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Saving Mrs. Fleming

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"Well, there's nothing to it," he said to Alma after the full implications of the latest news had sunken in. All their plans for Transatlantic Pictures were on hold. There wouldn't be any Transatlantic Pictures if he couldn't finally get rid of his wretched contract with wretched David Selznick. Who'd just managed to have a complete breakdown at the worst possible moment. "No more Paradine Case . It'll have to be the MGM thing, or we'll go broke. Or shackled to David for the rest of our lives, which is worse."

Alma wrinkled her nose. "I'm not sure there is a picture in the MGM book, darling," she said doubtfully. "I've read it."

He groaned, and slumped back into his chair. The chair wobbled. Time for another diet. The horror.

"That bad, hm?"

"Oh, no," Alma said. "It's got a ghastly mother and lots of car drives." There was a glint in her eyes. Alma loved cars, loved driving them and loved mapping car chases out on a storyboard. And she knew how he appreciated neurotics. "And a cave," she continued. "But it's awfully interior, otherwise. Lots of mental agonies. It'll have to be a complete change of plot, or rather, a new plot. And we don't have the time to hire another outsider to work with. It'll have to be the author. Joan says she hasn't written a script in her life."

Which wasn't necessarily a disadvantage. In his experience, novelists who were new to the film industry took less time to browbeat. For a moment, he remembered John Steinbeck, Nobel Prize winner with delusions of scriptwriting expertise, and shuddered. Chances were, though, that this novelist would be more co-operative. A sensible Englishwoman grateful for some Hollywood money after the war; how bad could it get?

"We'll get her into shape," Hitchcock said confidently. "You'll see, it'll be fun. Anyone naming themselves after a French car is bound to have a sense of humour. "

"Oh, she certainly has something," Alma said wryly, and started to look for her copy of the book which had just won the MGM award. The book they'd been told MGM was eager to film, as quickly as possible, because during the three years the MGM award had been given for the expressed purpose of encouraging literary material also suited for cinematic adaption, not a single book thus singled out had been turned into an actual movie, and it was starting to attract public ridicule.

"Goodbye, Paradine Case, Hitchcock murmured, "and hello, Miss Renault."

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Her mother, dressed impeccably in widow's weeds even in the middle of rationing and general shortage, looked at Mary as if she'd just been told to be impressed by what was actually a social misdemeanour that her daughter had been tasteless enough to commit. It was the expression with which Clementine Challans had greeted anything from scholarly brilliance at Oxford to book contracts, and so it didn't surprise Mary in the least.

"Well, " Clementine said, "at least you won't have to work in that ghastly hospital anymore. A pity it didn't happen earlier, of course; we could have hired a better nurse for your father."

Mary had worked as a nurse though most of the war. She also had nursed her father through his final weeks of throat cancer when her mother had asked her to. As maternal put-downs were concerned, this was par the course for Clementine; Mary wondered why she had assumed news about the miraculous sum of 150 000 dollars, or over 37 000 pounds, would make a change. Perhaps because while her mother had never been interested in Mary's writings, she could count and had to be aware that this was more than a schoolteacher earned in his entire life time.

"You won't have to pay it back if they don't make a film, will you?" her mother asked with a trace of what almost sounded like concern.

"No," Mary returned and wished she had written a letter instead of coming to Cambridge. Julie had predicted it would only spoil her joy and wondered why Mary thought Clementine deserved to hear good news in person, after the way she'd left Mary behind at the funeral. She'd called her far too forgiving. The uncomfortable truth was the impulse which had brought her to Cambridge had nothing to do with forgiveness, and more with a wish to gloat. Her mother had never believed she'd amount to anything and had predicted a lifetime of drudgery in hospitals due to "your inability to attract a nice young man when you were still somewhat presentable". Good reviews of Mary's earlier novels had never changed Clementine's mind, because Clementine didn't care about books beyond the occasional cheap thriller. But she did like what she insisted on calling "the pictures", worshipping on the feet of the manufactured eidolon, and so Mary had counted on, well, something.

"The money is mine no matter what happens," she added, for emphasis. Truth to tell, she could hardly believe it herself. It did mean freedom, and a life devoted to nothing but books and Julie.

"In that case," Clementine said, "you could use some of it to improve your appearance. The war is over, dear. No need to look so drab all the time. Who knows, maybe there is still a chance for..."

