In photographs – and the press come often to see how Doris Dubois lives – the pool seems to exist in a mountain grotto. The water has to be cleaned of leaves more often than any pool of mine ever did. But who’s counting cost?
Doris Dubois swims in her pool every morning, and twice a week my ex-husband Barley dives in to swim beside her. I have had them watched by detectives. After their swim servants come and offer warmed white towels into which they snuggle with little cries of joy. I have heard these cries on tape, as well as other more important, more profound, less social cries, those noises men and woman make when they abandon rationality and throw in their lot with nature. “Cris de jouissance”, the French call them. D”fense d”‘mettre des cris de jouissance, I read once on a bedroom wall in a French hotel when Barley and I were in our heyday, and went on our humble holidays so happily together. In the days when we thought love would last forever, when we were poor, when joy was on the agenda.
D”fense d”‘mettre des cris de jouissance. They had a hope!
Barley has aged better than I have. I smoked and drank and lay in the sun during the years of our happiness, on this Riviera and that, and my skin has dried out dreadfully and the doctor will not let me take what he calls artificial hormones. I get them through the Internet but do not tell either my doctor or my psychoanalyst this. The former would warn me against them and the latter would tell me to find my inner self before attending to the outer. Sometimes I worry about the dosage I take, but not often. I have other things to worry about.
– 2 –
“It’s too bad,” said Doris to Barley as they lay beside one another in a tumbled pile of white cotton and lace bedclothes, in a vast bed whose elegant top and tail had been designed, even though not made, by the great Giacometti himself, “that that murderess should still be using your name.”
‘murderess might be too strong,” said Barley amiably, ‘murderous, was how the judge described her.”
“The difference is only marginal,” said Doris. “The fact that I am still alive is due to me and not to her. My foot still hurts. I think you should get your lawyers on to it. It’s absurd that after divorce women should be allowed to keep their husband’s name. They should revert to the one they had before they married: they should cut their losses and start over. Otherwise the mistakes of one’s youth – like marriage to the wrong person – can hang around to haunt you forever. I speak for her sake, as well as my own, and indeed yours. While she calls herself Salt she is bound to attract headlines.”
“It seems a little hard to take away Gracie’s name,” said Barley. “I was the only claim to fame she ever had. She was a schoolgirl when I met her: a schoolgirl she remained, at heart. A man such as myself needs a little sophistication in his partner.”
“I hate it when you call her Grade,” said Doris. “I want you only ever to refer to her as your ex-wife.”
Grace Salt had started life as Dorothy Grace McNab, but Barley had preferred Grace to Dorothy, Dorothy reminding him of Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, so Grace she had become.
Doris had not started life as Doris Dubois but as Doris Zoac, right down there at the end of the alphabet where no-one looks except the taxman, and had changed it by deed-poll the better to further her media ambitions. She had never got round to telling Barley this, and the longer she put it off the harder it got to say.
“It seems a little hard to take my ex-wife’s name away,” said Barley, obediently. He, who exercised power over so many, took particular pleasure in being bossed around by Doris. They both giggled a little, from the sheer naughtiness of it all, of being happy.
Doris Dubois wore her jewellery to bed, for Barley. He loved that. He loved not just the sight of it, white gold and pav” diamonds, cold metal intricately, beautifully worked, lain heavily against the cool, moist flesh of wrist and throat, but he loved the feel of it. Last night as his hand had strayed over her breasts, their nipples peaked in reassuring response, and up to feel the tenderness of her mouth, his fingers had encountered the smooth, hard edge of metal, and his whole body had been startled into instant response. Sometimes Barley was mildly worried by the people who said to him, vulgarly, “Oh well, what does age matter, there’s always Viagra when the newness wears off,” but eighteen months on there was no sign of it doing so. Doris kept Barley young: and the gifts he gave her were by the very nature of their giving returned – not by way of bribe or payment, but as tokens of simple adoration. Barley was fifty-eight years old, and Doris was thirty-two.
