Winter 2008, Volume 24.2
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1953 and educated there and at Oxford, Ronald Frame has been described as "Scotland’s finest contemporary writer" by Alexander McCall Smith and as "a master of suspense to rank alongside the greats" by The London Times. He is the author of thirteen novels and short story collections, such as Winter Journey (1984), A Long Weekend with Marcel Proust (1986), Sandmouth (1988) and The Lantern Bearers (2001), among others. He was the co-recipient of the first Betty Trask Prize for fiction, and The Lantern Bearers was longlisted for The Man Booker Prize. He is also the winner of the 2000 Saltire Award for Scottish Book of the Year, of the 2003 Barbara Gittings Honor Award in Fiction from The American Library Association, and of the Samuel Beckett Prize. Frame is also an award-winning television and radio scriptwriter. His documentary on the life and work of art nouveau architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, A Modern Man, has aired repeatedly on both PBS and the Arts & Entertainment channel. His first radio play Winter Journey was nominated for three Sony Awards, and he has since written more than a dozen of radio plays for the BBC. Currently, Frame is at work on several screenplays, often adapted from this short and long fiction, with working titles such as The Lantern Bearers and Permanent Violet.
"The Treatment" is one in a series of stories located in the fictitious town of Carnbeg in the Scottish Highlands, for which Frame has received wide international recognition. Numerous recent Carnbeg stories—many of which take place in the infamous hotel "The Hydro"—have been published or are forthcoming in such journals as The Antioch Review, the Sewanee Review, and the Michigan Quarterly Review, among others. His stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and been included in Norton’s recent anthology, New Sudden Fiction (2007).
Ronald Frame’s papers are in the care of the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh.
Robin Livingstone, born 1932, Edinburgh, Scotland; International screenwriter (Oscar Best Original Screenplay 1969); Film credits include…
Livingstone didn’t know how she knew to come to Scotland to find him. But Tinseltown is a big village for gossip and she would have spoken to someone who had heard from someone else who had heard that this was where he had gone to ground to get his scripts written.
The car purred down the long driveway, a hire Bentley. La Freed was still living the life of a star, an actress to the core of her being, even though her career had been on the slide for most of the past decade.
"Mr. Livingstone, I presume?"
A kiss for him on both cheeks, just how her character learned to kiss in France in Bar Soleil. A cloudlet of perfume—already expanding to fill the hall of the house—from one of those Grasse distilleries they’d visited together on an afternoon off. But her clothes were pure razzamataz, thank-you-Edith-Head.
"I thought everyone was doing Rome these days," Merelle said, meaning this year of grace 1975.
"As you can see…"
Livingstone pointed outside to the lawn—lawns, plural—and to the glen of heather hillsides behind the estate.
"Well, I reckon this is much better," Merelle said. "Living like a lord."
"It’s quiet. I can work here."
"By the month? The year?"
"I own it."
The actress whistled through her teeth, something she hadn’t known to do when they were making the film in France.
"So it’s true, what they’re paying you for your scripts?"
"This is cheaper than the palazzo life in Rome."
"No," Livingstone said, "not chic."
"You always did have a sense of style, Robin."
"You never told me that."
Livingstone shook his head. "Nope."
"There was a lot I didn’t get round to telling you, I guess."
"You didn’t tell me you were coming."
"Maybe you’d have fled to the hills?"
It was the first time properly in twenty years, after those occasions of spotting one another in restaurants, in Hollywood or Manhattan, and waving a hand and passing on as if they were too busy to stop.
"To what do I owe this pleasure, Miss Freed?" Livingstone asked her.
"Ever the gentleman. You always were."
Momentarily a pained expression crossed her face.
"Ever the actress," Livingstone told her.
"Sorry," Livingstone said. "I do apologize."
But they both knew from whom the apologies were actually due.
"Do the Scots drink tea like the English?" Merelle asked him.
"You just dropped in for tea?"
"I’ve come to take you out to dinner. To my hotel. You can come, can’t you?"
Livingstone glanced over his shoulder, towards the open door of the study.
"I do have a heap of things to do."
"Is that a ‘no’?"
"No, it’s not a ‘no.’"
