I met a woman once whose father went to school with Charlie Chaplin. Not for long, of course, as due to the onset of their mother’s mental illness, Charlie and his brother Sydney were bundled from one school and institution to another until Syd ran away to sea, and Charlie joined the theatre. Funnily enough, I can’t remember any more about the woman at all, except that I met her when I was giving a talk about silent movies at a village institute.
Afterwards, I waited outside for my taxi and had a strange, unsettling feeling of apprehension. The following day, I read that someone had murdered his wife a few doors away from where I’d been standing. Just an ordinary couple, it said in the papers, who kept themselves to themselves. No-one ever thought anything like this would happen. But that’s just by the way. What I’m actually saying is that meeting someone who knew someone who knew Chaplin was my own very tenuous link to the great and famous.
Have you ever looked yourself up on Google? Try it. To my amazement, as well as my own modest claim to fame, I’m also an American novelist, a Canadian photographer, a professor of bio-chemistry in Capetown, a singer whose nationality escapes me and the mayor of a town in Connecticut. – Now, many years ago, my great grandmother ran away from home and became a pianist in a movie theatre. That wasn’t what she intended, of course. Great grandmother wanted to be an actress. She was going to be a star. But as everyone knows, life isn’t like that. Not for most of us, anyway. She left behind two children and a husband who loved her, and began a rampage of relationships that left broken hearts and babies all over the place, covered two continents and ended in a workhouse in Gateshead.
Anyway, after my talk, I spent some time standing out there in that cold and silent village street, looking up at the expanse of sky just visible between a couple of pallid street lamps, and wondered if my long-lost great grandmother had done much the same thing all those years ago, before abandoning her children and heading for the bright lights. She must have looked up too, and thought, there must be something else. There must be something out there, apart from babies and potatoes. But unlike Chaplin, she left behind a home of relative comfort and security and ultimately found only more babies and potatoes. And I don’t suppose they ever met.
Prior to my standing outside in the dark, I’d been talking to some local women about silent movies, and about Chaplin, who’d spent his early days in poverty in the workhouses and sordid tenements of Edwardian London, and how they’d haunted him, and later appeared in the mean streets and cramped close-ups of his films, whereas my other hero, Buster Keaton, had spent his early days with his family of travelling entertainers in a covered wagon, crossing and re-crossing the great plains under a massive empty sky. And all his pictures involved tiny figures in a giant landscape. Look at the films, I said, and you’ll see what I mean. Rain dripped through the tin roof of the Institute, and I thought how those early shorts had been shown in places like this, accompanied by a single pianist who might just have been my great grandmother.
So when it came to question and answer time, this was how I met the woman whose father went to school with Charlie Chaplin. And then another woman came up to me, someone closer to my own age, and said, Hadn’t I been on the Photography and Film course, years ago, when she’d been doing Librarianship on the next floor?
I said I had.
“I remember you,” she said. She said her name was Aurelia Plum – a likely story, I thought. I didn’t remember her at all.
“I used to know you,” she said. There was a pause. “Didn’t you used to go out with that Indian guy who was a political agitator at college?”
I thought for a moment.
“No,” I said. “I actually went out with a guy who had a similar name to the political agitator, but it wasn’t him at all. “
“Oh,” she said. “Are you sure?”
As if I hadn’t known who I was going out with – even if it had been forty hm years ago. Actually, I’d rather not think about that. I smiled bravely.
“No,” I said, “it definitely was someone completely different.”
“Oh,” she said, clearly deflated, her own tenuous brush with the great and famous diminished.
“Sorry about that,” I said. Although why I was apologising, I can’t imagine. And I didn’t mention that a few years earlier, walking through London with the man I eventually married – who wasn’t either of them, by the way – we’d passed a tall, vaguely familiar-looking man in a long over-coat and Nehru hat and all three of us had called out simultaneously,
“Hello, how are you? – Haven’t seen you for ages!” and carried on our way.
And I said to my husband, “Who on earth was that?”
“Oh,” he said, “it was —— —–” and he mentioned the one-time political agitator, now a respectable broadcaster and correspondent for a national newspaper, frequently seen in a suit. And he’d never met him in his life before. So presumably, the ex-agitator must have thought, “Oh, wasn’t that that girl people used to think I was going out with way back in the Sixties, who was actually going out with someone else?” And none of us were any the wiser.
“Yes, I do remember you,” said my recently acquired acquaintance, Aurelia Plum. She stared at me intensely. ”Didn’t you used to be the tall blonde one with the glasses?”
“No,” I said, “I was always the short dark one with the contact lenses.”
And I went outside, where at least the rain had stopped. I looked up into the night sky, hanging over the windy wetness of the empty street, where unknown to me and apparently in complete silence, somebody was busy murdering his wife, and thought how little any of us really know about one another. I thought about Chaplin, and I thought about my great grandmother, born the same year, for whom no fame and fortune ever came. No belated awards or chateaux in Switzerland for her. The woman I never knew, who fled her family and respectability, who sailed to America just before the Titanic full of feckless dreams, returned disowned and penniless shortly before the Lusitania, and simply slipped into that long inevitable downward spiral until the doors of the workhouse closed silently behind her, swallowing her like Jonah’s whale. The End.
Quite abruptly, it began to rain again, large gritty droplets plopping into my shoes. And I stood there in the dark, waiting for my cab.