Pulp.net - The Fan

The Online Home of New Fiction

November 2008

Katy Darby
‘Of course, all writers are impotent,’ says Marta, smiling at the waiter in the mirror and holding up two slender fingers for a couple more cappuccinos.

We are in Bar Italia in Soho, and she is schmoozing everybody already — not just the staff, who know everything that goes on in the area and tell her most of it, but the customers too. As I go to collect our drinks from the counter, she swivels her hennaed head, taking in the whole narrow room and most of the street, nodding to a few friends and local celebrities. Marta chose the place and time herself and turned up, predictably, half an hour late. But that’s a star’s prerogative, and she is, in her own way, a star. She greeted me, when she eventually arrived, with an ironic smile.

‘Here is the Muse’ she said, and sat down.

I tentatively ask her to elaborate on her statement about writers when I get back — after all, I’m one myself, with aspirations to fiction, and I may not want to hear this. She rolls her eyes and laughs.

‘A quotable quote, isn’t it? Isn’t that enough?’ I hurriedly scribble it down as she goes on.

‘Not all of them of course darling, that’s not what I mean. Only the good ones.’

‘Oh … really?’

She laughs at my raised eyebrows and lights an incredibly long, thin cigarette with slightly trembling hands.

‘Look at the little cub reporter, he doesn’t know what to think. Don’t be so nervous, darling, I’m not even famous! What you going to do when you are interviewing Robert de Niro and Tony Blair?’ She says it kindly, in her heavily accented, rather erratic English, and I decide to change tack and ask her about her past.

‘Is that true of Polish writers as well?’

‘Oh dear, I never knew any of them, not really. I was too young when I left, I wanted to see swinging London, talk to the Beatles and Kingsley Amis. I had no time for boring old Poland, I’m afraid.’

Pinning Marta down is not easy, as previous interviewers have discovered. She is evasive about her exact age and history, and few have dared to ask twice. She is a handsome middle-aged woman, much more attractive than her photographs, and in person there is a palpable vitality to her. This effusive, forceful charm is what she is best known for — that and the notorious bequest, of course — and it’s easy to see what drew so many of the most influential artists and writers of the last thirty years into her sphere, and often into her bed.

Marta is synonymous with boho Soho to many of its residents. The wider public, to whom her name means only the woman to whom Richard Fawcett left his entire estate, cutting out his ex-wife and two children, might find it hard to imagine how well she’s known and liked in her own corner of London.

‘I have to ask you about the Fawcett bequest, Marta,’ I say diffidently, and her wide plum-coloured mouth sets in a little moue of boredom.

‘I know, I know. I tell you what I have told the others. Yes, we were lovers, yes I am pleased, no I will not be contesting the court action. But listen—’ her cigarette stabs towards me ‘—they will not be getting the literary estate. Richard wanted me to have that and it is mine.’

She throws her cappuccino back and signals for another.

‘But you know there is very little else to leave. Fawcett was in a lot of debt when he died, the house is remortgaged—’

‘Yes, I know. I also know Mrs. Fawcett has married a very rich man — oh, she keeps that quiet; you are surprised? — and wants for nothing. My conscience is clear. Let me tell you about writers. Poets especially, but novelists too,’

‘Like Fawcett?’ I lean forwards.

‘Him as well. They are all sentimentalists, soft, you know? And the good ones, all impotent for most of the time. Writing is a substitute, a displacing what-is-it.’

‘Displacement activity?’ I offer.

‘Exactly. If they could be going out sleeping with women or boys every night, you think they’d get any writing done? No way. Listen to me, I know what I’m talking about. They can talk anybody into bed if they want, it’s what they do, words you know? But believe me for most it’s not worth their effort.’

‘And, er, so, who specifically?’

I leave the question hanging and she bursts out laughing again. Several heads turn.

‘You want me to name names? Oh sweetie, you must be more subtle. Perhaps I will if you take me drinking and we talk more and I like you, but we have only just met. You are cute, but not so cute. Perhaps later.’

Feeling suitably cowed, I put my notebook away. Marta forbade tape-recorders when I spoke to her on the phone.

‘If you can’t write it down or remember it, it doesn’t go in. I want only my best bons mots in print. Fair enough?’