"Good. Then we’ll have a cup of tea here, Mr. L. Followed by dinner in town."
"And," she said, "you and I will catch up on everything that’s happened to the two of us."
The other guests in the dining-room couldn’t take their eyes off her. Livingstone saw her name on their lips, Merelle Freed, they remembered her. She was aware of the attention, but affected not to be.
She was more interested in their own conversation, he felt, how they were trying to roll back the years. And yet of course the past was a dangerous place for them both.
It was she who mentioned France first, shooting Bar Soleil on the Cote d’Azur.
"That movie still looks good," she said. "I saw it on TV recently. I always loved it."
"You never told me that either."
"At the premiere—"
"Oh, I’ve always done premieres on pills. I don’t remember anything afterwards."
"I’m glad you think it holds up well."
"You care what I think?"
She was smiling, but her eyes were suddenly intent. Those cerulean blue eyes, which seemed at moments like this to be lit from behind.
"I care what anyone thinks," Livingstone told her. "Bar Soleil taught me that a film belongs to countless people. It becomes a part of their lives, their memories."
"I’m not a critic. I can’t talk about it as art. But when I saw it again—everything seemed as fresh as it was then."
What she meant, Livingstone guessed, was that the camera caught her in her prime. The film signified so much to her because she was never to look better than she did in 1955 at Eden Roc, at Juan les Pins, at Villefranche. At the time she didn’t realize that, but the years had opened those blue, blue eyes to some uncomfortable truths.
"That wasn’t my doing," Livingstone said. "It was the direction."
"There wouldn’t have been a film without a script. The script you wrote. ‘By Robin Livingstone.’"
"In those days I didn’t know they could pull you off a film. Now I make sure they can’t do it to me, treat me like a hireling."
"Bravo!" The actress clapped him on the arm, withdrawing her hand slowly.
Livingstone pulled himself a little more upright in his chair.
They sat discussing shared acquaintances: a long litany of names. A rambling, associative conversation—with some unstaged interruptions.
Livingstone found opportunities to study his hostess, to look at her hard, when she was taken up with reading the menu, or speaking to someone who had come up to plead for an autograph, or was just trying to catch her reflection in the window glass.
She must have been 55 plus. Between 55 and 60. In France she’d had a birthday party, and she allowed them to put 35 candles on the cake. The ten years that separated them used to seem a hell of a lot. He’d been a callow boy by comparison with this woman of the world in her elegance, this star who was animating the character he had invented in his head.
She didn’t mention those nights they’d spent together. But it was what connected them. At the time she was to become the love of Livingstone’s life. Most of his living up to that point had been done in his writing, and now he could believe he was head over heels. He merely supposed she felt the same way. Until Andre Norbert walked up to her on the dance floor that evening in Nice—Norbert with his battered looks and boulevardier’s charm—and started showing her some steps he’d just picked up in Copacabana.
Here the two of them were in Carnbeg twenty years later not talking about it, with a Highland sunset performing for them behind their doubles in the Hydro’s picture windows.
Would he have been capable of scripting this? Livingstone wondered. No, he doubted it very much.
Merelle was dressed for dinner at the Wilshire or the Beverly Hills. She sat smoking a long, thin menthol cigarette, which allowed her to display her jewelry and tanned arm to the room. Only the forearm, though; she was careful to regulate just what was visible. Women of a certain age who have lived in the sun, on location-shoots and by poolsides, acquired in Livingstone’s experience—sans exceptions—the same folds of crepey skin in the upper arms, the thighs. She appeared to know that he knew, and she smiled with a mixture of irritation and resignation.
"So, whatever happened to Norbert?" Livingstone had to ask at last.
She didn’t shirk his question. She’d been waiting for it all this time.
"Frenchmen don’t transplant well."
"They need French food. The sound of their own language. They need their maman."
Merelle Freed and Andre Norbert had been an item in the press for the next couple of years. Young Livingstone seized up every time he saw their faces lit by the glare of a photographer’s flashbulb or read about them in Elsa Maxwell’s reports.
"Unforgettable" Nat would sing, and that was what Livingstone had thought she was. She had made him think she’d been waiting all her life for him to come along. And there he was, in fleshpot Nice, which meant she must be the happiest woman alive.
