to sleep … And so, I've seen a few things." A short pause, as she flicked the ash from the end of her cigaret into the ashtray, with a beautiful gesture. "And I thought I should perhaps — warn you boys."
That feeling, in the pit of my stomach, again. I was sure I'd turned dead pale.
"Uhh … ma'am?"
A quick glance, from under half-lidded eyes, at me, and then at Tom; and then, she was looking off into the middle distance, the smoke lacing gracefully upward from the end of her cigaret.
"Well … it so happens, that I was up on the Sun Deck just the other night, all bundled up on one of the deck chairs, enjoying the night sky … and I just happened to see quite a remarkable display of skin … "
From the corner of my eye, I could see Tom bury his face in his hands. For myself, I wanted to sink through the deck, or the floor —
An 'oohh' sound, from Tom.
Another quick glance, from Miss Lloyd.
"Oh, now, don't be so embarrassed!" I watched the corner of her mouth curl, a little; and I realized, she was trying not to laugh. "You were actually quite beautiful, the both of you … At first, I thought you were rehearsing for some daring, modern dance — I saw something like it, once, in an underground club in New York — and then I realized, it was actually the oldest dance there is … "
It was my turn, to bury my face. Oh, Lord —
"Oh, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that." I felt fingertips on my wrist, and looked up; she really was trying not to laugh, the amusement was all over her face; along with — sympathy?
"I promise; as soon as I saw what was going on, I closed my eyes … but for what it's worth, what little I saw was quite beautiful; beautiful, and much more pure than some Hollywood parties I've been to, believe me … "
I swallowed. "Umm — ," I started —
"Shhh. Don't say anything." She settled back in her armchair, comfortably, and smiled at us, charmingly; and then, her face grew more serious.
"I only mention this, because you boys should know — there are more people out and about, at odd hours, than you might think." Another puff on her cigaret; another graceful flick of ash. She smiled, a little, cynically. "In fact, there is a surprising amount of coming-and-going, I've observed, between cabins, after midnight, and in the very early morning … it's one way to pass the time, I suppose." Another quick puff. "But there are also people who just roam the decks; there's that nice professor, Doctor Yang; he's an insomniac, he's frequently out at all hours; we've had some interesting conversations … "
Another measuring look from her; first at Tom, and then at me.
"And then there's that fat man, the one who looks like he's been blown up with a tire-pump; what is his name, again — ?"
"Sayles," I said; feeling my heart sink.
"Yes. Well, he's out on deck, including the Sun Deck, at some very odd hours. And he has the look of a blackmailer about him, if ever I've seen one — and believe you me, I have — "
I thought of the greasy and tendentious Mister Sayles, reading through Jack's letters to me; and I shuddered —
A very soft, double-knock, on the cabin door.
" — and so," Miss Lloyd went on, in an undertone, "I thought you should be warned. Come in!" she called out, in a low voice perfectly pitched toward the door.
A sleepy-looking, white-jacketed cabin-steward opened the door, and backed in, carrying a tray; on the tray was an enormous, clear-glass pitcher filled with milk; and the three glasses Miss Lloyd had requested.
"Oh, thank you! You can just set it down here, on the table … Oh, thank you, again!" as the cabin-steward carefully poured out three glassfuls, of the milk.
"It's a pleasure, Miss Lloyd," he said, as he set the pitcher down. "Will there be anything else — ?"
His eyes flicked over to Tom and myself, expressionlessly. If he was surprised at finding two teenage boys — uncomfortable-looking teenage boys — visiting Miss Lloyd's cabin at two o'clock in the morning, he didn't show it.
"No, thank you. Now, go get some sleep, Harold."
"Yes, ma'am. Good night, ma'am. Sirs," he added, to us. He left, closing the cabin door with the softest of 'clicks'.
Silence, for a moment, after he left.
"Well," said Miss Lloyd, lightly, "I may not have done your reputations much good, just now … The crew all talk, you know." She reached for her glass. Her face was full of amusement.
"Oh, ma'am — I mean, Beth … I'm sure nobody — "
"It was just a joke, Rhys." She lifted her glass, and Tom and I took our own glasses — the milk was very warm — and she continued. "Salut!"
