Thursday, 13 September 2007

What Rose said next

Rose was well into her stride by the time the second pot of coffee had brewed. She told me while she waited for it how much she enjoyed these nice long chats of ours: the great thing about me, she said, being the fact that I have so very little real involvement with events, and therefore no particular axe to grind. I didn’t see that this description did me any great credit – I’d have liked to have been thought just a little more closely involved in events than that! But I resisted the temptation to protest: judging that to have done so would have been an act of folly on my part, since to divert Rose now would be to send her careering off in directions that might have little bearing on the things I really wanted to hear.

I nudged her gently instead in the direction of Bill and Belle. I asked her how she thought they were holding up, beneath the close and continued scrutiny of Lady Macauley and all the others at the villa? Which was perhaps a calculated risk on my part, and might have invoked observations and opinions I’d really rather not have heard - but which in fact had the effect, just as I had hoped, of triggering a fresh conversational torrent from Rose.

“Oh Bill goes from strength to strength in the old lady’s estimation!” she acknowledged. “He can do no wrong whatever. Well, he never could of course, in her eyes, could he? She took to him unreservedly from the first. But now that he’s to be her son-in-law, he’s rocketed into some kind of stratosphere - and the only danger one can foresee is that people will grow bored with hearing about his virtues. It helps of course that Lady M is half in love him herself! She would have to have been, wouldn’t she, for the affair to have had any hope of succeeding at all? It was very clever of Belle to have found herself a man who bears so striking a physical resemblance to Sir Jack! She might have gone for quite another type - she has done so more than once in the past, with results that have been more or less catastrophic. But with Bill on her arm, she has suddenly become a person of importance in her mother’s eyes. The capacity to win and hold an impressive man - it’s the only quality the old lady respects in a woman, say what she will to the contrary. And now that Belle has achieved it, she can hardly be considered, or deferred to enough. It’s dear Belle and darling Belle all over the place now, you know – she’s even talking of engaging a nurse, or a paid companion, just so that Belle is left free to devote herself to Bill!”

This seemed an encouraging development in my eyes – though I was to learn the next moment that it also had its downside. Lady Macauley could become as captious in Tuscany as anywhere else, and her delight in being the mother of a splendidly engaged daughter was beginning to wear just a little thin. She had been charmed by everything for a week - after which she had begun to grow querulous again, and to find fault with most arrangements. This had manifested itself first, and most of all in Florence, which they had visited as a party one day last week, and which, in the absence of Bill and Belle - whom she had she sent off to explore alone, ‘as lovers should' - had suddenly become impossible in her eyes. The streets were devoid of breathable air, she complained; their labyrinthine quality oppressed her, and the cobbles hurt her feet!

There were only so many marble statues one could look at without prostration, besides! She knew them all, the Madonnas and the Davids and the Moseses (“Heavens, what kind of a word was that?”). They were very remarkable of course, and Jack had loved them - but for a tired old woman they had too much about them of the tombstone and the grave. She had quite enough of that to come, she announced to the assembled company, as they sat over iced drinks in a shaded cafe. And she thought it would turn out to be a poor sort of reward indeed, for having lived one’s interminable life, if one were to arrive in heaven only to find it awash with statues by Michelangelo!

All this information was delivered by Rose in her usual deadpan style, with few pauses for breath. She seemed to see in it grounds for supposing that the Tuscan idyll was drawing to its natural end, at least for Lady Macauley; and that if she wished to enjoy any more of it herself, she would have to get a flight as soon as possible, and hurry back. And that there were others in the immediate party who would be sadly disappointed if the experience were to be brought to a premature close, she intimated, and enlarged upon next...

“David Porteous and his daughters have taken to it quite as to the manor born, you know. He’s in his element, as you can imagine; and his girls are making quite a show just now, with their frescoes, never mind about their bikini-clad persons by the pool! Poor Roland hardly seems to know where to put his eyes – and Pamela is quietly fuming. I believe it will be an infinite mercy to her when this whole thing has quietly ended – the strain of keeping up appearances is beginning rather dismally to show. Imogen has meanwhile been experimenting with painting on wet plaster in the loggia. Just as Leonardo did, she says – she has always longed to try it. It has created quite a stir, though I confess the intricacies of it are lost on me, and I think she’d probably have done much better to have let the plaster dry a little, first - the effects are rather blurred, at present.... Her father has gone down a treat of course, with all those old countesses, who think him very comme il faut and charming, and simply can’t get enough of him. There’s one in particular – she claims Medici descent, though from the look of her, I’d say she’s much more likely to have descended from Machiavelli! She has invited him to go and stay with her in Florence – she has some kind of a fantastic house there, apparently, and a daughter whom she’d like him to meet....”