Off the set Livingstone used to take her shoes and hold her hand, while she walked over the bonnets of cars ("‘hoods,’ Robin, ‘hoods,’ how many times!" she would laugh.) He picked her silk stockings off the bedroom floor and lovingly smoothed them out, laid them over the back of a chair. He dried her hair with a towel while she poured coffee for them both, he rubbed moisturizing cream—optimism cream, as she called it—on to her shoulders, her back. They listened to Nat on the radio, and he thought this really was their "Avalon," they were living out the dream under an orange-colored Riviera sky; with oodles of frim-fram sauce on the side, it couldn’t get much better than this, could it?
Later he would get glimpses of a different Merelle. She was observing him in the wardrobe mirror and she had forgotten to smile; she was listening to the lyrics of "Lush Life," that sad and proud descent into solitude. Whenever she thought he wasn’t paying attention, she pored over the faces of the new starlets in the magazines, maybe looking for herself as she used to be but also seeing a massed phalanx of rivals. (Once upon a time she had elbowed others out of the way, and now they were doing it to her. Well, folks, that’s entertainment! Very Eve Harrington.)
They had finished dinner. Now she was showing him the hotel’s other public rooms.
There was an empty unheated ballroom, with misted mirrors. In the darkness massive chandeliers hovered above them like—
"Like spaceships," was all Livingstone could manage.
Back through the labyrinth of downstairs corridors.
"I’ve got the best rooms in the place," she said. "Like to see them?"
"I’ll take your word for it."
"How long are you here for, d’you know?"
"Wanting rid of me already?"
"No. No, of course not."
She didn’t tell him how long she planned to stay in Carnbeg.
She was standing with her back against a paneled wall, one leg raised, knee bent and foot turned underneath: that sultry pouting pose she had perfected in France. But she was quite wrong, Livingstone already knew, he wasn’t going to fall for it again.
The following afternoon.
Livingstone was driving her along the back roads. Narrow red tarmacadam strips, with passing places and—for another season—snow markers already in place.
"Well, Route 66 it ain’t." She laughed.
Gorse bushes blazed yellow. Thickets of wild rhododendrons buckled under the weight of pink, purple, white flowerheads.
"You just happened to be in Scotland?" Livingstone asked.
"The world is shrinking all the time."
"You came here especially?"
"That’s an answer?" Livingstone persisted.
"What is that?"
Merelle turned and looked at him. "You think I shouldn’t have come?"
"I didn’t say that. Don’t want to take away your free will, do I now?"
She continued to look at him; she waited until he couldn’t suppress a smile any longer.
"You’re not so serious after all," she told him.
"I couldn’t work out what it was about your face. Something’s missing."
"Laughter lines," she said. "I’ll have to see what I can do about that."
The woman did try. But she had her own serious purpose in coming, crossing a continent and an ocean to get here.
Livingstone had to wait until she’d had a couple of whisky-sours in the hotel’s cocktail bar. The fumed-oak paneling and dim coral-shaded lamps didn’t exactly lift the spirits.
Merelle shook a cigarette from her packet.
"Got a light? No, you don’t, do you?"
Livingstone found matches and an ash-tray for her. She exhaled some smoke, and then she began.
"My star is waning," she said. "Dipping."
She pointed skywards, made a slow arc of her hand.
"Down and down."
Livingstone was embarrassed, he didn’t know what to say.
"It’s okay, you can’t deny it. It’s a fact. And I want to do something about it."
"Do what?" Livingstone said.
"I want a good script. A script that no producer is going to say ‘no’ to. You’re one of the best, everyone tells me. You understand women."
"Beth wouldn’t agree with you," Livingstone said.
"I heard you’d split up."
"It was a mutual thing."
"Marriage is unnatural, darling. Closeting yourself with someone till kingdom come."
"It did feel like a long time."
"Now you don’t need to marry ever again. A toast!"
Merelle raised her tumbler, and Livingstone chinked his wine glass against it.
He smiled over at her. But it wasn’t quite enough for laughter lines.
She came back to the matter of the script.
"But I don’t have anything," Livingstone said.
