Saturday, 12 May 2007

I receive a visitation

I had a sort of presentiment that something fairly calamitous was likely to happen, on Thursday. Perhaps it was because, after a reasonably promising start to the morning, it rained voluminously again in the afternoon? Or perhaps I was unconsciously preoccupied with something that Rose Mountjoy had said to me when I met her on the high street that morning ?

“Lady Macauley seems to have taken rather a fancy to you” Rose informed me, in that ever-so-slightly superior way she has. I think she must have picked it up from long association with the Macauleys; or from marriage to the almost Sir Curtis Mountjoy - I’m certain it can’t have been the manner she started out with in life. She went on at any rate to let me know that Lady Macauley thinks me a “sensible kind of woman”. Which might not seem high praise to me, she added, but which is in fact Lady-Macauley-speak for her having decided that I might be the sort of person whom it would amuse her to invite to lunch now and then.

“She would prefer it if you were to bring your brother with you of course,” Rose went on to tell me. “She shines most radiantly in the presence of men - and especially those whom she considers to have distinguished themselves in some way or other. She has formed a very high opinion of Bill – who has just that height and general ruggedness, she says, that she adored so in her own Jack! They are not qualities often met with in men today, she feels. And she has never met a foreign correspondent, besides. She thinks it a most original occupation, and is certain Bill would have many highly amusing things to say. I don't think she would expect him to dwell on the more dreadful aspects of his wars, mind you – so perhaps you ought to warn him in advance? And I think she’s likely to invite you first on your own, in any case. Always in the expectation, of course, that the next time, you’ll be prevailed upon to bring Bill along with you.”

I can’t remember exactly what I said in response to all this. I think I probably prevaricated wildly: being conscious that Bill would as soon lunch with Lady Macauley (and with Rose herself), as he would walk over hot coals, or plunge himself in a tankful of piranhas. I seemed to hear him saying something of the sort at any rate - and knew at once that I was going to be called upon to exercise every ounce of my ingenuity, if I were to spare him this new exigency.

Still, it ought to have prepared me for what was to occur later that day. I ought, at the very least, to have known better than to go out into the garden in the rain, wearing baggy trousers and an old sweater of Bill’s that reached almost to my knees and was ragged at the elbows. That was exactly what I did do though; and that my precise garb, when at four o’clock that afternoon an ancient Bentley reversed in stately fashion into our little public parking place, and Belle Macauley herself climbed out, to come across and call to me over the wall.

“I can’t apologise enough for calling on you unannounced like this!” she said – and there was everything about her to suggest she really meant it. “But we just happened to be passing. We had tried to go to Hampton Court, but were rained off, and now Mummy wants to know if you would be kind enough to ask us in? It’s the most frightful imposition, I know, and of course I’ll make your excuses to Mummy, and make her understand, if you really can’t endure the thought…”

She looked so utterly contrite and uncomfortable about it, poor woman, that I took pity on her at once, and said that of course they must come in. Provided they would overlook my own dishevelled state that was, and the horrible condition in which I was afraid I’d left my sitting room. Belle said that it was an act of mercy on my part, and that she’d make sure her mother understood. “I’ll explain that you have been gardening in the rain; and take as long as possible about getting her in! But please don’t mind about your appearance - Mummy's quite accustomed to seeing me in the same condition. And in any case must be prepared to take her chances, if she will come crashing in on people like this!”

She smiled at me in warm and friendly fashion as she said it, and I thought there was everything to like about her, just as I had expected. She was as good as her word, too: it took full five minutes to get Lady Macauley out of the car, and up the garden path beneath a large umbrella. Giving me time to remove boots and sweater, and run a hand rather desperately through my wet hair. Time to plump a cushion or two indeed, and arrange the best armchair, in the best position, for the reception of Lady Macauley.

“How charmingly you have arranged the old place!” was what the old lady exclaimed, on finally being seated, and having a cushion carefully placed behind her, by Belle. “I do believe we’d have been perfectly happy and comfortable here ourselves, don’t you Belle? So very much more convenient, certainly, than our present quarters! I don’t know why we didn’t think of it before.”

She went on then to look around at everything in such measured fashion, and with such a discerning eye, that I feared every dusty corner of mine must have been unearthed, and she would be asking me, next, to tell her what it was I paid my housekeeper to do. I was quite ready to explain indeed, that I employed no housekeeper, my means allowing for no such thing – but she forestalled me, having found something at last upon which her eyes could alight with genuine appreciation. “ How pretty they are, those two little samplers of yours!” she exclaimed; going on to ask if they were my own work, and seeming vaguely disappointed when I explained that they were in fact the work of Mr Porteous’s daughter Anne, who had the little handicrafts shop on the corner of the Common.

“Have you met Mr Porteous?” I then inquired. “ He seems to have created quite an interest in the village just lately.”

It was a rather desperate conversational ploy, I knew it; but the best I could come up with at short notice, and disadvantaged as I felt myself to be, hovering there beside her chair, and wondering at what moment I ought to ask if she’d like a cup of tea. Fortunately, she took it up with apparent enthusiasm.

“Oh yes, Mr Porteous!” she said. “It seems to me I hear of no-one else these days. You must meet Mr Porteous, they all tell me, he’s so very comme il faut and charming! But just between you and me, I could have wished he’d been anything other than a clergyman. I have quite enough of that, with the Rev. Mr Wainright coming every month in dreadful state to inquire after the condition of my soul. Just as if he thought there were anything in the world he could do about it, at this advanced stage…..”

There didn’t seem to be anything very meaningful I could say in reply to this. I thought of twenty things that Bill might have said - but feared they would have been inappropriate to the occasion. So I merely smiled, with what I hoped would be just the right degree of sympathetic fellow feeling – I wanted it to appear, I daresay, that I too was accustomed to have to endure the visits of clergymen coming to inquire after the condition of my soul... After which I said I would go away a moment if she didn't mind, to make tea for us all. Leaving Belle and Rose to take up and parry the questions of Mr Wainright and Mr Porteous, as best they could.

Alas though, my daily allotted span has already been exceeded! I don’t know how it is the words pile up so, but there it is, and I feel I must leave you for today. Hoping, perhaps, that you will come back again tomorrow, to hear what next ensued….

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Out of the rain of a bank holiday Monday

Oh how it did rain, on Monday! It was bank holiday of course, so what could one expect? Bill’s little vegetable plot was almost washed away, and all evidence of my murderous activities with slug pellets went with it. It was excellent weather for snails however, so I daresay I shall have to commit at least one more act of slaughter before he returns. I have never been fond of bank holidays, to tell the truth. It has always seemed to me that the world and its wife shut up shop and went elsewhere on such days – so that if one didn’t have anything particularly special and wonderful to do oneself , one must somehow have miserably failed at life.

I determined to do something anyway, weather notwithstanding, so I took up my largest umbrella and walked out across the empty common where the rain lashed down, thinking I would perhaps call on Pamela, to put her mind at rest over Frances and Mr Porteous. But when I reached her house, and thought of Roland, and teacups amidst the chintz, my nerve failed me and I strode right past, head down, hoping they wouldn’t catch sight of me and bid me come in. They didn’t – mercifully; so on I went, dismissing the idea of Frances, for some reason, and not yet feeling quite able to call unannounced on Rose, or anyone else. Well, there is no-one else, come to think of it. When I speak of Frances, and Pamela, and Rose Mountjoy, I come to the end of my present acquaintance.

I don’t even mention David Porteous, you will notice. Though the idea of calling upon him unexpectedly out of the rain did intrigue me for a moment. How would he respond, I wondered? And my answer came , swift as the falling rain itself: he would respond as he did to everything else, with perfect urbanity and charm. He would do what he could with his aunt’s teacups and, rising above any inadequacy he might feel over the condition of her armchairs, have me worshipping at the shrine in five minutes flat. I have a natural aversion to worshipping at shrines however – and besides, my boots were muddy and my hair a mess. So I walked past Mr Porteous’s house too, and continued on my random way.

