With Christmas nearly a week away, I feel it is an appropriate time to share a story that deals with family. Whether we like our family or not, no matter how much they may get on our nerves we are more or less stuck with them especially come this time of year.
A Brother's Reflection
“Where could he be?” This is what Syd asked himself as he entered the block containing the studio offices. His foot falls echoed dully in the corridor behind the front most office occupied by a secretary behind a wide desk, stationed there to greet guests and intercept mail and incoming telephone calls. The back most offices belonged to the studio manager and his wayward younger brother and that was the last place he had not checked. Hardwood floors and bare walls did little disguise the presence of anyone trudging through the halls, but perhaps that is what his brother desired, knowing ahead of time that someone was coming gave him a chance to compose himself or even make a hasty exit if he possessed no intention of greeting them. Oftentimes he would slip out the back door and hide himself amongst the set of the dressing rooms of this company, leaving Syd to deal with the visitors on his own. Through his mind played the phrases he had committed to memory, like images crystallized on film, fixed and permanent, for such situations. “Mr. Chaplin is out at the moment, he should be back shortly,” “Mr. Chaplin is ill, perhaps I could take message?”
How odd it was referring to his kid brother in that manner, they shared the same surname and many times the guests would notice the family resemblance even though they were half brothers. Then there was the time he hid in the property room, buried beneath the blankets on a bed situated behind a tall wardrobe. Syd cringed, that day some important visitor from the offices in New York had dropped in to see how filming was going on The Pawn Shop and of course that slippery eel of a brother of his was no where to be found, none of the cast had seen him nor any of the crew. Of course the secretary said he was in his office. Embarrassed and mildly upset he told the man in the suit that he would go fetch his brother. It had taken Syd more than thirty minutes to find him and another fifteen to convince him to return to his office, the whole time he kept flipping open his watch and checking the time; time was money after all. And he would get his brother back to that office even if it meant lifting him from his feet like a defiant child and throwing him over his shoulder, grabbing him by the hips, shoving him through the door and slamming it shut behind them before he could slip away again.
“Looking for Charlie?” the secretary known as Fran to all the studio regulars peered around the doorframe. She was pretty Syd though, tidy light brown hair in a tight chignon, lively hazel eyes, nice white teeth, young pert bust, he almost had to pinch himself to stop this thoughts from heading to where they were going. “He came back from luncheon with Edna just awhile ago, he should be in his office.”
That was part of the problem, while Fran though Charlie was in his office he could in all reality be anywhere. If Syd could have his way he would hire a personal secretary to keep an eye on Charlie while Fran could entertain guests until he was ready for them. The other part of the problem was Charlie needed to get over his shyness, grow up; Syd could not always be there to save him in such situations. He also knew it would be no small task for his brother’s fear and bashfulness was no act, he was genuinely scared when having to face important people he hardly knew. So many times Syd sat beside him in that office, noting that Charlie sat perched on the edge of his chair stiff and unliving as a doll, he could literally hear his brother’s innards twisting themselves into knots, the sickly gurgle of their contents making a rush to the nearest exit. Thankfully none of those times merited a visit by the studio housekeeping staff.
Instead of being embarrassed by his brother Syd felt embarrassed for him, the former meant betraying him and that was something he could not bring himself to do. Though he felt the first step in correcting the issue would be a personal secretary that was too dear for Charlie, who kept a close eye on his finances. Even though Syd understood the concept of being frugal more than most, he also knew that sometimes one had to spend money in order to make money.
The heavy paneled door, which lead to Charlie’s office stood cracked and Syd pushed it open expecting to find his brother, seated at his desk with his back to him. But alas, the office was empty as a gut feeling told him it would be. The roll top desk against the far wall stood open, the wood swivel chair with its heavily padded leather seat imprinted and perfectly formed to Charlie’s posterior was pushed away. To make sure his eyes were not betraying him Syd turned slowly in place, surveying the spacious sunny room with its tall windows. He checked behind the dressing screen stood in an interior corner away from prying eyes, no Charlie, yet there was an empty bentwood chair before a dressing table and the outsized trousers, vest and too small jacket hung from hooks on the wall. Also he noticed that amidst the heaps of papers and piles of books on the desk was Charlie’s silver fountain pen and draped over one of the simple wooden chairs in front of the table where he met guests was his jacket, grey tweed, fitted to every curve of his pint-sized body. His overcoat hung on the wooden rack by the door and his cap was tossed in an over stuffed leather chair by one of the windows, atop a thick wool blanket crumpled in its seat.