"Write me one."
"Just like that?"
"You would if you wanted to."
"Why should I want to?"
"After—" Livingstone swallowed a mouthful of breath"—after how you treated me."
"Oh, haven’t you forgotten all that?"
Livingstone just stared at his tormentress of two decades ago. At this moment the wounds were as raw as if they’d been inflicted yesterday.
"Who can understand our hearts’ desires?" she said.
"Which film was that line in?"
"No film. I’ve got a brain, you know."
"Your heart’s desires, you mean," Livingstone said. "What about mine?"
"Don’t pity yourself, Mr. Livingstone."
"I’m not. I’m not pitying myself."
"Are you sure?"
Livingstone stared at her again.
"If you were in Rome," Merelle drew on her cigarette and exhaled, "you’d be meeting people all the time."
"People like you. Who have their fun, then move on."
"I see." The actress watched him through a delicate blue veil of smoke. "So that’s it. I didn’t stay in touch with you, maintain contact?"
"What would we have had to say?"
"We’re both in the movie business."
"But I thought—"
"Thought what?" Merelle repeated.
"—what was between us…"
"Didn’t it mean something to you?"
Merelle smiled as she considered the cusp of soft ash on the cigarette’s tip.
"Which of your scripts was that in?" she asked.
"You’re avoiding the question."
She crossed her legs.
"It was sweet. Very pleasurable. While it lasted."
"Then it stopped."
"You thought you’d be better off with Norbert?"
Merelle flicked the ash from a height into the exact center of the ash tray.
"It’s just the older-man-and-younger-woman thing. It’s easier—"
"What did he give you? Tell me."
"Oh…" Merelle sighed, prettily recrossing her legs. "He made me feel—mature. Together, collected. He made me think I knew my own mind."
"Your ‘own mind’?" Livingstone repeated.
Merelle drew again on her cigarette, narrowing her eyes at him.
"You didn’t see me like that," she said, "is that it?"
"I thought—I thought you were the most sophisticated woman I’d ever met." Livingstone felt his face firing. "And the most glamorous."
Merelle looked at him, startled, with those intensely blue eyes wide open.
"It’s true," he told her.
"And now, clearly, I’m not. Am I?"
"Unlike you, I’ve kept my memories."
"You can get to depend too much on memories. You have to move on, not look back all the time."
"Well, if you don’t look back—"
"Not all the time," she said.
"—then, why are you here?"
"I told you. I’ve come about a script."
"Why me? Why not someone else?"
"Because Bar Soleil is something I’m proud of."
"It’s twenty years ago," Livingstone said.
"We should be twenty years wiser you think?"
"What about the older-woman-and-the-younger-man thing?"
Merelle didn’t reply. Or rather, she answered him at a tangent.
"Your fresh air here—country air—it’s kept you well preserved."
"Sound what?" Merelle said.
"—a tad disapproving."
"Not at all. I wish it had preserved me."
"By association, then." Livingstone went in on the attack this time. "You think I’ll help to make you look younger?"
"That’s a bit—below the belt you say?"
"I suppose it is."
Merelle fixed the man with her eyes, as if she was waiting for him to do the penitent bit, mea culpa.
But Livingstone let the silence grow and grow, and float away the possibility of another "I’m sorry" from him.
Livingstone had to help the hotel’s distinguished guest upstairs. Whisky, he now realized, went straight to her head.
On the upstairs corridor she went over on one heel, and fell against him.
Livingstone unlocked the door of the suite and guided his charge inside. She flopped down on to the sofa, managing to hold on to his hand.
"Must you go?"
Livingstone, standing, tried to loosen his fingers from her grip.
"I’ve remembered," he said, "some work I’ve got to do."
"Forget your work, can’t you?"
"I thought that was the point."
"Of everything. Why you’re here."
The actress pulled back her hand, reclaimed it, as if having him hold it had been an oversight.
"That’s just the way of it," Livingstone shrugged.
"If you say so."
Livingstone watched as she looked round the sitting-room. It seemed to be entirely unfamiliar to her. There had been so many hotel rooms in her life, good and not so good. Long ago in her heyday she would rent sprawling villas on Sunset, in the style of Zorro. Then he’d heard she got into buying from the realtors, up in the hills: first houses, and later apartments, staying no longer than six months in each. In the past few years she had been trading down, hoping to make a profit on every new deal.
