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Barrie P.

The Vagabond

By Esther Dyson

BARRIE PATTISON--for several months I visited him once or twice a week in his little room before I realized that I simply couldn't stand him any more. Those last few weeks I had visions of telling him, "My God, Barrie, you're just so horrible I'll go crazy if I have to hear another of your jokes" or "I don't know, Barrie; your whole outlook is full of hate, and I never want to have to talk to you about anything again."

But Barrie's defense mechanisms were so strong that something like that couldn't hurt him--if I did really want to hurt him. He would just have said, "I see, I see. Thought you could make me change, didn't you? It's not so easy, my girl!" So I just put him off for the final three weeks before I left the country. Of course, I didn't know all this at the beginning. I try to enjoy whomever I'm talking to, and the first sign to me that I disliked him was that he made me feel incredibly bored.

I met him through my roommate Tony, a small time film director. Tony and I and his sister lived in a flat in the center of London, and Tony had a color TV, so we were all very happy. When Barrie called up I probably answered the phone and handed it to Tony--who afterwards explained to me who he was.

"Oh, he's just working in the cutting room somewhere." Tony said. Most of Tony's friends were people like Roman (Polanski), Liza (Minnelli), Michael (Winner), and a lot of other names I only grew familiar with after six months of indoctrination into England's bigtime. But Barrie was a mere cutter, and Tony told me scornfully that he was so absorbed in seeing other people's movies that he would never make any of his own.

Barrie used to call me up whenever he got an "admit-two" trade pass, and we'd go together to see the latest in Hammer horror--The Best in the Cellar, for example--and have a meal afterwards. His favorite place was a little dive just outside Soho (which caters to tourists and has higher prices) where for about a dollar you could get an entire chop-suey meal. Having chosen between chicken or beef chop suey and orange or tomato juice, Barrie would resume the conversation he had begun as we walked out of the movie house.

HE TOLD ME long stories about his adventures here and there. He'd grown up in Australia and emigrated as soon as he could support himself. It once took a whole coffee hour to tell me how he had rescued five hundred production stills from a garbage dump after he had refused to buy them from a company going out of business. "But I fooled them! I still have them in my room. Next time you come over you can see them. How about tomorrow: there's a good flick on the telly and I can make us some lamb stew with my leftovers--very nourishing."

"Well," I said, "I had arranged to go see someone else and..."

"I see, I see. Not good enough for you, eh?"

At first I listened out of interest in Australians, then out of interest in him, and finally out of interest in pathology, I suppose--although again I never thought of him in this way until the very end.

He was about thirty, and he'd left Australia for the first time maybe ten years before. He came from a working-class family, and he couldn't talk to his parents, he said. I think his father had died, anyway, in the past five years, but his mother was still alive. He never told me too much about them, simply that they were confining and constricting and reactionary, and he'd got away as soon as he could. In Australia he'd worked on several film publications--copies of which he had strewn around his room, and in England in books by other authors his name would frequently crop up on the acknowledgements page.

When he borrowed a projector and showed movies in his room he often showed a motorcycle short he had worked on called Wheels of Death as a prelude to the main feature. Some of the people he had invited--most of them never came--would sit around the room talking desultorily and asking what he was planning to show. For Barrie would never tell. He would call up, saying. "I'm having a showing this Friday afternoon, Can you come?"

"Oh", I would ask, and so I suppose would the others, "what are you showing?"

"Ha! Wouldn't you like to know!" Barrie crowed over the phone. "A forgotten masterpiece."

"Well, who's in it?"

"Lana Turner," he might reply. He had a fondness for American B movies and rediscoveries of minor stars in their early and most piddling roles. "George Raft. You'll be really sorry if you miss it!"

"Well, I don't know. I'll come if I can." Or, later in those four months, I even said. "I'll come if I'm not doing anything else." He didn't seem to take offense, just said. "I see, I see, "and anyway I figured he must know that that was how I decided.

