Friday, 18 May 2007

More or less drowning in bliss

I went at last to see the lovers for myself yesterday, and I can’t say I was made any happier by what I found. My expectations had been coloured to some extent in advance, mind you; Rose having called on me beforehand to give me the benefit of her own views on the situation. She came on the dot of ten, and cast a sharp glance around her, I thought, as if in hopes of finding Bill. But she settled herself on a stool in my kitchen in his absence just the same, and with the distinct look of one whose intention it was to spend an hour or two in cosy contemplation of the lovers.

She thinks someone ought to tell Frances not to go around talking to people about her ‘lover’, however. “It creates a rather bizarre impression,” she said. “People feel uncomfortable about it. Not everyone understanding, as you and I do, that it’s a word Frances has been longing to use in connection with herself for as long as she can remember!”.

“She has read too many books, that’s the trouble!” was Rose’s next offering. “She gets all her weird ideas from there. I have a lover! she heard someone cry, in some book or other when she was seventeen. It was Anna Karenin I think…. something Russian and dense, at any rate. And Frances has been practising saying it before the mirror ever since. I think she must have thought the opportunity to say it for real would never come, but now here is Mr Porteous at last, and she’s shouting it out all over the place.”

This was not in fact a piece of information to which I had been made privy, myself, so it surprised me to learn that Rose had. I knew a little of Frances’s other imaginary lovers, who had begun with Huck Finn at the age of ten, and progressed through Holden Caulfield and Mr Rochester all the way to Sir Lancelot; from adoration of whom she had seldom deviated since – though it had sometimes occurred to her to wonder if after all she didn’t adore King Arthur even more. I had assumed anyway, that with the advent of Mr Porteous, Frances had been induced to put away childish things - though I did just wonder how well he might have measured up, by comparison with Lancelot and King Arthur?

I was annoyed with Rose, besides. It seemed to me the very worst kind of betrayal to reveal such confidences made in trust. I gave her fairly short shrift therefore: I told her that it wasn’t anyone Russian whom Frances had taken for her model. It was Madame Bovary in fact, who had cried I have a lover! - and she was the creation of Gustave Flaubert, who was French.

But Rose scarcely even flinched at my little put-down. She has a thick skin, and has perfected the art of seeing and hearing only those things which it suits her to see and hear. It’s a considerable art, and one which I would like to be able to master, at least in part, myself. She went on quite unperturbed, telling me that she gives the affair five months at most. She knows the type of Mr Porteous, she says; and she believes he will find it too difficult a pill to swallow in the end.

“He’ll be seduced for a while” she said. “The grandeur of the manor house itself will see to that. That, and the sheer size of the bank balance it seems to imply! But he’ll finally be unable to stomach any of it. He’ll pull out at some point – oh, he’ll do it beautifully of course, so that she hardly even knows she’s been dropped. He’ll find someone else to impress - and poor Frances will be left with her little love affair lying in tatters at her feet!”

It is Rose’s opinion that we will all be obliged to pick up the pieces when Frances has been abandoned. She left me with that thought; and since I can’t help thinking that there’s probably some truth in her theory, my own heart was filled with trepidation, when at two o’clock that afternoon I presented myself at the gates of the manor house. To my surprise, it was Frances herself who came out to the gate to let me in. She was all of a tremble, but she wanted me to see how entirely composed and happy she was. “Mrs Meade is slow to hear the bell” she explained. “ She lets it ring and ring, and David thinks it creates a bad impression.” She seemed nervous of what she might find my attitude to be, so I hugged her at once, and said how glad I had been to hear of her happy new association.

“Oh, you mean Mr Porteous” she replied; and her relief was visible. “Or David, as I must learn to call him! So foolish of me to be calling him Mr Porteous, now that we are lovers you know. Though David says I oughtn’t to be talking about our being lovers – that creates a bad impression too. It seems as if I’m always creating bad impressions, but with Mr Porteous as my guide, I shall soon be able to overcome all that. We are on the point of becoming an affianced couple, is the way David expresses it – and that should be information enough for anyone, he says. And yes, it has been very remarkable, and I won’t pretend not to be just a little overwhelmed by it all, still. But he is so very good to me, you see – and of course now that he has actually come to live here, there are all sorts of little adjustments that must be made..”

