A Rare Woman
By J. Ferguson a.k.a. Timeless A-Peel
Disclaimer: I don't own Jason King, nor the characters of Jason King and Nicola Harvester. They belong to ITC Entertainment Group Ltd. This story is written for entertainment purposes only. No copyright infringement intended.
Author's Note: Watching Department S and spin-off series Jason King, I noticed a rare piece of continuity in the form of references to Jason's late wife. In each of the two episodes in which Jason's wife is discussed, Jason clearly still mourns her death, and yet almost never mentions her, to the point that his colleagues seem to be more or less unaware that he was ever married. Even online summaries of the character leave his marriage out. I've always thought it was a fascinating part of his past, so I thought I'd make use of it in a little Jason character study, which I'm now posting here. For any other Jason fans out there, I hope you enjoy this exploration of the man beneath the bravado
The knock on the door echoed cavernously in the darkened room. The curtains had been drawn tight against the morning sun, permitting not one cheerful golden ray to penetrate the pervasive gloom. As it was, the only illumination came from the glowing end of a single cigarette, smouldering quietly between elegant fingers.
The knock repeated, this time accompanied by a voice. "Jason!" it called insistently. "Open the door."
The ember bobbed lazily through the gloom, settled between a pair of thin lips, and flared once, brightly, as they sucked in the smoke, then faded again, and travelled back to its original position.
"Jason, come along! I know you're in there!" It was a woman's voice, slightly shrill, and intimately familiar to the dusky flat's occupant. "The doorman told me you haven't been out since yesterday afternoon, and I promise you I'm not leaving until you answer this door."
The ember was unmoved by the voice's demands, hovering silently in the darkness. There was a moment of silence, as the voice considered its next move, and the ember waited. Finally, the voice reasserted itself, calmer this time.
"Jason," it said slowly. "If you don't answer this door in the next five seconds, I shall tell the maintenance man I fear for your well-being, and have him let me in himself, and then we can both bear witness to whatever sorry state you're in. So if you'd like to limit your embarrassment, I'd suggest you open the door. Because no matter what happens, I'm coming in there."
The cigarette sagged in resignation. "The door's open, Nicola," a hoarse voice sighed.
"Oh." The woman sounded sheepish, but the owner of the cigarette was in no mood to ridicule her for the mistake. The doorknob turned, and suddenly a crack of light pierced the darkness. It expanded in size until much of the room was illuminated, including the figure sprawled on the couch. The owner of the voice, now silhouetted in the doorway, took a step inside, and wrinkled its nose.
"Oh," Nicola Harvester repeated, and wafted her hand in front of her face. "Jason, it's absolutely stifling in here. There's no oxygen left, just smoke. How do you breathe?"
"Oxygen is highly overrated, I think you'll find," Jason King drawled back, with little enthusiasm.
"Well, I like it," Nicola shot back, striding purposefully inside. "And some light would go a long way as well."
"Nothing to see," opined Jason.
"Probably not, but as I'm here..." Nicola thrust back the curtains, letting sunlight in, and opened all the windows to admit the fresh summer breeze. She inhaled gratefully before turning back to close the front door. It was only when that task was complete that she finally had a proper look at Jason.
Jason King, international best-selling author, was a lover of fashion, and meticulous about his grooming, but anyone who saw him at this moment would have difficulty believing it. The man slouched on the couch had dark circles under his eyes, and equally dark hair that stuck up in disarray. The parts of his face not occupied by his over-the-top moustache were covered in stubble. The dressing gown he wore was crumpled, and hung on his slim shoulders in disarray. The fingers were nicotine-stained, and even now clutched at a gently-smouldering cigarette. Several of its discarded mates were heaped in an over-flowing ashtray, resting on the coffee table along with several empty bottles of champagne and scotch, empty glasses, and dirty dishes. Beautifully-tailored clothes lay scattered carelessly over furniture and strewn across the floor, no consideration given to their expense. Nicola Harvester took all of this in in a matter of seconds, and crossed her arms in disgust.
"Jason, you're a mess!" she scolded. "What on earth have you been up to? No one's seen or heard from you since the publisher's party on Tuesday."
"I've been here," Jason replied unconcernedly, taking a distracted drag of his cigarette.
"Jason, that party was two days ago!" Nicola exclaimed. "Don't tell me you've been here all this time?"
