Posts Tagged Mountolive

Calling up the Dead

It’s too hot to go.’

Have you seen a manila enve­lope? Hell’s bells! There’s some­thing I want to show you.’

That one?’ Fas­ten­ing an ear­ring, she indi­cated with her elbow the small pack­age lying on his bed­side table. ‘The food will be awful. She’s the most weari­some, opin­ion­ated woman. She has noth­ing inter­est­ing to say, and she says it ad nau­seam. Her friends are ter­mi­nally stuffy. Remind me, why are we going?’

He pranced up behind her and sought her eyes in the dressing-table mir­ror. She was busy out­lin­ing her full lips with a brush loaded with waxy blood-red lip­stick, and he knew bet­ter than to inter­rupt. She blot­ted her lips care­fully, pat­ted her black hair — glossy as molten tar and swept up Betty Grable style — and gath­ered lip­stick, pow­der and a sil­ver fla­con of Mit­souko into an ostrich skin clutch bag. She rose, unfurl­ing from her seat to stand eye to eye with her husband.

I don’t know how you do that. Three chil­dren, and you still rise like Venus from the waves.’

What?

What what?’

You wanted to show me something.’

I’ll show you some other time. Beat­rice may be dull, but she’s had a con­sign­ment of Ply­mouth gin. And Teddy may yet get us out of here.’

They stepped out into the sear­ing dust, the ragged palm trees, the beg­gars, the smell of don­key shit, the sound of jin­gling caleches and men shout­ing hys­ter­i­cally in Ara­bic that engulfed them beyond the gates of their small ugly house in wartime Cairo.

 

Boy — who had a name, Mohammed — had pol­ished the chan­de­lier in Beatrice’s court­yard house, had watered the bougainvil­lea and strewn the gar­net rose petals in the mur­mur­ing foun­tain. He stood, unde­cided, fin­ger­ing the but­tons on his white jacket, dread­ing another stac­cato bar­rage from his employer.

Boy? Boy! Come here. Flow­ers — flow­ers for the table. The roses. Where have you put them?’

Mutely he indi­cated the red con­fetti danc­ing on the trou­bled meniscus.

The blonde dumpling was for a moment paral­ysed. Sweat pearled her upper lip.

Are you mad? Oh my God. Why do you always….I told you to put the roses in water.’

She turned, mut­ter­ing sticky impre­ca­tions, and entered the din­ing room whose dou­ble doors were open to the court­yard and whose ceil­ing fans rotated lazily. A long table was laid for twenty, crowded with cal­en­dared napery, pris­matic cut glass, gold-rimmed porce­lain and buffed cut­lery. It was punc­tu­ated at pre­cise inter­vals by Geor­gian sil­ver can­de­labra. It did not need flowers.

Boy? Boy! Come here. Fetch can­dles, from the ice-box’. To her­self she mur­mured, ‘don’t think they’ll melt now. Thank God, it’ll cool down soon.’

At this point Teddy joined her, tall and spruce in immac­u­late ivory linen.

Ice!’ he called after Boy. ‘Well, Bea. Time to see if we’ve been sold a pup.’ He opened the clear glass bot­tle and was reas­sured by the sharp cathe­dral smell of juniper that wafted nos­tril­wards. ‘Smells like the real thing. Lemon!’ he flung after Mohammed as he shook the bot­tle of Angos­tura bitters.

Ice as per instruc­tions? Boiled water? Good. Don’t want the High Com­mis­sioner to come down with dysentery.’

He rarely looked at his wife these days, find­ing her a dis­ap­point­ment now that her belly quaked and her dim­ple was lost in fat. There was no short­age of avail­able women in Cairo, but Beat­rice ran the house and looked after his inter­ests. He was sorry for her. They’d never man­aged a baby. Pity. It would have absorbed her fuss­ing, kept her busy.

Instead he looked at the bil­low­ing sails of the Mayflower on the famil­iar gin label. ‘Tonic, Bea? I’m hav­ing a pink gin, there’s some Noilly Prat if you’d pre­fer…. This glass has got a fin­ger­print on it.’

