By Janette Jenkins
By Janette Jenkins
Europa. 165 pp. Paperback, $15
What is it like to grow old and debilitated, to spend days and nights drifting in and out of sleep, dreaming of the past and waking to empty mornings, blank afternoons, desolate evenings? In nursing homes, the elderly slump in their wheelchairs along the corridors, heads turtled down, looking forward only to lunch or dinner or, a real treat, the weekly bingo game. Such a twilight may await any of us, even the wealthy and famous.
In 1971, Sir Noël Coward is living in Jamaica, spending his time away from his big house on the water, preferring the seclusion of the little hilltop retreat he calls Firefly. There he drinks too much, picks at his meals and passes the time rereading the books of his childhood, especially the novels of E. Nesbit. “The Enchanted Castle” is a particular favorite.
By today’s standards, Coward — born in 1899 — isn’t that old really, just starting his 70s, but his body is a wreck. He can’t walk for more than a few minutes without growing winded, his heart thumps loudly at moments of stress, and he can hardly dress himself without help. Buttoning shirts, for instance, is a major production, and he depends on his valet, Miguel. However, when “Firefly” opens, Miguel has gone away for a week to visit a dying relative. His replacement is a lively, talkative 22-year-old Jamaican named Patrice. To break the ice, Sir Noël invites his temporary servant to join him in a drink by the swimming pool:
“They sit side by side. Patrice sipping his beer delicately, licking the pale popping foam from his lips.
“ ‘It’s not a bad life,’ says Noël.
“Patrice exhales loudly. ‘Not a bad life, Boss, but I do keep thinking . . .’
“ ‘Thinking what?’
“ ‘That I would like to be a waiter, Boss.’
“Noël’s mouth twitches; he tries to swallow a smile. ‘Well, I do like a man with ambition.’ ”
In fact, Patrice yearns to be a waiter at London’s Ritz Hotel, and one of his goals is to persuade Coward to write him a letter of recommendation. But the dispirited playwright and songwriter tires easily, and when faced with pen and paper, he stalls, he lies down for a nap, he puts off the burdensome task.
Nonetheless, the naive and cheerful Patrice won’t give up; he’s already made plans to live with his cousin Joe in Brixton, safely surrounded by other Jamaicans. When Coward next visits London, he must be sure to stay with them. To which his employer dryly replies:
“ ‘That’s a very generous offer. I’ll tell Lord Olivier he needn’t bother airing out his guest room.’ ”
Coward is wholly self-centered most of the time. He can even be cruel, callously breaking the radio his young servant enjoys listening and swaying to. Nonetheless, he grows fond of Patrice. He even invites his longtime companions and caretakers, Graham Payn and Cole Lesley, to join him for a special Sunday lunch so that Patrice can practice his “Silver Service” on them.
Much of the time, though, Coward drifts into reverie, visualizing scenes from his past. John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave, Alec Guinness, Marlene Dietrich, Gertrude Lawrence flit through his drifting mind. He lingers for a while over his early triumph in “The Vortex”: