/ Language: English / Genre:love_contemporary / Series: Rutshire Chronicles

Score!

Jilly Cooper

Sir Roberto Rannaldini, the most successful but detested conductor in the world, had two ambitions: to seduce his ravishing nineteen-year-old stepdaughter, Tabitha Campbell-Black, and to put his mark on musical history by making the definitive film of Verdi’s darkest opera, Don Carlos. As Rannaldini, Tristan, his charismatic French director, a volatile cast and bolshy French crew gather at Rannaldini's haunted abbey for filming, it is inevitable that violent feuds, abandoned bonking, temperamental screaming, and devious plotting will ensue. But although everyone wished Rannaldini dead, no one actually thought the Maestro would be murdered. Or that after the dreadful deed some very bizarre things would continue to occur.

Jilly Cooper

SCORE!

To Ann Mills,

dearest of friends,

with love and gratitude.

CAST OF CHARACTERS

J

AMES

B

ENSON

A very smooth, extremely expensive private doctor.

B

ETTY

One of Rannaldini’s pretty maids.

T

EDDY

B

RIMSCOMBE

Rannaldini’s head gardener, renowned for his green fingers and wandering hands.

M

RS

B

RIMSCOMBE

Rannaldini’s long-suffering housekeeper.

M

R

B

ROWN

An Australian racehorse owner.

M

ISS

B

USSAGE

Rannaldini’s PA — a gorgon.

R

UPERT

C

AMPBELL

— B

LACK

Multi-millionaire owner/trainer, ex-Olympic show jumper and Minister for Sport. Director of Venturer Television. Still Mecca for most women.

T

AGGIE

C

AMPBELL

— B

LACK

His adored second wife — an angel.

M

ARCUS

C

AMPBELL

— B

LACK

Rupert’s son by his first marriage, recent winner of the Appleton International piano competition.

T

ABITHA

C

AMPBELL

— B

LACK

Mistress of the Horse for

Don Carlos

Rupert’s estranged daughter from his rider.

X

AVIER

C

AMPBELL

— B

LACK

Rupert and Taggie’s adopted Colombian son.

B

IANCA

C

AMPBELL

— B

LACK

Rupert and Taggie’s adopted Colombian daughter.

E

DDIE

C

AMPBELL

— B

LACK

Rupert’s father, five times married and raring to go. A sexual buccaneer of the old school.

B

RUCE

C

ASSIDY

Belegauered press officer for

Don Carlos

Inevitably nicknamed ‘Hype-along’.

C

HLOE

C

ATFORD

Mellifluous mezzo soprano, and compilation queen. Sings Princess Eboli in

Don Carlos

Significant Other Woman in several marriages.

G

IUSEPPE

C

AVALLI

Capricious Italian bass, the ghost of the Emperor Charles V in

Don Carlos

The inamorato of Granville Hastings, he sings like an angel and drinks like a fish.

L

ADY

C

HISLEDON

A pillar of Paradise.

C

LIVE

Rannaldini’s sinister leatherclad henchman.

M

ISS

C

RICKLADE

Paradise village busybody.

H

OWIE

D

ENSTON

Artist’s agent and ghastly creep who runs London office of Shepherd Denston, toughest music agents in New York.

D

IZZY

Rupert Campbell-Black’s comely head groom.

D

ETECTIVE

S

ERGEANT

K

EVIN

F

ANSHAWE

Rutminster CID smoothie and new-style catcher of villains.

F

LORENCE

Hortense de Montigny’s ancient retainer.

C

HRISTY

F

OXE

Indefatigable PA during recording of

Don Carlos

.

D

ETECTIVE

S

ERGEANT

T

IMOTHY

G

ABLECROSS

Old-style catcher of villains.

B

ERNARD

G

UÉRIN

Battle-scarred veteran. First assistant director,

Don Carlos

, Tristan de Montigny’s

droit-

hand man, who acts as sergeant major keeping order on the set.

D

AME

H

ERMIONE

H

AREFIELD

World-famous diva and Rannaldini’s mistress. Seriously tiresome, brings out Crippen in all.

B

OB

H

AREFIELD

Her charming, mostly absentee husband, longterm lover of Meredith Whalen.

L

ITTLE

C

OSMO

H

AREFIELD

Hermione’s fiendish nine-year-old son. Could give lessons to Damien in

The Omen

.

E

ULALIA

H

ARRISON

A frumpy feature writer.

G

RANVILLE

‘G

RANNY

’ H

ASTINGS

English bass, singing the Grand Inquisitor in

Don Carlos

Outwardly cosy old pussy-cat.

L

YSANDER

H

AWKLEY

Formerly a man who made husbands jealous, now happily married to Rannaldini’s third wife Kitty. Rupert Campbell-Black’s assistant.

T

HE

R

EV

P

ERCIVAL

H

ILLARY

A portly parson, who confines his pastoral visits to drinks time.

G

EORGE

H

UNGERFORD

An extremely successful property developer, chief executive of Rutminster Symphony Orchestra. Live-in lover of Flora Seymour.

J

ANICE

Rannaldini’s head groom.

J

ESSICA

Ravishing production secretary,

Don Carlos

.

B

EATTIE

J

OHNSON

A seductive, totally unprincipled journalist.

S

EXTON

K

EMP

An extremely fly East End film producer. Chief Executive of Liberty Productions, who are making

Don Carlos

.

L

UCY

L

ATIMER

Make-up artist on

Don Carlos

Still centre and agony aunt to entire cast and crew.

C

LAUDINE

L

AUZERTE

Actress and Gallic goddess, married to a French government minister.

D

ETECTIVE

C

ONSTABLE

L

IGHTFOOT

Eager young constable, traumatized by steamy stint at the 1991 Valhalla orgy.

I

SA

L

OVELL

A brilliant, obsessive jump jockey. A Heathcliff of the gallops.

J

AKE

L

OVELL

His father, ex-world show jumping champion. Now National Hunt trainer.

T

ORY

L

OVELL

Isa’s mother and Jake’s wife — loving and super-efficient, a hard act for a daughter-in-law to follow.

M

ARIA

An ace cook.

D

ETECTIVE

C

ONSTABLE

D

EBBIE

M

ILLER

A pulchritudinous policewoman.

C

OLIN

M

ILTON

Once-great tenor now playing Count Lerma, the Spanish ambassador in

Don Carlos

Old sweetie, eminently bullyable.

É

TIENNE DE

M

ONTIGNY

France’s greatest painter and national hero.

A

LEXANDRE DE

M

ONTIGNY

Étienne’s pompous eldest son, a judge.

H

ORTENSE DE

M

ONTIGNY

Étienne’s sister — a blue-blooded battle-axe.

S

IMONE DE

M

ONTIGNY

Étienne’s granddaughter and Alexandre’s daughter. In charge of continuity,

Don Carlos

.

T

RISTAN DE

M

ONTIGNY

Étienne’s youngest son and Rannaldini’s godson. Director,

Don Carlos

.

D

ETECTIVE

C

ONSTABLE

K

AREN

N

EEDHAM

The belle of the Bill.

O

GBORNE

Chief grip,

Don Carlos

.

L

ORD

(D

ECLAN

) O’H

ARA OF

P

ENSCOMBE

Recently ennobled television megastar, managing director of Venturer Television and Rupert Campbell-Black’s father-in-law.

V

IKING

O’N

EILL

Golden boy and first horn of Rutminster Symphony Orchestra.

O

SCAR

Deceptively indolent director of photography,

Don Carlos

.

F

RANCO

P

ALMIERI

Vast and vastly famous Italian tenor, playing the title role in

Don Carlos

.

M

IKHAIL

P

EZCHEROV

Lovable but rather base baritone, playing the Marquis of Posa in

Don Carlos

L

ARA

P

EZCHEROV

Mikhail’s adored wife.

D

ETECTIVE

C

HIEF

I

NSPECTOR

G

ERALD

P

ORTLAND

Admin king and limelight hogger, Rutminster CID.

R

OZZY

P

RINGLE

Exquisite-voiced soprano playing Tebaldo the page in

Don Carlos

Worn down by overwork and importunate family.

G

LYN

P

RINGLE

Rozzy’s husband — an accomplished drone.

P

USHY

G

ALORE

An ambitious and irritatingly good-looking member of the

Don Carlos

chorus. Real name Gloria Prescott.

C

ECILIA

R

ANNALDINI

Italian soprano and world-famous diva. Rannaldini’s feisty second wife.

S

IR

R

OBERTO

R

ANNALDINI

Mega maestro and archfiend, with musical directorships in Berlin, New York and Tokyo. Co-producing

Don Carlos

.

L

ADY

(H

ELEN

) R

ANNALDINI

Rannaldini’s fourth wife and Rupert Campbell-Black’s first wife, devoted mother of Marcus and less so of Tabitha. A legendary American beauty.

W

OLFGANG

R

ANNALDINI

Rannaldini’s son from his first marriage. Little Hitler exterior hides heart of gold. Former boyfriend of Flora Seymour.

S

ALLY

Another of Rannaldini’s pretty maids.

F

LORA

S

EYMOUR

Soprano and viola player and former wild child, traumatized by teenage affaire with Rannaldini, now living with George Hungerford.

A

LPHEUS

P. S

HAW

World-famous American bass, singing Philip II in

Don Carlos

Splendidlooking, but pompous sexual predator.

C

HERYL

S

HAW

Alpheus’s justifiably jealous wife. Great tree and social climber.

D

ETECTIVE

C

ONSTABLE

S

MITHSON

A very PC DC.

B

ABY

S

PINOSISSIMO

Dazzling Australian tenor and sexual buccaneer of the modern school.

C

HIEF

C

ONSTABLE

S

WALLOW

A Rutshire god, and friend of Lady Rannaldini and Dame Hermione.

S

YLVESTRE

Sound engineer,

Don Carlos

Man of few words but countless deeds.

S

YLVIA

Glyn Pringle’s housekeeper.

V

ALENTIN

Charismatic camera operator,

Don Carlos

Oscar’s son-in-law.

L

ADY

G

RISELDA

W

ALLACE

Wardrobe mistress,

Don Carlos

Nervous-breakdown van always on call during production.

S

ERENA

W

ESTWOOD

Record producer of

Don Carlos

Cool, competent beauty.

J

ESSIE

W

ESTWOOD

Serena’s four-year-old daughter.

M

EREDITH

W

HALEN

Set designer,

Don Carlos

Highly expensive interior designer. Known as the Ideal Homo, because he’s so much in demand as spare man at dinner parties.

THE ANIMALS

T

HE

E

NGINEER

Tabitha Campbell-Black’s event horse.

G

ERTRUDE

Taggie Campbell-Black’s mongrel.

J

AMES

Lucy Latimer’s rescued lurcher.

P

EPPY

K

OALA

An Australian wonder horse.

T

HE

P

RINCE OF

D

ARKNESS

Rannaldini’s vicious and generally victorious National Hunt horse.

S

ARASTRO

Rannaldini’s cat.

S

HARON

Tabitha Campbell-Black’s yellow Labrador, later has walk-on part as the Grand Inquisitor’s guide dog.

T

ABLOID

Rannaldini’s Rottweiler.

T

REVOR

Flora Seymour’s rescued terrier.

DON CARLOS

THE INITIAL CAST OF THE FILM

P

HILIP

II, K

ING OF

S

PAIN

Alpheus P. Shaw

D

ON

C

ARLOS

, I

NFANTE OF

S

PAIN

‘Fat Franco’ Palmieri

E

LIZABETH DE

V

ALOIS

, P

RINCESS OF

F

RANCE

Hermione Harefield

T

EBALDO

, E

LIZABETH

’S P

AGE

Rozzy Pringle

P

RINCESS

E

BOLI

, A S

PANISH LADY-IN-WAITING

Chloe Catford

R

ODRIGO

, M

ARQUIS OF

P

OSA

F

RIEND OF

D

ON

C

ARLOS

To be filled

T

HE

G

RAND

I

NQUISITOR

Granville ‘Granny’ Hastings

T

HE GHOST OF THE

E

MPEROR

C

HARLES

V

Giuseppe Cavalli

C

OUNT

L

ERMA

,

THE

S

PANISH

A

MBASSADOR TO

F

RANCE

Colin Milton

MAP

OVERTURE 1977

Many men hated Roberto Rannaldini. Many women, after loving him passionately, hated him even more. To be regarded at twenty-eight as the most exciting conductor since the war had necessitated brutal trampling on the way up. But at least Rannaldini could count on the unqualified love of his ten-year-old godson, Tristan de Montigny. To Tristan, the dashing maestro, with his suave, catlike smile, his deep, caressing voice, and his recklessly fast cars, was the most glamorous person in the world.

Most importantly Rannaldini had been a friend of Tristan’s mother, who had died when Tristan was a baby, and was the only person prepared to satisfy the boy’s craving for information about her.

‘She was so beautiful, so sweet, so proud of you, Tristan, and she love you so much. Her death happen in moment of madness, when she feel she cannot cope, and was unworthy of your father.’

Tristan’s father, Étienne de Montigny, was France’s most illustrious painter. He was revered for his portraits and landscapes but most famous for his erotic paintings, many of which, Salome’s Ecstasy, The Rape of Lucrece and more recently David and Jonathan, hung in the great galleries of the world, elevating near-pornography to an art form.

Étienne, outwardly a laughing giant of a man, had spawned a pack of children from three wives and numerous mistresses. Twelve years ago, when he was sixty, he had met Rannaldini, newly arrived in Paris to make his fortune as a conductor. The two had struck up a rapport, and Étienne had taken the handsome, impossibly precocious teenager under his wing. In return Rannaldini had not only milked Étienne’s contacts but also posed for him.

Part of the fun for collectors of what became known as Étienne’s ‘extremely blue period’ was to identify Rannaldini in the paintings as everyone from Apollo to the head of John the Baptist. Rannaldini had also provided beautiful young models to titillate the old goat’s palate and palette.

The most beautiful had been Tristan’s mother, the sixteen-year-old Delphine. Even Étienne’s staunchest supporters had been horrified when he had made this exquisite child his fourth wife and within a few weeks impregnated her.

Nemesis moved swiftly. A proud, delighted Étienne was busy sketching his newborn baby, Tristan, when he heard that his fourth and favourite son, Laurent, a young army officer, had been blown up in Chad. Laurent had always been a rebel, and rumours persisted that he had been taken out by his own side. Too crazed with grief even to call for an inquiry, Étienne promptly lost interest in baby Tristan, and hardly seemed to notice when, a few days later, Tristan’s young mother committed suicide. She had been suffering from postnatal depression. It was left to Étienne’s sister, Hortense, a rusty old battleaxe, to organize Tristan’s christening, at which, as one of Delphine’s last wishes, Rannaldini was a godfather.

Étienne’s indifference persisted. Tristan was the only one of his children he pointedly ignored and never praised. The boy had been brought up with the rest of Étienne’s gilded pack in Paris or at the château in the Tarn, but he was always the wistful calf which grazes away from the herd, longing for yet shying away from love.

Which was why his godfather was so important to Tristan and why on that wintry November evening in 1977 he could hardly contain his excitement as, in his first dark suit, his gold hair slicked down with water, he peered out at the galloping black clouds and frenziedly thrashing trees of the Bois de Boulogne for a first glimpse of Rannaldini’s Mercedes.

Although Rannaldini got a Machiavellian kick from singling out Tristan for attention, knowing it irritated the hell out of Étienne, he was genuinely attached to the boy. He had also been a wonderful godfather: writing from all over the world, never forgetting Christmas or a birthday, taking Tristan to concerts whenever he swept through Paris. For his confirmation he had even given him a Guarneri cello, valued at thousands, which Tristan had been practising for days hoping Rannaldini might ask him to play. Tristan had also painted him a watercolour — not too much like Degas — of polo players in the Bois.

There was Rannaldini’s Mercedes. Tristan hurtled downstairs, beating the housekeeper, slithering on a rose-patterned rug across the floorboards, shyly shaking his godfather by the hand, before submitting to a warm, scented embrace.

As usual, Rannaldini was in a hurry. As a tenth-birthday present, he was taking Tristan to Verdi’s greatest opera, Don Carlos. The curtain would rise in an hour so they were cutting it fine, but first he wanted to hear Tristan play and whisked him into the library.

Here Rannaldini paused only to admire himself on the cover of Paris-Match, and clock any new artists on the dark red walls. Over the centuries, the Montignys had increased their fortune buying paintings ahead of fashion. Rannaldini had considerably bolstered his coffers by using Étienne’s eye to build up his own collection.

Opening the piano score of Don Carlos, at the great cello solo at the beginning of Act IV, he placed it on Tristan’s music stand.

‘Try this.’

Even though Tristan was sight-reading, he played with total concentration and the sad sound blossomed as his long fingers vibrated on the strings.

‘Excellent,’ cried Rannaldini in delight. ‘You work very hard. And this is excellent too,’ he added, putting Tristan’s watercolour inside the piano score. ‘I will hang it in my study. We must go.’

‘I hope you will not be bored,’ said Rannaldini, manoeuvring the Mercedes through the pre-theatre and dinner traffic at a speed that astounded even the Parisians. ‘It is long opera but very interesting. I will briefly explain story.

‘France and Spain are ending long, bloody war. To unite the two countries, Elisabetta, the French king’s beautiful daughter, is to marry Carlos, the son of King Philip II of Spain. Understand?’

Tristan nodded. He loved the way Rannaldini never talked down to him.

‘Young Carlos reach France in disguise, wanting to see if he has been lumbered with ugly cow, but when he see Princess Elisabetta out hunting in the woods,’ Rannaldini gesticulated at the Bois de Boulogne, ‘he find her utterly beautiful, with dark hair to her waist. When he reveal he is Carlos, her future husband, she fall in love too. They will live ’appy ever after.’ Jumping a red light, Rannaldini made a V-sign at an outraged crone in a Volvo.

‘Then awful thing ’appen. Carlos’s father, Philip II, decide he want Elisabetta for himself and marries her instead. This is very selfish because King already has beautiful girlfriend called Eboli.

‘Poor Carlos, however, cannot stop loving Elisabetta even though she is now Queen of Spain, married to his father, and she still love him. But everywhere in Spanish court they are spied on. I won’t spoil the ending.’

They were approaching the opera house.

‘Rannaldini, Rannaldini,’ shouted admirers, surging forward.

A group protesting against nuclear tests was also lurking. One, a handsome but ferocious blonde, banged on the Mercedes window, which Rannaldini lowered a fraction.

‘How would you like your testicles shrivelled by radiation?’ she yelled.

‘Sounds interesting,’ murmured Rannaldini, closing the window as her furious face disappeared in a tidal wave of fans.

‘I’m getting a bodyguard,’ he complained, as a couple of doormen finally dragged him and Tristan through the stage door.

Tristan was unfazed, particularly when Rannaldini, while donning the splendour of white tie and tails, offered him a birthday glass of Krug. All down the passage, singers could be heard warming up.

A white gardenia in a glass box for Rannaldini to slot into his buttonhole was delivered to the Maestro’s dressing room. Most of the flowers arriving were for Cecilia Rannaldini, his second wife, who was singing Eboli, and who now could be heard screaming, ‘When will people learn I only like red roses,’ as she hurled everything else on to the floor.

Chic and svelte for a diva, Cecilia had done much to advance Rannaldini’s career, not least by changing her famous name to his. Having barged into the conductor’s room and smothered Tristan in kisses, she started rowing with Rannaldini in Italian.

Carlos was being sung by a plump, good-looking Italian, Franco Palmieri. Rannaldini’s latest discovery, an unknown South African called Hermione, was making her début as Elisabetta.

The packed audience was too old to interest Tristan but, with his chin resting on the front of the red velvet box, he gazed down in wonder at the glittering instruments in the pit. Opposite him were the cellos and behind them towered the double basses, red-gold as beeches in autumn. But once the action started on stage, and hunting horns heralded Hermione as Elisabetta riding in on a real grey horse, Tristan hardly noticed the orchestra. Hermione’s thick brown hair did indeed curl to her waist and he couldn’t take his eyes off her cleavage, which seemed to part like curtains whenever she hit a high note — and how gloriously she sang!

Rannaldini’s black hair was drenched with sweat, as his dark eyes sent laser beams to singer or musician so they responded almost without realizing it. Now he was smiling at Hermione, magicking increasingly beautiful sounds with a twitch of his baton.

Cecilia Rannaldini had a pure, clean voice. But, not realizing that shouting and crying all night can harm the vocal cords, Tristan thought she sounded very rough. She was, however, a great actress and, as she glared at Hermione, put him in mind of the wicked queen in Snow White. King Philip, on the other hand, was so stern and cold with his son Carlos, he reminded Tristan of his own father, Étienne.

Alone in the big box, he was also terrified by the Grand Inquisitor, blind, hooded, bent over his sticks like a black widow spider, and when the flames began to flicker round the poor bare feet of the heretics, Tristan leapt to his own feet screaming, ‘No, no they mustn’t burn,’ which was luckily drowned, by orchestra, church bells and chorus loudly praising God and the Inquisition.

Every role in Don Carlos is demanding, but it was the young Hermione who drew the most rapturous applause. Tristan clapped his hands until they were as pink as the carnations that cascaded down on her.

After more champagne and hugging, as people poured backstage to congratulate them, Rannaldini, Cecilia, Fat Franco, who’d sung Carlos, and Hermione swept Tristan off to the Ritz, where he still couldn’t speak for excitement. Everyone was sweet to him because Rannaldini made sure they knew both of his birthday and of his famous father.

The management presented him with a frothy fruit cocktail filled with coloured straws. Rannaldini, who never minded what the boy ate, allowed him to have lobster Thermidor with sizzling cheese topping, followed by blackcurrant sorbet.

Hermione, who’d changed into low-cut dark blue lace, presented him with one of her pink carnations. Then a birthday cake arrived with ten candles and he opened Rannaldini’s presents: a red leatherbound copy of Schiller’s play Don Carlos on which Verdi had based his opera, and a video camera. Tristan couldn’t stop saying thank you.

‘He already play cello very well,’ boasted Rannaldini.

‘Are you going to be a musician?’ asked Hermione.

‘No.’ Tristan blushed and stroked the camera. ‘I’m going to make films.’

He was too happy to absorb the tensions around him. Singers are often so fired up after a performance, they want sex instantly. Franco’s machismo was clearly dented because Hermione made it plain she was interested only in Rannaldini, which didn’t improve Cecilia’s temper either. She and Franco muttered that Hermione had deliberately hung on to notes to make them run out of breath. Nor would she have got such applause in the middle of Act V if Rannaldini hadn’t made an artificial pause. Fortunately Hermione didn’t understand Italian.

She was like one of his sister’s old-fashioned dolls, Tristan decided, who opened their big eyes and said, ‘Mama,’ although in Hermione’s case it seemed to be, ‘Me, me.’

‘Was it really twenty call-backs?’ she was now asking Rannaldini. ‘Pinch me, so I know I’m awake.’

She screamed as Rannaldini pinched her hard enough to leave white marks on her arm. Then he dropped his sleek dark head and kissed them better. Cecilia stormed out, pretending that their daughter Natasha had flu.

‘My wife is more neurotic than the horse in Act One,’ grumbled Rannaldini. ‘You should be specially interested in Don Carlos,’ he added to Tristan, ‘because one of your Montigny ancestors visited Spanish court during Philip II’s reign. And the Inquisition kill him, thinking he is spy. I wish I had smart relations like that,’ he went on fretfully.

‘I cannot imagine you not being smart, Signor Rannaldini,’ said a soft, dreamy voice, and they were engulfed in the sweetest scent, as though a bank of violets had bloomed behind them.

It was the only time Tristan had ever seen his godfather blush. Pausing at the table, in floating chiffon as violet as her eyes, a gently mocking smile playing over her full pink lips, was the most beautiful woman in France: Claudine Lauzerte, the actress wife of the opposition Minister for Cultural Affairs.

‘Madame Lauzerte!’

Jumping to his feet, Rannaldini kissed her hand. Then, clicking his fingers at the wine waiter, he beseeched her to join them.

‘I am leaving. I hear your Don Carlos is wonderful, with a sensational new star.’

Bowing and scraping like a brothel-keeper at the arrival of a royal stag party, Rannaldini introduced Hermione.

‘And this is Franco Palmieri who play Carlos.’

Leaping up, Franco sent several glasses and a vase of flowers flying.

Claudine Lauzerte had such impact that for the first five minutes people talked gibberish in her presence, so she turned to Tristan.

‘This is my godson, Tristan de Montigny, Étienne’s boy,’ explained Rannaldini proudly.

‘Ah.’ The violet eyes widened in amusement. ‘Your father often ask me to sit for him, but we are both always so busy.’ She glanced at the video camera. ‘You are obviously destined to become a director. With those looks, every leading lady will do exactly what you tell her.’

Noting Tristan’s pallor, his deep-set eyes mere hollows, she chided Rannaldini. ‘This poor child’s exhausted! Take him home.’

‘I will send you tickets,’ Rannaldini called after her.

‘I cannot believe I’ve met Claudine Lauzerte,’ babbled Hermione. ‘She must have had several facelifts to look so lovely.’

On the drive home, having jettisoned a furious Franco, Rannaldini pointed to a round white moon, retreating behind a lacing of dark clouds.

‘She is upstaged by your beauty,’ he told Hermione.

From the back seat, Tristan noticed Hermione continually holding her throat as if it were some precious jewel. Tomorrow he would take his new metal-detector, a present from Aunt Hortense, into the Bois and find her — and perhaps Claudine Lauzerte as well — a diamond ring.

Hermione was now complaining about lecherous conductors.

‘I was doing Rinaldo last week and Sir Rodney Macintosh, who must be over sixty, asked me to his room for a nightcap and greeted me wearing nothing but a pair of socks.’

Rannaldini wasn’t remotely shocked.

‘Eef you knee conductor in groin, he won’t give you more work. You must invent fiancé, preferably black belt at judo.’

Even such a fascinating subject couldn’t stop Tristan dropping off. Later he never knew if he’d dreamt it, or whether Rannaldini’s hand really had vanished into Hermione’s dark lace dress, and a moonlike breast emerged.

He did wake screaming, however, as Rannaldini pulled up outside the house and Étienne, still in his painter’s smock, loomed huger and blacker than the Grand Inquisitor in the doorway. Although his father cheered up when he saw Hermione, he curtly dispatched Tristan to bed.

‘And no ducking out of school tomorrow.’

‘Good night, little one,’ called Rannaldini, then, to irritate Étienne, ‘I’ll be up in a few minutes.’

In fact it was an hour, and Tristan again woke screaming from lobster-induced nightmare as another broad-shouldered black figure loomed over him.

‘It all ’appen four hundred years ago,’ said Rannaldini as he tucked the boy in. ‘You mustn’t ’ave bad dreams.’

Looking round the bleak attic room, seeing the video camera, the red leatherbound copy of Schiller’s Don Carlos and Hermione’s carnation in a tooth-mug on the bedside table, he picked up the silver frame, containing the only photograph of Tristan’s mother, Delphine, in the house.

‘So beautiful, a little like Madame Lauzerte, don’t you think?’

‘Will she sit for Papa?’ asked Tristan hopefully.

‘I doubt it. She is very pure lady — her nickname is Madame Vierge.’

‘Did they really burn people alive in those days?’

‘They do today with electric chairs and bombs. That’s how your brother, Laurent, died,’ said Rannaldini.

But the terror in Tristan’s eyes was in case his father walked in and heard the forbidden name. Such had been Étienne’s heartbreak, no allusion to Laurent was allowed in the house.

‘Why didn’t King Philip like Carlos?’ Tristan asked wistfully.

‘Fathers and sons.’ Rannaldini brushed back the boy’s hair. ‘Philip was jealous, Carlos had whole life ahead of him — to pull the girls.’

‘Can I work for you when I grow up?’ murmured Tristan.

‘One day we will make great film of Don Carlos together,’ promised Rannaldini.

1

Eighteen spectacularly successful years later, on a wet, windy, late-October morning, Sir Roberto Rannaldini gazed down on the valley of Paradise, often described as the jewel of the Cotswolds.

Rannaldini owned many splendid houses, but the brooding, secretive Paradise Abbey, which he had somewhat hubristically renamed Valhalla after the home of the gods in Teutonic mythology, was the one he loved most.

From his study on the first floor he could admire, albeit through mist and rain, his tennis courts, swimming-pool, hangar for jet and helicopter, lovingly-tended gardens and racehorses, grazing in fields sweeping down to his lake and the river Fleet, which ran along the bottom of the valley.

To his left, coiled up like a sleeping snake, was the famous Valhalla Maze. To the right, deep in the woods, lurked the watchtower, where he edited, composed and seduced. Beyond, disappearing into the mist, was the ravishing mill house, belonging to Hermione Harefield, his mistress for the last eighteen years.

But even as Rannaldini gloated over his valley, the dying fires of autumn seemed to symbolize his own decline. For the first time ever, his massive royalty cheque was down. Last Sunday, when he was conducting at the Appleton piano competition, his favoured candidate and latest conquest, the ravishing Natalia Philipovna, had been beaten into second place, despite intense lobbying, by Rannaldini’s detested stepson, Marcus Campbell-Black.

The same evening, Rannaldini learnt he had failed in his bid to take over the Rutminster Symphony Orchestra, who had accompanied the finalists. As an ultimate humiliation at the party afterwards, the first horn had hit Rannaldini across the room — his fall had been broken only by the pudding trolley and the flaccid curves of a grisly crone from the Arts Council. The newspapers had had a field day. Rannaldini shuddered.

Like Philip II of Spain, who had exhausted himself and his nation’s coffers trying to hold his Habsburg Empire together, Rannaldini was also learning by bitter experience that his vast kingdom could be maintained only by the crippling expense of waging war on all fronts. He was currently engaged in law-suits with orchestras, unions, sacked musicians, mistresses and ex-wives.

Nineteen months ago, merely to spite his great enemy, the very rich and arrogant Rupert Campbell-Black, whom he believed had orchestrated the break-up of his third marriage, Rannaldini had made a catastrophic fourth marriage to Rupert’s neurotic ex-wife, Helen. In return for his habitual infidelity, Helen was now busy squandering his millions and, because Rannaldini was only five foot six, deliberately dwarfing him in public by wearing very high heels.

Rannaldini was sad that his two eldest children from earlier marriages, Wolfgang and Natasha, had left home after frightful family rows. But, saddest of all, he knew his music was suffering. Accusing Rannaldini of blandness in the Daily Telegraph last Monday, Norman Lebrecht had suggested he stopped settling scores and started studying them again. Rannaldini might outwardly be the greatest conductor in the world, with orchestras in New York, Berlin and Tokyo, but he was poor in spirit and horribly alone.

Outside, rain swept across the woods like ghost armies marching on Valhalla. Although his office was tropically warm and the windows and doors were closed, an icy wind suddenly rustled all the papers and the fire died in the grate with a hiss. On the chimney-piece, a gilt and ormolu clock of Apollo driving the horses of the sun chimed twelve noon.

Valhalla was full of ghosts. They never frightened Rannaldini: they were his accomplices in terrorizing the living. But, hearing an almost orgasmic groan, he lookedup quickly at the Étienne de Montigny oil to the right of the fireplace. Entitled Don Juan in Transit, it portrayed the great lover, looking suspiciously like Rannaldini, humping a lady of the manor but distracted by the swelling bosom of her young maid hanging clothes outside in the orchard. It was the attention to detail — the yellow stamens of the apple blossom, each hair under the maid’s armpit, the pale green spring light — that made the painting so perfect.

Rannaldini smiled at his reflection in the big gilt mirror. His hair might be pewter grey but his face was still as virile and handsome as Don Juan’s in the picture. He also had two trump cards.

The first was a film of Don Carlos, which he was poised to conduct and co-produce. The nightmare of cutting a three-and-a-half-hour opera down to a manageable two hours for filming had not been helped by Rannaldini insisting that an overture, an aria, and linking passages to make the story more accessible, all composed by himself, be included. The plot of Don Carlos had been gingered up with several sex scenes and, to appeal to the pink pound, Carlos’s best friend, the gallant Marquis of Posa, would be portrayed as a homosexual.

An all-star cast, who would have screaming hysterics when they discovered any of their numbers had been cut, had been assembled for some time, because singers have to be booked several years ahead. They included Hermione Harefield, who at forty would need careful lighting to play the young Elisabetta. Nor could she act, but at least she did what Rannaldini told her, which was more than did Franco Palmieri, who was playing Don Carlos and who had grown so fat he made Pavarotti look anorexic. However, it had been written into his contract that he must lose seven stone before filming started next April.

In the past Rannaldini had often given juicier parts, in more ways than one, to his ex-wife Cecilia in lieu of alimony, but she and Hermione would have murdered each other on location. As a result, the part of the seductive, scheming Princess Eboli had gone to a ravishing mezzo, Chloe Catford. The search, though, was still on to find an unknown star to play the Marquis of Posa. Having, in his opinion, agreed to over-pay everyone else, Rannaldini was hunting for a bargain.

Opera films were seldom big box office. Why, therefore, had these vastly high-earning singers committed themselves when they knew what purgatory it was to work with Rannaldini?

The answer was Tristan de Montigny, who by driving himself into the ground to win some recognition from his father, Étienne, was now one of the hottest directors in the world. With his ravishing English-speaking version of Manzoni’s The Betrothed tipped to win several Oscars, he had spent the summer filming Balzac’s The Lily in the Valley with Claudine Lauzerte. The word on the street was that, despite being over fifty, ‘Madame Vierge’ had never looked more beautiful or acted better.

Success with actors of both sexes had been helped by Tristan’s wonderfully romantic looks: the model whom Calvin Klein loved best. At six foot two, he was too thin, and his gold curls had darkened to burnt umber, but the peat-brown, heavily shadowed eyes, the cheekbones higher than the Eiffel Tower, and the big mouth, usually smiling but of incredible sadness in repose, made everyone long to make him happy.

But it was a mistake to be fooled by Tristan’s gentleness: he could be both manipulative and monomaniac in getting the film he wanted.

He and Rannaldini were both so successful that they seldom managed to meet except for an hour snatched at an airport or a midnight dinner after a concert, but they had retained their affection for one another and their dream of working together, which at last was going to be realized.

But, sadly, too late to please Étienne. All the newspapers littering Rannaldini’s desk reported that France’s greatest painter since Monet was dying but refusing to go to hospital. Rannaldini was tempted to cancel tonight’s Barbican concert and fly out to bid his old friend farewell, but he’d get more coverage if he waited until the funeral. He couldn’t spare the time for both.

He felt a surge of hatred as he noticed an intensely glamorous photograph in Le Monde of Rupert Campbell-Black embracing his son Marcus before putting him on a plane to Moscow. If Rupert was relinquishing one child, he might consider a reconciliation with another, Marcus’s younger sister, the ravishing nineteen-year-old Tabitha. Rupert loathed Rannaldini so much that he had disinherited both Marcus and Tabitha for attending their mother’s wedding to Rannaldini.

Tabitha, however, like Tristan, was one of the few people who liked Rannaldini — not least because, when she became his stepdaughter, he had given her a large allowance and bought her a wonderful horse called The Engineer. But within a few weeks of marrying Rannaldini, Helen had caught him leering through a two-way mirror at Tabitha undressing, and packed her off to an eventing yard in America. There Tabitha was winning competitions and was already spoken of as an Olympic possible. She was also making friends.

‘I’ve been invited to fifteen Thanksgiving parties and I’m going to all of them,’ she had announced, in her last letter home.

On the other hand, she missed Rupert dreadfully. She had always been his favourite child, the one who rode as fearlessly as he did, and, like Rupert, she had hitherto dismissed her brother Marcus as a wimp.

Knowing it would unhinge her, Rannaldini played his second trump card, faxing out all the cuttings of Marcus being outed before winning the Appleton piano competition and being reunited with an overjoyed Rupert. Rupert had totally accepted that Marcus was gay and in love with the great Russian dancer, Alexei Nemerovsky. He had even flippantly told a group of reporters at Heathrow that he was looking forward to meeting Nemerovsky, and felt he was ‘gaining a daughter rather than losing a son’.

Silly, silly Rupert, thought Rannaldini, as he filled his jade pen with emerald-green ink to scribble a covering letter.

‘Dearest Tabitha, I know you will want to share your mother’s joy that your brother is both a national hero and reconciled with your father.’

Smirking, Rannaldini handed it to his new PA, Miss Bussage, who looked like being his third trump card. After only a month she had transformed his life, keeping track of children, wives, finances and his gruelling schedule. Nor did she have any compunction about feeding pleading love notes, demands from charities and bad reviews (after the author’s name had been put on the hit list) straight into the shredder.

Rannaldini dreamed of Miss Bussage giving him a bed review:

‘You were very boring in the sack last night, Maestro, please do better this evening.’

In her forties, Miss Bussage had the look of a well-regulated musk ox, with small suspicious eyes and dark, heavy hair that flicked up, sixties-style, like two horns. Her thick body was redeemed by a splendid bosom and rather good legs. Like musk oxen, she was also able to survive the arctic climate of Rannaldini’s rages, and gave off a strong, musky scent in the rutting season.

Friendly one day, downright rude the next, which Rannaldini, used to sycophancy, thought wonderful, she had now picked up his private telephone, which none of his other staff would touch at pain of thumbscrew.

‘Marcel Dupont for you.’

Dupont was Étienne de Montigny’s lawyer. He had grown rich over the years but had had his work cut out, extricating the great man from scrapes and marriages, and preserving his vast fortune.

‘What news?’ asked Rannaldini, seizing the receiver.

‘The worst.’ Dupont’s voice trembled. ‘Étienne died an hour ago.’

Glancing up as Apollo’s clock struck one, Rannaldini crossed himself. Death must have been at noon when the fire died in the grate and Don Juan in Étienne’s painting cried out in anguish. ‘I am so sorry,’ Rannaldini’s voice dropped an octave. ‘I trust the end was peaceful?’

‘Did Étienne ever do anything peacefully?’ asked Dupont. ‘Like Hercules, he battled to the end. He wanted to see another sunset. I know how busy you are, Maestro, but…’

‘I will certainly be at the funeral.’

Then Dupont confessed it had been Étienne’s dying wish that Rannaldini should join Tristan’s three older brothers carrying the coffin.

‘But surely Tristan…’ began Rannaldini.

Dupont sighed. ‘Even in death. I can trust your discretion.’

‘Of course,’ lied Rannaldini.

French law insists that three-quarters of any estate is divided between the children of the blood, with whole shares going to legitimate children and half shares to any born out of wedlock. Tristan, therefore, would automatically inherit several million. But the law also stipulates that the fourth quarter of a man’s estate can be divided as he chooses.

‘Étienne itemized everything for children, mistresses, friends, wives and servants,’ said Dupont bleakly, ‘but he left nothing personal to Tristan, not even a pencil drawing or a paintbrush. Why did he hate the poor boy so much?’

‘Poor boy indeed.’ Rannaldini was shocked. ‘I will ring him.’

‘Please do — he’s devastated, and the end was dreadful. I hope this story doesn’t leak out. Anyway, while you’re on, Rannaldini, Étienne left you two of his greatest paintings, Abelard and Héloïse and The Nymphomaniac. Both are on exhibition in New York.’

Together they were worth several million. Not such a bad day, after all, thought Rannaldini.

2

Having witnessed Étienne’s extremely harrowing death, Tristan had immediately fled back to his own flat in La Rue de Varenne, trying to blot out the horror and despair with work. He had been on the brink of making the one film his father might have rated, because it was with Rannaldini. Now it was too late.

Scrumpled-up paper lay all over the floor. His laptop was about to be swept off the extreme left-hand corner of his desk by a hurtling lava of videos, scores, a red leatherbound copy of Schiller’s Don Carlos, books on sixteenth-century France and Spain, sketches of scenes, Gauloise packets and half-drunk cups of black coffee. Photographs of the Don Carlos cast were pinned to a cork board on the rust walls. Over the fireplace hung one of Étienne’s drawings of two girls embracing, which Tristan had bought out of pride so that people wouldn’t realize his father had never given him anything.

He was now toying with a chess set and the idea of portraying his cast, Philip the king, Posa the knight, Carlos the poor doomed pawn, as chess pieces, but he kept hearing the nurse’s cosy, over-familiar voice.

‘Just going to put this nasty thing down your throat again, Étienne,’ as she hoovered up the fountains of blood bubbling up from his father’s damaged heart.

And Tristan had wanted to yell: ‘For Christ’s sake, call him Monsieur de Montigny.’

He also kept hearing Étienne muttering the words ‘father’ and ‘grandfather’, as he clutched Tristan’s sleeve, and the roars of resistance, followed by tears of abdication trickling down the wrinkles.

At the end only the extremely short scarlet skirt worn by his granddaughter Simone had rallied the old man. Tristan hadn’t been able to look at his aunt Hortense. It was as if a gargoyle had started weeping. He prayed that Étienne hadn’t seen the satisfaction on the faces of his three eldest sons that there was no hope of recovery.

There was no way Tristan could concentrate on a chessboard. Switching on the television, he felt outrage that, instead of leading on Étienne’s death, they were showing the young English winner of the Appleton, Marcus Campbell-Black, arriving pale and fragile as a wood anemone at Moscow airport, and being embraced in the snow by a wolf-coated, wildly overexcited Nemerovsky, before being swept away in a limo.

Rupert, Marcus’s father, had then been interviewed, surrounded by a lot of dogs outside his house in Gloucestershire.

‘Campbell-Blacks don’t come second,’ he was saying jubilantly.

God, what a good-looking man, thought Tristan. If he had Rupert, Marcus and Nemerovsky playing Philip, Carlos and Posa, he’d break every box-office record.

He jumped as Handel’s death march from Saul boomed out and the presenter switched to Étienne’s death: France was in mourning for her favourite son; great artist, bon viveur, patron saint of vast extended family.

‘Montigny’s compassion for life showed in all his paintings,’ said the reporter.

But not in his heart, thought Tristan bitterly. Étienne had never been to one of his premières, or glanced at a video, or congratulated him on his César, France’s equivalent of the Oscars.

‘Of all Étienne de Montigny’s sons,’ went on the reporter, as they showed some of Étienne’s cleaner paintings followed by clips from The Betrothed, ‘Tristan, his youngest son, has been the most successful, following in his father’s footsteps but painting instead with light.’

That should piss off my brothers, thought Tristan savagely, as he turned off the television. Dupont had rung him earlier and, like a starved dog grateful for even a piece of bacon rind, Tristan had finally asked if Étienne had left him anything other than his due share.

‘Nothing, I’m afraid.’ Then, after a long pause, ‘Maybe it’s a back-handed compliment, because you’ve done so well.’

Dupont had meant it kindly. But Tristan had hung up, and for the first time since Étienne had fallen ill, he broke down and wept.

Half an hour later, he splashed his face with cold water and wondered what to do with the rest of his life. He was roused by the Sunday Times, commiserating with him, then more cautiously probing a rumour that he was the only member of the family who had been left nothing personal.

‘Fuck off,’ said Tristan hanging up.

Fortunately this pulled him together. The bastard, he thought. All my life Papa noticed me less than the cobwebs festooning his studio. Looking at his mother’s photograph, he wished as always that she were alive, then jumped as the telephone rang.

‘Papa?’ he gasped, in desperate hope.

But it was Alexandre, his eldest brother, the judge.

‘We’re all worried you might be feeling out of it, Tristan. You’re so good at lighting and theatrical effects and knowing appropriate poetry and music, we felt you should organize the funeral. We want you to be involved.’

His brothers, reflected Tristan, chose to involve him when they wanted their christenings and weddings videoed. He wished he had the bottle to tell Alexandre to fuck off too.

Instead he said, ‘I’ll ring you in the morning.’

Without bothering to put on a jacket, he was out of his flat, driving like a maniac to the Louvre to catch the last half-hour, so that he could once more marvel over the Goyas, Velazquezes and El Grecos. Every frame in his film would be more beautiful.

When he got home there was a message on the machine. Rannaldini’s voice was caressing, deep as the ocean, gentle, recognizable anywhere.

‘My poor boy, what a terrible day you must have had. I’m so sorry. But here’s something to cheer you up. Lord O’Hara from Venturer Television rang, and he’s happy to meet us in London the day after tomorrow. I hope very much you can make it. And I think I have found a Posa.’

3

Hollywood in the mid-nineties was governed by marketing men who earned enough in a year to finance five medium-budget films, who believed they knew exactly what they could sell and only gave the green light to films tailor-made to these specifications. To perform this function for Don Carlos and handle the money side, Rannaldini had employed Sexton Kemp as his co-producer.

Sexton, who had started life selling sheepskin coats in Petticoat Lane, was now a medallion man in his early forties with cropped hair, red-rimmed tinted spectacles and a sardonic street-wise face.

Sexton’s film company, Liberty Productions, so called because he took such frightful liberties with original material, always had several projects on the go. As he was driven in the back of a magenta Roller to the meeting with Declan O’Hara, Sexton was busily improving Flaubert.

Musically illiterate, he found the sanctity of opera plots incredibly frustrating. Why couldn’t the French Princess Elisabetta become an American to appeal to the US market? At least he could constantly play up the sex and violence in Don Carlos:

‘All that assassination and burning of ’eretics, and rumpy-pumpy, because we’re using lots of the singing as voiceover, while we film all the characters’ fantasies about rogerin’ each other.’

For a year now Sexton had worked indefatigably to raise the necessary twenty million to make the film. He had also organized distributors in twenty-five countries. ‘Don Carlos is not exactly a comedy,’ he would tell potential backers, ‘but very dramatical. And wiv Rannaldini and Tristan de Montigny we can offer both gravitas and a first-class seat on the gravy train.’

As a result Rannaldini’s record company, American Bravo, and French television had both come in as major players. Conversely CBS had been unenthusiastic because Don Carlos is very anti-Catholic and they were nervous about alienating America’s vast Hispanic population. For the same reason, it had been a nightmare wheedling money out of the French and Spanish governments. Sexton had promised filming in the forest of Fontainebleau to bring tourists to France and the restoration of numerous crumbling historic buildings in Spain for use as locations. But each time he neared a deal, the government would change and there would be a new Minister of Culture to win over.

Even the last Spanish minister, a Señora Mendoza, who had a black moustache, hadn’t fazed Sexton.

‘One bottle of bubbly and a tube of Immac and we was away.’

Unfortunately, shortly after this, Señora Mendoza had fallen from office and for Sexton, and was never off the telephone angling for another seeing-to. Contrary to Señora Mendoza’s forward behaviour, there was also a real problem of filming nudes and sex scenes in Catholic countries.

A substantial sum had been promised by a group of Saudi gun-runners, who wanted to raise their profile by having their names on the credits. (Unknown to the Saudis, Sexton was busy dealing with the Iranians.)

His greatest coup, however, was to enlist the support of the recently ennobled Declan O’Hara who was managing director of Venturer Television and a complete Don Carlos freak. Unknown to his tone-deaf partner and son-in-law, Rupert Campbell-Black, Declan had pledged ten million towards the film’s costs.

London had an untidy look on that chill mid-October morning. Grey and brown plane leaves littered the pavements and clogged the gutters. Brake-lights were reflected like flamingos’ legs in the wet road ahead as the traffic slowed in Park Lane.

Excited at the prospect of meeting a real lord, Sexton was glad he, Tristan and Rannaldini were going to work out a plan of action before Declan arrived. Rannaldini could rub people up the wrong way.

Sitting in Rannaldini’s exquisite flat overlooking Hyde Park, Tristan felt warmth creep back into his veins. He had just lunched on the fluffiest Parma ham omelette, sorrel salad, quince sorbet, black grapes, gently dissolving Camembert, excellent claret and very black coffee. It was the first food he had eaten in three days.

After the meeting, Rannaldini, Sexton and he were off to Prague to see the possible Posa: a Russian with lungs of steel called Mikhail Pezcherov.

Tristan was already mad about Sexton, who was now hoovering up black grapes with a big hand, gut spilling over his waistband, his face absolutely still, only his eyes swivelling in thought as he tried to persuade Rannaldini of the benefits of accepting laundered Russian money from the Iranians.

‘Don’t worry your pretty swollen head over that one, Ranners. The Saudis need never know.’

In preparation for meeting Declan, Tristan had whiled away last night’s insomnia speed-reading Declan’s massive biography of Yeats, which had just received ecstatic reviews. Declan had also once interviewed Étienne on one of his vastly watched, prestigious programmes. The two had clashed. Declan had accused Tristan’s father of meretriciousness and pornography.

‘That you’re a genius makes the whole thing more reprehensible.’

Étienne had stalked off the set. Tristan was ashamed how drawn he was to people who had seen through his father.

As Sexton and Rannaldini were still arguing about money, Tristan was glad there was so much to look at in Rannaldini’s sitting room. On the vermilion walls hung numerous portraits of Rannaldini. On every surface were silver-framed photographs of Rannaldini and the famous, dominated by one of him getting his knighthood, and another of him smiling at a very blonde girl. What a beauty. Tristan made a mental note to ask Rannaldini to introduce him: what wonderful things the camera could do with her face.

On a low table in the middle of the room beside a huge brass bowl of dark crimson orchids lay the score of Don Carlos with cuts and possible scenes pencilled in for discussion with Declan. As the sun appeared, casting its mellow autumnal light on the park, Tristan felt a surge of optimism.

‘Oh, look, there’s Rupert Campbell-Black in a morning suit,’ said Sexton, in excitement, ‘I wonder where ’e’s going.’

An outraged Rupert was in fact coming to Rannaldini’s flat. As a fellow director, having learnt about the ten million, he had spent half the night raging at Declan for such suicidal pledging of Venturer’s hard-earned cash. Rupert had never before questioned one of Declan’s artistic decisions, but as the last film he’d seen in the cinema had been a remake of The Incredible Journey, where he’d been outraged because the bull terrier had been changed to a more politically correct breed, and the last opera an amateur production of The Merry Widow, with Declan’s wife poncing around in the title role, he couldn’t see the point of Don Carlos at all.

‘I mean the guy’s in love with his stepmother,’ Rupert, who had loathed all his four stepmothers, had stormed at Declan.

Despite his indignation and the insensitivity that so often goes with social fearlessness, Rupert noticed Tristan’s black tie the moment he entered the room and said how sorry he was about Étienne’s death.

‘Bought a couple of oils of his twenty years ago. Bloody good painter, and bloody well rocketed in value,’ he added, even more approvingly.

As Rupert was wearing a morning coat, Rannaldini smoothly suggested a glass of champagne. Feeling he could use it, Rupert was about to accept, then noticed the photograph of his daughter, Tabitha, on the piano and curtly refused. The thought of Rannaldini having access to her drove him to madness.

‘Haven’t you grown since I last saw you?’ he drawled, then, tilting his head sideways to glance at Rannaldini’s lifts, ‘Or maybe your shoes have.’

Trouble ahead, thought Tristan, as Rannaldini’s face contorted with fury.

Étienne had always painted in a north-facing studio, claiming that the harsh light picked out every wrinkle and red vein, showing the face as it was. Rupert must be forty-six or forty-seven but, as he sat down on the window-seat looking north over the park, his beauty made Tristan gasp. The sleek, thick gold hair, untouched by grey and brushed back from the wide suntanned forehead, emphasized the lovely shape of the head. The long, heavy-lidded, rather hard lapis-lazuli blue eyes, the high cheekbones, the Greek nose, the short upper lip pulling up the curling mouth, the smooth olive complexion could all have belonged to a Latin or a statue, the face was so still. Then Rupert caught a glimpse of a portly mongrel in a tartan coat, waddling along behind an old lady, which reminded him of his wife’s dog, Gertrude. His eyes softened and his mouth lifted, and Tristan wondered how any woman ever resisted him.

‘Sorry Declan can’t make it,’ Rupert was now saying, in his light, flat, clipped drawl. ‘He forgot he was taking my children, his grandchildren, to Toad of Toad Hall. He always swore he’d never accept a peerage and now he has it’s clearly unhinged him, particularly if he’s intending to waste ten million on some crappy opera.’

Rupert then proceeded to tear the project to shreds. The only person he praised was Sexton for raising such an incredible amount to subsidize such tosh. Rannaldini immediately rose to his feet and opened the door.

‘If you won’t come in with us,’ he said icily, ‘we’d better look elsewhere.’

‘We can’t, Ranners,’ said Sexton aghast. ‘It’s goin’ to be a mad scramble as it is. We gotta start filming by the end of March because the first scenes take place in a forest wiv no leaves. It’s goin’ to be grite,’ he added to Rupert, his eyes shining brighter than his gold necklace. ‘Two mighty armies meeting on the skyline, and then the ’unt streaming down the ’ill.’

‘Where’s that being filmed?’ asked Rupert.

‘Fontainebleau,’ said Tristan quickly. ‘The French government have put in a lot of money.’

As Venturer were putting in even more money, countered Rupert, the film should be made on Venturer territory, namely in his woods at Penscombe.

‘Most beautiful beechwoods in the country,’ he added, haughtily.

‘That is debatable,’ snapped Rannaldini.

‘Let’s debate it, then,’ snapped back Rupert. ‘We can also get the Cotchester Hunt for virtually peanuts, and hounds won’t have to go into quarantine. You’ll never find decent hounds in France.’

Tristan had visions of drawing his sword for his country’s canine population.

The reason Rupert wanted his woods filmed was to categorize them even more firmly as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty to scupper any evil plans to slap a motorway through his estate.

Rannaldini, who was determined the first act should be shot in his beechwoods at Valhalla, also to stop any motorway through his estate, said the French would never agree to it being filmed at Penscombe.

‘Anyway, your house at Penscombe was only built in the late eighteenth century, too modern for Carlos,’ Rannaldini added dismissively, ‘whereas Valhalla is medieval and steeped in religious tradition.’

Seeing Rupert’s eyes narrow, Sexton said hastily, ‘We do need to film in a monastery-type situation, Rupe.’

So Rupert switched to the fatuousness of the plot.

‘I mean, the guy’s in love with his stepmother.’

‘Can’t agree more, Rupe,’ interrupted Sexton excitedly. ‘I was just saying to Ranners, why don’t we make Elisabetta Carlos’s real muvver? Incest is really hot at the moment.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ said Rupert, who disliked his mother even more than his stepmothers.

Tristan, who often fell asleep in meetings, was really enjoying this one, and having great difficulty not laughing.

‘The plot’s far too complicated,’ went on Rupert. ‘Needs a narrator to tell you what’s going on. We’d better use Declan.’

Then, at least, Venturer’s lawyers could claw back a massive fee for Declan’s services. Rannaldini, who intended to introduce the opera himself for an even more massive fee, said this was totally unacceptable, so Rupert attacked the cast.

‘They’re all geriatrics. How can that old bat Hermione Harefield, who must be well into her forties, play a girl in her teens?’

Then before Rannaldini could reach for his sword:

‘Or Fat Franco, who’s forty-six and at least forty-six stone, play a twenty-year-old Infante? Don Kilos, that’s a joke, and there aren’t many of those in the opera.’

‘Fat Franco goes down very well wiv punters,’ said Sexton, reasonably. ‘He’s one of the biggest names of opera.’

‘Biggest being the operative word. Here’s the guy you want.’ Rupert chucked a photograph down on the table.

‘Wow, who’s he?’ Tristan grabbed the photo in excitement.

‘An Aussie called Baby Spinosissimo, not sure that’s his real name.’

‘Speenoseeseemo,’ said Rannaldini coldly. ‘He’s totally inexperienced.’

‘And breathtakingly good-looking,’ said Rupert. ‘Taken them by storm in Oz. Done well enough to buy himself several racehorses.’

‘And, eef he landed the part of Carlos, would no doubt be able to afford more horses for you to train,’ said Rannaldini bitchily. ‘Leave the casting to us. You don’t know what you’re talking about.’

‘How about Elisabetta becoming an American?’ suggested Sexton, who never gave up. ‘They adore Dame Hermione in the US.’

‘Shows how stupid they are,’ snarled Rupert. ‘America was hardly built, like my house,’ he glared at Rannaldini, ‘in the middle of the sixteenth century, and Hermione would have even more difficulty in passing herself off as a Red Indian than as an eighteen-year-old virgin.’

The meeting ended in uproar.

‘Who’s getting married?’ asked Tristan.

‘Lovely girl — conductor actually — called Abigail Rosen, marrying a lucky sod called Viking O’Neill,’ said Rupert, breaking off one of Rannaldini’s crimson orchids and putting it in his buttonhole.

‘Rannaldini knows Viking,’ he added nastily. ‘He’s the horn player who hit him across a hotel dining room a few nights ago. Easy as a shot-putter — or shit-putter, in Rannaldini’s case.’

But the gods were on Rannaldini’s side. As the front door banged behind Rupert, Helen Rannaldini rushed into the sitting room.

What a beautiful woman, thought Tristan, admiring the tragic, ravaged face, as he leapt to his feet. But Helen was too distraught to notice him.

‘Oh, Rannaldini, Tabitha’s on the phone. She’s been fired! I hoped I’d catch Rupert.’

‘He’s gone, let me talk to her.’ Rannaldini whisked out of the room. ‘Perhaps you could organize some drinks, my dear.’

He was sweating with excitement as he picked up the telephone. As he had predicted, his stepdaughter had flipped when his faxes had arrived. Tabitha had always been Rupert’s favourite child and suddenly Marcus, her brother, had stolen his affection. She was shocked rigid to discover Marcus was gay, and crazy with jealousy that Rupert seemed to approve of Marcus’s new love.

‘Daddy was always so foul about my boyfriends, and now he’s crawling all over some poofter. And there’s even a photograph of Marcus and Nemerovsky hugging on the front of the Washington Post — yuk!’

Having read the faxes, Tabitha had ridden in a cross-country competition, hurtling over the fences as though death were the favourable alternative, before sliding off her horse, The Engineer, fifty yards past the post. The course doctor had diagnosed her as dead drunk.

Yesterday morning she had been suspended for nine months, mostly because of her appalling language and lack of contrition. Afterwards, she had gone out and got even drunker, she had only just woken and screwed up courage to ring England. How fortunate that Rupert and she had missed each other.

Rannaldini was smiling broadly. ‘My naughty child! Come home so I can spank your bottom,’ he quivered in delighted expectation. ‘You have been away far too long. I’ll send the Gulf.’

‘I’ll make my own way. I want to travel with The Engineer. Could you possibly lend me a couple of grand?’

4

Euphoric at the thought of Tabitha returning, Rannaldini swept into the drawing room and promptly invited her mother to join the trip to Prague. After all, Prague had been where he had first bedded Helen on the stage of an opera-house where, earlier in the evening, he had conducted Don Giovanni, and he didn’t want her to give him a lousy press as a husband if Tabitha was coming home.

‘I can’t go,’ wailed Helen. ‘I’ve got to host a dinner for Save the Children.’

‘Bussage will cancel it, and tomorrow I will send Save the Children a large enough donation to quell any disquiet,’ said Rannaldini expansively.

‘I would love to go,’ Helen told Tristan wistfully. ‘Prague was the place—’

‘Where you and I spent our first wonderful romantic weekend, exactly one year, eleven months and three days ago,’ said Rannaldini, kissing her.

‘You remembered the exact date.’ Helen’s eyes filled with tears.

‘Of course,’ said Rannaldini smugly. It had not been difficult, it had also been his forty-fourth birthday.

‘But I haven’t packed.’

Rannaldini looked at his watch.

‘You have half an hour. Serena won’t be here until five.’

Serena Westwood was a young, ambitious record producer, who had just been poached by Rannaldini’s record company, American Bravo. Her first assignment was to produce the recording of Don Carlos.

Helen nearly refused to go to Prague when she saw Serena, who looked like a brunette Grace Kelly. Her heavy hair, drawn back into a French pleat from a snow-white forehead, was shinier than her patent leather ankle boots, and she was wearing nothing under her austerely cut pinstripe suit.

Rannaldini had clearly been saving Serena’s child as well as sending a vast cheque to Save the Children because Serena immediately kissed him, thanking him in a cool, clear voice for flying up two of Helen’s young maids, Betty and Sally, for the night to look after her four-year-old daughter, Jessie.

‘Bussage masterminded the whole thing,’ said Rannaldini smoothly, ‘and it is good for Sally and Betty to have an outing.’

‘Jessie fell so in love with them she hardly noticed me leaving,’ said Serena, turning to an outraged Helen. ‘Oh, Lady Rannaldini, I know it’s a liberty hijacking your maids, but I’ve been stuck in Rome with Dame Hermione and rushed home to find my nanny had walked out, so Sir Roberto very kindly came to my aid. But it’s you I’ve got to thank.’

‘We cannot cast Posa without Serena,’ said Rannaldini. ‘Now we have time for a glass of champagne.’

‘How was Hermione?’ snapped Helen, who detested her husband’s mistress.

Serena waited until Rannaldini had left the room to get a bottle, then said, ‘Absolutely bloody. She’s recording Arsena in Rome next week so I spent all yesterday checking out hotels with her. They were either too hot, too cold, too dark, too light, too big and not cosy enough, too poky. I kept frantically apologizing to the hotel managers — you know how sweet and obliging the Italians are. She deserves a kick up the arsena.’

‘She does,’ agreed Helen ecstatically.

‘I finally flipped and shouted at her,’ confessed Serena. ‘So, as a peace offering, I sent her some ravishing lilies and the bitch rang up shouting that they made her sneeze. “I want yellow rosebuds in future, and I’ll tell you exactly which florist to go to.”’

What a lovely young woman, thought Helen, putting her arm round Serena’s shoulders in an utterly uncharacteristic gesture of intimacy.

‘Come and meet our director, Tristan de Montigny.’

‘He’s next door phoning his auntie Hortense,’ volunteered Sexton.

Poor old Hortense was being extremely cantankerous and giving Tristan a long-distance earful. For the first time in eighty-five years, she was no longer Étienne’s little sister. As head of the family, she was feeling old, arthritic and frighteningly exposed. Tristan so wished he could comfort her.

Oh, my goodness, thought Serena, as he wandered back into the room. He was wearing a battered leather jacket, a buttoned-down peacock blue shirt, and Levi’s clinging to his lean hips. Serena immediately wanted to plunge her fingers into his shock of dark hair, and run her tongue along his rubbery jut of lower lip before burying her mouth in his. Instead, she smiled coolly, accepted a glass of Dom Pérignon, and said, ‘Tell us about this Posa, Rannaldini.’

‘He’s called Mikhail Pezcherov. Solti call me after hearing him do the role in Russian. He’s now singing Macbeth in some crappy production and making ends meet belting out songs in a nightclub.’

‘And which do we have to endure?’

‘If we leave soon, we’ll make the second act of Macbeth.’

Landing in Prague, they were driven over the cobbles of ill-lit back streets to a crumbling opera-house. Rannaldini, well known to scream at latecomers, had no compunction in sweeping his party into their seats in the middle of the banquet scene. A rumble of excitement went through the theatre and Lady Macbeth stopped singing altogether to gaze at the great Maestro.

Another wild-goose chase, sighed Serena, who’d made sure she was sitting next to Tristan. The sets and costumes might have come from an amateur operatic society’s production of Brigadoon. Neither conductor, soloists nor chorus could agree on tempi. Attempting to glide through a castle wall, Banquo’s ghost sent it flying.

But out of this shambles came a voice of such beauty, so deep, rich, soft, yet intensely masculine, that Rannaldini’s party turned to each other in rapture. Tristan was so excited he hardly felt Serena’s pinstriped leg rubbing against his.

Mikhail Pezcherov was also an excellent actor, with a square, expressive face and strong features, enhanced by a black moustache and beard, and a curly bull’s poll tumbling over soulful dark eyes. More important, if he were going to play the gallant Marquis of Posa, he was of heroic stature, with long, strong legs that would look marvellous in tights.

Afterwards, he welcomed Rannaldini and his party backstage.

‘My knees knock, my tongue thicken in mouth, I can only croak hello, I am so excited,’ he announced, thrusting mugs of very rough red wine into their hands.

He wished he could afford something more expensive but all his money was going home to support his darling wife, Lara, and his children. Showing the visitors their photographs, he wiped away copious tears, but all would be worthwhile, if they could live together one day in comfort.

‘How did you meet your wife?’ asked Helen.

‘I was best man at wedding. Lara was bridesmaid. I sing “Nessun’ Dorma” at reception. Zat was zat,’ sighed Mikhail.

‘Lady Rannaldini and I had our first romantic weekend in Prague,’ purred Rannaldini.

‘Zat is good,’ said Mikhail. ‘I trust guys who love their wives.’

‘I too.’ Rannaldini caressed Helen’s cheek.

Really, thought Helen, when he’s as charming as this, I can remember why I married him.

Back at Rannaldini’s suite, Mikhail got stuck into a better class of red, wolfed down his own incredibly tough steak, and polished off everyone else’s leftovers.

Rannaldini, who for once hadn’t made a single bitchy remark, produced the score of Don Carlos and thumped away on the piano. When Mikhail came to the end of Posa’s wonderfully beautiful dying aria, it seemed impossible that only five listeners could have made such a noise, cheering and shouting until people in the next rooms banged on the thin walls.

‘So thrilling to find him together.’ A tearful Helen squeezed Serena’s hand.

‘You’re going to give the part exactly the right ker-pow quotient, Mick,’ Sexton told Mikhail. ‘Tomorrow our people will call your people.’

‘You better call my vife, she handle money,’ said Mikhail. ‘If I really have zee part?’

‘You have it,’ said Rannaldini, who had been particularly captivated when Mikhail congratulated him on his piano-playing. Not since Hermione had he discovered such a thrilling talent. Now, where had he put his treasured jade fountain pen? In his excitement, he must have handed it absent-mindedly to the waiter after he’d signed for room service.

‘May I call my Lara?’ asked Mikhail, as his glass was refilled yet again.

‘Go into our bedroom,’ said Rannaldini.

‘Can I possibly borrow your mobile to check on Jessie?’ Serena asked Sexton. ‘I’ve got a horrible feeling I’ve left mine in the taxi.’

Helen had buttonholed Tristan. When she’d first moved to England from America, she told him, she had worked as an editor in publishing, which had involved a lot of research. Perhaps she could help out on Don Carlos.

Tristan listened politely. Close up, Helen’s huge, staring eyes, ribby body, spindly legs and flesh worn down to her admittedly perfect bone structure, reminded him unnervingly of paintings of chargers dying of starvation in the Crimean War.

Across the room, trying to make Tristan jealous, Serena was chatting up Rannaldini, who was terribly sexy, but definitely not husband potential.

‘We must have dinner one evening,’ he was murmuring. ‘Bussage can always find a window for special people. At least promise to sit next to me at the Gramophone Awards on Tuesday.’

Helen’s face had lit up while Tristan talked to her, but it went dead as she noticed the wolfish expression on Rannaldini’s. Meticulous by nature, Helen became obsessive under stress. Now she launched into a frenzy of tidying, lining up scores and magazines, plumping cushions, whipping glasses from people still drinking — anything to maintain her sense of controlling the environment.

‘Leave it. We are not at home,’ exploded Rannaldini, and then, remembering his role as cherishing husband, ‘Go to bed, my darling, you must be tired.’

Having told Mikhail he would fix him up with a shithot agent, Shepherd Denston’s, who would handle everything, and arrange for him to have coaching in Prague to prepare him for rehearsals starting in December, Rannaldini said he was off to bed.

‘Helen and I have happy memories to relive.’

He found Helen faffing round in her nightie. She always laid out her clothes for the morrow, and she was certain she’d packed her saxe-blue cashmere and the lapis-lazuli brooch that went so well with it.

‘You packed in a hurry,’ soothed Rannaldini.

‘I guess one of the maids has nicked it,’ said Helen shrilly. ‘I hate Prague! The beds are so hard, the food’s disgusting, you can’t turn down the heating so I’ll have hot flushes all night, and finally there’s no bath plug.’

‘I will plug your hole, my darling,’ said Rannaldini softly. ‘D’you remember last time we play game of naughty doctor, taking liberties with young girl patient, and how excited you became?’

Helen gasped as he pushed her back on the bed.

‘She has been very naughty.’ Rannaldini locked the door. ‘She deserves good spanking for not eating enough.’

‘The others’ll hear us. You can’t, Rannaldini!’

Parting Helen’s legs, Rannaldini laid his tongue on her clitoris. Not for nothing was he known as the James Galway of Cunnilingus!

Helen achieved orgasm, fantasizing about Tristan de Montigny. Rannaldini pushed himself over the edge thinking about Tabitha.

‘My darling child,’ he murmured, as he came.

‘Why can’t our marriage always be like this?’

‘From now on it will be,’ promised Rannaldini.

Next door Tristan and Mikhail, who was drinking from the bottle, were dissecting the character of Posa.

‘He changes in the opera.’ Tristan lit another Gauloise. ‘He starts out an idealist, then realizes he’s got to act politically to get things done. He has to put on a different face to hide the brutal facts.’

Like you’ll have to, thought Sexton, with a sudden surge of pity, if you’re going to work with Rannaldini.

‘Posa was like IRA freedom-fighter,’ announced Mikhail.

Anxious to make a note about parallels with the IRA, who were very hot in Hollywood at the moment, Sexton found his pocket computer had suddenly disappeared. He was distracted by Serena, who had unleashed her dark hair like a cavalry charge, and undone two buttons of her pinstripe jacket.

‘Can I have a word?’ she murmured.

Wildly excited, Sexton padded after her into the second bedroom.

‘Is Tristan OK?’ she whispered.

‘No, shittin’ himself about the funeral on Monday, poor little sod.’

‘It’s going to be like a state funeral.’

‘In-a-state more likely, wiv all his dad’s ex-wives and mistresses fighting to sit in the front row, and all the paparazzi hangin’ abart.’

God, Serena was pretty. I’m going to score, thought Sexton joyfully.

He was about to unfasten the last button of her jacket and push the door behind them, when she hissed, ‘Get rid of Mikhail.’

‘W-w-what?’

‘At once! Tristan wants to take me to bed.’

Sexton took it on the double chin.

‘Don’t hurt him,’ he urged. ‘He’s on the blink.’

Mikhail was desperate to go on partying and Sexton had frightful difficulty shepherding him into a taxi.

‘Such a lovely straightforward guy,’ said Tristan, as he and Serena walked down the dimly lit landing.

Outside her room, she put a caressing hand on his chest.

‘Sorry about your father,’ she whispered, ‘but a good fuck’s truly the quickest way to cure the pain.’

Taking her key, dodging her puckered-up lips, Tristan dropped a kiss on her cheek. Having unlocked her door for her, however, he showed absolutely no desire to follow her inside. The trouble with new men, thought Serena furiously, was that they were so desperate not to harass women you never knew if they were gay or not.

5

The Gramophone Awards took place five days later over a splendid lunch at the Savoy. Record producers and agents in sharp suits gossiped guardedly as they awaited their illustrious artists in the foyer. Women press officers, their shiny highlighted hair and long golden legs belying the severity of their neat black suits, hooked musical big fish out from their pools of admirers and ferried them like children to the right table. The progress was maddeningly slow because it involved so much hugging and hailing on the way.

More hot and famous than anyone, but hidden behind dark glasses, Tristan reached the table of Shepherd Denston, international artists’ agents, virtually unnoticed. He was delighted, however, when his host, Howie Denston, a fawning little creep who ran the London office, informed him that Liberty Productions’ cast for Don Carlos had cleaned up in the awards.

Alpheus P. Shaw, who was playing Philip II — Howie consulted his pocket computer — was Artist of the Year. Glamorous Chloe Catford, the mezzo, who had posed naked on her winning record sleeve, was the People’s Favourite. Solo Vocal had gone to Rozzy Pringle, who was playing Elisabetta’s page, the Opera Award to Hermione, while Early Opera had been awarded to Granville Hastings, who’d been cast as the Grand Inquisitor. Fat Franco’s Italian Love Songs had been voted Best-selling Record. Most prestigious of all, Rannaldini had won Record of the Year.

‘Odd that you all know in advance,’ said Tristan, accepting a glass of Sancerre.

‘Not at all.’ Howie Denston lowered his voice. ‘Singers have such monstrous egos you’d never get them to an award ceremony unless they knew they’d won.’

Nor was it a coincidence that all the cast of Don Carlos — except Fat Franco — were Shepherd Denston artists. This was because Rannaldini had recently wangled himself the chairmanship of the agency. He had therefore ensured that 20 per cent of the vast fees earned by the singers in the film would go back into Shepherd Denston’s pockets.

Howie Denston, known as Mr Margarine because he spread his oily charm so widely over his artists, had now abandoned Tristan and bolted back to the foyer to await Hermione and his new chairman, who were probably having a bonk upstairs and bound to be late. Tristan didn’t mind being left. He was always happy watching people.

Also at the Shepherd Denston table, besides the award winners, was the retiring chairman, who had an ulcer. Next to him sat Serena Westwood, out of pinstripe into clinging scarlet, acting cool towards Tristan, determined to show him what he had missed by not seducing her in Prague.

Rannaldini, who’d done the seating plan, had also sat Serena next to Giuseppe Cavalli, a hunky young bass, who’d be winning awards in a year or two. Giuseppe had been cast as the ghost of the Emperor, Charles V, who appears at the end of the opera and draws his grandson, Carlos, into the safety of the tomb.

No-one was likely to be safe with Giuseppe, who was an unghostly thug with shoulder-length black curls. Given to check shirts tucked into bulging jeans, he had a huge fan mail from women, but was in fact the lover of Granville Hastings, known as ‘Granny’, who could have uncheerfully murdered Rannaldini for continually fixing Giuseppe up with rich single women. Lone parents were even more predatory than loan sharks, reckoned Granny.

Elegant, tall, silver-haired, always exquisitely dressed, Granny appeared a cosy old pussy-cat. Inwardly his heart was breaking. For years he had sung Philip II, the finest bass role in the repertoire, but now, at nearly sixty-four, he had been demoted to the just as difficult but more pantomime villain role of the Grand Inquisitor. As the bigger part, Philip also got the bigger pay cheque, and keeping Giuseppe was very expensive.

Alpheus P. Shaw III, a very successful, self-regarding American bass sitting at the head of the table, was pointedly ignoring Granny because they had just sung Philip and the Inquisitor in the same production in Paris. Granny, supposed to be blind in the part, had totally upstaged Alpheus by bumping into furniture and at one moment, when Alpheus was hitting a ravishing top note, putting his finger into a candle flame and saying, ‘Ouch.’ Alpheus, who had no sense of humour, had been outraged.

A magnificent-looking man, with red-gold hair brushed back from a noble forehead, Alpheus looked as though he’d been carved out of Mount Rushmore. Married twenty years and the father of three fine sons, he was also a stern upholder of family values.

As he forked up a smoked-salmon parcel with his right hand, however, Alpheus’s left hand foraged between the plump, white thighs of Chloe the mezzo. He and Chloe had fallen in love two years ago when they both appeared in Aida. Engagements had separated them, so they had accepted parts in Don Carlos to be together in the long weeks of recording and filming. Alas, Alpheus’s wife, Cheryl, harboured suspicions, and was threatening to join him on location.

The great din of chatter suddenly stopped as Rannaldini stalked in with all the prowling chutzpah of a leopard who has no intention of changing a single spot.

No star in decline wins Record of the Year.

‘It’s God,’ murmured two record executives, as he swept past them.

He was followed by Hermione Harefield, looking slightly flushed. The lunchers giggled as they noticed the jacket of her purple Chanel suit had been wrongly buttoned up.

‘Gangway, gangway for Dame Hermione,’ yelled Howie Denston pummelling aside other late-comers and sycophants, as Hermione glided across the room as stately as the QE2.

‘I so wanted to creep in here anonymously,’ she was saying loudly.

Embracing Tristan, with whom she intended having an affaire on location, kissing Sexton with whom she did not, Hermione totally ignored that upstart Chloe the mezzo, whom she disliked intensely, and Serena, whom she’d not forgiven for sending the wrong flowers, and Granny, who had never treated her with due reverence. Instead she turned to Alpheus, who was going to sing her husband.

‘Your Majesty.’ Hermione curtsied skittishly.

‘Madama,’ replied a bowing Alpheus, equally skittishly as he held her chair for her.

Everyone was very sad Rozzy Pringle, who was playing Elisabetta’s page, hadn’t made the lunch. She was singing Octavian in Budapest, but sent tons of love. Later, a delightedly squirming Howie would accept the Solo Vocal Award on her behalf.

‘Rozzy’s so lovely,’ sighed Chloe, as Alpheus removed his burrowing hand to cut up his chicken Cenerentola. ‘She’s got no ego problem, unlike some.’ She glared at Hermione.

‘I hope,’ Hermione glared back, ‘that Rozzy is not overstretching her voice. I never do more than forty concerts a year.’

‘Why have you never done a Three Sopranos, Dame Hermione?’ asked the retiring chairman, with all the enthusiasm of one who knows he will never have to handle it.

‘There is only one soprano,’ said Alpheus.

Hermione bowed her head. ‘Your Majesty is gracious.’

Conversation kept being interrupted by waiters grinding black pepper and pouring wine and water.

‘Still or fizzy, Dame Hermione?’

‘Still, please.’

‘One would have known that you would choose only something that ran deep like yourself,’ observed Alpheus playfully.

‘Great big plonker,’ muttered Granny.

‘Amen to that,’ said Chloe.

Alpheus was hung like a donkey.

‘Oh, look,’ she nudged Tristan, ‘here’s your leading man.’

Causing howls of mirth by wearing a vast T-shirt saying, ‘I’ve beaten anorexia’, Franco Palmieri, who was playing Carlos, had reached the Megagram table next door. Appropriating four buckling chairs, he waved jauntily at Chloe then scowled at Alpheus, whom he detested even more than Granny did.

‘Fat Franco longs to be the Fourth Tenor,’ Chloe whispered to Tristan, ‘but very sensibly the others won’t let that conniving shit near them. Don’t worry,’ she added, as she picked the fruit out of her glazed apricot tart, ‘hatred always produces incredible sexual chemistry.’

‘I prefer happy team,’ protested Tristan.

‘With Rannaldini as team leader?’ asked Chloe incredulously. ‘They say his dagger follows close upon his smiles.’

‘He is very great friend,’ said Tristan coldly.

‘Good, perhaps you’ll have a benign influence on him.’

Tristan was heartbreaking, Chloe decided. Those bruised eyes seemed to read her soul. ‘I’m sorry about your father,’ she added. ‘The funeral must have been harrowing. Claudine Lauzerte looked stunning.’

‘She did.’

But even Claudine’s divine presence had not distracted a paparazzi frantic to find out, among other things, why Rannaldini (in even more built-up shoes so as not to be dwarfed by Tristan’s three tall brothers) had carried the coffin.

Noticing Tristan’s hands clamped to his thighs to stop them shaking, Chloe said gently, ‘When I got my first Amneris at the ENO, I splurged on one of your father’s drawings.’

‘He would have loved painting you.’ Tristan found he could say it without too much pain. Chloe couldn’t have been prettier, he decided, very French, in fact. Her straw-coloured bob had a thick fringe, which emphasized permanently smiling, slightly dissipated eyes. Tristan had also noticed long slim legs and a black cashmere bosom, arching like a purring furry cat inside her dove-grey suit.

Glancing up, her eyes widened and held his for longer than necessary. She would be perfect to screw on location, he thought, but since Étienne’s death his libido seemed to have gone into hibernation. He knew he had snubbed Serena the other night, and would have to put in a lot of spadework if she wasn’t going to act up during the recording. Idly he noticed Chloe putting Sweetex into Alpheus’s cup of coffee, and wondered if they were having an affaire.

‘Carlos loved his granddad, Charles V, like Prince Charles loves the Queen Mum,’ Sexton was telling Granny’s boyfriend, Giuseppe, who had sunk nearly two bottles of red and was still flirting with Serena in the hope of a fat record contract.

At last Rannaldini had reached the table. Wafting ‘Maestro’, his famous scent, created specially for him by Givenchy, longing to goad all the male members of his cast that in Mikhail Pezcherov he had discovered the greatest bass baritone of the age, he immediately insisted that everyone swap places.

‘It is crazy,’ grumbled Tristan, who was now next to Granny, ‘Giuseppe, who is twenty-eight like me, is playing not only Alpheus’s father, but Fat Franco’s grandfather, and he must be half Franco’s age.’

‘That’s opera for you,’ said Granny, in his beautiful voice. ‘Although no stretch of the imagination would go round Franco’s waist these days.’

‘Have you met Rupert Campbell-Black?’ asked Tristan.

‘I would walk naked across the Arctic Circle for a touch of his nether lip,’ sighed Granny.

‘He thinks Don Carlos can’t work with Hermione and Franco.’

‘Then you’d better stamp your pretty foot and replace them, my dear.’

Hermione had finished her third helping of apricot tart when everyone was asked to toast the Queen.

‘Most people oughta be drinking to themselves,’ muttered Sexton. ‘Never seen such a bunch of fairies.’

A roll of drums, and the awards started. Having accepted his gold statuette of a harpist, Alpheus proceeded to thank everyone, from the sound engineer to his wife Cheryl, his fine sons and Mr Bones, his German shepherd, ending with Mozart who had, after all, composed the music.

‘How very caring.’ Hermione clapped vigorously. ‘I’m much looking forward to working with Alpheus.’

She was irritated that it was too dark, except on the platform, for everyone to see how lovely she was looking. Tristan de Montigny was lovely-looking too, and even seemed to be getting on with that acid-tongued Granny. As well as an affaire, Hermione was looking forward to having many in-depth conversations about herself with Tristan.

Rannaldini was table-hopping again. Posing for the Daily Express with David Mellor, he smirkingly fingered the carpet burns on his knees and elbows, acquired while seducing Serena Westwood in her new office last night. It had made him feel like a schoolboy.

‘I’ll have her but I’ll not keep her long,’ he murmured, blowing Serena a kiss across the tables. Just long enough to control her during the recording so that she used exactly the takes he wanted.

There was a great cheer as the newly married Viking O’Neill, golden boy and first horn of the Rutminster Symphony Orchestra, who had hit Rannaldini across the room after the Appleton piano competition, sauntered up to collect his award for his recording of the Strauss concertos.

‘What a beauty,’ murmured Granny, putting on his spectacles.

‘If Polygram’ll release him, I want him to play first horn in Don Carlos,’ whispered Serena.

‘Ladies and gentlemen.’ A grinning Viking seized the microphone. ‘Once upon a time, three dogs took part in an intelligence test at Crufts. They had to arrange a pile of bones in the best shape. The first dog who came in was an architect. He looked at the bones, built a pretty little house and everyone clapped and clapped.

‘The next dog was a town planner,’ went on Viking, in his soft Irish accent, ‘who scoffed at the dog architect’s little house, knocked it down, and rebuilt the bones as a beautiful town. Everyone clapped even more. Finally, the third dog came in. He was a tenor, and he ate all the bones, shagged the other two dogs and asked for the afternoon off.’

Such screams of laughter greeted this joke that Viking could hardly be heard thanking his record producer, the orchestra and his divine new wife, the conductor Abigail Rosen, which brought even more resounding cheers.

Returning to the Polygram table, Viking disappeared into the vast congratulatory embrace of Fat Franco on his way back from a grope or a toot or some other mischief. For a second, Franco pretended to box Viking’s ears for making snide jokes about tenors, then the two men put their heads together until Franco gave a bellow of laughter.

Seeing his chosen Don Carlos collapse on to his four gold chairs again, scooping up petit fours as though they were Smarties, Rannaldini shouted rudely: ‘Unless you give up sweet things, Franco, you’ll never get into Charles V’s tomb.’

‘You no give them up,’ shouted back Franco. ‘Viking tell me how you sail through air like dashing elderly gent on flying trapeze and flatten sweet trolley and member of Arts Council.’

You wait, vowed Rannaldini, as the roars of laughter subsided. I’ll cook your goose before you’ve had time to stuff your gross belly with it.

At the announcement that Chloe had won the People’s Award, the entire room rose cheering to its feet, except Hermione.

‘I am clapped so often that I am not used to clapping,’ she told Alpheus, as he returned, brandishing his award.

As Chloe, in her discreet dove-grey suit, reached the platform, a huge blow-up of her naked on the sleeve of her prize-winning record appeared, to even louder roars of applause, on the monitor.

As Serena put her hand on Giuseppe’s crotch, he fell into the petit fours.

‘Best place for him — young people need their sleep,’ said Granny, who was feeling much happier after a long chat with Tristan. The boy was too sweet for words and had wonderfully revolutionary views on playing the Grand Inquisitor.

‘Are you ready, Dame Hermione?’ asked one of the Identikit press officers, as vast illuminated olive-green letters announced the Opera Award of the Year.

‘This is the big one,’ said Hermione, whipping out her powder compact.

Meanwhile, losing no time for revenge — after all, Franco wasn’t a Shepherd Denston artist so they wouldn’t lose 20 per cent of his massive fee — Rannaldini was talking in an undertone to Howie Denston. ‘Do you know anything about a tenor called Baby Spinosissimo?’

‘Making waves in Australia, heartbreaking looks, I’ll check out his availability. And by the way,’ Howie lowered his voice, ‘we’ve got to watch Alpheus. He tried to get Liberty Productions, American Bravo and Shepherd Denston each to pick up the tab…’

‘You will ensure cash settlements for Dame Hermione,’ interrupted Rannaldini, as his mistress mounted the rostrum.

‘Good people,’ began Hermione, but alas, Rannaldini’s mobile had rung.

‘Tabitha is home, Maestro,’ said Clive, his leather-clad bodyguard, silkily.

Rannaldini leapt to his feet. ‘I ’ave to go,’ he told the astounded table.

‘But what about your award?’ cried an aghast Howie.

‘You accept eet,’ said Rannaldini blithely. ‘A family problem come up. I call you,’ he shouted to Tristan.

‘Most of all I would like to thank Maestro Rannaldini.’ Hermione wiped away a tear.

But she had lost her audience, as every eye followed Rannaldini out of the room.

6

Rannaldini could hardly fly his helicopter home for excitement. Would days of riding out in all weather have coarsened Tabitha’s amazing beauty? Would being fired so ignominiously have tempered her extraordinary arrogance, her capacity for rage?

Evidently not. Rannaldini entered the west courtyard through ancient gates, optimistically crowned with rusty iron letters spelling the words omnia vincit amor. Sprinting up a mossy, paved path, flanked by lavender bushes, and pushing open the heavy oak door he found Helen spitting with fury. Tabitha was showing no contrition at all. Halting her mother in mid-lecture, she had snapped that she hadn’t flown five thousand miles for an earful and sloped off to the yard to settle The Engineer for the night.

‘Now she’s attacking the vodka,’ spluttered Helen. ‘We’ve clearly got a lush on our hands — Rupert always drank too much. And after over a year away she didn’t even peck me on the cheek.’

‘Where is she?’ demanded Rannaldini.

‘In the Blue Living Room.’

The Blue Living Room, an upstairs drawing room, which everyone else at Valhalla still called the Red Morning Room, had just been redecorated by Helen at vast expense in soft blues and rusts to complement her own hazel-eyed, red-headed beauty. The orange flames dancing merrily in the grate and the last tawny leaves on the beech outside enhanced the effect. Rannaldini’s Étienne de Montignys and Russell Flints had been banished in favour of an autumnal watermill by Samuel Palmer, and a Canaletto of sea-blue Venice. An embracing Cupid and Psyche by Canova provided the only erotic note.

Tabitha sat slumped in a carved brown chair, which was Rannaldini’s only contribution to the room, watching Wallace and Gromit on television. She was wearing frayed jeans and a Stop Puppy Farming T-shirt. A green toggle clung to her wrist like mistletoe. She was very thin — probably from taking those mad mood-inducing slimming pills to keep her weight down.

Her face was deathly pale, the long turquoise eyes bloodshot and heavily shadowed, the long nose reddened, the mouth clamped round clenched teeth in an attempt not to cry. White-blonde hair, used to being washed every day, hung lank and greasy to her collarbone. She was clutching a yellow Labrador puppy as though it were a hot-water bottle.

‘Where d’you get that animal?’ asked Rannaldini sternly.

‘Sharon? She was a stray, wandering round the docks.’

Rannaldini clicked his tongue. ‘Have you alerted the quarantine authorities?’

Tab’s eyes darkened in terror.

‘Please don’t betray me. I couldn’t leave her in Kentucky.’

Rannaldini, who was never too hot, put a log on the fire.

‘How d’you fiddle it?’

‘I came through France. There’s a boat smuggling in thirty dogs a day. The Engineer and I had to wait as it only sails when there’s no moon.’

‘How long have you been travelling?’

‘Four or five days.’

Rannaldini filled up her glass.

‘Naughty little girl,’ he said softly, taking Sharon and examining her. ‘Certainly she doesn’t look rabid.’

He dropped the puppy gently on the floor.

‘How can we punish you?’ he purred.

‘The American Horse Show Association’s done that already, for Christ’s sake.’

‘So they should have done. Risking the life of that beautiful horse I gave you.’

‘Engie’s fine, I promise you.’

Tab’s light, clipped drawl was so like her father’s. Every time he heard it, Rannaldini was excited by how much he could hurt Rupert by controlling and manipulating her. Moving round the room, only pausing to run an admiring hand over Psyche’s marble bottom, he pressed a button on the back of Tab’s chair. She gasped then screamed, as its wings suddenly clamped round her waist, trapping her.

‘What the fuck — lemme go!’ Fighting tears, she clawed fruitlessly at the imprisoning wooden arms, until she nearly pulled the chair over.

‘It’s a debtor’s chair,’ mocked Rannaldini, as he closed in on her. ‘Eighteenth century. Used to trap debtors like you. I’ve been looking for one for ages. You owe me two grand for your journey home, remember.’

‘I’ll pay you back.’ Tabitha flinched away.

When she could retreat no further, she allowed his fingers to caress her cheek for a second, then dropped her head like a snowdrop.

‘My father’s such a bastard.’

Rannaldini shrugged.

‘Maybe he’s pleased Marcus is gay. Probably never wanted a son competing with him.’

Having left pawmarks all over Helen’s pale blue Regency sofa, Sharon was now attacking a cushion Helen had embroidered of a virgin and a unicorn. Neither Tab nor Rannaldini took any notice.

Rupert’s remark about gaining a daughter when Marcus had shacked up with Nemerovsky had been the one that had hurt her most, confessed Tab.

‘He’s got a daughter, for Christ’s sake.’

‘And what a daughter,’ said Rannaldini lovingly.

‘I want to make him madder than he’s ever been before.’

‘Let’s find something really to worry him.’

Rannaldini moved fast. With his Polaroid memory, he had not forgotten four and a half years ago, his leading jockey, Isaac Lovell, and Tabitha exchanging an impassioned eye-meet in the paddock before the Rutminster Cup. Isaac had been riding Rannaldini’s vicious but generally victorious horse The Prince of Darkness, who’d fallen at the last fence. Tabitha had been the groom looking after Arthur, a big grey gelding, trained by her father, Rupert.

Tragically Arthur had died of a massive heart-attack, way ahead of the field but just the wrong side of the winning-post. Slumped sobbing over Arthur’s body, Tabitha had been too distraught to feel the hand of sympathy Isaac Lovell had dropped on her shoulder as he led home the unhurt but shaken Prince of Darkness.

The Campbell-Blacks and the Lovells had been feuding for nearly forty years, since Rupert had bullied Jake at prep school for being the cook’s son and a gypsy with a wasted leg. Gyppo Jake and Rupert had slogged it out on the international show-jumping circuit throughout the seventies, with Jake finally getting his revenge during the Los Angeles Olympics by running off with Rupert’s then wife Helen.

Later Jake had returned to his wife, Tory, Helen had eventually married Rannaldini, Jake and Rupert had both switched to training, but their feud had not abated. One reason, apart from loathing Rannaldini, why Rupert had disinherited Tabitha and Marcus was because photographs had appeared of both of them smiling at Jake Lovell, who as the Maestro’s trainer had been a witness at Rannaldini’s wedding to Helen.

If Helen and Jake had once fallen so passionately in love, reflected Rannaldini, might not history repeat itself? By a delicious coincidence, Isa Lovell was coming to lunch tomorrow, which would give Tab a decent night’s sleep.

Unhampered by scruples, Rannaldini didn’t give a stuff that Isa was already living just outside Melbourne with a tough little tomboy called Martie. They had invested in a yard that had done brilliantly its first season but which still needed capital. For this reason, Isa had come home to make serious money in the National Hunt season and also to help his father, Jake, now increasingly debilitated by the polio he’d had as a child. Rannaldini had several horses in training with Jake, and had invited Isa over to try out two mares he had bought in France and to plan for the future.

As usual Rannaldini had another motive. During the winter in Melbourne, Isa had won three of Australia’s biggest races, including their Grand National, for Baby Spinosissimo, the young tenor, whom Rupert had suggested should play Don Carlos. Isa would know if Baby was sufficiently broke to accept the part for a quarter of Fat Franco’s fee.

There was nothing youthful about Isa Lovell. Money had always been tight when he was a child: at six he was helping in the yard and jumping at shows, at eight coping with very public trouble in his parents’ marriage, and his mother’s attempted suicide. Despite having been champion jockey three times, he was aware at twenty-six that he would soon have to support his parents, and was therefore considering moving into training.

Isa had trendily tousled black hair, lowering black brows, and slanting, suspicious dark eyes dominating a pale, expressionless face. He looked like the second murderer in Macbeth and had a Birmingham accent you could cut with a flick-knife. But at five foot eight, he was tall for a jockey, with an undeniable brooding gypsy glamour. Not above dirty tricks on the course, where he was nicknamed the Black Cobra, he was as arrogant as Tabitha and, as champion jockey, had had his pick of the girls.

After fourteen hours’ sleep, a long, scented bath and a raid on her mother’s bedroom Tab, unaware Isa was coming to lunch, wandered into the Blue Living Room. She reeked of Helen’s favourite scent, Jolie Madame. She was wearing Helen’s new dark green cashmere polo-neck, which turned her turquoise eyes almost emerald. Her newly washed hair flopped arctic blonde over her white forehead, as she sidled over to the drinks tray to get stuck into the vodka.

‘That is not a suitable breakfast and that’s my roll-neck,’ began Helen furiously.

‘Shut up,’ murmured Rannaldini, but with such venom that any further reproach froze on Helen’s lips. ‘We have a guest. Tabitha, my dear, I don’t think you’ve met Isaac Lovell.’

Tab halted, tossing her head so haughtily Isa could see up the nostrils of her long Greek nose and the curling blonde underside of her lashes. But as he breathed in her scent, he was so unaccountably overwhelmed by foreboding that he found himself trembling.

Tab in turn saw a young man as dark and narrow as the gallows, and as still as the embracing Cupid and Psyche on the plinth beside him. His eyes were filled with hostility and in his hand was a glass of tomato juice as blood red as the feud between the two families.

‘What the hell’s he doing here?’ she demanded in outrage.

‘Discussing my horses,’ said Rannaldini.

Everyone jumped as the door crashed open and a furiously growling Sharon the Labrador backed into the room frantically worrying a sheepskin slipper. Hanging on to the other end, growling equally loudly but looking more sheepish than the slipper because he knew the drawing rooms were out of bounds, was Tabloid, Rannaldini’s senior Rottweiler.

‘Get them out of here,’ screamed Helen, as a rose-garlanded Chelsea bowl circa 1763 smashed into a hundred pieces. ‘You know those uncontrollable brutes aren’t allowed in the house.’

‘How did he get in, then?’ spat Tab, scowling at Isa.

‘Don’t be so goddam rude,’ shouted Helen.

Ignoring such brawling, Isa picked up Rannaldini’s Times and turned to the racing pages.

Lunch was predictably unrelaxed. Isa, who had the conversational skills of a Trappist monk, who had never visited Sydney Opera House or seen the Nolans and the Boyds in any of the art galleries, and who had never forgiven Helen for nearly destroying his parents’ marriage, turned his back on her and talked horses with Rannaldini. Watching his weight, he drank only Perrier, picked the bits of lobster out of the delectable mango and shellfish salad and had no tartare sauce or vegetables with his Dover sole. Tab just drank vodka and, horrified she was so violently attracted to Isa, disagreed with everything he said. Rannaldini watched them in delight, an evil smile flickering over his lips like a snake’s tongue.

After lunch Rannaldini, Isa and Tabitha rode the new French horses and the dappled-grey Engineer round Paradise. Tab, who had put on a blue baseball cap and an indigo bomber jacket, with ‘Can’t Catch Me’ printed on the back, proceeded to show off, executing dressage steps as gracefully as a ballerina, jumping huge fences and five-bar gates, beating Isa easily as they thundered down the long ride past Valhalla lake.

Passing the gates leading to Hermione’s beautiful mill, River House, Tabitha noticed her fiendish son Little Cosmo Harefield touting for a ‘fiver for the guy’, who looked surprisingly like Rannaldini’s fearsome PA, Miss Bussage.

‘What’s that obnoxious brat doing at home?’ she asked, knowing perfectly well that Little Cosmo was Rannaldini’s son. ‘I thought he’d gone to prep school.’

‘Cosmo has been suspended for bullying.’

Tab was shocked by the pride in Rannaldini’s voice.

‘Like son like father,’ she said disapprovingly.

Rannaldini laughed.

On the village green, parents and children were happily building a huge bonfire. As the horses clattered down Paradise High Street, lights were coming on in the cottages. Seeing people companionably having tea and watching television, Tab was overcome with longing for Penscombe.

‘What date is it?’ she asked.

‘October the thirtieth,’ said Isa.

‘It’s Daddy’s birthday tomorrow,’ she said bleakly.

Mist was rising from the river as they turned right towards Valhalla. The house itself was hidden by its great conspirator’s cloak of woods, but ahead in a dense copse known as Hangman’s Wood, they caught a glimpse of Rannaldini’s watch-tower.

The roar of a tractor taking hay to Rannaldini’s horses was accompanied by deep complaining from the rooks. An early owl hooted. In the dusk, Tab kept losing sight of Sharon the Labrador as the dog plunged into a stream choked by leaves as yellow as herself.

Entering Rannaldini’s estate down a little-used back lane, The Engineer stopped, and trembled violently, sweat blackening his dappled coat, his big brave eyes rolling. Even when Isa and Rannaldini rode on ahead, he refused to follow them between two gnarled oaks into a tree tunnel in which blackthorn, hazel and hawthorn intertwined overhead like a guard of honour.

In sympathy with The Engineer, Sharon raised her hackles and yapped, and when shouted at by Tab, rammed her tail between her legs, and howled.

Even when Tab uncharacteristically laid into The Engineer with her whip because she was so humiliated he was napping in front of Isa, the horse wouldn’t go forward. Finally he backed, terrified, into a rusty barbed-wire fence, entangling his hind legs.

Only Isa’s lightning reactions, leaping from his mare, chucking his reins to Rannaldini, gently talking to The Engineer as he calmly set him free, avoided a hideous accident.

‘Could have severed a fetlock, you stupid bitch,’ he swore at Tab as he bound up the horse’s leg with a red-spotted handkerchief.

Tab, who’d also jumped down, couldn’t stop shaking and had to lean against an equally shaking Engineer for support. After he’d given her a leg back up, Isa handed her Sharon to hold.

‘The little one’s gone far enough. Better carry her home.’

‘Let’s go back through the main gates,’ said Rannaldini, swinging his horse round.

The setting sun had emerged from beneath a curtain of dark grey cloud, firing the puddles, warming the swirling silver spectres of old man’s beard. As they swished home through the wet leaves, Isa lit a cigarette and drew deeply on it. Then, as Tab’s hands were full of reins and Sharon, he held it to her lips for a couple of puffs, letting his fingers rest for a second against her cold face.

‘Few horses like that lane,’ observed Rannaldini idly. ‘Sir Charles Beddoes, a previous owner, got so bored with the local blacksmith visiting his young wife Caroline, he rearranged the old man’s beard cables between the two oaks. Then he surprised the lovers in bed. Escaping on his horse down the back lane, the blacksmith rode straight into the cables and — snap — they broke his neck.

‘Over the years many villagers have heard the clattering of his horse’s hoofs or seen him hanging above the road at twilight.’ Rannaldini’s smile was satanic in the half light. ‘Sometimes on winter evenings at Valhalla you can hear poor Caroline sobbing for her lost love, or see her wandering the passages in a bloodstained grey dress.’

‘A fashionable colour for ghosts,’ said Isa sardonically, but he crossed himself quickly and spat on the tarmac, as they turned into the Paradise — Cheltenham road.

‘Maybe,’ said Rannaldini, ‘but the trail of her little footprints comes through locked doors leaving marks on the flagstones.’

‘Why the hell did you take us that way, then?’ yelled Tab. Then, slipping all over the wet leaves, endangering both her horse’s and her puppy’s lives, she galloped back to the stables.

Once the vet had given The Engineer the OK, Tab retreated along endlessly twisting dark passages to her bedroom, refusing any supper, tempted to drown herself as she soaked in a hot bath, sobbing helplessly like Caroline Beddoes as she waited in dread for the sound of Isa’s departing car.

7

Valhalla was full of priest-holes and secret passages, known only to Rannaldini and Clive, his leather-clad bodyguard. Rooms on all levels enabled people to peer out of the small mullioned windows through the creepers into other people’s bedrooms. Not trusting Rannaldini, Tab drew her tattered crimson damask bedroom curtains that covered the window overlooking the courtyard but left open the others so that she could gaze south over the quiet starlit valley.

Valhalla had been a royalist stronghold during the Civil War. On one of the mullions was carved the head of a cavalier — probably Prince Rupert of the Rhine. Running her fingers over his long hair and proud, patrician face, Tabitha wished he’d gallop down the centuries on his charger and whisk her away from all this confusion.

From the Summer Drawing Room directly below her bedroom she could hear the distant rumble of Rannaldini’s voice, and longed to gaze at Isa through a crack in the floorboards.

Used to owners banging on, Isa was only pretending to listen to Rannaldini’s post-mortem about why The Prince of Darkness had only won by four lengths at Chepstow. To take his mind off Tabitha, he was deliberately pondering on a small, lazy chestnut two-year-old called Peppy Koala, which he’d seen last week in Australia — or, rather, not seen because, frightened by a snake on the gallops, the colt had flashed past him faster than light.

Peppy Koala’s owner, a tycoon called Mr Brown, had no idea of the colt’s potential. Isa didn’t ride horses for the flat, but he reckoned he’d found a Guineas, possibly a Triple Crown winner. If tipped off, Rannaldini would certainly pay for the colt, and its fare to England, but would then want total glory and control. He was a difficult, demanding owner.

Unfortunately Baby Spinosissimo, the Australian tenor, who let Isa do what he liked, had run out of money. It couldn’t be long before someone else sussed the colt’s potential. Rupert was also serenading Baby. The racing world was a bloody jungle.

Isa was brought back to earth at the sound of Tabitha’s name. Rannaldini was saying idly that he was thinking of settling a very large sum of money on her.

It wouldn’t be worth it, Isa told himself. Too much blood had flowed under the bridge and, being superstitious, he couldn’t defy that feeling of foreboding when Tabitha had entered the room that morning. As Rannaldini fetched the brandy decanter, Isa glanced at a letter on a nearby desk:

Dear Dame Hermione

I am sorry to suspend your son, Cosmo, but we cannot allow bullying, particularly of a much younger boy. Xavier Campbell-Black is only six and a half, a plucky little lad, who has settled in as a day-boy extremely well. The fact that he is black makes the whole business even more reprehensible. I hope ten days at home will give Cosmo the chance to reflect upon his actions.

That was poetic justice, thought Isa sourly. Rupert had bullied Isa’s father at school. Now Rupert’s adopted son was getting a taste of his father’s medicine.

‘Tell me all about Baby Spinosissimo,’ said Rannaldini, filling up Isa’s glass.

Later they went out on to the terrace to admire the winter stars, which Isa knew well, as he had to rise most mornings several hours before it was light. A small silver moon was sailing up from the east. As Isa breathed in the smell of moulding leaves and woodsmoke, Orion and his dog stars blazed down as beautiful, solitary and icily imperious as Tabitha. And, like the little silver moon, how much light she cast around her!

The chapel clock tolled midnight. Tab turned her sodden pillow. Oh, why had she left the latest Dick Francis downstairs? The front door banged. Isa was gone. She gave a wail of despair. But hearing distant steps on the flagstones, she hastily turned off her light, in case Rannaldini was on the prowl.

The footsteps, slow and deliberate, were coming up the stairs, getting closer and closer. In a moment of panic she felt sure she heard the door of the empty spare room next door stealthily opening and closing. As the boards creaked outside her heart stopped.

It must be Rannaldini. She wanted to scream, but who would hear, with her mother locked in Mogadon-induced stupor at the other end of the wing? Sharon, asleep on the bed, was no protection.

The floorboards creaked again, as if someone were deliberating. Then there was a knock.

‘Who is it?’ gasped Tab.

Shutting the door behind him, Isa leant against it. In the moonlight his eyes were a skull’s black hollows. ‘I’ve been brought up to hate the name of Campbell-Black,’ he said wearily, ‘but I can’t help myself. You are the most desirable…’

But he didn’t have time to finish. Tab had belted across the room, tripping over a still unpacked suitcase into his arms.

‘You’re as verboten as a cream bun in a health farm,’ she gabbled, ‘but I can’t help myself either.’

For a second, he put his hands round her white throat, so slender that he could have snapped it in an instant, telling himself he could still escape. But her breath, which came in little gasps, smelt so sweet and her mouth, shyly testing his, was so soft, that he found himself gently sliding his tongue between her perfect white teeth.

But it was the last gentle thing he did. Sharon must have thought one of the blacksmith’s oaks had landed on her as they collapsed onto the bed. Ripping off Tab’s striped pyjamas, scattering the buttons of his shirt, jamming the zip of his jeans, leaving on just his gypsy earrings to ward off evil, Isa appreciated her true beauty only when he held her naked and quivering in his arms. Kissing, often biting his way downwards, he found a little seahorse tattooed just below her left breast.

‘You’re in for a bumpy ride, fellow,’ he whispered mockingly, as his exploring fingers crept between Tab’s legs.

‘Oh, bliss, you mustn’t, oh, please go on,’ gasped Tab, then, worried that he might be bored by such a wonderful but extended foreplay, ‘Oh, please come inside me.’

As Isa brought her to extremes of pleasure with the same pelvic thrusts that drove winners past the post, she knew exactly why he had been nicknamed the Black Cobra. It was as though constant lightning were being unleashed from his body, and she never seemed to dry up, as if a Cotswold spring was constantly bubbling between her legs. As their breathing grew quicker and the four-poster creaked like an old tree in a high wind, she thought she had never known lovemaking like it.

As he watched them through the two-way mirror, which kept misting up, Rannaldini realized he had never seen anything like it either. Silvered by moonlight, they were so transported by their passion, it was as though Canova’s Cupid and Psyche had sprung to white-hot life: constantly changing positions, they coupled with snakelike frenzy.

Now Isa was kissing one of Tab’s small, amazingly high breasts, biting the nipple until she cried out. Now he was lying sideways his dark head and stabbing tongue buried in her blonde pubic hair as simultaneously her lips and tongue teased and caressed his cock, which Rannaldini was furious to confess looked bigger than his own. At least the little blighter couldn’t hold out much longer.

But, exulting in his control, Isa drew himself out as proudly as Excalibur. Then swivelling round, he plunged inside her once more, his pale murderer’s face triumphant, his hips a juddering blur. Only when Tab arched, went rigid then cried out, did he finally let himself come, kissing in ecstasy her long white throat, her damp forehead, her loving mouth, as for a fleeting moment his defences were down.

Frantically wiping a peephole in the steamed-up mirror, Rannaldini thought he would explode — and did. He must install a video camera so he could gloat for hours over the playback. Reluctantly he had to admit that Isa was as good at riding women as he was horses.

‘I love you,’ mumbled Tabitha, when Isa finally removed his mouth from hers.

‘Thank God you’ve washed off that bloody awful perfume.’

‘It’s Mummy’s. Jolie Madame. She never wore anything else until this summer when she switched to Organza so I thought I’d help her use up the old stuff.’

In horror Isa realized he must have smelt the same scent on his father, when Jake had come upstairs to tuck him in after stolen meetings with Helen.

‘Never wear it again,’ he snapped, and rolled off her on to his back.

‘Buy me something else, then. God, you’re a revelation, I’ve always been soixante-nervous before, but with you it was unbelievable.’

Isa couldn’t believe it had happened. How could he have betrayed his parents like that?

‘I’d better go,’ he said.

Hearing the rusty creak of drawbridges being pulled up, fighting desolation, Tab scooped a drowsy Sharon into the warm place left by his body. Then she caught sight of the bedside clock. ‘It’s October the thirty-first now,’ she said insolently. ‘Happy birthday, Daddy. Sleeping with the enemy is the worst present I could give him.’

Isa glowered down at her, his arms trapping her like the debtor’s chair. ‘Is that why you went to bed with me?’ he hissed.

‘Not entirely,’ said Tab.

For the next week, they devoured each other, making love in the hayloft, on the wet autumn leaves, knowing they were playing with fire but unable to stop themselves. Aware of the difference in their backgrounds and temperaments, Isa was the more detached of the two. But within three weeks Tab was pregnant.

Isa, who had a strong sense of dynasty and a smouldering eye for the main chance, hoped that Rannaldini would settle money on her as hinted, and insisted they got married. There was no way a possible Lovell heir was going to be terminated. Anyway he couldn’t get enough of Tab.

But he was worried sick about Martie, his Australian girlfriend, to whom, in explanation of his absence, he had considerably exaggerated Jake’s illness. In junking her and consorting with the devil-led Campbell-Blacks, had he lost all his principles?

Terrified of trapping him, Tab would willingly have had an abortion.

‘I’ve never looked after a man,’ she gibbered. ‘I’ll probably give you hay for dinner.’ But she loved him so passionately, she was only too happy to get married.

Events were much bowled along by Rannaldini, who not only agreed to pay for the wedding, which — because of his overflowing diary — could take place only on a late afternoon in the middle of December, but also offered them his latest purchase, Magpie Cottage, just across the valley, rent-free.

Helen had mixed feelings. Tab could have done infinitely better and it would mean the press raking up her affaire with Isa’s father, Jake, but she’d enjoy showing everyone at the wedding how much better she looked than Tory, the wife Jake had gone back to. She must book in for a few days at Champney’s.

Finally there was undeniable pleasure in how much the whole thing would enrage Rupert, and at least it meant that Tab, who had draped a banana skin on Psyche’s head only that morning, would move out. And Rannaldini wouldn’t run after her any more if she married Isa, who looked capable of knifing any competition — or so Helen thought.

8

Meanwhile, rehearsals for Don Carlos were supposed to have started in a defunct WI hall in North London. Tristan, however, grew increasingly frustrated when all his stars, headed by Fat Franco who was singing Otello at La Scala, failed to turn up. This meant that poor Mikhail, whose hotel bill was being picked up by Liberty Productions, had no-one to rehearse with except his voice coach, who found it a great strain having to squawk Hermione’s and Chloe’s parts, let alone growling like an old bear pretending to be Alpheus. The reason for this mass absenteeism was that top singers hate rehearsing because they don’t get paid for it. ‘Why should we roll up because Mikhail Pezcherov hasn’t sung the part in English before?’ they chorused. ‘We’re only going to be reading our parts at the recording anyway, and could be whizzing round the world avoiding tax and making fortunes elsewhere.’

‘Franco and I never met when we did Tristan and Isolde,’ protested Hermione, on a very crackly call from a Florida beach. ‘I just put on cans and recorded the entire opera from the orchestral track.’

‘That’s why it was so lifeless and boring,’ yelled a furious Tristan, but Hermione had hung up.

Tristan also spent a lot of time on the telephone shouting at Rannaldini.

‘How the fuck can I direct individual rehearsals when there aren’t any individuals to direct?’

‘I am shocked at them all,’ lied Rannaldini, and to placate Tristan, he invited him down to Valhalla the following Saturday. ‘Then we iron out every problem. I also invite that Australian tenor, Baby Spinosissimo,’ Rannaldini added airily. ‘He’s coming down to see his jockey, Isa Lovell, who by an extraordinary coincidence happens to be my jockey. Why don’t you drive down together?’

Rannaldini rubbed his hands in glee. What frisson it would add if Tristan, and particularly Baby, were present at the wedding! Thank goodness, Clive, his bodyguard, had discovered that on the big day Rupert would be out of the country with his son Xavier.

Poor Xav had not only had to endure Cosmo’s horrible bullying. Rupert had also found his little son sobbing his heart out because he’d been scrubbing his face for hours trying to get it as white as Rupert’s. Rupert had struggled not to weep too. Instead he decided to give Xavier some sense of identity by taking him back to Colombia. Here, Xav could meet the nuns in the Bogotá convent in which he’d spent his first two years, and see something of the ravishing surrounding countryside. Taggie, Rupert’s wife, and Bianca, Xav’s younger sister, would have gone as well if Bianca hadn’t caught measles.

At midnight on the eve of the wedding, therefore, an unsuspecting Taggie was at Penscombe, filling up the deep freeze for Christmas. Bianca, whose temperature was down, was fast asleep upstairs. The six dogs, except for Gertrude the mongrel who always kept an eye open for scraps, slept in their baskets. Two huge moussakas for the staff party were complete, except for the cheese topping which was bubbling on the Aga.

Having laid the big scrubbed table for the grooms’ and jockeys’ breakfast tomorrow, Taggie had left space at the end to wrestle with her Christmas cards. Very dyslexic, she found proper names a nightmare. She was dickering over whether to send a card to Rupert’s ex-wife, Helen, to heal the breach, and make it easier for Rupert to see Tabitha again, but she wasn’t sure how to spell ‘Rannaldini’. Hearing the strange strangulated croak of a fox’s bark she glanced out of the window. A car was lighting up the trees as it sped along the opposite side of Rupert’s valley when the telephone rang.

Oh, bliss, it must be Rupert. He hated her working late. She must remember to sound sleepy.

‘Is that Taggie?’ asked a slurred voice, so like Rupert’s. ‘Look, I’m getting married to Isa Lovell at five o’clock tomorrow — no, today. Will you come? I’d like some family there, apart from Mummy.’

‘Oh, no, Tab, you can’t.’ Taggie collapsed in horror on the window-seat.

Tab burst into tears. It was several moments before Taggie could elicit the fact that her stepdaughter was having Isa’s baby and Rannaldini, being angelic, had masterminded the wedding and that Tab was madly in love with Isa.

‘But he’s so busy race-riding five days a week and helping Jake’ — at the dreaded name, Taggie jumped as though she’d been stung — ‘with his yard that I don’t see much of him. He doesn’t need me as much as I need him.’

As Tabitha was obviously getting cold feet, Taggie beseeched her to postpone the wedding.

‘You don’t have to marry him, darling. Have the baby here. We’ll all help you look after it.’

‘Daddy wouldn’t allow that,’ sobbed Tab.

‘Of course he would. It’ll kill him, Tab. Anyone else but Isa! You know how he feels about the Lovells — and not having the wedding at Penscombe will break his heart. He was just about to ring you and make it up.’

‘Put him on, then,’ demanded Tab.

‘He’s in Bogotá with Xav.’

Immediately, Taggie knew she’d said the wrong thing, as Tab, who was as jealous of Xavier and Bianca as she was of Marcus, slammed down the telephone.

A disgusting smell of burnt cheese sauce brought Taggie back to earth, as Gertrude the mongrel wandered over stiffly and laid her head on her mistress’s knee. ‘Oh, Gertrude, what am I going to do?’ sobbed Taggie.

‘Is your name really Spinosissimo?’ asked Tristan, as he edged his navy blue Aston on to the M4.

‘Course not,’ said Baby. ‘I got it out of a rose catalogue. My real name’s Brian Smith. But you can’t have Smith alongside the Pavarottis and Domingos on a record sleeve.’

Outrageous, incredibly glamorous, Baby Spinosissimo had burnt-sienna curls, thickly lashed debauched grey eyes, a beaky little nose and a pouting, but wickedly determined, mouth. Slightly plump already, he finished a whole box of Quality Street on the way down, chucking his sweet papers out of the window. He also spent a lot of time on Tristan’s telephone talking to his bookmaker.

Responding to Tristan’s ability to listen, Baby was soon telling him about his sex life. Women ran after him in droves, but the only person he was remotely interested in was his trainer and jockey Isa Lovell.

‘He’s got such a capacity for menace. I can’t sleep at night for imagining him gripping me as he grips those horses.’

Baby also confessed that buying horses for Isa to train had screwed him up with the taxman.

‘Jan one, and the debtor’s prison looms.’

In return Tristan told Baby about his problems with Don Carlos.

‘Fat Franco won’t rehearse.’

‘He’s got half Colombia up his nose, for a start,’ said Baby dismissively. ‘And he hates the part of Carlos. Thinks it’s very difficult and not important or sympathetic enough. Domingo feels the same. He dismisses Carlos as a wimp with one solo.’

‘What d’you think?’ asked Tristan.

‘If the part was decently acted by someone hugely attractive…’ Baby smoothed his curls. ‘What else are you up to?’

The Lily in the Valley was nearing its final cut, said Tristan. Tomorrow he was nipping over to Paris to re-do some dialogue with Claudine Lauzerte.

‘Are you pleased with it?’

‘Yes,’ admitted Tristan, ‘but one has no idea what will happen when it faces an audience.’

‘Claudine Lauzerte,’ Baby rolled his eyes, ‘is a terrific gay icon in Oz.’

They were in deep country now. The sun hadn’t appeared for days, probably singing Otello in Milan. But despite bare trees and lowering skies, the winter wheat spilling like a jade sea over the rich red ploughed fields gave a feeling of spring.

Driving through the russet cathedral town of Rutminster approaching some traffic lights, they drew level with a black Mercedes driven by a young girl. She was wearing a Stop Puppy Farming T-shirt but her pale blonde hair was fantastically garlanded with pink and white flowers like a Botticelli angel. A Labrador puppy as yellow as her hair lay across her thighs. Her seat-belt was undone and she was unashamedly taking slugs out of a vodka bottle. Tristan, who knew he’d seen her before, nearly ran into the car in front.

‘Ke-rist on a Harley-Davidson!’ gasped Baby.

‘Oh, Don Fatale,’ muttered Tristan, because the girl had one of those faces that makes everyone else’s look commonplace.

‘Where are you going to, Mademoiselle?’ shouted Baby, lowering his window.

‘It’ll be Madame in an hour or two,’ shouted back Tabitha, lifting the vodka bottle to her lips and driving on.

At the edge of town, she gave them the slip.

‘That’s one for the divorce courts,’ said Baby. Then, to Tristan’s surprise, he admitted he had been married briefly when he was twenty-one. ‘My brother had such a beaut stag party I wanted one too. So I had to get spliced. My stag party was so great, I only just made the wedding, passed out as soon as I got to the reception and didn’t wake up till next day. My mother-in-law never forgave me, and nor did my wife. It only lasted a few weeks.’

Baby told the story so wickedly that Tristan couldn’t help laughing, but neither could he stop thinking about the girl at the traffic lights. Then he remembered. He’d seen her in a silver frame on Rannaldini’s piano.

Across the world in Bogotá, Rupert had returned from a marvellous day out. Xavier had totally captivated the nuns, who had not seen him since Rupert and Taggie had adopted him four and a half years ago. He was so tall, straight-backed and confident now, and proudly showed them photographs of Taggie, Bianca — who’d come from the same convent — Bogotá his black Labrador, Gringo his pony, already covered in rosettes, and finally of his big brother, Marcus, winning the Appleton.

‘We read about Marcus in the papers,’ said Mother Immaculata. ‘You must be so proud — and what about your sister Tabitha?’

‘We don’t see her any more, thank God,’ said Xav flatly.

‘She’s in America, eventing,’ explained Rupert hastily, vowing to telephone her the moment he got back to England.

Returning to the Hilton, he found a message to ring Taggie urgently. When he heard the news he went berserk.

‘What time is it in England?’

‘About three thirty.’

‘We’ve got to stop it. Rannaldini’s set the whole thing up in revenge for Marcus winning the Appleton and the rows over Don Carlos. Gimme his number.’ Then, for once forgetting his wife’s reading problems, ‘For Christ’s sake, move it.’

As Tabitha breezed in from the hairdresser, a purring Rannaldini told her that her father was on the line. For a second her face lit up. Then, picking up the telephone, she was scalded — even thousands of miles away — by the lava of Rupert’s rage. If she really went ahead and married Isa, he would never speak to her again, never allow her back to Penscombe, never give her a penny.

‘So what else is new?’ screamed Tabitha. ‘You said exactly the same thing when Mummy married Rannaldini. I love Isa. It’s not just because I’m having your grandchild.’

‘Won’t be any bloody grandchild of mine! It’s spawn of the devil!’

‘Bollocks! You’re the devil. I know what you got up to — terrorizing Jake at school, and Tory when she was a deb, making Jake’s life a misery on the show-jumping circuit, pinching Revenge from him. I’d no idea that Revenge started off as Jake’s horse, or the reason Macaulay wouldn’t go for you in the World Championship was because you’d beaten him to a pulp in the past, just as you beat up Mummy.’

‘I bloody fucking didn’t!’

‘Yes, you did! You’re the biggest bastard that ever walked.’

‘You ain’t seen nothing yet!’ howled Rupert. ‘I’ll destroy your marriage and bring down Rannaldini and the entire Lovell family.’

‘Oh, go screw yourself!’ A shattered Tab slammed down the receiver.

Rupert was straight on to Taggie. ‘I can’t get back in time to stop the marriage but I’ll get it annulled tomorrow, and I’ll strangle you if you go to the wedding.’

The moment Rupert hung up, Tabitha called Taggie and begged her to go.

‘Christ! Look at Hammerklavier House of Horror,’ shivered Baby as, after extended drinks at the Pearly Gates, he and Tristan drove towards Valhalla. Rooks rose out of a shroud of mist, thickened by bonfires of wet leaves. Sinister, conspiratorial as its owner, the great grey house lurked behind its mighty army of trees. Its tiny deep-set windows, thought Tristan, were like the eyes of medieval scholars grown small from poring over learned texts lit only by a flickering candle.

As Rannaldini had wanted maximum publicity without alerting Rupert, he had waited until midday to invite the leading gossip columnists, who had dropped everything to be there. The rest of the paparazzi, in black leather jackets and dark glasses, tried to storm the electric gates, as they opened to admit Baby and Tristan. Remembering Étienne’s funeral, Tristan ducked in horror. Baby, on the other hand, waved happily.

At the end of a long drive through dark woods and deer-haunted parkland, Tristan and Baby were directed through the omnia vincit amor gates. Rannaldini’s all-devouring smile welcomed them at the front door. Inside they found Tabitha. Except for the puppy-farming T-shirt and the flowers in her hair, she was unrecognizable, her swollen eyes redder than carbuncles, her face grey, except where it was covered in blotches. Despite having thrown up after her terrible row with Rupert, she was still attacking the vodka.

Delighted by the turn of events, Rannaldini was about to introduce her, when Tab gave a cry of relief, and shoving Baby and Tristan aside ran towards a dark girl, who had followed them into the house. ‘Oh, Lucy, thank God you’ve come!’

One glance at Tab’s blubbered woebegone little face told it all.

‘Has your dad been horrible to you again?’

‘Horrible, horrible,’ sobbed Tab, as she led Lucy upstairs.

Lucy Latimer was Tabitha’s greatest friend. They had met when they became involved in animal rights. A vegetarian and a make-up artist, Lucy was very careful not to use cosmetics that had been tested on animals. Extremely successful because she combined a painter’s eye with a sympathetic, soothing nature, she fortunately had a spare day between filming to make up Tab and provide moral support.

‘Come on, Latimer.’ Tab gazed at the wreckage in her bedroom mirror. ‘This is the greatest challenge you’ll ever face.’

‘Don’t you worry.’ Lucy unpacked a roll of brushes, sponges and assorted bottles. ‘I’ll have you stunning as ever in a trice.’

‘And talking of stunning, did you see that man in the hall?’

‘Couldn’t miss him, really,’ sighed Lucy, ‘but you’ll have to put all that behind you now.’

Only a streak of saffron on the horizon gave a clue the sun was setting, but apple logs burned merrily in the Summer Drawing Room.

Rannaldini, looking very good in a morning coat, because the grey waistcoat matched his pewter hair, handed Tristan and Baby glasses of champagne, and apologized that they had run into a wedding.

‘Who’s getting married?’ asked Baby.

‘My stepdaughter, Tabitha.’

‘She doesn’t seem very keen on the idea,’ said Tristan, wincing at his father’s painting over the piano, of a leering man undressing a very young girl.

‘Just last-minute nerves.’ Rannaldini seemed to be killing himself over some private joke.

‘Who’s the lucky guy?’ asked Baby.

‘My dear boy, I thought you’d have known. It’s your jockey, Isa Lovell.’

The colour drained from Baby’s suntanned face. He seemed to shrink, like a larky March hare suddenly looking down a gun barrel.

‘Christ, he can’t be,’ he stammered. ‘What about Martie? He was talking of marrying her after Crimbo.’

Rannaldini always got a charge out of inflicting pain.

‘He’ll be in in a minute to tell you himself. He was irritated not to be riding at Cheltenham today.’

Tristan felt desperately sorry for Baby and put a hand on his rigid shoulders.

‘This happen very quick. You told me she only came home the day of the Gramophone Awards.’

‘Ah,’ sighed Rannaldini. ‘When one is young, love work like lightning. Like Carlos and Elisabetta.’

‘Carlos and Elisabetta happen so quick because they were giddy with relief an arranged marriage had turned out so well,’ protested Tristan.

‘I believe in arranged marriages,’ said Rannaldini warmly. After all, he had arranged this one.

‘I hope you’ll stay for the wedding,’ he begged. ‘You might even sing something during the signing of the register.’ He smiled at Baby who, having drained his glass of champagne, had got a grip on himself. ‘Dame Hermione is singing “Panis Angelicus”,’ went on Rannaldini. ‘Ah, here comes the bridegroom.’

And in strolled Isa, still in old cords and a tweed jacket.

‘Hi.’ He smiled almost mockingly at Baby, who found it impossible to act normally as he blushed and couldn’t speak. Isa always had this effect on him.

‘Hadn’t you better get changed?’ snapped Tristan.

‘Plenty of time,’ said Isa coolly. ‘I thought Baby might like to see round your yard, Rannaldini.’

It wasn’t long before Baby found his tongue again.

‘Why the hell didn’t you marry Tabitha’s brother Marcus?’ he hissed. ‘At least he’s the right sex. I suppose you knocked her up.’

‘This is a very nice mare.’ Isa opened a half-door.

‘She’ll lose it if she goes on hitting the vodka. I suppose it’s also for the money.’

‘Rupert won’t give her a penny,’ sighed Isa. ‘And Rannaldini will only help out if it suits him.’

‘Well, you’re not getting another cent out of me.’

In the safety of the loose-box, Isa ran a finger down Baby’s gritted jaw. ‘It doesn’t change anything,’ he said softly. ‘If you’re a good boy, I’ll tell you more about this amazing horse I’ve found. Did you know,’ he added idly, ‘gypsies consider it unlucky if a marriage takes place after sunset?’

Meanwhile Tristan was exploring Valhalla. Grey and spooky in the December twilight, it would be the perfect setting for Don Carlos. He could imagine the hunt streaming down those rides, or Eboli chasing Carlos through the maze. There were dungeons for Posa’s death, and a splendid mausoleum for Charles V’s tomb. Even the auto da fe, in which the heretics were burnt, could be staged in the courtyard outside the chapel.

As he wandered through rooms formed by yew hedges, statues of naked nymphs lurked in every corner. Tristan wished he could offer them all his jacket. To his right, the wood kept readjusting the mist like a shawl around its shoulders and, as he reached the big lawn, to the north four vast Lawson cypresses reared up, like monks in black habits with their pointed hoods over their faces. Gazing up from beneath them, Tristan suddenly felt the terror of the sixteenth-century man-in-the-street, overwhelmed by the dark, towering forces of the Inquisition.

Quickening his step as night fell, he nearly ran into a pack of paparazzi. As they levelled their long lenses like a firing squad at a new arrival, he decided they were part of some present-day auto da fe, destroying reputations for public delectation.

In a blinding flash, he realized that Don Carlos must be made in modern dress. The present English Royal Family were so similar to Verdi’s French and Spanish royalty. Elisabetta was so like both the sad Princess Diana and the wistful Queen Elizabeth, married to the short-fused, roving-eyed Prince Philip, who was not unlike Philip II of Spain. And they, too, had a son called Charles, who was romantic, idealistic, longed for a proper job, had a loving nature and was terrified of his stern, critical father, as Carlos had been. Whilst in Eboli, the feisty mistress in love with Carlos, could be seen an echo of Camilla Parker Bowles, and in the noble Marquis of Posa a touch of Andrew, her diplomatic soldier husband. They could start the film with these characters in the royal box, then cut to the two armies on the skyline.

But who was the modern equivalent of the Grand Inquisitor? wondered Tristan, as he retraced his steps to the omnia vincit amor gates. Who terrorized people to madness? Why not Gordon Dillon, the ruthless editor of the Scorpion, who would shop his own children to boost circulation and who went around in tinted glasses and soft-soled shoes, scaring his staff as shitless as the public? The Inquisition bully-boys, who cast such terrifying shadows over Don Carlos, could be represented as lurking paparazzi or as the chinless, ruthless courtiers who spent their time spying and manipulating at Buckingham Palace.

Tristan couldn’t wait to tell Rannaldini.

‘Monsieur de Montigny.’ A soft lisping voice made him jump out of his skin.

In his path lurked what appeared to be yet another leatherclad member of the paparazzi, with hair as pale as his bloodless face and the leer of a chemist when asked for something embarrassing. Before Tristan could tell him to piss off, the sinister creature introduced himself as Clive, Rannaldini’s henchman.

‘Sir Roberto was worried you were outside without an overcoat. He thought you might like a cup of tea, or something stronger, before the service starts in half an hour.’

Fifty miles away at Penscombe, Taggie Campbell-Black was still tearing out her dark hair. Rupert’s reprobate old father, Eddie, had invited himself for the weekend. Having ensconced him happily in the study with a bottle of Bell’s and racing on television, Taggie took the opportunity, as she hastily made up her face for Tab’s wedding in the kitchen mirror, to discuss the crisis with Rupert’s assistant, Lysander Hawkley. Lysander, who was married to Rannaldini’s young third wife, Kitty, and who had also ridden his horse Arthur in the Rutminster Cup the same year Isa had ridden Rannaldini’s delinquent Prince of Darkness, was absolutely horrified.

‘Tab can’t marry Isa, Taggie, he’s an evil bugger. He spat at me before the race and made some seriously insulting remarks about Arthur — who, being a horse, couldn’t answer back — and he gets up to wicked tricks on the course. Nearly rode me into the rails and called me “Campbell-Black’s bumboy”,’ Lysander flushed. ‘Bloody insult. Not that,’ he added quickly, ‘if I was that way inclined, I could think of anyone nicer than Rupert.’

‘You probably could in his present mood,’ sighed Taggie, as she fluffed blusher on her blanched cheeks. ‘Oh, Lysander, what am I going to do? Tab couldn’t have done a worse thing.’

‘Poor darling,’ said Lysander, who, having been worshipped unconditionally by Tab for four years, had a rosier view of her than most people. ‘She’s so impulsive.’

‘She’ll be so isolated in that camp,’ said Taggie. ‘Jake and Tory won’t like it any more than Rupert, who’ll kill me when he discovers I’ve gone to the wedding. But I can’t not — Tab sounded so pitiful.’

‘I’d come with you,’ said Lysander, ‘but I’d murder Rannaldini. Take Eddie — he’d liven up any party.’

Rannaldini’s woods soared up like black cliffs. Trees, sheathed in ivy, danced like witches at some wild Sabbath.

‘What a creepy house,’ shuddered Taggie, as Rupert’s helicopter landed, and she helped her father-in-law climb out.

‘Why’s the fella flying both the German and Italian flags?’ snorted Eddie, glaring up at the roof.

‘He’s half German, half Italian.’

‘’Strordinary to be on both losing sides in the last war.’

As they hurried towards the omnia vincit amor gates, a lot of people were getting out of a minibus.

‘Must be the tenants,’ said Eddie.

‘No, I think they’re Isa’s relations,’ said Taggie.

9

It was nearly six o’clock. The little chapel, attached to the north wing at Valhalla, was packed to overflowing. Having drifted in to a rumble of approval twenty minutes ago, Helen, on her own in the left-hand front pew, grew increasingly furious. In order to upstage Tory Lovell and Hermione, she had spent a fortune at Lindka Cierach’s on a ravishing smoky-blue suit, nipped in to show off her tiny waist. She had spent almost more on a fox-fur hat, about which Tab had been vilely rude. One should not call one’s mother ‘no better than a bloody murderer’ on one’s wedding day. And because Tabitha had never written thank-you letters or looked up Helen’s family when she was in America, none of them had bothered to fly over for the wedding, claiming it was too near to Christmas. Even Marcus had deserted her because Nemerovsky had a first night in St Petersburg.

As a horrible result, Rannaldini had spitefully filled the relationless row behind her with Valhalla staff: Sally and Betty, the pretty maids, who’d gone to London to look after Serena Westwood’s Jessie, Mr Brimscombe, the gardener, who was hopping mad because Helen had stripped his conservatories of flowers, Mrs Brimscombe, the housekeeper, who’d been allowed out of the kitchens for half an hour, and to top it the fearful Bussage in a trilby and a severe grey dress. No doubt they’d be joined soon by Clive, Rannaldini’s henchman, and Tabloid the Rottweiler.

Having ignored Helen, the bridegroom across the aisle was reading the Racing Post and murmuring to Baby, whom he’d somehow seconded into being his best man.

As there was a limited time one could admire the white fountains of jasmine and freesias and the Murillo Madonna, which Rannaldini had insisted on hanging on the wall to the right of the altar, Helen walked down the aisle to disabuse Lady Chisledon, a local worthy, of any idea that Bussage might be a relation.

Bloody hell! Helen prided herself on not swearing, even in private, but Taggie Campbell-Black had just tiptoed in looking wildly embarrassed but undeniably gorgeous in a crimson suit with a black velvet collar and a little crimson pillbox on her dark cloudy hair. Rannaldini, who was hovering in the doorway, was all over, or under her, because Taggie was so tall, like a bull terrier courting a wolfhound.

Even worse, Taggie had brought Helen’s dreadful ex-father-in-law, Eddie Campbell-Black, who was getting drunker by the minute with the aid of a hip flask and wearing Rupert’s far too large morning coat, with a badge pinned to the lapel, saying, ‘Old men make better lovers.’

‘Ouch!’ squawked Helen, as Eddie pinched her bottom.

The Lovells looked as though they’d come to a funeral, the men in dark suits, the women with too much hair sticking out under the front of their hats, except for Tory, who looked, maddeningly, much prettier in a royal blue suit than Helen remembered, and who never let go of Jake’s hand.

And now, late as ever, Hermione swept in, having abandoned her usual Chanel suits in favour of a white angel’s midi-dress and a gold halo hat. Psyching herself into the saintly role of Elisabetta, thought Tristan sourly. It would hold more credence if she made the odd rehearsal.

In one hand, Hermione was clutching the music of ‘Panis Angelicus’, in the other, her fiendish son, Little Cosmo, who proceeded to kick the pews, crunch crisps and stick out a green tongue at the rest of the congregation.

‘That’s Rannaldini’s illegit,’ whispered Meredith Whalen, who’d taken one overexcited look at Tristan and swept him and Lucy Latimer into a back pew. ‘Can’t you tell from the nasty rolling black eyes? And he’s twice as evil as Rannaldini.’

Meredith, who was known as the Ideal Homo because he was so much in demand as a spare man at Paradise dinner parties, was a hugely successful interior designer, whom Rannaldini had booked to do the sets for Don Carlos. Meredith looked so innocent and sweet all his gay friends wanted to put him in short pants and smack him.

‘And did you ever see anyone so tense as Jake and Tory Lovell?’ he was now whispering to Tristan. ‘Like blasted oaks. I suppose it’s sad when one’s little acorn goes astray. And look at Bussage! She’s a worse control freak than Rannaldini and she’s wearing her control frock. We could film Philip’s coronation in here, you know. Don’t you just love that Murillo? Must be worth five million. That’s why Rannaldini spends so much time in chapel gloating over it.’

Eddie Campbell-Black, who’d been ogling Lady Chisledon, suddenly spied Hermione, one of his former amours.

‘Hello, Henrietta,’ he bellowed.

Tabitha, who was even drunker than Eddie, swayed on Rannaldini’s arm in the chapel doorway.

‘You look sensational,’ he murmured.

She was wearing two triangles of white silk, high at the neck and falling nine inches above her knees. She held a small bunch of freesias, to match the flowers in her hair.

‘My dress is new, my knickers are borrowed from Mummy,’ she informed Rannaldini. ‘My toenails are painted blue, and you’re the something old.’ For a second she frowned at him. ‘I ought to be at Penscombe, with Daddy giving me away.’

‘The last thing I’m ever going to do is give you away,’ purred Rannaldini, his right knuckles gently kneading her left breast.

Then he winced at the first strains of ‘Here Comes the Bride’.

‘Who chose this junk?’

‘I did,’ said Tab, then, glancing round the chapel she gave a sob. ‘Oh, thank God, Taggie and Granddaddy are here.’

Striding up the aisle like a young Amazon, she paused to squeeze her stepmother’s hand.

‘What a vulgar dress,’ said Hermione, in a very audible whisper.

‘When’s her baby due?’ asked Little Cosmo loudly.

Lucy, who’d hardly had a second to change into a dark brown suit and black bowler, or to apply any of her make-up skills on herself, prayed that Tabitha wouldn’t be sick.

‘That’s Percy the Parson,’ hissed Meredith, as a red-faced cleric with straggly grey hair moved forward to welcome the bride. ‘He’s got such a plain wife, they’re known as One Man and His Dog.’

Lucy fought the giggles.

‘And the bridegroom is to die for,’ sighed Meredith, as Isa moved beside Tabitha. ‘Such a moody, vindictive little shit, pure Heathcliff, in fact, but bags I be Catherine Earnshaw.’

‘Should have had a haircut. Fellow’s hair’s longer than Tabitha’s,’ said Eddie loudly.

There was an awkward moment when Percy the Parson asked if anyone knew of any impediment or just cause why the couple shouldn’t be joined in matrimony and Little Cosmo called out, ‘I do,’ with a maniacal cackle and had his ears boxed by his mother.

‘To have and to hold from this day forward,’ intoned Isa.

‘Chap sounds like something out of Brookside,’ muttered a disapproving Eddie, taking a swig from his hip flask.

‘I, Tabitha Maud Lavinia, take thee, Isaac Jake,’ said Tab in the flat, clipped drawl that reminded almost everyone present of Rupert.

‘Love, cherish and obey,’ she went on, looking mockingly at Isa from under her mascaraed lashes.

‘Oh dear.’ Taggie blew her nose on a piece of loo paper. She certainly hadn’t obeyed Rupert today.

‘With my body I thee worship…’ As she lurched over to kiss Isa on the jawbone, Tab nearly fell over. ‘And with all my rather depleted worldly goods, I thee endow, although I am going to keep The Engineer,’ she added, as an afterthought.

Tabitha!’ hissed an appalled Helen. What would the Lovells think?

Fortunately everyone was distracted by the ringing of Little Cosmo’s mobile. Tab got the giggles.

Even more fortunately, Percy dispensed with a sermon. He’d been kept waiting quite long enough, and when he’d asked Helen and Rannaldini for touching memories of the bride, Helen couldn’t think of any and Rannaldini’s had been quite unrepeatable.

As everyone knelt to pray it could be seen that the bridegroom was wearing sapphire cufflinks as big and blue as his wife’s eyes.

Followed by a smirking Rannaldini, a tight-lipped Helen, an ashen Jake and Tory, Tab and Isa went off to sign the register.

Tristan turned to Lucy. ‘That is best make-up repair job I ever see. You wouldn’t know she’d shedded a tear.’ No Frenchwoman would be seen dead in that black bowler, decided Tristan, but Lucy had a nice face, not pretty, but kind and generous. With her dark curls, freckles, bright eyes and athletic body, she reminded him of a heroine in one of those Mallory Towers books his girl cousins were always devouring in the holidays.

Lucy, who’d spent her life studying faces, thought Tristan’s was marvellous. She longed to paint out the dark shadows, bring forward the deep-set eyes and add a bit of tawny blusher to the sallow cheeks. There was also deceptive strength in the jaw. And when he smiled he had wonderful even white teeth.

She jumped as Meredith, who was now standing on the pew to have a better view, whispered that the Lovells looked as though they were signing a death warrant. ‘Probably will be if Rupert rolls up.’

‘Who’s that beautiful woman in the crimson suit?’ asked Tristan.

‘Taggie Campbell-Black.’ Lucy was appalled to feel a stab of jealousy.

Married to that white-hot fury, thought Tristan in dismay. He hoped Rupert didn’t beat her up.

Hermione had now mounted the pulpit, her gold halo hat glinting in the candlelight, and opened her music and her big brown eyes.

‘Panis Angelicus’ rang out on the arctic air.

Tristan gave a shudder of pleasure.

‘Could you make her look eighteen?’ he muttered to Lucy.

‘She doesn’t look much older, she’s so lovely.’

‘A maestro a day helps you work, rest and play,’ giggled Meredith.

Hermione would have eked out ‘Panis Angelicus’ for ever, if a mobile hadn’t rung again.

‘Hi, Joel. Who won the four thirty at Doncaster?’ demanded Little Cosmo, and Hermione had to scuttle down from the pulpit to cuff him again.

Hermione was followed by Baby, who strolled up to the chancel steps, turned, with his hands in his pockets, and looked straight at Isa and Tabitha, who were waiting to return for the blessing.

‘Where’er you walk,’ sang Baby, and the chapel went still because he had one of those extraordinary voices whose music goes straight to the listener’s heart, and, as he sang, his face lost all its mockery and decadence, leaving only sweetness and beauty. Isa Lovell’s face was totally expressionless, but his eyes were as dark as an open grave at midnight.

God in heaven, thought Tristan, he’s got to replace Fat Franco and play Carlos. Glancing round he found Rannaldini smiling straight across at him, making a thumbs-up sign, as the congregation launched into ‘Jerusalem’.

Isa, his saturnine face lit up, a cigarette concealed in his left hand, was whispering to Tabitha as they came down the aisle.

Oh, please let it be OK, prayed Lucy.

Helen followed, in great embarrassment, on Jake Lovell’s arm. His limp was so bad that their progress was painfully slow.

Eddie tugged Taggie’s sleeve.

‘Wasn’t that the fellow Helen ran off with at the Los Angeles Olympics?’ he demanded loudly. ‘D’yer mean to say the bounder’s done it again?’

10

After that the Marx Brothers seemed to take over. The guests were firmly shepherded upstairs for champagne cocktails in Helen’s Blue Living Room, and the bride and groom disappeared for their first legal bonk.

Seeing Lucy gazing in wonder at a Sickert of a pretty dancer, Tristan joined her and in no time had learned she was twenty-eight, had worked, like him, on a number of big films and owned a lurcher called James.

‘Nice scent,’ he said, scooping up several asparagus rolls.

‘It’s called Bluebell. It reminds me of home.’

‘Where’s that?’

‘The Lake District.’

‘Ought to be called Daffodils, then. “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” How did you meet Tabitha?’

‘At a Compassion in World Farming rally. We were trying to stop a lorry taking baby calves abroad. When the driver and his mate got out of their lorry because we were blocking the road, Tabitha jumped in, backed up the lorry and drove it away. They arrested her just before the motorway.’

‘What was she going to do with them?’ Tristan noticed Lucy refusing chicken vol-au-vents.

‘Let them loose in her father’s fields. We both spent the night in gaol. It sort of bonds you. We’ve been friends ever since. She’s got absolutely no side,’ she added humbly. ‘And she’s so beautiful. I make up so many faces but hers is easily the best.’

‘You do excellent job today. Look, Lucy.’

When he spoke her name in that husky Gérard Depardieu voice, Lucy was lost.

‘We start filming Don Carlos next April for three month, maybe more,’ he went on. ‘I would like to offer you the make-up job. Would you be free?’

‘Yes, please,’ gasped Lucy. She’d have cancelled anything.

‘Singers are very highly strung,’ sighed Tristan. ‘They can’t pack their voices away in a case like other musicians. But if you can calm Tabitha you would have no problem, I think.’

Having discovered they both shared a pathological loathing of ramblers and deliberately neglected their woods in the hope a rotten tree might fall on one, Eddie had taken an unaccountable shine to Rannaldini.

‘How far d’you go?’ he said, peering out of the window.

‘The whole hog every time,’ giggled Meredith. ‘Oh, do look at the bride.’

Helen had removed her fox-fur hat because it flattened her hair but, to her horror, Tabitha had just returned in jeans and a navy blue polo-neck, which had pulled most of the freesias out of her hair. ‘I was cold, Mummy,’ she protested, feeding vol-au-vents to Sharon the Labrador, who had a pink bow round her neck.

‘Champagne, Mrs Lovell?’ said a lisping, mocking voice.

As Tory Lovell swung round, her sudden desolation that Rannaldini’s evil henchman, Clive, was addressing her new daughter-in-law rather than herself was almost palpable.

‘The make-up artist is most important person on the set,’ Tristan was now telling Lucy, as they admired an olive-green wood by J. S. Cotman. ‘She is first person an actor see in the morning. If she say, “I haven’t been paid for weeks, the director’s a bastard,” it poison atmosphere.’

‘You couldn’t be a bastard,’ blurted out Lucy, then went scarlet as he glanced at her bare wedding-ring finger. ‘It’s hard to be in a long-term relationship if you’re a make-up artist. On location, you tend to slip into affaires. I had a boyfriend at home, but we’ve just broken up,’ she confessed, in her soft Cumbrian accent. ‘He was fed up with me being always away. Said he wanted Marks and Spencer’s dinners and someone who listened in the evenings. Weddings always make you feel a bit bleak.’ She must be drunk already. She could tell this man anything, and he hadn’t volunteered a word about himself.

‘Are you married?’ she asked.

Tristan shook his head.

‘Perhaps that’s why I too make films — you become part of big family and kid yourself you’re not alone.’

‘Who gave you those gorgeous cufflinks?’ Meredith admired Isa’s sapphires. ‘Are they a present from the bride?’

‘No, the best man,’ said Isa.

‘And let the best man win,’ murmured Baby.

Tab, who had been lighting a cigarette, looked round sharply, but as she opened her mouth to retort, Helen tapped her on the shoulder.

‘Can you please rescue poor Tristan? He’s been stuck for ages with your friend Lucy.’

‘No-one gets stuck with Lucy,’ snapped Tab. ‘You chuck him a life-belt if you’re worried.’

‘Dinner is served,’ announced the fearsome Bussage.

Waiters holding candles guided the guests past tapestries and suits of armour down dark, wandering passages to the Great Hall, which looked stupendous. A string quartet was playing in the minstrels’ gallery. The red and gold mural of trumpeters, harpists and fiddlers gleamed in the flickering light of hundreds of candles.

A bottle-green cloth stretched the length of the huge table. Mrs Brimscombe and the maids had risen at dawn to search the woods and intersperse the gold plate and the glittering armada of cut glass with beautiful red and gold fungi and the last coloured leaves of autumn.

In front of a huge organ rising to the ceiling, a side table groaned with silver dishes of oysters, giant prawns, vermilion lobster, slices of sole in cream sauce and stuffed sea bass. Carrying on the main table’s colour scheme were great bowls of tomato mayonnaise, sauce verte and gleaming gold Hollandaise. And this was only the first course.

At dinner Lucy lost Tristan. She was stuck between a dull Lovell cousin and Little Cosmo, who she felt sure was about to slice a red-spotted toadstool into her food. Tristan was next to Helen, who bombarded him with questions about Don Carlos, then interrupted with her own views, ‘I mean, the poor old Grand Inquisitor was visually challenged,’ when Tristan tried to answer them.

She was far more tense than she had been in Prague, her hazel eyes constantly policing the room for women who might be getting off with Rannaldini, particularly the adorable Taggie, whom Rannaldini, in a fit of mega-malice, had seated between himself and Jake Lovell.

Taggie didn’t know which man unnerved her more. Rannaldini was being unbelievably charming. Knowing what a great cook she was, he found her the tenderest piece from the saddle of lamb, then sought her opinion on the russet apples glazed with Cumberland sauce. Would Bramleys have added more piquancy?

Taggie mumbled truthfully that it was all delicious, but she couldn’t forget the hideous way Rannaldini had treated her friend Kitty, while she was married to him. Jake, on the other hand, was like a small thundercloud.

‘I’m desperately sorry about this,’ stammered Taggie.

‘No more sorry than we are,’ said Jake bleakly.

Down the table, the bride sat between Baby and Isa, a cigarette in one hand, a fork in the other, her eyes crossing, hardly taking in the horse talk that flowed across her.

Poor red-eyed Tory Lovell tried to hide her despair. She and Jake had managed to patch up their marriage miraculously but now she’d have to see Helen, with whom Jake had once been so hopelessly in love, at the baby’s christening and at birthday parties for years to come. She wished she liked Tab more. She shouldn’t be smoking and drinking like that, it was so bad for the baby. Tory had so longed for her first grandchild.

When Tab cut her cake, she most audibly wished for an Olympic gold for The Engineer. People were beginning to table-hop. Jake joined Isa and Baby, ignoring Tab, who got to her feet.

‘Musht go to the loo.’

‘Aren’t you going to throw us your bouquet,’ called Meredith, ‘so we can see who’s going to get hitched next?’

Instead Tab threw her flowers high into the rafters, but as the single women and Meredith surged forward, she reached out and caught them herself.

‘I’m the one who’s going to need it,’ she said, glancing enigmatically at Isa.

With distress, Tristan noticed the delight on Rannaldini’s face then turned and caught the satisfaction on Baby’s. Rannaldini was clearly as crazy about poor little Tab as Baby was about the cool, sinister Isa.

A family drama in a princely house, he thought wryly, which was how Verdi had described Don Carlos.

Eddie Campbell-Black was nose to nose with Lady Chisledon.

‘I do wish they did soap operas about people of our class,’ she was saying.

Lucy had never met anyone quite like Little Cosmo. ‘What are you going to do for a living?’ she asked.

‘I’m going to lead paedophiles on and then blackmail them,’ said Little Cosmo, who was lighting a joint.

His mother, who wished to speak to her director, plonked herself between Tristan and Helen. ‘Tory Lovell is such a charmer,’ she said pointedly.

Helen flounced off.

Everyone was wandering back to their seats for the speeches. Not wanting to be landed with Hermione, Tristan introduced her to Baby.

‘No, we haven’t met,’ said Baby, ‘but we share the same colourist in Mount Street.’

Hermione, who’d always sworn her rich brown hair was natural, was absolutely furious. Making a hasty getaway, Tristan sidled up to Taggie. God, she was adorable.

‘I hear you adopt children from Colombia,’ he said. ‘I once recce’d a film there. The people are ravishing.’

Taggie melted instantly and was soon telling him about Bianca’s adventures in the nativity play.

‘“I love acting, Mummy,” she said yesterday, “but I hate being watched.” I’m not boring you?’ she asked anxiously.

‘Never, never,’ murmured Tristan. ‘My singers, alas, love being watched but hate acting.’

Taggie was shyly producing photos of Xav and Bianca when she felt a laser of jealousy from Tab and hurriedly shoved them away.

‘Stop doing a number on Isa’s divine stepmother-in-law, Tristan, I want to make a speech,’ shouted Baby, who had clearly recovered his high spirits.

‘In a minute, like Leporello,’ he bashed the table with a spoon, ‘I’m going to list all the men, women and kangaroos Isa’s been to bed with but first I want to read out the telegrams. Here’s an excellent one for Tabitha: “Are you sure you’re doing the right thing, darling? love, Granny.”’

After a long pause, this was greeted by screams of laughter.

‘Wonderful woman,’ said Eddie, who was trying to light a Gristik. ‘Propose to her every Christmas, know we’ll end up together.’

‘Sit down and shut up, Baby,’ called out Rannaldini, with a big pussy-cat smile. ‘I’m the one who’s making the speech.’

‘Helen’s not with us,’ called out Lady Chisledon.

Next moment, the mother of the bride came rushing in.

‘I cannot believe it. Someone has set fire to my fur hat. Tabitha!’ she rounded furiously on her daughter.

‘Must have been Lucy,’ said Tab, collapsing on to her husband’s knee. ‘She’s so anti people wearing fur.’

‘I never!’ stammered Lucy.

‘Sort it out later,’ said Rannaldini. ‘Sit down,’ he added chillingly.

Helen sat, red blotches of rage staining her neck.

‘Brilliant cake, Mrs Brimscombe,’ shouted Tab, taking a bite of Baby’s untouched piece.

Both Jake and Tory had looked at her in horror.

‘Spit it out,’ Tory wanted to shout, but it was too late.

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ began Rannaldini silkily, ‘it is with great pleasure…’

But for once he was talking to air as Rupert stalked in. He was wearing a crumpled lightweight suit and must have hitched a lift from Bogotá on someone else’s jet.

‘Enter the Pin-up from Penscombe,’ whispered Meredith in ecstasy.

Aware that Rupert was the father of Xavier, whom he had bullied so dreadfully, Little Cosmo slid under the table.

‘Hello, Daddy,’ called out Tabitha.

For a second Rupert glared round, taking in first the bride, his daughter, on Isa’s knee, then his father, with his hand down Lady Chisledon’s shirt, and finally the bride’s stepmother, who was also his wife, cringing between Jake Lovell and a smirking Rannaldini. His fury was as blasting as nerve gas.

Only Hermione was unaffected. ‘Rupert Campbell-Black! Just in time for the dancing!’ she cried, charging him like an excited buffalo.

Stepping out of her way, Rupert chucked an envelope on the dark green tablecloth. Clive, who shadowed Rannaldini’s every move, was gliding in from the right.

‘Venturer are pulling out of Don Carlos,’ said Rupert softly. ‘You can fucking well survive on your own.’

‘But you’re the chief backer,’ hissed Rannaldini, ‘and the contracts—’

‘Have not been signed,’ interrupted Rupert. ‘You should stop your Rottweiler lawyers being so greedy. And that’s only the opening shot, you poisoned dwarf.’

Then, totally ignoring a frantically mouthing Taggie, Rupert turned on his heel and stalked out.

‘Rupert Campbell-Black gets away with being rude because he’s very posh,’ announced the muffled voice of Little Cosmo.

‘Penis angelicus,’ sang Tabitha, and slid under the table to join him.

11

The following day Rannaldini, Tristan and Sexton, who’d been heartbroken not to be asked to the wedding, held an emergency meeting. Without Venturer’s millions the film was seriously in jeopardy. They couldn’t postpone because it was written into Alpheus’s contract that they would finish at the latest by the end of June. Sexton was particularly gutted: he had not only regarded Rupert as a terrific gent, who was shit-hot with money, but also as comfortingly much of a musical Philistine as he was himself.

Rannaldini was just sighing that he would love to help out financially but what with the wedding and tax bills looming… when Tristan took a deep breath — after all he had no dependants — and said as soon as the French lawyers stopped wrangling, Liberty Productions could have the bulk of the money Étienne had grudgingly left him. Then he suggested they economize by filming in modern dress, drawing parallels between the Spanish and the English royal families.

‘Grite, grite!’ cried Sexton in excitement. ‘Princess Di as Elisabetta — the Americans will go apeshit! And we can change Charles V’s ghost into the Queen Muvver.’

‘Don’t be fatuous, Sexton,’ snapped Rannaldini.

To Rannaldini’s delight, however, Tristan then proposed they film at Valhalla, which would be much cheaper. ‘You have mausoleum, dungeons, cloisters, and huge state rooms.’

‘And we can save on location fees, travel expenses and hotels by putting the cast up at Valhalla,’ said Rannaldini gleefully, envisaging unlimited extensions and redecorating on the budget. ‘Once recording’s over, we’ll recce Buckingham Palace to get the thing authentic.’

‘If the leaves are back on the trees by the time we start shooting,’ added Tristan, ‘we can always send a second unit to film the opening scenes in Romania where it’ll still be winter.’

‘Sounds expensive,’ said Rannaldini, not altogether playfully. ‘We’ll build in serious penalties if you don’t finish the movie on time.’

Meanwhile the cast were still not turning up at rehearsals but each night Tristan and Serena Westwood spent hours on the floor of Tristan’s flat, shuffling papers trying to schedule the recording. It was like wrestling with some massive seating plan, fitting in with singers’ availability and keeping the difficult ones apart.

‘Tricky when they’re all difficult,’ sighed Serena.

‘I suppose Rannaldini will have to turn up for the recording,’ said Tristan wearily.

Serena smirked because the Maestro was still finding time to take her to bed. But, to her irritation and despite heavy hints, Tristan still hadn’t made a move on her.

The recording itself was held in a huge assembly room attached to Wallsend Town Hall in north-east London. As the orchestra straggled in on the first day, in early January, the temperature plummeted below zero. Snow lay thickly over the regimented beds of wallflowers and pansies. Lengthening icicles glittered from the gutters in the morning sun. Inside the hall it was even colder: the central heating had been switched off in case gurgles and clicks were picked up on the tape.

‘It’s going to be breathe-in time for everyone,’ said a fat female member of the chorus, looking round the tiny gallery with disapproval. Down below technicians were trying to find room for all the orchestral chairs and music stands, and putting green bottles of water by every singer’s microphone.

The off-stage band had ill-advisedly been sent to play in the bar where an impromptu rehearsal for soloists, who had deigned to turn up, was also under way. Hearing screeching, Sexton, who was heroically trying to get into the jargon, remarked that Dame Hermione was ‘in fine voice’.

‘Chance would be a fine thing! That’s the chorus master,’ said Serena sourly.

‘Do you have a pass, sir?’ asked a man on the door, as Rannaldini stalked in, chocolate brown from skiing.

‘It’s Maestro Rannaldini!’ hissed the other doorman. ‘Where have you been? Outer space?’

Within seconds, Rannaldini was rowing with both Serena and Tristan, and changing everything. Half an hour later, Hermione swept in and started yelling that her dressing room was too small and too far from the stage, and she had nowhere to warm up.

‘How dare you send me yellow roses that are fully out when you know I only like buds?’ she then shouted at Christy Foxe, Serena’s PA, a little scrubbed-faced school-leaver, who had just staggered in with Hermione’s four suitcases. ‘And don’t forget I always have a glass of chilled champagne at eleven.’

‘No need to fucking chill it in this hall,’ muttered Christy, making his escape.

Rannaldini was now altering the schedule. No matter that the chorus, who had been booked for the day at vast expense, would be cooling their heels, he wished to kick off the recording with Hermione’s last duet with Franco. When Fat Franco didn’t show up, Rannaldini dragged him out of another recording studio in Rome and sacked him.

‘That’s a million saved for a start,’ he told Tristan gleefully, as he put down the telephone.

When Franco’s agent came on the line in apoplexy, Rannaldini countered suavely that the final contract had not been signed, again due to lawyers wrangling; and, if it had, Franco was in default for not having attended a single rehearsal or having lost a kilo of weight. ‘He hasn’t got a fat leg to stand on.’

‘How can you fire the finest tenor in the world?’

Pour encourager les autres.’

As shock-horror at the sacking ricocheted round the world, Liberty Productions called a press conference to announce their new leading man: ‘The dazzling, drop-dead gorgeous, honey-toned Australian tenor Baby Spinosissimo. The most exciting thing to come out of Oz since Joan Sutherland.’

‘And the same sex,’ muttered the Daily Mail, scribbling furiously.

Aware that he was getting Liberty Productions out of a hole, Baby had played terribly hard to get. When Howie Denston, now his agent, had rung to offer him the job, he had said he’d think about it. He then went screaming ecstatically round the house, before calling Isa Lovell. He was going to earn more money in a few months than in his entire life, so he could now pay his tax bill and buy that horse, Peppy something, Isa kept banging on about.

Baby rolled up at the subsequent press conference on the arm of a ravishing pony-tailed youth in a pinstripe suit. Gwynneth, the flabby crone from the Arts Council on whom Rannaldini had landed when Viking hit him across the room, was covering the event for the Sentinel. Wildly excited, she whisked the pinstriped youth from group to group, introducing him reverently as ‘Mr Spinosissimo’s partner’.

‘How long have you and Baby been together?’ asked the Telegraph.

‘Oh, he picked me up in the car park half an hour ago,’ grinned the youth.

‘D’you prefer guys to women, Baby?’ asked the Mirror.

‘I prefer sheep,’ said Baby. ‘If sheep could cook, I’d marry one.’

Over the roars of laughter, a blonde from the Scorpion called out, ‘Who’s this guy Schiller who’s done the tie-in?’

‘Shriller, if it’s Dame Hermione,’ drawled Baby.

The only obstacles ahead seemed to be that Baby must lose a stone before filming, if he were to look suitably lovelorn, and that the Don Carlos press officer, Bruce Cassidy, predictably nicknamed ‘Hype-along’, would have to try to hide the fact that Baby swung every which way including koala bears.

In another corner of the room, as the loudspeakers played Posa and Carlos’s Friendship Duet, Rannaldini and Tristan told a battery of cameras and tape-machines how delighted they were Baby was taking over and how equally excited they were about their new Russian discovery Mikhail Pezcherov. Rannaldini did most of the talking, as Tristan lit one Gauloise from another and looked languidly beautiful.

‘Bankable and bonkable,’ wrote the Mail.

‘You’ve been called the Italian stallion and the Kraut lout, Sir Roberto,’ piped up the Scorpion, ‘how come the Frog Prince is making a film with you?’

‘Rannaldini,’ said Tristan, in that husky, smoky accent with a slight break in it that sent shivers down every woman’s spine, ‘as my godfather and friend, has inspired and encouraged me. It has been my lifelong ambition to work with him on Don Carlos. I have every confidence in our collaboration.’

12

Alas, the recording was continually embattled. For a start, Rannaldini was only interested in the music sounding as he wanted. He would scrap even Hermione’s most glorious take if he didn’t like the intonation of the clarinets. Nor would he adjust his tempo to suit a singer, and had no intention of adjusting it for Tristan, for whom the timing of every bar was crucial.

Normally in films, music is added later to enhance the action, but in filming an opera, the action has to fit already recorded music. Thus, Tristan kept having to halt Rannaldini if he played something too fast or too slowly because when it came to filming the relevant singer wouldn’t have the right amount of time to run to the centre of the maze or indulge in a passionate clinch.

Rannaldini detested this. He had arranged for a camera to be on him constantly while he was conducting, so that the video could be shown on a huge monitor to guide the singers on location. Such was his monstrous vanity that he required endless lighting rehearsals, and would hold up a hundred musicians, not to mention singers, chorus and technicians, all on overtime, for twenty minutes while his hair was brushed and the shine taken off his nose. Once started, though, he was reluctant to be halted except at his own whim.

Nor were his singers behaving any better. Hermione was staying at the Lanesborough, Chloe at the Capital. The hotels were only a stone’s throw apart, but both divas insisted on travelling in different limos. When she discovered that Chloe’s dressing room was bigger than hers, Hermione was enraged and duly took her revenge the next day.

Singers are reputed to sing less well when they have their periods. Their vocal cords thicken and the diaphragm supporting the voice becomes sore and easily tired.

Next day Chloe recorded her great aria, ‘O Don Fatale’, and denounced her ‘fatal gift of beauty’ so gloriously, but with such controlled venom, it was impossible not to think it was part of her character. As she came to the end, however, and before the strings could tap their bows on the backs of their chairs in congratulation, Hermione had produced a Tampax from her bag, and thrusting it towards her, asked solicitously, ‘Are you needing this, dear?’

Chloe was outraged.

‘I can’t believe you’re still young enough to use those things,’ she snarled back, and retaliated later in the day by dropping her handbag in the middle of an exquisite take of Hermione’s aria in Act II. This triggered a five-minute screaming match, with Hermione threatening to walk out. Only Tristan managed to calm her.

‘There are women, Hermione,’ deliberately he made his voice even huskier, ‘who Verdi claimed are “born for others, who are quite unaware of their own egos, and who rise above the petty squabbles of lesser mortals”.’

Hermione was so moved she behaved herself for the rest of the afternoon.

On the other hand, she was not the only member of the cast to be worried that Fat Franco had been ousted by an unknown Australian. At least Franco would have ensured that Don Carlos was a commercial success. Confidence was restored, however, the moment Baby opened his mouth. The entire orchestra turned round to gawp, and at the end of his first duet with Chloe, Mikhail put down the score he was studying, ran across the hall and flung his arms round Baby. ‘You have most beautiful voice I ever hear. It will be privilege to vork with you.’

Mikhail’s own voice was just as impressive: Posa’s death scene had everyone in tears. Mikhail, however, was easily demoralized, particularly by Alpheus the bass who, in the great duet between Philip II and Posa, kept sighing and wearily holding the bridge of his nose between finger and thumb, as Mikhail, with his poor command of English, fluffed line after line.

Baby and Mikhail on the other hand took to each other instantly, almost as an extension of their comradely role in the opera. In the evening they went on pub crawls, rehearsing their songs for the next day to the noisy delight of the punters. They tried to take Tristan with them but, to their disappointment, he insisted on returning alone to a friend’s flat he had borrowed overlooking Regent’s Park. After all the rows and hysterics, he needed peace to study the next day’s score.

Mysteriously with Mikhail’s arrival things started to disappear. Serena mislaid some pearl earrings, Alpheus some gold cufflinks. Chloe had quite fancied Mikhail until a large topaz ring, the only decent present Alpheus had ever given her, went missing. The cutlery in the canteen had to be replaced twice in a week. Only Baby, Mikhail’s buddy, remained unfleeced, which convinced Hermione, who’d made an unbelievable fuss about a missing umbrella, that he must be the thief.

‘All Australians are descended from convicts.’

‘I have never stolen anything in my life except thunder,’ snapped Baby.

Poor little Christy Foxe, the PA, had the thankless task of getting the cast to the right mikes on time. A singer meant to sound far away has to stand back from the mike, but if, in the middle of a number, he has a love scene with another singer, he has to rush to the mike next to them.

In the ensemble numbers, therefore, it was like Waterloo in the rush-hour, with little Christy shunting Dame Hermione, like a cattle truck, in one direction, and the chorus master propelling Alpheus, like the Intercity Express, in the other. Collisions, screaming-matches, kicks on the shin and slapped faces were inevitable.

There were more rows in the control room, which was where singers flocked after a stint of recording to listen to the playback and try to persuade Serena and Sylvestre, Tristan’s handsome blond French sound engineer, to use the take in which they had sounded best.

Baby, who knew he sounded best in everything, got so bored even of listening to his own voice, not even handsome Sylvestre could distract him, so he frequently started dancing round the recording-machines, much to Alpheus’s disapproval.

Alpheus already disapproved of Granny’s hunky boyfriend, Giuseppe, because if Giuseppe’s consumption of red wine didn’t impair the beauty of his voice he might one day topple Alpheus in leading bass roles, as Alpheus had toppled Granny. Alpheus also disapproved of Granny, who sat calmly knitting colourful squares for a patchwork quilt for his and Giuseppe’s bed, shaking with laughter at his own even more colourful asides. He hardly bothered to put down his needles when he sang, but chilled the blood every time he opened his mouth to deliver the words of the Grand Inquisitor.

Alpheus disapproved most of all of the orchestra.

‘I think the brass section have been drinking,’ he complained, during an evening session.

‘I should be extremely surprised if they hadn’t,’ said the orchestra manager calmly.

In turn, the orchestra, who worked flat out at every session, thoroughly disapproved of the singers, regarding them as lazy, stupid, hypochondriacal, hysterical and grossly overpaid. They did, however, forgive Baby, because he made them laugh and was monumentally generous. Whenever hampers or crates of wine rolled in from his increasing army of fans, they were handed over to the orchestra. Alpheus, who begrudged giving away anything, was horrified. No wonder Baby had difficulty with tax bills.

Meanwhile, Chloe and Alpheus had worked out their schedule so that whenever neither of them was singing they could slope off to bed.

The ladies of the chorus also thought Alpheus was yummy, and whiled away long, cold hours gazing at him. Predominantly middle-aged, given to baggy jerseys and straining leggings, they were of little interest to Alpheus. One member of the chorus, however, Gloria Prescott, rose like Venus from the permanent waves and was nicknamed ‘Pushy Galore’ because she always pushed her way to the front, nodding, gesticulating, shaking her blonde ringleted head and overacting to catch the director’s or conductor’s eye. She also sucked up to Dame Hermione.

‘Ay am such a fan.’

So Hermione befriended Pushy to infuriate Chloe. Alpheus, Rannaldini, Sexton, Sylvestre and Mikhail had all clocked Pushy. In return, Pushy whispered constantly in all their ears, including Tristan’s, that her greatest role at music college had been Elisabetta and wouldn’t she be younger and prettier in the role than Dame Hermione? One morning she was practising one of Hermione’s arias, and hitting all the high notes perfectly, when Rannaldini’s vulpine smile came round the door.

‘Would you like me to accompany you, my child?’ Then, as he was tinkling away, ‘You see, I am not such an ogre. When I say thees or that ees bad, it is because I have ears to ’ear the wrong things.’

The chorus were not booked for the following day, but Rannaldini confided to Pushy that he would specially like to send a limo for her tomorrow afternoon so she could hear the orchestra recording the overture that he himself had composed, and then perhaps they could have tea at the Ritz. Pushy was in heaven.

But if Rannaldini was histrionic when he conducted Verdi he was ten times more difficult when it came to his own music. Having reduced the orchestra to nervous wrecks in the rehearsal beforehand he started rowing with an increasingly demented Tristan.

‘If you take it that fast,’ yelled Tristan, ‘the hunt will never have time to stream down the valley.’

‘Then they must stream queeker.’

‘Then you will lose magical flowing effect.’

‘I must be faithful to my music.’

‘First time bastard’s been faithful to anything,’ muttered Viking O’Neill, the first horn.

‘I must be faithful to story,’ shouted Tristan.

‘OK, we rehearse two ways: queek then flowing.’

Rannaldini proceeded to take his overture at a breakneck speed, his stick a blur, and then at such a funereal pace that the strings ran out of bow, the woodwind and the brass out of puff, and all got screamed at again.

Tristan nearly killed Rannaldini. So did Serena, when she saw the ringleted, beribboned Pushy Galore at the back of the hall.

‘Rannaldini said no outsiders,’ she stormed.

‘Sir Roberto kaindly sent a limo for me,’ simpered Pushy.

Tristan sat shaking in the control room, his head in his hands.

‘Quiet, please, we now record,’ said Rannaldini imperiously, filling the musicians with such terror they could hardly pick up their instruments. ‘Remember, gentlemen, this is for ever.’

He then took his overture at a totally different, lilting, cantering tempo to which the orchestra had a mad struggle to readjust. At the end there was utter silence. Gazing at their shoes, waiting for the inevitable explosion, his musicians didn’t see the tears in Rannaldini’s eyes.

‘Thank you, gentlemen, that was absolutely beautiful,’ he said quietly. ‘You can have the rest of the afternoon off.’

So he can take me to tea at the Ritz, thought Pushy joyfully.

But ignoring Pushy, abandoning the gaping orchestra, Rannaldini bounded upstairs to the control room where, for once, Serena had lost her cool.

‘You cannot waste an entire session,’ she yelled, as she met him in the doorway. ‘What about the introductions to the other acts?’

But her tirade faltered, as Rannaldini’s hand crept inside her purple jersey.

‘We shall go ’ome to your flat.’

‘But Jessie is there with Nanny Bratislava.’

‘Tell little Jessie she must learn to call me Uncle Roberto.’

13

The next drama to rock the recording was when Rozzy Pringle finally turned up to sing Tebaldo, Elisabetta’s page. A seventies beauty, the doe-eyed, long-legged Rozzy was so like Celia Johnson that everyone had wanted to have unbrief encounters with her. She was much too old for the part, but at least she’d make Hermione look young, and she had a host of fans.

Granny and Rannaldini, who’d often worked with her, admired her inordinately. Serena and Alpheus had long collected her records. On the other hand, Hermione disliked all other sopranos on principle, and Mikhail, Baby and Chloe, being from a younger generation, scoffed that Rozzy was past it.

Tristan was livid with them. Enchanted at the prospect of working with one of his heroines, he filled Rozzy’s dressing room with spring flowers.

But when Rozzy finally came through the door, on a dank, grey, viciously cold morning, he was appalled. She looked old enough to be Hermione’s grandmother, and was purple with cold to match the darned violet blazer she was wearing over her long, flowered dress. To combat the ageing hippie look, she had curled up her hair but it had dropped in the fog, and fell in lank straight tresses over her jutting collarbones. Everyone greeted her effusively to conceal their shock.

‘Hi, Rozzy, I’m such a fan,’ said Chloe, clanking cheeks. Then, ten seconds later to Baby, ‘She must have lied about her age in Who’s Who. She’ll never see fifty again.’

Having thrust a beautifully wrapped present into Tristan’s hand, ‘a little something because you’re so kind to book me’, Rozzy fled to the loo.

‘Such a drag having Rozzy Pringle here, stinking out the lav again,’ grumbled Hermione, half an hour later, as little Christy Foxe propelled her towards the microphone.

‘You have to move to mike four, next to Baby, in bar forty-five, Dame Hermione,’ he reminded her for the tenth time. Then, consulting his score, he said, smiling at Rozzy as she crept grey and shaking out of her dressing room, ‘You start off standing twelve feet from mike two, then move up close to mike three, Mrs Pringle.’

‘Don’t worry,’ Tristan put his bomber jacket round Rozzy’s trembling shoulders. ‘Tebaldo’s just as petrified as you in this scene. Just make sure those opening “Hey theres” really ring out.’

Rozzy, Baby and Hermione were all in place, their breath rising in white plumes as Rannaldini swept in.

‘Morning, Rozzy, lovely to have you with us. Shall we catch up over a spot of lunch?’ he called out, eliciting scowls from Serena, Pushy and Hermione.

It was too early for the offstage band, waiting in the bar, to have got drunk. Seeing Rannaldini raise his stick on the monitor, Viking O’Neill came in with the mournful, fading sob of the departing hunting horn.

‘“All is silent, night approaches, and the first star glitters on the horizon,”’ sang Baby, who worked the mike like a rock star.

Now they’ll eat their bitchy words, thought Tristan, as Rannaldini nodded, smiling at Rozzy, but despite her anguished face and frenzied mouthings, no ‘Hey theres’ came out.

Rannaldini halted the orchestra.

‘Rozzy?’

‘Sorry, Maestro.’

‘From the top.’ He raised his baton.

Viking’s horn, then Baby, both hauntingly exquisite, were followed by silence, and a dreadful, strangulated croak.

‘Relax, Rozzy, one, two, three,’ called Rannaldini.

Rozzy’s heart was crashing, the blood pumping through her veins, but her throat was drier than the desert. Even after ten minutes of struggling, all she could produce were scraping gasps. Tristan, in the control room, felt as if he was watching a dog, whose vocal cords had been cut in the vivisection clinic, trying to cry out as the surgeon’s knife went in. By the time he had run down into the hall, Rannaldini had lost his temper.

‘How dare you call yourself a professional singer?’ he was screaming.

‘You’ve let us all down,’ reproached Hermione, as Rozzy fled to her dressing room, her body racked as much with coughing as with sobs.

Rannaldini picked up the telephone to the control room.

‘Who booked her, for Christ’s sake?’

‘You and Tristan did,’ snapped Serena. ‘We’re going to have to reschedule.’

‘Tebaldo was my favourite part at college,’ piped up Pushy.

Rozzy’s present to Tristan was a cushion, green velvet on one side, the other exquisitely embroidered with the words, ‘The Lily in the Valley’.

Tristan couldn’t bear unhappiness. Leaving everyone fighting, and Baby and Hermione to finish their duet, he drove Rozzy to Harley Street with his car heater turned up.

She had had a terrible Christmas, she revealed, between sobs, yelling at insolent stepchildren, placating Glyn, her idle husband, coping with his frightful mother, who kept commiserating with him for being neglected by a wife who was always selfishly pursuing a career. Matters had not been helped when Rozzy had nipped off on 28 December to sing Mimì in a cheap Hungarian production to pay a tax bill, before singing Brünnhilde, with laryngitis, in Athens three days later. Brünnhilde’s immolation scene had done for her.

Why the fuck did you risk it? Tristan wanted to shout.

The throat specialist said Rozzy had thoroughly overstrained her voice. He couldn’t promise that it would come back and she certainly couldn’t sing in the recording.

Seated in Tristan’s car once more, Rozzy cried so hard that passers-by — swept down Harley Street by the north wind — gazed in horror.

‘People will think I am woman-beater,’ grumbled Tristan, and drove her to his flat overlooking Regent’s Park, which glittered with hoar frost in the midday sun. All round the walls of the sitting room were propped photographs of the cast.

‘I like to live with my characters,’ explained Tristan.

‘Past and present,’ said Rozzy, picking up a large photograph of Claudine Lauzerte in its own silver frame. ‘I wish I looked as good as that now.’ Wincing, as she glanced in the mirror she wiped mascara from under her eyes. ‘People used to say Claudine and I were a little alike.’

‘A little.’ Tristan smiled as he handed her a vast Bloody Mary.

She looked half starved. He couldn’t have her blubbing all over a restaurant. He’d been too uptight himself to eat the Chinese takeaway he’d brought home last night. Perhaps he could heat it up for Rozzy.

‘I’m sorry to be such a drip,’ she said, following him into the kitchen. ‘Yesterday I discovered Glyn had appropriated thirty thousand pounds I’d saved for my tax bill to subsidize some dodgy property deal.

‘He’s also employed an incredibly pretty temporary housekeeper called Sylvia at vast expense for the few days I was going to be away recording Carlos. This morning I took my mother-in-law Go-Cat in her breakfast bowl instead of muesli…’ Rozzy started to cry again.

‘You’re just overtired,’ said Tristan, putting an arm round her shoulders. ‘I found my washing in the dishwasher this morning, and my car keys in the fridge.’

He let her run on as he got out the takeaway. The waxy topping of orange fat looked disgusting.

‘I can’t go home tonight,’ Rozzy was whispering to herself. ‘Glyn’ll think I’m spying on him and Sylvia. Oh, Tristan, what are we going to live on if I can’t sing any more?’

For once when his mobile rang Tristan was relieved.

It was Baby in ecstasy, and having a large vodka, because Christy Foxe, who’d been such a trooper, had finally walked out.

‘He was fed up shunting Hermione around,’ explained Baby, ‘Rannaldini being so vile to Rozzy was the final straw. The brave little lad got up and sang “The Prisoners’ Chorus” from Fidelio. After he’d gone, he sent Rannaldini a message on his bleeper, saying, “Stuff job up your ass, rude letter to follow.”’

Tristan started to laugh.

‘After Christy walked out,’ went on Baby gleefully, ‘Alpheus, too vain to put on his glasses and too busy ogling Pushy Galore, failed to read Christy’s last pencil note on the score saying, “Please move back here, Herd of Elephant coming through”, so Dame Hermione ran slap into him. Hermione is now suing for a broken toe, Alpheus for a broken rib. I think you’d better find another PA, Tristan.’

Grinning and shaking his head, Tristan switched off his mobile.

‘We’re in luck. You can stay on at the Capital, and take over Christy’s job. You know Don Carlos backwards. And because you’re wonderful at sewing — that is most beautiful cushion I ever have — when we go on location, you can stop Griselda, the wardrobe mistress, having nervous breakdown. And to keep you on the cast list,’ Tristan chucked the takeaway cartons in the bin, ‘you can have the non-singing role of the Countess of Aremberg. All you’ll have to do is cry when the King sacks you, and you’re very good at that. Come on, I’ll buy you lunch.’

Rozzy got to her feet unsteadily. As he caught her before she fell, Tristan felt her desperate boniness.

‘You are the kindest person I’ve ever met,’ she said, in a choked voice.

Sexton and Serena, however, shook their heads at such unilateral brokering of a deal, and Rannaldini went ballistic at such prodigality: a singer’s salary for a neurotic geriatric PA.

That night, in revenge for Alpheus ogling Pushy, Chloe invited Sylvestre, Tristan’s handsome blond sound engineer, back to the Capital and discovered he was as good at twiddling knobs in bed as out. Afterwards, as they shared a bottle of Dom Pérignon on Liberty Productions, Sylvestre sighed that Tristan was too kind for his own good.

‘We had location manager on Lily in the Valley so useless he couldn’t find his own cock. Tristan called him into his caravan to sack him, but he spent so much time listing his good points so as not to demoralize him that the guy came out three hours later convinced he’d been promoted.’

More seriously, they were now without a page who, in Tristan’s new present-day version, had become a bodyguard. Tebaldo is not a huge part, but a vital one, a larky little fellow, usually played by a charming gamin.

Pushy Galore came forward immediately, ringlets and ribbons flying. She knew the part, could she audition? Rannaldini, Sexton, and Alpheus were all keen.

‘Give the young woman a chance,’ urged Hermione, because she knew it would irritate Chloe, who longed secretly to be admired and promoted by Hermione.

Serena, however, wanted to kick in Pushy’s buck teeth, because she was always making eyes at Rannaldini, and Tristan thought her ghastly and far too refined to play a bodyguard.

The argument was at full throttle in the control room when Viking wandered in. Despite their earlier differences, he had played like an angel throughout the sessions, and he and Rannaldini had achieved a grudging, if transient, respect.

‘Here’s one soprano who isn’t working at the moment.’ He chucked a photograph on the table.

The girl wore an ivory silk shift. She had a shiny dark red bob, pale gold skin sprinkled with freckles like a tiger lily, and cool, watchful green eyes.

Viking put a tape in the machine. Her voice was of such piercing, distinctive sweetness that Tristan had to hear only a few bars.

‘Bravo, Viking, who is she?’

‘Flora Seymour — she’s Georgie Maguire’s daughter, so it’s in the genes. She played the viola in my old orchestra, but trained as a singer as well. She’s got the most angelic voice in the world.’

‘Give me her telephone number,’ said Tristan.

He met a lot of opposition. Serena, Hermione and Chloe all thought Flora was a tramp, probably because she’d had affaires with both Rannaldini and Viking, and because they’d all three had designs in the past on the filthy rich, if slightly shady, George Hungerford, with whom Flora was now living.

Rannaldini didn’t want any advice from Viking and he’d fallen out badly with Flora. But he doted on her voice, which had never been properly exploited. He was enough of a mischief-maker as well to see the potential for avenging himself on Flora’s lover, George Hungerford, who as managing director of the Rutminster Symphony Orchestra had foiled Rannaldini’s takeover bid and who, as a developer, was also threatening to slap a motorway through Valhalla.

Sexton, who was watching the mounting costs in horror, was in favour because Flora sounded cheap.

‘How d’you know her so well?’ asked Tristan.

‘I was once hopelessly in love with her,’ said Viking.

Answering his mobile, he wandered out of earshot to speak to his new wife. ‘Abby darling, I love you too. I’ve also been matchmaking,’ he lowered his voice. ‘I’ve posted Tristan de Montigny down to Rutminster Hall to see Flora.’

14

Flora sat naked on the white shagpile drying her hair. In the long gilt bedroom mirror she could see three moles on her inside thigh and soft red pubic hair, still damp from the bath. Her small freckled breast rose every time she lifted her arm, but her two spare tyres didn’t shift.

Schiller’s Don Carlos was now open between legs grown far too chunky to play a page-boy poncing about in white tights. She mustn’t get too engrossed in the story, or she’d forget her hair and the sleek bob would shoot upwards like an explosion in a mattress factory.

‘A hundred eyes are hired,’ she read.

Surrounded by George’s guards, who watched her every move, Flora identified with Carlos. Then she looked up at George’s photograph on her dressing-table: cropped-haired, square-jawed, dark brown turned-down eyes, mouth set like a steel trap in the Harvey Smith/John Prescott rough, tough North Country mould — himself against the world. Only Flora knew how sensitive and kind George was behind the façade, but he was terribly possessive.

Having screwed up his first marriage because he was a workaholic, George had taken the autumn off to cement his relationship with Flora, but had returned to work because mega property companies and orchestras don’t run themselves. Most of his time was spent in Germany. Flora wanted to travel with him, but she couldn’t bear to be parted from Trevor, her little black and tan terrier, who was now asleep with a red ball in his mouth on the vast oval bed, whose headboard hummed with every dial. When she was away Trevor wouldn’t eat, and neither he nor she would survive quarantine, so she stayed behind and missed George dreadfully.

Flora was also lonely because her great friend Marcus Campbell-Black, having won the Appleton, was now blissful in Moscow with Alexei Nemerovsky, and her other friend, Abigail Rosen, was having a baby and blissfully happy married to Viking.

Abby, a maternity dress hiding a non-existent bulge, had recently driven down for the day and chided Flora for putting on weight.

‘You’ve never been an achiever, Flora. You never really concentrated on your singing career, and you’ve never stuck to a diet.’

‘Too right,’ Flora agreed gloomily. ‘I’m the one who should be wearing the maternity dress.’

‘George is an incredibly attractive man,’ went on Abby. ‘If you’re going to keep him you mustn’t let yourself go.’

Flora’s hair was dry now. Thick as the shagpile inside, snow was growing on the window-ledge. Tomorrow she and Trevor would build a snow-dog. As she reached for her glass of champagne, Trevor flew off the bed, rushing downstairs in a frenzy of excited barking. Outside, Flora could see the lights of Rannaldini’s helicopter bringing Tristan from London. Trevor had mistaken it for George’s.

The heat of the hair-dryer had removed any need for blusher. Ringing her eyes with brown liner, Flora wriggled into a pair of black jeans, covered the flesh that spilled over the waistband with one of George’s evening shirts, squirted on Coco Chanel and belted downstairs. The Frenchman who came through the front door with snowflakes in his hair was so handsome and so near Flora in age that she promptly had another glass of champagne on an empty stomach out of shyness.

Tristan, however, noticed a Schubert quintet, in which he had often played the cello part, on the music stand in the drawing room and they were off, chattering dix-neuf to the dozen. Tristan was only too happy to tell Flora all about Tab’s wedding because it gave him an excuse to talk about Tab.

‘She’s the most beautiful thing I ever saw,’ confessed Flora, ‘but crazy like a fox, and so volatile. It must be like being married to Mount Vesuvius. I gather Rupert pulled out of Don Carlos as a result.’

Tab’s wedding took them down one bottle, then they moved on to the recording. As Flora’s parents lived in Paradise Valley next to Rannaldini and Hermione, and she knew Chloe, Serena and Meredith too, the gossip on that took them most of the way down another. Tristan, who’d noticed all the burglar alarms and the grilles on the windows, thought Rutminster Hall was ghastly, but improved by George’s Rottweilers stretched out in front of the fire. By the time they’d finished the second bottle, he’d ceased to worry about all the guards.

‘Where are you filming?’ she asked, as they tottered in to dinner.

‘Valhalla.’

‘Then I can’t do it. George would never allow it,’ squeaked Flora in horror, then shut up because two of George’s guards were serving steak and kidney pie and pouring a matchless Margaux.

After they’d shut the door, Flora told Tristan how strapped George was for cash.

‘He owes the Germans about forty million in bridging loans. If it were me I’d never sleep again. If I’d taken the part I could have helped out with a few bills, but truly I’m too fat. I’ve got a treble chin, although most trebles don’t have chins like mine.’

Tristan laughed. He thought Flora utterly ravishing and said there would be masses of time for her to lose any weight before filming started at the end of March.

‘But I haven’t got page’s legs.’

‘As it’s in modern dress, Tebaldo’s become one of those handsome detectives Princess Diana and Princess Anne seemed to get so close to. So your perfectly OK legs will be hidden by trousers.’

‘But the main drawback,’ went on Flora, ‘God, I hope this room isn’t bugged, is working with Rannaldini. George is insanely jealous and has never forgiven Rannaldini for beating me up and trying to rape me last August. I promise you it’s true,’ she added, seeing Tristan’s look of horror. ‘Rannaldini wanted me to stay the night with him after singing in The Creation but I bolted back to George.’

Then, after a large glass of Armagnac, she said, ‘I’ll do it, if George says it’s OK and if I can bring Trevor. Perhaps he could wear lifts and audition for one of Philip II’s wolfhounds.’

Trevor wagged his stumpy tail approvingly.

As soon as Tristan left, Flora rang Germany. George was dreadfully torn. He felt sick at the thought of Flora working with Rannaldini again and neither did he want her anywhere near that impossibly glamorous Tristan de Montigny, exuding cross-Channel pheromones. But he couldn’t stand in her way.

‘You’d never forgive me or yourself if you turned down the break of a lifetime.’

‘You’re the break of my lifetime,’ sobbed Flora, who half wanted George to forbid her. ‘Nothing will ever be as wonderful as falling in love with you.’

The moment she rang off George regretted it. Flora would have other chances and he didn’t trust Rannaldini. But when he rang back the number was engaged, even though it was two o’clock in the morning. She was obviously speaking to Tristan, accepting the part. George only just stopped himself ringing all the other numbers in the house.

Three hours later, Flora was slumped at the kitchen table, finishing Don Carlos and a large tub of banana and yoghurt ice cream, when she saw more fireflies dancing in the window.

Having made a detour to the other side of Rutminster to drop some Roman coins into the excavations of a rival, to prevent him getting planning permission from English Heritage, George had landed his helicopter outside the kitchen.

As Flora, followed by a sleepy Trevor, ran across the snowy lawn into his arms, George said, ‘I’ve got a meeting at nine in Düsseldorf, I can only stay an hour.’

‘Let’s spend every second of it in bed,’ said Flora, dragging him upstairs.

In fact, George was angelic. A fine bass himself, he returned the following evening to help her learn the part.

Flora also received a call from Sexton.

‘We’re writing into your contract a clause to say you mustn’t fall pregnant before the end of filming. Can’t ’ave a private dick in the club.’

15

Before her first recording Flora spent the night with Abby and Viking, who had practically to drug and drag her screaming into his car to get her to Wallsend Town Hall, which had grown even colder, the icicles outside even longer. The red-nosed chorus, in their overcoats, looked like carol singers.

Flora was supposed to take over where Rozzy had not started: in the Forest of Fontainebleau with Hermione and Baby, but as a dreadful anticlimax, Hermione had just rung in for the second day running saying that the broken toe she’d sustained in her collision with Alpheus was much worse.

Tristan was so angry for Flora that he drove much too fast over icy roads back into London to the Lanesborough. Thundering on the door of Hermione’s suite he was admitted by her excited PA. Hearing shrieks of agony, he thought he had misjudged his leading lady, but barging into her bedroom, found her having her legs waxed. To Hermione’s fury, he immediately insisted she and one hairy leg return with him to Wallsend.

Flora, meanwhile, had been immensely comforted to find a good-luck card in her dressing room from Serena’s new PA, Rozzy Pringle. She was attempting to get her trembling lips round a few arpeggios, when Rozzy herself rushed in with a mug of hot Ribena.

‘Hello, my poor lamb, you mustn’t be frightened. You’ve got such a lovely voice. I’ve studied the role so if you need any help… I have to confess,’ Rozzy went on, as she hung Flora’s blue scarf on a hanger, ‘I was prepared to hate you because my husband, Glyn, is so in love with your mother, he’s got all her records.’

‘I’ll get him an advance copy of her next album,’ promised Flora. ‘We’re all huge fans of yours.’

‘Come and meet Granville Hastings,’ said Rozzy. ‘He’s such a darling.’

‘Why are there so many people here?’ muttered an aghast Flora.

‘You’ve turned up on the worst possible day,’ whispered back Rozzy indignantly. ‘By constantly ignoring poor Tristan’s schedule and pulling out people to sing as and when he felt like it, Rannaldini’s created the most appalling backlog. All the rest of the cast are here in case they have to do retakes. Poor Tristan!’

They found Granny regaling an audience with chitchat.

‘My dear child, welcome.’ He put down his knitting to give Flora a kiss.

‘Where the hell’s Rannaldini?’ Even the normally ebullient Baby was uptight over all the hanging around.

‘Having a poke, I expect,’ sighed Granny. ‘He always poked the prettiest chorus girls at the Garden, bending them over the red velvet balcony of the royal box between rehearsals. If anyone came by, he used to pretend he was showing them round the opera-house.’

Granny rose, still knitting, and went into a sequence of languid pelvic thrusts. ‘Down there ees the peet, where my orchestra play [thrust], and zat is rostrum where I perform miracle [thrust], and zat is proscenium arch [thrust].’

‘When you ’ave feenish, Granville,’ said a chilling voice.

The laughter died. Granny dropped several stitches.

‘Dame ’Ermione soldier in. At least ’ave the courtesy not to keep her waiting.’ Rannaldini glared round.

‘Anyone got a Fisherman’s Friend?’ came Hermione’s pathetic bleat.

Limping ostentatiously, she joined Baby and Flora on the platform.

‘Just like the Teddy Bears’ Picnic,’ hissed Flora, glaring at Hermione’s full-length mink.

‘I assure you, this will be no picnic,’ hissed back Baby.

Rannaldini just had to stand there. His cruel, cold, pale, malevolent face was enough to give a performance its special edge. He raised his stick. Viking’s dying horn call floated out of the bar.

Flora was so terrified she began loud and sharp. It didn’t take Rannaldini long to put the boot in. After the fifth take, when she’d finally got the notes right, he said, ‘That was better, Flora, but you are expected to act.’

Flora flushed. ‘But I thought—’

‘Don’t,’ said Rannaldini crushingly. ‘You do not have the necessary equipment,’ he added bitchily. ‘To be a singer you have to have a voice. To be a musician you have to have a brain. Don’t confuse the two.’

There is a limited number of times you can ask a singer to repeat herself and get the words, notes and acting right. Rannaldini exceeded it. Flora was also slimming, and the rare perfect take was invariably wrecked by her rumbling tummy.

‘This is hopeless,’ yelled Rannaldini, calling a lunch break. ‘We will finish scene tomorrow.’

The last day was even more tempestuous, particularly when George Hungerford rolled up with Trevor, Flora’s terrier, and sat at the back of the hall scowling at Rannaldini. Flora got even more flustered, particularly when Trevor started howling at Hermione’s rather dubious top notes, which reduced both chorus and cast to fits of laughter, so master and dog were banished from the hall.

‘That nasty little dog is, alas, a critic,’ said Serena, as she picked up the telephone in the control room to ring Rannaldini on the rostrum. ‘Dame Hermione has lost her top.’

‘Where? Where?’ said Sexton, looking round the control room in excitement.

‘Her top notes, you bloody idiot.’ Serena slammed down the receiver.

Rannaldini decided to take a break and listen to the playback. Tristan bore George off for ‘a cup of tea and a piece of shortbread for Trevor’.

Smarmy frog even knows the name of my dog, thought George ungratefully.

‘And then you can sit in the control room,’ added Tristan.

‘No, he can’t,’ snapped Serena, who’d nipped down to the canteen to grab a cup of tea, and who hadn’t forgiven George for choosing to live with Flora rather than her. ‘Our singers’ weaknesses and how we conceal them are entirely our secret.’

‘Weaknesses?’ squawked Hermione, who, having clocked Rannaldini’s preference for Serena, had been spoiling for a fight. ‘What weaknesses? How dare you, you patronizing hussy?’ Grabbing cups and saucers, she started smashing them on the floor.

‘Pull yourself together, Hermione,’ said Serena bossily. ‘My little Jessie wouldn’t behave like that.’

Appearing in the doorway, Rannaldini ducked to avoid a milk jug and frogmarched a screaming Hermione off to her dressing room. Three minutes later, he came out zipping up his flies.

‘She’ll be OK now.’

‘But we’re going to have to drop in someone else’s top notes,’ whispered Serena.

Tristan decided to placate George with a large whisky instead and bore him off to find one.

‘Flora is wonderful,’ he said enthusiastically. ‘She is determined not to betray her panic to Elisabetta, but listen to the tension in her voice.’

‘She’s not having to act,’ snarled George, ‘and who’s that damn sight too good-looking boy playing Carlos?’

‘Baby Spinosissimo. He’s sublime, but extremely gay.’

The ladies of the chorus, who were not needed in the finale, were drifting away. Pushy’s hard little heart was breaking as she knocked on Rannaldini’s door.

‘Ay’ve just come to say goodbay, Maystro.’

‘My dear, can you keep a secret on pain of death?’

‘Of course,’ lied Pushy, wriggling inside.

‘How would you like to sing Dame Hermione’s top notes?’

At last the recording was over. Tristan heaved a sigh of relief that Rannaldini would now whizz off round the world out of their hair, allowing himself, Serena and Sylvestre to get on with the editing.

But, to his horror, Rannaldini went nowhere, hogging the edit suite, putting his stamp on everything, causing endless rows over which take was used, twiddling knobs so some singers sounded less good and others better than they had at the recording. Granny, getting to the end of his career, needed careful editing. Hermione, as Rannaldini’s mistress and more importantly because of their mutual record sales, couldn’t sound less than perfect. Sylvestre dropped in Pushy’s top notes so no-one could detect the join.

Still disappointed that Tristan hadn’t made a move, Serena put it down to the fact that she had supported Rannaldini on every artistic decision. She had also, reluctantly, become very smitten with her Italian stallion. It was so sweet of Rannaldini on the last day of editing, because her involvement in the film was ended, to invite her, Sylvestre and Tristan back to his flat overlooking Hyde Park for a farewell dinner.

As Serena was leaving to relieve the babysitter, because it was Nanny Bratislava’s night off, she handed Rannaldini a picture her daughter Jessie had painted specially for her ‘Uncle Roberto’.

‘How charming of Jessie,’ Rannaldini wiped away a tear, and as he ushered Serena into her minicab, promised he would call her later.

Bounding back into the house, however, he rolled up Jessie’s picture, plunged it into the drawing-room fire and lit his cigar with it.

‘What are you doing?’ demanded Tristan in horror.

‘Now the recording is sewn up,’ Rannaldini inhaled happily, ‘I have no more need to ingratiate myself with little Jessie’s mother.’

There were more fireworks in March when members of the cast were issued with cassettes of themselves singing so they could learn the words to which they had to mime on location and time their movements to them. Then they discovered how much Rannaldini had doctored the recording. Chloe was incensed by the cuts in the ‘Veil Song’ and in ‘Don Fatale’.

Rannaldini blithely blamed Serena.

‘Anyway, those numbers don’t add much to the plot, my darling.’

Baby was outraged he’d been so often drowned by Hermione. Alpheus felt Rannaldini had consistently favoured the orchestra and every other singer. It was sacrilege to cut his great solo in Act IV and his character didn’t ‘garner sufficient sympathy’.

Mikhail was so cross, he rang up Rannaldini in the middle of the night. ‘Why did you not use my third and best take in death of Posa?’

‘Because it was too slow,’ said Rannaldini coolly. ‘Serena wanted to get Acts Four and Five on to one CD for when the record comes out.’

‘At this rate my billing will be so small and low down, only snails and mice will be able to read it,’ sighed Granny, who’d also been savagely cut.

‘Think of poor Verdi,’ snarled Rannaldini. ‘He had to drop the entire first act of Don Carlos, because the Parisians couldn’t get their last trains home.’

‘And directors have been putting it back ever since,’ said Granny drily.

Sylvestre, the handsome French sound engineer, felt Hermione’s performance had been so enhanced by subtle additions that he sent her her cassette with utter confidence. In a frenzy Hermione returned the tape by taxi, shrieking down the telephone and threatening legal action. ‘You have rejected every single take I wanted and my top notes sound terrible.’

Sylvestre waited four days, wrote to Hermione saying he’d laboured all round the clock on a new tape, and sent her back the old one. By return of post, he received from Hermione a letter, which he framed, saying, ‘You have worked miracles.’ Also included was an invitation to luncheon, which lasted twenty-four hours.

There was great consternation when a hatchet job, on the horrors of recording with Rannaldini, appeared in the Sunday Times, written by little Christy Foxe. As Christy subsequently turned out to be Rupert Campbell-Black’s godson, and the son of Janey Lloyd-Foxe, a very dangerous columnist, Rannaldini and Tristan wondered uneasily if this were the first round in Rupert’s war of attrition.

16

One of the secrets of Rannaldini’s success was that he knew when he had pushed those he needed too far. Immediately the editing was finished he suggested he, Tristan and Meredith, the set designer, should recce the state rooms at Buckingham Palace.

Rannaldini and Meredith went back a long way. They had done up numerous houses together without falling out. Aware that Meredith had been the lover of Hermione’s charming husband, Bob Harefield, for fifteen years, Rannaldini had never outed them because he was fond of Meredith, and Bob, as orchestral manager of Rannaldini’s old orchestra, the London Met, had made life incredibly easy for him.

Neither Rannaldini nor Hermione, on the other hand, had made life easy for Bob, who’d pretended he was far too stretched in Australia setting up a new opera company, to come home and organize Don Carlos for them.

Meredith, a hugely successful interior designer, had turned down a mass of work to create the sets for Don Carlos, but he intended to screw a vast fee out of Liberty Productions, and although missing Bob a great deal, he was very excited about working with such an enchanting Frenchman.

On the day of the proposed trip to the Palace, so many builders’ lorries and cars belonging to outraged planning officers were already whizzing in and out of Valhalla that the Fancy Fish frozen foods van slipped through the gates unnoticed. Famed for his cheeky, cheery manner, which could sell shellfish à la King to a barmitzvah party, Terry, the Fancy Fish rep, had long had designs on Valhalla, particularly now rumours were spreading of a film crew rolling up at the end of March.

Harriet Bussage, Rannaldini’s PA, had tipped Terry off that Sir Roberto was in rare residence. On his way to make his pitch Terry decided to pop into Bussage’s cottage, which nestled in a copse half-way up Valhalla’s drive, to deliver a cardboard box of sole Véronique as a thank-you present. Loading up other boxes, in case Bussage was tempted to place an order (Terry never missed a sales opportunity), he was just admiring the snowdrops and aconites in her little garden when he heard a male voice, sepulchral and terrifying:

‘How dare you spell Spinosissimo wrong!’ followed by a great thwack and a shriek.

‘I’m sorry, Maestro.’ It was a woman’s voice now, quavering, pleading. ‘Please don’t hurt me.’

‘How dare you put a comma in that letter to Lord Gowrie, when I dictated a semi-colon,’ intoned the man’s voice.

More thwacks were followed by even more piercing shrieks:

‘Punish me, Maestro, I’m so sorry.’

Rushing to the rescue through the back door, Terry froze with shock. A naked Miss Bussage was spread-eagled face down on the kitchen table, with wrists and ankles strapped to each wooden leg.

Beside her, an equally naked Rannaldini, with an erection rivalling the tower of Pisa, was laying into her reddening but surprisingly trim bottom with a hunting whip. Watching them with indifference was a large fluffy white cat.

Next moment sole Véronique, garlic king prawns, not to mention jumbo crispy cod fingers, destined for Little Cosmo, went flying all over the kitchen and Terry had fled.

‘It was the bleedin’ excitement on their faces fixed me,’ he told his wife that evening.

Five minutes later, Meredith and Tristan, having enjoyed a merry champagne brunch at the Heavenly Host, bounced into Bussage’s parlour to find Rannaldini, immaculate in a pinstripe suit and shocking pink tie, autographing a pile of photographs.

‘Helen said you were here,’ giggled Meredith. ‘The helicopter’s waiting. What the hell did you do to that sweet Fancy Fish man? He’s just taken the side off Tristan’s flash car.’

Booked in for a two-hour trip round the state rooms, which was all the time Rannaldini could spare, they lunched beforehand at Green’s in Bury Street. Over oysters, lobster and Sancerre, they decided they needed ideas for the Great Hall, which was going to be turned into Philip II’s bedroom. They also required a set, probably the Summer Drawing Room, into which Philip summoned Carlos from the polo field for a pep talk. This was a duet composed by Rannaldini, so he didn’t want a too-spectacular décor to distract people from his music. But they could go to town on the state room in which Philip had his great political debate with Posa, which had only been written by Verdi. For this Rannaldini had evil designs on Helen’s Blue Living Room.

