Barry had to queue at the Rex to get in to see National Velvet. At least it was only a U film so he didn't have to hang around to ask an adult to take him in or, worse, bunk in at the side door when no-one was looking, as his best friend Maurice used to do when he was out of funds.
He came out of the cinema smitten. He could still see her eyes, dark and velvety themselves, he imagined he was in love but only with an unreachable film star. How stupid I am, just fourteen and I get keen on a girl I can never go out with. Perhaps that’s the point, he mused. I don't know anything about girls, just talk about them a lot with other boys at school and then we stick pictures from Picturegoer of pin-ups such as Lana Turner and Hedy Lamaar on our bedroom walls. “Gosh, my dad doesn't seem to think I should be doing that at my age,” he thought.
Barry wondered about this and felt it was a bit old fashioned of his dad. He concluded that the real problem was that he never met any girls as they were all boys at William Ellis Grammar. Although there was the girls’ school next door at Parliament Hill, they would get detention, or even caned, if they went anywhere near it. Seems daft to me, thought Barry, why don't they let boys and girls study together? He fell to wondering if that could ever happen in this country. Maybe in a hundred years from now! Anyway he was too shy to talk to a girl so why worry about it? Girls were strange creatures anyway. How do adults ever get together, marry and stuff, he wondered.
Flicking through the pages of the latest Picturegoer magazine, Barry was surprised to see a photo of his heroine, Elizabeth Taylor. New Child Star Wins Race was the headline. Interviewed at her home with her mother in Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard, Elizabeth Taylor said she was homesick for London and often went to sleep crying at the thought of Hampstead and Parliament Hill where she went to school. “But you might become a real Hollywood star after your performance in National Velvet,” said the journalist. Elizabeth said she didn't really believe this would happen and didn't like the bright lights of Hollywood; she really yearned to go home and live a normal life in London. The reporter wrapped up the interview by saying she'll get over it and see this is her life now, Hollywood. We at Picturegoer think she will go far, even if she doesn't.
Wow, so she came from round here and even went to school next door to me, thought Barry. His best friends at school, Leonard and Neville, had taken up a new hobby: writing fan letters to the stars of the silver screen. Leonard had even received a signed photo from Lana Turner.
Dear Miss Taylor, wrote Barry, I have just seen you in National Velvet and think you were super. I go to school at William Ellis and it is just wizard to think of you being next door. I read that in Picturegoer! When was that exactly? Did you get the bus from the school? Gosh I may have been on your bus. I hope you come back to England. Can I have a signed photograph please? Yours sincerely
To his astonishment, a reply arrived only a few weeks later. That was amazing, especially as his letter probably had to go all the way across the Atlantic in a ship, as he didn't pay for airmail, and then all across America to California, and hers had to do the same in reverse.
He tore excitedly at the envelope but carefully preserved the stamp for his collection.
It was nice to get a letter from you, especially as you live where I lived and go to William Ellis. I remember it well and I did use the bus. Please write to me again and send me something, a picture would be nice, that I can remember North London by? Here is a photo of me which I hope you like.
“What's the matter son? You look hot, haven't got a cold or something have you?”
Barry quickly hid the letter in his homework, and placed his school cap on top of the photo which was half peering out of the envelope. The blue cap with its oak tree emblem reminded him of the school motto: Rather Use than Fame. Perhaps Elizabeth was choosing that herself, rather than the fame she could have if she wanted to stay in Hollywood.
“No, Dad. I ran home from the bus stop because I thought you might be going to work in the pub tonight”. Barry wasn't intending to share his great secret with his father. It was lucky he had got to the post on the mat early this morning so his Dad needn't know the best thing in the world was happening to him.
In his room that night he looked at the picture of Elizabeth. She seemed to gaze at just him with her deep black eyes. She still looked girlish in a dress with puffed sleeves. I wonder, he thought, if......
He searched through the pages of the Hampstead and Highgate Express looking for a good photo he could send. At last on the third week of looking he found it. A great picture of Parliament Hill Fields and a feature on the schools and the area. Perfect! Barry cut out the relevant pages and preserved them as if they were the precious pages of a medieval manuscript.
There was an even bigger surprise at Christmas. Apart from his family, he wasn't expecting any Christmas cards but the one that landed on his mat was from Elizabeth Taylor. And, he excitedly noted, it was hand-made with a photo of her from Lassie Come Home and a message inside “To Barry, Happy Christmas, Elizabeth”. Barry sighed and stuffed it in his satchel to show Neville and Leonard after Christmas.
Barry was even more surprised when a letter arrived.
Mummy and I are coming to Europe next month to promote my new film. We are staying at the Savoy in London and then going on to Paris. Can you come to the Savoy at 6.30 on May 22nd? If you can I'll meet you in the foyer and we can have a cup of tea and talk about London. It would be fun if we could meet.
Barry couldn't believe his luck. He was going to meet her. Was he dreaming? No, this was real and she wanted to meet him. This would be amazing to tell Leonard and Neville and the other boys at school.
They didn't believe him. “Oh yeah, and I'm going to have tea with the King next week” said Leonard with a wry grin.