Fol­low­ing this dis­cov­ery Beat­rice made a minute inspec­tion of the crys­tal tum­blers, hand­ing Mohammed another that did not pass muster. ‘Look!’ She bran­dished them under his nose, ‘not good enough.’

Who did you invite to replace George Cousins?’

It was very last minute. I invited that writer, Lawrence Durrell.’

Well! I just hope he behaves. I thought he’d gone to Alexandria.’

Some­one saw him at the club. He goes back and forth.’

You’d bet­ter be care­ful, Bea. They say that since his wife left he’s slept with so many women he can’t remem­ber them. A gen­uine Don Juan. Appar­ently women can’t resist him. I’ll be keep­ing my eye on you.’

That’s very crude, Teddy. I don’t believe it any­way. I don’t under­stand why any­one would fall for him. He’s not exactly Errol Flynn. I hope none of the women tonight…. I don’t think so….we know them all. Well, except Paul Innes’s wife, Eileen? It is Eileen isn’t it? I’ve only met her twice — at bridge and at the Williams’s. She seemed a bit racy. Scar­let lipstick…..No, no…. out of the ques­tion, they’ve got three chil­dren. And Paul is such a good-looking man. She’s very tall. Durrell’s tiny, shorter than me, and well, that pug nose. Not good on a man. No, I don’t think so.’

She noticed that Teddy was still hold­ing an empty glass.

Boy? Boy! Where is that crea­ture? Spends his life in a dream.’ Beat­rice marched towards the kitchen.

Teddy, with a nar­row cat­like smile on his face, moved Durrell’s place card to seat him next to Paul Innes’s wife. ‘Randy, meet Racy.’

 

Well, that went well, I thought. They liked the vol-au-vents.’

Paul is quite a racon­teur. I’d heard the story about the Chi­nese cook and the whisky bot­tle before though.’

I thought it rather coarse. I have to say, I really don’t like his wife much. I don’t know why Dur­rell engi­neered him­self a place beside her — I put her next to that mil­i­tary chap, Ash­bury. As it hap­pened, she hardly spoke to Dur­rell. I almost felt sorry for him. Silly chump.’

Didn’t seem to worry him — he was his usual ebul­lient self after a drink or two. He got her to dance with him. They made a pretty ridicu­lous couple….She’s a good-looking woman.’

He had been dis­ap­pointed by the fail­ure of his scheme to reveal an illicit pas­sion. He was embar­rassed in fact, to find him­self rather taken with her, sur­prised to have been piqued by a sharp lit­tle pin­prick of jeal­ousy, as he watched them in the court­yard, danc­ing close. Twice. Sina­tra, ‘All or noth­ing at all’, and Lena Horne. Noth­ing remark­able there — every­one was danc­ing, it was the stan­dard finale to a din­ner party. Teddy him­self was still in a cloud of Mit­souko after they’d danced to ‘Rhap­sody in Blue’ under the stars.

Bea shat­tered his pleas­ant reverie. ‘Mother would say she’s got ideas above her sta­tion — she comes across as so supe­rior, but what is she? What has she done?’

I think she’s a bit of a scholar. Some­one said she got a dou­ble first at Cambridge.’

Well, I cer­tainly don’t believe that. And what about him? He’s noth­ing spe­cial. He’s just a glo­ri­fied sales­man, when you come down to it.’

Bea, my angel. If I didn’t know you bet­ter, I might think you were jaun­diced. Paul kept the Shang­hai side of Shell in oper­a­tion, almost sin­gle­hand­edly. A bit more than a sales­man. They both speak Man­darin. There have been hints that he was placed there by the gov­ern­ment. MI6. There’s a rumour that she’s in it too. Did you notice, she didn’t drink a drop?’

What? Are you say­ing that they’re spies? Oh, come on! I don’t know who you’ve been talk­ing to, Teddy, but they need their heads examined.’

Who’d have thought she came from Argentina?’

Don’t be ridicu­lous. For God’s sake, how much did you drink? She’s from Bed­ford. Or Ban­bury. One or the other.’

