In part one, we left our hero being allocated a task that may not be quite what he is expecting..
I can’t help dying a little. Mr Pettifore is an actor, who is rather camp. Private Eye insists he is gay, but he denies it by being seen with a string of actresses. However, he is also often close to being caught with a ‘gentleman’ friend and it would please the team at the Eye muchly to expose him. Indeed so determined are they, they have a column based on his tortuous private life called ‘The Fisherman’s Friends’ – a play on the idea that homosexual men prefer sailors, I believe. Mr Mezellious is often being instructed to try and stop some publication, usually by threatening a writ for libel, not that the Eye seems to care. Up to now, my job has been to issue some writ or deliver some threat. Given the Dog Lover’s Party is the preserve of Auberon Waugh, mainstay of the Eye, I suspect my position is somewhat shaky.
“I need you to exercise your acting skills.”
“Er… I don’t have any.”
He waves my feeble objections away, hands me a slip of paper with an address in Soho on it and tells me to ‘take a cab’. I’m to meet Mr Pettifore’s assistant, Roger Prod by the Little Piggy restaurant.
If nothing else, that small extravagance puts me on notice that this isn’t to be the usual mission. Being told to take a cab, with the implicit promise that I can claim it back on expenses says everything that you need to know about the importance of this task.
Roger is short, mousy and nearly always furious. He hisses with rage, his forehead knotted into a perma-scowl. He’s pacing up and down next to a narrow side passage that runs between the restaurant and a somewhat dubious ‘adult’ film shop with blackout windows. As I pay the fare, he’s already tugging at my sleeve, dragging me into the half-light of the smelly access to the rear of the many restaurants and clubs hereabouts. Once we’re off the street he looks me up and down, even though we’ve met several times before. After his annoyed appraisal, he turns to go further down the alley.
“He’ll hate you, but I suppose beggars and all that… Come on, hurry up.” His inner snake is being given full rein today as he hisses maniacally.
We scurry behind the buildings, ending up at one of those metal fire escapes beloved of New York films. He points up. “Top floor.” He squeezes his eyes closed. “And don’t ask.”
Still not sure what’s expected of me, I climb the rickety stairs until I reach a door that is open a sliver. Not sure if I’m expected to go inside I knock. As I do so, Mr Pettifore’s face appears; he looks terrified. When he recognises me, the door is flung open and I’m yanked inside.
The smell hits me first. There are notes of stale alcohol, weed and an overlaying cloying scent of fear. The furniture is like something out of a cleopatra film and expensive. Mr Pettifore is in a silk dressing gown. The only other person in the room is a pencil slim man with a handlebar moustache, the most extraordinarily hairy chest, suspenders and fishnet tights. I try not to notice he is not wearing any underwear.
Mr Pettifore drinks what looks like some brandy. “This, darling, is Geoffrey. Geoffrey, this is Armand.”
Armand nods at me. “The stooge? Nice.”
The stooge? I park that as I watch Mr Pettifore finish his drink and begin to take off his robe. For one rather ghastly moment, I fear he may be as déshabillé as Armand. If anything it’s more startling. He’s wearing what looks like a milkmaid’s outfit, of the sort seen in adverts for wholesome products only this one rather defies the adjective ‘wholesome’. The skirt is too short and the bust too enormous and visible for that to be true.
Mr Pettifore stares at me for a moment. “Are you shy?”
I shake my head, before I think about what he might mean.
“Good. You need to get out of that suit. Blue?” He shakes his head.
Of course, I stand there, utterly unsure… or maybe only too sure what is about to happen.
Mr Pettifore notices my hesitation. “Mezillious did explain, didn’t he?” He answers his own question with a shake of the head. “Of course he didn’t. You are going to put on this outfit and leave the building to catch a cab. Meanwhile, I will put on your suit and leave the way you came in. I will wait in the passage until there is a kerfuffle out front as you leave, when Roger will secrete me away. You need to make yourself very visible for the cameras so they know you’re not me.”
I look at his pantomime costume and wonder if this is some sort of joke, but know it isn’t. My silence probably irritates him because he places both fists on his hips ands glares. “Well?”
“What do I do then?”
“I have no idea. Whatever you want.”
“Dressed as a milkmaid?”
“Dear boy, this is Soho. No one will mind.”
Behind me, I hear a sort of rasp. When I look round, Armand is holding a lit cheroot in one hand and his clearly engorged penis in the other. “I think he minds, sweetie.”
When I don’t move – frankly I’m mesmerized – he puts down his cigar (sadly not the other) and moves towards me. “Let me help you get out of your things.”
I’m quick when I need to be and put the table between us. He stops, laughs and waves his free hand. “I’ll see you whenever,” and disappears. I truly hope he doesn’t mean me.