"I need a movie," she said.
"I know you do."
"I can do it."
"Yes," Livingstone said. "I know you can."
"You have to help me, Robin."
"For old times’ sake."
"For Chrissake, then."
The star of Bar Soleil lay back in the sofa, let her stilettos drop off, pulled up one leg as if she might be about to undo her stocking.
But Livingstone was already half-way to the door. He wasn’t going to give her the chance, not again.
Livingstone stayed up all that night writing.
He didn’t go to bed until after dawn. The glen behind the house was backlit by an orange glow.
He got up a few hours later and typed from his pages of longhand. He set it out like the treatments—the synopses—that went in to the studios via his agent.
He had to think of a title, that last of all.
He rolled a final sheet of paper into the machine. Working up from the foot of the page, his fingers pressed the keys.
BY. And ROBIN LIVINGSTONE.
Up to, A TREATMENT FOR AN ORIGINAL FEATURE FILM.
And above that, retyped in caps and underlined, its title.
"What is it?"
"I don’t get this—"
"It’s when you tell the story in an outline—"
"I know what a treatment is, darling. I mean, why are you giving it to me?"
"Okay. I’ll read it now."
"But I can manage to—"
"Read it later, will you?"
The words seemed to get spat out of him. Livingstone felt cords standing up on his neck. He knew he had another red face.
Merelle looked up at him.
"That sounds—very masterful."
"I was never that," Livingstone said.
"Don’t we remember anything the same?"
"What d’you mean?"
"When you read the treatment," he said, "you’ll see."
What appeared on the page was more or less what had happened in fact, but amplified.
A once-famous movie actress shows up on a writer’s doorstep. He’s taken himself off, out of the L.A. rounds, to live in comfortable seclusion; pained by certain experiences in his past, by others’ behavior towards himself, he works out his demons in his scripts—or imagines that he does.
Add some flashbacks. The South of France, where they’re shooting his first Hollywood screenplay. He’s being spoken of as a major talent in the making. The cast includes a couple of big stars, the director is on the A-list, the principal crew are top-dollar. Everything promises so well, and fame and fortune are spread tantalizingly before him.
Livingstone went back home, leaving his visitor at the hotel with the treatment.
She would see that he had spared her nothing.
In truth he hadn’t spared himself either. But he was a writer, he could move on to other projects.
The names weren’t their real names. Anyone would recognise them, though. A film being shot on the Cote d’Azur, an Oscar nomination for the female lead and its scriptwriter.
It was lacerating. Her subsequent history. The men, the drink, the pills, the short-lived flirtation with Christian Science, all the egotistical vanity and all the tortured self-doubt.
Livingstone stayed within reach of the phone, in case she would ring—threatening to overdose herself, telling him he deserved to get a bullet in his head, he’d surely rot in hell.
Instead La Freed received him graciously, not in the suite but—at her suggestion—downstairs in the hotel’s fern-resplendent winter garden, at a time when it was bound to be quiet.
"Well, well," she said, placing the pages on the coffee table between them both.
Livingstone guessed that she had been crying. Her face was heavily made up. She was making a determined effort to smile, to keep herself as buoyant and bright as she could, to play this scene light.
"You’ve read it, then?"
"I’ll do it."
"If this gets to be made into a film—I want to do it."
"You’ll play Celeste?"
Livingstone stared at her.
"Don’t be surprised! You’re a big writer, I’d be mad not to."
"But you saw what it’s about."
"Yes." Her smile wavered momentarily. "Yes, I did."
"It’s your right," she said, "to describe events as you view them."
"I’m using my free will?"
"Something like that, I guess."
"And you would really do it?"
"Yes. Without—without hesitation."
Livingstone walked downhill into the town, to see if he could find any menthol cigarettes for her.
He hadn’t for a moment thought of his treatment as serious material for a film. It had been an exercise in—what?—self-justification? Setting the record straight? His bid for revenge?
Livingstone wasn’t even sure himself.
