As it happens I was on a boat tour of the Norwegian fjords, which is one of the consequences of being in a love affair with a transmasc. He was up on the top deck, breathing deeply all of that cold clean air, and vibing with the great, blue cliffs careening just off the starboard side. I was down below deck, sipping on a horrid instant coffee and reading a really quite preposterous book; “The Lonely Life: An Autobiography” by Ms Bette Davis. It had been entertaining for a good few pages there, but now Bette was off on one, proselytising about how hard work is the singular thing that gives life meaning.
“Protestants,” I thought, and went to grab myself a cinnamon bun from the ship’s canteen.
Usually you are never more than 2 metres from a cinnamon bun in Scandinavia (I think it is in fact an EU directive) and indeed I had found the supply to be most plentiful during my stay in Norway. That afternoon on the boat however, there was not a bun to be had. The truly contrite canteen staff told me there had been an huge demand for them that week, as the cast of “Meet The Fockers: European Vacation” had been in town filming, and had been buying them by the hundred as souvenirs for much missed gal pals back home.
“I doubt you’ll find a single bun this side of the alps,” said the server forlornly. “But we do have a small range of less enticing goods we could offer you, if you’re desperate.”
My plans for a good time scuppered by Barbra Streisand (and not for the first time) I settled for a Kit-Kat, though I committed myself to sulking about the situation for a minimum of twenty-minutes, to make clear my immense displeasure. I paid and departed sour-faced.
Now, as I was walking back to my seat, minding my own beeswax, munching on my choccy, I collided with a rather sprightly old gentleman who had come tearing around the corner at quite a speed. If I hadn’t already been practically buckling under the weight of my disappointment, I’m sure the situation would not have been so bad, but as it was the two of us rebounded violently from the impact, and found ourselves shortly afterwards sprawled out all over the floor like a broken dish service.
“I am sorry,” he said, “You see, I was hurrying to get a cinnamon bun from the canteen before they run out.”
“Too late,” I said, rubbing my head and trying to shimmy my skirt back below the knee, “They’re all gone.”
“What?” he cried.
“If there were even any to begin with,” I continued, “All I got was a Kit-Kat. Streisand’s had the lot.”
“Disgraceful,” he said, arduously hiking himself up off the floor, no mean feat given his age and the speed at which we were cruising.
I picked myself up, and my book, curtsied and bid him a good day.
Thinking that things couldn’t possibly get any sillier, I was startled, when after walking but a few steps, I heard him shout, “Excuse me Miss, I think you have my book!”
“Well how absurd,” I snapped, “First you knock me down with your septuagenerian sprint, and now you claim I’ve stolen your book? I can assure you that this is my very own copy of…” and here I trailed off because in my hand was not “The Lonely Life: An Autobiography” by Bette Davies at all, but a copy of “The Price of the Ticket” by James Baldwin.
“You see,” he said, smiling, “I have your book and you have mine, we must’ve gotten all mixed up in the fall. What a funny thing that is!”
I admit I was a little embarrassed at having taken such a tone with this dear literate bun-lover, and so I apologised, as gracefully as I could with the ruins of half a kit-kat in my hair, and this half-inched book in my hand.
“I am sorry,” I said passing him the Baldwin, “Please forgive me, I suppose I wasn’t really paying attention.”
“Oh do you have ADHD too?” he asked.
“Well, now why…” I replied, but he had already hopped off along another line of thought.
“Tell me my dear mademoiselle,” he said holding up my book alongside his, “Have you ever in your life seen a picture of these two twentieth-century icons together?”
“Davies and Baldwin?” I asked, “No I don’t think I ever have.”
“No,” he said, “And you never will! Do you know why?”
“Because James Baldwin was more of an Elizabeth Taylor stan perhaps?” I attempted.
“No, no, no,” he said, eyes darting from side to side with just a soupçon of paranoia, voice dropping to almost a whisper, “It’s because they were the same person.”
“Oh, ridiculous,” I said, “Either your blood sugar is low or that fall was worse than it looked.”
He did indeed appear quite, quite bananas with his disheveled hair, and his clothes all rumpled from crashing into me at such a speed.
“Of course it sounds preposterous,” and here he exhaled rather grandly, “But I ask you my dear Fräulein, when did that ever stop anything from being true?”