– 3 –
I must face the truth about Doris Dubois. She reflects fame and status on my husband, as he does on her, and he cannot resist it. What chance have I? She is the darling of the media: now they are an item Barley has his picture in Hello! and Harper’s and Queen, and a fine handsome couple they make. She with her bosom hanging out of Versace and her throat so white and elegant, ringed with bright jewels: he with his thick grey hair, broad shoulders and strong industrial jaw. When Barley was with me he never rose above The Developers’ and Builders’ Bulletin, although once he did make the cover. But he is ambitious: it was not enough for him: he can’t stay still. It was Hello! or bust.
Barley is one of those well-built men with graven features who rise to positions of great power: his jaw has grown squarer through the years. Even his hair has stayed thick as it greys. He is a master of men, and it shows. If the world is ever to see the cloning of humans, these are the pair that should be chosen to make it a better place. I said as much to my psychotherapist, Dr Jamie Doom, the other day and he congratulated me on my insight.
Twelve months after our parting, six months after our divorce, I have stopped trying to convince myself and others that in losing Barley I have lost nothing of value. I no longer describe him to others, after the vulgar manner of so many deserted spouses, as selfish, bullying, mean, unreasonable, hopelessly neurotic, even insane. He is none of these things. Barley, like Doris, is kind, good and perceptive, clever and handsome, and capable of great love. It’s just that he gives it to her, not me.
– 4 –
“The fact is that your ex-wife does not deserve your name,” said Doris after breakfast. Once she got an idea into her head it tended to stay there. ‘she is violent and aggressive and full of hate and spite”
They ate on the terrace, in the early sun. Doris had to be at the studio by ten, and Barley at a meeting of the Confederation of British Industry likewise. Doris’s Philippine maid Maria served decaff and fruit, calories carefully weighed and counted by Doris’s nutritionist. Barley’s chauffeur Ross would have a flask of real coffee and a bacon sandwich ready in the back of the car when he turned up to collect Barley.
“I hear you,” said Barley, whose lawyer had told him it would look better in the divorce courts if he could claim to have seen a counsellor. The law these days favoured those who put in an appearance of wanting to save their marriages, and the suggestion of a basic incompatibility with Grace would be more helpful to his case than the simple wanting to go off with Doris Dubois, a younger woman. As ever, Barley had turned time otherwise wasted to good account, and was now adept at the language of understanding and compassion. “Best to let it out. And I feel for your distress. But you did emerge from the incident more or less undamaged.”
And indeed, Doris Dubois was the least damaged creature he had ever seen, let alone taken to bed: long lean tanned limbs; centred by the kind of full, well nippled bosom most skinny women achieve only after implants, but for Doris a blessing of birth – her breasts still retaining the warm consoling texture of human flesh. Her mouth curved sweetly: she had wide blue eyes into which Barley could stare without embarrassment. Doris had developed the media art of paying attention to something else altogether while looking and smiling and nodding; he could hold her eye without actually holding it, as it were, and he found that liberating. Intense love can so often have its own embarrassments. She was widely informed: he liked that. He had spent too much of his life with Gracie, who never read a novel and whose idea of a conversation was “yes, dear”, and “what did you say, dear?” and “where were you last night?”, who lay passively and compliantly on her back during sex. He had forgotten what the life of the mind was like. Most women, he had noticed, whose looks assure them of acceptance and approval from infancy, neglected their intelligence and sensitivities, as did Grace – but not so Doris: Doris could hold her own at any dinner party in the land. She was perhaps a little humourless, but like a Persian rug of great quality, there must be some flaw in the design, or else God will be offended.
“All that aside,” observed Doris Dubois, “– and not that I want to marry you, marriage being such an old-fashioned institution, and I would always rather be known as Doris Dubois, rather than Doris Salt, I couldn’t bear to be so near the end of the alphabet – nevertheless, if I were to be your legal married wife, and not just your partner, I would not want there to be another Mrs Salt around.”