Arriving at the Palace, Meredith commandeered the red guidebook. ‘That’s the arch through which diplomats and heads of state enter,’ he announced, as they peered down into the pink-gravelled quadrangle.

‘Her Majesty lives on the opposite side,’ said Rannaldini, pointing to a dark blue door.

‘Why don’t you give her a bell?’ suggested Meredith. ‘Ask if we can pop in for a brandy. You must have met her when she gave you your K.’

‘And on many other occasions,’ said Rannaldini icily. ‘Anyway,’ he added, looking up at the empty flagpole, ‘she is not in residence.’

‘“In 1826 George IV chose John Nash to design a new palace,”’ read out Meredith, ‘“but he was hampered by a chronic lack of funds.” Nash et moi. I expect he gnashed his teeth.’ Rather like a child swinging between two parents, Meredith linked arms with Tristan and Rannaldini. ‘You will give me a decent budget, won’t you, boys? We can’t stint on royalty. Oh, look, they’ve got Sky Television. Lovely to think of that butch Prince Andrew watching all that golf.’

Tristan was gazing up at the lion-coloured columns of the ambassadors’ entrance.

‘The English stole the idea for that double portico from the Louvre,’ he grumbled. ‘They steal all our decent ideas.’

‘Well, we won both of those,’ Meredith waved the guidebook at two panels celebrating the battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo, ‘so boo sucks.’

‘Weeth a little help from the Germans,’ said Rannaldini crushingly. ‘Now concentrate. Not now,’ he snarled, as a group of middle-aged tourists tiptoed up reverently in the hope of an autograph.

Meredith was disappointed the tour didn’t include the ballroom. ‘You’re only admitted’, announced Rannaldini pompously, ‘if you’re getting a decoration.’

‘Get you,’ said Meredith, who was now busily sketching a grand staircase, which unfurled like the frill round a golden wedding cake.

Tristan, lost in thought, was admiring a lovely marble of a lurcher having a thorn removed from its paw by Diana the huntress. He must find a postcard to send to Lucy Latimer. Thank God he’d booked her to do the make-up and to calm Hermione and Chloe when filming started. There were dogs in every painting too, which meant he’d have to include lots in the film. Dogs, he reflected wearily, were almost more of a nuisance than children.

‘This is the Green Room,’ Rannaldini paused on the threshold, ‘where one mingles before proceeding to the Throne Room to meet one’s hosts.’

‘How lucky we are to have you to initiate us,’ said Meredith gravely.

‘Stop taking the pees, you little popinjay,’ said Rannaldini. ‘How about this décor for one of the drawing rooms?’

‘No good for your colouring,’ said Meredith firmly. ‘Green’s awful with grey hair and a sallow complexion. Someone would spear you with a cocktail stick. Although we could drag the dungeons this colour to cast a sickly glow on poor, doomed Posa.’

Tristan kept having to hide his laughter by examining paintings.

‘This is how I want room where Posa defies Philip,’ said Rannaldini, as he hustled them into the Throne Room, which was the length of a cricket pitch. The crimson silk walls were lined with gold sofas. Huge cut-glass chandeliers glittered from the ceiling like a fleet of Jack Frost’s air balloons.

‘The ceilings at Valhalla are too low for chandeliers,’ protested Meredith.

‘Then raise them,’ said Rannaldini imperiously.

Through an arch flanked by white-winged genii holding gold paper chains, burgundy red steps led up to two crimson thrones, embroidered with the initials EIIR and P.

‘We must reproduce those for Elisabetta and Philip II,’ said Tristan in excitement.

‘And keep them permanently at Valhalla after filming’s over,’ giggled Meredith, ‘we can unpick the E and P and change it to R for Rannaldini and H for Hermione, or Helen or Harriet Bussage,’ he added slyly, ‘depending on who’s in favour.’

Rannaldini allowed himself a chill smile, but he could only think of a throne initialled T, with naked Tabitha sprawled on its faded damask, waiting for him to mount the burgundy red steps and her.

In every room there were beautiful clocks depicting heroic scenes. How slowly the minutes must have ticked by for the young Princess Diana, thought Tristan, and for Carlos and Elisabetta. How d’you cure a broken heart in a gilded cage, particularly when every ravishing piece of Sèvres showed idyllic scenes of young shepherds and shepherdesses in love?

‘I want a scrolled codpiece for Christmas,’ said Meredith, bringing everyone back to earth.

‘Her Majesty enters the Throne Room through that emergency exit,’ murmured an official, who’d recognized Rannaldini, ‘so she doesn’t have to walk through a lot of rooms.’

‘That’s nice,’ piped up Meredith, ‘so she can always retreat down the backstairs for a squirt of Diorissimo.’

‘Half the big-looking glasses,’ confided the official, ‘despite being covered with gilt patterns of leaves and flowers, are actually hidden secret doors.’

Rannaldini’s eyes gleamed. How perfect for the to-ing and fro-ing of lovers and Inquisition spies, often the same thing in Don Carlos, and for himself, who liked to vanish like the Cheshire Cat.

They had reached the great spine of the state rooms — the Picture Gallery — mostly Dutch and Flemish masters. Tristan was enraptured and went into a flurry of oh-mon-dieus, particularly over Rembrandt’s Old Shipbuilder and His Wife, whose faces were luminous with affection and inner light. If only Lucy could make the faces of his cast glow like that.

Too much enthusiasm for anything other than himself unnerved Rannaldini, who whisked them past each masterpiece, only pausing to admire Guido’s terrifying painting of Cleopatra being bitten by the asp. Étienne had been the same, thought Tristan, with a pang. As a child he had never been given time to linger over a painting.

Christ Healing the Paralytic.’ Consulting the guidebook, Meredith paused before a large oil. ‘He ought to have a go at Tabitha Lovell.’

‘Is she still drinking?’ Tristan tried not to sound interested.

‘Buckets,’ sighed Meredith. ‘She’ll give birth to a little pickled walnut at this rate.’

‘This is the best picture in the room.’ A good-looking official drew their attention to Charles I astride a fine grey horse. ‘His eyes really follow one round the room.’

‘So would mine given the chance,’ said Meredith admiringly.

‘This is the Blue Room,’ purred Rannaldini, ‘where one gathers for drinks before grand diplomatic occasions.’

‘This is it, glorious,’ squeaked Meredith, whipping out his notebook and scribbling frantically. ‘Corinthian pillars the colour of Harrogate toffee, sea-blue flocked wallpaper, masses of gold framing the mirrors and ceiling, pale turquoise sofas, perfect for the Summer Drawing Room and Philip’s pep talk to Carlos.’

Diluting the gilded splendour, through floor-length windows green lawns could be seen sweeping down to a lake surrounded by willows. ‘I’m going to scrap my fences and flower-beds and sweep down to my lake,’ Rannaldini was thinking aloud.

‘Take a lot of mowing,’ chided Meredith. ‘Teddy Brimscombe would give notice and no-one else would put up with you. I like this vermilion,’ he mused, as they moved into the Music Room, ‘like a winter sunset and incredibly flattering to your colouring.’

Rannaldini smoothed his hair complacently, but the smile was wiped off his face when Tristan was suddenly mobbed by a party of French tourists, demanding his autograph, taking pictures and asking after Claudine Lauzerte.

Outraged to lose the limelight for a second, Rannaldini dived under the red rope and played ‘God Save the Queen’ on the Music Room piano. Guides blanched, security men with walkie-talkies rushed in, the French tourists, melting away from Tristan, cheered and clapped as they recognized Rannaldini.

‘I couldn’t reseest it.’

‘That’s OK, Sir Roberto.’

Their last port of call was the White Drawing Room, which took all their breath away.

‘This is answer for the Great Hall,’ exclaimed Rannaldini. ‘Then for Philip’s debate with Posa we can restore our Blue Living Room to its former glory with reds and crimsons.’

‘Isn’t that the room Helen just redecorated?’ said an aghast Tristan.

‘Yes, poor darling,’ agreed Meredith. ‘We tried a hundred coats before we got the right blue. But this gilt and white is to die for. And there’s darling Queen Alexandra over the chimneypiece. She was as good about fat Edward’s philandering as Helen is about yours, Rannaldini, so we might placate her with a new portrait over the fireplace.’

Meredith does get away with murder, thought Tristan, as they trooped down the staircase.

Out in the sunshine, Rannaldini stalked off to the Palace shop.

‘We must take Sexton a present,’ said Tristan, as he and Meredith panted after him. ‘He was so heartbroken he wasn’t allowed to join us.’

‘He’d have wanted chandeliers in the larder,’ said Meredith sensibly.

‘Get him a box of royal fudge,’ mocked Rannaldini, who had bought a mug for Tabitha and crested tea-bags for Helen and Bussage.

‘I’ll get him postcards of all the interiors so he can pretend he’s been,’ said Meredith.

Out in the street Rannaldini announced he must leave them.

‘It is Isa’s birthday, I got tickets for Riverdance. Sadly, Isa cry off.’ Rannaldini looked delighted. ‘I hope Tabitha won’t be too bored with just her old stepfather.

‘Dear boy.’ He turned to Tristan who, for one miraculous moment, thought Rannaldini was going to ask him to take Isa’s place. But with an evil smile, as if he could read Tristan’s mind, Rannaldini merely thanked him for sparing the time.

‘My God,’ giggled Meredith, as Clive, Rannaldini’s henchman, glided up in the most flamboyant orange sports car.

‘A Lamborghini Diablo,’ boasted Rannaldini. ‘A beautiful girl deserve evening out in a beautiful new car.’

As Clive slid across into the passenger seat, Rannaldini took the wheel and roared off towards Hyde Park Corner.

‘Silly old ponce,’ went on Meredith. ‘Talk about mutton dressed as Lamborghini.’ Then, seeing the desolation on Tristan’s face, ‘Don’t tangle with that nest of vipers, baby boy.’

17

At first Tab had tried so hard to make her marriage work, giving up booze and fags for the sake of the baby, keeping tidy the charming cottage Rannaldini had lent her, cooking — admittedly pretty disgusting — meals. But Isa was used to a clockwork mother and a clockwork mistress, Martie in Australia, who’d both provided uncritical admiration, clean shirts, tea on the table, and an impeccable answering service.

He was also as driven as Tristan, and didn’t want to be distracted by jealous tantrums or grumbles about burst pipes. He was away most days, race-riding or at his father’s yard, where it was made quite plain Jake didn’t want Tab anywhere near his horses.

So gradually she drifted into drinking. One Sunday, when Isa had gone over to see Jake, she had downed half a bottle of vodka before starting on the ironing. Trying to watch Champions on television at the same time, she singed the colours of a very important owner. Isa could curse in Romany for over five minutes and proceeded to do so.

On the way home, he’d stopped at the garage to buy Christmas cards for all his owners.

‘You can’t send those,’ said Tab, in horror. ‘They’re all spangly and it’s horrendously naff to say “Season’s Greetings”.’

‘Don’t be fucking stupid,’ snapped Isa, and handed her a fiver. ‘Here’s the stamp money. Make sure you post them tomorrow. What’s for supper?’

‘Hell, I forgot. I’ll ring for a pizza, or we could go to the Heavenly Host.’

‘We can’t afford it.’

And the row escalated. The following night Isa arrived home late to find Tab had gone out clubbing in Rutminster, and things went from bad to worse.

Isa was so cool, silent and withdrawn, Tab so up-front and tempestuous, she felt like a tidal wave hurling itself against the sea wall. Physical passion had drawn them together, but the doctor had insisted on no intercourse for the first three months.

‘It’s all right,’ bleated Tab, who was terrified Isa might find a replacement from all those groupies mobbing him on the racecourse, ‘I’ll go down on you.’

But when she tried, she retched all over him and the bedclothes. She was suffering from morning, noon and night sickness. Her hormones were all to pieces and she was paranoid about everything, snapping Isa’s head off one moment, in floods of tears the next.

Isa was sympathetic until he saw the overflowing ashtrays and plummeting vodka bottles.

‘Hasn’t the doctor told you to give up?’

‘He said cut down because it would cause me and Baby Rupert too much stress if I stopped completely.’

‘Don’t call it fucking Rupert.’

Tidy by nature, Isa was driven crackers by Tab pinching his jerseys, socks, razors, and CK One, his precious aftershave. As she drank more, she forgot more: to put out milk bottles and dustbins — but, worse still, for a jockey’s wife, she forgot telephone messages. Isa started putting all calls through his mobile and his bleeper, which made Tab even more paranoid about other women.

At Christmas everyone made an effort. As their daughter, Darklis, was in South Africa, Tory persuaded Jake to let her invite Isa and Tab to stay.

The Old Mill, which Tory had been given by her rich grandmother, was big, rambling and totally horse-orientated. The only paintings on the walls were of Jake or Isa’s horses, or of their various sporting achievements. There were scant carpets on the wooden floors, all the sofas and armchairs needed upholstering. Nor were the Lovells into central heating.

Outside were days of extraordinary beauty and bitter cold. The chill factor, because of the east wind from Siberia, was minus 16 and produced wonderful sunsets and sunrises, rose pink on the horizon above snowy fields.

Traditionally in racing yards, the grooms have Christmas Day off. It was a matter of pride for Jake to do the horses with Isa, just to show everyone that polio hadn’t got the better of him. Outside he noticed the wind had scattered ivy-mantled branches all over the fields, clearing out the dead wood. Like me, he thought, with a shiver.

The only way he could relieve his pain-racked leg and back was to soak in a boiling bath, but he returned home to find Tab had used all the hot water. He found her in the kitchen, hugging the Aga, clean, pale hair flopping over her ashen face, her long turquoise eyes angry and bloodshot. Exactly like her father, thought Jake savagely, and as capable of causing havoc.

Poor Tory, attempting to cook Christmas dinner for the family and the grooms, was also trying to get to know her daughter-in-law.

‘I have no idea how to change a nappy,’ Tab was saying disdainfully.

‘They use Velcro now. It’s as easy as putting a bandage on a horse,’ said Tory encouragingly.

Picking up Jake’s hatred, Tab escaped to pack her presents, stopping on the way upstairs to pinch Tory’s sellotape and a pile of newspapers because she’d forgotten to buy wrapping paper. The whole thing took ages because she kept stopping to read. There was a huge piece, in the Telegraph colour mag, about eventing stars destined for the next Olympics. Tab was not even mentioned, which made her feel more of a failure than ever.

Turning to the Sunday Times she found a lovely picture of Rupert and a piece saying how well he was doing. Tearing it out, she fought back the tears. The blue sky outside reminded her not of Mary’s robes, but of Rupert’s eyes. The bells pealed far more sweetly at Penscombe.

Remembering the mountains of presents, the banks of holly, the huge fires, Taggie’s goose, her parsnip purée, and the brandy round the Christmas pudding, which flamed longer than the Great Fire of London, Tab forgot the earth-shattering rows with which she and Rupert had disrupted the entire household. The last one had been because Rupert had only bought her a Golf GTi convertible for Christmas, instead of paying forty thousand for The Engineer, for which Rannaldini had forked out later in the year when he’d married her mother. God, she had taken her wonderful family for granted.

‘Can’t you ever forget about being a bloody Campbell-Black?’

Isa had walked in and caught sight of the piece in her hand. Sharon, stretched out on the bed, scattered receipts as she waved her tail.

‘Have you been ransacking my mother’s tights drawer?’

‘Hardly be tight on me,’ snapped Tab. She’d got so thin she could jump through the hoop of the sellotape hanging from the bedside table.

‘I was looking for a thick jersey,’ she went on, ‘which one certainly needs in this house. The only thing I could find was Pond’s Vanishing Cream. Your mother could start by using it on her hips.’

She thought Isa was going to hit her.

‘You been drinking?’

‘Of course not. I promised.’

Isa wasn’t sure. Like most drinkers, Tab went through three stages: clinging and filled with anxiety when she woke up, incredibly cheery after the first few slugs, then punchy and belligerent when she was coming down. It looked as though she’d reached the third stage. But he didn’t want to upset his mother, so he asked if Tab would come downstairs to open the presents.

‘The gritters are out,’ he added, gazing at the lights flashing along the horizon. ‘We’re in for a hard night.’

‘People use them on their teeth round here.’

The Lovells were frugal, short of money and had allotted one present to each person. Tory had gone to a lot of trouble to track down an early history of eventing in a second-hand-book shop for Tab. Isa had rather pointedly given Tab some scent called Quercus, so she wouldn’t nick his CK One any more, and a rather ugly gold locket.

‘I’m going to put your picture in one side,’ said Tab, hugging him, ‘and Sharon and The Engineer in the other.’

Used to Penscombe prodigality, where everyone received presents from every dog, horse and human, and in anticipation of a fat Christmas cheque from Rannaldini, Tab had rolled up with a crate of champagne and a side of smoked salmon for the Lovells. Her individual presents were less successful and all wrongly labelled. Tory opened a red fishnet stocking of dog treats, destined for Sharon, then some boxer shorts.

‘Sorry, they’re meant for Isa, although I suppose Sharon could wear them if she was a boxer not a Labrador.’

Isa, thinking of their bank account, grew increasingly tight-lipped as he opened a silver-topped whip, two beautiful dark blue cashmere jerseys, ‘because I’m always nicking yours’, and a camera, when he’d already got four.

Tab herself was desperately disappointed to have nothing from Rupert and, even more worryingly, no fat cheque from Rannaldini. Instead, he and Helen had given her a royal blue vase edged with gold and decorated with a pastoral scene.

‘Very pretty,’ said Tory.

‘Except Bussage picked it up at a car old-boot sale,’ said Tab furiously.

She was most excited about the present she’d got for Jake and Tory. She had taken a photograph of their ancient lurcher, Beetle, from Isa’s photograph album, and commissioned Daisy France-Lynch, a friend of Rupert’s, to paint from it an exquisite miniature. To her horror, Jake merely grunted and put it face down on the table.

‘Why are your parents so ungrateful?’ sobbed Tab as she watched Isa changing for dinner, thinking how ravishingly a dark suit became his wild black hair and pale gypsy face.

‘Why d’you do things without asking me?’ hissed Isa. ‘Beetle was the puppy my father bought for my mother, as a peace-offering because he loathed living with your mother, and he wanted to come back to Mum and he’d heard her dog had been run over. He found Mum in hospital, dying of a massive overdose because she couldn’t live without him either. They believe Beetle was the talisman that saved Mum and their marriage, and you have to go and give them a flaming painting of her.’

‘I didn’t know, I never thought,’ sobbed Tab.

‘You never do,’ snarled Isa, reaching for his aftershave.

She must have been drinking to have wrongly wrapped up all those presents. Then he twigged, as he realized he was slapping not CK One on his face but neat vodka.

Dinner was bearable because there was plenty of wine, Tory had cooked a delicious turkey, and as Isa and Tab were sitting at opposite ends of the table divided by the grooms no-one realized they were not speaking to one another.

The telephone had rung constantly: owners, jockeys, friends, Tory’s sister Fenella from America, Darklis from South Africa, all called to wish the Lovells happy Christmas. No-one rang Tab.

Tory found the silver bachelor’s button in her Christmas pudding, which caused lots of laughter. From silver charms in puddings, the conversation moved on to superstitions.

‘One mustn’t get married after sunset,’ said a pretty redhead, making eyes at Isa.

‘And never eat your own wedding cake,’ said her plump friend.

‘Why not?’ asked Tab quickly.

‘Anyone want any more Christmas pudding?’ cried Tory desperately. ‘Jake, do shove round the white.’

‘Why not?’ insisted Tab.

Even more of a chill than there was already fell over the room.

‘A marriage is supposed to be doomed if you marry after sunset,’ said the pretty redhead with a shrug, ‘and the gypsies say if you taste your own wedding cake your child will die.’

‘But I did both those things,’ Tab clutched her tummy in horror.

‘It’s only a silly old gypsy’s tale,’ said Tory, in distress. ‘Think of the times you see a single magpie and nothing awful happens.’

A ringing telephone made everyone jump.

‘It’s your father, Tabitha,’ said the head lad returning from answering the call.

Tab streaked out of the room. ‘Daddy, oh, Daddy!’

‘My darling leetle girl,’ said Rannaldini, ‘your mother sends love. I just wanted to know how you are getting on.’

As Tab returned to the dining room, hollow with desolation, Jake was making some dismissive crack about Penscombe Pride not winning the George VI tomorrow.

‘My father’s a far better horseman than either you or Isa ever were,’ screamed Tab, and fled upstairs where, mistaking Jake and Tory’s room for the loo, she regurgitated turkey and vodka all over their bed and passed out.

The next day, Isa and Jake went off to Kempton, and Tab, who had no intention of getting to know her mother-in-law better, made the excuse that she couldn’t leave The Engineer any longer and drove back to Paradise.

It was lovely to come home to such a pretty place. Magpie Cottage, which was faded russet, rather than black and white, lay just across the valley from Rannaldini’s watch-tower, with a beech copse behind and a stream running down one side. On the lawns, back and front, it was hard to tell where snow ended and snowdrops began.

Tab loved Magpie Cottage but she grew nervous on her own; Sharon picked up the vibes and kept barking at the wind or imagined bangs, which made Tab more scared than ever. Taking a slug from the bottle of vodka she’d bought in a pub on the way home she started brooding on the superstitions they’d discussed last night and then about one magpie for sorrow.

Finding a paintbrush and some black paint in a kitchen cupboard, she went out into the fading afternoon. The sky was a pale, silvery grey, dotted with darker grey clouds and patches of gold on the horizon. The snow was too powdery to make snowballs, but had drifted beautifully, sharp as a shark’s fin against the garden wall. Sharon charged round the lawn raising spray like a skier, as Tab added an S to the board outside. Now it was Magpies Cottage — two for joy.

‘I’m going to make my marriage work,’ she told Sharon, ‘and you can show everyone how good Labradors are with babies.’

18

The cold spell continued. There was no racing, which made Isa very twitchy and cross because neither he nor Jake were making any money. The horses grew bored and restless. Pipes froze, so Tab, who’d forgotten to stop the milk, bathed in it instead.

Rupert beat the chill factor by taking Taggie, Xav and Bianca skiing. Tab ground her teeth over their photographs in the paper.

Fighting hangovers, and sickness, she still staggered up to do The Engineer every morning because she couldn’t bear him to get closer to one of Rannaldini’s grooms than herself. Then she returned to the vodka, which she found increasingly difficult to buy because she had no money. Several of her Christmas cheques bounced, before she discovered Rannaldini had stopped her allowance as well.

Isa doled her out pocket money for housekeeping, but grudgingly. It would be much more sensible, he said, for her to wheedle some serious dosh out of Rannaldini, which was why she had accepted the invitation to Riverdance on Isa’s birthday in January. At the last moment, Isa had cried off in a rage. Tab had a maddening habit of always borrowing his jackets. Grabbing his Puffa from the back of the bedroom door, he had found all the Christmas cards to his owners unstamped and unposted in the pocket.

Which was why Tab had a lone evening with an amused but utterly unyielding Rannaldini.

‘Isa is a successful jockey. You have a charming, free cottage, and if you bothered to check, you ungrateful child, you’d discover the Sèvres vase I gave you for Christmas was worth a few bob. Young people should make their own way.’

He wouldn’t even lend her a grand or two to appease Isa and the bank manager.

The coupling of an alcoholic and a workaholic is not a happy one. As Isa worked endlessly to keep the show on the road and compensate for lack of support from Tab, he had less and less time to spend with her, which lowered her confidence and made her drink more out of loneliness.

Isa was so cool he fell asleep in the middle of a row, and she could never tell, behind that expressionless face, what he was thinking. In fact, throughout that long, hard, cruel winter, Peppy Koala, the chestnut colt, so charming, so idle, so uncompetitive, had never been far from his thoughts.

He was just making plans in late February to fly out to Australia when Mr Brown, Peppy Koala’s owner, suddenly called him. He was in England, taking over some Bristol electronics firm. Was Isa free tomorrow evening?

Mr Brown also wanted to see Jake’s yard, and having read about Isa’s wedding in Hello!, said he’d sure like to shake hands with the new Mrs Lovell, who looked a beaut, so perhaps they could have dinner at Isa’s place.

Switching off his mobile, Isa looked round at Magpie Cottage. God, it was a tip! The ravishing little chest of drawers Taggie had given them for a wedding present was already covered in drink rings, like a pond in a rainstorm.

Knowing there was no way he could bring Mr Brown back here in its present state, Isa swallowed his pride and a large whisky and rang Helen. Could he borrow Mrs Brimscombe, Betty and Sally tomorrow morning to blitz the place? Then all Tab had to do was collect some precooked food from Waitrose and make herself look beautiful.

As luck would have it, in lieu of payment, one of Isa’s owners had given him a brand-new Jaguar XK8, which was being delivered to the cottage that afternoon. If money ran out he could flog it. For the meantime it would impress Mr Brown.

The three-month ban on sex was now up, but the cold war seemed to have set in too hard for Isa to placate Tab by making a move on her that night. Tab had stopped being sick, but instead when she opened her mouth a stream of resentment came out.

On the morning of Mr Brown’s visit, however, she was full of good intentions: no booze, and wifely behaviour. By midday a tight-lipped Mrs Brimscombe and a giggling Betty and Sally had made the cottage look wonderful and set the table.

‘Why don’t you buy some daffies for that lovely blue vase?’ suggested Betty.

Tab had been just off to Waitrose when she went to Isa’s chest of drawers to borrow a pair of socks. Rooting round under the lining paper she found a lovely laughing picture of Martie, his Australian girlfriend. He’s still in love with her, she thought in terror, he’s going to leave me.

When the telephone woke her, it was dark. Isa wanted to know if everything was on course. Mr Brown had been impressed with Jake’s yard. They’d be back around six thirty.

‘What have you bought for supper?’

‘It’s a surprise,’ bleated Tab.

‘Shall I get red or white?’

‘Both, I should think. See you later.’

Whimpering with panic, Tab looked around her. How could she have made such a mess? An empty vodka bottle and fragments of the royal blue and gold vase Rannaldini had given her for Christmas littered the floor. She’d better go and buy the food for dinner; then she could tidy the place and herself while it was heating up.

Her car was out of petrol, so she borrowed Isa’s new Jaguar. God, it was bliss to drive. In no time she had reached Waitrose, and loaded up with a smoked-salmon mousse, three packets of Coronation Chicken, new potatoes, ready-made dressing and a pretty red and green bag of salad. Adding banana and yoghurt ice cream, a brown loaf and runny Brie, she was off to the checkout counter, piling on Pedigree Chum and Whiskas on the way. Catering was so easy if you knew how. She even ignored a great glacier of vodka bottles. Hurrah for Tabitha the coper.

Her undoing was a white tablecloth covered in glasses, and a beaming salesman with a special offer of Chilean Chardonnay.

‘Might as well have a slurp,’ muttered Tab, as her trolley developed a mind of its own and veered booze-wards.

A man in a flat cap and a green Husky had had the same idea, and was soon swilling away, waggling his nose back and forth in the glass like a windscreen wiper.

‘Remarkably good,’ he said to Tab.

‘It is,’ she agreed, smiling back at the salesman, ‘and a terrific bargain. Could I have another glass just to make sure?’

‘What a lovely little hidey-hole,’ said Mr Brown, as Isa drew up outside Magpie Cottage. ‘Look at those primroses. I’m dying for a leak.’

Isa’s first thought was that his Jaguar had been stolen, the second that his mobile was ringing. Ignoring it, he ran into the house. Chaos met his eyes. Charging into the downstairs loo, he found no bog paper and no towel. Fuck Tab!

The best he could do was a box of tissues from the kitchen, which was also a tip, with no sign of dinner and no flowers. A fire was laid in the grate but unlit. Littering the floor were fragments of the Sèvres vase and Martie’s torn-up photograph. He had better answer his mobile.

‘Are you the owner of car P704 HHA?’

Isa had to think twice.

‘Yes. It’s been stolen?’

‘We’re not sure, sir. It’s been abandoned across the gangway in Waitrose’s car park, obstructing the flow of traffic, and the alarm is causing a disturbance. No-one can get inside the vehicle.’

Coming out of the lavatory, flapping his hands, Mr Brown was rather amused by the news.

‘My spouse is always locking herself out of her car, and my teenage daughters never lift a finger in the house.’

He was very happy to give Isa a lift to Waitrose. He’d seen photographs of Tab in OK magazine on the flight over and was looking forward to meeting her even more.

They found Tab and the man in the flat cap sitting in a little café half-way down a second bottle of Chilean Chardonnay. Not having driven Isa’s car before, she had no idea that it was his number being paged with increasing urgency.

‘This is Hugh Murray-Scott,’ she announced happily. ‘He’s a friend of Daddy’s.’

‘Where are my car keys?’ snarled Isa.

‘Car keys?’ As Tab rootled through the pockets of her jeans, Mr Brown and Mr Murray-Scott admired her slender hips. ‘Here they are. Now, where did I put my trolley?’

The final straw was when Isa found his lovely new Jaguar had been rammed by another car with a furious owner.

‘It’s only metal,’ said Mr Brown soothingly. ‘Don’t blame the little lady.’

He thought Tabitha was wildly exciting.

‘I’m sorry you won’t be able to enjoy any home cooking,’ mumbled Tab. ‘I’m not only off my trolley, I seem to have lost it as well.’

She ended up trying to write a cheque for the Chardonnay with her toothbrush, and Mr Brown swept them all off to the Old Bell for dinner. Despite Isa hissing at Tab to keep her fucking trap shut, she and Mr Brown got on famously. She was soon telling him about her Olympic hopes for The Engineer, and he was telling her all about Peppy Koala. ‘Prettiest little horse you ever saw.’

‘If you brought him over to Paradise, he and The Engineer could meet,’ said Tab, whose eyes were sparkling at the sight of the bottle of Moët arriving in an ice bucket.

‘Aren’t you rather isolated in that little cottage?’ asked Mr Brown.

‘I’m Isa-lated,’ giggled Tab, ‘because my husband is always late home.’

Mr Brown thought it a very funny joke.

Isa wanted to throttle his wife, but if he could stop her doing anything frightful, Mr Brown’s obvious infatuation might just work to his advantage. By the time they had all ordered lobster with moules marinières to start with, Mr Brown was talking about when he brought Peppy Koala to England rather than if.

‘If you run him in the Derby this year,’ Isa was saying, ‘he’ll get a seven-pound allowance because, as a southern hemisphere horse, he’ll be so much younger than the others.’

Tab sloped off to the ladies. On the way, wondering whether to pack in a quick vodka at the bar, she caught sight of a tank of lobsters. She hadn’t realized they weren’t born red. Black, already in mourning, they waited helplessly, their claws tied together with elastic bands to stop them killing each other so that they could be boiled alive and intact.

Tab was so distraught, she up-ended a nearby ice bucket on the floor, scooped up as many lobsters as it would hold and fled into the street. Outside, in her thin jersey and jeans, the cold hit her like a left hook. If she could reach the sea she could set them free.

Isa and Mr Brown caught up with her on Rutminster bridge crying hysterically, trying to hitch a lift. When Isa tried to snatch back the bucket, she emptied the lobsters into the river.

Although the young lady was a handful, Mr Brown admired her spirit and was horrified by the way Isa tore into her.

‘Don’t you understand, you stupid bitch? They can’t survive in fresh water.’

‘Like me,’ sobbed Tab. ‘I can’t survive in the wrong marriage any more.’

After a week of cold war, Isa flew to Australia on the pretext of winding up the yard he had started with Martie. As March came in, bringing days of torrential rain and flooding, Tab died of every kind of jealousy. Looking out listlessly one morning she noticed the sun had broken through. The stream that flowed past the cottage had also broken away from its course into lots of smaller streams, glittering like a crystal lustre as they danced down the valley to join the river Fleet. We’re free to make our own way in the sunshine, they seemed to sing to Tab.

‘Your future godmother, Lucy, won’t like it, Little Rupert,’ Tab told the baby inside her, ‘but you and I are going hunting.’

Tab had always hunted, until Lucy had persuaded her it was cruel. But so many foxes escaped, and a ropy old pack like the Rutminster Ramblers never caught anything anyway, and the poor Engineer was so bored of dressage it would pep him up to have a day out.

Gold catkins lit up the valley like Tiffany lamps. As The Engineer floated over the fences, Tab had never been more conscious of owning an Olympic horse. She was so enjoying herself she didn’t notice a strand of wire. Next moment The Engineer turned over on top of her.

It didn’t hurt at first. She was conscious only of her white breeches turning red with blood, and screaming, ‘The baby! Please save the baby!’ before she passed out.

By the time Isa had flown home at vast expense, mother and horse were doing well, but little Rupert had died.

Tab was utterly devastated, sobbing and sinking into despair. Isa, who loved children, was determined not to show he was equally devastated. He never reproached Tab, because he knew in his heart that it had been his fault. He had longed to take her in his arms, but such was his loathing of the Campbell-Blacks, he couldn’t convince himself he hadn’t unleashed some gypsy curse. Instead he had gone to Cheltenham, won a big race on a horse of Baby’s and not come home that night.

Rannaldini, delighted at the turn of events, had been playing Iago. Clive, who had let himself into Magpie Cottage with Rannaldini’s master key, had been responsible for putting Martie’s photo in Isa’s sock drawer. He also tipped off Rannaldini when Isa was away, enabling him to ring Tab and drip poison into her ear.

‘Isa is finding it so difficult to break with Martie. She was so capable, and they were together seven years and he is seven years older than you.’ Which was vilely hypocritical of Rannaldini, who was intending to move in, despite being nearly thirty years older than Tab himself.

He would play the same game with Isa, telling him how wild Tab was, how young and unstable, how late coming home, how not always alone, how fond of the bottle. Subtly, slowly, treacherously, the same shoulder Rannaldini was providing for them both to cry on was the wedge he was driving between them. He encouraged Tab to use his indoor school and have a cross-country course built on the estate. Her suspension would be up in August in time for Gatcombe. But he still hadn’t given her any allowance. Let her beg for it.

The National Hunt season was nearly over. Isa’s winnings were shoring up Jake’s yard so money would grow even tighter. Playing his usual cool waiting game, Isa had not pestered Mr Brown about Peppy Koala.

Finally, Mr Brown rang him. ‘I’m dead choked your little Tabitha lost the baby. How is she?’

‘Pretty depressed.’

‘Not surprising, the way you treat her. If you can’t be nice to a pretty lady like that, how can I trust you with my little horsy?’

‘That’s crazy,’ said Isa sharply. ‘No-one fusses over horses like my father. Where were you thinking of sending him?’

‘Well, Sir Roberto Rannaldini’s offered me so much dosh I nearly sold to him, but in case Peppy’s that good I’m giving him to your other father-in-law, Rupert Campbell-Black.’

If Isa couldn’t blame Tab for losing the baby, he could, and certainly did, for the loss of Peppy Koala.

The following day Rannaldini and a suicidal Tab rode round Paradise. A big red sun was disappearing into the mist like the brake light of Apollo’s chariot, putting a pink rinse on the bare trees and a rose flush along the horizon. Conscious that they were about to be invaded by far more famous singers, robins and blackbirds were carolling their heads off.

‘I’ve had some lovely letters about the baby,’ muttered Tab, ‘from Lucy in Belgium, Meredith, Mr Brown, and even from that glamorous French director you invited to our wedding. He sent me a lovely poem about Little Rupert really existing and being a plant of light.’ For a second, her stony little face softened.

That one would have to be knocked on the head very quickly, thought Rannaldini.

‘Mrs Brimscombe told Isa how sorry she was about the baby,’ he said idly. ‘Isa said, “At least it’s given Tab something new to grumble about.”’

‘The bastard,’ gasped Tab.

‘I suggested you get a part-time job.’

‘And what did Isa say?’

As the sun sank, all the birds that had been singing so madly went silent. As the glow in the west became an orange fire, Rannaldini noticed a little adolescent moon turning her slim back on such ostentation. She reminded him of Tabitha.

‘He said you were unemployable.’

‘God, he’s a shit. You wait till the bloody ban’s lifted — we’ll show him.’

‘That’s how I wanted you to react,’ said Rannaldini silkily.

As he moved his horse close to The Engineer, his hypnotic black eyes were level with Tab’s. Perhaps he had such an impact on women, she thought, because he was small enough to dazzle them, like a low-angled winter sun.

‘Filming starts the week after next,’ he announced. ‘I’d like to offer you a job on Don Carlos. As mistress of the horse,’ he added sententiously.

‘Sounds perverse?’

‘As well as hunting, war scenes and polo during the overture, horses will be needed for Philip’s coronation, and Tristan might want to film Carlos and Posa galloping across country. We need someone to organize it. We’ll pay you a very good fee.’

‘Won’t people think it a bit odd you hiring a totally inexperienced member of your wife’s family?’

‘Not in the least. Tristan has already signed up his delectable niece, Simone, to handle continuity.’

‘Can The Engineer have a part?’

‘A starring role.’

‘Then I’ll do it.’

She was flaming well going to show Isa and Rupert that she could do her bit for the marriage.

19

What Rannaldini did not tell Tab was that also joining the crew, as second assistant director, and as hellbent on proving himself, was his eldest son, Wolfgang. This had come about because Rannaldini, wildly jealous of Rupert’s rapprochement with Marcus and closeness to Xavier, wanted his son back, and had ordered Sexton to employ him.

The twenty-four-year-old Wolfgang, who had just gained an excellent law degree in Germany, had agreed to work on Don Carlos as a filler before taking up a plum job in Berlin. He had not been back to Valhalla for six years, ever since Rannaldini had pinched from him his beloved Flora Seymour, who was then a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl.

Highly, if somewhat rigidly, intelligent, Wolfgang had read Schiller in the original, and parallels between the cold, tyrannical Philip stealing Elisabetta from his son Carlos were not lost on him.

Now a jackbooting Eurocrat with a slimline briefcase and narrowed eyes, Wolfgang was determined not to let Rannaldini bully him. His job would be to run errands, keep the chorus in order and yank singers out of their dressing rooms, which in turn would give plenty of opportunity for bullying.

I am completely over Flora, Wolfgang told himself firmly and repeatedly, as he hurtled down the M4.

The only car that overtook him was a red Ferrari. Glancing right as it shot past, Wolfie nearly rammed the car in front, for in the passenger seat, yacking her head off to a beautiful boy instantly recognizable as the tenor playing Carlos, was Flora in person.

Wolfie had to pull into Membury service station to recover.

I am not over her, he told himself bleakly.

Unaware of the havoc she had just caused, Flora was much too busy worrying about tomorrow’s filming.

‘You just have to hit the mark and mime to your own voice,’ said Baby soothingly. ‘It’ll be a doddle, I promise you.’

‘Hey doddle doddle, I’m sure it’s going to be more difficult than any of us think.’

‘There’s bound to be a voice coach around to bring us in. God, I could murder a burger. Let’s stop at that Little Chef.’

‘You mustn’t. You look fantastic. Adonis Carlos.’

After a week at Champney’s, Baby had lost his double chin and his gut.

‘I can wear all my jackets as wraparounds like the Queen Mother,’ he crowed. ‘And I adored being whipped by all that seaweed.’

Flora gazed gloomily at the yellowing verges. It hadn’t rained for weeks. The motorway was littered with furry corpses desperate to reach the river. Crows hung overhead like vultures.

‘George and I were so miserable at the prospect of being separated.’ She sighed. ‘We had a stupid row last night and slept back to back loathing each other. We were just making up when Trevor barked hysterically at some non-existent burglar. By the time I’d defied George and let Trev out and in, the mood was broken. And Trev doesn’t give a stuff,’ she added, as the little dog raced back and forth along the top of the back seat, yapping furiously at dogs in other cars.

‘And that’s the precious life blood of a master spirit you’ve just devoured,’ she said reproachfully, as she retrieved a chewed-up copy of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin from the back seat.

‘That’s a nice ring,’ said Baby, admiring the row of coloured stones on her left hand.

‘It’s called a regard ring. Victorian men gave it to their sweethearts if they were separated as a token of their regard. George gave it to me before we started rowing last night,’ she added dolefully.

‘You are entering the misnamed Valley of Paradise,’ she intoned half an hour later.

From the south side, they realized the immensity of the operation. Opposite lay the great abbey of Valhalla, as grey and brooding as the clouds hanging over it. Around it, all over Rannaldini’s parkland, like a huge circus, sprawled lorries, caravans, tents, a mobile canteen, Portaloos and vast generators.

‘God, it’s a creepy place.’ Flora shivered. ‘Rannaldini is rumoured to have a torture chamber under the house. It’s safer to walk round Brixton after dark. My parents live there,’ she pointed to a large Georgian house on the right of Valhalla, ‘and that’s Dame Hermione’s shack further down the valley. Golly, the river’s low. And up that little lane to the left is Magpie Cottage, where Isa and Tab clearly aren’t going to fifteen rounds.’

‘Spoilt brat,’ said Baby dismissively.

‘Takes one to know one,’ chided Flora. ‘D’you fancy Tristan?’

‘I certainly do. Don’t you?’

‘One can’t not. He’s so Holy Grailish, and separate. And so sad behind all that charm. D’you think he’s gay?’

‘Hope so, but at least we’ve got three months to find out. Shall we have a quickie in the Pearly Gates?’

‘No,’ said Flora firmly. ‘We’ve got to behave.’

Valhalla swarmed with technicians, everyone obsessed with his own agenda. Meredith, determined to produce the most memorable sets, whisked about trailing comely chippies, who could transform a dog kennel into Aladdin’s cave in twenty-four hours. Not only had they ripped apart the Great Hall and the two drawing rooms, but also the dining room, the entrance hall and Rannaldini’s study and bedroom too.

Tristan was outraged, and having a shouting match with Meredith as Baby and Flora arrived.

‘Those other rooms were not on the budget!’

‘They might just get into shot,’ said Meredith blithely. ‘Rannaldini didn’t want to risk it. I love it when you act masterful.’

Tristan stormed off, as Meredith turned to Baby and Flora.

‘My dears, it’s all too exciting, and wait till you see Tristan’s boys. They’re so glamorous, he must be gay.’

Tristan’s boys — the crew, mostly French — were, indeed, a glamorous bunch. They all seemed to have skiing tans and lean jaws, rapidly being hidden by beards so they wouldn’t have to shave when they dragged themselves out of bed at the crack of dawn. Totally professional, they had already checked and tested their equipment for the first shoot day, making sure that lights and sound gear were in working order and camera and lenses properly calibrated.

Poised to grumble at everything anglais and to blow Gauloise smoke in the face of any singer who played up, they were also acting bolshie because most of them hadn’t been invited to Rannaldini’s smart dinner party that evening.

Those who had included the wonderfully languid director of photography, known as Oscar because he’d won so many Oscars and because, with his floating scarves, dark hair flopping from a middle parting, and endlessly assessing heavy-lidded eyes, he was a dead ringer for Oscar Wilde. Oscar seldom went near a camera. He appeared to sleep most of the day, but was paid five thousand pounds a week to make sure that the sets and the singers were beautifully lit. Despite his effete appearance, he was a doting family man, who spent his time on location — when he wasn’t asleep — talking to Valentin, his handsome son-in-law, the camera operator, who earned two thousand a week. They had arrived with several crates of claret, and intended to escape home to Paris on every possible occasion.

Sylvestre, Tristan’s sound recordist, who’d already sampled the Don Carlos wares during the recording, said little because he was always so busy listening. Sylvestre’s aim on location was to pull the delectable Simone de Montigny, who was in charge of continuity. Much of Simone’s energy would go into proving she had not been booked to work on Don Carlos because she was Tristan’s niece. The daughter of Tristan’s eldest brother, Alexandre the judge, she was in fact just two years younger than Tristan. Having caught a glimpse of Wolfgang Rannaldini she knew exactly who she wanted to pull on location.

And then there was Lucy Latimer, who’d been working in Brussels on Villette, which had overrun by several days so she had had a mad scramble to get to Valhalla on time. She was cheered that Sexton had provided her with a beautiful caravan in which to work. She had already unpacked her make-up brushes and sponges for the first day’s filming. Her main problem would be in persuading the cast that the camera, four feet away, saw different things from an audience up in the gods.

In the fridge were three bottles of white, plenty of veggie snacks, and a garlic-flavoured cooked chicken, for her russet shaggy-coated lurcher, James, who ate much more expensively than she did and now, in a smart new green leather collar, lay replete and snoring on one of the bench seats. Above him in the window, Lucy had already put stickers saying: ‘Lurchers Do it Languidly’, ‘A Dog is for Life not just for Christmas’, and ‘Passports for Pets’.

Round the big mirror, semi-circled with lightbulbs, beside snapshots of her little nieces, Lucy had stuck photographs of the cast and the members of the Royal Family, or Gordon Dillon, the editor of the Scorpion, they were supposed to represent.

Over the door was pinned her prize possession, nicked from the BBC, which said: ‘Please ensure that all spirits are returned to the spirit tank in this room.’

It was creepily appropriate in Valhalla, where every shadow appeared inhabited, and the dark cliff of wood behind the row of caravans and tents, known rather grandiosely as ‘the facilities unit’, seemed determined to obscure the stars. Who knew what ghosts might creep out of the cloisters or, on this bitterly cold night, the identities of the mufflered and overcoated figures scuttling by.

Also on Lucy’s walls were thank-you cards from the cast she’d just been looking after. As usual there had been tears and promises to keep in touch. But for once she wasn’t mourning the end of yet another location affaire. Her thoughts had been too full of Tristan.

She had been overjoyed to find a big bunch of bluebells in her caravan, but slightly deflated that every woman in the cast and crew had also received flowers. But at least he’d remembered she liked bluebells, and she kept his good-luck card, which she would certainly need. Tomorrow she had to make up Baby and Flora, who would each require at least an hour and a half, and if things moved swiftly, she might even have to do the ancient tenor playing the Spanish ambassador. Thank God Dame Hermione had insisted on her own make-up artist at vast extra expense.

Fifty yards from Make Up, Hermione’s squawks could be heard issuing from the dairy, which had been turned over to Wardrobe. Lady Griselda, the wardrobe mistress, big, deep-voiced, kind, vulnerable and a bit dippy, looked like Julius Caesar in drag, and had a small mouth like the slit in the charity tins she so often jangled on street corners.

As a deb Griselda had played the double bass in a pop group called the Alice Band, and had briefly been in waiting to a lesser member of the Royal Family. She now lived with a lot of cats in a thatched cottage in North Dorset, where she knew ‘absolutely everybody’. The cottage was called Wobbly Bottom. Griselda tended to send herself up, before anyone else could, by dressing outlandishly. Today she was wearing a floor-length red-embroidered tunic and a purple turban.

She was also having a nervous breakdown, because Rannaldini (who’d employed her because he felt she’d know how the upper classes dressed) was being absolutely beastly.

Riding coats and breeches littered a large sea-blue damask sofa, which had recently and peremptorily been ejected from Helen’s Blue Living Room, as Flora, Baby and Hermione tried on their clothes for tomorrow’s shoot.

Tristan was pacing about. There were a million technical demands on him, a potentially disruptive crew, production pressures, worry that the cast would gel even less in a strange environment.

Rannaldini’s beautifully manicured fingers were drumming on the table. Sexton was massaging his big face with his hand, always a sign that all was not well.

Hermione, in white breeches, black boots and a waisted red coat with black velvet facings, cut long to hide her large bottom, was preening in the mirror.

‘You look lovely, Hermsie,’ boomed Griselda, whose social and sartorial instincts were rapidly being sabotaged by her thumping great crush on Hermione.

‘Women don’t hunt in red coats in England,’ snapped Tristan. ‘It looks vulgar. Please try the dark blue one again, Hermione.’

‘The dark blue won’t show up against the trees,’ argued Rannaldini.

‘I want to add a cheery note to the winter gloom,’ pouted Hermione.

Baby, who was supposed to have hurtled across country to join the hunt incognito, was wearing a brown herringbone tweed jacket and, having lost so much weight at Champney’s, was marvelling at himself in buff stretch breeches. As Elisabetta’s bodyguard, Flora was wearing a less fitted brown riding coat to accommodate the bulge of her gun.

‘All of them are same colour as countryside.’ Rannaldini’s voice was rising. ‘They’ll get lost.’

Meredith, oblivious of the storm breaking over his airborne curls, was trying on the diamond tiara Hermione was supposed to wear for Philip II’s coronation.

‘Put on your hats for the total look,’ urged Griselda.

The row escalated because neither Hermione nor Baby were prepared to wear hard hats with black chin straps to resemble Camilla Parker Bowles and Prince Charles.

‘How could anyone fall in love with anyone at first sight wearing that?’ protested Baby. ‘D’you want Hermione to smoke a fag as well?’

‘Those hats are authentic,’ protested Griselda, getting up with a rattle of Valium to tap Hermione’s brim further down over her eyes. ‘We must set a good example to the Pony Club.’

‘Fuck the Pony Club,’ snapped Baby.

‘Rannaldini would quite like to,’ murmured Meredith.

‘You can take off your hats the moment you dismount,’ pleaded Griselda. ‘And Hermione’s blonde wig will then tumble beautifully down her back.’

‘My hair won’t tumble anywhere,’ snarled Baby. He loathed his Prince Charles wig, complete with incipient bald patch, even more than his hat.

Meredith, who was now trying on a flower-trimmed straw bonnet, suggested that Baby’s and Hermione’s hard hats might look better if they were dressed up with long earrings.

‘Only if I can wear my scarlet coat,’ said Hermione mulishly.

‘English women don’t wear—’ began Tristan.

‘But I’m not English,’ said Hermione, with a peal of merry laughter, as though she’d made a frightfully good joke. ‘I’m South African.’

‘Reimpose sanctions,’ muttered Baby.

Valhalla, like many ancient ecclesiastical buildings, was H-shaped with the north and south wings forming the verticals of the H. Rannaldini and his family lived in the south wing overlooking the valley.

Meanwhile, in the north wing, other members of the cast and the upper echelons of the crew were bagging their bedrooms, which in contrast to the lavishness of the south wing consisted rather creepily of ex-monks’ cells reached by badly lit uncarpeted staircases and long, narrow corridors.

‘Bit scary,’ quavered Lucy, pushing a reluctant James into a darkly panelled rabbit warren, almost entirely occupied by a big mahogany double bed.

‘I don’t mind sharing,’ said Ogborne, Tristan’s cocky and Cockney chief grip, who had a shaved head, an earring, and looked like a self-confident pig. Employed to hump equipment around and shove heavy cameras along tracks, Ogborne had had no difficulty in carrying all of Lucy’s cases upstairs.

‘Plenty of room for you, me and Fido in here,’ he said, patting the bed.

‘I talk dreadfully in my sleep, and James snores,’ said Lucy hastily.

Down the corridor, Alpheus Shaw, psyching himself into the part of Philip II, was getting more regal by the second, referring to himself as ‘one’, and striding around with his hands behind his back. He had also demanded the biggest bedroom, which had the biggest four-poster and small leaded windows looking north into the woods and east up the valley.

However, he was deeply displeased that, unlike Tristan, he had not been put in the lush south wing, which he had admired loudly on a previous visit.