"All right, I won't. I'll see if you can work it out on your own."
"Jason!" Nicola repeated in exasperation. "And this is what you've been doing, is it? Drinking and smoking yourself into a stupor? I've been worried sick. You left with scarcely a word to anyone and dropped right off the edge of the earth. No one had the foggiest idea what happened to you. If you were going to hang about in the dark, at the very least you could have answered your phone. I must have rung a dozen times."
"Fourteen, to be exact," Jason corrected, tapping some ash into the tray, even though it was so full already that it hardly mattered. "If you count the messages left by your receptionist."
"And you didn't think to answer or ring back?"
"I've been busy."
"Yes, I can see that."
Jason sighed in a long plume of smoke. "Look, Nicola, as charming as it is to have your ever-sparkling personality grace my humble abode, I'm not feeling particularly inclined to visitors at the moment. The manuscript is on the desk, so be a good girl and scoot along with it."
Nicola pressed her lips into a thin line. Jason's condescension knew no bounds. "I'm not here for the manuscript, Jason," she said tersely.
"Don't tell me you missed my biting wit?"
Nicola ground her teeth in infuriation, but tried to calm down by reminding herself why she was there. "Hardly. I came because...well, because I know what today is. I know why you wanted to be on your own."
Jason eyed her warily. "Do you, Nicola?"
"Of course I do. I'm your publisher. I control your official biography for all press releases and dust jackets. And to do that, I need to know everything about your life." She paused, and added, "Including about Marianne."
Jason looked at her then, really looked at her for the first time since she'd stepped in the door. The sarcasm was suddenly replaced by almost childlike wonder. "You know," he breathed, "about Marianne?"
Nicola felt her heart soften. Despite her reputation in the publishing industry as something of a pitbull, she wasn't heartless. She did what she needed to survive as a woman in a cutthroat business, and she was good at it. But that didn't mean she lacked empathy, or that she wasn't a good friend. And that was why she was here. As a friend.
"Yes, Jason," she said gently. "I know about Marianne. I know she was your darling wife, whom you loved more than anything, though you rarely speak of her. I know you married her in 1960, and spent three very happy years together. And I know she was killed in a plane crash eight years ago, today."
Jason's face crumpled at that, in a way Nicola had never seen in all the years she'd known him. His head fell forward into his hands, and his shoulders began to shake. Taken aback and unsure of what to do, Nicola reached out a comforting hand and touched his shoulder. "Jason, I'm so sorry," she said softly. "I came to offer my support. I didn't mean to upset you."
He removed his hands and glanced up at her with moist, red-rimmed brown eyes. "No," he managed. "It's not your fault. Usually I'm better than this. It's this damned time of year that gets to me. Summer. She loved summer. And, poetically, romantically, tragically...she died in the summer. And so I miss her most in the summer. Especially today." He glanced over his shoulder and out the window, where blue skies presided over sunny streets.
"What else?" Nicola inquired, and Jason whirled round to look at her.
"What do you mean, 'what else'?" he snapped, anger slipping in to mask sadness. "She's dead. I'm not. Life is unfair. There's little else to say."
Nicola shook her head. "I don't buy that for a moment, Jason King. A woman who managed to tame you must have been very special. Tell me about her."
Jason snorted. "I'm not a child. I don't need you to humour me."
"Believe me, Jason. The last thing I'd do is humour you. I have many, many other things I could be doing, but I chose to be here." She settled into the armchair next to the couch. "Tell me about her."
Jason eyed her for a moment, as though waiting for the other shoe to drop, but when no catch seemed forthcoming, he stubbed out his cigarette, leaned back against the couch, closed his eyes, and began to speak.
"I met Marianne at a writing club, in the days when I scraped along penning short stories and serials for magazines, trying to support myself until I could publish my first novel. The club met at a university, and she was a student there, studying English literature. I never could abide most of the classics—too pretentious by half, often just for the sake of it, and to the detriment of characterisation and narrative—but she managed to convince me that some of them had merit. She was very beautiful, but also stunningly intelligent. I'd never loved a girl for her mind before, but her mind was as beautiful as the rest of her, a rare jewel. I wooed her extravagantly, just as I did all the girls, even though my pocketbook could hardly afford it. I wore my first custom-made suit, wined and dined her in every sense of the word, even if it meant going hungry some nights." His expression was wistful as he recalled those long-gone days of his youth, and Nicola could tell that he missed them still. "We talked about books, and writing, and favourite authors. I told her I was trying to write a novel, but with difficulty. She asked to see it. I did so with some trepidation—my confidence was shaky, and I hadn't let a soul read my words for fear I'd lose my nerve. But for some reason I trusted her. So I let her read it."