Of course I had agreed. It was the first interview she’d granted since the terms of Fawcett’s will had been made public, and for a little-known member of the literati, she was very big news right now. Even the TV news, not just terrestrial but cable and satellite, had picked up on the story. In a few months, of course, people will be back to saying ‘Marta who?’ rather than trying to pronounce her last name and spell it correctly. But right now, this interview is the biggest scoop of my short career.

She looks at her watch, a cheap pink digital one (‘I could never learn to read clocks, darling. I never even wore a watch until 1976.’) and I take the hint, trying to pay at the counter, where the barman says it’s on the house, and asking her where she’d like to go next.

Marta looks at me with mock-innocent eyes.

‘Wherever you want. I don’t mind.’ I’m new to London and unfamiliar with Soho; and I’m sure, as I steer her through the maze of streets, she knows this. Finally I pick a quiet-looking place off Greek Street, a converted church with stained-glass windows in the style of Keith Haring. Marta claps her hands like a little kid with a new toy.

‘Oh my God, you are psychic!’ She pronounces the word with the stress on the last syllable. ‘I haven’t been in here for so long! I hope Ivan isn’t angry with me.’

She leads the way up the worn stone steps and flies into an embrace with the bald, burly, and very, very camp man behind the bar. I feel oddly jealous as she wraps herself around him like a cat.

‘Ivan! I’m sorry I haven’t visited you for so long! How is Peter? Let me buy you a drink, sweetie!’

Ivan won’t hear of it and waves away my proffered tenner. I have a feeling that we may well be able to drink on Marta’s goodwill all night, and wonder about forging some expenses. I could certainly do with the cash. Marta has established herself on a corner table and is waiting for me with two Martinis, one of them presumably mine.

‘I know Ivan from twenty years ago,’ she tells me in a hot, breathy whisper which tickles my ear. ‘He was the boyfriend of Simon Geller, the painter, then. Very young, very beautiful. That’s off the record, by the way. Geller’s wife, she still doesn’t know.’

I put my pen away and decide to re-examine my coffee-table book of Geller’s paintings as soon as possible. I realise that my unerring instinct for embarrassing situations has led me to a gay bar, but Marta seems perfectly at home and I resolve to take my cue from her and not worry. Like she said, I’m cute, but not so cute.

‘You know, I think that gay men make the best lovers.’ she says suddenly and loudly. Nobody disagrees with her, unsurprisingly.

‘Oh really?’ I manage to say, wondering how on earth she knows.

‘You hear of John Madeley?’ she asks. I’m surprised into laughter.

‘You’re not telling me that you—’ I wish I had my notebook out, but this is hardly the kind of thing I’m likely to forget.

‘Oh yes. Long time ago, of course. I was the only one, you know, he was a virgin with women, but we were best friends for a little while, and we were drunk and high and whatever else, and I asked him to sleep with me, for he was very cute you know, and very talented, and I had not formed my theory yet and I was curious — and he said yes. “Special favour to you, Marta,” he said. And oh, he was good. Much better than Fawcett, for example. So you see?’

I see. I dig my question sheet out of my pocket and ask her about the books dedicated to her — the rumour is that she holds the record, certainly for the Sixties and Seventies, when no slim volume was complete without its homage to Marta, cryptic or otherwise, and no novel worth reading lacked its thinly-disguised pen-portrait of her. Lead role or walk-on, she appeared under many names, but generally her own, in most of the fiction of the period.

‘Oh, well, Richard was sweet. Every good book he ever wrote is dedicated to me. Even before we lived together. He came in to Italia one day holding a proof copy of Midwinter Spring in one hand and a set of keys in the other, and gave them both to me. In the front it says, “To Marta; from a talent to a muse”. Sentimental, you see? And terrible puns. But sweet. He meant a lot to me, you know.’

I nod and write surreptitiously under the table. Marta sips her Martini thoughtfully. I take out my olive and chew on it, then wonder what to do with the little stick. Eventually I nestle it in the ashtray among Marta’s skinny stubs.

‘And what about Anthony Rhys-Jones?’ I ask, needling her a little. The Nobel Laureate had left his second wife for her, lived off her for three years and never put her name on anything, let alone a rent cheque.


Her face twists into a rueful expression and her low voice takes on a strong hint of self-mockery. Her cigarette hangs from her left hand, the one with all the engagement rings, forgotten for the moment.