Only half the principals were in situ: neither Mikhail, Granny, his wayward boyfriend Giuseppe, Alpheus nor Chloe would be needed for a couple of weeks. Alpheus had come down ostensibly to show solidarity and to inspire the cast. After all, he was the principal male singer now Fat Franco had been fired. In reality he wanted to screw Chloe without having to fork out for a hotel — particularly as his wife Cheryl always went through the Amex receipts.

Looking down, he could see Tristan and Rannaldini walking towards the house, their arms waving as they yelled at one another, their shadows long and black behind them.

Inside the dairy, Meredith, like a small child comforting his mother, was patting the vast shoulders of a sobbing Lady Griselda.

‘It’s just first-night nerves, don’t take it personally.’

Griselda gave a sniff.

‘Try not to get lippy on that hunting tie, Hermsie,’ she called out, ‘and I’d be grateful if you’d all put your clothes back on the hangers.’

‘What time’s dinner?’ asked Baby.

‘Seven thirty for eight,’ said Flora, as she wriggled back into her old grey jersey and scruffy black jeans. ‘I can’t be bothered to go home and tart up.’

20

Dinner began scratchily. Helen, a lousy hostess at the best of times because she never refilled glasses or introduced anyone, was clearly livid at being invaded by so much mess and so many strangers. As a final insult, drinks were being served in the old red morning room, which she had spent two years of her excruciatingly unhappy marriage transforming into an exquisite symphony of faded blues and rusts. Almost overnight, it had been reduced to a gaudy riot of cherry-red walls, gilded ceilings, floor-length mirrors framed with gold leaf, and two crimson thrones initialled E and PII at the end of the room. Worst of all, three huge glittering chandeliers, hovering overhead like Spielberg spaceships, highlighted every bag and wrinkle — an unkind contrast to the ludicrously flattering painting of herself over the fireplace in which she was portrayed as Athene, goddess of wisdom, with an owl perched on her head.

Having flown in from a wildly successful Mahler’s Resurrection in Berlin, to ensure Valhalla’s cuisine exceeded anything French, Rannaldini had unearthed the Krug and was welcoming guests, and accepting compliments on the room. ‘It ees, of course, based on Throne Room at Buckingham Palace,’ he told anyone who would listen.

As the crew gathered in one corner puffing Gauloise smoke, and the cast retreated to another trying not to breathe it in, gossip whizzed back and forth in all languages. Everyone was also assessing talent.

‘How can I tell Tristan’s boys apart when they’ve all got beards?’ said Baby fretfully.

‘Jesus must have had the same trouble with his disciples,’ said Meredith, ‘except this lot have got gorgeous names like best-boy and focus-puller. Valentin the camera operator’s heaven, but he’s just back from his honeymoon.’

‘Best time to turn them, before they start looking round for other women. God, he’s divine.’

‘Also Rannaldini’s son, Wolfgang, so he’s out of bounds, very straight and rather fierce. I’m sure he’s going to insist we all have uniform willies — like Common Market carrots. He’s nice.’ Meredith nudged Baby, as Sylvestre, the sound man, who’d tied back his long blond hair in a pony-tail, wandered through the door.

‘Even straighter and utterly monosyllabic,’ said Baby dismissively.

Having grabbed a drink, Sylvestre was soon comparing notes with Ogborne, the chief grip. Flora looked sexy enough, even if she did need a bath, they decided, but those sodding great rings on her hand suggested a rich boyfriend.

‘That blonde looks a goer,’ said Ogborne.

Sylvestre, who’d much enjoyed Chloe’s goings and comings during the recording, agreed.

Then both men choked on their drinks as Tabitha stalked in, turquoise eyes flashing, hair slicked back from her forehead like Rudolph Valentino. She was wearing a cashmere crop top to show off a sea-horse tattooed below her left breast and very low-slung black hipsters. Having filled a glass with so much vodka that the ice she added made it overflow, she made a beeline for Lucy and dragged her over to the fireplace.

‘Why do the most beautiful girls always pal up with dogs?’ said Ogborne, still sour at not being asked to share Lucy’s bed.

‘Because their dogs like each other,’ said Sylvestre, as Sharon the Labrador bounced up to James the lurcher, who went up on his toes and nearly sent a bowl of grape hyacinths flying with his long wagging tail.

Tab immediately launched into the state of her marriage.

‘Isa was there when I got home from auditioning horses. Then he went straight out, saying he’d gotta go over to bloody Jake’s and couldn’t make dinner tonight. So I press the redial button, and guess who answered? Fucking Martie in Australia. I’m going mad, Luce.’ She drained half her vodka, hand trembling.

‘And what was even worse, when I ran down the garden trying to catch Isa, I saw this man on a horse, his hair white-blond in the moonlight, and for a second, I thought, by some miracle, Daddy had come to take me away from this nightmare. Then I realized it was bloody Wolfgang having a snoop. He’s furious Rannaldini’s lent us Magpie Cottage. And Rannaldini’s given him this ace job and he’s got no experience. Can’t you see The Ladybird Book of the Cinema sticking out of his pocket?’

Lucy was about to say how sorry she was, when Rannaldini clapped his hands for silence.

‘I would like to welcome you all to the Throne Room at Valhalla on this very special evening,’ he said smoothly, ‘and introduce my wife Helen, our daughter Tabitha, by the fireplace, and our son, Wolfgang.’ He turned to smile at the extremely handsome but undeniably boot-faced young man standing by the window.

‘Wolfgang, Wolfgang,’ Hermione charged forward, ‘I haven’t seen you since you were in short pants.’

‘And hasn’t he turned out yummily,’ sighed Meredith, to giggles all round. Poor Wolfgang blushed dark crimson.

‘Tabitha, you look just laike your sibling,’ said Pushy Galore, who although only in the chorus, had somehow pushed her way into the party and, to match the décor, was busting out of red velvet braided with gold, ‘but not laike your dad or mum.’

‘Rannaldini’s not my father,’ spat Tabitha, ‘any more than he’s my brother.’ She scowled at Wolfgang, who scowled back.

An awkward silence was defused by Tristan wandering in. His hair was still wet from the shower, his eyes bloodshot from late nights poring over the storyboards of each scene, which, like an extended comic strip, covered the walls of his suite upstairs.

Tristan apologized profusely for being late and for Lady Griselda who, knowing everyone in Rutshire as well as Dorset, had gone out to dinner, for his delectable niece Simone, who needed ten hours’ sleep on the eve of a shoot, and for Bernard, his first assistant director, who was handling some row with Equity and couldn’t make it either. He was then so charming to everyone, particularly Helen, that she soon forgot about dust, breakages and chipped paintwork.

In fact, Tristan was incredibly uptight. He always got blinding headaches before filming started, particularly after that row with Rannaldini. He needed five more hours on the score. His confidence had been jolted because his cult film The Betrothed had just lost out in the Oscars to a mainstream American comedy. He was alsosad to see the large salacious Étienne de Montigny of Abelard and Héloïse, which his father had left Rannaldini, hanging opposite the fireplace, to Helen’s obvious distaste.

Oscar, the director of photography, and his son-in-law Valentin, however, were both jolted out of their habitual languor by the painting. ‘That’s the look we need for the shove-and-grunt scenes, Tristan,’ said Oscar, waving his green cigarette-holder in the direction of Héloïse’s left breast. ‘Beautiful flesh tones. Your father certainly knew about light.’

‘I love that painting too,’ said Hermione, smiling warmly at Oscar because she wanted him to light her beautifully, and because she liked the piratical good looks of his son-in-law. ‘Étienne de Montigny was always begging me to sit for him.’

Tristan had had enough and belted off to the more reassuring comfort of Lucy, who had been deserted by Tabitha in need of more vodka, and who went scarlet when Tristan kissed her on both her already flushed cheeks. Oh, why had she worn a red wool twinset to stand by a blazing fire?

‘Thank you ever so much for the bluebells,’ she stammered.

‘I know you love them, and I remember very good poem about Lucy.

‘A violet by a mossy stone,

Half hidden from the eye.

Fair as a star, when only one

Is shining in the sky.

Tristan reeled off the verse in triumph.

But no-one looks at her when all the other stars come out, thought Lucy. She’d never found the poem very flattering.

There was a pause.

‘And this must be James.’ Tristan put out a hand to stroke Lucy’s lurcher, who was now curled up on the crimson throne initialled E for Excellent.

‘You remembered,’ said Lucy rapturously.

‘Of course. He is beautiful. How old is he?’

‘About twelve, the vet says.’

‘Where did you get him?’

‘I was on a shoot in the East End. He was running round the streets, terrified, with his lead flapping, so I coaxed him into my caravan with a bit of quiche. He was starving.’

The words were tumbling out of Lucy’s big, trembling mouth. ‘Then he leapt on to a chair, as if he wanted me to make him up, so I took off his lead to make him feel at home and put it on the table. Would you believe it? The next moment, he’d leapt down, snatched back his lead, put it on his chair, jumped back and sat on it.’ As Lucy caressed James’s brown velvet ears, her voice broke. ‘He was desperate not to lose the only possession he had in the world. I had to keep him after that. I’m sorry,’ Lucy wiped her eyes, smearing her mascara, ‘I’m boring you.’

‘I would run around East End with lead trailing,’ said Tristan gently, ‘if it found me an owner like you.’

Squawking, like a pheasant disturbed in a wood, was coming from the other end of the room. Oscar, not recognizing Hermione, had put up the terrible black of assuming Tabitha was the beautiful young girl who was going to play Elisabetta, and loudly assuring her he would have no problem lighting her at all.

Hermione was hopping.

Touching Lucy’s blushing cheek with one finger, Tristan shot off to calm Hermione, which also gave him a chance to say hello to Tab. But Tab had grabbed a bottle and, saying quite untruthfully that Lucy’s glass was empty as an excuse to fill her own, shot past him going the other way.

‘Who’s that man who looks as though a marmalade cat’s died on his head?’ she hissed.

‘That’s Colin Milton,’ grinned Lucy, lowering her voice. ‘Poor old boy’s been in the wilderness for years. Kept forgetting his lines and then had a nervous breakdown. He’s playing the Spanish ambassador. He’s really sweet.’

Meanwhile, anxious to make Alpheus jealous, Chloe was chatting up Wolfgang and, to prove she was not just a pretty face, discussing Schiller.

‘In the play,’ she said, ‘Philip offers his mistress, Eboli, in marriage to a disgusting old courtier.’

‘He also offers Carlos up to the Inquisition,’ said Wolfgang bleakly, ‘because both his mistress and his wife are in love with Carlos. His religion gave Philip a marvellous excuse to murder a son he hated.’

Wow, thought Chloe, you’re a chilly boy, ruthless as your dad. The combination of blond, chiselled, Luftwaffe-pilot looks with Rannaldini’s night-dark eyes was very disturbing.

‘Oh, goodee!’ Hermione clapped her hands. ‘Here’s Alpheus.’

Alpheus, who had deliberately arrived late to make an entrance, looked splendid, deeply tanned, wearing a frilly cream shirt tucked into dark blue velvet trousers to show off his T-bone figure. Helen’s eyes widened with excitement as he kissed her hand.

‘Here comes the Lothario from Long Island,’ said Baby sourly.

‘He is handsome,’ reproached Flora.

‘Like a lobster,’ snapped Baby. ‘Tasty body, but a head full of shit.’

‘Dinner is served,’ grumbled Mr Brimscombe, the gardener, who was violently opposed to Rannaldini’s plan to obliterate his flower-beds in a great Buckingham Palace sweep of lawn down to the lake, and who had only agreed to butle because so much crumpet was on view.

21

As the Great Hall was being transformed by Meredith’s myrmidons into Philip II’s bedroom, they dined in the old Prussian blue dining room, which now had walls the tawny red of beef consommé, and a gold ceiling to match all the gold plate and the frames of the portraits on the walls. A brass trough filled with white daffodils stretched down the middle of the table.

‘“And then my heart with pleasure fills and dances with the daffodils,”’ said Tristan, who had been summoned to sit on Helen’s right, but hoped Lucy and therefore Tab might come and sit on his other side. But, tossing her ringlets, Pushy Galore nipped in and stole the seat.

‘How the hell did she get in here?’ Chloe hissed to Flora.

‘Sexton brought her. In that dress, she looks as though he ordered her from the Past Times Christmas catalogue. The last shall be first — she’ll probably end up marrying Tristan.’

‘Having cased the joint, she’ll more likely become the next Lady Rannaldini. As Helen clearly hasn’t thought we were worth a seating plan, shall we sit together?’

Flora nodded, clutching a furiously growling Trevor to stop him attacking James. She was actually in a state of shock. She’d had no idea her old flame Wolfie was working on the film or that he’d grown so devastatingly attractive. If only she’d bothered to wash her hair and change.

In honour of the stag hunt with which Don Carlos opens, they dined on the darkest, meltingly tender venison steeped in a rich red wine sauce.

‘The secret of venison is that it should be well hung,’ announced Hermione, scooping up most of the delicious celeriac purée.

‘Like blokes,’ agreed Baby.

‘Sublime, Rannaldini,’ announced Alpheus, determined to raise the tone. ‘How d’you make it so goddam tender?’

‘I eenjeck the marinade into the tissue with a hypodermic syringe,’ purred Rannaldini.

‘How gross,’ snapped Tabitha, and fed her venison to Sharon under the table.

Colin Milton wasn’t eating his venison either. ‘“Great Henry, the glorious King of France,”’ he muttered to himself, ‘“wishes to bestow the hand of his daughter…”’ Oh, hell, what came next?

His hand was shaking so dreadfully that when he tried to raise his glass of Château Mouton Rothschild 1949 to his lips, he spilt it.

‘Don’t waste that stuff, Colin,’ shouted Rannaldini, down the table. ‘Eet cost a fortune.’

Bastard, thought Lucy, who was already embarrassed because she had refused the venison.

Sitting beside her, Wolfie noticed her empty plate.

‘I don’t eat meat,’ she stammered. ‘I’ll be fine with vegetables.’

Wolfie stood up. ‘I’ll have a word with…’ he glanced up the table at Helen ‘… er, Mrs Rannaldini.’

Lady Rannaldini,’ howled Rannaldini. ‘Have you lost your manners, Wolfgang?’

An ugly flush spread over Wolfie’s face and his white-knuckled hands clenched the table. Lucy felt terrible, particularly when Mrs Brimscombe hobbled in, apologizing, with the most delectable vegetable lasagne.

‘I make it specially for you, Lucy,’ called Rannaldini, determined to ingratiate himself with Tabitha’s friend.

You’re still a bastard, thought Lucy, delighted that Wolfie was now defiantly emptying tomato ketchup over his venison.

When everyone was eating the lightest primrose yellow syllabub with bitter chocolate sauce, Tristan stood up. Having thanked Rannaldini and Helen for allowing their house to be invaded, he went on to talk about Don Carlos, repeating Verdi’s description of:

‘“A family drama in a princely house”, which must have been very like Valhalla. It is also a story about sexual jealousy and loneliness in high places.

‘Both Schiller and Verdi were obsessed with oppression,’ Tristan continued, ‘the tyranny of Philip II over his family and his subjects, the tyranny of the Church over everything. Today, the Church has loosed its stranglehold, instead we — and particularly the Royal Family and the government — are controlled by the media. That is why we have set our Don Carlos in modern dress, with a corrupt press baron replacing the Grand Inquisitor.’

As part of her job Lucy never stopped watching faces. Seeing the rapt attention of Flora, Chloe, Pushy, Hermione, Helen and even Tab, her heart sank. How stupid to think she had a hope against such dazzling competition. Lost as a star, when all the rest are shining in the sky, she thought sadly. As if to comfort her, James laid his long nose on her knee. At least she hadn’t had to go abroad this time and leave him behind.

In the flickering candlelight, Tristan’s face had lost its hollows and yellow-greyish pallor. His eyes glowed with conviction.

‘None of us is going to get him into bed,’ murmured Meredith to Baby. ‘Like Spielberg, he only fucks the movie.’

‘In real life Don Carlos was horrible person,’ Tristan was now telling his audience. ‘He roast animals alive, he gallop his horse to death, he assault and flog palace maids, he even bit the head off a pet lizard and ate it.’

‘Ooh,’ squealed Pushy.

‘I could have murdered a whole lizard at Champney’s last week,’ called out Baby.

‘You are very beautiful now, so it pay off,’ laughed Tristan, then serious again. ‘Tomorrow we begin filming the first act, which is perhaps the most tragic. Dusk is falling on a great forest. The huntsmen are riding home. Elisabetta and Carlos experience le coup de foudre, first love striking like lightning. They have few moments of ecstasy, thinking they will live happy for ever. Then it is over.’

Noticing the desolation on Tabitha’s face, he was ashamed to feel a flicker of satisfaction her marriage might not be working out. He had been haunted by dreams of her lean, jeaned body and garlanded head ever since the wedding.

After he’d wished everyone good luck for the morning, there was applause, coffee and liqueurs.

Down the table Hermione was telling Alpheus that Rannaldini often lent her his Gulf IV for overseas engagements. Why shouldn’t the Maestro do the same for his principal bass?

Misinterpreting the excitement on her lover’s face, Chloe tried once more to galvanize Wolfie. ‘Do you like opera?’ she asked.

‘I liked you in Nabucco,’ admitted Wolfie, ‘when the ENO brought it to Munich.’

‘It’s pronounced Na-book-o,’ snarled an eavesdropping Rannaldini.

I hate my father, thought Wolfie, I should never have come back. I hate Helen. She had always been a pain in the arse when her son Marcus and Wolfie had been at school together. And now she had put him back in his old room, which she’d obviously been using as a spare room, then expected him to rave over the chintz curtains and the flower paintings on the pretence she’d redecorated it especially for him.

I loathe Tabitha, he thought. She’s a spoilt brat, worse than Little Cosmo, more arrogant than her father, and now in possession of the nicest cottage on the estate. And there, laughing across the table with Chloe, was Flora, his old love, bloody gold-digger, covered in his father’s fingerprints, now shacked up with a guy as old as and probably richer than his father. He had forgiven neither her nor Rannaldini, and Flora, seeing the antagonism battling with the longing in Wolfie’s eyes, found it very disturbing. As solid as Tebaldo’s gun, she fingered the mobile in her jeans pocket, willing George to ring.

Rannaldini was now talking about Valhalla.

‘Part of the house is twelve century. It has been owned since the beginning by aristocrats or monks.’

‘Certainly by neither today,’ said Tabitha sourly, as she reached through the white daffodils for the Kummel.

‘Sometimes,’ Rannaldini ignored her, ‘on summer nights we ’ear the most beautiful plainsong from the chapel, but no-one is there. A sad, weeping lady in grey, Caroline Beddoes, is often seen gazing out of a blocked-up window on the north side. She has blood on her dress and a little dog in her arms. Sometime she glide through doors which exeest no longer. You can hear the hiss of her silk skirts on the flagstones.

‘And, of course, as in many great houses, there is a legend that when the lake dries up the head of the family will die.’

‘It looked promisingly low on the way down,’ murmured Baby.

Everyone laughed nervously, glancing furtively into the shadowy corners — except Alpheus.

‘Did you really manage to negotiate a cash settlement?’ he was asking Hermione.

‘Do you believe in ghosts, Sir Roberto?’ quavered Pushy.

The lights seemed to dim.

‘I believe, my dear,’ the excited throb in Rannaldini’s voice was growing more insistent, ‘in a great departure lounge crowded with spirits desperate to get to the next world or to return to this one, to avenge themselves or to clear their name or find a lost love.’

‘Attractive, isn’t he?’ whispered Chloe.

‘Satanically,’ shivered Flora.

‘Been to bed with him?’

‘Yes.’

‘So have I. Brilliant, wasn’t it?’

‘Yes.’

‘We also have the legend of the Paradise Lad, a beautiful novice,’ Rannaldini’s eyes gleamed, ‘flogged to death by the monks for falling in love with a village girl. Sometime we hear him sobbing. Listen.’ As Rannaldini held up a white hand, a moan came from the chimney and everyone jumped in terror. ‘But it is probably only the wind.’

The port and brandy were orbiting like formula-one cars. Suddenly the door creaked slowly open. People screamed and clutched each other, as no-one entered. Then Rannaldini’s white cat, Sarastro, padded in.

‘It’s the night shift come to sit on Colin’s head,’ whispered Tabitha.

Next moment even she had jumped out of her skin, as Sarastro arched his back and hissed, his tail thick as a snow-covered Christmas tree. But he had only seen James, who would have given chase, if Lucy hadn’t grabbed his new green collar.

Helen was not happy. Tristan was perfectly charming but she wished he didn’t always want his crew to enjoy the same privileges as himself, when it meant her having on her left Ogborne, the pig-like chief grip whose shaved head was gleaming in the candlelight and who had just poured himself a third glass of port.

‘Got everything you need?’ she asked acidly.

‘Well, Cindy Crawford would be nice,’ said Ogborne, adding kindly, ‘but it’s been a great meal.’

‘Where does the name Valhalla come from?’ asked Pushy.

Helen opened her mouth. At last a chance to show off, but she was pre-empted by Ogborne.

‘Wagner,’ he told Pushy. ‘Valhalla was the palace built for the gods by the giants Fasolt and Fafner. You must remember that wonderful moment at the end of Rhinegold, when the gods pass over the rainbow bridge and enter the castle at sunset.’

The entire table fell silent, gazing at him in amazement.

‘And who’s that very handsome gentleman over the fireplace?’ simpered Pushy Galore.

‘She’s so far up Rannaldini,’ hissed Chloe, ‘one can’t see her toenails any more.’

‘That is my great-great-grandfather on my mother’s side,’ said Rannaldini, smiling warmly at Pushy. ‘A tremendous rake. That portrait has been known to wink at very pretty girls.’

‘Bollocks,’ hiccuped Meredith. ‘You bought Great-great-grandpop and all your other ancestors in the King’s Road in the late eighties.’

Tristan tried not to laugh, and because Rannaldini had thrown Meredith such a filthy look and he didn’t want his entire crew and cast quitting Valhalla in terror, he got up to go.

‘Bedtime, everyone. Thank you, Rannaldini and Helen, for a wonderful evening. It has put us in great mood for tomorrow.’

Not all of us, thought Flora sadly, then squeaked in ecstasy as her mobile rang.

‘I’m in a seven-foot by seven-foot four-poster in Doosledorf,’ said a broad Yorkshire accent, ‘and I need soomeone to fill it.’

‘Oh, George,’ sighed Flora, ‘I love you so much and thank you for my lovely regard ring.’

Wolfie flinched.

‘OK for some,’ said Tab bitterly, then, pleadingly to Lucy, ‘Come back to the cottage for a quick one.’

‘Can I come too?’ asked Ogborne, picking up the bottle of Kummel.

‘No, you can’t,’ said Tab rudely.

Lucy sighed inwardly. ‘It’d better be quick — I’ve got to be up at six.’

Having made a few telephone calls, Rannaldini locked his study door, pressed a button and the bookshelf slid back to reveal a wall of monitors.

‘Two-way mirror on the wall,’ murmured Rannaldini, ‘who is the fairest of them all?’

Sadly, Tab had gone home. He must get Clive to install that video-camera in Magpie Cottage. Flora had pushed off to her parents’ house, Hermione to River House. But there was poor bald Colin, without his toupee, pacing his little cell, and Tristan had fallen asleep on his chessboard, clutching his mobile. Oscar was also asleep, Valentin calling his new wife.

Ah, that was more interesting. Pushy Galore going down on Sylvestre, and Ogborne snorting with delight over a porn mag. Wolfie lay on his back, smoking. Rannaldini had so often seen the same bruised furious reproach in Wolfie’s mother’s eyes. Of all of his wives, she had been the first and the worst treated. She had been so young. He must win Wolfie over. In the next cell, Baby was gazing at a photograph of someone suspiciously like Isa Lovell.

Pouring himself a brandy, Rannaldini sat back to watch Chloe and Alpheus but, despite Chloe’s ravishing body and flickering expertise, it was so mainline, he soon nodded off.

Even when she had tumbled into bed, long after midnight, Lucy couldn’t sleep. The house, like an ancient arthritic, kept shifting its position, creaking and groaning to get comfortable. The wind howled, the central heating gurgled, James was restless, and in the next room Colin Milton was so nervous they might get to the Spanish ambassador tomorrow, he spent all night practising his lines.

Lucy tried not to think about Tristan. For once she was glad when her alarm clock went off at five thirty.

22

From six o’clock onwards a mighty army of lorries, caravans, a canteen, generators, double-decker dining-buses and a Portaloo euphemistically nicknamed the honeywagon rumbled eastwards into Rannaldini’s woods. Their destination was a beechwood known as Cathedral Copse, because its silver trunks soared to the sky like the pillars of a huge nave.

It was a bitterly cold day. In a clearing Oscar, the director of photography, his purple scarf and dark hair flapping, was eating a bacon sandwich, glancing from shivering stand-ins to light meters, and briefing the gaffer, the chief electrician, who in turn told his minions, the sparks, where to put the lights. Except in the place where the singers were going to act, the carpet of faded beech leaves was criss-crossed with camera tracks and cables and teeming with focus-pullers measuring distances, boom operators, and props men trying to look useful.

Over in Make Up, Lucy had grabbed a cup of coffee and a hot dog for James before starting on the long haul of making up Baby, who needed Alka-Seltzer, lots of blue eye-drops, concealer for his dark shadows and blusher for his blanched cheeks.

‘You’ve got such a beautiful face,’ chided Lucy. ‘You should cut out the booze and get a few early nights.’

‘Carlos is supposed to look pale and wan.’

‘Not in this scene. That comes after his dad’s nicked his girlfriend.’

‘How’s Mrs Lovell’s marriage?’

‘Fine.’ Lucy drew a white line inside Baby’s lower lashes to reduce the redness.

‘Yeah, yeah, Rannaldini’s won a peace prize. Is Isa catting around?’

‘You should know. You’re his friend.’

‘He’s not the greatest communicator, except with horses.’

‘Aren’t you nervous?’ asked Lucy, who was accustomed to calming terrified actors, particularly on the first day.

‘Not in the least. Don’t change the subject. You went back to Magpie Cottage — she must have said something. She was certainly on the pull last night, flashing her sea-horse tattoo.’

‘She dressed up because she thought Isa was coming with her. I don’t want to discuss it. Now, what are we going to do about your green tongue? Here’s a pink cough pastille, if you can keep it down.’

Next she had to cope with a sobbing Flora, clutching a furiously yapping Trevor with one hand and tugging her red hair down over her ears with the other.

Whereas make-up artists usually adjust to their subject’s wishes, film hairdressers tend to impose their views on others. Flora had got stuck into the tattered remains of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin only to discover she’d been given a short back and sides.

‘George will sling me out. Oh, for God’s sake, stop it, Trevor!’ Flora’s voice rose to a scream as the little terrier lunged at a surprised James.

‘You can get away with it, you’ve got such a lovely face.’ Lucy tied a powder-blue overall round Flora’s neck. ‘And it’ll soon grow.’

‘Not for three months, it won’t,’ mocked Baby. ‘That gauleiter Simone from Continuity won’t allow it, and Lucy said I’ve got a beautiful face too. She says it to all the girls.’

‘Oh, go away and annoy Wardrobe,’ said Lucy, throwing a sponge at him.

‘I shall go and inhabit my caravan. Look, it’s on the call sheet — “Mr Spinosissimo’s caravan”. It’s eight inches longer than Hermione’s, I measured it — so yah, boo!’

Lucy then had to turn a quaking Flora into Hermione’s private detective, thickening her eyebrows, giving her sideboards and a small moustache, and creating brown stubble with a dry sponge.

‘I’m bored in my caravan. It’s lonely being a mega-star,’ said Baby, half an hour later. He was so turned on by Flora’s new butch look, he couldn’t stop pinching her bottom.

‘You’re wanted in Wardrobe, Mr Spinosissimo.’ Standing in the doorway, his shoulders broadened by a lumber jacket, was a stony-faced Wolfie. ‘Get your ass into gear, the director’s waiting.’

‘Treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen. Heil Hitler.’ Baby goosestepped after Wolfgang. ‘Christ, it’s cold. If March is meant to go out like a lamb, this one’s New Zealand and deep-frozen.’

Over at Wardrobe, Tristan and Lady Griselda, in a floor-length fur-lined red coat and a fake-fur hat like a tsar, had decided that as Carlos had just flown into France incognito, it would be more appropriate for him to lurk at the meet in a covert coat.

‘Wouldn’t a flasher’s mac be more suitable?’ said Baby.

He was still violently opposed to his Prince Charles wig and enraged Tristan by asking the grinning crew whether he looked a prat or not. When they voted by a show of hands that he did, he tore it off and threw it into a bramble bush.

Tristan only gave in because he and Rannaldini, who’d just rolled up in his huge wolf coat, had been sucked into an even worse screaming match with Meredith, who didn’t appear quite so young and boyish out of doors. The point of contention was a hunting lodge, which looked as though it had been exclusively decorated by Colefax & Fowler.

‘We are not making fourth-rate production of Hansel and Gretel,’ snarled Rannaldini, whose idea it had actually been because he wanted a free summerhouse, but who hadn’t forgiven Meredith for last night’s bought ancestors.

‘Carlos and Lizzie have a love tryst in it,’ Meredith stamped his little snow boot, ‘so it must look nice.’

‘We should have seen a model first,’ said Tristan reasonably.

‘It look like cuckoo clock,’ hissed Rannaldini.

Meredith flounced off, muttering that his artistic input had been compromised. The cuckoo clock was banished and stood sulking near the car park for the rest of the shoot.

Because Hermione was still squawking in Make Up it was decided quickly to relight and shoot the first four lines of Baby’s aria, when he expresses rapture after catching his first glimpse of Elisabetta.

There was already a crimson blur of new bud on the beeches. Bluebell leaves and green flames of wild garlic were pushing through the leaf mould. But such signs of spring were speedily blotted out by the snow machine scattering white foam everywhere, even between the cracks in the dry ground.

‘Remember not to bang your chest. It sound like Beeg Ben,’ begged Sylvestre as he miked up Baby.

Next moment, everyone jumped out of their skins, as music poured fortissimo out of speakers hidden behind two venerable sycamores.

‘Doesn’t it sound gorgeous?’ cried Flora, rushing out of Make Up, her eyes filled with tears. ‘Rannaldini’s overture is simply sensational. You’d never know it wasn’t Verdi.’

‘You always admired him,’ said Wolfie coldly.

Flora flushed. Next moment she had tripped over a sign concealed by the snow saying ‘Beware of Snakes’.

‘Oh, God,’ she wailed. ‘Trevor and I are going to invest in some thigh boots before summer.’

Meanwhile, Hype-along Cassidy, the harassed press officer, who was expecting a reporter and photographer from the Independent, was sidling from one bewildered member of the French crew to another, imploring them to charge forward and ask for Dame Hermione’s autograph when she deigned eventually to come out of her caravan.

‘Bruce Willis’s press officer does the same thing,’ he lied.

Tristan was taking Baby through a quick rehearsal. Valentin, Oscar’s handsome son-in-law, perched on a little chair behind the camera, was following them, as Ogborne, a red knitted flower-pot covering his shaved head, pushed the camera along the silver rail tracks.

As the head of Props pressed a button, and the smoke-machine enveloped Baby in swirling grey mist, Lucy shot forward with her brushes to take the shine off his nose, and a hairdresser rearranged his curls.

‘More smoke,’ shouted Tristan.

‘That brown velvet collar needs straightening,’ yelled Griselda.

‘Quiet, please, we’re going for a take,’ brayed Bernard, the first assistant director.

An incredible tension gripped everyone — even the birds were silent, the breeze still.

‘Sound rolling,’ said Sylvestre.

‘Camera rolling,’ called Valentin.

‘Mark it,’ said Tristan, and the clapper-loader jumped in front of the camera, saying, ‘Slate one, take one,’ and snapped his clapper.

‘Action,’ shouted Tristan.

Out strolled Baby into the sunlight.

‘“Fontainebleau. Immense and solitary forest”,’ he sang exactly in time to his own exquisite voice. ‘“What rose-filled gardens, what Eden of loveliness could equal in Carlos’s eyes this wood through which his smiling Elisabetta passed?”’

‘And cut!’ shouted Tristan. ‘That was great.’ Then, loping over to Baby, ‘Could you make it a little more ecstatic? You are expecting hideous future wife and suddenly you discover you are to marry most stunning girl in world — you could even clutch yourself with joy.’

‘Anything’s better than clutching Dame Hermione.’

Tais-toi! You’re miked up! OK, we go again.’

The mournful clarinet began once more, the smoke-machine fired another swirl of mist. As Tristan called, ‘Action,’ glamorous Valentin, riding his camera like a jockey, reminded Baby of Isa.

‘Fontainebleau,’ he sang rapturously.

After three takes, each more miraculous than the one before, Tristan said, ‘Fantastic! Check the gate.’

Once the clapper-loader had shone his torch into the camera to check there were no hairs or dust to ruin the picture, Tristan shouted: ‘Cut and print.’ Everyone cheered, because the first shot was in the can.

The rest of the aria was going to be used as voiceover as Baby smuggled himself into France and the Spanish ambassador’s entourage. It was now time for Hermione. Having borrowed a tape-measure from Griselda and discovered Baby had the longer caravan, she was now screeching at Bernard Guérin, the first assistant director. ‘I answer only to Tristan de Montigny or Sir Roberto, and no-one, absolutely no-one, orders me to hurry up. And in future ensure that my caravan is not parked next to the honeywagon.’

Bernard, who’d been unable to make last night’s party, acted as Tristan’s sergeant major. His job was to see everything ran smoothly on the floor. Any hold-up cost thousands.

Bernard also did the bellowing and bossing around, which enabled Tristan to drift about, inspiring, charming, manipulating, and still appearing as Mr Nice Guy, even when he pushed people to the limit. Bernard, who’d been in the army with Tristan’s brother Laurent and held him dying in his arms in Africa, hero-worshipped the Montigny family. He also got wildly jealous and sulked if anyone got too close to Tristan.

Sadly, one of the reasons Hermione was being so gratuitously rude to him was because he had a brick-red face, the rolling eyes and big teeth of a rocking-horse, an ebony moustache covering a huge upper lip and the bray of a choleric donkey.

‘When Frogs are ugly, there’s no competition,’ whispered Baby, as Bernard emerged from Hermione’s mauling, his red face darkened to maroon and enlivened by a delta of purple veins on his forehead.

With a sigh, Rannaldini vanished into Hermione’s caravan and came down the steps a minute or so later, ostentatiously tucking his shirt into his trousers. ‘Dame Hermione is now on her way,’ he called out smugly, so the crew could hear. ‘You must learn tact, Bernard.’

Nemesis, however, was hovering: almost on cue, Hermione’s young, hopelessly harassed but adorably pretty make-up artist wandered down the steps of the honeywagon next door. In her clinging orange cardigan above knitted red and white trousers, she looked every inch a star. To the rapture of the Independent photographer, she was then stampeded by crew members, crying ‘’Ermione, ’Ermione!’ and begging for her autograph.

Hype-along Cassidy, the Press Officer, whose brown velvet hat was knocked off in the rush, only just managed to beat them off as Hermione herself emerged in the red riding coat Tristan had vetoed last night.

Whatever happened to Rannaldini’s dominance ending at the recording? thought Flora in alarm.

Hermione was further outraged when Tristan cautiously suggested her make-up was too heavy for outdoors.

‘Which, roughly translated, means it makes the old bat look a hundred,’ whispered Baby to the crew, who he’d got totally on his side.

Hermione’s quailing make-up artist was then ordered by Tristan to take her make-up down, which meant another hour’s delay. Later, Bernard stole off to have a pee behind a holly tree, and only just missed Hermione frantically applying eye-liner.

‘Her next CD will be called “Hermione goes to Hollybush”.’ Baby’s joke was soon whizzing round the set.

Baby proved a complete natural, who only had to glance at his lines in Make Up before going from nothing to regulo ten in thirty seconds. Hermione, on the other hand, was used to having a raised eyebrow seen in the gods, and was defeated by the stillness, subtlety and control of cinema acting. She was soon driving everyone crackers insisting, ‘But I always enter right for this aria,’ and because she, like everyone else, had a monstrous crush on Tristan, wanting to know her motivation for every syllable.

Tristan’s niece, Simone, in charge of continuity, was tiny and elfin with a glossy dark brown urchin cut and mournful Montigny eyes. Her fragility, however, belied a forceful personality. As most of the film was shot out of order, Simone’s main task, apart from timing takes, was to insist that each scene blended into earlier and later ones.

‘Your cigarette was only a quarter smoked last time, Baby,’ she was now shouting, ‘and we agreed you should carry a whip, Dame Hermione.’

‘Oh, sugar, I left it at home.’

‘Wolfgang can go and get it,’ said Rannaldini. ‘That’s what he’s here for.’

Having played in the first rugger team of an English public school, Wolfie was used to being yelled at under pressure. But with Bernard shouting instructions into his earpiece all morning, it was as though the Battle of the Somme had broken out. Now Rannaldini was pitching in.

‘And you can pick up another thermal vest from the Mill while you’re there, Wolfgang,’ Hermione called after him. ‘I cannot afford to catch cold,’ she added, as Tristan’s eyes rose to heaven at the thought of more delay.

By the time they broke for lunch, only Baby’s four lines had been filmed, and everyone had such cold noses they looked like an advertisement for Comic Relief.

Aware she had a French crew, Maria the caterer, a pretty, pregnant Italian, was on her mettle and had produced baked red snapper with aromatic Chinese sauce, steak and kidney pie, sautéed garlic potatoes, a vegetable stir-fry for Lucy, followed by rhubarb crumble or treacle pudding.

Everyone piled up their plates and charged the dining bus, where Tristan, because of the cold and it being the first day, had ordered bottles of wine for every table.

‘How the hell are you going to put up with Hermione?’ asked Oscar, as he tied his napkin round his neck to protect his purple scarf.

‘Divas are not fully balanced human beings,’ said Tristan dropping three Disprins into a glass of Perrier. ‘If they were they wouldn’t be great.’

After lunch the rows escalated.

‘What is my motivation for this scene?’ Hermione asked Tristan for the thousandth time.

‘You are cold, exhausted and lost in a huge forest,’ said Tristan, through gritted teeth. ‘Suddenly Carlos steps out from behind that tree and offers you his protection.’

‘If I’ve just come off a plane, surely I’d offer her a slug of duty-free,’ said Baby helpfully.

‘Will you stop taking the pees?’ Tristan’s voice rose. ‘As I was saying, Hermione, you’re lost in a wood.’

‘“Just a little lamb who’s lost in a wood,”’ sang Hermione, fortissimo, then went into peals of laughter as everyone jumped out of their skins.

‘Don’t you wish that pistol was loaded?’ murmured Baby to Flora.

‘I feel like Agent Scully. At least we’ve got the same-coloured hair,’ whispered back Flora, who was very excited by her gun, which was a Heckler-Koch ‘toy’, as used by the SAS.

She was feeling spooked, however, because Rannaldini had nastily insisted she take off not just her regard ring but also her sapphire engagement ring.

‘It ees almost beeger than the evening star, and much too camp for a detective,’ he sneered. ‘Why not lend it to Baby?’

‘Look mean, Flora, chérie,’ shouted Tristan, ‘and when you see Carlos, shield Hermione and point your gun straight into camera.’

‘Stand by to shoot, please,’ bellowed Bernard.

Everyone moved out of shot.

‘Here we go, let’s turn over.’

And poor Flora was into a rat race. If she sang loud enough to have the right facial movements, the sound was too loud for her to hear the playback and she got out of synch. Alas, the promised voice coach had been sacked even before he’d started. Instead, to help her sing in time, and come in at the right moment, the video of Rannaldini conducting the score was now being relayed on a huge monitor behind the crew. This made her even more nervous.

She kept fluffing her lines, let alone remembering to look mean and shoot into the camera. Nor was she helped by planes going over, Griselda charging up to smooth her riding coat over the bulge of her gun, Lucy racing in to tone down her red nose with green face powder, Simone telling her to do up her top button, or Rannaldini continually shouting.

‘I don’t like hecklers, even if they do have cocks,’ she muttered dolefully. Then, just as she got things right, her mobile rang.

‘Oh, George,’ Flora burst into tears, ‘I’m a lousy actress, but I can’t talk now. I’ll ring you back. I’m sorry, everyone.’

Rannaldini went berserk. ‘Are you going to take this thing seriously?’ he yelled, grabbing her mobile. ‘Because eef not Gloria knows Tebaldo’s words and is only too ’appy to take over.’

‘Leave her alone,’ shouted Baby, who’d been crunching clove after clove of garlic in anticipation of his clinch with Dame Hermione.

There was a red glow on the horizon. The third lot of snow needed topping up, the day was running away. Blown like a dry leaf by everyone’s arguments, Flora leant against a tree, got lichen on her breeches and bollocked by Griselda.

‘Everyone hates me,’ she muttered miserably.

‘I don’t,’ said Sylvestre, who could hear her through the mike.

‘I don’t,’ said Rozzy Pringle, the former singer of Flora’s part, whose voice had broken down in the recording, and who’d just arrived to help in Wardrobe. Putting a little stone hot-water bottle into one of Flora’s blue frozen hands and a mug of hot Ribena into the other, she whispered, ‘You look chilled to the marrow, poor little duck.’

‘Oh, Rozzy, how lovely to see you.’

‘And you. Don’t cry, darling, your make-up will run.’

‘Ooh, that looks nice,’ called Hermione. ‘I’d like some hot Ribena too. Go and fetch me some, Wolfgang.’

Which made Wolfie hate Flora more than ever, particularly when he met Helen panting up the hill going the other way. ‘George Hungerford’s just called the house. He can’t get through. Can you tell Flora to switch on her mobile? He says it’s urgent.’

‘I’m not having any of those thoogs bullying you,’ were George’s first words, as Flora rang him on Bernard’s mobile.

‘Flora,’ snarled Wolfie, ‘are you going to hold us up all night?’

He wants to kill me, thought Flora. Even with a hundred people milling around, he terrified her.

The next day went much better. In the afternoon, they even filmed Carlos and Elisabetta’s first kiss. Baby’s attempts only to kiss Hermione between her jutting lower lip and her chin came to nothing: she sucked in his tongue like a Hoover.

‘Cut,’ shouted Tristan then took her aside. ‘As this is the first kiss of an innocent young virgin, chérie, I think it should be more tentative.’

‘That woman could suck Tasmania back to the mainland,’ Baby regaled an hysterical crew. ‘God knows how Rock Hudson did it for years.’

‘It’s called a Fontaineblow-job,’ giggled Flora, who’d regained her high spirits. ‘When the weather improves you’ve got to bonk her.’

‘That’ll be a piece of piss,’ drawled Baby. ‘When I was a little kid in Oz my parents were always sending me up chimneys. Hermione’s fanny holds no fears for me.’

23

The first weeks of filming were very traumatic for Tristan, and his good nature, particularly when large crowds, horses and hounds were introduced, was severely tested.

Extras, as Sexton was fond of saying, are more expensive than lawyers. Tristan planned to use much of the chorus’s already recorded singing as voiceover, and when he employed actual crowds, to keep down the budget by packing as many of their scenes as possible into the same day.

One of his problems was that Sexton had advertised for extras in the Rutminster Echo, and the same lot rolled up for every crowd scene, whether as poverty-stricken woodmen and their wives or glamorous French courtiers and ladies-in-waiting or suave dark-eyed diplomats from the Spanish delegation.

This was particularly apparent because Pushy Galore, one of the few trained singers used as an extra, pushed her way to the front in every crowd scene.

If any of the extras managed to have a word with Tristan, they could claim they had ‘taken direction’ and charge for extra pay. If they were filmed beside any of the stars, this could be categorized as a ‘cameo appearance’ and they received double pay.

One of Wolfie’s most important jobs, therefore, was to keep the extras away from the cast, which was particularly difficult the day Hype-along invited down a reporter from The Times and was bunging anyone he could see to ask for Dame Hermione’s autograph.

This was after a most unfortunate piece had appeared in the Independent headlined ‘Dame Qui?’ saying none of the French crew had a clue who Hermione was. Poor Hype-along had had to rise at dawn and buy up every Independent on sale at the Paradise village shop before Hermione could send out for one.

It was even harder to keep the extras away from Tristan, who was so polite, whose head was so much in the clouds, and who was so horrified by the way Rannaldini was shattering everyone’s confidence that he’d speak to all and sundry just to reassure them they were doing brilliantly.

As well as bellowing through his loud-hailer to the extras to keep back, Wolfie had to tell them what expression — sad, shocked, deprived, happy — to use. Uninstructed extras always look like the village idiot. Every week, Sexton came down with money in a Gladstone bag, new readies for the extras, used readies for Hermione. Wolfie had to distribute these.

The extras made their first appearance at a stag hunt through snowy beechwoods. A very mettlesome stag had been hired, and Baby and Flora made jokes about fast bucks, particularly when the stag took off into the forest scattering rustics and was last seen chasing ghastly Percy the Parson, who’d got a thumping crush on Baby after hearing him sing at Tabitha’s wedding.

Griselda, the wardrobe mistress, massive in a mauve boiler-suit, was having even more of a nervous breakdown than usual. She had spent days amassing clothes for woodmen and foot-followers that were suitably bucolic. Rozzy Pringle, her new PA, had spent hours labelling them with each extra’s name and hanging them on clothes rails.

Alas, all the extras had lied about their neck size and ended up wearing collars so tight their eyes popped out, like an old Pekineses’ reunion.

Then Rannaldini started screaming that nobody looked dirty enough.

‘Thees ees not catwalk at Aquascutum fashion show.’

‘You OK’d those clothes yesterday,’ said Griselda, bursting into tears. ‘I hate extras,’ she sobbed. ‘Only ten per cent of the men wear underpants, and only five per cent of the women.’

‘Can you tell me which five, when you’ve got a second?’ asked Ogborne, his shaven head hidden in a blue wool flower-pot today, as he laid the tracks for the dolly on which the camera travelled down a different ride.

Lucy had loads more people to make up. The courtiers and huntsmen were fairly straightforward, but she had great difficulty with the chorus of poverty-stricken woodland folk, because none of them looked remotely undernourished.

She had even more of a problem keeping a straight face when Colin Milton, instead of removing his marmalade toupée to play the balding Spanish ambassador, insisted on hiding it under a bald skull-cap.

Flora — who as Hermione’s detective was meant to shadow her during the hunt — found singing while controlling a horse extremely difficult. Tab had grudgingly lent her The Engineer because she wanted her little grey horse to appear in the film. Unfortunately every time Wolfie, who was cantering around like a polo umpire, bellowed through his loud-hailer, The Engineer bolted. Yelling that she couldn’t afford to lose an Olympic horse, Tab finally insisted Flora switch to Wolfie’s old pony, Audrey. This triggered off a further screaming match with Simone, because it screwed up continuity, and with Wolfie, who didn’t want poor Audrey between Flora’s thighs.

Tab didn’t care. As mistress of the horse, her word was law. She had already tranked the delinquent Prince of Darkness, because Rannaldini wanted Hermione to ride him in the film.

‘Rather like a selling plate,’ grumbled Baby.

The Prince of Darkness was fine when he was galloping across country, but he lashed out at crowds, particularly at Pushy Galore, who had shoved her way to the front of the foot-followers. Pushy was livid and promptly reported the Prince and Tab to the union. This may have been due to jealousy.

Every time Tab appeared on the set, all one could see was technicians tripping over cables and camera tracks and cannoning into each other as they cricked their necks for a third and fourth glance. Even Oscar, the director of photography, woke up.

‘Talk about the return of Hale-Bopp,’ he sighed, as Tab and The Engineer flew past, blonde hair, grey mane and tail flying.

After Tab, the most eye-catching sight on the set was Hype-along Cassidy, the Press Officer, who had ginger sideboards and, even in winter, whisked about in flowered kipper ties and flared pastel suits. ‘Seventies is my trademark,’ he was always saying. ‘If you’re different you’re remembered.’

Hype-along knew more people than Griselda, but in twenty-five highly successful years he had never met a bunch whose vanity and caprice exceeded the cast of Don Carlos. Not only did they want coverage in the posh papers, but also double-page spreads in the tabloids praising their artistry but not mentioning their sex lives.

On the extras’ second day, Hype-along wheeled in the Sunday Express, whose photographer was having an adventurous time leaping out of the way of The Prince of Darkness and snapping the hunt as they streamed down a woodland ride.

‘So pleasant to have a break in Paradise,’ announced Hermione, slowing down to bow to the Express photographer as she and Colin Milton cantered decorously past. ‘It’s so peaceful here.’

Colin’s chestnut mare had furry legs like a feminist. It was lucky he was hanging on to her mane for grim death for next moment they were overtaken by a yelling peril.

‘Move it, you fuckers!’ shouted Tabitha. ‘You’re hunting, not pulling a coffin, and for God’s sake sit up, Grandma,’ she added to Hermione, ‘and shorten your reins.’

Hermione turned puce. ‘To think I sang at her wedding for nothing! I’m not surprised Isaac’s fed up with her already. I also think she’s been at the hip flask.’

Wolfie thought the same thing, and finding a half-empty bottle of vodka in the hollow of a large oak tree, emptied it on to the grass.

Tristan, meanwhile, knew exactly what space he wanted between horses and, in the politest possible way, made Hermione, Flora, Colin and the hunt return to their starting-point at the top of the ride again and again.

They were at last achieving a perfect take, galloping out of the wood with the sun shining and ivy glittering like chain-mail on the trees, when Tab came scorching across their bows, screaming, ‘Cut, cut, cut.’

Horses and riders slithered to a halt.

But before Tab could weigh into them in front of a flabbergasted crew, an outraged Tristan and an apoplectic Bernard, Wolfie had hurtled up, caught The Engineer’s reins and yanked him to a halt.

‘What the hell are you playing at?’

With his furious, flushed face, his gleaming blond hair, and his plunging horse, he looked just like St George. But his indigo eyes blazed like Rannaldini’s.

‘Hermione’s toes were pointing down like Darcey Bussell,’ yelled back Tab, ‘and Spanish ambassadors don’t cling on to their horses’ manes. And who let Hermione carry a hunting whip without a lash? It’s so naff. And if she wants to wear a red coat, why doesn’t she get a job at Butlin’s?’

‘You’ve just wrecked a perfectly good take!’

‘My reputation is at stake,’ countered Tab, who was getting thoroughly above herself. ‘If this goes on, I’ll have to take my name off the credits.’

‘After all your forty-eight-hour experience,’ said a scornful Wolfie, thinking how pale and unhealthy she looked in the spring sunshine. Then, seeing the first assistant director puffing up the hill, he added, ‘And you’ll bloody well apologize to Bernard.’

‘I will not, you bloody Alfred Hitler.’

‘Alfred?’ Wolfie raised an incredulous blond eyebrow.

Realizing she’d goofed, Tab had to recover herself. ‘Adolf’s much more evil elder brother,’ she said haughtily. ‘And don’t you dare take the piss out of me.’

‘Can we get on?’ said a chilling voice, which promptly sent the sun in.

It was Rannaldini.

‘You’re out of order, Wolfgang. Tabitha was quite right to halt the film. That whip’, he added bitchily, ‘is wrong. Hermione had a lash yesterday and The Prince of Darkness should be wearing my saddlecloth. Very black mark for continuity, Simone.’