Bea — when we played ‘Down Argentina Way’, she burst into tears. She grew up on an estancia, near Cor­doba. Both her broth­ers are fighter pilots — she doesn’t know where they are, whether they’re still alive, even. She was gen­uinely upset — you must have noticed. Don’t give me that look. You don’t know her — you said it your­self. You’re being very unfair.’

Well, you two cer­tainly got chummy. I’m off to bed. Boy? Boy! Get him to clear up, will you? I’m asleep on my feet.’

Teddy poured him­self another whisky, turned off the lights, and put Lena Horne’s smoky ver­sion of ‘Stormy Weather’ on the record player again, low. Rest­ing his heels on the table, by the muted light­ning of sput­ter­ing can­dles, he smoked a cigar.

 

Never again. Never have so many dull peo­ple been marooned around a table to eat such indif­fer­ent food. Don’t blame me if you get dysen­tery — I saw you wad­ing through those vol-au-vents as if Escoffier made them. What was in them? It looked like vomit. I couldn’t touch them.’

You’re a hard woman. By Jingo, I felt proud to be among staunch com­pa­tri­ots: it sounds like our boys are really get­ting some­where. Look, this war’ll be over by Christ­mas and we can go home.’

Home? Where is home? I cer­tainly don’t want to go back to Blighty. You go, I’d rather go back to China….England isn’t home. Dur­rell calls it Pud­ding Island. Not affectionately.’

So you did talk to him?  From where I sat, you didn’t seem to have much to say to him.’

No. Nor he to me. ‘

Paul was on the bal­cony out­side their bed­room, smok­ing a cigar. Some­where in the maze of streets behind the house a woman was ulu­lat­ing — a mar­riage. Eileen unpinned her hair in front of her mir­ror. Slen­der, lan­guorous body hinted at by a night­dress of oys­ter silk satin — one of the few things she’d man­aged to bring from China — she was a voluptuary’s dream. He stubbed out the cigar and ran his hands over her shoul­ders, with a louche grin.

She removed them.

Oh, no. Much too hot. Pass me the Pond’s, will you?’

Paul was nettled.

Smooth­ing cold cream onto her high cheek­bones, she con­tin­ued: ‘For a writer Dur­rell was curi­ously inar­tic­u­late, well, until the drink got to him. Then he was mod­er­ately enter­tain­ing. Not my cup of tea.’

You danced with him.’

You danced with Therese, Beat­rice and that giraffe-like sec­re­tary from the embassy.’ She paused. ‘What are these? “Apol­ogy Card”?’

Have a look.’

She tipped a wad of small cards from the manila enve­lope. She read:

Mr………..

regrets exceed­ingly

his deplorable con­duct while a

guest at your

Party

and humbly craves your pardon

for the breach of eti­quette checked in the

adjoin­ing column.

 

Oh, really, Paul. What non­sense is this?’

Turn it over. I thought I’d send Teddy and Bea one. As a thank you. It’ll make them laugh.’

“Spank­ing female guests. Pick­ing nose at table. Indis­crim­i­nate goos­ing.” Do you really think they’ll find this funny? “Fail­ure to but­ton pants. Fail­ure to unbut­ton pants.” Oh dear.’

She removed the cold cream with cot­ton wool. ‘“Locat­ing female’s com­plex” and “Look­ing for hid­den mole” are amusing.’

She pushed them aside wearily. ‘You’re still a child, aren’t you?’

This hurt more than her rejec­tion of him, and he turned away from her in bed.

And she, who had a secret pen­chant for short, funny, unman­age­able men, and could still feel Durrell’s hand, sur­pris­ingly clearly, sur­pris­ingly strongly, imprinted on the small of her back, turned away from her husband.

 

Eileen’s friend, Dilys Arbuth­not, invited her for a birth­day drink among the palm trees and jas­mine of Shepheard’s Ter­race. ‘Eileen, I’m tak­ing you out for a proper bash. Cock­tails, like it or not. We’re going to gos­sip, we’re going to ogle chaps in uni­form, and you’re going to get squiffy. You’re only 36 once.’ And so, Paul hav­ing pre­vi­ously com­mit­ted him­self to a bridge evening at the club, and the chil­dren happy to be in the care of bosomy Khadija who made them sugar and cocoa sand­wiches, Eileen went on her own.

