Thursday, 27 September 2007

Part Three: One dream or another

Our summer has not yet quite ended, though the weather has suddenly turned colder, and I wonder if I can have missed it yet again - that moment I look for and fail to capture every year, when summer tips over imperceptibly into Autumn? Over on the other side of the Channel though, this year’s Tuscan experience has apparently wound quietly to its close. The Porteouses and the Baineses are already home, and Lady Macauley and the others are to return at any moment. Bill evidently means to go back there again just as soon as he possibly can, however. He has grape, and olive harvests to oversee now, he tells me. He might be a novice at the task, but he’s learning fast – he seemed scarcely able to contain his glee at the prospect, even through the medium of an erratic telephone line.

I too have put away my Tuscan dreams. I have folded them neatly and stowed them in the attic with my suitcases. And there they must remain. At least until I should have some sign from Cesare, that what seemed to have begun for us in the villa garden that night has not ended, but might yet be stirred into fragile life. I am not optimistic on that front however. I don’t believe I am the sort for whom romantic dreams often materialise; and that siren voice which whispers to me now and then from treacherous places, “Why not?”, has been firmly, if not entirely convincingly silenced.

I have twice been back to the Macauley house to replenish the roses in Lady Macauley’s bedroom, and to ensure that everything remains perfectly prepared for her return. I have spring-cleaned Bill’s side of the gatehouse too. A rather melancholy task, as it turned out, since I think it unlikely he will live there again, and I wonder what is to become of it? Those things aside, I have been spending as much time as I can with Frances. I had managed to see so very little of her of late, and I feared she might have been feeling side-lined – especially in light of the fact that, of all those invited to stay at the Macauley villa, only she had been excluded.

She seems not to have minded too much: it's that old feud between Lady Macauley and her grandmother that's behind it all, she believes, and try as she will, she hasn't yet seen any way of resolving it. She's very much preoccupied besides, with the new domestic arrangements at the manor house. Tomek, her Polish builder, has completed his task, and done it splendidly; she hardly knows what to do with all these splendid bedrooms and bathrooms - though Tomek tells her she could accommodate half the Polish population of London if she wished! She assures me it is just a little joke between them, and that Tomek knows quite as well as she does, that she could undertake no such thing. She has apparently remained on very good terms with Tomek, and hopes to persuade him that it would be a very good thing - for him, as well as herself – if he were to consent to slip into Mr Jessop's shoes, when that good old man finally retires in December.

We had made our usual little tour of the latest improvements when I called at the manor house this afternoon. Frances had wanted to show me the new curtains she and Tomek had chosen for one of the upper front bedrooms, and we happened to be standing at its window looking out, at the moment when the Macauley Daimler rolled past, bringing the family home again from Italy. Bill was at the wheel this time, Lady Macauley upright beside him, and Belle leaning towards him from the back. There was a rightness about it which Frances perfectly encapsulated when she cried out “Oh my goodness look, there’s Bill! Looking every inch his splendid self despite having been swallowed up lately by the Macauleys.”

Her remark had been impulsive, and she evidently felt the need to apologise for it at once. “Of course I don’t mean that he’s actually been swallowed up!” she hastened to assure me. “Bill would never be that – he’s far too much his own man to allow any such thing. But you know how it is with Lady Macauley – that when once she finds someone she likes, she simply gobbles him up.”

I laughed, and said I knew exactly what she meant; but that Bill would undoubtedly prove quite a mouthful, even for Lady Macauley.

“I think that on the whole he’s quite happy to have been gobbled up” I replied. “Since it means he can now take up his life with Belle in perfect freedom. And then think of all the benefits that have come to him along with it. Suddenly to have been put in charge of a little wine and olive farm, you know - it must make his patch of vegetables at the gatehouse seem small indeed. I don’t believe that in his wildest dreams he ever expected to find himself in such a position.”

We agreed that it was a splendid thing for Bill – and that all things considered, it couldn’t have happened to a better, or a less corruptible man. “Bill won’t seek to take advantage, that’s the great thing” Frances thoughtfully observed. “Lady Macauley must be rubbing her hands together, don’t you think? When she considers what other kind of man Belle might have taken up with, that is. She might have found someone who would prove greedy and unscrupulous – and then it would be the old lady herself who’d have been swallowed whole!”

The shadow of David Porteous had momentarily seemed to pass between us with these last words, and it pulled me up short. I had often wanted to mention his name, to talk with Frances in all freedom again about the aftermath of her engagement. But there had been an awkwardness about it; a gap had sprung up around it which I had never seen any way of bridging. I was surprised therefore, when Frances took it up herself, with perfect candour and no apparent embarrassment.

“I understand that David tried and failed with Belle....” she volunteered. “I knew he would: it was too great an opportunity for him to pass by. And I think he might have succeeded, had circumstances been different, and Bill hadn’t stepped in..... Bill is so much better for her of course, but even so - Lady Macauley was very fond of David, I believe ; it might have worked.”

There was a wistfulness about it that took me by surprise. I hadn’t expected this degree of continuing goodwill on Frances’s part towards her former lover. I had thought she would be glad to know he had been thwarted in what she must have seen as this new attempt of his at personal advancement – I know I would have been myself! She seemed to shrug herself out of this mood of introspection with some difficulty. Remarking only that David would surprise us all yet, nothing surer; and leaving me with the impression that after all she would be sorry if he didn’t. Which led me to wonder, not for the first time, what it was about women who had loved an unworthy man, that made them want to see him succeed in spite of everything?

“The improvements were meant for David, you know” she went on. “It was so awkward for him to have to go out into corridors to reach the bathroom – and then he felt that Mrs Meade was always lurking about somewhere... He thought she disliked him – installing a bathroom or two seemed a small thing to do to make him happy.”

It occurred to me that it had taken a good deal more than just a bathroom or two to make David Porteous happy. He had required in addition that Mrs Meade should be dismissed, and Frances herself improved and altered beyond all recognition. What he had wanted was nothing less than a full-scale transformation of the manor house, and everything and everyone in it – and even then it hadn’t been enough! I said no such thing to Frances of course; I contented myself with murmuring something palliative, and bland. But I left her half an hour later with the distinct sense that she had not yet entirely relinquished the past. That there was a part of her which clung still to the idea that if things - if she herself perhaps? - had only been different, and there had been no Mrs Meade, or Bill, or Belle Macauley ... her marriage to David might after all have taken place.

I was unsettled when I left her – but back at the gatehouse, I was overjoyed to find Bill. He was sitting in one of my armchairs waiting for me, and had all the appearance of one who had come home again to stay. The appearance was illusory, of course. He had come only to pack a few things, he was quick to tell me that; his old rucksack was bulging on the floor beside him. He was sorrier than he could say to have to do this to me at such short notice, and would stay an hour or two at least, for old times’ sake – I thought he had never looked so reassuringly large, so eminently safe, as when he said it.

But after that – well, he must go where Belle was now, didn’t I see? Since wherever she was, was home. It was a sentiment I thought beautiful in its simplicity. I couldn’t have wished to hear him express a better one – so why was it that when he had gone, I sat down and wept?