"Salut!", from Tom; a little uncertainly.
Miss Lloyd took care, to put us more at ease, over the warm milk.
She won over Tom, immediately, with her stories of growing up in Kansas. Galena, Kansas made Council Bluffs seem like a major metropolis by comparison, in the telling.
"We used to take drives — in our surrey! — after supper, at twilight, and it was always the same thing; 'The corn's looking good, this year', or 'The beets aren't looking good, this year'. I got so tired of hearing about local crops, I just wanted to scream … "
A short pause, then.
"I can understand, ma'am — uh, Beth," from Tom. "I know more about wheat rust, than I ever particularly wanted to … I mean, I know what Dad does is important … but." He seemed a little gloomy, and guilty, at admitting it.
"But it's not what you want to do with your life," Miss Lloyd finished for him.
For my part, I kept to generalities, as far as I could; out of natural caution, or a kind of modesty, perhaps. I did mention having lived in Switzerland, of course; and that had prompted a tiny rise in one well-kept eyebrow. Most American boys do not attend private boarding schools in Europe; it marked me out as being of a certain social class, of having a certain status …
I did not mention my school's name, our American school's name; it is very well-known, and to raise it unnecessarily might be taken as a kind of boasting.
I did not mention Grandfather's name, either.
Of course, the subject turned to Hollywood, and her current motion picture, soon enough.
"The working title is 'Trade Winds East', which is just atrocious," she said; and then she paused, to take a puff from her — third — cigaret. "The studio will change it. I doubt it'll be any better, though." A sip of her warm milk. "We're about halfway through shooting … Coop and Basil stayed behind in Kauai, to shoot the final fight scene; they'll be along in two weeks, or so."
I blinked, at that. "'Coop' and … ?"
An amused look at me, from under her half-lidded eyes.
"Gary Cooper, Basil Rathbone … They're fighting over me, of course; I'm the Fallen Woman, a nightclub singer who is Basil's character's … special friend." A quick, sideways-flick of her eyes at Tom; and then, she went on. "Coop is the disgraced American sea captain, who runs across me in Shanghai, and follows me to Hong Kong, and Singapore, and Rangoon … oh, it's quite the pot-boiler."
"Gosh," from Tom. Reverently.
Another languid, amused look, from Miss Lloyd.
"As for me, well, the third unit is already in Shanghai; I'll the spending the first week or so, setting up for my big nightclub numbers … more high heels, and more tight costumes; I really shouldn't be drinking this milk, I suppose." She examined her glass, with a look of mock sorrow.
"What are they like — ? Really, I mean," from Tom, in a hushed tone.
Another puff of her cigaret, with the utmost grace.
"Coop, and Basil, you mean — ? Oh, they're both dears, really. Coop is very much like he seems on film; he's quiet, and actually a little shy … Basil, now; Basil is fun, he's a bit of a hell raiser, and he has an absolutely wicked tongue. You definitely want to sit next to him, at dinner." She set her milk glass back down, on the table. "You know, Hollywood is actually a small town, in the end; everyone knows everyone else."
That gave me the opening I'd been looking for.
"Uh, ma'am … Beth, I mean … would you by any chance know Josef Stein — ? The composer, I mean — ?"
The half-lidded eyes opened wide, and she sat up a little straighter.
"Josef Stein? You know Josef Stein — ?"
"Um … actually, just a little; but I was best friends with his son Emile, in Switzerland … that was before they moved to the United States."
"Oh, but how wonderful!" Her face was full of enthusiasm. "Do you know, we tried to get him to score the movie, the one we're filming right now — ? Only, Jack Warner wouldn't loan him out, the bas- er, the beast," she went on, with a glance at Tom.
"Really?" from me; blinking.
"Of course! He writes the most beautiful music, he's the hottest musical property in the whole industry, right now; everyone wants him … And, he's the most delightful man! I was at a party at his house, just a month ago! Well, five weeks now, I suppose … " Her eyes flicked sideways, and her head cocked, a little. "Basil and his wife were there, too! Oh, goodness … "
I was a little staggered, at this. When I'd met Emile's family, they'd been refugees, waiting for visas to get into America; and — well. They'd had the air of refugees; a kind of quiet desperation, and a certain creeping shabbiness, through no fault of their own … I knew Emile was only at our school, out of the charity of a family friend.