"And?" Nicola inquired.
"And she read it," Jason said simply. "The whole thing from start to finish, with me wringing my hands dramatically in the background. I watched her like a hawk. And when she finished, she closed it, handed it back, and informed me that she liked it, that it needed some editing and some fine-tuning, but she thought it could be a best-seller. I laughed at her." He shook his head in mild self-rebuke. "I didn't know what else to do. I was aiming for the dimestore market, with an eye at working my way up, but she was adamant. The wonderful thing about Marianne was that she wasn't a snob, despite her education. Even though Mark Caine may not have been a Shakespearean hero, she accorded him the same level of respect. In fact, she quite liked Mark. She said he reminded her of me, because we were both 'shallow in all the right ways, and none of the wrong ones.'" Jason paused, grinned, still seeing the humour in the turn of phrase, and Nicola allowed herself a small smirk in return, mentally praising the woman for her insight. Something tells me we would have got on well.
"I suspect she knew I was living beyond my means when I took her out, and that I rather enjoyed the perks myself, that it was as much for my own benefit as hers. But to her it didn't matter. That was what set Marianne apart from all the other girls. They were easy to fool, at least in the short-term. Dress well and take them to dinner at the right restaurant, act as if you're meant to be there, and they believed you were who you pretended to be. If they didn't, they'd brush you aside like the pretender you were. But Marianne had a gift. Remarkably insightful. She could see through all of the layers, the showmanship, the smoke and mirrors if you will, and find the real man underneath. And the absurdity of it all was that she preferred him, the real Jason King. Not the artifice." He looked down suddenly, fidgeting self-consciously with his dressing gown so he wouldn't have to meet Nicola's eyes. "She was the first woman I ever met with whom I could be myself. Oh, she didn't mind me being flamboyant, didn't mind me playing the part—she enjoyed it. But I always knew she wouldn't be disappointed if the facade fell away. She saw every side, good, bad, and ugly, and she loved them all. And I loved her for it." His voice cracked, and he took a moment to regain his composure, waving away Nicola when she moved to comfort him, stubbornly determined to finish what he had started. "I married her for it, soon after she finished her degree, barely a year after we'd met. We eloped, if you can believe it, even though I'd always thought the idea was flighty nonsense. She moved into my poverty-level flat, and we spent the next three years scraping away a living while trying to fine-tune Mark Caine and shop him around to the publishers. It was rejected dozens of times, you know, in one form or another."
Nicola nodded. "Yes, including by our company. My predecessor thought it was nonsense." She allowed herself a self-satisfied smirk at her triumph over the man who had been less-than-courteous to her in her intern days. "He thought most things were nonsense, come to think of it. That was how I got the job—they wanted fresh, young eyes to seek out the next big thing. Your manuscript was manna from Heaven, Jason. I owe Mark Caine a great deal."
"I'm glad to hear that you're willing to admit it at last," Jason said blithely, and Nicola tsked in annoyance. "But I suppose I must acknowledge your part in the proceedings. I've a feeling I may have abandoned Mark altogether if you'd fired off another rejection. I was at the end of my rope when I sent out that last draft. When I told Marianne I was signed to a publisher, she danced around the living room like a schoolgirl." The smile was still evident on Jason's features, but sadness was creeping into his eyes even as he recalled the way her hair flowed behind her as she twirled and leapt. "We had so many plans and dreams, so many things we wanted to do with the money. Together." The smile faded, finally, chased away by the harshness of reality. "But the first thing I suggested was a trip to Italy, using the advance. We hadn't had a proper holiday in all our time together, not even a real honeymoon. I wanted to leave right away and enjoy the author's life, but she had family affairs to attend to. I flew on ahead to make the arrangements, and she was going to follow me two days later."
Nicola felt her heart grow heavy. She knew where the story went from here. "The plane..." she murmured.