It was an unusually chilly southern California day and Syd knowing his brother than anyone else knew Charlie would not go anywhere without these items, neither did he get on well with the cold, he chilled easily and despised the feeling. He was still at the studio, somewhere inside more than likely. Syd had not spoken with Edna; in fact he did not spy her anywhere as he crossed the back lot. A circuit in his agile mind closed and a light bulb went on inside his head; Charlie was with Edna, hiding out in her dressing room.
Dressing rooms at Loan Star Studio were all accessed from outside, from the back lot and his brother had ensconced Edna in one of the largest and most elaborate. The back lot was entered by passing through the rear office door or through a gate in the surrounding wood plank fence placed there to allow in cars and delivery trucks. Before leaving the office one more door caught Syd’s eye, nailed to it was a brass plaque that spelled out Gentlemen, one last place to check before heading outside. His hand closed around the doorknob and the door yielded with a grating squeak. Deliberately he stepped inside, attempting to muffle is footsteps on the white tile floors with their black accents. He cringed knowing he could never enter the toilets without making a ruckus, without making himself known.
It was a sparsely appointed room, a window with frosted glass panes for privacy on the farthest wall, yellow clay tiles reaching toward an unfinished ceiling, criss crossed with water pipes running to the wash basin on one wall and the two toilets and urinal on the other. The toilets were enshrouded in wooden cubicles on the sides touching the floor and doors that ended several inches above. Syd noticed the air smelled thick, foul, someone had been in there moments before or was in there now. As he went to push open the panel in the window that swung open, he spotted a pair of shoes under the door of the toilet that overlapped with the window. Familiar shoes, he did a double take, a small pair of high top button shoes, black patent leather, grey canvas uppers, he would recognize those shoes anywhere as they belonged to someone very dear to him. Spindly ankles encased in stripped socks emerged from their tops, below the cuffs of grey tweed trousers.
“Charlie?” he inquired knowing it would be no one else.
“Good God Syd! Get out of here!” came a voice form the other side of he door that was undeniably Charlie’s. “I would like a bit of privacy… Whatever it is can wait till I’m through.”
“I’ll be in your office then,” Syd answered pausing a moment, hoping he was not making a mistake by just leaving.
Even though the door between them was closed and locked he could see his brother, all five foot six and one hundred and nineteen pounds of him, in his waistcoat and shirtsleeves, braces unhitched trousers down just enough to preserve his modesty. With it being could he would be wearing a union suit, the drop seat unbuttoned held up out of the way, baring only what was necessary. He would be perched on the wooden seat with a book in his lap; he had taken to reading while going about his business years ago. A part of him deep inside compelled Syd to push the chair standing near the wash basin up to the cubicle door and peek in on Charlie, surprising him, knowing the reaction would be more than good it would be hilarious. Yet there was no way to go about it silently.
He turned to leave without uttering another word, there was no use rushing nature and Charlie would take as long as he needed, even though it seemed he was taking his time, enjoying him self and the alone time. Syd wondered if this would become one more way for him to avoid meeting guests, but Charlie was too modest, he could never let Syd tell them he was sitting on the loo. Although the thought of saying that made Syd uncomfortable, he knew he could never do that. But if it did become an issue there was an easy remedy, Charlie could only spend so much time each day in the water closet and if he started using it as an excuse all he needed to do was call in a doctor to check him out, that would quickly put Charlie to rights.
Sighing Syd settled into the empty chair in his brother’s office before the table, thinking life had not always been this way. Growing up there was no privacy, at least amongst his immediate family. They resided in a one room flat three floors above the street in an impoverished area of London’s south end. Charlie and himself slept together back to back in a single bed, bundled beneath the quilt their mother pieced together out of scraps of old clothing. They spent every waking minute together in those days, playing in the streets when it was nice, or inside when it rained or when Charlie fell ill, which to Syd seemed all to often. Mother would sit on the edge of the bed telling his brother stories, reading to him from borrowed books or newspapers, or later the Bible, singing softly, acting out what she seen in the streets below all in mime. Syd would sit transfixed, taking it all in, but also sick with envy. To him it seemed Charlie received the most attention, was constantly fussed over in those days. He was the youngest and Mother always said to him please watch out for Charlie.