Counting the days. It seemed like years later that May 22nd arrived. He pulled his best jacket out of the wardrobe and put it on. Looking in the mirror he was immediately worried that it wasn't good enough to meet a film star. But then she would know that no schoolboy would have anything great to wear while the country was still on rationing and using clothing coupons. And his Dad didn't earn enough to buy stylish clothes and certainly not those Spiv jackets in Cecil Gee’s in the Tottenham Court Road. It just would have to do.
Dad had worked as a waiter in West End hotels so he might know where the Savoy was. It turned out he did. “It's in the Strand son. Plush place for posh people. Why do you want to know?”
“I heard this dance band on the radio, Carrol Gibbons and his Savoy Orpheans it was called and I just wondered why it was called that. Do you think they play at the Savoy Dad?”
Dad carried on reminiscing about dance bands. "I met your mum dancing to Ambrose's band at the Lyric Hammersmith before the war.” His father's eyes misted over as Barry was readying himself for his big adventure. Now he knew where the Savoy was, all he had to do was get there on the 134 bus.
Standing outside the Savoy, Barry was overawed. Everyone going in was arriving by taxi or even a chauffeur driven Rolls Royce! Nobody was just walking in off the street. And just look how they were dressed. Didn't seem to have any problem with clothing coupons nor money neither. He looked down at his jacket and thought about turning straight round and getting the bus home.
“Barry - it is you isn't it?” a young girl's voice shouted excitedly. He looked around but couldn't see where the voice had come from. “I'm here, over here”. And then he saw her standing at the entrance bathed in a golden halo of light. Slowly the light dissolved and he saw an ordinary girl standing there, except she wasn't ordinary at all. She was Elizabeth Taylor!
It turned out that Elizabeth didn't want him to go into the Savoy anyway. She wanted to experience a bit of London she had missed and wanted him to take her to Lyons Tea Shop. “I remember they have these waitresses called Nippies and they serve good old English tea in silver teapots. We only get bad coffee in plastic cups on the film set,” she exclaimed. “But won't people recognise you after National Velvet and all that?” “No I'm not that famous and I've got this head scarf.” She smiled as he had always imagined angels smile, as she wrapped the scarf round her head.
Sitting in Lyons everything was as she had said. Though it felt really posh with elegant mirrors and fancy décor, he could see the customers weren't posh at all but more like his own class. Barry looked down as she placed her holdall on the floor and noticed a book peeping out. “Gosh, do you read Virginia Woolf? That's really difficult stuff.” “Oh well, yes, but I like it because she's always writing about Bond Street and Regent Street. That's me and my nostalgia for good old London” she sighed.
At the next table there was a bloke with a girl, probably his girl friend by the way they were looking at each other, all moonstruck. She was a pretty blonde. She might work in Woolies and he had just put his Burton raincoat over the back of the Windsor chair. “Come on Laura - say you'll go to the pictures with me next week. Meet me at the Odeon on Monday night at 7 and I'll get us seats in the three and sixes. Brief Encounter is on. I know you'd love it.”
Barry thought the bloke had won, as the girl gave him a nice smile and squeezed his hand and whispered, “I hope this is not a brief encounter, with us I mean.”
What he hadn't anticipated happened now. His tongue stopped working. Barry didn't know what to say, felt very self-conscious and had apparently had his tongue cut out in payment for this amazing piece of luck. Elizabeth didn't seem to notice much as she was babbling on about her happiness to be in London, her plans for her next film, her Mum's determination that she should become a great film star, her not really wanting this as she would much rather live in London than Hollywood. All this seemed to put him at ease and eventually his command of the English language returned - it was a good school, William Ellis. “But if you become a star won't you be able to get married to a handsome leading man like...you know...like...someone like say Michael Wilding”
“So what, all these stars get divorced in no time flat. I wouldn't want that. And the work too, it's awful. Mummy wants me to do well so I put up with it but you wouldn't believe what these directors expect from you. I feel like a cat on a hot tin roof sometimes, they make you work such long hours and I'm officially still a child so they should give me more time for my school work.”
And soon they were planning to meet again: they would go to Parliament Hill, get some sweets at the tuck shop and go for a walk on Hampstead Heath. “And now I've got to get back to the Savoy. Mummy will be wondering where I am. She was having a rest and I told her I was going to the bookshop in the foyer.” She leant over the table and kissed him quickly on the lips. “I'll write,” she said as she dashed out on to the street leaving Barry in a happy daze, swearing to never wash his lips for a hundred years.
The letter came two days later.
It was so nice to meet you. You are so sweet. I'm so sorry but we won't be able to meet again. Mummy found out from the doorman that I'd walked out of the hotel and met up with a young boy. She didn't like that and has forbidden us to meet again. Mummy and I are off to Paris tomorrow so it's goodbye to lovely London. You know all that bad stuff I said about Hollywood. Well it’s not all bad. I've earned an awful lot of money and I can spend some of it in Paris. I think I’ll buy a Chanel dress and some jewellery with real precious stones, maybe even diamonds. And we are going to go to the Eiffel Tower! I hope you have a nice life.