A Short Story by Caroline Kennedy
23rd October 2017
I did knock. But very gently, fearing to disturb the neighbours along the corridor. The door is slightly open so I look inside. It appears the room is empty. It is also very shabby. Well, shabby in that sort of sixth-form-student, reluctant housewife-kind-of -way.
I tiptoe around the door. It is obvious the coast is clear so I think this would be a good time to start taking notes of my surroundings. I extract my spiral notebook from what I refer to as my “spy bag” and flip over several pages of illegible scrawl until I find a clean one. That is one of my problems. I always write copious notes. I can’t avoid it in my line of business. But then the trouble is I can never decipher them later. So these days I tend to transcribe them while they are still fresh in my memory. Thus, the first note I will jot down, with a large asterisk above it, is a reminder to myself to transcribe them as soon as I get home.
I rummage around for a while in the cavernous interior of my spy bag until my fingers locate the sleek contours of my brand new, very expensive Mont Blanc ballpoint pen. I check my Swatch watch. 10.30am. My appointment had been set for that precise time and I wasn’t late. I am never late. I have always made a point of showing up on the dot, my finger poised over the doorbell ready to ring at the appointed hour. Some people find it respectful. Others find it intensely annoying. But it’s a habit I learned from my punctilious mother who, in her entire life, was never known to be late for anything.
Notes to self:
The bed is unmade.
The coffee-stained pink duvet lies crumpled on the floor beside it.
An old Tarzan comic book, its pages thumbed and torn, sits open on the bedside table.
An old-fashioned alarm clock is lying face down beside it, ticking away hypnotically.
Above the bed is a faded advertisement for Ernest Hemingway’s book, “The Dangerous Summer”. It is thumbtacked to the pockmarked plasterboard that serves as a thin partition between this bedsit and the one next door.
One by one I enter these observations into my notebook. After all, any one of them, or even all of them, could be leading clues to the identity of the person who lives here.
In the middle of the room a threadbare fake velour sofa, its cushions indented from decades of posteriors large and small, sits forlornly, acting as a makeshift division between bedroom and kitchen.
Beside the sofa, stands a square coffee table roughly made, by the looks of it, from a single sheet of thin plywood.
On it stands a lamp, minus its lampshade, with the words “Fame Is Just An Illusion” etched and painted in garish colours into its base. It’s the type of cheap discarded lamp you can find at any flea market sale on any Sunday morning in this part of North London.
I reach down the side of the sofa (a place that, in my experience, often gives up useful clues). My fingers carefully feel around the base of the cushions. I clutch a few items and withdraw my hand. But, apart from some stale peanuts, a broken pencil, a couple of pennies, a cigarette butt, some Rizla papers, a matted clump of cat hair and some chewing gum the only item of interest is a coaster, evidently stolen from the Casino Royal Hotel in Las Vegas. I twirl it thoughtfully for a moment, trying to work out if the name of the hotel or its location is a clue. I turn it over hoping to find some hint written on the back but, other than old whisky stains, there is nothing. I place it on the coffee table. The rest of the items I stuff back where I found them, beneath the cushions.
I sit down and scribble all this information into my notebook, putting question marks and asterisks beside the items I think are most likely to be helpful clues.
Piles of magazines are strewn carelessly around the base of the sofa. Copies of Time, Newsweek, Hello!, People and Woman’s Own, among others. I reach out to check all the covers but the only one that stands out from the rest, for some reason, is a 1952 Sunday Pictorial cover portrait of the then well-known Brazilian playboy Baby Pignatari. Was this a clue or was it simply designed to confuse me? At this point, I don’t know. But I write it down with a question mark anyway.
I recheck the other covers again just to make sure I haven’t missed anything –
Sammy Davis Jr.
Don’t ask me why but, for some reason, although I write them all down, I am inclined to dismiss each one of them.
As I get up, my foot knocks over an empty coffee mug. I pick it up. Just as I suspected, it has the unmistakable imprint of lipstick below the rim. In my business lipstick smears are nearly always a clue.
“Maybelline’s “Mexican Sunset, if I’m not mistaken,” I say out loud.
OK, so you caught me. Yes, I do speak to myself when there’s no one else around. Especially when I’m damn sure I’m right about something. You see, I’m good at things like that. I have to be in my line of work because, as I said, lipsticks often provide a vital clue. So, whether it’s Maybelline’s Mexican Sunset, Revlon’s Pink Grapefruit or Urban Decay’s Ruby Menace, I’ll bet in any competition I would get at least 8 out of 10.