“ … They’re very pleasant ones of course – the adjustments, I mean!” She was quick to add that; she seemed to think it important I should see at once how entirely pleasant everything was. “ And it’s all quite temporary at this stage. David has come here to stay just while Mr Jessop decorates his own house. It will take several weeks – and after that, well we shall have to wait and see how things develop.”

She led me into the drawing room then, where sat David Porteous himself, all at his ease in the largest armchair. He stood to greet me, putting out his hand with his usual perfect urbanity.

“You find me very looking very much at home in my new environment no doubt” he said. “Frances has been good enough to take me in while my own house is being re-decorated. It’s an act of charity on her part, and I hardly know how I’m going to be able to express my thanks.”

It crossed my mind that there was one way in which he might have expressed his thanks – and that would have been to leave the poor little creature alone! But of course one doesn’t say such things: one nods, and smiles, and talks of this and that, until it comes time for tea, and somehow the awkward gap has been bridged. It was a strange hour I spent with them, for all that. I don’t know what I had expected to find in Mr Porteous; but if I had hoped to see signs of embarrassment, or compunction – or any indication of the newly ardent lover - I was to be disappointed on all counts. He calls her ‘my dear’ for a start, which is not what I would call precisely the language of love. He permits her to hover near his chair, anticipating his needs – he even allows her to flutter her hands in his direction now and then. But touch her in return, he does not. For a lover, he is very much in command of himself – it’s only poor little trembling Frances, who seems to be more or less drowning in bliss.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Miss Fanshawe's Lover

It is one of Bill’s contentions that nothing in the world is ever quite so bad – or so good – as it seems. He has often voiced this opinion, and I guess he ought to know what he’s talking about, since he has seen about as much of the bad as it’s possible for any one man to do in a lifetime. Of the extent to which he has also seen the good, I’m not so sure. The good has a tendency to become submerged, when it is your brief to go about the world reporting from this troubled spot and the next; and I don’t believe I have ever heard Bill talking through his satellite link about Mother Theresa, or the Good Woman of Baghdad (should such a person exist); or even about the hundreds of good, bewildered, frightened, ordinary people whom I believe he must have also have enountered fairly routinely in his travels.

It is not the good frightened bewildered people who make the news, you see. Any more than it is the brave, or the benevolent, or the hopeful – or those who just doggedly, and in the face of hideous adversity, survive. All those other people must be there in the background all the while of course – since if they were not, the world must surely spin to a screeching halt one day, ground up finally in the mill of its own self-perpetuating wickedness.

Bill has another theory though: one that is coupled with, or at any rate closely related to the first. Whatever else there is in the world, he says, there are in the last resort only people. It’s a fairly self-evident fact, but one that is often overlooked. You can go to any place you like, to the best place or the worst. You can go to the most beautiful, or ugly, or awe-inspiring, or simply profoundly dull place - and when you actually get there, what you’ll find are people not so very different from yourself.
Bill has been to what he thinks must have been one of the worst places. He has taken tea with Saddam, in one of his palaces before the fall. He has interviewed the man himself, and found him exuding bonhomie, wearing a Western suit and offering earl grey tea and biscuits, with the cigars.

It was only the glint of madness somewhere behind Saddam’s eyes, Bill says – that, and the little red panic button on the arm of his chair, and the pair of armed ruffians posted outside the door – that reminded him he was in presence here not so much of a man, as a confirmed and unrepentant monster. It was a difficult transition to make at the time, but Bill said he managed to make it. Since if he had not, then all those innocent people must have resisted and fought; must have been imprisoned and tortured and died, entirely in vain.

Bill was reminded of this encounter of his when he saw Ian Paisley sitting down to tea last week with Martin McGuinness. Most things come to tea and handshakes at the end, in Bill's view. T.S Eliot had it just about right, when in The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock he talked about ‘measuring one’s life in coffee spoons’. It was teaspoons with Ian and Martin, and Bill and Saddam, of course – but it might just as well have been coffee spoons. Everything is finally banal and ordinary in the heart of man. It’s just that you sometimes have to travel further, and longer, and more roughly - more bombs must fall, more wholescale meaningless slaughter and suffering occur – before the teacups can come out.

Now you might wonder why I write in this vein this morning? Especially when I write under such a heading as Miss Fanshawe’s Lover. You might think I would have something more momentous to talk about than Bill's experiences with people. But that’s just it, don't you see? Something has happened that has made me see all over again, that when it comes to people, Bill is the wise one, possessing a distinct and natural advantage over me. It required Bill’s presence, for example, to enable me to feel at home with Lady Macauley the other day; and doubtless it will only be because Bill goes with me, that I shall feel comfortable about attending her little luncheon party next week. For I am, I believe, a natural coward – and Bill is precisely the reverse.