Barley Salt felt his heart contract with joy. He had done the best he could with the cards dealt to him at birth – but there were still dinner tables at which he felt inadequate, at which he felt people laughed at him, for the rude, crude fellow he had been born. If the conversation turned to opera, or literature, or art, he felt at a loss. To be actually married to Doris Dubois, so at ease in all these areas of life, would be triumph indeed. And she, for all her disclaimers, had brought the matter up, not he.
– 5 –
What is this? A letter through the post from Barley’s solicitors? He wants to deny me my name? He wants to rob me of my very self? I must no longer be Grace Salt? Extra alimony offered – “500 a week – if I revert to my maiden name? (At least he bribes, he doesn’t threaten.) I must hurl myself back to my unmarried state and be seventeen again and that long lost creature Grace McNab? I can’t remember who she was. How can this be, what have I done, am I so worthless that he can’t endure me to have so much as a past that’s linked with his? I must wink out of existence altogether?
Well, I can understand it. Look at me! Described as murderous by the judge, labelled a would-be murderer: Barley must feel he is entitled to protect himself and her. Or course he wishes to obliterate me. What am I but an hysterical woman who once performed a senseless and gratuitous act of violence – 1 quote the Judge – and deserve no better. A man may seek the authenticity of his feelings, as our one-time marriage counsellor described my husband’s love for Doris Dubois, but a woman must not.
“Judge Rubs Salt into Grace’s Wounds,” said the headlines. “Lovesick Drama of Fat-Cat Spouse,” and so on. “TV Culture Queen Stole My Man, alleges Salt Wife”. A hundred faces crowding in on me with phallic lenses and popping bulbs as they hurried me, distraught and disgraced, blanket over my head, to the police cells. By the time I emerged, greyer and fatter by a year and a quarter, the media had lost interest; only a couple of film crews, some local journalists, and a woman’s group wanting a donation were waiting. The authorities kindly let me out the back entrance, so that even my lawyer missed me, and I had to make my own way home. Or what I now was to call home: Tavington Court, a great block of apartments in Victorian red brick behind the British Museum, where sad divorc”es hide, and little old ladies grateful for the protection of the resident porter, and widows living their leftover lives in genteel loneliness. It takes up a whole street and those who have grandchildren to visit are lucky. I am not so lucky. My son Carmichael is not likely to oblige.
All my conversations were with lawyers and accountants and all they seemed to want me to think about was the prospect of age and infirmity and death in the future.
I was victorious, but only to live my leftover life alone. And I didn’t suppose Carmichael wanted me out in Sydney – “to be near my son” – embarrassing him.
The media have lost interest in me altogether now. They are happy for Barley and Doris’s happiness. They were married last week. The wedding was in Hello!, and I hear put the circulation up no end. My plight becomes yesterday’s fish and chip wrappings. As Doris would be the first to point out, how that dates me! Fish and chips are not eaten from newsprint now, the EEC would never allow it, but if sold at all, out of recyclable polyethylene cartons. I don’t like eating alone in restaurants, sitting there with my book, feeling the pity of others. It is quite astonishing how few people I know. My married life revolved around Barley: the people we knew us as a couple. I was just the tag-along. They feel sorry for me now and when the kind people, as I think of them, do ask me round, it is to lunch not dinner and we normally eat in the kitchen. It is better than nothing.
I have lost the art of conversation. Once I was quite good at it, but after years of living with Barley who always waxed so noisy and indignant if ever I said anything more than yes dear, no dear, I learned the prudence of silence, and in the end he took me for a fool. And there certainly wasn’t much snappy dialogue in prison and for awhile after I came out I was struck quite dumb, and had to search for words with which to express my thoughts at all.