It’s probably why I’m so often told I’d be a successful private investigator, tabloid reporter or even an FBI agent. Sadly, the reality is I have probably read far too many detective novels in my time. If there’s not a story there I will simply make one up. That’s what PD James does, so she said in an interview I read once in Vanity Fair. It’s what I do too. Although, I have to admit, compared to her my sleuthing is sadly lacking in professionalism. And my storytelling – even more so. But, still, it’s comforting to know we both apply the same techniques.
I hear a rustle in the corner of the room. I react instinctively and swiftly turn my gaze towards the sound. From where I stand it looks like a large rat sniffing around for crumbs. But, on closer inspection, I see it is, in fact, a small dark tabby kitten.
I approach stealthily. Rather than being alarmed, she starts purring. Without hesitating, I write her down in my notebook as a “she” because, as I said, I’m good at things like that. Her large round, mascaraed eyes, her long eyelashes, her shaggy mane, the way she stretches out her paw beckoning me towards her and how she provocatively rolls over waiting for me to tickle her belly. No doubt about it – this kitten just has to be a “she”.
Avoiding the small puddle beside her, I bend down. Her purring gets louder, inviting me even closer.
“You little tart,” I say.
But even I have to admit she is kind of sweet. Hidden beneath her ruff she is wearing a diamante collar with a name-tag. I turn it over in my hand, “Princess Pee”.
“A princess, no less,” I smile, “how very apt.”
But then is “Princess” the clue, or does the clue have to do with the puddle beside her and the other pee stains I had noticed on the cheap shag pile carpet? Another entry for my notebook.
“So where’s your owner?” I ask, as though she can understand me.
Yes, I admit, you have now discovered my other secret. Not only do I speak to myself, I also speak to animals. And, if I‘m bored of speaking to myself and there aren’t any animals around, I have to confess I have even been known to speak to inanimate objects. Tables, computers and video recorders have all been silent participants in many a one-sided conversation with me.
The kitten slowly blinks her round, kohl-lined eyes and rolls over some more. She is now completely on her back, her legs akimbo, desperate for me to scratch her tummy. I do so with the tip of my sleek and very expensive Mont Blanc ballpoint pen. Her response is close to orgasmic.
“You have no shame, you little hussy!” I whisper. But as long as I am tickling her belly she doesn’t care what I think of her.
“I’ll bet you’re like that with all your admirers. But you better be careful,” I warn, “some of them will simply use you and then send you packing.”
Her eyes are closed. Her erogenous zones are being stroked and that’s all she cares about.
“So where did he go?” I continue. “Your owner, where is he?”
She raises herself, yawns and languidly stretches her long legs one at time before circling me seductively brushing up against my body.
“You’re a harlot, you know that, Princess Pee?” I ask, rubbing the top of her head. “So where is he then? He invited me here, you know. He challenged me to find out who he was. He said he’d leave some clues. Are you a clue?”
She yawns in response, already bored by my questions. That makes two of us.
“You’re not being much help, you know!”
I cuff her gently around the ears. She instantly draws away from me, her back arching, her fluffy hairs rising. I apologize and tickle her under the chin again. She relaxes and immediately resumes purring.
“Does he make a habit of leaving the door open when he goes out?”
Without waiting for a response I walk past the dilapidated sofa towards the kitchen area. Princess Pee pads delicately along beside me probably hoping I am going to feed her. It occurs to me then that the mystery man was probably out of milk and had just popped down to the corner shop to get some. Still, in the middle of Harlesden, to leave your door open when you go out, even for a second, I imagined, was an open invitation to burglars. For this was one of those dime-a-dozen, two-storey, pebble-dash houses in North London with a couple of cheaply-constructed bedsits on each floor. It was just one of the many crumbling, flea-infested houses in that part of the city that act as money-spinners for many a disreputable landlord.
“Very unwise to leave the door ajar,” I say to Princess Pee. “And, besides, you might escape. I’ll have to have a word with him about that!”