There’s more to it even than that, though. What has happened is that Bill has already been out on the common with Monty this morning, and has discovered, in the space of one short walk, all that I have been wanting to know about Frances and Mr Porteous for several weeks, and been too busy, or polite – or just plain timorous – to try to find out! Rose and Pamela were right all along, as it turns out. I thought they exaggerated the situation grotesquely, and accused them in my mind of all manner of unsubstantiated suspicions. But what they darkly feared has come to pass, and Mr Porteous and Frances are lovers.

“She came right out and said it to me” Bill told me – he looked very much affected by it, for Bill. “She looked up at me with all her elderly innocence shining in her face, and told me that Mr Porteous had become her lover. ‘We talked about it a great deal in advance’ she said; ‘And he implored me to consider it very carefully, because of course it was quite a tremendous step to take. But really, I didn’t have to consider it at all, because I already liked and admired him so much. And now it has happened, and he comes in the evenings sometimes as well as the mornings (to work in the library you know). Soon perhaps, he will come to live with me altogether; and though we are not precisely what you would call engaged to be married, we might yet be both those things, and in the meantime we are lovers nevertheless.”

Bill says that he has received many profound shocks in his life, but there was never another that came near to this one. Worse, he said, the whole thing seemed so preposterous, that he was afflicted at once with the almost irresistible impulse to explode in mirth! “She said it all with such a perfect gravity, you see,” he explained. “She stood there talking about Mr Porteous being her lover as if it were the nicest, but after all the most ordinary and natural thing on earth. And all the while I was thinking how absurd it was; hardly knowing whether I most wanted to laugh, and accuse her of playing girlish games with me - or go out and find the wretched man and punch him on the nose!”

All this happened several hours ago now, but I can’t say that I have been able yet to accustom myself to the idea. I shall have to go and see Frances of course – Bill said she particularly asked him to let me hear her news. But what I shall say to her - and how, quite frankly, I shall react if Mr Porteous himself should happen to be with her when I call… Well, these are eventualities about which I haven’t yet been able to think. One thing only remains clear – and that is that if Frances is happy, then I must try to be happy for her too. It won’t be easy though. And the awful thing is that I too, find something almost irresistibly comic about it. I should laugh outright, I fear – if there weren’t something about it that also made me want to weep!

Monday, 14 May 2007

Bill crashes my party

Lady Macauley stayed with me for more than three hours the other day. She leant back in her chair with legs delicately extended, her feet upon a little padded footstool I had provided. She has the slenderest legs, the smallest, prettiest feet. Her feet were encased today in a pair of dove-coloured shoes that buttoned above the ankles; all of a piece they were, with the almost Edwardian elegance of her high-necked dress in finest wool, and of the identical shade of dove grey. She knows just how to dress herself to best effect; accentuating her good points and masking those that are bad. In fact she hasn’t many bad points that I could see - and I hope I shall have learnt something from her style, when once I have reached her advanced age.

She professed herself at home in my sitting room at once, and hoped I’d be kind enough to let her stay a while. There was something unexpectedly pleasant about being in such a very small house, she said; its walls closed in around one so reassuringly, and whatever one might happen to need at any given moment, was scarcely more than an arm’s-length away.

“Only think of it, Belle!” she exclaimed. “Six steps at most, and you’re in the kitchen. With us, there are corridors to cross and flights of stairs to surmount. There’s even a creaking old lift, if one happens to be on the wrong floor! There are dark corners and cold patches - so that I can never be quite sure, when Belle has left me sitting in the panelled parlour and even the sound of her footsteps has vanished, whether it will be ten minutes before she returns, or whether she’ll perhaps have gone forever.“

This seemed to me to create such an arresting image, that my curiosity was aroused at once. I had often wondered how these two women managed alone in so vast and uncompromising a house; and here – especially with the mention of the dark corners and the cold patches – was at least the beginning of an explanation. I took courage in hand, and asked her if with her mention of cold patches, she were suggesting that the house was haunted? It was a remark which might have gone against me, I knew that. I might, with that one rather ill-judged question, have forfeited her good opinion forever. Fortunately, she took it in good part, and gave me much more than I could have hoped for by way of a reply.