There is something rather pleasant about walking in the rain in fact, when once one has become accustomed to it. So I let my footsteps take me where they would, along this narrow lane and that, enjoying the unaccustomed views of people’s rear gardens; arriving at the main Richmond to Kingston road at last, and crossing it, finding myself all of a sudden at the entrance to a sweet old garden centre. I had heard of this place, which has been transformed lately from pleasantly run-down nursery, to centre of excellence for all things horticultural, and latest place to go for fashionable out-of-Londoners, who want somewhere different for their lunch.

I was charmed with the place at once. What it consists of most of all, is three long old greenhouses , with an Italian-style covered courtyard in between. It has been set up as a commercial enterprise, I knew that, and most of what one sees is actually for sale. But I sensed the hand of a master craftsman here – whoever has made this place, I thought, has done it for the love of beauty alone. The greenhouses have been arranged as a series of extending vistas, with every object, large and small, having been given its own lovingly appointed place. So that interspersed among the towering orchids, and the scented climbers scrambling over roofs, are cabinets of old books and antique table linen; bottles of precious oils and spices; chairs and tables for sale, or simply to sit down upon - and a series of vast ornamental screens, and gates, and doorways, collected, I believe, from all around the world.

The courtyard was drenched and deserted today, so I wandered, charmed, about the greenhouses, picking up little delicacies and putting them in my basket as I went. I was conscious that there were people still sitting animatedly over lunch at one end of the larger greenhouse, but I hurried away from them and found a homelier place in which to buy a pot of steaming coffee and a slice of home-made cake. I could carry them, so the pleasant young man in the café told me, to any spot I would, so I sat down at an ancient table beside a screen - observing, with joy, that neither would have been out of place in the garden of a Tuscan palazzo; and it was here, that Rose Mountjoy found me.

She had come across from the place where the beautiful people sat; she came quietly, and caught me unawares. She was lunching with Lady Macauley and Belle, who had spotted me, she said, and wondered if I wouldn’t bring my coffee over and join them for half an hour? Thus it was that I found myself all at once in presence of Theodora - with only two minutes in which to make the transition between what I remembered of her, and what there is today. I was very excited at the time – but I relate it to you now with the relative quietness of recollection, and with what I hope will be a fair representation of the truth.

Lady Macauley, as Theodora has become, is a very fine, and still rather beautiful old lady. She is beautiful in that way that the Mitford sisters were in old age; which is to say small, and delicately thin, but dressed in palest lavender up to the throat; with facial bone structure more or less intact, and something strangely luminous still, about the eyes. Theodora’s eyes had been celebrated, in their time. Sonnets had been written about them, and nobody had ever been quite able to say whether they were mostly grey, or green, or simply silvery blue. I too found myself wondering about the precise colour of Theodora’s eyes; even as I was receiving Lady Macauley’s rather languid outstretched hand, and murmuring what I could by way of a response to her greeting.

It was only in what she actually said, that the myth of Theodora was finally dispelled for me, and I was able to see that what she had become was a rather spoilt and querulous old woman, who was examining me head to toe, and would be prepared to endure me only if she thought I might amuse her for an hour. “I have been hearing all about you” was what she actually said. “About you and your brother Bill, who is rather famous, they tell me. I gather you live in the old gatehouse, and that your brother is away at present. Which I think a pity, since I should like to have met him.”

It didn’t get very much better than that, to tell the truth. We were together for no more than ten minutes, talking rather desultorily of this and that, before the old lady suddenly decided she was impossibly weary, and ought to be taken home at once. I rose to see her go, but found she had forgotten me already. She didn’t offer me her hand again, and made no mention of a further meeting. And it was only after they had disappeared from sight at the end of the extending vista of the greenhouse, that I realised I had exchanged no word with Belle Macauley, who had sat silent throughout the short exchange, who had looked awkward, but whom I sensed I should have liked.

Bill was not encouraged, by the way, when I described this encounter to him over the telephone later that night. He thinks he’ll probably add an extra week to his fishing trip; since so far as he can see, I am resolved to make his life as uncomfortable as possible, and the dowager count is rising by the hour!