I open the fridge to check the contents. Just as I thought, there is no milk. A couple of half-eaten burgers, an open jar of mayonnaise, an out of date bottle of ketchup, a loaf of Hovis bread, some dried out nachos, a carton of orange juice past its sell-by date, a half empty bottle of Tequila, half an onion sealed in plastic Glad wrap and a packet of pork sausages. And, apart from a dried-up sprig of barely-recognizable parsley, that’s about it.
“Well, he’s not Jewish and he’s not Muslim,” I joke out loud to Princess Pee, who is currently slaloming around my legs, purring loudly. “So you’re not a little Jewish Princess! Pork sausages, you see!”
She sniffs the air. I hold out the package to convince her.
“I can always tell. I’m good at things like that, Princess!”
I write down, “Not Jewish or Muslim.”
The kitten doesn’t seem to care either way. Religion is not what she’s particularly interested in at the moment. Her nostrils flared, she is sniffing around for the sausages. Having located them in my hand, she attempts to climb up my legs to get a closer look. But she only succeeds in getting as far as my knee. She slithers back down again, her tiny razor-sharp claws gouging my legs from my knee to my ankle, ripping a small hole in my jeans. Then, taking a surprisingly large leap for one so small, she jumps up onto the kitchen counter. I am impressed by her agility. And I am surprised she could actually find a spot to land on. There is so much stuff. Apart from an array of dirty dishes attracting flies there are a year’s supply of old newspapers waiting to be recycled, a rusty old toaster, a secondhand coffee machine, a juicer, an old-fashioned steam kettle, a double burner electric cooker, endless theatre magazines dating back to the 50s and, right in front of me, a pile of laundry. My instincts tell me to discard everything but to ignore nothing. No doubt many of these items have been deliberately placed there simply to confuse or distract me. But the laundry, I think, might hold some clues. So, gingerly, I start to go through it, picking out items of clothing one by one.
First there is a tee shirt, with the slogan “She Destroys Everything She Touches.”
“Does that refer to, you Princess?” I ask, thinking of my ripped jeans and the stained carpet. “Or is it something to do with his wife, his mother, his sister, his girlfriend?”
I wait for Princess Pee’s response. There is none.
“Or does he not like women and this is his way of expressing it? Or is it just simply another piece of the jigsaw puzzle, perhaps?”
Princess Pee ignores me completely. She is still hunting for the sausages. This is turning out to be far more challenging than I had anticipated. It was going to require all my skills of detection.
Second item – two identical pairs of men’s black briefs. I check the label. “Hanes, Comfort Soft”. Had they come in Hanes’ current TV offer of a “7-pack Plus Bonus Pair”, I wonder, or had he bought them individually? I will have to work that out later. But they appear, for the time being, to hold no immediate clue so I decide to eliminate them from my investigation.
“No, you can’t see them, Princess,” I say, as the kitten peers over to see what I am holding in case it is the ubiquitous sausages. I hastily return the offending briefs into the pile, covering them with an old towel.
The third item I pick out is a tank top. I turn it around to look at the front. It is emblazoned with the slogan:
“Fame is Just an Illusion”.
What could that possibly mean? I jot it down in my notebook with a large asterisk beside it.
The fourth item I grasp from the pile is a pair of rose pink-coloured socks. Rose-pink? Is that a clue? Well, it certainly matches the colour of the exterior paint on the façade of the house. Or what would have been the colour of the exterior paint on the façade of the house if it hadn’t faded to a dull grey after exposure to years of English sunlight and traffic pollution. And, more opportunely, it matches the quilted pink bedspread with the coffee stains.
I scratch my head with my sleek, very expensive Mont Blanc ballpoint pen. Right now my thoughts are somewhat addled. I write down “rose-pink” with a large asterisk.
I sit down on the arm of the sofa and go over in my mind what I already know. Or what I think I already know. ? I wrack my brain.
What do the slogans mean?
What does the black underwear represent?
Where does the Brazilian playboy fit in?
Why the Ernest Hemmingway poster?
One by one I tap on the entries in my notebook trying to make sense of them all
My instinct tells me that if I decipher his name then everything else might fall into place. He had told me over the phone that morning that his name was Mr. T.
Mr. T? Mr. T.?
I mull through all the men’s names I know that begin with T.
Terry, surely not?
Tobias (who on earth would call their son, Tobias?) Definitely no. Trey, I don’t think so.
Tab, hmmm possibly.
There was that People magazine cover of Tab Hunter but my initial instinct had told me to forget it. And, from years of experience, I had learnt to act on my initial instincts. They had usually proved to be correct.