‘Not if he’s being ridden by a French princess,’ said Wolfie defiantly. ‘Your saddlecloth incorporates the colours of the German and Italian flags,’ and swinging his horse round, he cantered off to tell the hunt to go back up the hill again.

How truly kind of Wolfie to defy his terrifying father for my sake, thought tiny Simone tearfully.

To avoid more chaos, Tristan filmed the hounds on a separate day. The Cotchester Hunt, pulled out by Rupert, had been replaced by a splendidly sixteenth-century assortment of wolfhounds, greyhounds, salukis and lurchers. But being gaze hounds, who chased what they saw rather than what they smelled, they ignored the extra, drenched in aniseed, who’d replaced the stag, and tore instead after the camera moving on its dolly. Soon Ogborne, clutching his flower-pot hat, Valentin, in his new English brogues, and Oscar, who’d nodded off against a copper beech, could be seen belting off into the wood in terror.

James the lurcher, who’d been signed up as a hound, immediately rushed back to Lucy, where the other Valhalla dogs, Sharon, Trevor and Tabloid, Rannaldini’s Rottweiler, who’d all ploughed the audition, proceeded to rubbish him out of jealousy.

‘Cut down the tallest puppy,’ said Flora, who was in such hysterics, she fell off Audrey.

Despite the traumas, wonderful work was being done. Hermione’s long, one-noted ‘Yes’, when she agreed to marry Philip rather than Carlos, had everyone in tears. And at the end of two and a half weeks, the first, and probably most taxing, act was in the can, the buds could feel free to burst open in Cathedral Close, and the wild flowers to throw off their blanket of artificial snow.

Action would now move inside to the dungeons and to Alpheus’s bedroom scene. Alpheus, Granny, Chloe, Hermione, Mikhail and Baby would be needed, but no horses or Flora, so she and Tabitha could have a break.

But there was no respite for Lucy. Her make-up had been inspired, except when Tristan popped into her caravan and her hands started shaking. When he watched the rushes, he realized even more what a treasure he had found. Flora with her short back and sides looked disturbingly androgynous. With miraculous shading, Baby had lost all his puppy fat — he was also acting everyone off the screen, you couldn’t take your eyes off him.

The only person not ravished by the rushes was Hermione. She was in the habit of pestering her agent, Howie Denston, twenty times a day, even ordering him to ring up and tell her chauffeur to turn down the car radio when she was being driven the half-mile from River House to Valhalla.

Now she told Howie to tell Tristan she could only film in the afternoons, when her big brown eyes were fully open. She also sacked her make-up artist and insisted on having Lucy.

Lucy was then summoned to Hermione’s caravan for a glass of very cheap South African sherry as the great diva lay stretched out on a bed, a pad steeped in witch-hazel over her eyes.

‘As I’m playing a beautiful young princess in this film,’ announced Hermione, ‘I thought it fitting at first to employ a beautiful young make-up artist, who would be au fait with the latest trends. While you’re here, Lucy dear, could you peel those grapes, and pop them into my mouth? Now I realize I was wrong.’ Hermione sounded as though she was going over to Rome. ‘Far better to go for a mature, older woman, like yourself, who knows the ropes. You mustn’t be fazed, Lucy. I have every faith in you.’

‘I wanted to ram her bloody grapes down her throat,’ Lucy told Tristan afterwards.

Although he was cross, Tristan was ecstatic Lucy could now feed his ideas into Hermione’s thick skull. But realizing Lucy never finished clearing up and doing her paperwork before midnight, he promised her more help — perhaps Rozzy from Wardrobe.

‘And you need more light in here.’

Lucy was so touched he’d noticed she’d have made up the entire crew. Griselda, however, was livid. Rozzy was the best assistant she’d ever had: she was determined to hang on to her.

Wolfie was also proving a great asset, checking Oscar’s cigars were lit and that Tristan didn’t lose his camera script. And if he found Bernard ugly and uncharming, he didn’t mob him up like the others. Having been brought up with artists, Wolfie was quite used to them losing their head and their nerve several times a day, and somehow managed to get everyone — except Hermione — out of their dressing rooms on time. Outwardly, however, he appeared terribly arrogant.

The crew, resenting this, pinned a notice saying ‘Stalag Studios’ on Wolfie’s door and whistled ‘The Dambusters’ every time he walked past. Ogborne and three of the sparks had too much to drink one lunchtime and proceeded to circle the production office, where Wolfie was wrestling with the next day’s call sheet. Sticking their arms out, they pretended to be Lancasters and lobbed Scotch eggs through the window.

Wolfie ignored them, but later that evening Tristan found him gazing miserably into space. He knew Wolfie’s arrogance was a defence mechanism, and that beneath his reserve he was warm-hearted and thoughtful. It had been Wolfie who had told Tristan Lucy needed more light.

Tristan had also noticed the anguish Wolfie couldn’t hide when an ecstatic Flora, baseball cap tugged over her short back and sides, had flown off to join George that morning.

Tristan was a workaholic but, for once, he abandoned his storyboards and bore Wolfie off to dinner at the Old Bell in Rutminster. Wolfie had always been jealous of Tristan because Rannaldini had such a high regard for him but now, over several bottles, they discussed Schiller, horrendously competitive fathers and, inevitably, the cast.

As they walked back unsteadily from the Valhalla car park, across the valley, a light like a low bright star was shining in Magpie Cottage.

‘You could loosen up with Tabitha,’ said Tristan idly.

‘She’s appalling,’ said Wolfie bleakly. ‘The most awful human being I’ve ever met.’

‘The wicked stepsister.’ Tristan smiled in the darkness. ‘And you could stop bitching up Flora.’

‘I made love to Flora in every inch of this park,’ said Wolfie. His face was in shadow, but his voice was raw with pain. ‘The night I took her to the school dance, my father landed his helicopter on the cricket pitch, and Flora disappeared into it like Close Encounters. I left home the next morning or I’d have murdered him. And how can she live with that thug George Hungerford? He’s knocked down more buildings in Dresden than Winston Churchill.’

As they wandered past the north wing Tristan noticed, with a sinking heart, the curtains moving in Bernard’s still-lit window. If Bernard felt he was being usurped as Tristan’s confidant he would give Wolfie a hard time.

24

Next day Rannaldini pushed off to New York for a week and, heaving a sigh of relief, Tristan decided to kick off indoor filming with Posa’s moving death scene in the dungeons. This was scuppered by Mikhail missing the plane from Moscow. So Tristan switched to a later scene, in which Carlos and Philip are joined by Eboli and the Grand Inquisitor, with the Spanish rabble outside the dungeons all clamouring for Carlos to be set free. This meant an awful lot of people for Lucy to make up.

Her biggest challenge was to turn the silver-haired, noble-browed, patrician Granville Hastings into Gordon Dillon, the Neanderthal thug who edited the Scorpion and whose hairline rested on his straight-across brows. Lucy was terrified of letting Tristan down, but Granny promptly cheered her up by bitching about Hermione. ‘My dear, the only reason Madam is so addicted to playing the pink oboe is that she’s read that seminal fluid rejuvenates the vocal cords.’

Lucy giggled, then added charitably that it seemed to work.

‘She showed me the marvellous reviews she had for Rinaldo.’

‘Her mother must have written them,’ said Granny waspishly.

‘Oh, you do cheer me up.’ Lucy was sticking on a long line of beetling black eyebrow.

‘Don’t take any truck from her, Lucy Lockett,’ said Granny, ‘or from Alpheus, who’s such a wooden actor he makes that table look like Anthony Hopkins, and you’re going to have dreadful trouble with his hooter.’ Granny smirked admiringly at his own beautifully aquiline nose. ‘Alpheus has a bigger conk than Rudolph the Reindeer.’

Lucy had just grabbed a pair of scissors to trim the ends of Granny’s brows when Meredith bustled in in great excitement.

‘You can down tools, Lucy darling. Hi, Granville dear. Repairing a dungeon wall, one of the set-builders has unearthed a skeleton with a rosary round its neck.’

‘Oh, my God.’ Lucy nearly dropped her scissors.

‘Anyone we know?’ asked Granny, retrieving a dropped stitch.

‘Probably the planning officer,’ said Meredith gleefully. ‘He’s been so dire.’

The dungeons at Valhalla had always been damp and chill. Now none of the crew would go in there, even after Percy the Parson was summoned and sprinkled holy water from a Smirnoff bottle.

Ever conscious of a spiralling budget, Tristan gritted his teeth. He’d have to reschedule. Mikhail had now rung in from Moscow claiming to be laid low with bronchitis, so Baby could shove off for a few days and stop making a nuisance of himself and they could switch to the Great Hall, which had been transformed by Meredith, with the help of a massive white and gold silk four-poster, into King Philip’s bedroom.

Meredith’s minions were already busy dusting the arctic white marble chimneypiece, and touching up gilt cherubs, who were getting up to no good in the frieze running round the white walls. The prop table groaned with priceless ornaments, which Rannaldini intended to keep after filming and which Meredith kept rearranging, driving tiny Simone crackers.

Griselda had agonized long and loudly over what a king should wear in bed and settled for a magnificent Turnbull & Asser dressing-gown in pink and purple stripes, which Alpheus was equally determined to hang on to after filming. Having spent a duty fortnight in the Caribbean with his wife, Cheryl, he was also frantic to screw Chloe.

Filming began with the insomniac Philip’s great soliloquy. Even though he had played the part twenty times, Alpheus was avid to know his motivation.

‘The candles are guttering,’ said Tristan. ‘It is the heure de loup just before dawn, when man’s resistance is at its lowest. You feel old and threatened because your ravishing young wife and your sexy, demanding mistress are both madly in love with your son. You are also deeply hurt and raging with jealousy.’

‘Too right,’ agreed Sylvestre, dropping a cold microphone down Alpheus’s hairy chest, which had just been greyed up by Lucy. ‘I would be peesed off with scenario like that.’

‘No-one asked your opinion,’ snapped Bernard. ‘All right. Quiet, please, we’re going for a take.’

‘How d’you get a pompous ass like Alpheus to act devastated?’ muttered Meredith.

‘Show him a seven-figure tax bill,’ muttered back Granny.

‘Quiet!’ thundered Bernard.

In the heartbreakingly beautiful cello solo, which sets the mood of the aria, Alpheus wandered dazedly round the room, then plundered Elisabetta’s desk, which was rumoured once to have belonged to Louis XIV. As he riffled through her diary, scrutinized her itemized telephone and Amex bills, and finally rooted under the mattress of the big double bed for love letters, Rozzy Pringle gave a groan. How often had she done that at home, praying she wouldn’t stumble on more evidence of her feckless husband Glyn’s infidelities?

Alpheus then sang the first part of the aria so beautifully, and with such an air of nobility and resignation, that the crew gave him a rare round of applause.

Alpheus can act and his nose looks fine. Naughty Granny, thought Lucy indignantly.

If only it were me singing that aria, thought Granny.

Tristan was going to use the rest of the aria as voiceover when he filmed Philip forcing himself on a young, unresponsive bride.

Suddenly at the prospect of watching Alpheus and Hermione in the sack, the number of people on the set seemed to have quadrupled. Mr Brimscombe, Rannaldini’s gardener, who was always leering into the female extras’ changing room, was pretending to trim back the famous Paradise Pearl wisteria so that he could peer in through a high stained-glass window depicting St Cecilia at her organ.

The weather was still bitterly cold and the cost of heating the hall alone was putting Liberty Productions over budget. There was no way, however, that Hermione was going to risk turning blue in a shove-and-grunt scene.

Howie Denston hadn’t quite screwed up enough courage to tell Sexton and Tristan that she wouldn’t be filming in the mornings any more, but she made him ring in now to say that she had a cold. Everyone was less than amused when she promptly whizzed off to sing in an arena concert in New York, except Rannaldini who was already there and was taking a fat percentage of her hundred-thousand-pound fee. Far from chiding her, he sent the Gulf to collect her.

A demented Tristan was forced once more to reschedule. Granny, who’d been planning to go to Sense and Sensibility with Chloe, was livid to be dragged into filming the blind Inquisitor’s great dialogue with Philip and insisted on upstaging Alpheus by feeding Bonios to his guide dog, who was being played quite excellently by Sharon the Labrador.

Granny’s make-up, beetle-browed above black glasses, made him look so menacingly like Gordon Dillon that, after crossing themselves, the crew also gave Lucy a round of applause. Sexton, who’d rushed down from London to have a butcher’s at a naked Hermione, felt Granny’s makeover was so realistic that they’d better watch out for an injunction from the Scorpion.

The power struggle between Granny and Alpheus was so crucial to the plot that it took four days to film, by which time Sharon, egged on by Granny, had chewed up both of Alpheus’s blue velvet crested slippers.

Alpheus had not endeared himself to the crew. Regally bidding them all to drinks in the Pearly Gates, leading the stampede, he would grind to a halt just outside the pub to admire the mullioned windows and the variegated skyline of turrets.

‘You Brits are so lucky, your history is so old.’

By which time the first round would have been bought, and Alpheus, who had read somewhere that the Royal Family never carry money, would get away with not buying a drink all evening.

‘The least often heard words in the English language’, grumbled Ogborne, ‘are “Thank you, Alpheus.”’

‘The next least heard words are Alpheus saying, “It’s my round,”’ said Sylvestre.

Next day, Dame Hermione flew back from New York, but wanting to rest, and refusing to film in the morning, she made Howie ring in to say her throat was still playing up. Rather than waste a tropically heated hall, Tristan therefore shot a little shove-and-grunt scene between Alpheus and Chloe, which, having had plenty of practice, they did quite beautifully.

Once again in seconds, as Oscar ordered his team to rearrange their lights to cast a more diffused, romantic glow, the Great Hall was absolutely packed out. Sexton materialized from nowhere. Meredith was whisking around rearranging pieces of Sèvres on a table beside the bed on which Chloe was now lying on her back, the picture of abandonment. The fact that she had to wear an eye-patch to play the traditionally one-eyed Princess Eboli, somehow made her look even more sexy.

‘Don’t feedle with those ornaments, please, Meredith,’ begged Simone, consulting her Polaroids. ‘There were only two vases last time, not that anyone’s going to notice.’ She sighed.

The trouble with such a hot room was flat nipples. Lucy had to keep darting forward with ice-cubes.

‘Sometimes we use Blu-tack,’ she told Chloe.

‘Do you think my penis is too large?’ asked Alpheus seriously.

‘Not when Howie’s taken off his twenty per cent,’ replied Tristan.

Wolfie got the giggles.

‘Chloe’s chewed off all her lippy,’ bellowed an excited Griselda.

‘No-one’s going to notice that either,’ said Oscar, who for once had stayed awake. ‘God, look at the light on those pubes.’

‘She’s like a little Bonnard,’ sighed Simone.

‘I’ve certainly got a Bonnard-on,’ confessed Sexton, whose red-rimmed spectacles had quite steamed up.

‘Hush, or I’ll put ice down your trousers,’ chided a returning Lucy.

‘My mum wouldn’t let me do nudes,’ pouted Pushy Galore, who was dying to take her clothes off.

‘Quiet, please, everyone,’ brayed Bernard, whose face had gone an even darker shade of magenta.

‘God, this is sensational, Oscar. Dramatize the neck un peu, chérie,’ murmured Tristan, as Philip’s aria poured out of the speakers.

As Chloe raised her head, thrusting out her breasts so that the light caught her rouged, now upright nipples, an approaching Alpheus whipped off his pink and purple dressing-gown.

‘Action,’ shouted Tristan.

25

Claiming that his bronchitis had turned into pneumonia, Mikhail finally arrived and was overwhelmed by the beauty of Valhalla. A touch of rain had sent the green flames of the wild garlic sweeping over the woodland floor like a forest fire. Even Rannaldini’s lowering maze of dark yew had a blond rinse of lemon-yellow flowers.

‘You pay me for vorking in such vonderful place?’ Mikhail asked in amazement.

No-one, however, could quite work out whether he really had been ill or just moonlighting. He had turned up wearing a black Pavarotti smock, with large pockets for amassing loot. Maria, in the canteen, soon found her cutlery disappearing.

Then Mikhail started complaining that he missed Baby. Alpheus was no fun and far too expensive to drink with, and he missed his wife, Lara, even more, and kept hinting that Liberty Productions might pay for a plane ticket so she, too, could admire the ‘vonders’ of Valhalla. From New York, Rannaldini put his foot down. There was no way he was having Lara and Mikhail stripping Valhalla of his lovely new pickings.

Less welcome an arrival was Granny’s hunky black-haired boyfriend, Giuseppe, who wasn’t needed to play the ghost of Charles V for several weeks but who’d rocked up to ogle Tristan’s boys and enjoy free booze on the budget.

‘His mausoleum’s going to smell worse than the Pearly Gates,’ grumbled Ogborne.

Meanwhile, the digging up of the skeletons seemed to have disrupted the household ghosts. The night after Mikhail and Giuseppe arrived, the occupants of the north wing were woken by bloodcurdling shrieks. When a terrified Lucy, a for once quite pale-in-the-face Bernard and an unfazed Ogborne, who was eating a banana, emerged from their cell-like rooms, they found hunky Giuseppe in hysterics. Having slipped Granny a Mogadon, he was just returning from an unspecified location, when he’d seen his own part, the ghost of Charles V, stealing out of a bedroom and creeping away down the corridor.

‘He was all in white, weeth a hood over ’ees face,’ gibbered Giuseppe.

As Giuseppe’s breath rivalled Bacchus’s after an all-night bash, everyone assumed he was plastered. Having calmed him down, Lucy tucked him up in bed beside a snoring Granny.

But the following night, as she was wearily drawing her curtains, the windows suddenly rattled, the wind shrieked in the chimney and a ghostly hooded white figure came flitting along the parapets. She had never known such fear — not even a strangled croak would come out of her throat. James the lurcher was no help at all, and only growled if you tried to shove him off the bed.

More sightings followed. Everyone grew increasingly terrified — except Alpheus, who pooh-poohed any suggestion of spooks.

‘I’m sure these apparitions would disappear if you guys went to bed sober for a change,’ he added pompously.

The weather, although nearly May, was still freezing. After supper the following night Alpheus, mindful of colds, locked his bedroom windows and drew his curtains against draughts. He had just mounted his exercise bike, with the Don Carlos score on a nearby music stand so he could study tomorrow’s scene, when a chill breeze ruffled the pages. Spinning round Alpheus found the windows still firmly locked.

Suddenly the room felt clammily damp and cold as if he were in an underground cave. Next moment a window behind him had blown open and the heavy dark green velvet curtains were billowing into the room. Outside Alpheus could see the cliff of wood disintegrating, thrashing and writhing as if caught up in the frenzy of a mighty gale. But jumping off his bike and rushing to the other window, he found the moonlit valley all stillness and serenity. The wispy white clouds were only crawling past the shining stars. Not a silver leaf was moving. Far below, the lake lay as still as the blacked-out window of a limousine.

White and trembling, Alpheus rushed out into the corridor, stumbling along endless dark passages until he reached Rannaldini’s study. Rannaldini, just back from New York, was all suavity.

‘But, my dear Alpheus, these things happen. Poor monk was rumoured to have hanged himself from the beam een your room. But, then, legend weaves on legend like Mees Havisham’s cobwebs in these great houses. I never tell you because you insist on biggest bedroom.’

Rannaldini gave Alpheus a brandy but, despite heavy hints, did not invite him to move into the south wing.

‘But my wife, Cheryl, flies in tomorrow. She has a heart murmur. I cannot subject her to this.’

‘Why don’t you rent Jasmine Cottage?’ suggested Rannaldini. ‘Just beyond Paradise village, on the opposite side of the valley. Hermione recently ’ave it redecorated. I’m sure she would be ’appy to ’ave you there.’

If Liberty Productions picked up the tab, Alpheus felt he could go with this. A pretty cottage would be a more discreet venue to entice young women, and he had clocked the fact that Tabitha Lovell lived just up the road.

After bidding him goodnight, however, Rannaldini added silkily, ‘Eef you must creep down my corridors every night to pleasure Chloe, Alpheus, don’t wear that white hooded dressing-gown you stole from the Hilton, Milan. How can my crew and cast get their beauty sleep eef they theenk you are ghost of Charles V?’ and grinning evilly, he slammed the door in Alpheus’s frantically mouthing face.

In the morning, as he was leaving Valhalla to inspect Jasmine Cottage, Alpheus was somewhat spooked to meet Percy the Parson coming the other way with his Smirnoff bottle of holy water to exorcize a ghost — who was, in fact, himself.

‘I wish he’d exorcize Cheryl,’ grumbled Chloe, who was getting less and less discreet about her affaire with Alpheus.

‘What’s Cheryl like?’ asked Lucy, as she painted a dark brown semi-circle in Chloe’s eye socket.

‘Short-legged, noisy and goes for the jugular, like a tweed Jack Russell,’ said Chloe sourly. ‘She’s the personification of the word feisty.’

‘I hope you two don’t come to feistycuffs,’ giggled Lucy.

Cheryl, when she arrived, was enchanted by Jasmine Cottage, which had a modern kitchen, a power shower, a charming garden with a waterfall and a swing hanging from an ancient apple tree. On her first evening, a mischief-making Rannaldini invited her to supper and to see the rushes, which, of course, included Chloe and Alpheus’s spectacular naked bonk. This put Cheryl into orbit. Hermione, incensed that Chloe looked so good, vowed to steal Alpheus from her.

Later Alpheus, turned on by the rushes and feeling it might be expedient to pleasure his wife on her first night — after all, she had intimate knowledge of all his tax fiddles and could turn nasty — suggested they christen the big brass bed at Jasmine Cottage.

It was not a success.

Stoking away, Alpheus’s notion of himself as the great lover was shattered by Cheryl yapping shrilly, ‘You don’t need to go on all night, Alpheus. I’m not Chloe, you know.’

Nor were tempers improved by the driest spring on record. Rannaldini’s streams were all disappearing. Blossom whipped off by the bitter east wind fell down the ever-widening cracks in the paths. On the parched sunny slopes, saplings shrivelled and died in their cardboard tower blocks and poor bluebells faded and curled over without ever reaching their sapphire splendour. There was less and less grass. Lucy watched the lambs skipping after Rannaldini’s groom, Janice, as she brought them hay each morning.

Tristan was anxious to dismantle the set in the Great Hall and move outside, but he still hadn’t shot Hermione’s nude scene with Alpheus. On the morning it was scheduled, Hermione rang Tristan herself because Howie was in Tunisia.

‘I can’t hear you, Hermione.’

‘“The voice,”’ whispered Hermione sententiously, ‘she hasn’t woken yet. My body tells me I haven’t had enough sleep. I’ll do my love scene tomorrow afternoon.’

Spitting, Tristan ordered Wolfie to ring up Alpheus and get him in to do a couple of cover shots. But when Wolfie called Jasmine Cottage, an irate Cheryl told him that Alpheus had left for the set two hours ago. As a result, Cheryl was soon yapping up Rannaldini’s drive, and seeing Chloe coming out of the omnia vincit amor gates on her way to the post office, blacked her eye with her new crocodile handbag.

This caused huge consternation. Chloe had a starring role in the garden scene the day after tomorrow. The chorus, Flora and Mikhail, who’d nipped off to Prague for the weekend, were all due back for it. Tabitha had already booked some polo ponies.

‘You could change Chloe’s eyepatch to the uvver eye,’ suggested Sexton.

Non!’ cried Simone from Continuity in outrage.

‘Could you hide it with make-up, Lucy?’ asked Tristan.

‘Not for a few days. The eye’s much too bloodshot.’

Only when Tristan suggested she come out later for a consoling dinner did Chloe stop sobbing into his shoulder, and rush off to Make Up beseeching poor Lucy to streak her hair for this exciting date.

Cheryl, meanwhile, was roaring round Valhalla in search of Alpheus. She was soon joined by forty members of Dame Hermione’s fan club who’d won a Daily Express competition, entitling them to a day on the set of Don Carlos, and who’d just arrived by bus. Because Hype-along, the press officer, was frogmarching Baby through a series of interviews in London, Wolfie was deputed to show them round.

As they passed the mobile canteen, wafting forth an enticing smell of boeuf Provençal, one of the fans asked about the dear little house next door.

‘It was a hunting lodge for Act One, but in the end we never used it,’ explained Wolfie.

Throwing open the door, he thought for a moment two of his father’s prize pigs had pushed their way inside. Then, to his horror, he realized he had caught Alpheus and Hermione in flagrante.

Cheryl was about to black Hermione’s eye with her crocodile handbag, when Hermione rose to her feet, wrapping a white Hilton dressing-gown round her goddess-like form, crying, ‘Cheryl, my dear, calm down! Alpheus and I were only rehearsing for tomorrow afternoon. No-one should act a scene without rehearsing.’

Such was the steamrolling force of Hermione’s personality, they were all silenced. The fans went off murmuring reverently that Dame Hermione was such a professional, particularly when she ordered ‘bubbly’ on the budget for them all at lunch.

Everyone except Chloe and Cheryl was in stitches over the whole affair. The crew wanted to know if Alpheus had a crown on his cock. What, however, a blushing Wolfie reported back to Tristan and Sexton was that Hermione had pubes bigger than Brahms’s beard.

‘I think she ought to trim it before she does a nude scene. Papa could have told her,’ Wolfie blushed even deeper, ‘but he’s away.’

‘How about Mr Brimscombe?’ grinned Sexton. ‘He’d love to do it wiv a Strimmer.’

‘Alpheus can tell her,’ said Tristan. ‘I’m busy. You brief him, Sexton.’

Sexton, however, pussyfooted so much around the subject that Alpheus went the whole hog and Hermione rolled up on the set the following afternoon with a totally shaved bush. This caused more rage and hysterics.

‘Perhaps it was fashionable in the sixteenth century,’ said Sexton hopefully.

‘We’re filming in modern times,’ snapped Tristan. ‘Get her some false pubes,’ he ordered Lucy.

‘It’s called a merkin,’ volunteered Granny.

‘Hardly a word that occurs in crosswords,’ giggled Meredith.

‘During the film of Carmen,’ said Griselda eagerly, ‘when Lilian Watson shaved her armpits by mistake, Make Up had to hold up shooting for two hours while they stuck on individual hairs.’

‘Oh, I couldn’t,’ said Lucy aghast. ‘I’ve just spent even longer covering Dame Hermione with body makeup.’

‘Rather like varnishing the whale at the Natural History Museum,’ said Meredith sympathetically.

‘We’ll just have to shoot her from the back,’ said Tristan, who was torn between tears of despair and helpless laughter, particularly when Hermione summoned him and Wolfie to her caravan to ask if they thought her breasts were too large.

‘You could always get some smaller ones from Props,’ said Wolfie gravely, and both men had to flee clutching their sides.

The set was absolutely crowded out. Mr Brimscombe, binoculars hanging from his scrawny neck, was selling tickets at the door. Ross Benson, who’d been smuggled in by a returned Hype-along to do an in-depth piece, fell off a rafter, fortunately landing on the great four-poster. As he was very handsome, Dame Hermione looked very excited. Tristan, however, flipped.

‘Clear the set! Clear the fucking set!’

‘Please don’t bother,’ said Hermione graciously.

‘Where am I going to hide my microphone?’ grumbled Sylvestre, who usually had to drop it down Hermione’s cleavage.

‘Up her ass,’ volunteered Ogborne.

‘Quiet, please!’ roared Bernard.

‘Lucy,’ howled Tristan, then lowering his voice. ‘Can you do anything about the blue veins on her boobs?’

Lucy darted forward with concealer, murmuring, ‘Don’t you get nervous about taking your clothes off in front of all these people?’

‘Indeed not.’ Hermione looked amazed. ‘A woman should be proud of her body.’ Then, in indignation, ‘Why is that man reading Dogs Today? Very discourteous of him. Oh, it’s you, Meredith. I suppose you don’t really count.’

Bernard grabbed Tristan’s camera script to conceal a huge hard-on.

‘We’re turning over,’ he said hoarsely.

‘Action,’ shouted Tristan.

‘Christ, Alpheus isn’t having to act in this scene at all,’ hissed Sylvestre to Wolfie, a few moments later. ‘He’s bigger than a fucking Thermos.’

‘Hermione ees supposed to be gritting her teeth, Uncle Treestan,’ whispered Simone, ‘but she look as though she enjoy every minute.’

‘Cut,’ said Tristan, then to Hermione, ‘Your husband is virtually raping you in this scene, chérie. Could you possibly act a bit more upset?’

‘There are beings, Tristan’ — roguishly, Hermione quoted him back at himself — ‘who are born for others, who are quite unaware of their own egos. Elisabetta had far too perfect manners to upset her elderly partner by showing him she wasn’t having a good time.’

Tristan was defeated.

‘Okkay, okkay.’ He sighed.

They’d just have to film her even more from behind.

‘I’d take a wide shot on this one,’ he told Valentin.

‘One could hardly do anything else.’

Oscar, slumped over the camera ostensibly checking the lights through his eye-piece, was actually asleep.

‘Talk dirty to me, Alpheus,’ murmured Hermione, who was used to being turned on by Rannaldini’s crooning obscenities.

‘Unless Sexton pays me cash like you,’ murmured back Alpheus, ‘I may have difficulty meeting next year’s tax bill.’

Chloe was utterly mortified. Alpheus had been pompous and self-regarding.

‘But I thought he loved me and would shelter me through life like a great tree,’ she told Tristan, as she toyed with her scallops Mornay in the Heavenly Host that evening.

‘Plants growing in shade miss out on sun and rain,’ said Tristan.

Chloe’s breasts leaping out of that crimson dress had the same springy texture as the scallops, he decided.

‘You and Baby are stealing the show,’ he went on, filling up her glass. ‘You’ll get your revenge on Hermione when the reviews come out. You’re so beautiful, Chloe.’

Chloe glanced complacently at her reflection in a nearby mirror. Lucy’s streaking was so subtle. The dark glasses over her blackened eye showed off the tilt of her nose and the luscious curves of her smiling crimson mouth. She must buy Lucy a box of chocolates tomorrow.

Back at Valhalla, a weary Lucy finished writing the day’s notes and stuck in Polaroids of a naked Hermione and Alpheus. At least she hadn’t had to powder Alpheus’s cock. And Chloe’s lower lip was rather thin so she’d had to extend the natural line along the bottom with a lipbrush and fill in quite a large gap. But the end result had been heavenly, particularly in that incredibly skimpy dress. Tristan had reeked of Eau Sauvage and even put on a suit.

Out in the park, as the orange glow of sunset died away, the occasional bleat of a lamb and the deep-throated reassuring rumble of its mother reminded her of Cumbria and made her long for tumbling grey streams, geometric walls and mountains rising out of the mist. Why did one feel most homesick when one was miserable?

As Tristan walked Chloe back to the north wing, she cursed herself for wasting so much of dinner bitching and talking about herself. She wasn’t used to dining with a good listener. The lamp over the doorway shining through the clematis cast a leaf pattern on Tristan’s face. From the sides of his nose past his beautiful big mouth, two lines dug trenches that had not been there in January. Don Carlos was taking its toll.

‘Your suite or mine?’ she whispered.

There was a long pause. An owl hooted.

‘Darling Chloe.’

‘Are you gay?’

The leaf pattern quivered as he shook his head.

‘Is there someone else?’

‘Something else. Rannaldini’s back tomorrow. I have two, three hours’ work to do.’ Then, when Chloe looked sullen, ‘My father die last year. Your scene with Alpheus was so like his paintings. Give me time, Chloe.’ He kissed her cheek.

As he wandered off into the garden, rain dripped through the wood like some Chinese water torture. The constellation of the Virgin was chasing Leo the Lion across the sky. When push came to shove and grunt, he didn’t want to sleep with Chloe, who, as she undressed, felt it would have been quite easy to get over Alpheus if Tristan had made a pass at her.

26

Away from home for so long, people started to lose their moorings, groups formed and re-formed, cabals sprang up, feuds and jealousies flourished, as husbands, lovers, children were — sometimes gladly — forgotten. Poor Rozzy Pringle, working flat out in both Wardrobe and Make Up and sending most of her wages home, couldn’t forget Glyn, her horrible husband, however, because he was always ringing up to bombard her with complaints and demands.

‘When he’s ratty,’ sighed Rozzy, ‘I can never tell if he’s been dumped by one of his girlfriends or his business is in trouble again.’

‘No work and all play makes Glyn a kept boy,’ observed Meredith disapprovingly.

Everyone loved Rozzy, who seemed to love everyone, even the lascivious Mr Brimscombe, who spent hours discussing plants with her and even gave her access to his tool-shed. Lucy had filled a window-box outside her caravan with love-in-a-mist. Rozzy remembered to water it, and took James for walks when Lucy was too busy.

Rozzy loved everyone, but most of all she adored Tristan for his kindness when her voice gave out. She was always shoving buttered croissants and big cups of café au lait into his hands. Lucy had to curb tinges of irritation — after all, Rozzy fussed over her too. Wardrobe had its own Bendix to wash costumes. Rozzy put in Lucy’s clothes and occasionally dragged Tristan’s favourite peacock-blue shirt off him when he became too obsessed with work to change it. As Cheryl had become extremely bolshie, Alpheus crinkled his eyes in the hope of getting his washing done too, but drew a blank.

Mobbing up Bernard was a favourite location pastime, but Rozzy stuck up for him too. Bernard had insisted on his own little office, facing south between Wardrobe and the smoke-filled ant hill of the production office. Here, he could work out tomorrow’s movement order in peace and complete the Figaro crossword, which was faxed over to him every morning. On the door was a notice saying: ‘First Assistant Director. Please Knock.’

So Baby knocked when he went past.

‘Come in. What can I do for you?’ asked Bernard.

‘Nothing at all. It says, “Please Knock”, so I did.’

Bernard was apoplectic, particularly when Baby did it each time he went past, and the habit caught on with everyone else.

They were all giggling about it in the canteen one lunchtime when Rozzy lost her temper.

‘Bernard’s a darling,’ she shouted at them. ‘You only dislike him because he’s good at shutting up chatterboxes.’ She glared at Baby and Granny. ‘And he refuses to reschedule because someone’, she glanced reproachfully across at Chloe, ‘wants to buzz off and sing Carmen in Paris.’

‘Who wrecked their voice in January singing all over Europe?’ snapped Chloe. ‘I suppose you and Bernard have the screaming hots for Tristan de Montigny in common.’

Parlez pour votre self,’ drawled Baby.

Then Chloe went as crimson as her lipstick because Bernard was standing in the doorway. The dreadful silence was only interrupted by the clatter and chatter of the canteen staff washing up. But Bernard was oblivious of Chloe. Crossing the room, he kissed Rozzy’s hand.

‘Thank you, Madame Pringle. May I buy you a drink?’

With fractionally warmer weather filming moved outside to Rannaldini’s garden, which had reached a pitch of late spring perfection. Tristan decided to kick off with a returning Mikhail singing a beautiful aria to Hermione. Alas, Mikhail’s English had been so incomprehensible, the taxi driver picking him up at Heathrow took him to Rugby rather than Rutminster. Mikhail rang in in tears, saying he couldn’t reach Valhalla before early evening.

Reluctant to waste Hermione, who’d already spent three hours in Make Up bullying Lucy, Tristan decided to shoot a later scene in which Philip finds Elisabetta unattended, and sacks her favourite lady-in-waiting, the Countess of Aremburg. This was the non-singing part in which he had cast Rozzy, which would at least get her name on the credits. Rozzy was only required to burst into tears, but she was dreadfully nervous even of this piece of mime, particularly as Rannaldini had just returned from Tokyo and was scowling from a new chair with ‘Executive Producer’ printed on the back.

Being called at such short notice, Rozzy had had no time to wash her hair — which Lucy was able to hide under a very pretty, short, curly wig — or to remove a few hairs from her chin and upper lip.

‘Some Immac will take them off in a trice,’ said Lucy soothingly.

‘We haven’t got time,’ quavered Rozzy.

‘Course we have.’

‘Lucy,’ screamed Hermione.

‘Don’t leave your old bags unattended,’ quipped Meredith, as Lucy belted off to Hermione’s caravan.

‘I’ve nicked a toenail,’ moaned Hermione, ‘and it’s sticking into my big toe. Have you got a plaster?’

‘Only to put over your mouth,’ muttered Lucy.

‘Are you nearly ready, Luce?’ Wolfie appeared at the door. ‘My father’s about to boil over.’

As a result Lucy only had time to put a bit of slap on Rozzy and pray that the dark base would hide any hairs, before Sylvestre arrived to mike her up.

Alas, poor Rozzy, struck down by nerves, fled to the honeywagon, from which, because naughty Sylvestre had not switched off the mike, the whole crew could hear the sound of Mount Etna erupting.

‘Mrs Pringle’s got the runs,’ giggled Pushy Galore.

‘Pity she’s not playing for England,’ sighed Ogborne. ‘They’re fifty-two for four.’

Even Bernard was smiling. Everyone, however, managed to compose their faces as Rozzy arrived on the set, except Hermione who, with merry laughter, proceeded to explain the joke.

‘That’s enough, Hermione,’ snapped Bernard, seeing Rozzy going crimson. ‘Rozzy looks beautiful, and the hair is very nice.’

‘That style makes you look years younger,’ conceded Hermione, ‘but you’re a little too red in the face.’

‘Probably a hot flush,’ sighed Rozzy.

‘Oh, no, dear, you’re well past that.’

‘Let’s go for a quick rehearsal.’ Tristan came off his mobile to Aunt Hortense. ‘Rozzy, you look wonderful.’

‘He could make a warthog feel like Helen of Troy,’ grumbled Pushy.

I’m Elisabetta’s lady-in-waiting, I ought to be playing the Countess, she thought furiously as, with the rest of the ladies of the chorus, she bobbed around in front of a hedge of white roses trying to get into shot.

‘“Countess,”’ sang Alpheus sternly, ‘“at daybreak you will return to France.”’

‘Burst into tears, Rozzy,’ shouted Tristan.

Rozzy’s only problem would have been holding them back any longer. Particularly when Hermione repeatedly stroked her face as she mimed her consoling aria and, between takes, loudly advised Rozzy to invest in some decent electrolysis.

‘It’s well worth it at your age.’

Tears of such humiliation had gushed out of Rozzy’s eyes that Tristan was genuinely able to congratulate her on a wonderfully convincing performance, which didn’t cheer Rozzy up one bit.

Happily, Hermione’s comeuppance was in train. Oscar, who was not the most famous director of photography in the world for nothing, had decided to avenge both Chloe and Rozzy.

That evening, as everyone poured into the viewing room to watch the rushes, all that could be heard was Hermione’s agitated squawking. Having lit her from beneath in her nude scene with Alpheus, Oscar had made her bottom look enormous.

‘The great globe itself,’ said Granny, in a sepulchral whisper.

‘You should have reduced it with a darker base, Lucy,’ giggled Meredith.

‘Any moment, David Attenborough will pop up and lecture us sotto voce on the mating habits of the hippopotamus,’ cried Baby, in ecstasy.

Shouts of ‘My bottom is not that big, my bottom is not that big,’ were drowned by cheers, particularly from Chloe, who gave Oscar a big kiss.

‘What are you doing after this?’ she murmured. ‘I owe you.’

Tristan laughed, but was cross with Oscar because they ought to reshoot. He was overruled by Sexton and Rannaldini, who both liked big bums and small budgets.

‘Do you know the meaning of the word “callipygean”?’ asked Sexton cosily, as he tried to bear Hermione away for a consoling drink.

Hermione shrugged him off. She wasn’t going to let such a common little man take advantage.

Alpheus had laughed as heartily as anyone over Dame Hermione’s humiliation, until Rannaldini sidled up to him.

‘May I be honest, Alpheus? You look in great shape in those nude shots.’ Alpheus preened. ‘But in future I think you should leave off the false nose. It looks a leetle grotesque.’

Later, on the terrace, oblivious of an exquisite coral sunset, Hermione and Alpheus could be seen berating a sleeping Tristan.

Sexton was not cast down by Hermione’s rejection. He had just come back from Cannes where, showing a ten-minute trailer of Chloe and Alpheus in the sack in order to sell more distribution rights, he’d had to massage even bigger egos than theirs. Now he retreated to the production office and continued four different deals on four different mobiles. ‘I may look calm,’ he was fond of telling people, ‘but I’m not.’

Poor Hype-along Cassidy was not feeling calm either. Controlling the publicity was a nightmare. Hermione, incensed that nothing about herself had appeared recently, was unaware that her sacked make-up girl had just dumped in News of the World: ‘How I Concealed Dame Hermione’s Turkey Neck, and How She Ate Technicians for Breakfast.’

Hype-along’s rise at dawn on Sunday mornings to empty the village shop of papers was becoming a common occurrence. He’d also had terrible trouble with Baby, who, when he’d taken him up for interviews in London, had fallen asleep over drinks with the Guardian, and on the way to lunch with Lynn Barber had jumped taxi to buy clothes in Jermyn Street and not been traced till the following day.

Saddest of all, Tristan, the person to whom everyone wanted to speak, was so violently anti-press he wouldn’t give interviews at all. Hype-along, however, was working towards a quiet lunch at the Old Bell with Valerie Grove of The Times.

‘I think Oscar and Chloe are an item,’ Griselda told everyone, as Chloe looked more and more magical in the rushes and Oscar slept even more during the day.

But Chloe was not out of the woods. Baby was watching porn on the Internet one afternoon when up popped a teenage Chloe, cavorting with a black girl and a goat.

‘Goodness,’ gasped Lucy, when Baby rushed in to tell her. ‘Was the goat female?’

‘I saw its udder shudder. In mitigation, it did appear to be having a good time.’

‘I do hope Rannaldini doesn’t know about it,’ shivered Lucy. ‘I’m sure he’d use it against her.’

Someone was pinching clothes from Wardrobe, especially ties. Griselda and Simone, whose continuity was being screwed up, went out to the Heavenly Host to drown their sorrows and asked Lucy to join them, which at least gave Lucy a chance to quiz Simone about Tristan.

‘What’s his auntie Hortense like?’

‘A battleaxe, who demand the whole time,’ sighed Simone. ‘And not at all motherly to Uncle Tristan. When she drop him as a baby in drawing room, she ring for maid to pick him up.’

Then Simone added slyly: ‘Valentin, Sylvestre and Ogborne wanted to crash dinner tonight, Lucy. They all fancy you, but they know you only ’ave eyes for Uncle Tristan.’

‘That’s ridiculous,’ spluttered Lucy, sending her glass of red flying. ‘Of course I don’t.’ Then, as she frantically mopped up with her pink scarf, ‘I wouldn’t dream—’

‘Dream is perhaps the only thing you should do,’ said Simone gently. ‘I love my uncle Tristan but he is very damaged.’

Terrified by the ghostly sightings inside Valhalla, Lucy had taken to sleeping outside in her make-up caravan, which seemed less claustrophobic than those little cells and long, dark, spooky corridors. But returning from the Heavenly Host, as she scuttled past silent generators and empty dark-windowed Hair and Wardrobe departments, she wasn’t sure. It would be so easy for a ghost to leap out from behind an empty lorry. Even the moon and the stars had deserted her.

As she approached her caravan, still upset by what Simone had said about Tristan, she froze at the sound of pitiful, anguished sobbing. Oh, God, was it the ghost of Caroline Beddoes, mourning her lost love, the blacksmith?

‘You might at least try and look fierce,’ she hissed at James, who’d stopped in his tracks with his head on one side.

The sobbing grew more pitiful. Lucy’s Dutch courage evaporated.

‘Who’s there?’ she quavered, as she unlocked the caravan door, screaming as a grey shadowy figure loomed over her.

Then, as she fumbled for the light switch, she heard James’s bony tail whacking against the open door and Rozzy’s choked voice saying, ‘Don’t turn it on, I look so terrible, and I don’t want any of the others to know.’

‘Whatever’s the matter? Let me get you a drink.’

‘I don’t want one.’

Lucy did. As she fumbled her way to the fridge, Rozzy was racked by a fit of coughing. Then it all came tumbling out. She’d been to the doctor that evening to hear the result of some tests, and been told she’d got throat cancer.

‘Oh, Rozzy.’ Lucy collapsed on the bench seat opposite.

‘There are lots of things one can do,’ wept Rozzy. ‘Voice boxes, treatment, operations and things, but my career’s finished. I’ll never sing again. Even worse, we’re so broke, Lucy, and I’m all we’ve got to live on. I feel the prison doors clanging shut on a solvent future.’

Lucy was devastated.

‘You’ll be able to earn money as a PA. Everyone thinks you’re brilliant. You must get a second opinion. The Campbell-Blacks and Rannaldini have a brilliant private doctor, James Benson.’

‘I couldn’t possibly afford him.’

‘I can,’ said Lucy stoutly, as she took a bottle out of the fridge. ‘You’ve been so good to me.’

As soon as she’d poured Rozzy a drink, Lucy wrote her out a cheque for six hundred pounds. After all, she got paid at the end of the month.

Later, refusing all Lucy’s entreaties to sleep in the caravan, Rozzy insisted on dragging herself back to the cells.

‘I don’t want people suspecting anything.’

‘You must tell Glyn.’

‘I can’t.’ Rozzy started to cry again. ‘He’ll be so cross with me. Thank you, Lucy, for being such a friend.’

Lucy didn’t sleep all night, thinking of a ravishing voice that would sing no more, like a nightingale being strangled. She had been sworn to secrecy, but Tristan, seeing her red eyes next morning, wheedled the truth out of her and was equally horrified. Pretending he’d no idea that Rozzy was ill, he casually asked her out to dinner. Inevitably Rozzy asked Lucy to do her make-up.

‘I can’t let Tristan dine with an awful old hag.’

At the Old Bell, away from gossips, Tristan told Rozzy he’d been asked to direct Der Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne. ‘Eef your voice is rested enough, I would like you to sing the Marschallin. It won’t be for two years.’

It was lucky they were sitting in a dark alcove so no-one could see Rozzy weeping again. Tristan knew she would never be able to take up the offer: she might be dead in two years, if, as Lucy suspected, she had secondaries elsewhere, but at least it would give her hope.

Next day Rozzy was beside herself. ‘I never dreamed Tristan thought that much of me,’ she kept saying to Lucy, who was bitterly ashamed to find herself feeling irritated.

27

At the end of May, the weather finally gave way to heatwave. Rozzy coughed more in the dry, dusty heat and grew thinner, her adoring eyes growing bigger in her shrunken face as she gazed at Tristan. Bernard gazed longingly at Rozzy, but even on the hottest day he wouldn’t take off his shirt in case it dented his authority. He encouraged Wolfie to do the same.

For the first year ever, Rannaldini didn’t sprinkle his lawns, so they would look more parched and Spanish. He allowed Mr Brimscombe to water only selected plants: the rest could die of thirst, thus realizing his plan of a Buckingham Palace sweep down to the lake, which was getting perilously low.

Again, despite delays, rows and nightmarish re-scheduling, beautiful scenes were being shot, particularly of the great duet in which gallant Posa defies Philip II on the subject of religious persecution. Here, he so captivates the King, he is nicknamed ‘the King’s Favourite’ by the entire court. It became a running gag on the set that anyone singled out by Tristan became ‘le favori du roi’.

Playing Posa movingly, however, was not enough to Mikhail, who was getting bored. Paradise was a lovely little village but he wished there were more of it. He was also frightfully jealous that Baby was about to have a shove-and-grunt scene with Chloe.

The occasion, shot in the cow-parsley in the shade of a huge lime to blot out the burning sun, was not without incident. They were just about to turn over, when Lucy hissed, ‘Cover up, Chloe, nous avons company.’

It was Percy the Parson, pretending to be birdwatching.

‘Obviously looking for great tits,’ said Ogborne as, with great presence of mind, Wolfie whipped off his dark blue polo shirt and pulled it over Chloe’s head.

The beauty of his young, broad-shouldered body was lost on no-one. Simone immediately took a Polaroid.

‘Oh, hunky, hunky dory,’ sighed Baby.

‘I’ve never been topless before,’ joked Wolfie, to hide his embarrassment.

‘It’s Baby the vicar’s mad about,’ hissed Chloe, as Percy raised his binoculars to peer through an elder bush. ‘Better slip a dunce’s hat over his cock.’

‘My cock is not a dunce.’

‘May I have this dunce?’ asked Meredith, who shouldn’t have been there either, as there were no sets to dress, and everyone collapsed with laughter.

Precious shadows drained away until at last Percy moved on.

‘Get Wolfie’s shirt off, Chloe,’ yelled Tristan. ‘Christ, I feel like Icarus about to melt,’ he added, taking off his director’s cap to mop his brow with his arm.

‘At least you don’t have to sustain a hard-on,’ grumbled Baby.

‘Dong Carlos,’ said Chloe.

They had all corpsed once more when Tabitha thundered round the corner on The Engineer, who shied violently and nearly unseated her. The sight of Tristan, a half-naked Wolfie and all the crew leering joyfully at a naked Chloe and Baby, additionally put her into orbit.

‘You disgusting perve,’ she screamed at Tristan, ‘turning yourselves on making revolting porn movies.’

Swinging The Engineer round, she galloped off in a cloud of dust.

‘Pissed as usual,’ drawled Baby. ‘I dropped off a cheque for her husband last night. Even Sharon was drunk.’

‘Don’t be a bitch, Baby,’ said Lucy furiously.

‘Shut up, all of you,’ shouted Bernard, seeing how upset Tristan was.

But the fun had gone out of the day.

As Chloe walked into the canteen Wolfie handed her a big glass of iced lime juice.

‘Oh, you angel,’ said Chloe, taking a great gulp. ‘Will you marry me when you grow up?’

‘I’m afraid there’s rather a long queue,’ piped up Meredith. ‘I’d like a very small prawn salad, Maria darling.’

Maria, the cook, loved watching the French crew. She loved the sensual way they tore apart their bread, and undressed their prawns with beautifully manicured fingers, knotting their napkins round their necks to protect their perfectly ironed shirts, propping their knives and forks up on their plates, savouring what they were eating, drinking each glass of wine slowly and reflectively, chattering all the time.

Tristan, although he often forgot to eat, would make love in the same leisurely fashion, imagined Maria. Happily married, with a baby on the way, she could still allow herself to daydream. She had been to the hospital for a scan the day before and proudly produced a photograph of the baby.

‘Oh, how lovely!’ cried Lucy ecstatically. ‘Look at its nose, and its head and little legs.’

‘Rather like E.T.’ Meredith took the photograph gingerly as if it were a newborn baby.

‘What a little angel,’ said Oscar, who was the proud father of five.

‘Hello, Tab,’ shouted Griselda, as Tabitha half sheepishly, half defiantly, sidled into the canteen and dropped her bag on an empty table. ‘Come and look at this sweet little babba.’

‘Oh, no,’ Lucy muttered. But it was too late.

As Tab gazed at the photograph, tears trickled down her cheeks.

‘It’s adorable,’ she whispered. Next moment she had fled.

‘What is the matter with that girl today?’ grumbled Ogborne.

‘Someone’s left a bag,’ said Simone, who noticed everything.

Inside were only a tattered Dick Francis, a bottle of Evian, a Coutts Switch card and photos of Isa, Sharon and The Engineer.