Doris Dubois is anything but dumb. I do not watch her show: it is too painful for me: but sometimes flicking through the channels I forget and come across her, fronting her highly successful Artsworld Extra. It’s on twice a week. Nine o-clock peak time Thursdays. Late night repeat, Mondays. Her perfect figure, the bouncy, short cropped hair, her startling smile, the ease with which she handles ideas, the evident intelligence, the breadth of information, the flying sound bites – the worst you can say about her is that she looks like a Captain of Hockey on speed. And why, unless you have special reason, should you say the worst of her? Even I have trouble doing so.
Doris Dubois now has Barley’s name – though I notice she doesn’t even bother to use it – as well as his love, his time, his attention and his money. I have the couple followed from time to time by a detective, one Harry Bountiful. What a splendid name! I chose him because of it, flicking through the Yellow Pages. Doris and Barley will meet up in Aspreys in Bond Street, then drift over to Gucci’s where Barley will perhaps buy a pair of loafers, the better to walk through St. James’s Park and feed the ducks. Then perhaps they will call in at Apsley House, address No.l, London, built for the Duke of Wellington, the one who defeated Napoleon. There they will see the fine equestrian painting of the Duke by Goya. If they look hard they will see the faint shadow of a tricolor hat beginning to show through the surface paint. The portrait was originally of “King” Joseph Bonaparte of Spain, Napoleon’s brother. But the Duke and his victorious troops were at the gates of the Madrid, the usurper had fled, so Goya prudently painted a new head on the body, and sold it to the Duke. An artist has to live. Why waste a perfectly good horse?
Or perhaps Barley and Doris, hand in hand, will drift off to Bulgari in Sloane Street, to stare at some ruby imbedded steel circlet for her slim arm, wondering whether they will or whether they won’t, but mostly that they will. Because she deserves it. Because she is her. They will stroll along to South Ken., and the Victoria and Albert Museum to study, say, the s’vres dinner service (1848) that was once Queen Victoria’s own, and Doris will explain its fineness to him, and the curator will even let them handle the settings. They are an important couple, and she has friends in high cultural places.
It is thanks to his new wife that Barley can now judge the quality even of the plates set before him, tell china from pottery, and understand how the two can never merge. He knows now where camp begins and crassness stops. Doris is Barley’s living Fine Arts programme. They are in love; perhaps they give more time and attention to each other than either can spare. Her ratings drop just a little: his dividends falter. Because meanwhile, as Harry Bountiful puts it, the real world goes on. But this couple, newly discovered to one another, is blessed. Strokes of good fortune come their way. Last week Doris got five numbers in the lottery and won twelve hundred pounds. Barley’s latest office block won an architectural prize. Perhaps Doris was close to one of the judges.
I tried to explain to the Court that it was not that I hated Doris, just that I wanted Barley to realise the intensity of my distress and desperation.
“You really thought,” enquired Judge Tobias Longue, “that if you ran down your husband’s mistress in a carpark he would be sorry for you? Then you have lived a long time and don’t know men very well. Good Lord, woman, he will have every excuse now for leaving you. You played into his hands.” Tobias Longue was one of those lawyers who write thrillers, and had only recently been promoted to the bench. He had an eye and an ear for drama. He was both on my side, and not. There had been no witnesses. It was Doris’s word against mine. At the very worst, I told the Court, Doris had wrenched her ankle as she leapt out of the way of my Jaguar: but see how now she limped into court, pale and grave and prattling forgiveness.
‘she’s not in her right mind,” Doris told Judge Tobias Longue. “I caught a glimpse of her face through the windscreen, her teeth bared, her mad eyes staring, just as the wheel went over my foot, and I felt this terrible pain and passed out. My fear as I fell was that she’d reverse back over me and crush me to death beneath that heavy car. She needs treatment, not punishment. She is unbalanced to the point of paranoia, an obsessive-compulsive. She suffers from pathological jealousy. I first met her husband when he appeared on my cultural review show: we are involved as colleagues in the setting up of a Cable TV company. But that’s all there is to it: good heavens, Barley Salt is a quarter of a century older than I am, and I regard him as a father.”