"And, wait … you said you were friends with Josef's son, Emile — ?"
"Yes, ma'am. We were best friends; we still write. He wants me to come visit."
"Let me see … " She looked at me. "Is he about your size? Curly black hair, on the long side? Light, ice-blue eyes — ?"
"That's him!" I said, happily. Emile always hated getting his hair cut.
"He played for us, at the party! A Chopin étude; oh, he was marvelous! Someone mentioned — now, who was it — ?" She frowned, in concentration. "Well, never mind. Someone told me, that he wants to play full time, in his father's orchestra, the studio orchestra; but his father wants him to study in the Conservatory. I have to say, I'd side with his father; his playing was magical!" She settled back down in her armchair, a little, and smiled at me. "I can't believe that you know Josef Stein! It is such a small world, isn't it — ?"
"Yes, ma'am … yes."
Just at that moment, I was almost overwhelmed by my memories of Emile; of the two of us, hungry together; of him teaching me German, as I taught him English. Of his gentle decency, in the face of whatever hardships were thrown at him …
That Miss Lloyd had just seen him, had just heard him play piano a few weeks ago, made him seem very close. I had to get Jack to Hollywood with me, somehow, to visit him; I just had to …
It was almost three, before I worked up the nerve to ask Miss Lloyd for her autograph.
I did not want to; it seemed, somehow, a — vulgar — thing to do, after the friendship she'd shown us. An imposition. But it was for Jack; and there are very few things I wouldn't do for Jack.
In the event, Miss Lloyd seemed to think it a perfectly natural request. She unfolded herself from her chair — gracefully, of course — and padded over to the writing-desk, under the porthole. She opened the drawer, took out a large Manila envelope, and slid out two large, glossy studio portraits of herself, in half profile; and she brought these back to the coffee-table, along with a blotter and an expensive-looking fountain-pen.
"To Jack, you said?"
She uncapped her pen, and looked at me. "Shall I sign it, 'Mary Queen of Scots', above my own signature, just for fun — ?" She half-smiled at me.
"Umm … Could you maybe sign it 'Lila', instead — ?" It was her character's name in 'Flying Clippers', and I felt a little bit of a rush, at the idea. He would so love it. "It would mean a great deal, to him; we saw 'Flying Clippers' together, six times."
She seemed genuinely astonished. "Oh, you poor things! Why ever for — ?"
"Umm … well. Jack wants to be a pilot … he's going to be a pilot, someday; so he really went, to see all the flying sequences … "
And here I stopped, and took a breath, before plunging on.
"And he teases me, that I just went to see Avery Wynne … but he knows that's not really true. I went to keep him company … "
I was blushing furiously, as I said it; and for a moment, I looked down —
Miss Lloyd had seen Tom and me in flagrante delicto, on the Sun Deck; and far from avoiding us, she'd befriended us, and taken care to warn us, of how dangerously we'd behaved … I couldn't help but feel that she deserved the truth, about Jack and myself, anyway; the truth, and my trust.
When I looked up again, Miss Lloyd was writing in a corner of the photograph, with a small smile on her face. She finished; then, she blotted it, carefully; and then she held up the photograph, and blew on it, two or three times, before setting it down, again. It was obviously a thing she'd done many times before.
"Here," she said, handing me the photo. "You might want to be careful with this, for a few more minutes; it'll smudge, easily."
I read the inscription.
To Rhys' friend Jack —
April 28, 1937
The signature was beautiful, in slanting, slashing letters; it made my own look small and cramped.
"Oh, thank you, ma'am — ! Uh, I mean, Beth … "
And then some of the implications of what I'd just said, sank it.
"Oh — ! And, Jack and I both enjoyed your performance, very much! I didn't mean to imply — "
She waved me off, with a languid motion of her hand.