Her birth­day gift from Paul had been an opu­lent emer­ald silk shawl. She knew that such expen­di­ture beto­kened guilt, but defi­antly wore the beau­ti­ful thing to sig­nal for­give­ness of his venial pec­ca­dil­loes. What­ever they were. It rip­pled in the evening breeze as the gharry trot­ted to Shepheard’s, where she found Dilys toy­ing with a plate of olives, an empty glass at her elbow.

Hello Dilys. I’m not late, am I?’

No. I was rav­aged by thirst. They’re ter­ri­bly habit form­ing. Gin fizz. That was my second.’

Eileen raised her eyebrows.

I did have some water first, but it didn’t do the job. I needed a proper drink.’

Half-way through her fifth, when her top but­ton had undone itself to expose a heav­ing, sweat­ing cleav­age, and her cop­pery hair was stuck to her fore­head, it tran­spired that the occa­sion for this drink was not in fact Eileen’s birth­day, but the defec­tion of Reg­gie who had recently announced that their mar­riage was at an end.

No rea­son. He said that one more evening with me, and he’d….’ Eileen never dis­cov­ered what Reg­gie would do, as Dilys slith­ered from sight beneath the table, land­ing with a soft flump.

Waiter!’ Eileen stood and waved to attract the atten­tion of one of the boys, whose fez bobbed weav­ing among the chairs and tables. ‘Oh Madame. Madame is on the ground!’ Some­one joined them from another table and between them they retrieved Dilys. The waiter ran to fetch coffee.

I know you. You’re the diva from Argentina.’

Eileen looked up, star­tled. ‘Oh, Mr. Dur­rell, thank God! I’m so glad to see a friendly face. We were cel­e­brat­ing my birth­day, and I think Dilys had…’

Five drinks to your one. I know. I was sit­ting just there.’

I don’t know how I’ll get her home. She lives in a flat over by the Ser­vices Club. It’s not far, but I don’t think she can walk. I cer­tainly can’t carry her.’

I’ll give you a hand. Let me just get my stuff.’ He paid the bill with an invol­un­tary groan, and between them they frog-marched Dilys to a gharry. She lived on the third floor. Get­ting her there took some doing, but even­tu­ally she was in her own bed.

Whew! That was warm­ing.’ Eileen passed a hand over her damp fore­head. ‘Thank you so much. I’ll stay here with her.’

Absolutely not. She doesn’t need you. She’ll just sleep it out. I’ve got a much bet­ter idea.’

It was not yet ten when they climbed over the fence of the Ser­vices Club. There was some kind of party tak­ing place within. There had been rumours that day of some sig­nif­i­cant allied putsch, and they could hear Vera Lynn pre­dict­ing an out­break of blue­birds over the south coast.

My hus­band was born in Dover,’ whis­pered Eileen.

Shh.’ The gar­den was absolutely still, not a whis­per among the palm leaves that made a mys­te­ri­ous Rousseau back­drop, lit by a cold half-moon reflect­ing placidly in the pool. She sat on the edge, her feet in the water, and Dur­rell lay back next to her look­ing up at the sky.

You’ve just had a birth­day, so what are you? Tau­rus. Mmm. Don’t know what Tau­rus looks like. Bull­ish I sup­pose. There’s me. Look, over to the right. There — Pisces. That zig-zag.’ He took her hand and guided her fin­gers towards the clus­ter of bright stars.

With a lit­tle shock of excite­ment, she retrieved her hand. Leav­ing her shoes at the pool’s edge, she slipped into the inky shad­ows of the gar­den. A moment later her ghost-white body emerged.

Oh, God, that’s won­der­ful,’ Eileen whis­pered from the cool dark water.

They swam lazily, and then lay naked on the radi­ant warmth of the stone ter­race. The seduc­tive musk of frangi­pani floated on the warm air.

What’s in the note­book, the book you had at Shepheard’s?’

Notes for a book I’m writ­ing about Corfu.’

Called?’

Prospero’s Cell.’

Not Caliban’s?’

He turned over and ran his fin­gers along her upper arm, caus­ing an out­break of gooseflesh.