It had begun to seem to me, listening to Rose’s account of the effect that David Porteous and his daughters had had upon life at the villa, that I had perhaps fled the scene at just the right moment. Though when she informed me in the next breath that they all, the Porteous contingent and the Baines one, were shortly to make their departure, and that the last days were to be spent quietly with just the family and herself, I began to have a change of heart, and wonder if I dared return?

Rose herself dispelled such thoughts for me with her next remark however. Again, she seemed to have read my thoughts; and there were all the signs of mischievous, if not distinctly malign intent, when she informed me that “Cesare has been asking where you’ve gone. He seemed quite disappointed when you weren’t of the party at the palazzo to meet his mother. You could do worse than get a foot in that establishment, you know – though I have to confess that I always wonder where the money has come from, in these deep old Italian families. There’s always the whiff of a Mafia connection, don’t you think? Of course that could be pure fantasy on my part - I’ve watched ‘The Godfather’ too many times perhaps? And Lady M tells me not to be absurd, anyway: she has known that family forever, she says, and there’s not a word to be said against them....”

It was vintage Rose, and throwaway stuff enough. But it was also enough to stop me in my tracks. And I quietly decided that an hour or two of thrilling conversation in a garden were not enough; that I was building romantic castles in the air where none existed, and that until I had received further word from Cesare myself, I would take no steps of my own to try to renew acquaintance with him. It depressed me though – and after Rose had finally gone away, I stomped off to the common with the dogs in quite a foul mood.

With some misgiving, I have decided to end Part Two at this point, and to begin the third and final part of the story with the next instalment. I realize now that the existing Part One is much too long, and stands in rather awkward juxtaposition with the two succeeding parts – but I’m confident I shall be able to put this right when I come to edit, and complete the final draft (offline!).

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Rose gives her account

The lonely days continue, so that I sometimes wonder what it could have been, precisely, that brought me home ahead of time, and whether the others will ever return from Tuscany at all? I have been tending Bill’s vegetables ( his tomatoes are splendid!), and walking the dogs daily; but from the glances I receive from other dog-walkers on the common, I glean the fact that my presence there is seen as no substitute for Bill’s. People stop me to ask about him, often, and I have been at a loss to know how much I ought to reveal about his change of status.

Only the Brigadier, beneath whose sternly military exterior there evidently beats a rather sentimental heart – only the Brigadier has seen, or guessed the truth. He thinks it an excellent development. “Two people who were made for each other if ever there was such a thing!” he barked at me yesterday ( I remain uncertain as to whether I ought best to curtsey, or salute, at the end of one of his pronouncements). He only wonders if Bill will have the stamina to ‘square up to the old lady’.

I have wondered a good deal about this myself. Sitting alone in the gatehouse in the evenings, I have tried to picture them at the villa; and it has seemed to me that wherever they are, and whatever they should happen to be doing at any given moment, whether breakfasting in the loggia or sitting beneath the plane trees in the heat of the long afternoons, it is Lady Macauley’s voice I hear, and hers the presence which, above all others, decides and manipulates events.

I was engaged in just such reflections over coffee in the kitchen this morning. I was telling myself that if Lady Macauley were ever going to defer to anyone, it would be to Bill, and that, really, I ought to have more confidence in him. I ought to have learnt by now at least, that his is the kind of broad geniality which enables him not so much to engage with obstacles, as simply to fail to notice they are there. I was enjoying my reflections, and had been transported by them so very far, so entirely blissfully away, that the sudden appearance of Rose on the garden path, operated rather as an apparition might have done - or at any rate as a rather disagreeable jolt.

She guessed my thoughts – she always does. “You look as if you had seen a ghost!” she laughed, coming into the kitchen and flopping down, as always, on her favourite stool. “But it’s only me, returned unexpectedly, and only for the least possible number of days.... I had family matters to attend to here, but I mean to return at once. I daren’t turn my back on them all for more than two seconds, if you want to know the truth, events are moving there at such a pace.”