Travis. I doubt it. It just didn’t sound right.
Theodore. Please let it not be Theodore!
Tyler. Tyler. Ty, Ty….
Something suddenly rings a bell. I grab one of the theatre magazines lying on the kitchen counter and impatiently flick through it. It falls open to an obituary on the celebrated English theatre director Sir Tyrone Guthrie, founder of the Stratford Festival.
Tyrone, I ponder. Tyrone…Could it be Tyrone? Was the man I was waiting for, the Mr. T I was supposed to meet, the son of Sir Tyrone Guthrie? No, no, that would be far too obvious. And, besides, it says here in this obituary that Tyrone and his wife were childless.
Could it be that this man is Irish, from County Tyrone, perhaps?
Or did he have something to do with Tyrone Guthrie’s Stratford?
Solving the answer to one question, I find, always throws up many more questions. But, in this case, I really believe this man’s name is the key.
So who is this Mr. T? And what is his relationship to Princess Pee? I continue to go down my list of clues in my notebook.
Enchiladas, what am I to make of the leftover enchiladas?
Something suddenly clicks.
Enchiladas and Mexican Sunset lipstick. A Mexican connection? Yes, that must be it!
But then there’s still the Brazilian playboy?
And why the Tarzan comic book?
And where, oh where, does the colour rose-pink fit in all this?
I stab my sleek, very expensive Mont Blanc ballpoint over each clue in my notebook, as if by doing so, the answer will jump right out at me.
I have to say, this is all very confounding. I mean have you worked it out yet?
If my assumption is right then Tyrone is obviously the vital clue here. But, other than Tyrone Guthrie and a handful of American football players (I discount these immediately, mainly because I dislike football and know absolutely nothing about it), the only other Tyrone I can think of is Tyrone Power.
“Tyrone Power!” I shout the name out loud.
I have to admit to you now that my heart skips a beat just saying it.
But what could Tyrone Power’s connections be to these other clues?
I am pretty sure I must have seen all his films when I was young. But could I remember the titles of them now?
As if by magic, images, long dormant, suddenly appear before my eyes.
Aha, yes! “The Black Rose”. A rose. But that rose was black, not pink. Then there was “The Black Swan”. That was black too. And then, of course, there was his most famous film, “The Mask of Zorro”. But that, too, was most definitely black.
I smile. So the black underwear might actually fit into this narrative somewhere, after all.
I can picture him now, can’t you, girls?
The broad-brimmed black hat, the sleek black leather gloves, the open-neck black shirt, the dashing black neck scarf, the tight-fitting black leather trousers, the long black horsewhip and the black mask. All extremely black, not a hint of rose-pink.
“So where does the colour rose-pink fit in, Princess?”
I ask the kitten who is sitting quietly beside me, intently watching a fly hovering temptingly above her head.
I hold the pair of socks tightly in my hand, as though by doing so I would divine its secrets. I feel certain that by working out the significance of the colour, I would crack the full identity of Mr. T.
I wander over to the window where the cheap BHS curtains flap limply and the ill-fitted glass panes rattle slightly in the autumn breeze. A pigeon, disturbed by my approach, ruffles its feathers and flies off the window ledge. I am hoping the pale afternoon sun will shed some light on the meaning of these rose-pink socks. To me, this is the one crucial clue.
And, not surprisingly, it does. Not surprising because, you see, as I said, I’m really pretty good at things like this. It’s how I earn a living.
As I gaze out over the drab North London street and across the rooftops towards Monks Park, (the only patch of green for miles around), the meaning of the pink socks becomes clearer. And, as I narrow my eyes, I can plainly see her hour-glass silhouette mincing towards me in her strapless high heels.
I check the image in my mind with my written notes.
“I think I’ve got it, Princess!” I declare triumphantly to Princess Pee, who is now lying on the arm of the sofa licking her paws, ignoring me in the way that only cats do.
“She is a voluptuous Mexican seductress.” I continue. “That would explain the ”Mexican Sunset” lipstick, don’t you see?”
But Princess Pee is not listening. Her attention is distracted by the renewed antics of the fly buzzing around her. In an instant she lashes out a paw but misses. She settles back on the arm of the sofa, her ears pricked, her tail twitching, waiting for her next opportunity.