She spoke eloquently and persuasively, as was her trade. I stumbled through my few words. Of course she was believed.
Later she said to the Press, “Poor Mrs Salt. I’m afraid she belongs to the past, one of those prurient women who assume that if a man and a woman are alone in a room together, something sexual’s bound to happen.” The Press forgot conveniently, when writing up the wedding, that at the time of the trial Barley and Doris vehemently denied any romantic involvement. Of course there was, starting from the very beginning in the Green Room, after everyone else had gone home, after she’d had him on her show, talking about the necessity of sponsorship of the arts by big business. I had watched that interview as a proud wife should, and seen the way she looked at him, the way his body inclined towards hers. He didn’t come home until early morning, and when he got into bed he smelt of TV studios, static electricity, sex and something else sickly and evil I couldn’t identify.
The prosecution asked for five years, I got three and served only fifteen months. In the event the Judge was less vindictive than anyone else around. At least he acknowledged the provocation.
He said in his summing up it was a silly attempt with a car outside a supermarket and that Doris had jumped easily enough out of the way. And it’s true, she has perfect knees, being only thirty-three years old. At fifty-five, I already have one that is arthritic, though I didn’t let it stand in my way when I put the accelerator down. The pain in the heart is always worse than the one in the body.
It has taken me a year with Dr Jamie Doom the TV psychotherapist – he does take a few patients privately – to be able to face the facts of the matter. Doris Dubois is a superior human being to myself in every way and no sane man would not prefer her to me, in bed or out of it, as wife, partner or mistress. I face myself in the mirror, I look at my fading eyes and know that they have seen too much, and that there is no brightening them. What ages us is experience: there can be no forgetfulness.
“But aren’t you angry?” asks Dr Jamie Doom, “You must try to find your anger.” But I can’t.
Perhaps God will reward me for having come to terms, as Dr Doom puts it, with my distress. I am sure no-one else will. This evening I am going to a party given by a pair of the kind ones, Lady Juliet Random and her husband Sir Ronald. It’s a charity auction in aid of “Lost Children Somewhere”. I am invited not just out of kindness but because I might be able to give a hundred pounds or so to Lady Juliet’s cause. Nothing compared to the thousands others give – I am only fifth or sixth division wealth now that I live on alimony – but no doubt still worth the champagne and canap’s which I’ll consume. At least I don’t have to worry about meeting Doris and Barley at Sir Ronald’s: they move in more elevated artistic and political circles now. The parties they go to are attended by Arts Ministers, Leisure Gurus, Museum Moguls, Dotcom-Millionaires, Monarchs of the BBC and so forth. I tell you what, every now and then I could take Barley by surprise and make him laugh. I think Doris can do everything for Barley but that. She is too intent on pleasuring herself and him to have time for much mirth. But I daresay with age even my laughter, which once Barley loved, will turn into a witch’s cackle.
– 6 –
“Who is the woman sitting in the corner?” young Walter Wells asked Lady Juliet.
He had been studying her. She sat at rest as though posing for a portrait. He thought she looked lovely, whoever she was. She was not as young as she had been, it was true, but this gave her looks a kind of lush and wistful melancholy: he had been much taken in his childhood by images of the blown rose, of battered scarlet velvet petals, tempest tossed. Walter Wells thought perhaps he had been born a poet almost as much as an artist. Though now at twenty-nine, he earned a living painting portraits, he sometimes felt that his heart was in language rather than in the image. But a man, however multi-talented, can’t do everything and the image paid better than words in the new century. So many languages it was only polite to learn, from Urdu to Serbo-Croat, that everyone had settled for symbols. A flat hand to stop you crossing the road was better than the word STOP, a green running man to show you the way out preferable to the word EXIT. So he had been practical and gone to art college, only to find the artist was as likely to live in a garret as the poet, unless he was very lucky.