In those days there was no water closets or private baths, at least not for them, both were something for the wealthy upper classes, a mere dream. Tucked beneath the bed a yellow ware chamber pot with blue and white bands. So, when Charlie felt the urge there was no place else to go, of course at the time neither of them thought anything of it. His brother would squat atop the pot in plain view and when finished ashes from the fireplace were sprinkled to keep the odor down and a newspaper placed on top to hide the filth from view. Under the bed it went until the time came to empty it, much to Syd’s pleasure that duty fell on Charlie with him being the youngest, unless he was indisposed then it was his job.
Laughing aloud he recalled how Mother fussed over their bowel movements, to her it showed their bodies were healthy, functioning properly, the way the lord intended. She would watch and wait, looking for signs that seemed off that could spell illness, called for some homespun remedy. Now the thought caused him to blush, even though it was only a sign of how much she cared for them, her two sons, really the only thing she had in this world. In the back of this throat he could still taste the putrid fish oil, the joy he felt when Mother one time pinned Charlie in a chair and forced the oil down his gullet. Syd could still see his arms and legs flailing, the muffled cries, Mother prizing Charlie’s mouth open. He had rocked with fits of laughter only to be chastised later, “Be happy you are well, but don’t laugh at the plight of others.” Any coughs, sneezes, runny noses, rashes, bumps and bruises were regarded in much the same way.
When well Mother put an emphasis on cleanliness, on both the home and self, even though they were poor they could attempt it. Fortnightly baths in the tin tub before the fire, each morning faces were washed in the basin, before bed faces, hands, feet, underarms and bottoms were scrubbed before night shirts were pulled on, before being tucked in and kissed on the forehead. Mother bathed them when they were very young, working quickly before they could catch cold. Charlie’s fragile health was always of utmost concern; he still told cold easily, albeit now he cared for himself, though there was the possibility Edna fussed over him. She made sure he was eating well and had clean clothing.
Hair was brushed and combed, his was simple, straight, and lank it only needed a wetting and an all over combing. Charlie’s curls required special attention, snarls needed to be worked out, brushing with Mother’s own boar bristle to get them to lay just so. Although Syd pretended to hate it he wished he possessed hair like his brother’s only for the extra attention; still did in fact, the ladies adored Charlie’s thick ebony ringlets. Of course at the time Charlie did not like having to sit still while Mother worked on his hair, he just wanted to run off and play.
It was not surprising they were such a tight knit family with so many shared intimate moments, yet that changed as soon as Mother’s health failed. Overnight they went from being merely poor to destitute, three modest meals a day dwindled to one if they were fortunate. Mother could no longer work or care for them, their room grew filthy, piles of dishes, soiled laundry, ashes overflowed from the hearth. There was too much for two young boys to tend to on top of doing whatever they could to find food. The landlady came by demanding rent while there was nothing they could do, Mother was out and stayed out for hours only returning late at night.
At that tender age Syd had no clue what she did for the money she came home with, only when he grew older did it occur to him, causing him to feel physically ill. Deep inside him it also inspired awe, she did what she had to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. Her mercurial moods caused them both much anguish, one time as she was having a fit they cowered along side of the bed, Syd holding his mortified brother who wept and begged for it to stop. Round that time his rivalry with Charlie faded some, Mother always reminded him to watch out for Charlie but the words rang worthless at the time. It was there that they started to mean something more, he was older, almost a man in his eyes, he possessed something his brother a mere baby did not. To be grown up meant taking care of Charlie, emulating his mother, making sure he stayed well and kept clean, for soon he was all Syd had left in this world.
A sound outside the office startled Syd from his reverie. Peering over his shoulder he expected to see Charlie coming through the door, but it was Fran, “did you find him?” she asked, framed by the doorway. This time her appearance did nothing to arouse Syd, so caught up in his own thoughts was he.
Syd nodded, “he’s in…” he gestured to the studio toilets tucked behind the offices.
Fran smiled in knowing acknowledgement, then returned to her post. He wondered what was taking Charlie so long, yet remembered that Charlie took as long as he damn well wanted to finish anything. Shifting his weight, keeping his foot from going numb, Syd thought about the day Mother brought them to the workhouse, it was grey and raining, cold, the building was mammoth and foreboding. For years he hated Mother for doing that to them, it took years for him to understand it was a blessing of sorts, saving Charlie and him from untimely ends. They parted ways there, Charlie and himself heading to Hanwell a school for orphans and destitute children, his young mind though they would remain together and he would continue looking out for his brother. On the ride there Charlie sobbed and continued to once they were separated. Charlie went to a dormitory with young boys and himself with those his own age. He excelled in school and was soon whisked off to Exmouth, a training ship to become a seaman. He continued to worry about his brother but knew he was being cared for better than he could hope to do on his own.
