FIREFLY

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.

“Firefly” by Janette Jenkins. (Europa Editions)

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”:

“His dresser has already seen to his costumes, the dress suits, pyjamas, the pale silk dressing gowns. He has arranged the bottles of Chanel and Floris cologne across his marble washstand and has sorted through the post, the small white envelopes in stepping-stone stacks across the table, alongside parcels, flowers, a case of Moët, truffles from Fortnum’s, and a package from Hawes & Curtis, containing a dozen silk shirts and a necktie. There are hopeful invitations. Cards and telegrams. Fan mail.”

It all seems a long time ago.

Of course, Coward also remembers the boys and men in his life. Patrice asks him, “So you are a definite homosexual, Boss?” To which he coolly replies: “I like to give them a hand.”

Sometimes, Graham or Cole — both still full of energy — come up for lunch. When Graham eats, he “tackles his pâté with such unbridled enthusiasm, spreading it over the bread, smiling with each bite, it seems he might be auditioning for a television commercial.” One day he unexpectedly brings a guest, a minor actress named Coral who is married to a producer. She mentions seeing Judy Garland at one of Coward’s shows in Las Vegas. Graham interjects, “We loved her very much,” and Coral replies, “Oh, you know everyone.” “ ‘No,’ says Noël. ‘Everyone knows me.’ ”

But that too doesn’t seem to matter anymore. Coward is feeling so worn out. As he tells Cole, “when Jesus wants me for a sunbeam, I’ll be very glad to go.” The famous wit and cosmopolitan can hardly bear any noise or conversation: “Talking? I’m sick of talking. Talking wears me out. I like silence. I like solitary confinement.” Everything is too much for him. When forced to meet old friends at a restaurant, he orders the lightest-sounding dish, red snapper salad.

Alas, when their food arrives, “Noël’s red snapper is a giant combination of fish, and what he can only think of as tropical apparel. Half a pineapple has been sawn into chunks and put back into its skin, complete with maraschino cherries and a jaunty paper umbrella. Grilled plantain sits next to a tower of grated coconut; the snapper is swimming, nay drowning, in curly green leaves that might or might not be lettuce. There are wheels of oranges. Shredded cucumber. Miniature fried potatoes and a pond of spiced mayonnaise. So much for ‘light.’ Attempting to make some dent in this Jamaican still life, he flakes off some of the fish, thinking of the salads of England, a few watery lettuce leaves, a sliced tomato, a hard-boiled egg and a beetroot; in Switzerland you would get even less.”

As these quotations indicate, Janette Jenkins’s book is both quietly witty and remarkable in portraying the slipping away of mind and body that comes with old age. At times “Firefly” reminded me of the superb film “Gods and Monsters,” which depicts the last days of “Frankenstein” director James Whale and his relationship with a new houseboy. It’s not as harrowing as that movie, nor as profound as Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” but it is similarly moving and beautiful. Patrice, with only his smile and his naive optimism, embraces life with all the energy of youth, while the rich, the internationally celebrated Sir Noël Coward looks forward to nothing whatsoever. One dreams of becoming a waiter; the other simply waits.

Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.