It was in pursuit of luck that he was here at this charity auction today, where he knew no-one and felt altogether out of his generation. He it was who had painted the portrait of Lady Juliet Random, which was any minute now to be auctioned for the sake of Little Children, Everywhere, Lady Juliet’s favourite charity. He liked Lady Juliet and wanted to oblige her, she was good looking and relaxed and easy to paint and had only good things to say about everyone. She was quite voluptuous, and Walter Wells wished more of his sitters were like her. A good curve painted well, but in his experience if you blessed your sitters with a roundness of line on the canvas they only accused you of making them look fat.
“Who can you mean?” asked Lady Juliet. “The woman in the crushed velvet dress? Good Lord, that kind of fabric went out thirty years ago. But I’m glad to see she’s making an effort. It’s poor Grace Salt, the one who tried to mow down Doris Dubois in her Jaguar in a supermarket car park. You must have heard of her? No?”
“Oh, you artists! Snug in your garrets, safe from the world.” Walter’s portrait of Lady Juliet was to be the centrepiece of the auction. He had actually painted two, one which Lady Juliet would keep, the other a copy for the auction, painted for free, his gift in kind to Little Children, Everywhere. Lady Juliet had twisted his arm and melted his heart, as she was so good at doing, her soft mouth imploring, her eyes beseeching: he had done the extra work and not complained, though she had not even offered to pay for paint or canvas. People did not realise that these things cost money. The Randoms were pleased with the painting: they would hang it in pride of place on the wall of their library in their Eaton Square house, one of those stoic well built cream-painted places with stolid pillars and steps and an air of infinite dullness, but at least he would know where it was. The copy would go to an unknown home. He did not like that.
“The Salt scandal was in all the papers,” said Lady Juliet, taking his arm, as she did at every opportunity. She was looking magnificent and charming both: such an art to be so grand and yet loveable, and thus to inspire in others more admiration than envy. She had a smooth, untroubled childish face, with small even features and a curved mouth given to laughter, and if she had nothing nice to say she kept silent, which was more than most in her circle did. She was dressed tonight as she had been for the portrait, in simple slinky white and her plentiful probably blonde hair twisted on top of her head. Clasped round her neck, falling in roundels of bright colour against her firm, creamy skin was a Bulgari necklace, steel and gold set with cabochon emeralds, rubies, sapphires and brilliant cut diamonds, made in the sixties, and insured for “275,000, a sum Walter had heard mentioned as he worked.
Sir Ronald had charged more than once into the garden room, clouding the good North light with cigar smoke as was his habit, and doubted the wisdom of the jewels not being in the bank, couldn’t Walter work from a photograph? But Lady Juliet had said authenticity was so important, lights should not be hidden in bushels, jewels could not be forever in vaults or they lost their magic, what was the point of having these things if the world didn’t know about it, and so on. What was he afraid of? That Walter would run off with them? Slip the matching earrings into his pocket? Walter was too poetic a soul to run off with anything. He was an artist, everyone knew artists were above material things.
Which they obviously believed in their naivety, since Walter was being paid only “1800 to do the portrait – well, actually to do the two – and the Randoms assumed that was generous, and that they were doing him a kindness, employing and trusting a comparative unknown in the first place, introducing him to those levels of society where artists got more like “18,000 for a single fashionable portrait, than “1800 for a pair, which worked out at “300 a week for six weeks work. He would rather paint landscapes when it came to it: the weather kept changing and the light with it, but at least the landscape sat still.
‘so you want to be introduced to the woman in the corner in the crushed velvet dress,” said Lady Juliet, ever happy to oblige. The jewels in her necklace glittered and glanced where they caught the light: the thing seemed magically, beautifully alive; he hoped he had got the intensity of it on the canvas: paint and brush could do only so much. But on the whole he was pleased. The copy, he thought, had been minimally better than the original: he had really got his hand in on the precious stones second time round, but he was the only one who would notice that. Only one in a hundred ever really noticed anything.