SO ONCE OR TWICE a month I turned up at his showings, arriving early to help spread pate on the bread and pour nuts and raisins into the plastic sieve that served him as a snack bowl. On days when I came alone we usually had a proper meal: I think one of the crucial points in our relationship must have been when he served rooster soup. "It's cheaper than chicken," he explained, "and just as good."

"Well...." said I, and then politely. "Where did you get it?"

"Oh, at the little friendly neighborhood grocery up the road."

I had passed down the road that afternoon. St. Ervan's Road. You took a 52 bus from Victoria Station, getting off at Portobello Road, where Barrie went to the street market every Saturday morning to buy old films, film magazines, secondhand books, stale candies, and, but the looks of it, perhaps his furniture and even the bread I was eating along with the broth from my rooster soup.

From Portobello Road I walked up an alleyway on the underside of a huge elevated highway and then turned left into St. Ervan's Road, which stretched from underneath the motorway to a field of mud and the beginnings of a housing development on the other end. Barrie's was number 39, but he'd warned me not to look for a number: halfway down on the right, pink door, he'd said. I passed a kid on a rickety bicycle, a man in an undershirt fixing a beat-up old car. The houses, all built together, were varying shades of brown and grey showing through worn-off coats of light green, pink, yellow--none of them very distinguishable. A woman stood on her doorstep--chatting to another woman in a faded housedress, leaning on a metal railing round the basement steps with several spokes missing. About half the way along I saw a sickly pink door, banged on it because there was no bell. A half-blind old man shuffled up to let me in, breathing out beer and mumbling. "Up here!" called someone from upstairs, and I climbed past a pay telephone and into Barrie's room.

AT THAT TIME it was summer, and the room was stifling, but by the last time I went to see Barrie I used to come in and stand directly in front of his tiny gas heater until he turned on the stove as well. Then I would sit down in his old cloth armchair--from Portobello Road?--with a pillow over my knees to keep them warm.

In the winter Barrie wore instead of a shirt a thick green pullover tucked into his trousers with the suspenders over it. The trousers were baggy and straight, and he reminded me of a young working-class hero--much too earnest to go in for any of the fopperies of radicalism. He looked so much like Groucho Marx, in fact, that I never mentioned the Marx brothers to him. It seemed to me so painfully obvious that he must be aware of it himself; he had the same seedy look about him, the same burning eyes and moustache, the same obsession with keeping the upper hand.

Barrie was always making jokes, too, or at least playing at being funny. His repertoire consisted of comparisons of his recent experiences with similar scenes in movies and a sort of savage humor regarding people and events. One of the first things that drew me to him was our common acquaintance with Tony, at a time when Tony was just beginning to assume his I'm-a junior-wonderboy role.

"You mustn't let him get you down," Barrie would say. Then he'd add, "He's just playing Otto Preminger a little bit early" or "At least he's got a bathtub; be glad you don't live with me."

I CONSIDERED THE IDEA and wondered why even he chose to live in St. Ervan's Raod. It always took me about an hour to get there, and at first it was an adventure, but it soon became just a long trek through cold and dingy streets. I through it annoyed me so much that I was always in a bad mood by the time I reached Barrie's, but making the same journey back into London always improved my temper, and so at length I drew a new conclusion.

By December I was always very sullen with Barrie. His jokes annoyed me, his endless anecdotes seemed pointless, and the incessant cold, inside and out, of a London winter felt more chill with him. I grumbled about it, I cut off his rantings in midstream, I complained about everything when I was with him.

Yet he continued to call me up. The last few times I would answer saying right away, "I can't talk much: I'm pretty busy."

"Aha!" he said over the phone. "I sense the presence of your boss! Well, well. And does he tie you to your chair to keep you working?"

"No," I said.

"I see, I see. But no doubt he watches you with a baleful eye."

"No, I'm just busy." I said. And, when the buzzing sounded to show that his twopence of time was up, I told him not to waste another, "I'm too busy."

But he did, and the conversation dragged on a bit longer. For a week he didn't call, and then there was his voice again. "You sounded much taken up last time, so I decided--"

"Yes, I've been packing to leave, very busy, and I'm going in a few days, so I'll say goodbye now..."

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