"It was serviceable; not one of my best, and certainly not the best script." A lidded, sly look over at me. "I spent most of my time in that damned — oh, excuse me!" she said, with a look at Tom — "that ridiculous cockpit-set, keeping Avery's hands off of me. Honestly; that man is like an octopus, you'd think he had eight arms." There was a hint of a smile, at the corners of her mouth.
I gaped, for just a second; and then I tried not to smile, myself.
"Somehow, I'm not surprised."
"No — ?" Miss Lloyd's smile deepened, and became — mischievous, perhaps? "Then, I'll tell you something that might surprise you … If you do visit your friend in Hollywood, and if you perhaps run into Avery at one of Josef Stein's parties — and it could happen; Avery insists that he score all of his films; Josef did the music for 'Flying Clippers', did you know that — ?"
"No, ma'am!" I was shocked; I'd looked for the name, because I'd wondered —
"Under a pseudonym. Jack Warner did loan him out, for that one; what Avery wants, Avery gets … " A wry, little shrug from her, then. "Anyway." She looked at me, with amused eyes. "If you do meet Avery at a party — do not let him get you alone." She paused, for a beat. "You're just his type. Both of you, actually," she added, glancing at Tom.
My jaw dropped. I could only imagine what my face looked like.
Miss Lloyd's smile deepened. I could see she was trying not to laugh.
"Oh, don't get me wrong; if you had twin sisters, they'd be his type, too … but that's just Avery; he likes them very young, and very pretty, of whatever denomination. And he's a dear; but it's a bad idea, to get tangled up with him, believe me … I'm sure your friend Emile can supply you with lots of the more usual stories, about him." She settled back in the armchair again, with a demure expression.
I finally found my voice.
"I … uh … thank you, ma'am. Beth."
Another languid wave of her hand.
"Not at all. What are friends for, if not to dish Hollywood gossip, at three o'clock in the morning, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean — ? But," she went on, stretching, just a little bit in her armchair — "speaking of the time — this milk is almost gone; and I think, perhaps, I'm about ready to go toss and turn in bed, for a few hours … "
"Um … Yes, ma'am; yes, we should be going." I began to pick up my autographed photo.
"Just a moment," from Miss Lloyd. She touched the second photo, which was still on the table, and she looked at Tom. "Would you care for one of these — ? They are free, which means they're worth every penny."
Tom's face was bashful, and full of wonder, at the same time. "Could I, ma'am?"
"It would be my pleasure. I can't tell you, both, how much I've enjoyed your company; thank you, for indulging me. I appreciate it." She smiled at both of us — and it was a warm, and genuine smile — and then she drew the photo closer, and uncapped her pen, and began to write —
And I couldn't resist one last question. For Jack's sake; of course.
"Umm … Beth — ?"
"Hm?" as she wrote.
"For 'Flying Clippers' … I mean, when you actually flew on the Clipper, to Manila, for the film — did they really let you take the controls, for two hours — ?"
It was the single thing about the film, which had driven Jack crazy; that a civilian, a non-pilot, could actually get the chance to fly the China Clipper — !
Miss Lloyd looked up, from blotting her inscription to Tom.
"What — ? … Oh; oh, that." She shrugged, and went on blotting; and then, she held up the photograph, and blew on it, gently, once again. "That was just Studio publicity; they wanted to get some photos of me, at the controls. The Captain only let me touch the wheel once, when we had to make a little turn … and that didn't work out, so well."
"It didn't — ?"
Oh, Jack would have given anything, to hear this.
Miss Lloyd gave out a little breath; in someone less elegant, it might have even qualified as a snort.
"Imagine trying to steer the biggest, heaviest truck you can imagine, on a road with a foot of snow on it … except, you have to use your feet, too. I could barely budge the thing; the Captain was the one who made the turn." She looked at me, directly. "Your friend Jack is set on being a pilot, you said — ?"
"Oh, yes. Yes, ma'am."
"Well, here. Let's see this back, again," and she gestured towards my autographed photo. I surrendered it; and she wrote something new under the inscription, and blotted it again, and held it up, and blew on it, again; and then, she handed it back to me, with a languid, elegant movement, and a beautiful smile.
P.S. — The damned thing was on autopilot, the whole time!
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