“You only have ten minutes before the auction begins,” said Lady Juliet. I’m going to want you to go on stage and talk to them a little about art, and be altogether as languid and beautiful as you can, not that you have to try. They’ll think you’re photogenic and have a future and prices will triple. But do by all means talk to Grace first. I need her in a good mood. Barley gave her a good settlement, at least three million, and probably more, none of us like talking large figures in the press or they take us for fat cats, and I do so hate being called fat, even though I know I am. Little Children, Everywhere need women like Grace. The wretched of the earth could do with some of everyone’s alimony. This is the growth area, the future lies in this world of multiple divorces, multiple remarriages. Not just money to charity on death, but on divorce, too, an intrinsic part of any settlement. We all live far too well, with our champagne and our canap’s, don’t you think? But what’s to be done? The world is what it is. All we can do is change our little corner of it.”
And so Walter Wells was introduced to Grace Salt at the Randoms’ charity do. There was the same difference between their ages as there was between Doris and Barley. Twenty-six years separated Grace and Walter, twenty-six years separated Doris and Barley.
Walter saw a woman with sad, dark, glowing eyes and a gentle, surprised expression, as if she was seeing the world for the first time. It was the same look a baby has, when it’s about twelve months old, and has learned that in order to walk and run you have to develop an indifference to sharp corners. He thought she was perhaps about forty: older than he was at any rate but who was counting? Her dress was in crushed deep crimson velvet, a texture and colour he longed to get on canvas. She wore it buttoned up to the neck and its long sleeves ended in sedate cuffs, as if she needed what small protection from the world even fabric could bring her. She wore no jewellery, other than small pearl stud earrings, on the kind of clips which bite the ear.
Of course he had thought of roses: his mother, a clergyman’s wife, had grown a wonderfully scented rose of that colour in the rectory garden where he had spent so much of his childhood. His mother had told him that it’s name was Flower of Jerusalem: a rather ordinary pink as a virginal bud, but deepening into crimson with every week of its flowering, until the petals were all but black, falling away, splaying, from the precious stameny centre they had once guarded so tightly.
Grace Salt sat alone, listening to the string quartet which played beneath a kind of pink plaster portico set above a blue transparent dais, lighted from beneath, which gave the players a ghostly glow. A firm called Fund Raisers Fun had provided it, along with little gold chairs, champagne and canap’s, and it sat oddly indeed amongst the staid chintz, dull antiques and solid worth of the rest of the house.
He sat next to her on the green shot silk sofa. She forgot his name a second after Lady Juliet had introduced them, and gone, but politely asked him about himself. He said he was the painter of the portrait which was to be the centrepiece of the auction. She said she liked it very much: he had brought out Lady Juliet’s kindness. “Lady Juliet doesn’t want to look just kind,” said Walter. ‘she’d rather be seen as significant. I tried to make her look severe, but alas, it’s the art of the portrait painter to bring out the soul of the sitter, and it is what it is.” He had developed this line only an hour ago for the benefit of the handful of gossip columnists who’d blessed the evening with their presence. Walter had thought it was perhaps rather cliched but they’d gone for it.
“I know Lady Juliet is kind,” said Grace, “because she asks me round to lunch quite often. Not kind enough to ask me to dinner, of course. But then unpartnered women, if they have no particular talent, or style, are so much a waste of an expensive place setting they quite offend the sumptuary laws.”
Walter’s father the rector had often spoken of the sumptuary laws when Walter had wanted a bicycle or new trainers, which other village children could not afford. Conspicuous consumption had always been seen as an offence to God and Man: in the Middle Ages actual laws were enforced. Spend too much too loosely and you got punished. Walter had not heard mention of the sumptuary laws since his father’s death, and though they had irritated him most profoundly at the time, they had now entered into the nostalgic narrative which composed the memory of his father. He felt she would understand his heart.