‘Tony was the love of my life, but I’m afraid I was not the love of his, despite all his whining when I kicked him out. He was a cheap, charming, freeloading bastard. Very clever, very selfish, very talented, bit mad.’ She stares into her glass, heavy eyelids cutting off the unnervingly direct gaze of her grey eyes.

‘Very impotent?’ I ask, expecting a laugh or an evasion.

But she is lost at the bottom of her Martini, thinking about her dead lover.

‘No, no,’ she says, and suddenly stubs her cigarette out, the smoke drifting into my eyes, stinging them. ‘Amazing. Why I loved him, mostly. Always there is an exception to prove the rule.’

She smiles at me with disturbing warmth, and I concentrate on the grey roots of her red hair.

‘Bastard lives with me for three years and only ever writes one poem about me. One! I support him, I sleep with him for three years, that’s what I get. No damn gratitude.’

She is grinning broadly now, aware of the joke against herself. I point out that the poem is still the only one that everyone remembers, and she shrugs.

‘Not a good poem though. The woman-as-earth metaphor, so obvious; the scene in the field, ugh, tacky. It was more about his ego, his need to be adored, than me. He has done much better.’

I remember the passage she’s referring to. The narrator of the poem is lying in a field and describes the landscape around and under him in increasingly erotic terms, ending in orgasm and a trite reference to Onan and the solitude of Art. I suddenly see it from Marta’s point of view, as saying that women are essentially useful but dispensable tools for stimulating sexual and creative fulfillment. I’m amazed I missed the misogyny. I’d always thought of it as a straighforward love poem.

I wonder how Marta felt, half in love with a man who was wholly in love with himself, being used for three years, always being the muse. I feel a surge of compassion for her which sits oddly with my previous feelings of awed respect, even fear. Bad journalist that I am, I decide to respect her privacy. The copy of August 3rd Street in my bag will have to remain unsigned by its subject.

We visit three more bars after that, and as I suspected, I don’t have to pay for a single drink in any of them. I meet several people I have heard of, and get phone numbers off two of them. Marta and I manage to drink at least a quart of alcohol each and she holds it considerably better than I do. I begin to see how she has endeared herself to so many barmen and writers in her time. At half-past two in the morning we say an emotional farewell to Bella, the manageress of the Sub Bar, and emerge onto the thronged streets. Handling my tongue like an unfamiliar car, I manage to suggest that I should be getting home soon. Marta stares hard at me for a second, then agrees abruptly.

‘Walk me to my door, baby reporter,’ she says, and strides ahead of me, puffing on the last of the cigarettes I bought her. We reach the stairs of her tiny basement flat, and she turns that unsettlingly intense gaze on me again. I stare back, noticing the way the light from below silhouettes her slender legs, wondering what she’s thinking about.

‘Do you want to come in for a coffee, is the phrase I think?’

Her grey eyes are bright in the streetlight and it takes a second for me to realise what she means. I look at her and I see what her lovers saw in her, all that and more; but I also see a sexy, lonely middle-aged woman who could and would eat me for breakfast if I let her. I am usually a sensible person. The last time I wasn’t sensible it was something like this, although infinitely less tempting. I decide to be sensible.

‘Er, I’d better be off home, Marta, really. Got to be up tomorrow... Write up this interview for a start. It was amazing to meet you, really it was. All your stories, all that history—’

I could cut my stupid tongue out. How not to ingratiate yourself with women of a certain age: refer to their past as history. Marta grimaces, taking my rudeness with ironic good humour. She glances down at the lighted window of her flat.

‘You write stories too.’

It’s a statement, not a question. I’ve published a couple in magazines, and online, it’s true. I must have mentioned it in conversation, although in my drunken state I can’t really remember.


‘I’ve read them. I thought I recognized your name when we met, and I was right. You know darling, you are much better writer than journalist. Certainly you are a terrible interviewer.’

She laughs and leans forward, kissing me on the cheek with her warm, wide mouth.

‘I have a feeling that you are too good a writer to be a good lover.’

At the foot of the steps she halts and looks up as though she has forgotten something.

‘Still,’ she calls up to me, grinning, the old joke against herself, ‘always there is the exception to prove the rule.’

She flashes the fingers of her engagement hand in a wave, turns on her heel, and closes the door.

© Katy Darby 2007