Hugo Williams sits looking somewhat
cowed and apprehensive in the tea rooms
of the Waldorf Hotel. His appearance, dark,
formal suit and tie, silk handkerchief
arranged for show in his breast pocket,
makes him look old-fashioned actorish.
It is almost as if he were costumed
for a funeral service, and in a sense he is.
Old theatrical aficionados of English
drawing room comedy and older followers
of old movies where pukka chaps had stiff
upper lips and stiff moustaches, the whole
upper class apparatus from top hats
to gardenias in the buttonhole, will remember
his father, the actor and playwright
Hugh Williams, whom he writes about so affectingly.
The actor first flared in Hollywood in the Thirties,
disappeared into the Army for the duration
of the war, then re-emerged suave and grey
as actor-author, presiding over the drinks tray
in a series of debonair light comedies,
which allowed him to play himself
in the world he knew best – a forgotten world,
re-created here by his son.
Ransacking old letters, he has raided the past
to imagine himself into his father’s life
and personality. As the lives of father and son
loom clear, perception of the past is altered.
Reflections shimmer back and forth
as we watch Hugo Williams strolling through
the long twilight of upper middle class
light comedy, arm in arm with his son.
The brow of the hill rose steeply
ahead of me, a patch of light
like a window in its polished surface.
I would set my foot on that slick
of black ice, its luminous white line
would lead me before long
over the horizon of my father’s head.
Flights of steel-tipped arrows
pass across my father’s face
as he looks around the table.
His widow’s peak is pulled down
like a Norman helmet.
His eyes are shrapnel.
His irises are wearing
little white spectacles of bacon fat
to examine my plate.
He tells me it’s rude
to push my food around,
making dams out of mashed potato
when other people are eating.
He has loaded his fork
with a top-heavy parcel
of peas and underdone lamb,
added mint sauce and redcurrant jelly
and hoisted it to his lips.
He tips his head to one side,
as if he is listening,
shuts his eyes for a moment
and lets his jaw go slack.
It quivers slightly, opening wider
to allow the mouthful to go in.
I clench my fists under the table
and draw strength from a fly
that is sitting feeding in his parting.
I traced the makers
of his musquash-lined evening coat
from a label in the pocket
to a basement in Cork Street
and discussed repairing it with a man
who didn’t remember my father
or the white waistcoats
they used to make for him before the war,
but smiled and shook his head
and suggested pulling out the fur
to sell separately
and offered me ten quid.