Friday, 7 September 2007

With one foot still in Tuscany

Early morning in the gatehouse, usually the most pleasant time of day for me; and I am doing my best to adjust to life at home again. But the hum of the refrigerator has the sound, to my ears, of the cicadas in Tuscany; the smell of coffee brewing reminds me that this will not be the coffee of Italy; and the idea that the sweet, charmed life of the villa goes on even in my absence – that breakfast will be in process of being laid out on white-clothed tables in the shade of the old loggia even as I sit here writing; that Bill and Belle will soon be walking together along rows of vines, or in the olive groves, making their plans for the future; and that somewhere must be the distant sound of farm dogs barking, and machinery starting up.... all these things have such a hold on my imagination still, that I am finding it hard to resist the impulse to phone an airline and book another flight to Pisa.

Bill’s vegetable garden has a melancholy look now, since I doubt that he will ever return to it. Oh, he will come home again of course, all in the fullness of time. But it is unlikely he will take up residence again in his side of the gatehouse. He has been taken up by the Macauleys now; he is their man, with all that it implies of being the overseer of grapevines, and of fields of olives, and the newly acknowledged Grand Seigneur of the Villa Jack Macauley.

I am filled with joy for him, of course. Doting sister that I am, I had feared a little, lately, for his future. It had seemed unlikely that he would find love again, after the deeply unpleasant collapse of his marriage; and I had suspected that, with the restoration of his health, and in the absence of anything better to do, he would inevitably drift back again, into the perilous, shifting life of the roving reporter. That he will do no such thing now; that he has found new directions and an absorbing new way of life, as well as lasting and fulfilling love – these things ought to be of the greatest possible sisterly satisfaction to me. And are indeed – or will be, just as soon as I have adjusted to the thought (and I acknowledge it as a selfish, an unworthy one) that in them is no real place that I can presently think of, for me.

Bill phoned last night to tell me that a new party of guests has arrived at the villa. David Porteous is there now, doing his best to look unperturbed by recent events. But failing a little in the attempt, Bill observes – since it cannot have escaped his notice that he has slipped sideways somewhat, in Lady Macauley’s regard; and that the position of acknowledged suitor to Belle he had hoped would be his own, is now very firmly occupied by Bill himself. His daughters are there too; and very pretty they look, Bill tells me, especially when reclining beside the pool in their bikinis.

Lady Macauley is evidently very fond of them; especially of pretty Amy, whom she seems to think will provide an interest for her grandson Will, Jack and Alice's boy, when he comes to visit her in London in the Autumn. For Imogen, her sentiments are evidently rather more mixed – though she likes the way the girl stands up to her in conversation, which shows a commendable spirit, she thinks. And she has already engaged her in another connection, to take up her painter’s palette, and see what she can do to restore the faded frescoes in the loggia. Bill seems to think she is making a rather good job of it, so far.

Pamela had something to say about all these things when I called on her yesterday. “Rose tells me that our dear David is smarting visibly over the failure of his plans” she informed me. “It can’t be easy for him, seeing another man slipping into the shoes he’d hoped would be his. He will require every bit of his practised urbanity to see him through. But I expect he’ll prove himself equal to it – he's equal to most things. And perhaps dear Lady Macauley will find something else for him out there after all? I’m told she has any number of distinguished Italian friends – perhaps she will produce some fascinating countess out of her hat, to compensate him for his loss?"