"Yes. The bloody plane crash," Jason cursed, eyes welling up in spite of his sneer. "I was in such a damned hurry to start living the high life. I could have waited a week, but I wanted to spend the money, play the role of the successful author. She ended up paying the price." He struck a fist uselessly against the arm of the couch. "She was wrong. I was shallow in all the wrong ways. Now I get to live the part all the damned time, but without her. I won't deny that I've enjoyed myself, but to this day it still seems a poor exchange."
"That was why you went into seclusion so soon after you signed," Nicola said, with dawning realisation. "You were mourning her."
"Three months," Jason confirmed. "I wrote, because it was the only way I had of feeling close to her. If I was at the typewriter, I could pretend that she was in the next room, and at any moment she was going to bring me a cup of tea and read the latest pages. I could forget about identifying that charred, broken husk of a woman who looked nothing like my wife, and the funeral, and her family. I felt guilty. I still do. My opulence was the death of her."
"Jason, you can't blame yourself," Nicola soothed, reaching out to take his hand. "You were excited, and so was she. You both could have taken that plane, and then you both would have died. That wouldn't have been your fault, either. These things happen."
"Yes. People kept saying that," Jason replied bitterly. "But it shouldn't have. Not to her. I thought it then, and I always shall." He reached for the packet of cigarettes on the coffee table, removed one, lit it, and took a long drag. "If I hadn't been able to write, if I couldn't have bury myself in the creative process, I don't think I would have stayed sane long enough to see my first book published."
"To this day that's still the most original work we've had come from an author is such a short space of time, you know," Nicola confided. "Three books completed in three months. No one could believe it. They thought you were some sort of wunderkind."
Jason snorted derisively. "Grief. Amazing what it can accomplish. If you knocked the rest of the writers in your stable about, you'd marvel at what they churned out."
"And yet, when you came out of hiding, and went on your press tour for the first Mark Caine, you asked that Marianne be left out of your biography, and you were...well, you were Jason King, with all the excesses that implied." Nicola cocked her head to one side quizzically. "Why do you carry on as you do, if you think it was the death of Marianne?"
Jason sighed, eyes turned heavenward. "Several reasons. Because, theatre or not, it is part of who I am. Because Marianne wouldn't have wanted me to give it up. We had some of our best times pretending, even though we knew we were pretending. Because we had dreams, and at least one of them has to live them out on the other's behalf." He paused, and added, "And, I think, because it provided a nice line in the sand. I lived in poverty with Marianne. I live in luxury without her. It's rather like living two different lives. They never overlapped-not for long enough in any case. Remaking my existence over from scratch made things easier, I suppose. It's harder to miss someone who was never part of the world you now belong to. I think that has helped me a great deal over the years."
Nicola nodded in understanding. "That makes sense. But you must miss her still?"
"Every day, especially when I'm writing and there's a particularly tricky part that could use a second opinion. I used to ask her for advice." He met her eyes. "I suppose I have you now, instead."
Nicola smiled slightly. "Well, I don't claim to be able to handle you the way Marianne so obviously could, but I like to think I've been of some assistance over the years."
"Dear Nicola," Jason murmured, taking her hand in his. "I realise I may seem...ungrateful, at times, but I assure you that you have been infinitely helpful in the development of Mark Caine's adventures over the years. In some ways, you remind me of Marianne, though she had an altogether gentler touch and never picked at my sentence structure."
"Thank you. I think," Nicola said, with just a touch of sarcasm.
"No, thank you, my dear," Jason replied, with sincerity, "for years of faithful assistance. And for coming here. I haven't talked about Marianne in years. It's remarkably therapeutic. I think I shall have a bath and go out into the world once again."
"That sounds very sensible," Nicola praised, patting him on the shoulder before rising from her chair. "I'm very glad I could help. I'll leave you to get on with things." She moved to the desk and picked up the bound stack of pages she found on the top. "And as I'm here, I may as well take care of this manuscript. You do have a deadline coming up."
Jason looked at her incredulously. "You never switch off, do you, woman? You'll be the death of me!"
Nicola laughed and headed for the door. "Perhaps, but not before your contract is up, Jason. I can promise you that." And then she was gone.
Jason shook his head in disgust, but there was a ghost of a smile on his face as he headed for the bathroom.