‘It’s Tab’s,’ said Wolfie.

‘Not the sort to bother with a compact, lipstick or even a comb,’ said Chloe dismissively.

‘She doesn’t need to,’ Wolfie was amazed to hear himself saying.

Behind his smooth, broad, fast-browning back, Meredith and Baby exchanged glances.

‘Do you think he and Tab are going to be the next item?’ Griselda whispered excitedly to Simone, who was suddenly looking very sad.

Tab refused to answer her telephone but, seeing her dirty green Golf outside Magpie Cottage, Wolfie decided to return her bag in the tea-break. Through the car windows, he breathed in great wafts of wild garlic pestled by rain and the soapy smell of the hawthorns. In the lane up to Magpie Cottage, light brown puddles reflected hedgerows and overhanging trees like an album of sepia photographs.

Tab’s lawn was blue with speedwell. A few white irises were fighting a losing battle with the nettles round the egg-yolk-yellow front door. The reek of more wild garlic from the woods behind didn’t altogether disguise the stench of unemptied dustbins. No-one answered the bell, so Wolfie let himself in.

Tabitha, cuddling Sharon on the sofa, was wearing a pale green vest, a bikini bottom, dirty gym shoes and was watching racing on television with the sound turned down. Her face was deathly white, except for her reddened eyes, but nothing could take away the beauty of her long pale legs.

‘What are you doing here?’ she asked.

Sharon, who had better manners, jumped down and brought Wolfie a small rug, revealing a pile of dust. Wolfie handed Tab her bag.

‘I brought this back.’

‘Thanks.’ Staggering to her feet, kicking an empty half-bottle of vodka under the sofa, antagonism fighting with loneliness in her eyes, Tab asked him if he’d like a cup of tea.

Wolfie followed her into the kitchen and nearly fainted.

‘I’m sorry.’ Tab smashed a cup, as she tried to get the kettle under the tap in a hopelessly overcrowded sink. ‘I only tidy up before Isa comes back.’

She had cut herself on the cup. Tugging off a piece of kitchen roll, Wolfie wrapped it round her finger, then started to load the contents of the sink, mostly glasses, into the dishwasher, which was empty except for a shoal of silver on the bottom.

‘How’s your marriage?’ he asked.

‘A bed of roses.’

Wolfie looked sceptical.

‘With the thorns sticking upwards,’ said Tab.

‘You could stop drinking.’

‘I don’t drink at all, I’ve given up.’

‘What’s this, then?’ Wolfie produced the Evian bottle out of her bag.

Tab brightened. ‘I’d forgotten that. I think we’re out of tea-bags.’ Fretfully she opened a cupboard and a lot of pasta packets descended on her head. ‘Oh, Christ, we’d better have a slug of that instead.’

But before she could grab the Evian bottle, Wolfie had emptied it into the sink.

‘Whydya want to waste perfectly good alcohol?’ screamed Tab. ‘Now what am I going to do?’

‘Go to AA.’

‘One is supposed to meet rather nice men there. I might find a new husband.’

‘I’ll take you along. There must be a Rutminster branch. I’ll check out the time of the next meeting.’

‘Just stop it,’ Tab flared up again.

Hearing a patter on the trees outside, Wolfie glanced across the valley at tassels of rain hanging from the clouds. They wouldn’t be shooting for a bit.

Why had she been so upset at lunchtime? he asked, knowing the answer, but feeling she needed to talk.

‘It reminded me of my own baby,’ muttered Tab. ‘Isa won’t discuss it — won’t really discuss anything. Then I got a letter from Mummy this morning, raving about my brother Marcus’s recital in Moscow. And how charming Alexei, Marcus’s lover, was being. I bet she drives him crackers, and the mean old cow’s locked her bedroom door so I can’t help myself to her stuff.’

Wolfie laughed but, noticing Tab shivering, unearthed a bottle of orange squash, poured an inch into a mug and switched on the kettle as she talked.

‘Even if everyone else thought I was a nightmare,’ Tab was saying, ‘I was always convinced I could whistle Daddy back. Marrying Isa was the easiest way to hurt him. Christ, I need a drink.’

Wolfie poured the boiling water on to the orange squash.

‘Have this instead.’

‘And another thing,’ Tab was pacing round the kitchen, ‘everyone cooing over the photograph of that baby reminded me how jealous and awful I was when my stepsister Perdita arrived, and even worse when Daddy and Taggie adopted Xav and Bianca. I tried to be good, but I wasn’t.’

As she hung her blonde head, she reminded Wolfie of the cowslips fading in the valley.

‘So did I,’ he said roughly. ‘I was Papa’s first child, and now I have seven stepbrothers and sisters, not to mention Little Cosmo, and a pack of illegits, and I wanted to kill each one when it arrived. I remember thinking, When will Papa ever have the tiniest bit of love or time left for me?’

‘You do make me feel better,’ sighed Tab. ‘If Mummy suddenly gets pregnant we can drown our sorrows.’

As she took a sip of orange squash listlessly, Wolfie noticed how thin her arms were. ‘When did you last eat?’

‘Dunno.’

The telephone rang.

‘You answer it.’ Tab led him back into the sitting room.

If it were Isa, it might make him sit up, but it was Bernard breathing fire.

‘Gotta go,’ said Wolfie, putting down the receiver, then blushing. ‘Would you like to have dinner tonight?’

‘Men don’t ask me out.’

For a second Wolfie thought Tab was going to cry.

‘You’re like a very rare and beautiful orchid,’ he stammered. ‘People feel they ought not to pick you.’

‘That’s nice.’ For a second Tab examined Wolfie’s dark blue eyes, matching his polo shirt, his square-jawed, slightly old-fashioned Action Man features, his reddish complexion turning brown. He would make a good, dependable friend.

‘I’d like to,’ she said.

‘I’ll take you to Shako’s.’

‘We’d never get in.’

‘Wanna bet? There are advantages in having a famous surname. We can take your dustbins to the tip on the way.’

‘Oh look! There’s Daddy.’

Tab lurched towards the television, turning up the sound and fingering her father’s face. Wolfie and he were both tall and blond but it was like comparing a cob with a thoroughbred.

Rupert had just paid seventy-five thousand to make a late entry in the Derby.

‘That’s a lot of money,’ John Oaksey was saying. ‘You must be sure Peppy Koala’ll do well.’

‘Very,’ said Rupert.

‘Oh, my God.’ Tabitha had turned as pale green as her vest. ‘If Peppy Koala wins, Isa will murder me.’

She rang at nine o’clock just as Wolfie was leaving Valhalla, her voice slurred.

‘I’m sorry, I can’t make it.’

‘Course you can, I’ve already left.’

The heatwave chugged on. Between filming, people played croquet and tennis, swam in Rannaldini’s beautiful pool, got lost in the maze and helped Granny knit squares of his patchwork quilt. The hawk-eyed Simone went round routing out sunbathers because a tan screwed up continuity. Rozzy watered dying plants, sewed thousands of seed pearls on an ivory satin dress for Hermione to wear at Philip II’s coronation and kept wonderfully cheerful.

Dr James Benson had been so kind to her, she told Lucy with passionate gratitude. He was such an attractive, sympathetic man. Whenever Rozzy had to disappear for treatment, Lucy covered up for her, explaining she’d had to rush home to deal with some domestic problems. Lucy spent much of her spare time surreptitiously making Rozzy a wig.

As befitting an international maestro, Rannaldini jetted in and out criticizing everything and everyone, slowing down filming, when it was already disastrously behind schedule, and sending costs spiralling. Rumours of the runaway budget were sweeping Europe and Hollywood. Tristan had already ploughed in five million and seen it vanish, mostly in Meredith’s decorating costs. It was as though Rannaldini had thrown petrol over the notes and set fire to them. But Tristan couldn’t stop to worry about money: finishing the film was all that mattered.

Alpheus, too, was making no attempt to keep down the budget. Having finally screwed a Jaguar out of Sexton, he now wanted a runaround for Cheryl.

‘He’s already giving her the runaround,’ observed Baby, as every day, wearing face masks, Alpheus and Pushy jogged bouncily off into the yellowing park.

Poor Cheryl spent a lot of time spying up trees and was mistaken for a member of the press by Mr Brimscombe, who removed her ladder to much squawking.

Hermione insisted on her limo to and from River House being on permanent standby. She also demanded unlimited champagne, and fresh flowers each day, both in her caravan and on her sunhat. She still thought Sexton was a nasty, common little man for curbing her expenses — everyone knew caviare, like seminal fluid, was good for the vocal cords.

Nor was Sexton setting a very good example. His worries about the budget had not deterred him from employing a ravishing new production secretary called Jessica, on the flimsy grounds that her telephone manner kept the backers sweet. Clearly she had not been hired for her typing. Copies of her first memo from Sexton — ‘Please will all the cast assemble for a publicity shit in the Great Hall at twelve moon’ — were already circulating the unit.

28

After a nice break with George, Flora was back to accompany Chloe in the Veil Song. For this Tristan had introduced a chorus of ladies-in-waiting, picked from the prettiest extras who would be seen poring over Tatler, and playing bridge and tennis. Eboli — or, rather, Chloe — would dazzle in tennis whites. Flora, as the Queen’s detective, would flirt and strum Chloe’s racquet like a mandolin.

Flora, terrified of acting, was further demoralized to discover her old enemy Serena Westwood, the record producer, had rolled up to see how filming was going. Even with temperatures in the nineties Serena, in an apple-green suit, looked as though she’d just come out of the fridge. She had also brought four-year-old Jessie, who Little Cosmo promptly pushed into the lily pond. ‘Uncle Roberto’ had regrettably displayed a similar lack of chivalry towards Jessie’s mother: he had dropped her after the recording and refused to answer any of her telephone calls.

Lunching in the canteen, Serena and Helen, who had no idea that Serena had had an affaire with Rannaldini, which she was frantic to re-ignite, were joined by Hermione in her big straw hat decorated with yellow roses. The three women were all old flames of Flora’s George and, not realizing Flora had wandered in, were loudly agreeing how attractively macho George was, and how anyone so rich and powerful could free himself in five minutes to marry Flora, if he really wanted to.

‘How old is George?’ mused Serena.

‘About a year younger than me,’ said Helen. ‘We used to laugh about his being my toy-boy.’

Hermione, as Rannaldini’s long-term mistress, detested any suggestion that Helen might be attractive to other men.

‘When were you fifty, dear?’ she enquired beadily. ‘Was it in ’94 or ’95?’

Helen choked on her spinach and bacon salad. ‘I am not forty-four yet, Hermione,’ she said furiously.

‘Aren’t you, dear?’ said Hermione blithely, then peering into Helen’s face. ‘Those chandeliers Meredith installed are quite lovely but not very flattering if you’re heavily lined. After the movie, I’d encourage Rannaldini to return to more subdued lighting.’

A hush had fallen on the canteen. Glancing round, Serena saw Chloe killing herself and Flora looking extremely unhappy, and hastily asked after George.

‘He’s working in Germany,’ mumbled Flora.

Serena raised eyebrows plucked thin as the new moon.

‘Is that wise?’

‘My Bobby’s in Australia,’ chipped in Hermione, ‘but we have a relationship of trust.’

Grabbing a Mars bar and a packet of crisps for Trevor, Flora retreated, chuntering, to Make Up to find Lucy also going spare. On the premise that she adored children, little Jessie had been dumped on her to stop her prattling during takes. Jessie, having up-ended Lucy’s make-up box, was now trying to rouse James from his siesta by tickling his long nose with a powder brush.

‘He’s going to take her hand off in a minute.’

‘Let Trevor do the honours,’ said Flora sourly. ‘He loathes children. Oh, hell, Rannaldini’s just rolled up in that flash orange car. He’ll be wearing white polo-necks soon and combing his hair in little tendrils over his forehead.’

Sleek, suntanned, satanic, Rannaldini promptly decided the Veil Song needed gingering up with a spot of sapphic necking between Flora and one of the ladies-in-waiting.

‘Who shall we choose?’ murmured Rannaldini. ‘Chloe, perhaps? Although maybe even randy little Tebaldo wouldn’t risk jumping on the King’s mistress.’

Running his eye lasciviously over the chorus, he noticed Pushy bobbing around in rose-red gingham, like an apple under a waterfall, and beckoned her over.

Even Lucy couldn’t calm an hysterical Flora as she applied designer stubble to her ashen cheeks. Flora took Foxie, her puppet fox and adored mascot, everywhere with her. But this time, she wailed, Foxie must stay in the caravan with James and Trevor, in case he became corrupted.

‘Foxie’s face must be turned to the wall.’

The light was ravishing. A rare downpour had brightened the late spring greenery. Unearthly white lilacs wafted forth heavenly scent. A froth of cow-parsley merged into the rose-tipped barley.

Then, as Chloe and Flora sang about the randy King trying to seduce a veiled beauty, Flora had to act out the scene with Pushy.

‘Just a quick snog.’ Tristan patted her padded grey linen shoulder.

I cannot go on, thought Flora after they had notched up twenty nightmarish takes, because she was groping Pushy with all the enthusiasm of one de-fleaing a rabid dog. Even the cuckoo mocked her from a nearby ash grove.

‘“Ah, weave your veils, fair maidens,”’ sang the chorus, as they swayed about desperate to get into shot.

Taking a sadistic pleasure in how much this must be hurting Serena, Helen and Hermione, Rannaldini kept strolling over to show Flora exactly how the pass should be made, which Pushy clearly adored, judging from the way she giggled and wriggled beneath his wandering hands. He would then seize Flora’s hands and slap them like a weatherman’s suns on various embarrassing parts of Pushy’s anatomy.

‘Maestro Rannaldini gives off enough electricity to make the generators superfluous,’ said a disapproving voice. ‘More cheerfully, Australia are two hundred and fifty for no wicket.’

It was Baby eating a large strawberry ice.

‘Remember the times I’ve had to snog Dame Hermione,’ he whispered to Flora. ‘Just shut your eyes and think of income.’

Then, when she didn’t laugh, he grabbed Foxie from Lucy’s caravan, and clasping his furry puppet paws together, kept raising them above his head like a cheerleader.

‘It’s no good crying,’ hissed Rannaldini, as a tear trickled down Flora’s cheek.

The reek of decaying wild garlic, indistinguishable from the breath and armpits of the crew, was making her feel sick. How dare those three witches, Serena, Helen and Hermione, sit there despising her? How dare Wolfie fill in his lottery tickets?

Oh, darling George, prayed Flora, come to my rescue.

And suddenly Flora’s prayer was answered as George, unable to resist checking how shooting was going, ruined the first perfect take by noisily landing his helicopter in the next field.

‘We’ll go again,’ shouted Tristan.

Storming through the buttercups, terrible as an army with banners, George saw that devil incarnate Rannaldini and that smooth bastard Montigny, his peacock-blue shirt flapping against his lean, taut, dark gold body, and Wolfgang, blond as a Nordic god, and Baby, a laughing Cupid, and hundreds of smarmy Frogs leering over his darling Flora as she groped some ringleted tart.

But he misread the excitement on their faces as desire, when it was, in fact, delighted anticipation that someone might at last be going to take out Rannaldini. Either way George flipped. Bellowing at Tristan, sending cameras and crew flying, ordering Flora off the set, George grabbed Rannaldini by his white sharkskin lapels, threatening to bury him, until Clive and his pack of heavies dragged him off.

Analysing it afterwards, Flora wondered guiltily if it had been because George was looking so uncharacteristically red-faced and sweaty, and because his wool suit — it had been cold in Düsseldorf first thing — suddenly looked too tight for him, but irrationally she also flipped.

‘I can’t walk off in the middle of a take, it’s totally unprofessional,’ she screamed. ‘It’s only a grope, you bloody Victorian prude.’

‘Pack your stooff, we’re going,’ yelled back George.

‘We are not.’

Flanked by bodyguards, Rannaldini went on the offensive.

‘Didn’t you ’ear the lady?’

As George swung around the hatred so distorted his face that Flora thought he was going to kill Rannaldini.

‘I’ll get you, you wop bastard!’ he bellowed. Then, without a backward glance, he stumbled off in the direction of his helicopter.

‘And you’re not having custody of Trevor,’ Flora screamed after him.

‘Why don’t you go into the diplomatic service, Rannaldini?’ sighed Baby.

‘Who do I have to sleep with to get off this movie?’ wailed a shaking Flora.

Tristan laughed, then told her how sorry he was.

‘I’m going to London tonight, I’ll take you somewhere fantastic tomorrow evening.’

After that Flora completed the scene in one take.

Baby, not unpleased by the turn of events, also comforted Flora. He would buy her dinner tonight and then, if she still needed to drown her sorrows, they would go on to Ogborne’s birthday party.

29

Rolling up at Magpie Cottage to take Tabitha to Ogborne’s party, Wolfie was horrified to go slap into Isa, unexpectedly returned from Australia. The odds on Peppy Koala for the Derby had been shortening alarmingly. Rannaldini was furious at losing the colt and, not wanting to lose him as an owner or Tab as a wife, in no particular order, Isa had decided to stay awake and attend the party to protect his property.

He had missed Tab’s birthday at the beginning of June, but had brought her back more Quercus, the sweet, lemony scent he loved. It smelled wonderful on her just bathed body, but it didn’t match up to Wolfie’s present: a short, sleeveless, pale blue suede dress from Hermès, held up on one slender shoulder by a silver chain. It was also a reward: Tab hadn’t had a drink for three weeks.

She looked so beautiful, Wolfie could hardly breathe, particularly when she flung her scented arms round his neck, whispering it was the loveliest dress she’d ever had. Isa was looking extremely wintry.

Over at Ogborne’s party, which was taking place around Rannaldini’s swimming-pool, a relay race, crew against cast, was in deafening progress. The crew was tipped to win, because Rannaldini, a powerful swimmer who wanted to show off his rippling muscles and flashy crawl, had graciously joined their side.

‘Bernard looks more like a walrus than ever,’ Chloe whispered to Simone, as the crew were held back by the first assistant director’s ponderous breast-stroke.

Lucy, due to take over from Bernard, quivered on the edge of the pool, dying to hide her white body under the water. Having spent so much time on location in hot countries, however, she swam very well. Spurred on by the sight of Rannaldini, the crew’s last swimmer, poised to plunge into ferocious action, she streaked up the pool to roars of applause.

‘Bravo, Lucy.’ As she lurched forward to touch the brass rail, Rannaldini’s mahogany body flew over her head. Alas, Alpheus, the cast’s last swimmer, had had an Olympic trial and emerged like an otter at the other end, beating an enraged Rannaldini by yards. Vowing to take both Pushy and Cheryl off Alpheus, Rannaldini stormed off to change.

There was a chorus of wolf whistles as Lucy climbed panting out of the pool. ‘Pity you’re always hiding that gorgeous body under a shirt and jeans, Miss Latimer,’ yelled Ogborne, who was now wearing Hermione’s rose-trimmed sunhat on his shaved head. Already drunk, he was doing very well for presents.

Tab gave him a purple and white striped shirt from Harvie & Hudson, confessing that in her drinking days she had bought it four sizes too big for Isa.

‘Thank you,’ said Ogborne, kissing her. ‘Pity you’re off the booze. I was hoping to get a job carrying you home after parties.’

Tab giggled. All the men had gasped when she’d rolled up in Wolfie’s blue suede dress, then sighed in disappointment to see a lowering Isa in her wake. Chloe, however, spotting fresh talent, sidled up to Isa.

Alpheus, the hero of the evening after his winning swim, was having a wonderful time. Pushy, who he’d pleasured earlier in the long grass, was looking very lovely and so was Serena. But no-one outshone Tabitha. He was just edging towards her when he choked on a shrimp vol-au-vent. His wife, Cheryl, had swept in, a vision in cream lace, showing even more boob than Pushy.

‘You never told me you were coming,’ he hissed.

‘You never asked,’ hissed back Cheryl.

‘Meesus Shaw, you ’ave never look more enticing.’ Rannaldini, equally radiant in pale beige linen, clicked his fingers for Clive to bring Cheryl a glass of Krug. ‘Let me show you my garden.’ Then, seeing Serena moving in on him, desperate for a showdown, he grabbed a swaying hunk with fretted black Charles II hair. ‘Serena, my dear, you must remember Granny’s partner, Giuseppe,’ and shoving them together he whisked Cheryl into the shrubbery.

‘Where’s Tristan?’ asked Tab, who wanted him to see her in her beautiful new French dress.

‘Gone to London,’ said Simone. ‘In a way it’s easier when my uncle is not here — the women don’t compete for him, the men with him.’

Tab didn’t think so at all and was very disappointed. ‘That Giuseppe,’ she stormed, turning to Wolfie with all the disapproval of the reformed drinker, ‘has just thrown up in Rannaldini’s delphinium bed and blamed Maria’s paella.’

The party roared on. Ogborne, Sylvestre and even newly married Valentin were trying to get off with Jessica, Sexton’s ravishing new production secretary. Chloe was finding Isa desperately heavy-going.

‘Why are you known as the Black Cobra?’ she asked.

‘Because I’m lethal.’ Isa yawned and looked at his watch: he still hadn’t made his number with Rannaldini.

Neither had Serena. Desperate to win back Rannaldini, she flirted more and more outrageously with Giuseppe, until Granny, knitting quietly away under a walnut tree, wanted to plunge his needles into Rannaldini’s heart for setting the whole thing up.

The evening’s main topic of conversation, however, was George Hungerford’s flying visit, and whether Flora should have entered into the spirit of her part. Most of the crew said they would have been only too happy to grope Pushy. Soon Hermione was loudly putting her oar in.

‘I cannot understand why Flora Seymour made such a fuss. I have often made love to young women on stage.’

‘Can you get me some comps in the front row next time you’re at it?’ called out an excited Sexton, to guffaws all round.

Hermione flounced off. Trust such a common little man to lower the tone.

Emerging stars reflected milkily in the silken green water. The party was growing more raucous. Those with good bodies had started skinny-dipping.

‘Those roses need watering,’ said Valentin, emptying a bottle of red over Hermione’s sunhat, which was still on Ogborne’s head.

‘Where’s Flora?’ asked Simone.

‘Having dinner with Baby at the Pearly Gates,’ said Lucy.

‘No, she isn’t, they’ve just arrived,’ crowed Griselda, as, followed by Trevor the terrier, Flora and Baby drifted hand in hand through the buttercups. ‘I always said those two were an item.’

‘Oh, Grizel, when will you learn?’ sighed Meredith.

Ogborne, dripping red wine, and more delighted to have a stale Pearly Gates Scotch egg from Trevor than a magnum of Moët from Baby and Flora, patted the bemused little dog over and over again.

‘It’s the fort wot counts, Trevor, my lad.’

A snake in the water caused shrieks of horror, particularly when Baby fished it out by its tail and killed it with one crack on the side of the pool. It turned out to be an adder.

‘People eat snake in Australia,’ he informed his admiring audience. ‘It tastes just like fanny.’

‘How would you know?’ asked Ogborne pointedly.

‘My brother told me,’ said Baby, to howls of mirth.

‘Baby is so attractive,’ sighed Simone.

Crashing around, like a fretful moth, searching for Rannaldini, Hermione perked up when the singing started and she won first round in the not-so-friendly fight to hog the microphone.

‘Someone to Watch Over Me’ was soon blasting squirrels and pigeons out of the trees within a half-mile radius.

Baby, after several snorts of cocaine, was in a wicked mood, his eyes glittering, his bronze curls tangled round his handsome face. Griselda was thumping him on the back for being exactly the right weight at the moment, when Hermione charged up to them.

‘Please protect me from that common little man.’

‘Which one?’ Griselda stared around.

‘Sexton,’ hissed Hermione.

‘Oh, right,’ said Baby thoughtfully. ‘Not many people know Sexton went to Eton.’

‘Eton,’ said Hermione incredulously. ‘Eton?

‘Certainly did. Sexton thought he’d get on better in the film business if he acquired an East End accent, so he took elocution lessons.’

‘He’s so modest, he doesn’t like to talk about his very grand family,’ murmured Griselda.

Five minutes later, she and Baby were crying with laughter as they watched Sexton, looking as delightedly bewildered by Hermione’s unexpected attentions as Trevor had over Ogborne’s Scotch egg.

‘You’re not to tease,’ Hermione was telling him roguishly. ‘One can always tell an Etonian from his air of quiet authority. I expect you played cricket against my very good friend Rupert Campbell-Black, who must have been at Harrow at around the same time.’

Baby was so entranced he could hardly be dragged away to sing ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’ with Granny and Mikhail.

‘Oh, I love this tune,’ sighed Flora.

She was just wondering where George was when Baby sang, ‘And when you stopped and smiled at me,’ and, looking straight across at her, jolted her with a lightning bolt of desire.

The moment the song was over, Baby launched into ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and, watched in amazement by the entire party, seized Flora’s hand and danced her off into the park, round and round under the stars through the foam of cow-parsley.

They were both so drunk they nearly fell over one of the set designer’s pots of paint near the cloisters. Seizing his brushes, they were busy writing ‘Death to Rannaldini’, with cackles of laughter, on the chapel walls when they saw evil, leather-clad Clive gliding up on the right and hastily changed it to ‘Death to Racism’ before running away.

‘“Gee, it’s great, after staying up late, walking my Baby back home,”’ Flora’s piercingly sweet voice echoed round the valley, as she bore Baby up the valley to her parents’ house, Angels’ Reach, because she’d promised to feed Charity the cat.

‘What was Rannaldini like in bed?’ asked Baby.

‘A genius. Mesmerizing, imaginative, with immense concentration, but utterly depraved. He’d have taken me down to hell.’

To their right was a long lake, even shorter of water than Rannaldini’s. White daisies spilt over a low stone wall, lilies poured forth scent out of a tangle of weeds.

‘What was his watch-tower like?’

‘The top floor’s all bed with a mural of wildly applauding crowds in evening dress.’

‘We’ll have applauding clouds,’ murmured Baby, idly stroking the nape of Flora’s long neck beneath her short back and sides.

Oh, help, thought Flora, I want to sleep with Baby so badly but it’s a cul-de-fucking-no-sack.

Ahead, stone angels stretched up from each corner of the roof, plucking star daisies out of a grey suede sky. In protest against their being so late, Charity the cat had left a small disc of sick on the hall floorboards. Baby most resourcefully scraped it up with his platinum Amex card.

‘Seriously good pictures,’ he said, drifting from one big underfurnished room to another, as Flora opened a tin for Charity and a bottle of Moët.

‘My father owns a gallery.’

‘Where is he?’

‘In London and up to no good, probably. He’s very attractive.’

‘Like his daughter,’ said Baby. He led her out into the garden, waltzed her round and round until the stars joined in the dance, and they collapsed on the dewy grass, their hearts hammering.

For a second, Baby laughed down at her, his bland, brown, unrepentant face irresistibly young and beautiful, caught in the lights from the house. Then he kissed her.

Rigid with shock, Flora clamped her mouth shut, but such was the darting insistence of his tongue that her lips soon opened, and she was kissing him back with ecstatic enthusiasm.

‘I thought you only liked men,’ she gasped, when she finally drew breath.

‘No more Mr Nice Gay,’ crowed Baby. ‘I take the best of both sexes, and you are definitely the best. I fancy you absolutely squint-eyed.’

‘You’re drunk.’ Flora made a last attempt to keep control, but as he rolled her towards him to unzip her dress, the warmth of his body melted her resistance.

‘I love George,’ she mumbled, into his smooth, scented shoulder.

‘George has gone off like a prawn in the sun. Deserves all he gets. Oh, you little beaut.’

Baby was a master of the tease. Running his fingers round the side of one nipple until every nerve of her breast was crying out, stroking her belly over and over again, letting his hand creep up her inner thighs, just stopping short of her clitoris, until she was screaming to have his cock inside her, and even then he was totally in control.

When Charity came out, mewing in outrage that plastered humans had mistaken Pedigree Chum for Go-Cat, Baby just laughed and said, ‘Cattus interruptus.’

He was so relaxed.

There were daisies and little shimmering moths all over the lawn and stars all over the sky. Gradually they seemed to merge.

‘I’m having such a heavenly time,’ mumbled Flora, ‘but I’m far too drunk to come.’

‘Wanna bet.’ Sliding out of her, turning her over, Baby kissed each bump of her backbone, slowly, slowly progressing downwards.

‘Oh, my God! Oh, my God!’

‘Yes, I thought you’d enjoy that.’

‘Do I taste of snake?’ mumbled Flora.

‘No, only of Paradise.’

‘How d’you know so much about women?’ asked Flora, as they lay back, stupefied with pleasure, on the grass.

‘I used to be married.’

‘What?’ Flora sat bolt upright.

‘To a singer.’

‘Why did it break up?’

Baby took a slug of Moët. ‘She asked me what I thought of her in the Verdi Requiem. I was foolish enough to tell her. She never spoke to me again.’

‘Did you mind?’

‘Nope.’

‘Isn’t it rather immoral, pretending you’re gay when you’re not?’

‘Certainly not. However would I get rid of all those ugly cows if they suspected I was heterosexual?’

‘You are seriously degenerate,’ said Flora, as they fell asleep in each other’s arms.

30

Waking cold, stiff and horribly hung over in the morning, Flora was demented. How could she have done this to George? He’d never forgive her if he found out. Rannaldini had spies everywhere and was bound to tell him. ‘I’m being punished for shortchanging that cat,’ she moaned, as she crunched around on the Go-Cat the furious Charity had up-ended all over the kitchen floor.

‘I will take care of you,’ said a totally unfazed Baby.

But when Flora returned, crawling with embarrassment, to her dressing room at Valhalla, she found her puppet fox had been cut to tiny pieces. Flora went berserk. She had had Foxie since she was a baby. He had always brought her luck. Without his protection, George would never come back. And who could have cut him up? Rannaldini, Helen, Hermione and Serena all hated her, so did Wolfie and probably Pushy, Bernard and Sexton, after yesterday’s débâcle. Or perhaps some admirer of Baby’s, outraged she’d got off with him last night. It was all dreadfully frightening.

Everyone was very sympathetic, particularly Rozzy, who gathered up fragments of orange fur and said she’d soon sew Foxie together again.

‘Rozzy’s so lovely,’ a tearful Flora told Baby. ‘If only she could get rid of that horrible husband and find some heavenly lover.’

‘Hard to kiss a woman whose mouth’s always full of pins.’

Flora was far too miserable to have dinner with Tristan that night.

Tab, too, was absolutely miserable. Isa was back in Australia so Wolfie came and watched the Derby with her at Magpie Cottage. Then she had the exquisite but agonizing pleasure of seeing Rupert and his entourage in their grey top hats streaming, solemn as warlords, into the paddock to watch Peppy Koala saddling up.

‘Look, there’s Lysander, and Declan, Daddy’s partner,’ she told Wolfie, ‘and Billy Lloyd-Foxe, who was his great show-jumping mate, and Ricky France-Lynch and Bas Baddingham, his old polo friends.’

‘Who’s that blonde?’ asked Wolfie, thinking she was beautiful.

‘My half-sister, Perdita, uptight bitch. That’s her husband, Luke Alderton, he’s a saint. Heavens! Marcus has flown back from Moscow. That must be Nemerovsky, his boyfriend. Look at the stupid poof showing off,’ Tab added furiously, as a smiling Nemerovsky waved his top hat to acknowledge the cheers of the crowd. Wolfie, who’d been at boarding school with Marcus, thought how happy he looked.

‘Here comes Taggie,’ hissed Tabitha, as her stepmother, ravishing in a fuchsia-pink silk suit and a big violet hat, was towed into the paddock by a thoroughly overexcited Xav and Bianca.

‘Bloody hell.’ Tab took a long slug of Perrier, splashing her face. ‘Children shouldn’t be allowed in the paddock, particularly loose,’ she added angrily, as Xav and Bianca rushed forward to hug Peppy Koala. ‘And that geek with his hat on the back of his head is Peppy’s owner, Mr Brown.’

Mr Brown apart, thought Wolfie wistfully, they were the most glamorous, self-assured bunch: Tab’s world. How presumptuous to hope he could ever be part of it.

‘God, what a beautiful horse.’ Another slug of Perrier spilt over Tab’s face, as Rupert’s jockey, wearing Mr Brown’s colours, bright blue dotted with white stars like the Australian flag, mounted a dancing Peppy.

The little colt gave all his supporters a heart attack by dawdling at the back until the last furlong then, putting on a staggering burst of speed, he bounded past the toiling field to win by three lengths.

Having screamed her head off with excitement, Tab proceeded to sob so wildly Wolfie couldn’t help her.

‘I miss them all so much. Mr Brown refused to give Peppy to Isa because he thought Isa was cruel to me. That’s what Isa will never forgive.’

Neither did the Derby result please Rannaldini. How could Isa have let Peppy Koala slip through his fingers?

To goad Tab, Rannaldini summoned her to his study a week later to watch a big Australian race on cable. Isa was riding a dark brown mare, who won as effortlessly as Peppy Koala. As usual, he was mobbed by groupies. Tab, on the other hand, was more upset to see his deadpan face break into a smile as Martie, his allegedly ex-girlfriend, looking scruffier and shinier than any of the grooms, ran forward to hug him after the race.

‘Very well ridden,’ said Rannaldini softly, ‘but he could spend a leetle more time in England training my horses.’ Then, seeing Tab gnawing her lower lip, ‘And I don’t think he is paying you quite enough attention, my angel, to justify a free rent in that lovely cottage.’

‘Put him in the debtor’s chair. Where is it by the way?’

‘Somewhere much more exciting. Remind me to show you some time.’

But Tab had fled sobbing from the room.

Tristan, meanwhile, was spending more and more evenings in Lucy’s caravan. He was obviously not sleeping and everyone was draining him with their insecurities and petty rivalries, as he heroically battled to keep within budget and Rannaldini at bay. He was trying to smoke less, which made him very uptight and, unwillingly yielding to Hype-along’s pleas, he had finally agreed to talk to Valerie Grove of The Times, in the hope that some good publicity might calm the backers.

In the past he had stuck up for Rannaldini, but as Lucy cut his hair for the interview he repeatedly returned to the attack.

‘He’s like evil octopus with tentacles everywhere.’

Thinking how thickly and beautifully Tristan’s hair curled into his neck, Lucy struggled against the temptation to stroke it. Then he nearly lost an ear as he switched to the subject of Tabitha.

‘Rannaldini is so crazy about her, he inveigle her into marrying that absolute shit, Isa Lovell. Now he plays games with her like Iago. She came out of his study crying this afternoon.’

Lucy fought despair. Thank God Rozzy had rolled up with a bottle to cheer Tristan up. Rozzy was relieved that she only had a hundred or so more seed pearls to sew on Hermione’s coronation dress.

Next morning Lucy was terrified to discover slug pellets in James’s water bowl. Perhaps someone had just missed the window-box or perhaps, she thought wryly, people were jealous because Tristan spent so much time in Make Up — but it was only because he was desperate to talk about Tab.

She had further evidence that afternoon, when Hermione, who she was making up for her great renunciation scene with Carlos, announced she’d heard a horrid rumour that Tristan was queer.

‘Of course he’s not,’ exploded Lucy.

‘Well, that’s what they’re implying. Silly, really,’ Hermione gave her horrible little laugh, ‘that with so many pretty women to choose from, Tristan’s spending his evenings with… and also that make-up girls usually stick to their own kind and drink with the sparks and the chippies.’

Then, seeing Lucy’s face, she added, ‘But I stuck up for you, Lucy. I said you had quite a warm personality and, anyway, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Oh, Belgian chocolates!’

Lucy was about to snap that they were a thank-you present from Tristan for cutting his hair when Hermione opened the box and found one white truffle left.

‘My favourite,’ she cried. ‘Although I’ve already got a handsome hubby, and a thousand a year wouldn’t go far these days.’

She was just about to eat it, when Lucy snatched away the box. ‘James loves white truffles,’ she insisted, and opening the amazed dog’s jaws, shoved it into his mouth.

Hermione was furious.

‘When you think of Flora and that wretched terrier, and Tab drooling over that Labrador,’ she said beadily, ‘it is extraordinary how women who cannot get it together with a man become dependent on a companion animal.’

James spat out the white truffle.

‘Bloody chippies,’ exploded Lucy.

Meredith’s carpenters, building a cathedral for the auto da fe and banging away all morning, had given her a blinding headache.

She was so cross she gave Hermione a parsnip yellow complexion, ageing grey shading, hideous violet eye shadow and a wonky lip-line. Hermione was so busy reading about her health in the Daily Mail that she didn’t notice.

Tristan did, however, and remonstrated sharply with Lucy.

‘Well, if she was about to give Carlos the push and she loved him to bits, she would look grotty,’ shouted back Lucy.

Ma petite.’ Tristan looked at her in amazement. ‘This is first time I see you angry. You are so sweet,’ and he ruffled her hair.

‘Patronizing bastard,’ muttered Lucy.

She was so fed up that she knocked back nearly a bottle of white at lunchtime, and stuck Colin Milton’s bald wig on back to front. Colin was so taken by the sight of himself with a youthful fringe of grey curls nestling on his eyebrows that he would happily have let it stay. Tristan, however, went ballistic, and yelled at Lucy to stop taking the piss.

31

The auto da fe, which means Act of Faith, is one of the most terrifying scenes in all opera. Heretics in dunces’ caps are paraded through the streets by their executioners and followed by sinister black-cowled monks who, with the courtiers and ladies-in-waiting, take up their seats round the funeral pyre.

A newly crowned Philip comes out of the cathedral and repeats his coronation oath to defend the faith. The scene ends with his dreadful words, ‘And now on with the festivities!’ The masses are then entertained not by fireworks but by the heretics being burnt at the stake.

Lasting twenty minutes in the opera, even Tristan’s pared-down version took eight gruelling days to shoot. The harrowing nature of the subject exacerbated Rannaldini’s sadism. Meredith and his chippies had only just completed their ravishing cathedral façade, looking on to the east courtyard, when Rannaldini swept in on the first day of shooting and pronounced it utterly suburban: ‘Just like a Weybridge hacienda. Are we going to have chiming doorbells, celebrating the burning of the heretics?’

Meredith promptly burst into tears. It took all Tristan’s tact to stop him resigning. Lucy had visions of being asked to streak Meredith’s hair for yet another dinner at the Heavenly Host. Fortunately Sexton rocked up and told Meredith he thought the cathedral was just beautiful.

‘And he ought to know,’ whispered Hermione reverently. ‘Sexton did go to Eton.’

Hermione was also delighted that, after weeks of work, Griselda and Rozzy had finally sewn the last seed pearl on her ivory satin dress. Her first appearance wearing it that afternoon caused gasps of wonder and genuine applause from the crew.

A second later Rannaldini had erupted on to the set, and everyone glanced at the sky in excitement. Then, to their horror, they realized that what they had imagined as the patter of rain was the scattering of thousands of pearls, as Rannaldini ripped off the dress, and stamped it into the dust with his suede boots. Hermione, in her petticoat, screamed and screamed. Oscar crossed himself. It was like seeing a Velazquez slashed in the Prado. Tristan grabbed Rannaldini in white-hot fury.

‘What the fuck are you doing? That was the most beautiful dress I ever see.’

‘Elisabetta must wear scarlet,’ yelled back Rannaldini.

‘At her husband’s coronation?’

‘To symbolize in Philip’s crazy mind she has been unfaithful.’

‘All those pearls, all those pearls,’ whispered Rozzy, who’d done nearly all the work.

A devastated, hysterically sobbing Griselda had to be carried off the set by a buckling Lucy and Simone. Everyone was outraged. They loved Griselda: indefatigable, gossipy old trout. They knew she was good. The crew would have walked out if Rannaldini hadn’t built massive penalty clauses into all their contracts. Instead they went slow, with Oscar waking up to relight every ten minutes.

All the crew were putting in impossibly long hours, but no-one more so than Wolfie. Once again, his greatest headache was stopping Pushy Galore appearing in everything. Having waved a flag as a member of the hoi-polloi and simpered as a lady-in-waiting, Pushy was determined to star as a heretic, and was utterly incensed when Tristan chucked her out.

‘You wait till Ay tell Sir Roberto.’

Fortunately Rannaldini had flown off to Vienna and was not expected back until the evening. Pushy was even crosser when Tristan chose Tab instead. She would look so touching, a dunce’s cap on her blonde head, her deadpan face smudged. Tab was terribly excited; Wolfie less so. Supervising the filling of petrol cans with water, he couldn’t bear the thought of her beautiful body being torched.

The drought was so terrible, it was as if Meredith had carpeted the surrounding fields brown. Wild flowers that had survived were a quarter of their usual height. Wolfie disappeared in a cloud of dust as he drove his Land Rover round the park. All the cast complained non-stop about not being able to breathe. Wolfie could have burnt the lot of them on the bonfire.

It was the last set-up before lunch as, surrounded by leather-clad paparazzi, with Tristan’s four black cypresses in the background overseeing things, Granny as Gordon Dillon took up his position on the battlements of the cathedral. While the heretics were tied to the stakes below, shredded piles of the Scorpion were thrown under their bare feet.

‘As people in the sixteenth century flocked to see heretics burn, today we devour the papers and gloat over reputations being destroyed,’ explained Tristan. ‘Think of the poor Duchess of York.’

‘Think of Chloe in a week or two,’ murmured Flora to Baby.

Out in the park, through the heat haze, they could see Chloe, ravishing in palest pink, having her photograph taken for the Scorpion. Hotfoot from a very promising Samson and Delilah audition, she had returned to Valhalla for an in-depth interview with Beattie Johnson, the Scorpion’s most dreaded columnist. Beattie had written to Chloe direct, claiming she was a long-term fan of Chloe and the opera.

‘I can handle the press,’ Chloe had told Hype-along haughtily when he expressed horror at the planned interview.

Having read Chloe’s cuttings and a page-long synopsis of Don Carlos in the limo driving down, Beattie Johnson was highly diverted to see the identical twin of her notorious boss, Gordon Dillon, on the battlements and was now shredding reputations, ‘off the record, of course’, with Chloe.

Lucy, who’d already had to make up Chloe as well as the cast, was having a day from hell. The gruesome concept of an auto da fe upset her dreadfully. Her passport had gone missing and she’d spent two hours looking for it. Her back, from so much bending, was killing her. She’d have gone straight to James Benson, if she hadn’t given more money to Rozzy who’d been in tears all morning. This was because, after a weekend at home, Rozzy had forgotten Flora’s newly repaired puppet fox and done a U-turn only to find her horrible husband Glyn and his glamorous housekeeper, Sylvia, opening a bottle to celebrate her departure.

I can’t go on shoring everyone up, thought Lucy in despair.

Having not had any breakfast, she was feeling faint and decided to grab a salad from the canteen, where she found Chloe and Beattie Johnson, two glamorous blondes, sharing a bottle of Muscadet.

‘Bernard, the first assistant, has a thumping great crush on Rozzy Pringle,’ Chloe was whispering.

‘Who’s she?’

‘Oh, Beattie,’ giggled Chloe, ‘you must have heard of Rozzy. She’s so refined she pees eau-de-Cologne.’

Both women shrieked with laughter. Lucy’s blood started to boil.

‘Here comes Tristan,’ hissed Beattie. ‘You must introduce me.’

She’s got the hard, set little face of a terrorist waiting to lob a bomb into all our lives, thought Lucy.

‘I’ve seen all your films,’ Beattie was now telling Tristan.

Lucy was on her way out when she heard Tristan, who’d taken an empty seat at the table, explaining the auto da fe to Beattie. ‘The Spaniards are experts at ritualistic torture,’ he was saying. ‘Look at the ballet of killing the bull. In the same way, auto da fe sets fire to humans in dunces’ caps to humiliate and express power of Church.’

‘I love Spanish men,’ said Chloe, who hadn’t been listening.

‘Me too,’ sighed Beattie.

‘Well, you’re both stupid bitches,’ said a furious voice.

Looking round, everyone was amazed to see a trembling, red-faced Lucy holding a tray, off which a glass of orange juice and a salad were sliding.

‘I hate Spaniards. Hate, hate, hate them,’ she went on hysterically. ‘When greyhounds are past their sell-by date in England, they’re sold to Spain where they’re raced into the ground.’

‘Oh, pur-lease.’ Chloe raised her eyes to heaven.

‘But the fucking Spaniards are too stingy to shoot them or put them down so they string them up in the woods with their toes just touching the ground and have bets on which is going to die first. It takes hours. The poor dogs scream in agony like the heretics. And you like fucking Spaniards?’

The appalled silence was broken by Lucy’s salad crashing to the ground, and orange juice spilling all over Chloe’s new pink dress. Flora, Baby and Granny leapt to their feet, but Tristan reached Lucy first.

‘It’s all right, sweet’eart, of course it’s terrible, whether it’s greyhounds or heretics.’

But Lucy had wriggled out of his arms and, shouting, ‘Why don’t you have a word with King Carlos? I bet he shot partridge with your father,’ she fled, sobbing, back to her caravan.

‘Dear, dear,’ drawled Chloe. ‘When make-up artists start having tantrums, the rot has set in.’

‘Oh, shut up,’ yelled Flora.

Tristan was about to go after Lucy when Bernard seized his arm and dragged him off to an urgent meeting in Sexton’s office. This Tristan did not enjoy. The budget, Sexton told him bleakly, had hit twenty-two million and was still climbing: Tristan must hurry up the crew. After a snide piece in the Stage, picked up by the nationals, the backers were getting antsy. Rannaldini must be persuaded to release more money when he returned tonight.

‘He won’t unless we allow him to do his sodding introductions.’ Tristan unwrapped another piece of chewing-gum. God, he needed a cigarette.

Sexton was just saying he couldn’t pay this week’s wages when Tab barged into the room. ‘What’s that bitch doing here?’

‘Get out,’ bellowed Bernard.

‘She was Daddy’s mistress between marriages,’ stormed Tab. ‘She nearly ruined him. She stopped him and Taggie adopting babies in England, she got Abby Rosen sacked, and she outed my brother Marcus. She’s the most evil woman in the world.’

‘Who are you talking about?’

‘Beattie Johnson, who’s interviewing Chloe,’ said Tab. ‘In that big black bag are a hammer and nails to crucify her victims.’

‘That’s blasphemous,’ exploded Bernard.

‘But a shrewd assessment,’ agreed Sexton. ‘If Beattie stitches us up, the backers really will pull out.’

Tristan wrinkled his brow. ‘I think she’s a friend of Rannaldini. We’d better throw her out before he gets back.’

He found Beattie buttering up Pushy.

‘If you weren’t so lovely, people would take you more seriously as a singer.’

‘Sir Roberto’s always sayin’ that.’

‘He says you stand out from all the other extras.’

‘Ay’m not an extra, Ay’m a featured extra,’ said Pushy haughtily.

‘Off the record, how well do you know Alpheus Shaw? What a hunk.’

Tristan had heard enough. Beattie was incandescent with rage when he told her that a car, with her suitcases all packed in the boot, was waiting to take her back to London.

‘Do not say Liberty Productions does not evict with style,’ he added, as he opened the door for her.

Chloe was also insane with anger.

‘We hadn’t even begun the interview yet. Everything was off the record.’

‘Every inch of that evil frame is taped,’ said Tristan.

Spurred on by his meeting with Sexton, he returned to the set determined to dispatch the last gruesome seconds of the auto da fe in one stint. It was even hotter. Hermione was flushing up in her new red dress from Versace. Flora and Granny sweltered in their dark suits, but not nearly so much as Alpheus in his gold regalia, or Baby, Mikhail and the courtiers in their ermine-trimmed peers’ robes.

As Lucy, tearstained after her outburst at lunchtime, rushed round trying to cool people down with a chamois leather soaked in cologne, Baby could be heard grumbling that he’d be barbied without going near any stake.

‘If you confessed at the last moment, you could be strangled before you were burnt to death,’ volunteered a listless Flora, who hadn’t heard from George since her night with Baby.

To capture the intense drama, Tristan was using a crane to film from above, with Valentin and his camera on a tiny platform hanging twenty feet above the funeral pyre. It would be a wonderful shot, tracking over the excited crowd, the bigwigs of church and state in their gilded regalia and the poor, doomed victims. The head of Props waited with his finger on the button of the smoke-machine. The flames would be added later by special effects.

‘Take that “I survived Don Carlos” badge off at once, Baby,’ ordered Bernard. ‘Quiet, please, everyone.’

‘OK, let’s go for a quick rehearsal,’ shouted Tristan, from a first-floor window.

‘Shit,’ muttered Valentin, who from his platform could see an orange Lamborghini Diablo sneaking up the drive. ‘Rannaldini’s back.’

‘Ignore him,’ snapped Tristan.

In moved the paparazzi like a firing squad, their long lenses trained on the heretics. Swiftly the executioners chucked petrol cans of water on the shredded Scorpions, then flicking on their lighters pretended to set fire to the damp newsprint.

‘Cue for smoke,’ yelled Tristan, and a white cloud engulfed the heretics. ‘Excellent, let it clear,’ he shouted, ‘and we’ll go for a take.’

Adjusting his director’s cap to a more military angle, Tristan felt a surge of power as he looked down at the huge crowd. He was a general commanding a mighty army. The landscape shimmered with heat-haze, a hot breeze ruffled the red-tipped barley into flickering flames. He was just shuddering at the thought of Tab’s body being burnt to death when he was roused by a dreadful screaming. And fantasy became reality as the shredded newspaper beneath her stake burst into flames, and flared up around her. For a moment, everyone was motionless with horror. Then, as the screaming grew more terrified, Tristan leapt straight down into the smoke, miraculously landing safely on the stony courtyard.

‘It’s all right, chérie.’

Diving for the rope tying her to the stake, aware of flame caressing his chest, his long fingers somehow managed to untie the knot without fumbling. A moment later he had dragged Tab to safety.

Beating out the flames snaking up her yellow heretic’s robe, feeling no pain except that of frantic worry, he dragged the peer’s robes off a horrified extra and rolled Tab in them. It was over in thirty seconds.

Next moment, Wolfie, who’d been watching from a second-floor window, hurtled into the courtyard, yelling, ‘Is she OK? Get the paramedics, for Christ’s sake.’

The front of Tab’s hair, her long blonde eyelashes and her eyebrows were singed, there was a terrible stench of burning, but she didn’t appear hurt, only dazed and terrified as she collapsed sobbing wildly into Tristan’s arms. As Tristan clutched her to his sweat-drenched shirt, examining her face for burns, kissing her frizzled hair, crooning in rapid French that she mustn’t be frightened, the extras, thinking it was part of the plot, led a round of applause. As he ran into the courtyard, and sized up the situation, Rannaldini’s face was shrivelled into a mask of evil.

‘Who left petrol in that can?’ he screamed. ‘Someone has tried to murder my daughter.’

‘They were all filled with water,’ stammered an aghast Wolfie, ‘I checked them.’

‘Well, heads will roll.’ Everyone retreated as Rannaldini glared round.

Tristan promptly called a wrap for the day. ‘I’m taking Tabitha home.’

‘You can’t,’ muttered an appalled Bernard. ‘All these extras, a full cast, we’ve got hours of light left.’

‘I don’t geeve a fuck. Oscar can take over.’

‘Tabitha will stay at Valhalla. Her mother will look after her,’ snarled Rannaldini, ‘and you can carry on.’

‘No!