"Roland and I look forward to meeting some of these people ourselves in fact, when we go out there next week." Pamela went on almost without pause for breath; she was certainly not interested in any contribution I might have wished to make to the conversation. "Roland is Lady Macauley’s acknowledged solicitor now, you know. Such an unexpected distinction for him, late in life. He had thought himself retired, but has been very much involved, with drafting all kinds of new documents for her – he has hardly had a moment to spare in several weeks. But I daresay I shouldn’t be discussing this sort of thing with you - since it most of all pertains to Bill, and to Lady Macauley’s determination to make him joint heir with Belle - at least on the Italian side of things.... She had believed she would have to sell the villa and all its lands, you know, none of the men in her family having any interest in running it. But now here has come Bill, cast so in the mould of her own Jack, she says; so splendidly large, so reassuringly capable - and with such a taste for agriculture, that the villa's future seems assured again. ”

Pamela’s manner was lofty, arch almost, as she delivered herself of all this information. She is very much assured of her position at the Macauley court these days. It has enabled her to hold her head very high; she has dispensed entirely with any feelings of slight she might have suffered in the past - especially those involving David Porteous, whom she now sees as entirely yesterday’s man. She seems to think, too, that her new position gives her leave to be ever so faintly – oh, indiscernibly almost! - patronising towards me. She is at pains of course, to conceal the fact: she wouldn’t like me to think that she gives herself airs of any kind! And she does concede to me the distinction, at least, of being the sister of Bill; whom she evidently holds in the highest possible regard, as the real, and really rather glorious hero of the hour. She parted from me yesterday with the hope that I too, would have the happiness of being able to rejoin them all for another few days at the Macauley villa.

“Do think of coming out again dear, while we’re there!” she entreated. “I’m sure Lady Macauley would be delighted to receive you – and from all I hear, there’s room enough for all of us in that splendid house! “

But there is nothing that Pamela can tell me about that splendid house that I haven’t already seen, and experienced for myself. I yearn for it, in truth. I yearn for the splendour, and yet the simplicity of it. I believe that if the conditions were right, and Lady Macauley, or Bill and Belle, were to suggest it, I could easily shed every aspect of my present life; could close the door of the gatehouse and jump on a flight to Pisa tomorrow, with only a single suitcase in my hand, and with the idea of giving myself up to the charm of the Tuscan lifestyle forever.

That I have a special reason for feeling this way is a fact, yet no part of my brief as narrator of these events. Properly speaking, I am not expected to have a life, and still less any kind of a dream of my own. Yet sooner or later I believe I shall be impelled to reveal the astonishing truth – that there was one especially enchanted evening in which a stately fleet of old cars wound its way up the hill to the villa; that jewels and medals sparkled, and ancient bosoms were exposed to moonlight, as we dined at tables set up beneath a tremendous plane tree to celebrate the engagement of Bill and Belle; and that my own designated partner at table was a tall man with an elegant air, and the deep, deep, old Italian eyes for which I’ve always had a special weakness....

But now I'm being arch myself! An unforgiveable lapse on a narrator's part; I shall forswear it utterly, and go and visit Frances instead. I have other tales than my own to tell, after all, and have no business slipping off in inadmissable directions. Though I won’t pretend there isn’t something more than just Tuscany which haunts my thoughts at present. I have been touched by something else; I never expected it, and am not at all sure about how I shall handle it. But nor can I absolutely guarantee that I won’t be irresistibly drawn back to it, at some future, more appropriate moment.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

At the Macauley Villa

I have returned to the gatehouse alone; Bill having stayed on in Tuscany with Lady Macauley and Belle for what has every appearance of being an indefinite period. How this came about – and how it came about moreover at Lady Macauley’s own insistence, she having sprung a bombshell upon us in the very first hour in the villa, which led to her protesting that ‘the lovebirds’ should remain in Italy for as long as possible, Italy itself being the only possible place in which to enjoy a prolonged, if somewhat premature honeymoon... how this rather remarkable state of affairs came about, I shall describe in detail later. Just as soon as I have absorbed the fact that in two weeks, everything has changed beyond recognition; and when I have adjusted to life in the gatehouse again, to shrunken rooms and contracted vistas, and the rough feel of carpet beneath my feet, instead of the cool smoothness of marble.