Enough was enough. "I bought us a houseboat," Mary said sharply. "For Julie and myself."

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Her relationship with Julie had started before the war. In all this time, neither of her parents had ever referred to Julie as anything but "your friend, Miss Mullard," which actually would have been fine, since Mary dreaded being labeled with words referring to people she by and large disdained. But she did want it acknowledged that she had made her choice and there should be no more attempts to squeeze her into a life fitting with her mother's ideals of femininity.

"A boat?" her mother repeated, an eyebrow raised. "I'm not sure that was wise, dear. You won't be able to sell it again easily if things don't work out. After all, who'd be ridiculous enough to want to live in a boat when they say the next winter will be the hardest in a decade?"

She is a silly woman who knows nothing, Mary thought with increasing desperation, but one of the worst things about Clementine was that for all her ignorance when it came to literature and philosophy, her mother did have a hard practical streak.

"We'll be living in Cornwall during the winter. It's warm in Cornwall, and..."

"Are you sure there'll be enough money left for that", Clementine interrupted, "what with that ghastly wartime income tax the government still hasn't lifted? Now I could be wrong, because dear Joyce handles those dreary declarations for us. Your sister is such a good girl. But I do seem to recall one still has to pay 19s 6d to the pound, doesn't one, and if those Americans give you 37 000 pounds, that's..."

She fell silent. Her gaze on Mary was bright and expectant. Clementine was still a handsome woman; she'd been beautiful in her youth, as Mary had not been, and always dressed to resemble the flawless porcelain dolls she'd given Mary when Mary had only wanted toys like Jumbo the soft elephant and thrown the dolls away.

Her mother had never forgiven her for this, Mary was sure. It had started the long list of resentments between them, and the silent and not so silent warfare that had brought her here, to this room, where her mother still managed to reduce her to nothing with a few well chosen words.

Mary had always thought she'd inherited her love of language and of books from her father. But the truth was that her father, while an avid reader, had never cared to share any of his thoughts on them; had never engaged in conversation at all if he could avoid it. By contrast, her mother, who couldn't tell Alexander from Charlemagne and either from Napoleon, and wouldn't care to, labeling them all "foreign", never ceased to think of new creative ways to express her disdain.

She wasn't wrong, though. That was the worst of it. Mary should have thought of the tax, but she hadn't. The giddiness at the thought of being free from all worries had been too overwhelming. For a horrible second, she imagined ending up in debt because of what she'd spent already, and told herself not to be ridiculous. It couldn't have been that much.

But it might be best if she accepted the offer that had come with the news of the award. Originally, she hadn't meant to. It wasn't that she was a snob who disliked Hollywood, or Americans. As a girl, she'd loved cowboy movies, and dreamt herself in the place of the heroes, riding over the plains on their white steeds, proudly, with nothing to hold them back. But for her, Return to Night had been over and done with. She'd written a novel since. She was planning the next one.

"A lot of money," she returned, meeting her mother's eyes with a challenging look of her own. "So it's a good thing, isn't it, that the Americans will give me even more. You see, they want me to work on the script for the film version."

"Well, as long as they pay for the journey", her mother murmured. "I hear ship passages are more expensive than ever, and as for the hotels..."

But there was a quick flicker of envy on Clementine's face this time, at last, and unmistakably. Nobody would pretend not to want a journey to America, where the cities hadn't been bombed and the food wasn't still rationed. With great regret, Mary replied:

"They'll be doing the film here. The director is even an Englishman, though he's worked in Hollywood these last ten years."

"One of those," her mother commented, and left it at that. Mary had to admit she could understand Clementine's feelings there. Sitting the war out in Hollywood could hardly be described as patriotic, and there had been a lot of jibes in the press about the British community in Hollywood from 1939 onwards.

Then again, if Mary had been in the country of make believe at the start of the war, maybe she wouldn't have returned, either. In any case, she'd seen a photo of the director in an article; as directors went, he was fairly well known, and there had been attention in the press when he'd returned to England earlier this year for another film project that had apparently been held in production for some mysterious reason. The man in the photographs had struck her as resembling a smooth egg with eyes and a mouth; certainly not as someone who'd been useful in the war effort.

"So you see," she said, ignoring her mother's words, "I won't be able to visit during the next few months. I'll be working with Mr. Hitchcock."