Brit Found Dead in Brooklyn Bathtub by Ross Davies
A short story concerning the untimely death of a lonely English writer, January 1962.
He woke in Brooklyn. He woke ill to hear the faint sound of a television in the neighbouring rent-controlled apartment.
“New York. I must be in New York,” he thought whilst drinking the remnants of a Club Soda that lay on the bedside cabinet.
As a ray of winter sunshine shone obliquely through the bamboo blinds, he felt his head begin to pound.
“Not a hangover,” he sighed.
How he wished it was simply the inevitable hangover. He had been drinking in the Brooklyn Inn until late after all. He reclined for a moment in a bid to retrace his steps. Had he made a fool of himself, he wondered.
Retracing his steps, he felt confident he hadn’t. In fact, he had behaved impeccably as is expected of all Englishmen. He had assumed an air of politeness with everyone he had met. His accent had been cut-glass. He had regaled but not to the point of tedium. He had laughed at the appropriate times. He had drank steadily.
“A gentleman,” he said. “Just like James Mason.”
He smiled, but suddenly felt a cold numbness sweep through his cranium. He was sick. He wasn’t a doctor but knew his trip would be bedridden for the remaining days. In need of hydration, he ventured into the neighbouring kitchen. Above the fridge, the Daffy Duck-themed wall clock ticked faintly as a squall of wind rattled against the window pain.
“Of all the fucking times. The coldest winter on record,” he cursed as he opened the fridge door. The fridge was empty but for a tub of butter and a paper packet of assorted meats from a deli in Manhattan. He wasn’t hungry anyway.
Perhaps he was still jetlagged, he pondered. Jetlag can tire a man. Jetlag and a hangover can damn near kill a man. Then he coughed and knew he was in a bad way. The cough was rough, more like a deep bark.
“Jesus,” he sighed before entering the lounge.
The apartment belonged to a European couple. A couple of beatniks that made their living selling art and renting their rent-controlled apartment to travellers when they were away. His agent had found the apartment at short notice and he had not refused. The front room was cold and musky. As his bare feet touched the cool rug beneath, it instantly reminded him of Christmas morning as a child. As stealthily as a ninja, he had tiptoed through the kitchen into the living room where the presents had lain, bejewelled by the leaden twilight. A rasping cough stirred him out of his reverie. He flopped into an armchair and looked to the towering mahogany bookcase in front of him.
The Europeans were well-read. They had the entire Everyman collection which seemed to have gathered decades of dust on their mottled sleeves. At that moment, the thought of reading repulsed him. He decided that either he should go back to bed or get drunk. His agent had arranged a meeting with the publishing house especially for the evening so for him to recover from his jetlag.
“You’ll be just dandy,” she has reassured him yesterday evening.
“Dandy,” he scoffed. He was ill. He wanted hot lemon with honey. He wanted the BBC. He wanted his bed. He wanted his mother. His head chimed.
Outside, Brooklyn was still under a white veil of snow. How snow made everywhere so very indistinguishable- cities and villages became interchangeable under layers of white. He could be at his childhood home. It could be Christmas day 1935 again, if he simply closed his eyes and tiptoed again on the cool Indian rug. But it wasn’t. He felt a weakness constricting his limbs. So very sick, he sighed. He closed his eyes and instantly felt his eyelids become heavy before the shrill ring of a telephone vibrated down the long corridor. He trudged to the far wall of the corridor and although the floor was still cool, it no longer reminded him of childhood Christmases. It hurt.
“Yes, hullo,” he answered.
“Good, you’re awake. I was kinda worried that you were burning the midnight oil,” replied his agent.
“I don’t have the money to burn the midnight oil,” he replied sullenly.
“That’s up to you.”
“Jesus, you sound terrible. Were you out drinking with Sinatra last night?”
“No. Would you please stop telling people that I know him. I find it embarrassing.”
“Who would you prefer? Richard Burton or Richard Harris or some other limey?”
“Richard Harris isn’t English.”
“Well whatever that son of a bitch is, are you prepared for this evening?”
“What do I need to prepare?”
“You’re not in London anymore, honey. Big impressions make big bucks. Or pennies as you would say. Pip pip!”
“So what do I need to do?”
“Play the gentleman and only speak when you’re spoken to. Mr Hampers is a very impulsive man. He’s also very influential. Get on the wrong side of him and he’ll have you blacklisted from every gin-joint and bookshop from Manhattan to Idaho. Capisce?”
“No, I don’t fucking understand. Try to understand, I’m very ill this morning.”
“Boozing, honey. It was Sinatra. I knew it. He got you tanked. What’s the dope?”
“This is no game. I know what’s at stake here. I didn’t come to New York to see the fucking Empire State Building. I need you to do me a favour.”
“I’m too sick to leave the apartment. Could you possibly get me some kind of medicine?”
“Sure, hon. What do you need?”
“No. Get me some booze. A quart of whiskey, anything. Jesus, maybe even something from your beatnik friends in Greenwich Village. I don’t care. Just anything.”
“Don’t order me around. I don’t like it when your nostrils flare.”
“Are my nostrils flaring?”
“They are now.”
“Why must you annoy me so? I pay you well. Please just find me some liquor and get here as soon as you can.”
He hung up. He knew she would be there within the hour despite living off Bleeker Street. She was smart. She was savvy. She was also beautiful and he wondered if one day they would marry. Perhaps it was best not to mix business with life. She had been his stateside agent for two years and he was indebted to her. He was on the cusp of prestige down to her. She had pushed, jostled, marketed and sold him as a literary colossus. He wasn’t sure whether he was American material. Could he really become successful and sell? After all, wasn’t he just another lump of roast beef? Another cup of Earl Gray. Another chin, chin old boy, how’s your father? His body ached. He longed to be away from New York.
For a brief moment, he smiled. Yes, he was on the cusp of success. His fatigue, for it was surely this, would fade after several drams and Mr Hampers would be signing a fat cheque that very evening. He would celebrate, perhaps propose to her in the Brooklyn Inn. They would dance in the snow that evening. Perhaps he would never write again. Perhaps they would live off royalties and sweat in exotic climes. She was a New Yorker but she didn’t need New York, just as he didn’t need London. They both needed the next best thing. But, first thing’s first, he needed to sort himself out. He would run himself a bath. As he did, he imagined the headlines. Very soon, he could no longer hear the sounds of the Jackie Gleeson show emanating from the neighbouring apartment.