“Haunted – oh yes it’s that, undoubtedly!” she said. “You can’t live in a place four centuries old and not be troubled by its former inhabitants now and then. And then you know, it was a place of high political intrigue at one time. They were for the king, the people who built the house and lived there for the first two hundred years. Staunch royalists, all of them– though it’s said that the lady of the house did manage to carry on some sort of amorous association with Mr Cromwell ( who’s not generally known for his amorousness!), whilst secretly supporting Charles. I don’t know how much truth there is in the story. But even if it’s only partly true, one can’t help admiring her, can one? It must have been a very delicate balancing act for any lady to undertake, in any generation."

It is the lady who had the amorous association with Cromwell, apparently, who most often returns to haunt the house. Lady Macauley herself has received no glimpse of her, but Belle has seen her, and so has Rose. Which makes Lady Macauley think that ghosts too, must have their little discriminations. “I daresay they think me too hard a nut to crack” she said. “ For a ghost to function effectively, there must be some vestige of belief at least, in the person whom it’s endeavouring to haunt!” Lady Macauley herself has seen nothing more than a little dog that sometimes runs out ahead of her on wintry nights – and even that apparition, she is inclined to put down to tricks of the light played on dark staircases.

It was not of ghosts we were talking however, when half an hour later, at six o’clock, Bill’s battered old Renault suddenly rattled into our little forecourt. We had moved on by then to that other favoured topic of Lady Macauley’s, the Prime Minister. So that when Bill put his rain-soaked head inside the door, taking in the assembled company with some astonishment, Lady Macauley had just delivered herself of the remark that she supposed we were about to witness the longest goodbye in political history; and that there would almost certainly be a manly tear or two, before it was allowed to end.

“No doubt we shall hear Mr Blair call himself the people’s prime minister” was what she was actually saying at the moment of Bill’s entry. “For all the world as if he thought that democracy itself were something that had been invented by New Labour!”

Bill had heard, and seemed to take it with some exuberance. “Now there’s an interesting idea to come home to!” he said. He was smiling broadly, even as he shook the rain from his overcoat, and threw it over the nearest chair. It all seemed to go on with surprising smoothness from there, and I was rather proud of Bill, to tell the truth. He has a way of filling any room he enters. He’s a big man, with a loud voice and a huge guffaw for a laugh; and his intrusion into this particular little party might very well have caused it to go seriously wrong. It almost did go wrong at one point in fact – though through no fault of Bill’s. Rose it was, who for some reason best known to herself, took it into her head to tackle him over the situation in Iraq.

“I suppose you take the side of Britain and America in all this?” was the way she saw fit to put it. And there was flirtatiousness, as well as challenge in her manner - which was of all approaches she might have made to Bill, the very worst. To my astonishment, he handled it with quiet restraint - though I hoped Rose was too well pleased with her own conversational boldness, to have missed the glance of pure loathing he cast in her direction before he replied. “Oh I never take sides you know” was all he finally said. “If there’s a bad guy in it anywhere, it would be beyond my powers of deduction to say which one.”

He turned away from Rose then, to talk to Lady Macauley and Belle of less inflammatory things. He leant forward and listened, adding something of his own now and then, or throwing his head back to laugh. He was affability itself, and in no time at all had the old lady smiling and nodding back at him, as if she thought him the most delightful man she’d ever met. To Rose he addressed no further word - do her best to draw him though she continued, with visibly growing annoyance, to try to do.

They stayed another hour; and when at last they said they ought to go, it was Bill who held Lady Macauley’s umbrella for her, and conducted her with infinite courtesy to her car. She beckoned me over at the final moment of farewell, and “He does not disappoint one!” she whispered in my ear. “He saw Rose off, and no mistake!” she added, rather less discreetly. “It delighted my old eyes to see it done so well! But you musn’t hide him away in future you know – and must promise to bring him to lunch with us at the earliest possible moment.”

Bill, as I have so often observed, can always spring a fresh surprise on one. And what he said to me of the visit after they’d gone, was not in the least the thing that I’d expected. “That was one entertaining old lady!” he said, when he’d waved the Bentley off around the corner of the common. “ I can’t say as much for her friend of course – I entirely deplore the type as you know. But the old lady and her daughter can call as often as you like.”

Which from Bill, is about as high as personal commendation gets.