Well he had me there didn’t he? What could I say to that?
“Please, go on,” I said, picking pieces of Kit-Kat from off my person and nervously popping them into my mouth, quivering at the implications of what he might tell me, fearing perhaps he may be about to unpick reality as I knew it.
“It’s all very simple,” he began, “Bette Davies was just a turn Jimmy Baldwin used to do in nightclubs etc etc, to help make ends meet whilst he was saving up for a typewriter, you see. Only the act took off in a big way, and then he got landed with juggling his Oscars and his Guggenheim Fellowships, the poor sod!”
Here he began to orate rather majestically, gesturing with both of the paperbacks to emphasise his points where necessary.
“I know it might seem impossible that he could become she as often as twice-nightly, thrice if there was a cocktail reception at Harry Belafonte’s beach house, but you would be amazed my dear lady, amazed, at what one can do with a Playtex 24 hour girdle, a yard of wig tape, and a professional application of Estee Lauder double-wear foundation.”
“Yes,” I said, blushing only slightly. “So I’ve been told.”
“Of course I’ve been sworn to secrecy, by you know who, but to be frank with you old girl, I’m amazed it hasn’t become common knowledge by this point. What else are all of those phD students writing about I ask you? Just think about it now; how obvious it all is now that I’ve told you!”
So I mused on Bette and Baldwin, Davies and Jimmy, a while, and had to admit there was an uncanny similarity between the two of them.
“The eyes!” I gasped, “They have the same eyes - they really do!”
“Exactly,” said my companion, “And what about the strut? Have you ever know a novelist to have such a wiggle in his walk as James Baldwin?”
“And the cigarettes!” I exclaimed, “They both smoked like they hated the very cigarette at their lips! As if it were the source of their numerous problems, personal and professional.”
“Yes, yes, that’s it, spot on,” he said, and smiled suggestively, “And let’s not forget that very particular cadence in the voice. The long - pauses and the, deliberate stresses they both placed on the most unexpected words in the sentence.”
Well I can tell you, I was stunned. “I cannot believe I had never spotted this before,” I said, shaking my queasy head in wonderment. “And I - who have always considered myself quite cognisant as far as cultural matters are concerned - here stand hoodwinked!”
“Now, now,” he said. “Don’t be too hard on yourself baby doll. It is one of Hollywood’s better kept secrets. I feel privileged to have been in the know all these years myself.”
“Honestly,” I said, “I wish I could buy you that cinnamon bun after all, by way of showing my appreciation, for this, for this great gift you have given me.”
“Nonsense,” he said, “All I ask is that you think of me fondly two to three times a week, and that you don’t go spreading this around to all and sundry on the internet. The last thing I need is to find myself at the centre of another high profile defamation case. Not at my age!”
“Here,” he said, “Don’t forget your book now.”
We exchanged a few more immaterial pleasantries, before he told me he was in need of powdering his nose. There was the slightest suggestion in his voice that he might well be powdering it with ketamine, and I might have asked to join him, only I hate to come off as needy with strangers, so I merely curtsied once more and bid him adieu. As he shuffled off, this time at a much more modest pace, my boyfriend sauntered into view from the opposite direction, looking pink and healthy, like a boy scout master back from a hike.
“Oh here you are,” he said, “I was looking for you!”
“Sorry,” I said, “I went to buy a bun and then fell into conversation with the most interesting character.”
“Yes,” he said, “I saw you two talking from the top of the stairs there! Was it… was it who I think it was?”
Puzzled, I asked, “What do you mean?”
“Was it that actress, you know, her from Sweeney Todd and Howard’s End?”
“What?” I said, confusedly, “HelenalaBonhamlaCarter?”
“Yes!” He said, “Looked just like her from behind, the ensemble was all glamorously bedraggled - had the hedgerow hairdo and everything!”
“You know,” I gasped, “I think you’re right! The aristocratically bad posture, the intoxicating scent of gladioli and Marlborough Lights, how could I have overlooked all that? Clean passed me by!” I sighed, “I suppose I was just so taken by the convo, that I didn’t put two and two together.”
“Really?” my paramour asked, “Well were you talking about?”
“Ok," I said, “Have you ever seen a picture of Bette Davies and James Baldwin together?
“No,” he said, “I don’t think so.”
“No,” I proclaimed triumphantly, “And you never will!”