Monday, 31 December 2007

End Piece

Three months have passed since those dreadful hours that followed the ball. It is almost April now, and we have passed, ourselves, through every kind of emotion, beginning with the naked shock and grief of the first hours, ranging through disbelief, and the recurring bouts of self recrimination, in which we have reproached ourselves over and over again with our failure to recognise the signs, and perhaps forestall the awful event - and only now, with the arrival of another year, another Spring, have we reached that state of quiet acceptance in which we feel able to take up our lives again, and carry on.

We were sustained, at first, by the sheer impetus of everything there was to do. There was never an hour in which we could sit down and indulge our grief; since scarcely had we got through the funeral, which was a large and joyous affair, as such occasions often are, than we were required to decide what to do with the house, in the light of Lady Macauley’s own hastily made arrangements with the National Trust. I remember how we returned to the house at nightfall on the afternoon of the funeral, only to find that Lady Macauley’s own presence had already left it, just as she had said it would. We were shocked, yet somehow borne up by this fact, since it enabled us to go about the business of emptying the house of her possessions without too much distress; and then of leaving it, a week later – more or less just locking the door and walking away - to whatever future it might have in the hands of its new owners.

That its new ownership included a residual family interest, in the persons at present of Jack and Alice, but ultimately in those of Will, as legatee - this aspect of it brought us some consolation: we were content to leave it in their hands, and they had picked up the burden of it without complaint. For ourselves, for Bill and Belle and me, there was nothing to do but return to the gatehouse for a bewildered day or two – after which we retreated together to Flory, which had become Belle’s own, and where we celebrated Christmas as best we could.

It is not my intention to dwell further on those bleak, early weeks. We huddled together at Flory a good deal in the beginning, I seem to remember; though we had collected quite a large party around us for the Christmas week, and were sustained by the presence of Pamela and Roland, of Frances and her excellent Tomek – and more surprisingly perhaps, by the resourceful Cousin Hortense, who had come across from her own house nearby, bringing a large and colourful group of assorted struggling artists, and musicians, and aspiring writers with her. We have reason to feel a lasting gratitude to the good Hortense in fact – since it was largely through her loud and unremitting cheerfulness, and that of her curiously assorted little band of artistic followers (her ‘ragbag of hangers-on’, as we seemed to hear Lady Macauley calling them, which always raised a smile among us) - it was largely through Hortense’s efforts, that we were able to get through Christmas and the new year with some degree of festive spirit.

Jack and Alice had been invited to join us at Flory, but had opted, when once the closing of the house had been accomplished, to return to their own beloved castle, where they were joined for the holiday period by Will and Imogen – Alice having ‘come round’ to Imogen, as we have since been reliably informed, to such an extent that an early summer wedding at the castle is already in the planning stage. We have reason to believe that Alice’s having come round to Imogen has not yet extended so far as to her having also drawn Imogen’s father into the fold - though Pamela tells us now that she is sure this will follow; since not even Alice would be so heartless as to exclude the girl’s closest living relative from her wedding ceremony.

It is to be quite a year for weddings, as it turns out. Bill and Belle are to be married in early summer, at the little church on the hill in Tuscany, flying in as many friends and family for the occasion as the villa, and the tiny church will accommodate. And Frances and Tomek will marry in the summer too. Very quietly, they say; though with a reception to be held in the manor house garden, and a considerable Polish contingent expected, the quietness of that occasion seems somewhat in doubt.

To the wedding which has already taken place – to that one conducted in Richmond Register Office, in which David Porteous took Rose Mountjoy unto himself as his bride, only Pamela herself, and Roland, consented to go along as representatives of the old circle. Pamela tells us that it was an affair of somewhat muted joyfulness, and that the newly wed pair were in no apparent hurry to leave the scene of their nuptials – the honeymoon having already been accomplished, as she put it, months ago!

The new Mr and Mrs David Porteous are currently living in Rose’s house, but are negotiating the sales of both their homes, in order to set up married life in something altogether more suited to their needs. They mean to remain in the district however, and they hope that in the fullness of time, all their old friends will begin to drift back to them. I daresay I shall call on them myself at some point. Curiosity itself will drive me, I’m not ashamed to admit it. And in any case, I seem to hear Lady Macauley’s voice, gleefully urging me on. “Belle must stay away of course” I have fancied I hear her saying; “But you can go. Go for me dear – oh, do go! Just to see how they get along!” She expresses my own sentiments precisely – though just for the moment, I have no heart for visiting them, or even for thinking about them very much, but am content to leave them to whatever they can find of married bliss.

We removed ourselves from the immediate scene shortly after Christmas anyway. We left Flory at the end of January to come to Tuscany, where Bill has already thrown himself with tremendous gusto into his new role as custodian of the little wine and olive farm, and where Belle is happily involved with transforming the villa into the kind of homely place in which she and Bill can spend the rest of their days in perfect contentment. Their own married bliss seems assured – and it’s just the oddest thing, that Lady Macauley’s presence, so swift to leave the house in Ham, seems to have established itself very happily here; so that although she has gone, yet we see and hear her everywhere, and find nothing but solace in the fact.

I speak of “we” – as if I were going to be content to make a third person in this happy marriage! And though it’s true that Bill and Belle have offered me a home with them there, and at Flory – and have even put a little Tuscan gate lodge, and a cottage entirely at my disposal - I have no intention of intruding upon them more often, or longer, than for the duration of a little holiday now and then. I have returned to the gatehouse, and here I mean to stay. And if I tell you that the present occupant of Bill’s old quarters is my own recovered Cesare; that Cesare is taking the heartiest possible pleasure in ‘learning how to be an Englishman’, and that he and I will probably be married later in the summer too.... you will understand perhaps that he has been there in the background for me all along, and that the reason for my reticence is that this was never really my own story I was telling, at all.