He had meant the treatment to be a test for his long-ago lover, to see how much of what he was inflicting on her she could bear.
He couldn’t be a "gentleman" to her now.
She had read his account, his diatribe. "Several times," apparently. And afterwards she had been ready to humiliate herself in front of him. She would turn herself inside-out, if that way she could revive her career. For the sake of a script, she would endure any treatment, so to speak, that was meted out to her.
See, I’ve sunk so low, she was telling him. I have so little pride left, and you so much. Please, what more can you ask of me than this?
Livingstone stayed up for a second night.
A few months before he had been wined and dined at the Four Seasons by some television executives. They were dead-keen for some series ideas to develop.
He put through a call at 3:30 in the morning, when he thought they’d have finished lunch. Good timing. They had a long talk. Livingstone gave them his pitch, his hard sell, and they all listened in on their separate lines.
This was a comedy. A comedy with heart. About a movie actress who’s gone out of style—because she believes Hollywood doesn’t have a sense of style itself any more. Now she’s having to hack it on the small screen, hostessing a lifestyle show. Meanwhile her mother breaks out of her retirement home, her current husband’s old flame has just blown into town, and she takes solace with a couple of girlfriends (one clued up and wise-cracking, the other Pollyanna-ish and dippy). This is the reality of Hollywood for her in 1975.
Shades of Lucille Ball, with an ironic post-modern touch, although Livingstone played down "post-modern" on the phone. Guests would come on and play themselves (they’d be queuing up, to prove how hip they were).
"Have you someone in mind to headline?" they asked him.
Livingstone told them who.
A few moments of thoughtful silence.
"She’s exactly right," Livingstone said. "Trust me on this. It won’t work without her."
He explained in more detail, feeling inspired enough now to pitch on the hoof, rhapsodizing to them off the top of his head.
She got her show.
It ran for seven seasons, and never dropped out of the comedy top-five.
It was aired round the world. Somewhere at any given moment it was going out, Livingstone would have bet, dubbed or subtitled, and the stream of dollars continued to flow into his Swiss bank account.
He only needed to hear the first few bars of the jazzed-up theme tune, Nat from 1960, Rodgers and Hart, "Thou Swell…"
They never met again, Merelle Freed and Robin Livingstone.
Even at the Emmies, he let her have the floor to herself.
He cabled his congratulations.
A team of writers turned out the scripts, and Livingstone was content with his weekly credit as originator.
He wanted to get on with more serious work. It was easier for him doing it in Scotland, or basing himself there and traveling about Europe.
In 2002 he caught Bar Soleil on mid-morning British television. Reception in his far flung corner of Perthshire wasn’t all it might be, the heatherhills fuzzed the picture, but the riot of 50’s color somehow reached him through the troublesome local atmospherics. Livingstone’s own vision was quite clear enough.
When she died the next spring, Livingstone persuaded the makers of the American network tribute to concentrate on Bar Soleil and the TV show.
It meant inevitably that their two names were associated, entwined. But the images on the screen proved two things: that Merelle Freed later in her career had authentic comic flair, and that the dimensions of a TV set couldn’t hold her screen glamour, from that mid-1950s period of her movie-making life when she looked her best and knew it.
Watching the programme you might have supposed that this woman’s life had been nothing but free will, making things happen because she wanted them to. It wasn’t quite so, sometimes not at all, but on celluloid any redeeming magic was possible.
The producers sent Livingstone a DVD of the tribute. Remastered, digitalized, all the hi-tech enhancements they could throw at it. He could put it on and play it whenever he liked.
On a day of soft Highland drizzle, which wasn’t uncommon in his neck of the woods, he could escape.
She’s crossing the Boulevard des Anges and gets into a white drophead and sets off by herself, driving the upper corniche.
Maybe off to Grasse, where the two of them ended up one afternoon.
She crosses the Boulevard des Anges and gets into a white drophead and sets off by herself, driving the upper corniche.
Andre Norbert isn’t in that scene.
Merelle Freed—like "Juliet Haan," the character she was playing—is alone, endlessly available.
Nat sings along, and our heroine drives on in perpetual sunshine, foot down, at the speed of light, 24 frames per second.