Not Caliban’s.’

This exchange drifted ineluctably into what Eileen referred to, decades later, as a ‘skir­mish in a taxi.’

Pisces had almost slipped from the sky when Dur­rell asked ‘Another swim?’

Larry!’ she hissed, ‘Spawn of the devil. I’m in such trou­ble already. I must go home right now.’

Please don’t go yet. Have a last dip with me. You know you want to. Come on. Carpe diem — we may all be dead tomorrow.’

Five min­utes. That’s it. Oh! This water’s like silk.’

You know, I almost wish you didn’t have to leave. I like your com­pany. In Alexan­dria I’m awash with lan­guorous, musky women crav­ing my body, but I rarely come across an odal­isque with intellect.’

You didn’t come across me.’

Don’t be smutty. You’re much too grand. It doesn’t suit you.’

They stood, very close, in the water.

What is this gor­geous amulet?’

Gor­geous amulet? Oh, that. It’s a key-ring. Thoth. The Egypt­ian god of writ­ing. Writ­ing and wis­dom. Here, have it. So you remem­ber me when we’re apart.’

He fas­tened it round her neck, tak­ing his time. She held his face and kissed him, then climbed out of the pool and dabbed her­self dry with Durrell’s trousers.

Larry, we’ll never do this again. If we meet again, it’ll be as acquain­tances, not lovers. You’ve got your life. I’ve got mine — three chil­dren and a loyal hus­band.’ Her voice was firm, decisive.

I’ve got a daugh­ter, a lit­tle girl too….. some­where or other….. Penny.’ Very quiet, very sad.

Eileen allowed a glim­mer of doubt to dilute her resolve: ‘If we’d met 20 years ago, it would be different.’

Yes. For a start I’d be twelve.’ He snorted. ‘I mean I like older women, but…. Oh, hell. You’re being seri­ous, aren’t you?’

Eileen was look­ing for her shawl.

Yes. And I must go. Now. It’s way past midnight.’

How will I man­age? I need you now. I didn’t know until tonight. Can we write?’

No.  And no, we can’t be friends. I’m not going to join the sorry ranks of your rumoured liaisons.’

He was quiet for a cou­ple of minutes.

OK. So be it. Let me take you home.’

 

Unknown to them, this very minor skir­mish hap­pened to take place on what was sub­se­quently known as D-Day, June the 6th, 1944. It has been esti­mated that 4,414 allied sol­diers were killed dur­ing that oper­a­tion, which deci­sively changed the course of history.

 

Exactly 40 weeks later dur­ing a relent­less, gritty kham­sin, Eileen gave birth to another Pis­cean, a girl whose snub nose was gen­er­ally con­sid­ered to be a legacy from her aunt, Daphne. Eileen chris­tened me Miranda.

Eileen’s broth­ers were both killed shortly after­wards, within days of each other, in the final throes of the war. Their mother Eve­lyn left Bed­ford to join her other daugh­ters, Daphne and Clare, back in Argentina. Eileen brought all her four chil­dren to the UK in the polar win­ter of 1947, when Larry and Eve hap­pened to be there. The fol­low­ing year, Eileen took my brother and me to visit Eve­lyn, coin­cid­ing with Larry and Eve’s time at the British Coun­cil in Cor­doba, a four hour drive away.

When Eileen, Paul and I returned per­ma­nently to Pud­ding Island, the year of the new queen’s coro­na­tion, there was no one and noth­ing there to wel­come us. Eileen was not happy in commuter-belt Essex, and an inex­plic­a­ble ran­cour had infected her marriage.

With my three sib­lings away in board­ing school, I was a dreamy, with­drawn crea­ture. Eileen had no truck with just want­ing her chil­dren to be happy. She wanted intel­lec­tual super­stars, or boys. She was con­vinced that I was stu­pid, and could not look at me but with exas­per­a­tion. I was not a boy.