Eventually Mother was let out the workhouse and came to collect them, yet during that period he was away more than he was home, having been hired by a steamship company as a steward. Time permitting Syd would visit and bring with a portion of his earnings to pass along to his mother and brother. Mother was proud of him although she disliked he was for such long stretches of time. Still her health suffered, shifting between lucid and fits where she lost all control. Charlie suffered too, that was until he began pursuing a stage career of his own, with two performer parents it was only natural. And it pleased Syd to see his brother growing up and making his own way in the world. For several years he led a life that prior to he could have only dreamed of seeing the world, transforming into a man. With Charlie able to fend for himself there was little to worry about, or so he thought.
Then there was that day Syd came home to find heir flat empty, even the ashes had been cleaned from the hearth. According to the landlady Mother had been committed to a mental institution and his dear brother was living on the streets. Gut instinct told him is was time for a change, he would not be returning to sea and instead rented some rooms several blocks from where they grew up. With information gathered from their former landlady and other street children Syd located his brother following three long days of worried torment. To this day his stomach still churned when he thought about it. Children perished on the streets with nobody to look after them, maybe something had happened to Charlie. Now after all those years, Syd recalled thinking, that maybe he would be alone in the world.
When Syd found Charlie the sight of him left him appalled and floored. Dressed in rags, covered in filth, those once luminous raven curls of his matted, caked with dirt, straggling into his eyes, over his ears down to his shirt collar. Emaciated, his vast baby blue eyes sunken, cheeks hollow, his body he feared might crumble if the wind blew to hard. Charlie had been almost unrecognizable, just another waif, although it was his eyes that gave him away. Syd felt as if he would be sick, his heart ached and still did as he thought about it now, like some entity were slowly shredding it with a dull blade.
First order of business had been to get some food inside his brother’s empty belly. Fried fish wrapped in newspaper was sold in a stall several blocks away, Syd bought a helping for each of them. Charlie devoured his ravenously, leaving him feeling it was a wonder his brother did not choke. He let Charlie have some of his fish, he needed the nourishment it brought bad, an act of pity Syd would never have considered when they were younger. Together they walked back to the newly rented flat, where that night Charlie slept on the floor in front of the fire. Being so dirty refused he bed, no matter how Syd begged him to sleep there. He did smell awful, maybe he was infested with lice, fleas or parasites, Syd thought.
Next day he rose early, while Charlie still slumbered peacefully in a heap on the hard floor. He went out, brought some soap, talked to the man at the chemist’s shop about what type of shampoo would work best to detangle and cleanse filthy hair, this was his first time purchasing shampoo. He even considered getting some new clothing for Charlie, but had not the faintest idea of what sizes to choose. Upon returning his brother was still asleep, a testament to how exhausted he was, to how long it had been since had a warm place to sleep in peace. Later when Charlie awoke, Syd dressed him in an extra change of his own clothing that was much too large, though a few pins helped with the fit.
First stop of the day was the Kennington Baths, where when they were younger they would skip school to go swimming. They were not there to swim, for a small fee they could use a bathtub enclosed in a cubicle with hot water on tap. In the sterile white room with tile floors Charlie undressed while deep tub filled. So thin was he that he was painful to behold, ribs, hips, shoulder blades, spine all visible, poking through his brother’s skin. Gaunt legs bowed and knock kneed from the lack of flesh. In days past he had seen his brother without clothes many times, but never this thin, he still was skinny but not to the extent he was then. Syd also noticed Charlie was no longer a boy; his body was that of a man. Both of then bathed, Charlie first then Syd, who was amazed by how well his brother, cleaned up, how much better he looked. Although he sat on the bench knees together, feet splayed and trembling from a chill he could not shake a towel around his shoulders Charlie looked less like death incarnate.