“She was quite something in her day, Princess.” I continue, undeterred. “Did you know the tabloids referred to her as “The Anatomical Bombshell”. Hence that slogan on the tank top.”
I tickled the kitten behind the ears. She started purring immediately rubbing her head against my hand.
“Do you want to hear more?” I asked. The purring continued. I took that as a “yes”.
“Well, at one time, she was the notorious lover of the famous Spanish matador, Luis Miguel Dominguin, hence the poster for Hemingway’s book, “The Dangerous Summer”. I’ll bet you didn’t know that!”
Princess Pee gave me a sideways glance, the pupils of her grey eyes contracting, as the light from the window reached her face.
“Shall I go on?” I asked, aware that I now had her full attention. She nuzzled my arm, flicking her feather boa tail in the air.
“Well, you’re much too young to remember this but she was the young hopeful actress who had a bit part in “Tarzan and the Mermaids”, hence the comic book on your Mr T’s bedside table.”
Princess Pee regarded me suspiciously before settling down on the arm of the sofa again. I stroked her gently to keep her attention. The purring got louder.
“ Believe it or not, Princess, she was the one-time fiancee of the gossip columns’ favourite playboy, the Brazilian businessman, Baby Pignatari, this guy here.” I showed her the Sunday Pictorial magazine cover but Princess Pee looked away. The playboy’s notorious charm with the ladies obviously failed to work on her.
“Now, pay attention, Princess. This is where you come into the story.” I grab her little face and look into her eyes. “She was the young ingenue who played Princess Panthea in the movie, “The Slaves of Babylon”. You see, Princess Pee, that’s you!”
But the subject of this last sentence yawned, stretched herself out and instantly fell asleep. I sighed. I was feeling triumphant and there was no one else around to listen to my story. I nudged her. She raised one eyelid and looked at me, a bored look as though she had heard it all before. Maybe she had. Maybe Mr T had tested his challenge out on her before calling me with his monetary offer.
“Did he tell you, Princess, that she was the press-hungry girl who first exemplified the phrase “famous for being famous”?” I picked up the table lamp and read the inscription on the base. “Fame Is Just An Illusion.”
“And she was the spell-binding girl who bewitched a whole community in the movie “Thunderstorm”,” I continued, “hence the slogan “She Destroys Everything She Touches”.”
Despite my mounting excitement and my raised voice, Princess Pee was finding it very hard to keep her eyes open.
“I’ll bet you didn’t know this, Princess. But she was also the young unknown who became the very first ‘Bond” girl, hence the Casino Royal coaster.”
I picked up the limp body of the sleeping kitten and held her in front of my face. I was determined, in my moment of triumph, to have an audience.
“She was the Mexican wannabe actress whose true name was Rosa! You see, Princess, I have solved the conundrum of the rose-pink socks and the rose-pink duvet.”
It all added up. The kitten was less than impressed. She yawned and closed her eyes again.
“And, finally, Princess,” I announced with a flourish, “she was the young bride who wore a rose diamond engagement ring, a rose-pink sequined wedding dress, rose-pink strapless high heels and, most famous of all, was photographed among the rose-pink carnations that Tyrone Power ordered in their thousands to decorate their rose-pink wedding reception.”
I placed Princess Pee gently back on the sofa. She was sound asleep.
I wasn’t surprised to hear the sound of stilettos click-click-clicking on the well-worn wooden floor tiles outside the door. I already knew whom to expect. I turn towards the door. It opens slowly. And there, on the threshold, he is – Mr. T. Or should I say, there, on the threshold, she is?
T for Tyrone, the female impersonator, teetering on strapless rose-pink heels, dressed in a magnificent. tight-fitting, floor-length rose-pink sequinned dress, with sensuous bulges in all the right places, a flowing auburn wig, heavily mascaraed eyes, luscious Mexican Sunset lips, a large fake rose-pink diamond ring on her left finger and clutching a huge bouquet of rose-pink carnations.
She stands there for a moment allowing me to admire her undeniable, but fake, sensuality. Almost imperceptibly her luscious Mexican Sunset lips relax into a soft, seductive smile. I smile back, walk over to her, stretch out my hand and say:
“Linda Christian, I presume?” I giggle to myself. Not Jewish. Not Muslim. Christian. Linda Christian!
I had figured it out all alone. I had, honestly. Well, with a little help from Princess Pee. Because I really am very good at that sort of thing.