My par­ents and I cohab­ited each in soli­tary con­fine­ment, shar­ing noth­ing but the space we lived in. I had not one mem­o­rable con­ver­sa­tion with either of my par­ents. I was fond of Paul who pro­vided the warmth my mother lacked. But we didn’t have a sin­gle inter­est or opin­ion in com­mon. We had no fam­ily life — no trips, no hol­i­days, no talk, no jokes, no card games. We were strangers to each other. This is not a mis­ery mem­oir. One’s fam­ily con­sti­tutes real­ity, from which any­thing else is a devi­a­tion, an odd­ity. The result of com­ing, as it seemed, from a dif­fer­ent planet, is that I live in my head — a con­ve­nient locus for a writer. And neg­a­tive crit­i­cism acts like cap­saicin, a brac­ing condi­ment that unleashes a scrib­ble of endorphins.

When I was 15, Eileen gave me ‘Moun­to­live’ to read, an event I still remem­ber, as being a unique sign of inter­est in my cul­tural devel­op­ment. With embar­rass­ment I con­fess that I found it bor­ing. It could not com­pete with the urgent trivia of ado­les­cence: Brook Ben­ton, Buddy Holly, meringue net pet­ti­coats and bal­let shoes a la Bar­dot, stalk­ing boys and the hula hoop — although I did read Freud, and filled note­books with knot­ted prose.

There were no more ref­er­ences to Dur­rell until Eileen was wid­owed twenty years later. After a year of fierce alco­holic mourn­ing, she started rem­i­nisc­ing about that skir­mish, imply­ing that Paul might not have been my father, a notion I dis­missed at the time as the wish­ful think­ing of a woman who invented what life failed to supply.

 

Dur­rell died in 1990, Eileen in 1997, and I for­sook jour­nal­ism in Pud­ding Island to live in the hills of Andalu­cia: writ­ing, drink­ing, prac­tis­ing yoga and Buddhism.

Thoth, bat­tered and oxi­dised by age, retrieved from the junk in my mother’s red leather jewel-box, sits before me now.

 

Google is a boon for writ­ers — beyond being a source of infor­ma­tion it sup­plies a tsunami of diver­sion for those bleak droughts when noth­ing flows. One such after­noon, when my hus­band was sway­ing on per­ilous scaf­fold­ing, paint­ing the high ceil­ing of the yoga room, I turned to Images to see what Lawrence Dur­rell looked like.

I called Dan from his paint­ing to have a look.

Christ!’ he said, ‘It’s as plain as the nose on your face.’ We were faced with not just me, but my son Leo as well. A pos­si­bil­ity, now, that we could wear our noses with pride.

A cir­cuitous path, unex­pected con­nec­tions and coin­ci­dences, and I met Durrell’s sur­viv­ing legit­i­mate daugh­ter. Just four years older than me, Penny was lost in the cloudy purlieus of Alzheimer’s dis­ease. She embarked on sen­tences that dis­solved as she spoke and left her stranded in a strange place. The only iden­ti­fi­able shape that loomed from the mist was suspicion.

It was a meet­ing of exquis­ite poignancy: thick grey rain slick­ing down the drenched Here­ford­shire grass, a sud­den power cut, Dan and me try­ing to make sense of Penny’s shreds of mem­ory in the softly seep­ing dark­ness of a Novem­ber after­noon, by the light of dying can­dles wedged into a clot­ted iron candle-stick wrought by Dur­rell himself.

Grudg­ing, Penny con­sented to show me her pho­tos. As she opened the lid of the card­board crate, I felt a ter­rific jolt of affin­ity for Dur­rell — writer, drinker, yoga stu­dent, Bud­dhist. There he was, at a Bud­dhist fair some­where in France, and again, in a fear­less Urd­hva Pad­masana, an inverted lotus pose, in a garden.

She snapped the lid shut. ‘That’s enough of that.’ she said with star­tling clarity.

Penny’s hus­band was con­vinced of my case, con­stantly remark­ing that I was a vir­tual clone of Margo, Durrell’s sis­ter who had lately died. That I even had the same man­ner­isms. He repeat­edly referred to Dur­rell as ‘your father’ and Margo as ‘your aunt’.

But he refused to put Penny through the ordeal of giv­ing a dna sam­ple. Shortly after­wards she was dead.

I shall never know.

Carpe Diem.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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