I should have known that, even without Lady Macauley’s bombshell, Italy would have rendered me unfit for ordinary life; that I should pine for sunken gardens and marble balustrades, and be incapable of looking at an ordinary painting again without distaste - or without, at least, recalling the faded frescoes of Giotto in Santa Croce, or the (to me) still more glorious ones of Fra Angelico, in the dim little monks’ cells of the Monastery of San Marco, in Florence.

I have been ruined, I fear, by the experience of spending two weeks in the Macauley villa. Nothing in real life will ever quite be able to measure up to that. The very act of travelling by scheduled flight with Lady Macauley should have alerted me to the fact that, as Scott Fitzgerald so succinctly put it, “the rich are different” – that they have ways and ways of making life as comfortable as possible; and that a very old lady with an imperious manner can always be assured of boarding an aeroplane first, by the simple expedient of calling ahead to order a wheelchair.

We reached Pisa in the heat of the afternoon, and not even Lady Macauley could do much to ease the tiresome wait for baggage to appear. But from the moment we emerged into sunlight again, with baggage intact, our way was eased by the smooth appearance of an air-conditioned limousine, and our journey north-eastwards into the hills above the walled city of Lucca, was serene and cool.

The Villa Madrigali (or the Villa Jack Macauley, as it is apparently known locally now - though Lady Macauley assured us we would hardly recognise the name, they pronounce it so charmingly) - the villa itself stands upon a high plateau and is visible everywhere for several miles as you approach it. Only when you come near to it does it disappear again, shrouded by the trees which cover the hillside from which it rises; so that its sudden re-emergence at the end of a poplar and cypress-lined avenue comes as a kind of shock, and you feel you are in the presence of something very old and quite magnificent. Vast, four-square, in perfect symmetry, it rises above you; its green-shuttered windows conferring an air of mystery, and the faded ochre of its walls bathed dappled gold in the afternoon sunshine.

That life was going to be be easy, tranquil, here, was evident from the first moment. A little army of chattering, welcoming men and women was at hand to take our bags, conducting us up the double flight of steps and through the echoing grand salon, to the cool chambers with the many-shuttered windows beyond, that had the immensity of ballrooms to my eyes, but that were apparently our appointed bedrooms, each with adjoining marble bathroom. I can conjure it still, that state of almost dream-like wonder with which I took the measure of my new abode; parting long white window curtains to open shutters one by one, for the sheer joy of letting in the light, and then of leaning far out, to look upon landscapes that might have been painted by Leonardo, and of hearing the drowsy sound of cicadas and distant dogs barking, which I now recognise as the characteristic, the unmistakeable sound of Tuscany.

This was never meant to be a travelogue though. Tuscany has a quality of enchantment that loosens the tongue and makes one want to rhapsodise - but I have a story to continue after all, and it was in fact scarcely more than half an hour before we were all gathered together again, in the shade of an open loggia of many handsome portals at the rear of the villa; and Lady Macauley was dropping her little bombshell, calling for glasses of chilled champagne before we took our tea, and asking us to drink the health of that new pair of lovers, Bill and Belle.

“Did you really think I hadn’t noticed?” she gaily cried. “Or that, having noticed, I wouldn’t be overjoyed at the development? How could you think me so blind or so foolish as to have been deceived? And how, come to that, could you have supposed that I wouldn’t welcome with open arms the glorious fact that my daughter has found for herself a man who need not be ashamed to tread in the footsteps of her father, and my own beloved Jack? Oh, I daresay Bill was feeling uncomfortable about the money aspect – and I like him all the better for it, I have to admit. But we have money enough heaven knows! And since the only thing we lack is the one that he supplies, which is to say a man who will carry Jack’s banner into the future – well, don’t you see how avidly we will grab him, and how we will refuse ever to let him go?”

