Jack paused in the wings. He knew how to delay his entrance by just the critical number of seconds. He was calm. He was twenty-eight, but he was already a veteran, twelve years on stage, not counting a year and a half in the army. Timing was in the blood, think about it and you were lost.
He patted his bow tie, raised a hand to his mouth and politely cleared his throat, as if about to do no more than enter a room. He smoothed back his hair. Now that the house lights were down he could hear the gradually thickening murmur, like something coming to a boil.
It did not happen very often, but now it happened. The sudden giving way of his stomach, the panic, vertigo, revulsion. He did not have to do this thing: turn into someone else. It posed the paralysing question of who he was in the first place, and the answer was simple. He was nobody. Nobody.
And where was he? He was nowhere. He was on a flimsy structure built over swirling water. Normally he didn’t think about it. Now his own legs might have turned to useless struts of rusting iron, clamped in sand. Above all there was the concern that no one should see this, know that he suffered in this way.
No one ever would. In fifty years no one ever would.
He checked his flies for the fourth or fifth time, so that now it was a mere fingering of the air.
He needed someone to push him, to give the brutal shove in his back. Only one person could ever do it: his mother. No one would ever know this either. Every night, every time, still her unseen shove. He barely noticed it and barely thought to thank her.
Where was she tonight? As far as he knew, she was with a man called Carter, her second husband she called him, a garage owner in Croydon. And good luck to her. But it hadn’t stopped her giving him, all these years, her invisible push in the back. Sometimes even, he imagined, invisible again among the seats in the dark, her watching, approving eye.
That’s my Jack, that’s my brilliant boy.
A garage owner—called Carter. I ask you, folks, I ask you. There was a theatre in Croydon called The Grand. He had played there, pantomime. Buttons. Had she come, secretly, with Mr Carter—smelling of car engines and thinking: Bloody Cinderella? That’s my boy Jack.
Now he was a boy of twenty-eight and already an old stager, wearing like a second skin this black-and-white get-up that was the outdated rig of showmen, conmen, masqueraders everywhere. These days they were wearing jeans and leather jackets, and twanging guitars. Well, that had come too late for him. For him it was the cane and the boater and the tap shoes. ‘And now, folks—don’t scream too loudly, girls—it’s the sensational Rockabye Boys!’ As if he were their fucking uncle. But he had the looks (he knew it), the grin and the lock of hair—he swept it back again—that could flop forward and knock ’em dead (on and off stage, incidentally).
If he could just get on stage in the first place.
As for her ‘first husband’, there was a man who was truly nobody, truly nowhere: his father. But in between— and it had been a long in-between—she had gone on stage herself, what a cruel bastard business. Think about it and you were lost. And who did she have to push her?
No one must see this, no one must know. He could hear the rising murmur waiting to engulf him. He must breathe, breathe. ‘Don’t cry, Cinders.’ Now he had only himself to push himself, but how was he to do it? Cross the line, step over the edge.
Jack was compere that season (his second) and Ronnie and Evie had the first spot after the interval. It was thanks to Jack that they were in the show at all, and the first spot after the interval was a good one to have. When everything changed, fell apart that August they moved up to last spot of all, not counting Jack’s own end-of-show routine.
They’d moved by then up the billing too. People were coming specially to see them. The billboards even started to carry pasted-on fliers with such stuff as ‘Come and See with Your Own Eyes!’ Jack had said, ‘Who else’s eyes would it be then?’ But his quips weren’t so many by those days. His public quips continued. Have you heard the one about the garage owner’s wife? The show must go on.
‘You’re in Brighton, folks, so bloody well brighten up!’
It went on through to early September, and the public only saw the marvel of the thing, the talked-about thing. Then the show was over and the talked-about thing was no more than that, it could only ever exist in the memories of those who’d seen it, with their own eyes, in those few summer weeks. Then those memories would themselves fade. They might wonder anyway if they really had seen it.
Other things were over too. Ronnie and Evie, having had a remarkable debut, coming from nowhere to achieve summer fame and having secured for themselves, it would seem, future bookings, even a whole career, never appeared on stage again. Ronnie never appeared again at all.
According to Eddie Costello, one of the local ‘Arts and Entertainments’ hacks, writing only a month or so before, the couple—and they were a real couple—had ‘taken Brighton by storm’. Possibly overstated at the time, it was now only half the story and no longer a mere Arts and Entertainments one.
Evie finally took off her engagement ring. It had been another case of the show must go on. In the days when his quips were free in coming Jack had cracked that they were engaged to do the summer season, they didn’t have to get engaged to each other too. Though clearly they had. The engagement ring, with its single sparkling gem, was even a visible complement—tiny but visible—to her silvery costume. How would it have looked if she’d taken it off before the show came to an end? And it was, like any such ring, a guarantee. If it all worked out, and surely it would, they would get married that September when the show closed and take a honeymoon—preferably not in Brighton.