Following the bath Syd took Charlie to get his hair trimmed and they went and acquired him a new set of clothes. Grown up clothes, a suit, shirts, collars, cuffs, a couple of changes of underwear and socks and a new pair of shoes with room to grown and fill out. And that Charlie did, over the months that followed he grew several inches, regained the weight he lost and became a little too handsome Syd recalled. If he was remembering it right, he first worked as a bar tender to support them and Charlie landed a job with a traveling comedy troop with his help. Shortly thereafter he was taken on by Karno, where he was able to, with much haranguing get his brother a job after his stint was up with the first troop. And the rest was history, Syd thought now, scratching an itch around the back of his head. Without his contributions neither of them would be where they were now. Charlie would not be what he was and that was why he would not let him off easily, he needed to continue to face his fears. Funny how at what seemed like the beginning of the end for both of them both of their careers blossomed like crocuses in spring, leaving them miles away from where they first began. Syd was glad those awful days were long since past, savage and beastly times they were.
Another sound in the hall caught his attention and he pulled him robust frame upright from the chair. Making his way to the door he discerned women’s foot falls, heels clunking on the bare floor. It was Edna; she was smiling, so gorgeous, his brother had chosen well. Rubenesque, with a round pretty face like an angel, she filled out the simple dress she was wearing more than adequately. He wished to peel it from her here and now on Charlie’s table, yet thought better of it, his brother would be irate. He told himself he was a married man and Min would like it none better.
“Have you seen Charlie?” Edna paused at the doorway radiant as a beam of California sunlight. “He told me he’d see me after lunch.”
Silently drawing in a sharp breath Syd answered, “he’s in the toilet, he should be out any moment.”
She grinned and he bit his lip in attempt to quiet his thoughts that he feared she might hear, “tell him I’m in my dressing room.”
“Wait… Please stay,” he found himself saying, knowing that if she did it gave Charlie all the more incentive to stick around and here what he had to say. With the way events were unfolding around the studio as of late if Charlie had his way Edna and him would be making another trip out to the beach.
“You probably have something important to talk about and I’ll just be a distraction.”
For Syd she already was unbeknownst to her, “no… No you won’t…Sit,” he gestured to the other chair. It was true, what he had to say could be spoken in front of Edna; after all she was practically family now.
From the chair she took Charlie’s jacket and lovingly draped it over the table like it were actually, physically a part of him, then settled down to wait. Syd returned to his chair and sat with his legs crossed to hide his body’s protestations. Soon as he was settled, light quick footsteps echoed on the hall, a door closed heavily and Charlie swung around the corner and entered his office stopping dead, a bewildered look contorting his features.
“Hi doll,” he greeted Edna first, bending down to kiss her cheek. “Syd.”
Syd was on his feet once more and before Charlie could go behind the table and plop down in his chair he grasped one of his hands like he were gong to shake it. Funny little hands they were he though, frail and tiny like a lady’s hairy like a man’s.
“What is it Syd?”
He shook his head, “I was just thinking how lucky we are… To go to this,” his eyes darted around the comfortably furnished room with its electric lights and central heat.
He did not need to explain it to Charlie for he knew all to well what Syd meant. Then he pulled his brother into an embrace, holding him closely like a parent would a child, he could not remember the last time he hugged Charlie or was so grateful to have him around. It always surprised him how small and insubstantial Charlie felt in his arms, delicate. His brother beamed ear to ear and seemed to be getting a bit choked up, Edna smiled sweetly. The only other question Syd had, the one he had intended to ask first, until his emotions took hold of him, regarded when filming would begin on the last film he needed to produce in order to fulfill his Mutual contract. Each subsequent film was taking longer than the last to complete and Mutual had telegrammed Syd asking what he knew. For weeks Charlie had been working out the scenario in between jaunts to the beach with Edna.
With Charlie seated comfortably in his swivel chair, Syd breached the question. Coming forward with great gusto Charlie went on to explain what he had in mind. An escaped convict, himself, saving a drowning girl, Edna. Him, the convict, going to a party hosted by the girl’s parents, beautiful dancers that would provide further temptation to his Little Tramp. The girl would have an ugly, brutish and overbearing beau who would get in the way, Eric Campbell his loyal heavy. Visits to the beach proved to be inspiration Charlie stated, the glue that would fit most pieces of the picture together. Like sunlight on the waves Charlie’s eyes gleamed and twinkled, overflowing with excitement and vitality, a far cry from those sullen, sunken eyes of years gone by. Those hands danced through the air, or smoothed back dark curls that now gleamed freshly washed and neatly brushed in the afternoon light. A luminous young man, Syd knew if not for himself these stories that would go on to inspire millions the world over would remain unheard.