She had known from the first moment, she then explained. A mother could guess such things just by looking, and feeling the little changes in the air. She had known, and she had gloried in the knowledge. But it had amused her to keep them in suspense a little longer; and she had wanted to wait, besides, for the perfectly right moment in which to reveal her knowledge. That moment had come, she said; and now that we were all together here, and the beautiful days stretched ahead of us indefinitely, she could see no reason on earth why the whole world should not be brought in to enjoy the secret. She meant to invite all her old Florentine and Lucchese friends over to join the celebrations. She had an elderly count and countess or two (or six) up her sleeve; who, though largely moth-balled now, would doubtless get their family jewels out again for a night, and bestow a certain faded grandeur upon the occasion.

Nor was there any conceivable reason that she could see why Bill and Belle should not live together as man and wife now, in the villa. She had arranged for the larger of the gatehouses to be prepared to just that effect, indeed - they would have to move their joint belongings over there, directly after tea. And in the meantime we should all have the pleasant occupation of plotting and planning together to dream up some kind of perfectly magnificent wedding for them. She only wondered if they’d like to have it here, at the villa - Jack would have loved that of course. Or whether they’d prefer to wait and have something on an altogether grander scale, in London ?

Bill and Belle were overwhelmed of course, by this sudden public acknowledgement of their situation. Bill took it as he takes everything, with a fairly robust enjoyment – it seemed to amuse him no end that Lady Macauley had been watching him ‘hide in cupboards’ all the while. He embraced her warmly for her words of welcome, however; then raised his own glass, asking us to drink the health of a remarkably astute and generous lady. Belle, on the other hand, seemed a little bewildered by it all. It had all happened too quickly for her; she could not adjust on the spot, as Bill had done, and she entreated her mother not to leap too far ahead in making wedding plans. I think she secretly feared that Bill would find all this just a little precipitate; I saw her glance rather anxiously in his direction once or twice.

We dined quietly beneath the stars on the terrace that evening, and retired early to our respective rooms. We were all weary from travelling, Lady Macauley said: the plans for celebration could wait a day or two. And it seemed, over breakfast in the loggia next morning, that one night in what Lady Macauley now smilingly referred to as ‘the married quarters’, had worked its magic in restoring Belle’s faith in herself, and Bill. She emerged looking happier than I had ever seen her, and no longer seemed to feel the least need to conceal the extent to which she liked to keep physically close to Bill. Lady Macauley too, came down to breakfast in buoyant spirits. And indeed the only member of our little party whose joy seemed in any way alloyed that morning, was Rose. Who had had little real part to play in these proceedings; who must have felt herself rather side-lined, and who perhaps saw in Belle’s sudden ascent into radiant happiness, some vague, unaccountable diminution of her own.

To be continued...

Sunday, 2 September 2007

A Taste for Marble (Preface)

I have returned in body, but my heart and soul seem to have been left behind in Italy. It happens every year, and memory reassures me that it will be only temporary; so that by tomorrow or the next day, I shall have accustomed myself to looking out upon a London street and not the Tuscan hills, my feet will have become inured to the rough warmth of carpeted floors instead of the cool smoothness of marble - and I shall be in a frame of mind from which to write and post a new instalment of the story.

It was Mutley I think, who doubted that I should be able to write a word when once the charm of Tuscany had taken hold, and I have to admit that he was absolutely right. I did try, but the enchantment was too great – and even had I been able to get an internet connection for more than three minutes at a time, I doubt that I’d have been able to do much more than endlessly (and tediously) rhapsodise.

I have returned to find many kind comments from friends however, and I thank you all most warmly for not forgetting me. Soon, I shall be back among you whole-heartedly again, telling my own story, and doing my best to catch up on all the interesting and exciting things that you must all have been writing and posting in my absence.

Before that can happen though, I have an explanation and an apology to make. I committed a rather serious topographical error when I spoke of the hills above Florence. I had intended to site the Macauley villa there, as it is a place I love well. But our own villa was situated in the Lucchese, not the Florentine hills; and I now feel that for authenticity’s sake I ought to stick with what I know best, and must therefore ask readers who know the areas in question, to be kind enough to make the required locational leap from Florence to Lucca.

A Taste for Marble, the instalment proper, will follow shortly...