He said he was sure she could find a partner if she wanted one. A woman as beautiful as her. “You are so gallant,” she said, “and quite absurd. You remind me of my son Carmichael.” But she cheered up a little, and smiled at him with a kind of hazy half smile he found enchanting, and as if she now actually saw him. He liked her voice, it was croaky and deep, as if she had spent a lifetime drinking and smoking, though now she refused the waiter’s offer of champagne and took mineral water instead.
He thought he would like to see her face on the pillow next to him when he woke up in the morning. Those he so often saw were brutal in their confidence and self esteem, the smooth texture of their skin unmarked by weariness or doubt. They bored him. He felt as old as her, or older, betrayed by a body which demonstrated all the vigour of youth, ill-matched to a soul which already felt jaded and world weary. And she would not ask him questions as they did, the ones who moved into his cold attic studio, lured by his looks and his easels and the romance of squeezed oil paints on stained wooden tables, and the unmade brass bed; but who within weeks would be jealous of his attention to canvas and not to them, and implying that painting was not a proper job. Off they’d go, to their smart well-appointed offices in publishing, or PR, or advertising or wherever, for a return on their labour far greater than any he was ever likely to achieve. And one evening they would simply not come home, but within a couple of days a brother, or some gay friend, or a father would turn up to take away their possessions.
That the studio had a good North light, that crackling cold for some reason increased intensity of colour, had apparently not impressed them: the tenderness of his love-making could not make up for his reluctance to turn up the central heating. It had happened enough times – well, twice in as many months, within the last year – to make him feel this was to be pattern of life and there was nothing much to be done about it. Yet he hated living alone. Art made a frugal bed companion. An older woman would surely be more sensitive as to how he lived, why he lived. It was true the skin round her jaw sagged a little, and curved lines ran between her cheeks and the corners of her mouth, and the division between lip and the rest was a trifle blurred, but she was the proper shape for a woman. He wanted to paint her. He wanted to be in her presence. He wanted her in his bed. Good Lord, he thought, this is love at first sight. He felt the need for a cigarette. He asked, nervously, if she minded. She had once, she said, been practically a chain smoker; but she had given it up in prison. It was so terrible in there it hadn’t seemed to matter if it was a few degrees more terrible still. He should go ahead. She didn’t mind.
“Prison! What for”” Walter was startled.
“Attempted murder,” she said.
Lady Juliet swooped and carried Walter Wells off, like a cat grabbing its kitten by the scruff of the neck and running off with it to safety. The auction was about to begin.
“What exactly do you want me to say?” he asked.
“How art benefits humanity, all that kind of thing. Don’t worry about it. How you look is more important than what you say. No one will be listening, just watching. Sometimes no-one bids at all, and the auctioneer has to take bids off the wall. That’s so embarrassing. But with you and me both here we should get a good price.”
Walter Wells, who was not accustomed to public speaking, demanded at least some prompting about the way in which art could serve humanity, and on the way to the plinth Lady Juliet told him to mention both the morality of aesthetics, and how suitable it was that the haves of the luxury trades – in which fine art was included – should do their bit for the have-nots. And perhaps a mention as to how she, Lady Juliet, had given her precious time freely, as the sitter.
“Wish me good luck,” he’d said to Grace as he went. But she hadn’t replied, she was staring, along with everyone else, at a couple who had just come into the room. Even the string quartet faltered mid phrase. All eyes turned, as if to royalty, towards a good-looking older man in a very expensive suit – Walter had painted that particular Chairman of the Board type many a time, sitting behind some great burr-oak desk, or leaning up against a pillar at Company headquarters, dull, dull, dull – and a younger woman in a flame-coloured dress with a strong nose, a hard mouth, and a band of solid powerful gold around her neck; but who moved with a kind of focused energy, as if all the wind of the present, whirling around, had sought her out as its centre. Always hard to get on canvas, this kind of thing, this sense of the present made apparent, if only because those few whom fate so selected were seldom in repose. They never sat still.