Or perhaps Evie had hoped that by carrying on wearing the ring the whole thing might revert to what it had been. Everything might be redeemed. She hadn’t given it back to Ronnie. Ronnie hadn’t asked for it back. He hadn’t said anything. Let the ring itself decide.
One day that September, after the show had finished and after the police had said she was free to leave Brighton, she did the obvious thing. She went to the end of the pier, took off the ring and threw it in the sea. She never told Jack. Even then she’d thought, without knowing how her life would turn out, that doing this with the ring might somehow have brought everything back. Might even have brought Ronnie back.
It was a regular seaside holiday show. Variety. Anything from acrobats to the up-and-coming Rockabye Boys to the no longer up-and-coming yet ample Doris Lane, sometimes known as the ‘Mistress of Melody’, sometimes (in cheeky reference to one of her rivals) as the ‘Forces Fiancée’. Anything from jugglers and plate-spinners to ‘Lord Archibald’, who came on holding a large teddy bear—‘hand up its arse’ as Jack put it—which he would talk to, and the teddy bear would talk back with a considerable gift for repartee. Throughout that season they would hold conversations on the unfolding state of the world—what Macmillan should have said to Eisenhower and so on. On occasion they might even ‘become’ Macmillan and Eisenhower, or Khrushchev and de Gaulle. It was the funniest thing, a teddy bear talking like General de Gaulle.
But it was all held together by Jack as compere. The impression was that it was his show. They came to be taken under his wing and it wouldn’t have been the same without him. Your pal for the night, your host with the most. Off stage he’d say he was just the oil in the wheels—the oilier the better. But it was no small task.
He was Jack Robinson in those days, as in ‘before you can say’. Some patter, some gags, some of them smutty, a bit of singing, some dancing, some tapping of his heels. He did the introductions and links, but also a few numbers of his own and always appeared at the end to wind up the show and do his farewell routine.
The important thing was to send them all out with their holiday mood endorsed, feeling they’d had their money’s worth, they’d had a good time, making them even feel they might sing and dance a bit themselves. For many of them, an evening at the pier show was the highlight.
‘And so, folks, this is your old mate Jack Robinson saying goodnight and sweet dreams, whoever she is. And here’s a little song to see you on your way. I think you know which one it is. Maestro—if you please!
When the red, red robin . . .’
If the audience felt so moved, they might sing along. Or when they went out, to the lights and the sound and smell of the sea again, they might indeed find themselves, as they strolled with happy feet along the boards, singing in their heads, or even out loud, snatches of that song.
I’m just a kid again doing what I did again!
It was August 1959.
When Ronnie and Evie moved to final spot, pipping even the Rockabye Boys, Jack’s goodnight routine became, in more ways than one, a little trickier. Why had Ronnie and Evie moved to final spot? Because, while the show must go on, there was another theatrical law that said: save till last anything that might be hard to follow. But not to have had Jack’s closing number would have been unthinkable, even changed the nature of the show. So on he would come, after all the applause for Ronnie and Evie had died away, having to adapt his farewell patter. He would have his hands raised and pressed together, as if having shared the applause, or in prayerful salute. He would get out his white handkerchief to mop his brow. He would put a sly twist on his having been upstaged.
‘Well didn’t I tell you, boys and girls, didn’t I say? Now all you’ve got is me. Back down to earth, eh?’
He would drape the handkerchief over his hand and shake it, as if giving it commands. He would turn to the audience and shrug.
The note of clownish companionship was struck. They were in his palm again. It was a skill. Even in those days you could see the man was not just good looks and greasepaint.
Eddie Costello, who was to go on to write for the News of the World, would always claim he’d seen it, even if at the time it was Ronnie and Evie he’d picked out.
In the dressing room Ronnie and Evie, turning back into their normal selves, might hear the band striking up and the audience singing along with Jack. They would not sing along themselves. They might not even speak to each other. Or they might try to. The audience who had seen them, only moments ago, bringing about a wonder, would not guess at this off-stage inadequacy.
Years, even decades later, when Jack had long since ceased to be Jack Robinson—who could even remember that fleeting figure?—when he was just Jack Robbins again, though some spoke of his one day being Sir Jack Robbins, he was apt to say in interviews, with lordly modesty, ‘Actor? Oh, just an old song-and-dance man me.’ And he could still sing to himself, playing the part, his one-time song. Wake up, wake up, you sleepy head! And he could still give, if he wished, his end-of-the-pier wink and flashing grin, both fully visible and almost catchable from the back row.
Copyright © 2020 by Graham Swift. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.