I was prepared on this occasion to let her have her head. That she had much to relate I didn’t doubt; and that she would slant it in such a way as to reflect her own best interests most of all, was doubtless also. But I was prepared, for once, to overlook small irritations – my thirst for information being on this occasion greater than my distaste for what I have come to think of as the ‘Mountjoy twist’.

Her first offering was not altogether to my liking, for all that. There was something patently mischievous, malicious almost, in her announcement that they had all gone, yesterday, to visit ‘my’ Cesare, and his almost inconceivably ancient mother, in what she called their preposterous palazzo, in Lucca.

“You’ve never seen such a place!” she exclaimed. “You have to penetrate deep into the heart of the town to find it – I was amazed at Bill’s courage, in daring to take the car down so many narrow back streets! And then when you do find it, it looks more like a warehouse or a prison, than a house. You know the sort of thing I’m sure. No concession whatever to houses as we know them: just a vast gate in an impenetrable wall, so that if you haven’t got your glasses on, or don’t peer in the right place, you would quite miss the little brass plate that tells you it’s the Palazzo Restorelli, and that you have to ring for entry...”

I fear my face must have betrayed the agitation I felt, as Rose launched without warning into this account of their visit to the Palazzo Restorelli, which I knew to be the home of the man with the deep Italian eyes who had affected me so unexpectedly at the engagement dinner. There was a part of me which urged her on, longing as I did to hear anything – everything – about him. I drank deep, for three minutes, of her account of the beautiful formal garden at the palazzo, of the dim splendour of the indoor rooms, and the way in which Cesare had finally presented his ancient mother, as if she were the most precious being on earth...

But I finally experienced a deep aversion to hearing these things from Rose; who would have liked Cesare for herself, I knew, and who would for that reason be at pains to try to belittle him in my eyes. I pulled her up short therefore – I am hardly able to describe the sheer effort of will it cost me to do it. I switched the subject as adroitly, and apparently casually as I could; I said that Cesare and his aged mother were very well, but that one old countess, one palazzo, were much like any other, when you came right down to it - and that what was of more immediate present interest to me was to know how life in the villa went on, and how Pamela and Roland in particular, were adjusting to it? Mercifully, she took the bait, and swallowed it, almost without appearing to draw breath.

“Oh well, they’re soldiering on you know” she said. “But pretty much out of their depth, as you can imagine. And striking the one false note, if you ask me. Poor Pamela has brought all the wrong sorts of clothes to wear, for a start! She never thought there would be any call for a bathing suit; she turned quite pale at the prospect, and looks most peculiar, sitting beside the pool in her voluminous skirts.... She has never had any experience of sun-screen either, so has turned a very painful-looking shade of puce! And then at dinner, she swathes herself in the usual chiffon – whilst everyone else manages an effect of casual chic. Not the Lucchese grandees of course. They get themselves up pretty spectacularly too - but somehow the achieved effect is entirely different....”

“And Roland...?” But for Roland, Rose felt the need to make a longish pause, evidently momentarily lost for words. “Well, what can one say about Roland, except that when once he has delivered himself of his legal advice - which occupied about one hour, on the very first day - he’s left gasping like a stranded minnow, amongst all those super-refined old Italians whom Lady M will keep inviting up to the villa. He wears a short-sleeved shirt, with tie, at dinner you know. He looks most carefully at his range of cutlery, then tries to follow everyone else without being noticed. I think every mouthful must be an acute ordeal for him. He and Pamela sit mute, at table, for the most part – oh, they open their mouths to speak every now and then, but evidently decide against it. On the grounds, one assumes, of their having nothing whatever to say. Sadly, it only adds to the general fish-out-of-water effect that they create. None of the visiting Nobiltà seems to have the least idea of who they are, or what to make of them....”

Rose was well into her stride by now, and obviously had a great deal more to tell. I despised myself a little for wishing to encourage her – but my own desire for knowledge was acute, so I quietly refilled the coffee pot and settled back, as if for the duration...

This part of the story has run-on almost without my bidding, and still has failed to accommodate all I want to say. Seldom have I felt more in need of the luxury of a full chapter in which to spread myself – so I have decided to send caution to the winds, and let it run to a second instalment.